The Akan comprise a cluster of peoples living in southern and central Ghana and in southeastern Ivory Coast. They form a series of distinct kingdoms and share a common language, known as Twi, which has many dialects. Twi is a tonal language and, since missionary work during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, has been written in Roman script.
The total Akan population numbers some five or six million. The main constituent kingdoms include Akyem, Akwamu, Akuapem, and Kwahu; the Anyi cluster of some fifteen kingdoms; Asante (with Ahanta and Wasa); the Attie cluster of four kingdoms; the Baule cluster of some seven kingdoms; Brong; and the several Fante states.
The long, complex history of the Akan peoples is one of internecine conflicts and, since the eighteenth century, of opposition to the encroachment of various colonial powers: the Dutch, Portuguese, Danish, French, and English. In addition, there have been continual threats from the Islamic peoples of the southern Saharan fringe. Essentially all these conflicts have been over monopolies in trade, first across the Sahara with northern Africa and, in later centuries, across the Atlantic with the countries of Europe and the Americas.
It appears certain that there were early cultural and commercial links with the empires of the southern Sahara, the latter consisting mainly of the exchange of gold from the Akan region for salt and other commodities from the Sahara. Many of the cultural traits of the Akan indicate that their kingdoms may, in many cases, be considered successor-states to ancient Ghana and Mali. Also evident are many cultural similarities with forest peoples to their east, such as the Fon, Yoruba, and Edo, although these must have developed many centuries ago.
Economy and Settlement
The Akan are almost all forest dwellers; the exceptions are a few outlying groups northward in the savanna and eastward in the hills and valley of the Volta River.
The basic crops are forest root plants (including yams, cocoyams, sweet potatoes, plantains) and trees (including oilpalm, many other palms, and cocoa). In many areas, minerals—especially gold and bauxite—have been and remain important. Some Akan kingdoms have lacked gold sources, their political weakness reflecting the lack of this valuable trade commodity. Livestock have never been of great importance, but in some areas hunting has been so until the late twentieth century. For most of the Akan kingdoms, trade—mainly in gold—has been a crucial resource. Weaving in cotton and silk is of a technically and aesthetically high order, and much commerce is built around it. Wood carvings have also become a valuable commodity, especially with the rise of the tourist trade in the late twentieth century.
The basic Akan pattern of settlement is extremely variable but, in the main, is one of towns each centered on the palace of its chief. Attached to these towns, but away from them in less densely inhabited land, are villages and farms, some large and long-lasting and others little more than clusters of the houses of single small families. The houses in the larger towns, constructed of materials that can last for several years before they crumble, are set along permanent roads. The dwellings in the villages are made of less durable materials and are typically arranged with no plan and no clearly marked center, being merely clusters of the houses of kin.
Men and women share in labor, but both may own farms and houses and both may provide the labor for them. In former times, until the end of the nineteenth century, much or most farm labor was supplied by various forms of servile persons: slaves, pawns, and many categories of "servant." Today different types of sharecropping and labor hired for cash are the most prevalent, although domestic peonage is still common.
Kinship, Family, and Marriage
All Akan groups recognize matrilineal descent. The basic group is the clan, of which there are eight; they are dispersed among the many kingdoms. Members of a subclan tend to occupy a single town or village. The clan is an exogamous group. It is comprised of constituent groups that may be referred to as lineages, but these do not form any kind of segmentary lineage system, lineages being attached to others by propinquity and the power and wealth of the host lineage. Although there has been much confusion in accounts of the Akan peoples between matriliny and matriarchy, authority within clans and lineages is held firmly by men, succession being from a man to his brother or to his closest sister's son.
Marriage is expected to be exogamous, and is extremely simple. There is no bride-wealth, the union being effected by the transfer of rum or other drink and some money from the groom to the bride's immediate family. Divorce is extremely easy and may be initiated by either men or women. The most usual causes are adultery and the barrenness of wives.
Legitimacy is important both for inheritance and to define a person as having, or not having, slave ancestry. It demands not only a proper marriage, however short-lasting, but also a recognized pater: he gives the child his own spiritual identity and his or her name; he admits his responsibility for the child's education, and he has the expectation that the child will carry out the father's funerary rites.
A child inherits his or her blood from the mother, and character or temperament from the father. Maternal blood ensures the child's membership in the abusua (clan or lineage); paternity bestows membership in one of nine other groups or categories. Although some accounts claim the Akan descent system is one of double descent, this view appears to be based on a misreading of the actual roles of the two lines of descent.
Despite being jurally matrilineal, inheritance is to some extent divided between sister's children and a man's own children. The basic principle is that lineage-inherited property goes to sisters' children, and property acquired with the help of a man's wife and children is distributed among the latter at his death.
The Akan practiced slavery, obtaining slaves from northern slave dealers, usually Muslims. War captives, criminals, persons who opposed local chiefs, and many local ritual leaders were also enslaved. Slaves were used for domestic and field labor, for sale to traders across the Sahara and across the Atlantic, and as sacrifices to royal and other ancestors. In the middle of the nineteenth century, slaves amounted to half of the population in many towns.
The several Akan peoples each consist of a single kingdom ruled by a king, omanhene (lit., "state-chief "). The king comes from whatever clan provides the royal line in a particular kingdom, and is chosen in rotation from one of this clan's kingly lineages (there are often other, nonkingly, lineages within a royal clan). He is elected by various officials, of which the most important is the ohemmaa (or similar terms; lit. "woman-chief" and usually translated in the literature as "queen-mother") although she is typically not the actual mother but a senior woman of the clan, who "knows" genealogy and may have her own court and be assisted by various officials. Criteria for the selection of a king include assumed competence, general personality, and the fact that kingly lines usually rotate in providing the king. Once selected, the king is "enstooled"—that is, seated upon the stool of kingship. His former status is annulled symbolically, his debts and lawsuits are settled, his clothing and personal possessions stored; he is then symbolically reborn and given the identity of one of his forebears. He assumes the royal name and title borne by that previous ruler.
A king has his palace, in which work members of his court. Details vary considerably, but, in general, the royal officials comprise several categories: those from the royal clan itself; those representing the remainder of the people; and ritual officials, drummers, and others who were considered the "children" of the king, being recruited from many sources, including royal slaves, and often observing patrilineal descent.
The king is a sacred person. He may not be observed eating or drinking and may not be heard to speak nor be spoken to publicly (speaking only through a spokesman or "linguist," okyeame ). He is covered from the sky by a royal umbrella, avoids contact with the earth by wearing royal sandals, and wears insignia of gold and elaborate and beautiful cloth of royal design. In the past, an Akan king held power over the life and death of his subjects and slaves. These powers were eroded during colonial rule, but today an Akan king remains extremely powerful, representing his people both politically and ritually and acting as a focus for the identity of his kingdom. By far the most powerful is the king of Asante, who has the largest of all the Akan kingdoms, the Asantehene at Kumasi.
Warfare has historically been a central institution, a means of extending of territory and controlling external trade. An Akan state is typically divided into five or six military formations or "wings," each under the authority of a wing chief. Beneath the wing chiefs, who are chosen by the king, are the chiefs of the main towns of a kingdom. The latter are from the town's ruling line.
Indigenous Akan religion is based upon the worship of a High God, various spirits or deities, and ancestors. The High God—known as Onyame, Onyankopon, and by other names—is the Creator, now otiose; he is accompanied by Asase Yaa, the goddess of the earth. The ancestors live in the land of the dead and may demand offerings, in the past including those of slaves. The royal ancestors are at the heart of the ritual protection of a kingdom. They are "fed" at shrines in the form of blackened stools of wood and kept in the "stool rooms" in palaces and houses. Traditionally, the stools were anointed with human blood, gunpowder, and spider webs, and given alcoholic drink; human sacrifices are no longer made. Spirits or deities are many, and the living can communicate with them through prayer, sacrifice, and possession. Each has its own oso/o, or priest; an okomfo is a living spirit medium who interprets the words of a spirit who is consulted to remove sickness and human disasters. Each kingdom and town has, or had in past years, an annual purification ritual, known as odwira, in which the king, the office of kingship, the kingdom, and the town are purified of the pollution of the preceding year; this is often known in the literature as a "yam festival."
The Akan have largely been Christian since the nineteenth century, except for most kings, who have had to retain their indigenous religious status and practices. European Christian missions were highly successful, bringing not only Christianity but also education, and most Akan have been literate for a long time. Islam has a long history among the Akan, having been introduced by early traders from the north. Royalty made use of Muslim scribes for court duties. The Akan have a long history of "prophets" of many kinds—Christian, Muslim, and "heathen"—and of separatist Christian movements. All these various forms of religious belief and activity exist side by side, and most people have recourse to all of them, according to their particular needs and wishes.
Rattray, R. S. (1923). Ashanti. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Rattray, R. S. (1927). Religion and Art in Ashanti. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Rattray, R. S. (1929). Ashanti Law and Constitution. Oxford: Clarendon Press.