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Kwawu History and Social Change

by Phil Bartle, PhD

The history of Kwawu is linked to several wider histories. Its prehistory is part of the prehistory of the whole rain forest. The migration in of the Guan then the Akan peoples is part of the wide range of movement and settlement of the rain forest. Its role in the Asante Empire is part of Asante history. Its independent years is part of the Swiss missionary history. Its era of being a British protectorate, then as part of the Gold Coast Colony is as part of the British Empire. Its post independence years is part of the modern nation of Ghana.

To reconstruct Kwawu history it is necessary to look at archaeological data, oral traditions, archival reports of missionaries and colonial administrators, then gazettes and newspapers. Integrating and reconciling these disparate sources is an interesting but sometimes difficult challenge.

While all of the following papers could be part of a comprehensive history of Kwawu, that comprehensive history has not yet been written.

Files in the Akan History Set

Rain Forest Prehistory; An interesting range of material is available for archaeological research. Because bio material rapidly degrades in the rain forest, it is difficult to obtain data from sites in the open, but the many caves in Kwawu are a rich and varied source. Pollen and seed material, for example, can be used to trace the selective breeding of the oil palm by Akan women, resulting in a much larger kernel. The caves, which were once used as residences by humans (as evidenced by carbon 14 analysis), are now almost exclusively shrines and homes of local gods.

Settlement Patterns.  The spatial relationships between settlements and land reflected the historical migration and development. Earlier populations lived in dispersed settlements, farming the land close to where they lived. The Guan brought with them nucleated settlements where several related patrilineages lived in a larger village and the people farmed around that nucleus. The matrilineal Akan brought with them federations of lineages who lived in settlements more highly organised for defences and war (so as to control trade routes) and each matrilineage eventually developed a pie shaped piece of land with the confederation setting up its ancestral stool houses in the central core.

Forty Days; Some elements of Akan culture originate from the prior patrilineal Guan people, while other elements came with the arrival of the matrilineal Akan. This fusion is well illustrated by the combination of the Guan six day week and the Akan seven day week, to make the ritual forty two day (adaduanan, "40" days) cycle, on which all Akan ceremonies are based, and which is more important than the lunar month (bosome)

Round to Square; The earliest residences, apart from the caves, were built of branches and leaves and were generally round with the roof merely being the walls tied together at the top.  Hunters still build a few of these houses today when away on a long hunt.  The Guan, after the break up of the Mende (Mandingo) Empire,  brought with them the use of clay, either wattle and daub for houses quicker to build but less permanent, or sun baked clay bricks for more permanent houses.  Since the Akan retained the Gods of the Guan, many old houses of Gods are still round.  The Akan, who can be traced to the Ghana Empire, Sahara and even to Egypt, brought with them an architecture more suited to the desert, square but with an open central square courtyard.  The shift from round to square, therefore, coincides with the social and political change from patriliny to matriliny.

Historical Map of Kwawu; The oman (state) of Kwawu changed its size and shape over the years.  First the Agona clan came from Dankyera and settled where their slave died (thus the name, Kwa Owuo). Then the Bretuo (Twidan) came but the Agona chased them north across the Afram (near the Nchumuru) where they stayed and built up their strength to eventually return to the escarpment, conquer the Agona and become the paramount of Kwawu.  Meanwhile Obo and what is now the Nifa division was part of another state led by Kumawu, but joined Kwawu when it was led by the Bretuo (and Kumawu lost its competition with Kumasi).

The Afram; Once a large savannah plain between the Afram and the Volta rivers, the Afram is now mainly part of the lake formed by the Akosombo dam.  Prior to the building of the railway between Accra and Kumasi, the Afram river by canoe was the major transport medium between Kumasi, Kumawu, Kwawu and the coast.  Before the arrival and expansion of the Akan, the Afram Plains was the location of a major Guan kingdom headed by Ataara Fidam (the same name being given to a series of kings).

Kwasi Bruni. The ethic nick name for European males, Kwasi Bruni, is linked to the importation of maize from Central America by the Portuguese, and to the European habit of celebrating Sundays as a group sabbath (the Akan each celebrated a personal sabbath depending upon theur soul name, each based on the day they were born).

Swiss Missionaries. When Ramseyer, a Swiss Pietist from Basel, tried to found his "Ashantee Mission," he was abducted and spent three years in captivity.  When freed, he was not allowed into Asante, so he built his Ashantee Mission in Kwawu.  Kwawu used the event to declare independence from Asante by murdering the Asante ambassador.  The Bretuo and Tena clans (Twidan) in Abetifi and Abene were pro European and led the movement towards becoming a British Protectorate.  The Asona and Dwumina clans of the Benkum division were allied to those of Kyibi which was already part of the Gold Coast Colony.  Obo led the pro Asante faction in Kwawu, as head of the Nifa division, being of the Amoakade and Ada (Aduana) clans and relatives of the leaders of Kumawu.  Until Britain made Kwawu a protectorate, this was technically a time of Kwawu independence ─the only time.

Kwawu became, in effect, a colony of the Swiss missionaries, who organized road building, a post office service, and so much more.  After Asante was finally defeated in 1901, and Kwawu became part of the colony, the second generation of British administrators (not wealthy aristocratic dilettantes  like the first generation), became jealous of the Swiss and cooked up a conspiracy to remove them. They accused the Swiss of being German sympathizers and spies during the World War (false), put their men in concentration camps, sent the women to Britain, and handed over the congregation to the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, keeping all the public services to themselves.

Unfortunately, this chapter of Kwawu history is not yet written, and all I have to show here are four archival photos from the 1880s taken by the Basel missionaries.

The Railway; Perhaps the most revolutionary modern technological introduction was the railway in the first half of the twentieth century.  It was built on the South side of the Kwawu escarpment and took away the Afram river as the main route between Kumasi and the Coast.  In spite of the historical importance of the train, it was allowed to deteriorate, a road replaced it for transport, and it became defunct during the 1970s.

Law in Ghana; The chiefs and matriliny are still functioning in modern Ghana, side by each with a British derived system of law, police, courts, and lawyers.

Covert Gynocracy; uses Sjaak van der Geest's term, which indicates that Akan women have more power, prestige, wealth and independence than they let on (keeping the status covered, or covert). This is common in matrilineal societies. Almost two hundred years of proselytizing by European missionaries, who wished to see Akan women more subservient to their fathers and husbands (they brought more with them than the message of the New Testament), has not removed this element of modern Akan society.


A complete history of Kwawu, using all the sources mentioned above, is part of the 500 page PhD dissertation for the University of Ghana, Legon. Lack of resources prohibits me from typing this into computer files to make it available on the Internet.

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Last update: 2012.12.03

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