To the Lords of the Ashanti Tribe, to house Duah, Okyere, Boateng, Ennin, Osei-Gyimah, President Nana Akufo-Addo, and our King; Otumfuo Nana Osei Tutu II…or as we know you in our family: Nana Kwaku Duah.
I am John Kwaku Duah II of the Ashanti tribe. The photo above is of the late Francis Burton Okyere and I in our hometown of Moorpark, California in 1999. This was taken at our middle school graduation, and was one of the few occasions we were able to celebrate a victory in knowledge together. So far away from anyone like us, we leaned on each other to stay inspired and good natured, with the burning black star of Ghana as our guide.
Before his murder in 2007, I made a promise to him that I would speak my mind through the stories I’ve heard, lived, and created in my time here if for some reason he never got to visit Ghana personally. Some stories arrived from legend across the millennia, some from wise bards of many walks, some from storytellers, teachers, and preachers. Healers, dealers, dancers, punks, criminals, warriors, mothers, fathers, wanderers, and beyond all built the road I walk on with voice, camera, and pen in hand. This is one of many that I hope will inspire those who walk with us, and who will carry on after us.
Stories are what I live for. They explain everything we need and how little we know at the same time. Stories exist on mediums everyone can understand in some way. Finding those connections is part of what makes the human experience so interesting to me. My parents took me with them in their worldly travels from a young age, and it help build the lens through which I see the world.
This draft was written primarily in January of 2015, but I’ve pondered on this paper and its topics for many years before writing them here.
While I wasn’t born there, my first memories are in Ghana, sometime in late 1988.
The one and only story that sticks out from that trip, is when I explorer the Ashanti capitol city of Kumasi. My father was born there, and while he was out visiting our relatives and giving gifts from the states years later, I took off with some of the local kids to see the sights. My mother (an East Texan) wasn’t exactly calm about her not-even-three-year-old son running off into the wild with strangers in a foreign country, but she was assured that I would be fine. Deep down she knows the bug of exploration and discovery bit me when I was born and never let go.
I remember it was the first and only time I saw a Fanta vending machine. I remember the contrast of colors in the humid environs. Lizards on terracotta walls, wild smelling marketplaces with brightly colored garments, butchers, farmers, and average citizens all around. Other minor details peek through every once in a while, but it wasn’t until recently that everything shifted back into focus, and the adventure I had a brief glimpse of was continued once again.
After a year that I can describe as some serious soul searching and hunt for a purpose in this short but amazing life, going there was the a much needed reminder of where I came from, and where I needed to go.
I touched down in Ghana with my brother Joshua in the middle of August, 2014. You won't find the touchy rules of your local homeowners association here on the paint job of your house. Like everything else in the country, color is beautiful and abundant.
My mother, sister, her then fiance, and niece were there ahead of us in a house we rented months earlier for the two weeks we would be there. Ghana is a big place, meaning we had to be up early every morning to beat the city traffic and cover decent amounts of ground. For the duration of the trip, I up front with our guide and driver Owusu to take in the sights.
The first thing people ask me about Ghana, is if the people live in huts or do they live in skyscrapers? The answer of course is a spectrum across the board from well water stations to Presidential palaces. Some live in beautiful modern structures sprinkled throughout the greater Accra area. Some live in the vibrantly painted neighborhoods I saw from the air. Some live in hand constructed villages across the region.
Two of the professions you see most from Ghana are doctors and Engineers. If you’ve ever been to Baltimore, you know what I’m talking about.
Development throughout the capital city of Accra bustles around the presidential palace, but most of our time in Ghana was spent outside the capitol, in the more remote regions of the country.
Various storage containers turned shops dotted the poorer areas of Accra, serving as the main points of basic foods and supplies in the community we stayed in. Fresh water, fruit, vegetables, cleaning supplies, toiletries, candy and more could commonly be found within a 5 minute was from just about anywhere.
I actually grew more fond of these little shops as time went on. Transactions move so much quicker than at a grocery store, which Ghana also had no shortage of. Something I love about the spirit of Ghana is the seeing the level of commitment people have to providing better lives for themselves despite the cracks in the nations infrastructure. Selling wares independently, or "hawking" as its call was so rampant signs were commonly posted at toll stations to regulate merchant activity on the roadway stops.
It took a few days for me to really attune myself to all Ghana had to offer me. I laughed to myself thinking about how most Americans get a two week vacation, but I always wondered how the first week counted. It took that much time just to fully unplug.
Every day we hit the road with a general idea of the sight we wanted to see, and first on my list was the great rainforest of Kakum National Park. Still jet lagged from the trip, every once in a while I would pop out the window with my camera as Owusu would point out another sight tucked away in the forests covering the entire nation.
The roads themselves in Ghana were the topic of much debate in the region I quickly came to find out. Once we were out of the greater Accra region and closer to Kakum National Park, we started to notice large potholes in the road. Some were so bad, that my brother and I called them "Car Ender" class potholes, some up to a foot and a half deep, and twice as wide.
Almost at every spot with a dozen or more potholes, it was common to see young boys filling the potholes with dirt, packing it tightly, and waving to passing cars as they drove by, hands expecting a backwater tariff to be paid. The idea was, tip them for the safe passage they allowed by filling the potholes. By the first four or five times I had seen this happen, it was easy to spot who had actually done work, and who was hoping to get a lucky handout by posting up, shovels in hand at pockmarked spots. I’ll admit, it’s not a bad hustle, even if only temporary. These roads have finally been reconstructed since the article was first started.
Illegal fueling stations were tucked away in the rainforest, seen as a necessity in the area due to the apparent misuse of funds in the supply chain countrywide. At most of the sanctioned gas stations we stopped at to refuel our diesel engine retrofitted Nissan Patrol was met with a head shake of no diesel delivery for the day. Again, it took very little time to notice this glaring disconnect in Ghana's infrastructure.
When we arrived at Kakum National Park, we waited together for the two dozen other folks to gather, and tour to begin. All around the forest was alive with a heavy feeling of mystery, intrigue and moisture rich air. It seem that any place you threw a seed could harbor amazing plant life.
Chocolate lovers will rejoice in the fact that Ghana produces some of the best chocolate in the world. While it didn't originate here, the Cacao tree thrived here after it was brought over from South America. Cocoa stands as Ghana's primary cash crop, and is the second largest producer of it in the world, second only to the neighboring Ivory Coast.
The fall of the economy in Ghana lately has put farmers in difficult positions, as the stagnant price of cocoa keeps families below the financial survival lines. Many have turned to smuggling their product to Ivory Coast, where it fetches a much better price.
We made our way up to the upper areas are of the forest with our guide to the Kakum Canopy Walkway. While I didn't see them, I read you can rent treehouses high in the forest to get the best vantage point of the forest. After a short walk, we arrived at the opening of the 330 meter canopy walkway system.
7 bridges make up the walkway built by two Canadians in the mid 90's. The park officially opened in 1997, sees about 150,000 visitors per year (and rapidly growing), and takes you as high as 50 meters into the air to look into the gorgeous canopy below.
We made our way back down, all hands still alive, no falling into the green abyss as we all joked. Kakum's lower levels feature the densest population of African forest elephants. Diana monkeys, Giant Bongo antelopes, several types of butterflies and more also share the area, but poaching has been a large concern in the region.
Spent shell casings, camping remnants, fire pits and old tires are found often in the forest, leading authorities to believe the threat of these shadow poachers is near constant and currently unmatched.
Elsewhere, in the city of Bonwire, we were in search for one of Ghana's most coveted exports; Kente cloth. Bonwire is recognized as one of, if not the main village for production of the beautiful fabric; each color and pattern representing something particular.
I've seen Kente draped over many African Americans during graduation ceremonies and other important social events, usually to color coordination. The weavers moved with a speed and stealth grace that I just plain wasn't used to seeing. Traditionally, the weaving of the cloth is done by males only, with family symbols and designs being retold through cloth over the ages.
Geometric patterns grace the warp threads in colors with a different specific meanings:
black—maturation, intensified spiritual energy
blue—peacefulness, harmony and love
green—vegetation, planting, harvesting, growth, spiritual renewal
gold—royalty, wealth, high status, glory, spiritual purity
grey—healing and cleansing rituals; associated with ash
maroon—the color of mother earth; associated with healing
pink—assoc. with the female essence of life; a mild, gentle aspect of red
purple—assoc. with feminine aspects of life; usually worn by women
red—political and spiritual moods; bloodshed; sacrificial rites and death.
silver—serenity, purity, joy; assoc. with the moon
white—purification, sanctification rites and festive occasions
yellow—preciousness, royalty, wealth, fertility, beauty
Before we departed for our next stop, I exchanged information with the boys in the loom house. I feel like Kente cloth is something that should be shared, and what better way to help usher in its culture assimilation than straight from the source? Little girls outside asked for spare change, and it took a few seconds for me to realize that Kente cloth, like many great Ghanaian productions, have a great export path. Why was it proving so difficult for hand crafted exports to make an impact on a larger scale? The rain layed on us thicker by the minute, and the road back to home base was a long one.
We were a week into our trip at this point, and we still had much ground to cover. I took my turn on the next destination selection and took us to an area known as the Volta Region. Its named such after Lake Volta, the largest man made lake by surface area on the planet. At its highest levels, it ranks 4th largest lake in volume.
In the days ahead, our travels would take us to infamous castle known as Elmina.
The area was first settled some time in the mid 1300's by a renowned hunter, Kwaa Amankwaa while lost on a hunting expedition. As the story goes, he was on a desperate search for fresh water, and found it on accident a small ways inland. He found a small source of fresh water that replenished itself quickly no matter how much the hunting expedition used.
After following the water to its source, he found the lagoon that had fed the stream to his prized water source. Its said that he was so overjoyed that he yelled "Be Enya!" or "I've got it!", which later permanently became the lagoon's name.
He gave the area its original name of Anomansa, or "inexhaustible water" in respect to what the land had given him on that journey. He would return and settle with his people there, to form a town that today still holds true to the fishing and hunting practices from over half a millenia ago.
It wasn't until the mid 1471 that the Portuguese would arrive under the command of Captains Joao Satarem and Pedro D'escobar. Moorish prisoners that they captured after the conquering of Ceuta in 1415 brought the them here, with aims to secure the apparent source of gold in Sub-Saharan Africa, and also to search for a new sea route between India and the Far East.
Europeans of the time were obtaining goods and spices from far away, and cutting out the Muslim middlemen of the Sudan in their trade was an ideal and heavily sought after economic goal.
Many of the chiefs in the area did not want to trade with the Portuguese, but the people were split down the middle: some saw them as gods, while others only trouble. With a cautious optimism, trade eventually began and flourished. The Portuguese bartered guns, gunpowder, liquor, enamel bowls, tobacco, and iron bars and other goods for ivory, spices, artifacts, and precious African gold. Eventually, they wanted a permanent settlement. The town became known to the Portuguese after this as El Mina, or "the mine".
The spread of Christianity was also a very important mission to the Portuguese, if only to counter its spread from Northern Africa to the west coast of the continent.
A regional chief from around this time is quoted in Portuguese records in opposition to a settlement by the Portuguese:
But after pleading with Ansah for the chance of better business and peaceful coexistence, he finally allowed the supply ships to set down their cargo on the mainland when they arrived on January 19th, 1482. Juan Bernardo, an interpreter for Don Diego d'Azambuja had helped negotiate, as he had stayed behind from a previous voyage to the area years later and learned the native tongues.
They came prepared with ready-dressed foundation stones, roofing tiles, and other pre-built parts in their supply to expedite the construction. 600 workers, and over 500 soldiers, officers, masons and other michellanous workers made up the primary construction party. Also among them was a young man named Christopher Columbus, who would stop over ten years later at the castle he helped construct on his way to (what he thought was) the West Indies in 1492.
Once inside, the building tells a different story. The tall walls made for an uncomfortable silence. Small groups of other tourists and their local guides slid through their presentations; getting scolded when the kids in the group wouldn't stop touching the ancient stones of El Mina.
This place was the primary gateway for slaves in the New World that Columbus was on a mission to find. The conflicts on the coast had a direct, if not the most direct impact on African Americans today. Yes it's true, many of us came from these very walls. 400 years later this part of our story is intact. As bittersweet as it may be, pressing on to learn is the most important thing I could have done.
The Portuguese didn't enter the slave trade until the early 16th century, when the New World needed the labor in what we know now as North and South America. The coast of Ghana was controlled by the Fante at the time, one of the many Akan people of West Africa. Chiefs from the Fante signed the rights of trading with other Europeans away, with the removal of an ear being the first offense against this, and death for the second.
In the castle, we listen to our guide explain the horrors of the slave chambers in the castle. Commanding officers standing on balconies above the female hold, selecting women to use for the night. Those who opposed were harshly punished; chained to cannonballs, mutilated, and sometimes outright killed.
Thousands of captured slaves left this place for the West. Some slaves were defeated by the Fante, and sometimes it was from efforts of the Portuguese themselves. For some in opposition to the rule of their new masters, the met rooms like the one above. A stone oven-coffin for the ones who served as a lesson to the others.
The most important, and probably most terrifying room in the castle lay nearly underneath it. We traversed through dark, low passages with headlamp lit, me at the tail of the group. Eventually we made it to room that I could name before he did: A room of no return.
The gate ahead of us was known as the final path to the small ships carrying cargo, living and otherwise, to the larger ships in the bay. I can't describe the sense of dread I felt standing in this room completely. You didn't have to touch the walls, because the haunt of what happened there reached out to touch us instead.
There wasn't much talking going on among us, but it was one of those tense moments in a room where you know brains are heavy churning with the situation. I took a deep breath and looked out the gate. Kids play soccer on that beach now, a happier time in stark contrast to the centuries before it. I chuckled at the severe sense of irony and headed for the exit...the way we came of course.
The part where I scratch my head further in the history of the castle, comes after the Dutch eventually took the castle from the Portuguese. Up to this point the Dutch hadn't been involved in the Atlantic Slave Trade, but when they eventually seized Elmina from the Portuguese, the structures and the habits created there would continue. Two ounces of gold would be paid in tribute to the coastal African rulers for the trading done at Elmina throughout the slave trade years. But what of the other tribes? Surely they couldn't all believe in this state of slavery and trading.
To the north, a powerful tribe under the reign of the ruling Denkyira tribe responsible for trading with the Europeans on the coast, was preparing to reshape the face of present day Ghana. A warrior nation living among the shadows of the deep forest, controlling swathes of gold filled mountains. This tribe is known as the Ashanti.
The Ashanti Empire officially came into being in 1701. Before then in the mid 17th century, an Ashanti chief named Oti Akenten began to assemble a loose confederacy of leadership to oppose the Denkyira.
The capitol of the Ashanti lay in the city of Kumasi, and was the next location to visit on our short trip to the land of gold.
It was a strange feeling being there. Kumasi is my fathers hometown; the nexus of my people, and holder of a special accolade in my life as the furthest back in my life that I can remember.
We made our way through the legendary Kejetia Market, home to 10,000 stores, and boasting the title of largest market in West Africa. If you wanted something to remember Africa, you wouldn't find a better place in thousands of miles. *Update 2019 - I haven’t seen it in person yet, but a massive rebuilding of the market is nearly completed. Consider that at the top of my list for the next visit.*
People ask if I was born here, but I was born in California: My dad decided to take my mother and I along on a trip to the motherland when I was a wee 80's baby, about 2 or 3 at the time. Mom likes to remind me of how bad she freaked out when me, the traversing toddler, ran away for the day with some local children.
Some neighborhood kids and I fled the compound of my father's childhood home and into the marketplace scene. All the while my mom comes to learn of my expedition while getting her hair done. My father was out delivering gifts and money to the family in different cities, as is customary for the children of the empire who found success outside its bounds.
She jumped up from here chair, but family immediately assured her that "absolutely no harm will come to him. He is a smart boy and with safe people running around." Obviously her heart attack didn't end until I showed up hours later with a plethora of stories.
I had talked to people in bright colors, I saw a Fanta vending machine for the first time, I told her about how cool it was to see the lizards run up the walls, and I'd even seen a goat lose its head at the butcher shop. Sometimes I feel like I can spell the same spices in the air from that day.
The more time I spent here in Ghana, the more I understood the way I face the world the way I have for so long. We are a strong tribe with warrior roots and respected talent in social structure that still remain from the founding days.
The Ashanti are a matrilineal society, with many powers and territory being passed down through the women of our society. There have been female rulers as well, the most famous being Yaa Asantewaa. She led a rebellion against the British starting in 1900, and was responsible for keeping much of the empire alive when many of its members were captured and sent to Seychelles. I've always found it important to lift up the women in society who fight for a better society. Without them, no empire can grow.
We stayed in Kumasi for a day and a half, and as we visited the landmarks and museums, ate at the places my father used to eat, and walk the streets he used to walk. I can't find another way to describe it to you other than it felt like another home. It was that straightforward.
Brick walkways. Bright colors. A bustling marketplace with thousands of stories. It felt like you were a part of the community no matter how quiet of a corner you found. Graffiti was rare, and instead you normally found ornate stone painted scenes along city walls, mixed into the urban sprawl of the Kumasi streets.
It became normal to see superb feats everywhere you looked, whether it be someone balancing seeming impossible amounts of cargo on their head on the roads in between markets, or babies strapped fearlessly to their mother's back, who holds on to dad, while riding on a motorcycle as a family of three.
It was perfectly normal to see a group of kids performing acrobatics and parlor tricks on the beaches facing the warm Atlantic. Star beer was plentiful, and came in to price at under a dollar US for a pint. Relaxing and rejoicing are things we've learned to do well in the calmer years of the empire it would seem.
In my travels with my family through Ghana I admit, it found it hard to relax a good amount of the time. People ask me if it felt like a vacation, and in some ways it was. It had the ingredients to one anyhow: friendly people, beautiful weather, inspiring architecture and craftsmanship to behold, amazing food, and no shortage of history-mystery for the those looking to know the inner workings of Ghanaian society. I was home.
Every day, bright and early (for better or worse) we rose to the occasion of the day. Some days it was a trek into the heart of a jungle, other days it took us to a beach coupled with the warm wind of where the Atlantic wind is warmed by the Equator not far away.
The air in Ghana is a different type of tropical paradise, and I genuinely agree when I read about Ghana being one of the most beautiful places to visit in Africa. Every day brought staple seafood and starches to the belly, spices supreme on red snapper, and even a can of Coca Cola with my Cousins name on it with my chicken.
I rode on big brown boats to Bojo Beach to have beers with my little brother. We ate overpriced lobster just to say that we did it.
We collected bottle caps and made poorly timed Fallout jokes. We learned how to negotiate in the marketplace, and throw on the local accent to get out of awkward non-sales.
Walking through the marketplace of the Centre for National Culture, you can find gifts and trinkets for sale in just about every genre of collectible. If you have time to come back the next day, I highly recommend having something custom made from wood, and polished to your liking.
If you’re lucky, you’ll run into one of the primary proprietors of the market, who asked I code name him “The Boxer”.
After placing an order for a customized speaker’s staff in the market, I made my way a few blocks west. Walking through the polished marble walls, you’re greeted to the horn bearing heralds lining the path to the tomb of Kwame Nkrumah; Ghana’s first president.
Known for leading what was formerly known as the Gold Coast to independence from the British in 1957. The road to his victory was mired in international espionage, sabotage, and an eventual coup by civil opposition. His political clout ran among the highest ranks in the world; JFK a close friend, dancing with Queen Elizabeth, winning the Lenin Peace Prize in 1962, and existing as a founding member of the OAU. If you really share an interest in learning at the efforts made to decolonize Ghana, and find out how best to see where it’s headed next, studying Nkrumah may be your gateway to putting the pieces together.
400 years after slavery, what new independence do we find these days as children of the diaspora? What can we bring home to help shape the future? To me, it seems like our minds are the most free concept to have developed in the years of blood of so many empires has been away.
I’m proud of the legacy of my people, and the history of our collaboration around the world to work toward a better future. All we can hope for is the chance to build on top of what we’ve seen, both good an bad. Crossing aisles and oceans can be done for positive in the motherland, and I reflect on an idea my father once told me: there are good and bad people in the world, but you must learn how to communicate with them both to make the future.
As always, I hope a plethora of houses, both Ashanti and no, can walk together in brightly lit days on the road ahead. To the Ashanti delegation, my family hasn’t forgotten what we set out to do, and we will carry the torch of knowledge around the world for another millennia.
One day soon, I’ll walk through the northern forests again, feeling the spirits of the past lay a hand on my shadow, causing pause and pondering on our future.
-John Kwaku Duah II