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Studies Among the Akan People of West Africa

Community, Society, History, Culture; With Special Focus on the Kwawu

by Phil Bartle, PhD

Obo akyeame at an adae kese

Dedicated to the memory of the late Kontihene of Obo, Nana Noah Adofo.


Kwawu Studies

I am using this web site to bring together several of my articles about Kwawu culture and social structure, and also some of my slides, maps and other documents. I will briefly describe some of the contents of the site here.

The “Abe (Palm)” paper is very light. It is from a collection of slides that I took during the seventies when I was a PhD student at the University of Ghana, Legon. I have selected some of those slides, and trimmed and enhanced them with digital editing. I use them here to demonstrate that the oil palm tree (like the Cedar for West Coast First Nations) has many uses, and that many of them can be used to illustrate the difference between women’s work and men's work. Too many slides made the page open slowly, so I have divided it up into:

The “Black Apoma” is a bit more technical, but short. I recall that while I was doing my doctorate, the Obo elders taught me many of the traditional skills, such as horn blowing and pouring libation (prayers). One day the Chief Linguist told me to come to his house early morning on an Akwasidae, before the sacred black ancestral stool rituals. I did and witnessed something I had never heard about, or even read in the classical Ashanti literature, a pouring of libation to his sacred black ancestral apoma (linguist stick). I use the paper to describe the ritual, and also to say a few things about linguists and their staffs.

The “Clay” paper is short and contains the first slides I scanned. Work in clay was traditionally assigned to women.

The “Correspondence” page is composed of excerpts from email messages between myself and two officials from Canada’s Refugee Board. They used me as an “expert” when investigating claims from asylum seekers who claim persecution based on traditional and cultural practices in Ghana for which they are unfamiliar. I include the page especially for my students to demonstrate some of the wide range of uses to which sociology and anthropology may be put. (My PhD is in Sociology, but because I did it in an African University, about a non western society, some people find it difficult to distinguish between it and Anthropology. My argument is that the differences are historical, not based upon rational or logical differences in methods or science). [If you analyse the word "expert," know that an "ex" is a "has been," and a spurt is "drip under pressure."]

The paper Covert Gynocracy (Hidden Power of Women), is more technical. It was commissioned by the Ghana National Council of Women and Development. Where many superficial studies show nuclear families in the cities in contrast to matrilineal arrangements in rural areas (implying social change that is more apparent than real), and many assumptions about westernisation and modernisation bringing about a raise in the status of women, my formal PhD research demonstrated the contrary. Matriliny conferred upon women independence, power, prestige and wealth that was not to be found in European or other societies with bilateral kinship, and the missionaries have worked hard for a century and a half to bring about more subservience and dependency of women as they seek to modernise.

The Dispersed Community Abstract is the summary or abstract from my 500+ pages of PhD dissertation for the University of Ghana. It is only two pages long. I hope that these Internet pages eventually will be able to hold various excerpts from that document, as the college printers can text scan it, and I can then edit those excerpts for publication here. This may take a few years to complete.

Forty Days is a copy of a short note about the Akan calendar, and evidence of an earlier six day week, used by the Guan who once lived where the Akan do now, combined with a seven day week (apparently from across the Sahara) to form a 42 day cycle, adaduanan. It was earlier published in Africa (the journal). The use of soul names (eg Kwame, Kofi, Afua), and how they are formed, is also explained.

Another set of papers, Gender, includes various illustrated essays on several occupations and the different roles of women and men in them.

The Spirit in Us is the introductory part of a multi part illustration of traditional Akan religion, as known and practised in Kwawu. The subsequent parts focus on (1) the gods and (2) the ancestors. These papers, in combination, will be an easy to read description of beliefs and practices accompanied by slides taken during my PhD research, 1971-79.

Three Souls may be the most academic and sophisticated paper on this site. Slower reading, anyway. It is copied from a published version in Journal of African Religion. It takes the opportunity to correct a printing error, where the published version repeats tables One and Two instead of the correct Table Three. There are few careful and respectful descriptions of the theology and cosmography of pre Christian African religions, and I hope that this document fills part of that gap, at least for the Akan.

Titles is merely a list of papers that I have written, as I can still remember them. I am now getting old and forgetful. I spent over twenty years away from the academic life, working as an aid worker in Africa and Asia, and now, since 2003 Fall, am getting back into the scholarly world. I am taking this opportunity to find my writings and put them together in this one place. I have also now drafted two new papers which I will publish here when they are finished. My dream is that when it is complete (as much as such a project can ever be complete) the documents will together comprise an ethnography of Kwawu.

The Aural Method is what I developed and used to learn how to speak Akan.

Web links lists a few web references (with their URLs) for sites that have information about Akan society and history.

Why Obo? is a short personal account of why and how I chose Obo as the community on which to base my PhD research. It is not academic; I hope it is entertaining.

Odds 'n Bits. Unsorted observations.


A Quick Note on Spelling

You will see two spellings, Kwawu and Kwahu. My good friend, Sjaak van der Geest, http://www.sjaakvandergeest.nl/ spells it Kwahu, while I use Kwawu. We are both right. Our research times mainly overlap, and were concentrated on the 1970s, where we studied in the same oman. Sjaak stayed in the Kingdom of Academia, and is now head of Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam. I left the kingdom for a few decades as an aid worker.

The Swiss (Basel) missionaries began writing the unwritten Akan language in the early nineteenth century. They were head quartered in Akwapem, on the cool escarpment above the hot city of Accra.

In the oral traditions of Kwawu, The Agona, first royals of Kwawu, then the Bretuo (Twidan) clan, now the royals of the כman (Akan state) of Kwawu, was wandering about looking for a place to settle. An ancient prophecy told them it would be where the slave died. Sure enough, a slave died when he was sent out to scout the area now around Abene and Abetifi. They named the new (to them) place as “Slave Died” or “Akwa Wuo.” They did not write it down.

The Swiss tried to duplicate the name as they heard it, and called it “Kwah U.” They had no intention of the “h” being pronounced, but wanted to be sure the first syllable was pronounced Kwa and not something else such as Kwey. So they named it Kwahu. The British, of course, pronounced as they saw it, “Kwah Hoo,” which is, of course, wrong. When Ghana became independent in 1957, the new Government commissioned the African Studies Centre at the University of Ghana, Legon, to standardise and rationalise the spellings of all traditional and historical names. Legon came up with “Kwawu” which most closely resembles the pronunciation, and which was then used on the 1960 census.

Ashanti (which had many weird and wonderful spellings in the past, such as “Ashantee,” and “Shanty,” became Asante (as the historical pronunciation of “s” and “sh” were the same, in between the two).

The capital city of Akyem Abuakwa was written ”Kyibi” by the Swiss, who invented several new digraphs such as “tw” which are not pronounced as separate letters, but as sounds not found in European languages. The diphthong “ky” is pronounced something like a cross between “K” and “ch.” (Just as, in English, the diphthong “th,” which derives from a single Nordic letter, is not pronounced as separate letters, “t” and “h”). The British did not understand that k and y were together a diphthong, and saw the “y” as redundant before the “i” and so they removed the “y,” bless them. The tolerant Akan of Akyem Abuakwa then changed their indigenous pronunciation from Kyibi to Kibi.

Write it Kwawu or Kwahu as you wish; we know what you mean.

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Last update: 2014.11.27

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