Sunday, September 19, 2010

National Musuem, Accra Ghana

Dear friends, family, and whoever ends up reading this,

Museums in Ghana come in various degrees of quality. The Cultural Center in Kumasi, for example, is what our group called a “break from cultural center.” Of all the small museums we visited, the National Museum in Accra was on the better end of the “escape culture” scale. It was also the first when I ever went to.

Your first day in Accra feels like hell. There is no escape, but this delightful building had the allusion of defiance with a fan situated at the entrance. This museum was packed with artifacts and information, and if I had not been suffering from heat exhaustion and in recovery from a 45-hour flight, I might have remembered twelve pages worth of material. However, this is what I found most pertinent.

This was the first opportunity that I had to learn about some of Ghana’s history from a Ghanaian. We had a tour guide named Akousa who was very helpful. The building itself was big with two stories and rooms facing the courtyard with stools, tables, pictures, and palanquins that the late kings had used during his rule over the Ashanti people. The first room Akousa took us to had a picture of Premphe the First with his wife, the Queen Mother, sitting in their royal clothing and headgear. I had heard that Ghana runs on a matriarchal system, but here I was able to learn more about the power and rights and a queen. In this display, the king was sitting on a special golden stool that was given, according to legends, from the heavens. Each new king is given a special stool that symbolizes the rule and reign of the new king. Even the presidential palace today in Accra is in the shape of a stool. The British knew about the Ashanti’s golden stool as well as the myth surrounding it and knew that capturing it would assert the kind of power they wanted over the people. Whoever possessed it was entitled to rule. As a result, a war broke out between the two sides. The Ashanti people refused to give it to the British, and gave them a fake golden stool to make the fighting stop. The British were tricked and went back to England none the wiser.

In addition to the details of the Golden stool legend, I learned a little bit more about the King of the Ashanti. The king did not allow people to talk to him directly. Instead they had to go through the chief linguist. Before he became king, he also had to attend a bathing ritual in the courtyard. The king could not have his feet touch the ground while he was bathing or instant de-stoolment occurred. The king would lose his ability to rule over the people and would no longer be the chosen leader of the Ashanti. To make sure his feet did not touch the ground, he would rest his feet on the tusks of an elephant. Elephants are a very symbolic animal in Ghana, representing humility as well as strength. The king is portrayed as an elephant because of these qualities. The death of a king also demands special ritualistic preparations. When an Ashanti king dies, the family members will cut a lock of hair and a fingernail to put it into a funeral cauldron. They believe that by leaving a piece of their body matter behind in the caldron they will be able to serve the king in the afterlife. The king is allowed to marry as many women as he wants. For a woman to show that she is engaged she holds a baton when she goes out in public. This is to deter any young men from trying to seek her hand. Women were also not allowed to cook for the king or be near him when they were on their menstrual cycles. The logic for not having woman cook for the king is that they were very jealous and would put things in the kings food to make him love them the best out of all the other wives and concubines. If a woman came close to him while she was menstruating, the king’s charms would not work and he would not be able to rule the kingdom. It sounds a little harsh to me, but then again, it also sounds like a week off of work.

There were several symbols all over the building that we were introduced to on our tour. We saw a horn, which symbolizes war, a thumbs up symbol, representing leadership, and a pineapple, meaning that having two heads is better than one. Fertility dolls are also a really important part of traditional Ghana. The Ashanti people have dolls that help women become fertile and give birth. They are exaggerated in the areas that are associated with fertility, have large flat heads, and are worn on a woman’s back. Other symbols in the museum were present, such as the battle dress worn by the king. This dress is full of charms and metals that the king wears into battle. It too is also supposed to be bullet proof and knife resistant, just like the one I mentioned previously.

My favorite part of the museum was an interesting treasure box towards the back. This artifact is believed to be full of the Ashanti soul and has not been opened since 1700. If the box is opened they believe that the Ashanti nation and Ghana will fall.

Moving towards the last rooms I noticed a pot with a painting of a woman eating a snail. I asked the guide about this pot and she told us a very interesting legend about a woman who gave birth to thirty children. This woman had a big snail and her children were hungry. The woman gave her children the shell and she ate the meat in an act of selfishness. The woman ended up chocking on the snail meat and died. The moral of this story was that you should only have as many children as can feasibly care for.

The next room we saw had eight staffs, which symbolize the Akan clans. There was a vat, vulture, crow, leopard, and an eagle. All of these animals were carved onto the top of the staffs. The king would be dressed in Adinkra cloth and wearing black sandals for his funeral. Lion teeth are important as well. They are believed to open the king’s eyes to judge a situation with clear perspective. As we were looking around this room the guide told us some more history of the king. The last sign that we saw in this museum was on the king’s palanquin. It was the colors green, black, and yellow. These colors represent to other nations that the Ashanti are rich black men who live in the forest.

This was a very interesting museum and well put together, especially in comparison to other setups we encountered during our time in Ghana. The tour guide was very knowledgeable and she even played us a traditional war song on the drums. This particular drumming was used by the Ashanti to frighten their enemies because it sounded like a pack of lions had surrounded the village.

As I was browsing around the gift shop, I asked the man what he thought about the museum. He smiled, exclaimed that the people in Ghana are very proud of being Ghanaian, and that they love their history. He stressed that even though they did not write down much of their history, it is still alive in stories, myths, and songs. I ended up purchasing a key chain that said, “Ghana, the land of culture,” just for a laugh, but when I took it home my neighbor, Auntie Faustine, had a thing or two to say about it. She said that Africa has a unique culture apart from the rest of the world. I would still argue that we all have our own culture, even in Provo Utah, but it was interesting to see that she believed that all people with light complexions were more or less the same culturally. I think that is a general belief among the people here.

I learned a lot more at the National Museum than I ever did from Wikipedia. If I had more time I would have like to hear more commentary from the locals. If I have learned anything about Ghana it is that the history is alive in them, not behind glass or preserved on the wall to collect dust.


(Field Notes:1-5:5)

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