Glimpses of Postcolonial Ashanti Culture from Kumasi
By Rhea Kumar
Pointing to a box television in one corner of the museum at Manhyia Palace, our tour guide, Michael Oduro, said, “When the Ashanti king Prempeh I lived here in the 20th century, any local who wished to watch television had to book a special appointment with the king’s palace. Now,” he smiled, “every child in Ghana has a television set.”
In a museum that represents the legacy of the Ashanti people and their kings, a television set was the last thing I expected to see. But the colonial-era palace represents not just the traditional Ashanti culture but also its interactions with British and Western European culture. Banners with traditional Ashanti motifs decorated the walls of the palace museum alongside leather armchairs and ceramic tea sets, while a chess set in a glass cabinet contained carved adinkra symbols for chess pieces.
Manhyia Palace, which according to Oduru derives its name from the Twi word for gathering, was constructed in 1926 after the Ashanti ruler Prempeh I returned from his exile in Seychelles. Prempeh I had been sent to exile after the British colonizers defeated the Ashanti rulers in 1896, and was only released when the Ashanti were able to pay their war dues to the British. But Prempeh I came back a changed man, who had converted to Christianity and adopted European ways. His legacy remained with subsequent Ashanti rulers, and today the entire Ashanti royal family follows the Anglican church.
How important, then, is the Ashanti empire in Ghanaian culture today? In its heyday, the Ashanti kingdom once controlled most of Ghana, even including territories of what is now known as the Ivory Coast. Kumasi was the center of the Ashanti empire and the site of Golden Stool, the traditional seat of the Ashanti king and, according to Oduru, the symbol of the continuity of the Ashanti empire. While relics of the empire are carefully preserved at the Manhyia Palace Museum as well as the National Cultural Center, the rest of today’s Kumasi looks like any typical city. Driving around Kumasi, I see more Presbyterian churches than Ashanti shrines, and every second billboard carries a photograph of the newly elected President Nana Akufo-Addo.
As I spent more time in Kumasi, I began to realize that the true picture, as always, is more complicated than it seems. According to Yaa Agyapoma, a tour guide at the National Cultural Center, “We [the Ashanti people] practice our traditional customs and also attend the church.” Agyapoma further said that her family follows the Ashanti burial customs. When asked whether she found this contradiction jarring, she smiled. “My religion, Christianty, teaches me to be tolerant of others. But Ashanti is part of my roots.”
Similarly, while everyone in the royal family is a member of the Anglican church, they actively take part in the traditional ceremonies followed by Ashanti rulers. Manhyia Palace is the site of the Akwasidae and Awukudae Festival, celebrated every six weeks on Sunday and Wednesday respectively, when the Ashanti ruler appears before his subjects in a palanquin to the sound of ceremonial drums. The festivals are an important part of Kumasi’s culture for locals and tourists alike. And when the previous Ashanti queen mother died a few months ago, even the bustling city of Kumasi was curfewed as everyone mourned her demise.
Although Ghana is now a presidential democracy, the Ashanti ruler is an important political and spiritual leader. “He is the traditional ruler and the government always consults him,” said Agyapoma. Oduru mentioned that former Ashanti ruler Opuku II was Ghana’s ambassador to Italy. The Ashanti ruling family resides at Manyhia Palace and has been invested in the upkeep of the adjoining museum since it was founded in 1995 by the then Ashanti ruler, Opuku II. And even though the National Cultural Center is managed and financed by Ghana’s government, Agyapoma mentioned that the Ashanti ruling family is very particular about the upkeep of the Prempeh II museum, often sending surplus artefacts over from the palace. Thus Ashanti rulers are actively involved in both contemporary Ghanaian politics as well as their own traditions.
Right at the entrance of the Manyhia Palace, I noticed a fountain with a porcupine in the center. The location could not have been more apt. The porcupine is considered a symbol of the Ashanti people’s strong defense mechanisms and prowess in war. But in today’s peaceful times, it is perhaps best interpreted as a symbol of resilience and survival.
Rhea Kumar ’18 is an Ethics, Politics, and Economics Major in Pauli Murray College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.