A lavish feast for the senses

Juliet Highet

Ghana’s cultural heritage, dating back thousands of years, is still very much part of its more modern, cosmopolitan lifestyle. Global savours the sights, sounds and tastes of Ghana’s incredibly rich and diverse cultural milieu

Early travellers to the West Coast of Africa, landing in what we now know as Ghana, gave that country an epithet that stuck – the Gold Coast. They were stunned by the magnificence of the courts of the local kings, and not just by the gold glistening in the sun all around them, but also by the wealth of other symbolic paraphernalia, of stools and staffs, swords and silk umbrellas and, not least, the sumptuous, rich and complex woven material known as Kente.

Happily, these medieval European envoys wrote down what they witnessed as they entered the presence of the Asantehene, the revered king of the vast, powerful Ashanti empire – the last of the African kingdoms to be conquered. His person was considered so august that neither his feet nor his buttocks might touch the ground.

Describing the king’s messengers first, these dazzled visitors managed to register the magnificence of their appearance, before moving on to their king: “They wore Ashanti cloths of extravagant price from the costly foreign silks which had been unravelled to weave them in all the varieties of colour as well as pattern. They were of an incredible size and weight and thrown over their shoulders exactly like the Roman toga.”

From the 15th century onwards, Portuguese, Dutch and other Europeans had noted the abundance of gold body ornaments, which are still worn on ceremonial occasions – particularly by the Ashanti, who had united the Akan kingdoms, in whose forests large gold deposits had originally been discovered, in the 18th century.

So why is gold so significant in Ghana? It was believed that the king or chief, personified by his bearing and appearance, embodied the power, prestige and wealth of the community. The more opulent his regalia, the more important he was considered to be.

Gold was believed to come from the sun and the gods, and to possess fetish powers. Only the ruler, who communicated with the ancestors on behalf of the people, could be the correct channel. Therefore, it was accepted that gold belonged to the king or chief, and any that was discovered in rivers or diggings should be deposited with him, so that he could mediate over and control the community’s proper order of life, whether temporal or spiritual.

It was always African slaves, ivory and that substance prized above all else – Ghanaian gold – that foreigners fought to obtain. In return, Ghana wanted guns, liquor, silk textiles (to unravel), decorative items like brass vessels – and beads. Imported glass beads soon became symbols of wealth and rank, each kingdom favouring different designs. Those that particularly appealed to the African sense of style were the highly decorative Venetian Bugle beads, infused with millefiori patterns called ‘eyes’, with flowered, striped and mosaic designs.

Every significant event in a Ghanaian woman’s life is marked by celebration, at which she receives gifts of jewellery. They are handed down as heirlooms from grandmothers to their female descendants, or specially commissioned. Almost all Ghanaian jewellery is composed of beads and gold, sometimes used separately, often together. This jewellery builds up her personal fortune, and marks her own and her family’s status in society. But it’s not just for adornment – most of it has deeper, symbolic meaning.

Antique and spiritually symbolic beads, such as the Aggrey and the Bodom, are highly valued. In the past, one Bodom bead could buy its owner seven slaves and royal babies were washed and powdered with ground Bodom to make them grow.

Many experts believe that the Aggrey bead is of Egyptian origin. By the end of the second millennium BCE, glass beads had become common in Arabia, and in particular Egyptian blue faience was highly valued by Egypt’s trading partners. The great trans-Saharan camel-trains of early trading routes transported beads from Egypt, India and Venice, and later, during Europe’s medieval period, ships landed on Ghanaian shores, bringing beads from Portugal and Holland.

Among the great surprises in store for today’s visitors to Ghana are the old forts and castles, which lie scattered along its coast. Nowadays they play little part in the life of the country, except as a tragic tourist site. An eerie silence, a gloomy atmosphere hangs over these massive, crumbling complexes, which once teemed with life. In their dismal dungeons, thousands of slaves sent up desperate prayers, before being transported across the notorious Middle Passage.

These melancholy monuments vary greatly in importance and size, from the massive El Mina – once the headquarters of the Portuguese and later of the Dutch – and Cape Coast Castle, built by the British, to Christianborg in Accra, which was bequeathed by the Danes. These huge castles had several big guns, including cannon, large garrisons, resident commercial and government officials and, at a later stage, local craftsmen. In many respects they were like miniature cities, each establishment having a considerable number of its own slaves, toiling away like worker bees.

However, a palpable air of prosperity and a relaxed ability to enjoy life characterises Accra today. As one drives through the tree-lined avenues of middle-class homes from Kotoka Airport, the atmosphere of decades of good fortune respectably earned is immediately apparent. One can’t help noticing how many churches there are, the focus of many a society wedding or christening, whose participants glow in Kente and gold.

Ghana was the first African nation to achieve independence and it has a large population of high-flying, cosmopolitan professionals. Of course, there’s poverty too, and few ‘respectable’ Ghanaians would venture to Jamestown fishing village, on the ‘rougher’ side of town, but tourists certainly do to see the traditional canoes of the local Fanti people, painted with symbolic patterns and motifs relating to the underlying philosophical content of Ghanaian life, hardly affected by slavery, colonialism or Christianity.

Accra’s Makola Market is controlled by usually large, imposing, and often very wealthy, Market Queens. It’s the heartbeat of the capital, where you will see rows of cloth-sellers and love potions, as well as a few pieces of the beautiful local pottery, which have almost entirely been replaced by plastic ware.

The smells of fish in the gruelling heat – despite only being two hours old- and of the pomade worn by traders from the north add to the atmosphere. The colours of the market are stunning too – women in their every-day printed wrappers and head-ties, piles of chillies, tomatoes and spices. Contrary to expectations, not every dish in the varied battery of Ghanaian cuisine is redhot. Ghanaians employ a variety of herbs and flavourings. Its characteristic ‘freshness’ stems from the use made of local ingredients, such as crab, crispy fried prawns and a selection of green leaves.

There’s a range of traditional stews made with groundnuts and palm nuts, and often meat is cooked with fish. Savoury dishes are served with a balance of carbohydrates, such as pounded yam or cassava, and variations on the plantain theme are endless. Plantain is a member of the banana family and is cooked using at least 19 savoury or sweet methods.

Most Ghanaians will reminisce about balmy evenings, sauntering along with a loved one, picking at kelewele – fried plantain bought from a street stall. Stepping out at night, the gilded youth of Accra and other Ghanaian cities groove at chic clubs, while others sip beer and enjoy local music at lively open-air venues.

Stevie Wonder cried when he came to Black Star or Independence Square, to play at the legendary Soul-to-Soul concert. He had come face-to-face with his ancestors.

About the author:

Juliet Highet is an author and photographer specialising in travel, the arts and culture


Post a comment

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Amnesty International