By Kwesi Atta Sakyi
The French tricolor of red, white, and blue, adopted by the French Revolution leaders of 1789, led by Robespierre, symbolizes Equality, Fraternity, and Liberty. The French are famous throughout the world for creating an egalitarian society where all men and women, irrespective of their colour, stations in life, and social statuses or cleavages, are treated equally before the law. We in Ghana need to emulate such high standards.
Perhaps, the collective of the French Revolution and the writings of their philosophers influenced a lot the French to have an informed approach to dissent and tolerating diversity. Some of their foremost thinkers were Voltaire, Montesquieu, J.J. Rousseau, Rene Descartes, Diderot, among others. However, when it came to colonialism, they were found grossly wanting as they practised cultural imperialism of assimilation in their communes and cercles in places such as Goree, St Louis, Rufisque, Dakar, and Casamance in colonial Senegal, and in other French West African colonies.
The French fierce underground resistance movement against the German occupation during the Second World War, led by General de Gaulle, also helped them change their perception towards granting larger freedoms to their black war veterans residing in metropolitan France, and to their colonies in general.
We learn a great lesson from the French that all men are born equal and free, and that they should live in unity through friendship and one accord, be they Druids, Celts, Gaelic, Gauls, Franks, Romans, Catholic, Romanic people, Gypsies, Balkans, Aryans, Serbs, Slavs, Jews, Blacks, Arabs, Orthodox, Gays, Protestants, Hindu, Atheists, Muslims, among many others.
I think the French are among some of the most tolerant and enlightened people in the world; hence France is a place of asylum for many refugees and displaced persons from all over the world. So also are the Scandinavian countries which are said to have feminine culture of care, relationship, and compassion.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the UN, drawn up in 1948, affirms the universal principles of larger freedoms and their universalism. The Bill of Rights of the USA Constitution drawn up in 1776 in Virginia also affirms these rights. John Stuart Mills from Britain, Thomas Paine from the USA, John Locke from Britain, Benjamin Franklin from USA, and de Tocqueville from France, wrote extensively on these larger freedoms.
In the UK, of foremost interest is the Magna Carta signed in 1216 on the island of Runnymede in the Thames by King John 1, under duress from the nobles who demanded King John to assent to their request that the monarch is also under the law (Note that the substantive King, King Richard the Lion Heart had gone on the Crusades, and his brother John was reigning on his behalf).
The Great Charter affirmed that the King is not greater than the Constitution. That was a landmark and watershed declaration which underpins ceremonial monarchy in the UK up to the present time, despite Britain having an unwritten constitution, as theirs is made up of conventions, statutes, common law, judicial review, and precedents, among others.
The Magna Carta is of much greater and utmost significance in the history of mankind, regarding power distance and governance issues. We in Ghana, from time immemorial, have had kingmakers and various checks and balances in our traditional chieftaincy set-up, as chiefs with autocratic tendencies tend to have divisions and resistance from the elders and Queenmothers, who are powers behind the black stools.
In Ghana, our Coat of Arms has the inscription, Freedom and Justice. We can only be free if we are not looked down upon by other tribes or by people in upper echelons of society who are rich or well educated, or who hail from elite families. Thus alienation in Ghana can be on the basis of tribe, genealogy or birth circumstances, educational status, political orientation, geographical location, sexual orientation, religious belief, nepotism, and gender, physical or mental disability, among many other discriminants. Need this be so in a modern sovereign country such as Ghana? For the purposes of this short essay, the focus will be on tribe and tribalism in Ghana.
Our national flag colours of red, gold, and green enjoin us first to celebrate the struggles of our pioneers who fought hard for our freedom, second to cherish the gold which depicts our rich gold deposits and mineral wealth heritage, third the green symbolizes the fertility and abundance of our soils, and finally, the black star, the pride of the black man and all the tribes of Ghana, united as one indissoluble and indivisible nation and notion. The black star represents wisdom which is needed to navigate in periods of darkness, and it also represents mystery of an unseen force or black matter in the celestial sky (black matter in physics connected with the Sirius Star), pride of the black race, black beauty, among others.
It is noteworthy that of the three wise men (magi or astrologers) from the east who went to present gifts of Gold, Myrrh, and Frankincense to the newly born Jesus, the new king (Iesus Nazarene, Rex Indaerum- Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews), there was the black Balthazar, with the two others being Melchior and Casper (Matthew 2:1-12). When Jesus was going through the 14 Stations of the Cross on his way to Calvary, it was Simon the Cyrene, a black from North Africa, who went forward and relieved him of the burden of carrying the heavy cross.
The Bible in Genesis chapter 35, verses 23 to 26, and chapter 49, mentions the twelve tribes of Israel, being the twelve sons of Jacob from his wives Leah, Rachel, Bilhah, and Zilpah. The twelve tribes consisted of Judah, Simeon, Reuben, Levi, Joseph, Benjamin, Dan, Gath, Asher, Issachar, Naphtali, and Zebulun.
The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines the word tribe as, ‘a social division in a traditional society consisting of linked families or communities with a common culture and dialect or distinctive close-knit social grouping.’ The word tribe is derived from the Latin tribus, and it refers to the three divisions of the early people of Rome, some of whom were the Etruscans and Attrians, among others.
The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines tribe as, ‘ a group of families, especially of an ancient or indigenous people, claiming descent from a common ancestor, sharing a common culture, religion, dialect, etc and occupying a specific geographical area and having a recognized leader.’ In Ghana we have tribal leaders with titles such as Asantehene, Ya Na, Tolon Na, Gbewaa, Yabonwura, Baba Gida, Okyehene, Ndewura, Togbi, Omanhene, Ga Manch3, Nene, Nii, Kronyo, Kpanyili, Nana, Nenyi, Obaatan, Obaahemaa, Odikro, Odefe, Krontihene, among others.
In Ghana we have many tribes with the Akans in the majority. The tribes in Ghana include the Asante, Fante, Guans, Akyem, Akuapim, Kyerepon, Larteh, Krobo, Ga, Ga-Adangbe, Nzema, Grunshie, Dagomba, Sisala, Frafra, Mamprusi, Effutu, Ewutu, Sefwi, Ahanta, Aowin, Assin, Denkyira, Akwamu, Adansi, Buem, Nkonya, Lolobi, Kusasi, Nanomba, Konkomba, Gonja, Bereku, Dagarti, Brong (Bono), Ewe, Anlo, Tongu, Gomoa, Agona, Enyan, Nkusukrum, Edina Eguafo, Asebu, Wasa, Ekumfi, Kwahu, Ajumako, among many others. Within each major tribe are sub-tribes, subdivisions, clans and dialects.
The Ga people of Accra claim to have originated from Ile Ife in Western Nigeria, under their leaders such as Okai Koi, Dede Okai, Ayi Kwei, among others. The Fantes claim origin from Techiman in Bono country, and before that from the Kong Mountains in Bobo Dialasso in Burkina Faso, under their leaders, Oburmankoma, Osono, and Odapa Gyan. It is a well- documented fact from oral tradition that some of the tribes of Ghana emigrated from Ancient Ghana at the bend of the Niger River in Timbucktoo, in present day Mali at the turn of the 13th century. The Ashantis emerged from Amansie with their leaders, Twum and Antwi, and some of their first kings being Oti Akenten, Kobia Amenfi, Opoku Ware, Osei Tutu, among others. The Akyems, a breakway faction of the Ashantis, were led to New Juaben near Koforidua under some of their leaders such as Owusu Akyem Tenten.
Before the Akans came to Ancient Ghana, they had emigrated from Libya, Sudan and Egypt. Some researchers believe that the Akans originally were part of the ancient Egyptian Empire, hence their obsession with elaborate goldsmith craft, and elaborate funeral rites for the dead, the knowledge of the intricate and colourful Kente cloth, our beliefs about the Almighty God, our clan totems of animals such as the parrot, crow, leopard, snake, our calendar system based on 8 days for a week, and 40 day cycles, our natal names for males and females, our cosmology of Asaase Yaa or Asaase Efua (Friday goddess of the Earth), Tweredeampong Kwame, the Almighty God or Onyame Kokoroko of the Sky, Nana Bosompo (Tuesday god of the sea), among other institutions concerning rituals and symbolism.
One historian friend of mine from Akwamu, who is late, claimed that some Ghanaians emigrated from Iran. Another one believes that the word Akan is from the biblical outcast group in the Old Testament called Achan, who misbehaved and were outlawed among the Jewish tribes for stealing some gold and burying it in their tent camp. I believe this is a conjecture. The Ewe came from Ketu on the border with Nigeria, near Badagry, before settling at Notsie, and Whydah in present day Benin, and finally settling on the eastern part of the Volta or Fraw river in present day Volta Region..
(I once taught at Ketu College in Ogun State, Nigeria, in the area called Egbado South in a place called Igan Alade, near Tata, Ijoun, Igbogila, Ayetoro, Ilaro, Itori, among others). Some of the tribes in Northern Ghana today came from the Old Moshie Empire straddling parts of present day Burkina Faso and Northern Ghana, and from Northern Nigeria, while others emerged from neighbouring countries such as Togo. Linguistic studies confirm all these earlier migrations.
So who is a true Ghanaian? Perhaps being a Guan myself, I should pride myself in affirming what is historically known that the Guans with some Fante tribes such as the Asebu and Etsii were among the earliest inhabitants of Ghana. But my father’s lineage traces itself from the Akwamu chief, Nana Kwafo Akoto, and also from Mfodwo, an area in Accra in Jamestown, while oral history which was told me by my mother states that our ancestors who first settled at Penkye in Winneba, had a hunter from Accra who arrived and married my great great great great grandmother whose lineage I hail from as the original Tufuhene house of Winneba, before some bizzare and unfortunate circumstances diverted it from our house to the Annobil family. My father was of the Dentsefo Asafo and of the Anona or Agona clan, while my mother was of the Tuafo Asafo and of the Nsona clan. Some of my paternal cousins were of the Twidan clan.
All the same, my great great grandmother was married to the great King Ghartey’s son, and my father’s first cousin was Nana Ayirebi Acquah from the rival royal family. So where do I belong on this hierarchy? Ghana is a real cultural web which is so intricate a mosaic to decode or decipher, unless perhaps we all go for DNA tests to know our origins. Is it worth it? Aren’t we amalgams of other tribes? So where lies our tribal bigotry or superiority? Is it not an inferiority complex which makes us feel superior to other tribes?
Tribesmen recognize one another by tribal facial markings or scarification, language, common ancestral names and appellations, clan totems, fetishes, dressing, and other distinctive marks of recognition. They are bonded by the celebration of annual festivals such as Ahobaa, Okyir, Afahye, Bakatue, Akomase, Kundum, Aboakyir, Gomoa Two Weeks, Kwahu and Apam Easter, Akwasidae, Akwambo, Homowo, Odwira, Hogbetsotso, Dagbon Fire Dance Festival, Dipo, Ohum, Yam Festivals, Asafoatse, Fetu Afahye, among many others.
Tribes are also characterized by cultural elements such as artifices, rituals, symbols, beliefs, stories, legends, shared values and understandings, controls, structures, paradigms, power arrangements, among others. Cultural diffusion and intermarriages have blurred cultural boundaries in Ghana, as anywhere else. There is therefore no pure tribe in Ghana because of greater national integration. Tribes fought wars in the past and along the way, they formed alliances, tribal cousinships, and strategic alliances such as the one between Asante Kotoko and Nzema Kotoko.
Rites of passage are found across the Akan tribes and other tribes. The one among Krobo girls is notable, just as the rites for twins like me among the Effutu, Ga, and Fante called Nta Abam or Abam Kofi. Since the Ghanaian society is highly fluid and mobile, domestic migration trends have been on the ascendancy for the purposes of economic motives for greener pastures, for farming and mining, for trade and commerce, for educational pursuits, among other motives.
The nation of Ghana is a notional one, transcending time and space, because the nation of Ghana exists geographically wherever a Ghanaian is found in any part of the globe. The nation of Ghana consists of sub-nations, and the various tribal groupings. So are we now to contemplate a time in the future when the word tribe will not feature any more in our vocabulary in Ghana? Will there ever be a time when we will lose our cultural identities as tribal sub-groupings? I wish that time came sooner rather than later. We have all seen the monstrosities resulting from maladjustments of tribal balancing in the past in places such as Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria, and other places in Africa.
(Stand by for Part 2, and the final in the series)