Kumasi was founded when the priest and royal advisor Okomfo Anokye summoned a golden stool from the sky. It landed in the lap of a young man called Otumfuo Nana Osei Tutu Opemsoo who unified the fragmented Akan tribes in the region to stand up against the mighty Denkyira Empire controlling the gold trade and raising taxes. He became the first true Asantehene, king of the legendary Ashanti Kingdom.
To nominate the exact site of the future Ashanti capital, the priest planted three palm (‘kum’) trees in different locations: Kumasi, meaning ‘Under the Palm Tree’, was built where the first of the three trees started to grow. The spot where the Golden Stool, since then an important Ashanti symbol of unity, came down to earth is marked by a sword planted in the ground by the priest. For 300 years no one succeeded in pulling it out – was this to happen, the Ashanti state would collapse.
So much for the legend. Fact is that the military unification of the Akan tribes marked the beginning of a mighty kingdom that, pursuing a policy of military expansion, soon became the dominant power in the region, extending even the borders of present-day Ghana. Its strategic position at the conjunction of the main trade routes between North and South, its gold riches and its involvement in the transatlantic slave trade allowed the Ashanti to finance their conquests and, as one of the few ethnic groups in Africa, to offer effective resistance to the British (for more information about the Ashanti Kingdom, watch this documentary).
The history of Kumasi – today a bustling city with a population of more than two million and the largest settlement in Ghana’s interior – is inextricably linked to the Ashanti kingdom whose royal capital it has been for more than three centuries. However, the historical and cultural traces left by the Ashanti aren’t obvious at first sight; Kumasi rather evokes the image of a hectic, modern city, busy keeping pace with the world’s consumerism and technological advances.
Especially the area around Kejetia Market, with about 10,000 traders reputedly West Africa’s largest open market, displays the typical busy everyday life in a developing country: The streets are overcrowded with people and vehicles; market women and street vendors praising their ripe tomatoes, fresh pineapples and fabric, locals pushing their way through the crowd and haggling over the price of bananas and shoes, cars sounding their horn as they slowly make their way through the traffic, taxi drivers sweating under the relentless African midday sun while shouting at each other for their reckless driving.
However, Ashanti traditions are kept alive; old ceremonies and ancient symbols, traditional clothing and crafts still play an important part in the city dwellers’ lives.
For instance, like in many parts of Ghana, the pre-colonial political system is still in place: The Asantehene, who is considered the most important traditional leader in Ghana to this day, resides in Manhyia Palace in Kumasi and receives homage from his subjects and subservient chiefs on festival days; occasions to show off the whole range of traditional dresses as well as musical skills such as drumming and horn blaring.
The Ashanti are not only known to be be brave warriors, but also skilled craftsmen and artists. One craft associated with the Ashanti is kente, intricately woven, colourful fabrics with geometrical designs.
Most kente cloth sold in Ghana today is mass-produced, but a few villages in the vicinity of Kumasi and in Ghana’s Volta Region continue to produce high quality kente in the traditional way on wooden looms. One of these traditional centres of kente-production is Adanwomase, about 20 km northeast of Kumasi.
A visit to Adanwomase shows that an effort is being made to maintain the cultural heritage. Our guide introduces us to about eight men sitting behind wooden looms, protected from the hot sun in the late morning by an aluminum roof. They are working in silence and almost motionless, only their hands are moving quickly back and forth to create an elaborate pattern appearing beneath their agile fingers.
The skill has been passed on for generations – as young boys, they learned it from their fathers. Their profession is respected and well paid, but labour-intensive: The production of a normal kente cloth can be accomplished in about two weeks, a complicated pattern takes up to three months.
However, globalisation doesn’t stop at traditions and reaches even remote villages: While working, the weavers are listening to a soccer match being broadcasted on the radio: Chelsea, the favorite club of many Ghanaians, against Arsenal.
The other traditional cloth associated with the Ashanti is adinkra, usually monochrome textiles decorated with ancient symbols that are worn mainly at funerals. The colours, symbols and geometrical shapes of both kente and adinkra are associated with various traditions, values and proverbs.
Colourful kente cloth, for instance, is solely used for celebrations while dresses in black and white are reserved for naming ceremonies, church visits and birthdays. A certain kente design symbolizes ‘togetherness’ while another one stands for the proverb ‘No one knows the future of a king’ meaning that the future of a new born child is not determined by birth.
One of the most popular symbols used for adinkra textiles is Sankofa which stands for the proverb
It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.
Especially in the context of the post-Independence era and the African diaspora, the symbol has become meaningful as it reminds one of the importance of one’s cultural roots.
Finding the right balance between modernity and historical roots, between technological advancements and cultural heritage is a challenge that not only Kumasi, that not only African countries have to face.