42_G15_Spotlight_Ghana

Global Issue 15

Spotlight Ghana A lavish feast for the senses 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 Juliet Highet 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 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 and liquor 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. Through the ages 1471 The Portuguese become the first Europeans to set foot on what would later be known as the Gold Coast. They set sail to explore the area 50 years earlier, lured by rumours of gold and ivory for the taking 1400 1800 1874 The British invade Asante territory under the command of Sir Garnet Wolseley, spurring the Sagrenti War. After their defeat, the Asante agree to sign a peace treaty, while the British win another onslaught in the Volta Region. The entire coastal area is proclaimed a crown colony 1697 King Osei Tutu establishes the Asante (Ashanti) Empire, building up its army and starting expansion efforts. Successive kings continue the expansion and consolidation of territories, gaining access to coastal trade 1957 Ghana emerges as the first African country south of the Sahara to regain independence from colonial rule. Dr Kwame Nkrumah, then Prime Minister, proclaims: “Ghana, our beloved country is free forever.” 42 l www.global -br ief ing.org thi rd quar ter 2013 global


Global Issue 15
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