views updated May 11 2018


ALTERNATE NAMES: Eibe, Ebwe, Ehwe, Efe, Eve, Eue, Gbe, Vhe, Krepe, Krepi, Popo
LOCATION: Ghana, Togo, Benin
POPULATION: 3.1 million people
DIALECTS: Anglo (Anlo, Awlan), Awuna, Hudu, Kotafoa, Adan, Agu, Aveno, Be, Gbin, Ho, Kpelen, Togo, Vlin, Vo.
RELIGION: Christian and traditional religion


The Ewe are a people found primarily in three countries of West Africa, namely Ghana, Togo, and Benin. They are concentrated in southeastern Ghana east of the Volta River, in southern Togo and the southwestern portion of Benin. They are a collection of a group of people who speak Ewe as the main language, but with different dialects. Each group is also known by a different name, such as Anglo (Anlo, Awlan), Awuna, Hudu, Kotafoa, Adan, Agu, Aveno, Be, Gbin, Ho, Kpelen, Togo, Vlin, Vo, and so on. Other slightly different cultures that are closely related to the Ewe include the Adja, Oatchi, Peda, and Fon. Even though these other groups speak languages that are incomprehensible to Ewe, they are considered to be part of the Ewe cultural group.

Although the Ewe people are said to have originated from present-day southern Togo in the Tado region, it is thought that the original group of Ewe migrated south from Nigeria to their present area at some time in the 13th century. The Adja Kingdom of Tado in southern Togo, situated along the Mono River, is an area that has been constantly populated since prehistory and is well known for its metalworking and other crafts. Most Adja people today still live in and around Tado. The Ewe and Fon are considered to be the descendants of the Adja people who migrated from Tado and intermarried with other groups as they moved in different directions towards southeastern Ghana and Benin.

In the 18th century, as Europeans began to explore West Africa, the Ewe came into contact with this new group, who instituted a new type of trade: slavery. The Ewe homeland was strategically located for the Atlantic slave trade. The Dutch, English, and the Danes all traded in slaves from this region, making it a center for the Atlantic slave trade. Some Ewe groups were middlemen in capturing other unfortunate ethnic groups, including some of their own, to be sold into slavery to the Europeans, who transported them to the New World in North America. Once slavery came to an end, the Ewe people fell under British colonial rule in Ghana and German rule in Togoland, on the Togolese side. When the Germans lost World War I, Togoland was given over to the French as a protectorate. Thus, the Ewe people, as is the case in most African countries, find themselves split into two: the Ewe of Ghana and the Ewe of Togo. The Ewe people of Ghana are aligned with the British while those of Togo are aligned with the French.


As noted above, the Ewe people are located in three different countries, with the majority found in Ghana and Togo and a few in Benin. They are located between the Volta River in Ghana and the Mono River (to the east) in Togo. The Atlantic Ocean forms the southern boundary. The northern boundary is just past Ho in Ghana and Danyi on the western Togolese border all the way to Tado on the eastern Togolese border. The Fon and other related ethnic groups are concentrated in the southeastern part of Benin. As such, extended families may find themselves in two different countries.

In terms of climate and geography, the Ewe homeland has several distinct features as one moves from the coast into the interior of these three countries. The coastal zone is generally flat with many palm trees, from which palm oil and palm wine are obtained. Immediately inland there is swampland, lagoons, and small lakes, which provide much needed aquatic resources, such as fish. Immediately after this zone of lagoons there is a rolling plain, characterized by red lateritic and sandy soils, followed by the forest zone at an elevation of about 700 meters above sea level. Temperatures are quite high along the coastal zone as well as inland, ranging from 20–35°c (68–95°F) throughout the year. There are mainly two seasons: the dry and rainy season. The dry season runs through November to March while April through May and September through October are characterized by heavy rains.


The language of the Ewe people is also known by the name Ewe. It is a Niger-Congo language spoken in Ghana, Togo, and Benin by approximately five million people. It is a national language in Togo and Ghana. Ewe is an umbrella term of a collection of dialects and/or related languages referred to as Gbe languages, which are spoken from the eastern portion of Ghana all the way to the western part of Nigeria. In addition to Ewe, Fon and Aja are two other principal languages of the Gbe cluster. There is no question that the Ewe, Adja, Guin, and Fon languages are very closely related, all originating centuries ago with the people of the royal city of Tado. Numerous dialects exist inside the family of Ewe proper, such as Anlo, Kpelle, Danyi, and Be. Adja dialects include Tado, Hweno, and Dogbo. Fon, the language of the Kingdom of Dahomey, includes the Abomey, Xweda, and Wemenu dialects.

In linguistic terms, Ewe is a tone language much like other Gbe languages. When the first missionaries came to Ewe homeland during the 18th century, they transformed Ewe into a written language, using the Latin alphabet with some extra letters derived from the International Phonetic Alphabet to represent certain sounds. In terms of tone and nasalization, an n is placed after vowels. Tone is generally unmarked, except in some common cases, which require disambiguation, e.g. the first person plural pronoun mí, “we,” is marked high to distinguish it from the second person plural mi, “you,” and the second person singular pronoun wò, “you” is marked low to distinguish it from the third person plural pronoun wo, “they/them.”


Ewe culture and tradition is rich in folklore, poetry, myths, and songs. The Ewe groups in present day Ghana note of their escape from their original homeland in Togo to establish themselves in their present location. The escape, which happened in the 15th century, is commemorated in an annual festival known as the Hogbetsotso Za. Today, many of the stories told in folklore recite the impact of the Atlantic slave trade on their society. The frequent raids for slaves by European slave traders, who would navigate their ships easily to the shores of the ocean for their human cargos, left an indelible mark on the memory of the Ewe people. Thus, oral tradition, such as folklore, myths, and songs, recant the loss of entire settlement populations.

Folklore and poems teach society about the virtues of valor, hard work, and a common purpose and destiny. For example, a poet or storyteller might refer to the leopard, an animal used throughout Africa to symbolize skill, cunning, and physical strength. It may also be used to indicate royal, political, and spiritual power. Another story talks of the headless crab, a narrative that establishes the crab's origin and its moral significance for the present. Narrated to children, it is a caution-ary story that suggests to the children the need to know how to manage relationships with friends. The story of the jealous twins shows the perils of competition within the family and, more specifically, betrayal among brothers. It explores the contradiction inherent to peer-relationships in the family. Siblings from the same mother/parentage (here epitomized by twins) are expected to feel the strongest bond and to take care of each other and their family, but at the same time, each brother has to assert himself individually.

Other stories use the omnipresent kente textile, a specialty weaving skill of the Ewe people. Furthermore, names of settlements in Ewe folklore might refer to the rich natural resource base and beauty of the landscape in the Ewe homeland. For example, Keta, one of the early settlements of the Ewe in Ghana, means “the head of the sand,” referring to the fertile, sandy soils around the settlement. Denu, which means “the beginning of palm trees,” is an important plant that provides palm oil and palm wine.


In their traditional religion, the Ewe believe in the existence of a supreme being called Mawu, who created everything in the world. Associated with the sky, Mawu is remote from the daily affairs of man, leaving that to lesser deities. For example, one of the lesser gods is Torgbi-nyigbla, the head of the nature gods (tro) associated with war and thunder. They also practice Afa divination and the Legba cult, which include deities such as dulegba (settlement protector) and alegba (individual protective deity). There are other deities who come from outside Eweland, such as vodu and dzo (amulets). More importantly, the Ewe people denote Se as the word for law, order, and harmony, and see the deity Se as the maker and keeper of human souls. Se is also considered to embody destiny.

As noted earlier, Eweland was at the heart of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, in which thousands of Ewe and Fon people were taken to the New World. The slaves took many aspects of their religion with them, so much so that they have transformed Catholicism to reflect this heritage. For example, aspects of Fon and Ewe religion are imbedded in Christian cults in Haiti, Brazil, Cuba, and Jamaica, where voodoo (vodoun) and the cult of Shango are practiced, just to mention a couple of examples. In Eweland itself, the arrival of Christian missionaries introduced a new religion: Christianity. Today, the majority of Ewe people declare themselves to be Christian, although most Ewe are concurrently involved in both Christian and traditional religious practices.


In addition to national and/or Christian holidays, the Ewe people have had their own traditional holidays, some of which are still observed today. Examples of these holidays include the Yam Festival, their own New Year celebration that falls in September, and other remembrance days for the dead. The annual festival of Hogbetsotso Za commemorates the day the Ewe fled from their homeland in Togo because of the harsh rule they endured at the hand of one of the kings. Government sanctioned national holidays in Ghana include January 1 (New Year's Day), March 6 (Independence Day), May 1 (Workers' Day), July 1 (Republic Day), December 25 (Christmas Day), and December 26 (Boxing Day). There are other Christian and Muslim holidays that are also observed by the adherents of each religion.


Many African cultures have initiation ceremonies that mark the rite of passage into adulthood. The Ewe people are no exception in this regard. Among the Ewe, initiation ceremonies for men and women or boys and girls are in line with their beliefs in a supreme being and lesser deities. Boys are circumcised and named on the seventh day after birth, while infant girls are named and welcomed into society by having their ears pierced on the seventh day after birth. Men and women are initiated into the many traditional cults (the most famous of which is voodoo or vodoun) as members or as priests and priestesses of the many deities in Ewe religion. Some individuals are initiated into the various guilds, for example, the weaver's guild.

The pantheon of lesser deities in Ewe religion includes Yewe, Afa, Eda, Nana, and Mamiwota, with the first two as the most popular. Individuals are also initiated into a specific cult under a specific deity, to whom they will then direct their worship. If one is initiated under Yewe (the god of thunder and lightning), that individual is given a new Yewe name, and the old name is discarded and can never be used again. However, those who pledge their allegiance to Afa (the god of divination) keep their original names after being initiated into the Afa cult. Music and dance are at the heart of all the initiation ceremonies, with much jubilation and festivities at the end of the initiation. Some of the initiation rituals of Ewe cults are elaborate and extremely painful. For example, an initiate into the voodoo cult can be isolated for a minimum of two months and a maximum of nine months. The initiate is sequestered in an initiation hut, where he or she remains physically, socially, and psychologically isolated from the community at large. During the period of seclusion, they learn the culture of their cult, including its songs and dances while speaking only the language of the cult. Scarification is another aspect of the initiation process, where detailed cuts are made on the initiate's back, as well as on the forehead and cheeks.

There are several ways in which an individual can be selected for initiation into some of these cults. In many instances, young females are given to the cult by their families. Should an individual be unwilling to be initiated, she can forcibly be abducted into the cult as directed by the deities and/or spirits of the dead. The view is that the young female initiate is an incarnation of a deceased member of the cult. Women have also been abducted into the cult as a result of transgressions committed against the cult, such as breaking into a cult house or insulting a cult member. Often these cases are resolved through the payment of a fine, but if the person is unable to pay the fine, the cult will sometimes forcibly take the person into the cult. Sometimes individuals are initiated into the cult when they fall ill and are diagnosed as “wanted by the cult.” In order to cure the sickness, the person must submit himself or herself to the cult.


Interpersonal relations are an important aspect of Ewe society. These are geared toward maintaining a level of communal solidarity and general stability in the village. Conflicts, although sometimes violent, can be resolved peacefully between two feuding groups without the intervention of a third party. Dance and drumming are seen as the fabric that ties the community together in the pursuit of a collective destiny and in the essence of their shared experience. Every member of society is expected to participate in the dance and drumming. Those who refuse to participate in the festivities of music and dance are viewed as excommunicating themselves from society. Punishment of such noncompliance behavior may come in the form of denial for a proper burial.


Ewe people live mostly in villages and towns and survive on subsistence agriculture and trading activities. Many of the houses are built of mud bricks in a rectangular fashion with grass-thatched walls and roofs. Some houses are built of concrete brick with corrugated iron sheets for roofing material. Along the coastal zone there are numerous huts built of palm-fronds, with grass or palm-thatch for the roofs. Members of an extended family often live in one compound with a cluster of huts surrounded by a mud wall or palm-frond fence. In both Ghana and Togo, some Ewe people live in large towns and cities, such as Tema and Aflao in Ghana and Lome, Kpalime, and Tsévié in Togo. In rural areas, a large village may have a central market, where on certain designated days people from surrounding settlements may come to trade agricultural produce and other goods.


The Ewe people follow the patrilineal system of tracing descent. Members of a clan can trace their descent to a male ancestor. Furthermore, clans can be divided into lineages that are branches in which individuals can trace their descent back to a common male ancestor. Each lineage is led by a male head, who is usually the oldest surviving member of the group. He is in charge of the lineage and its affairs, often having a final say in all decisions and settling any disputes that might arise among the members of the lineage. He is also responsible for the maintenance of ancestral shrines, often acting as the chief priest for the lineage with duties of leading ceremonies, acting as the link between the living and the dead, pouring libations and lifting prayers to the ancestors, and managing common property for the benefit of all members.

The nuclear family, composed of husband, wife, and children, is an integral part of the Ewe lineage even though it is the smallest part. Marriage is considered to be an extended family affair rather than simply between man and woman. Polygamy, the act of a man marrying several wives, is also allowed, although many men prefer to have only one wife. Elders are given a lot of respect and power in Ewe culture, so much so that sons, even when married and occupying the position of head of their respective households, are expected to abide by the decrees of their fathers.


The Ewe people are master weavers of the cloths known worldwide as kente. The Ewe have a long history of weaving Kente cloth and legend has it that in the Asante wars against the Kpetoe area, weavers were captured who as prisoners of war taught the Asante how to weave. On the other hand the As-ante people have their own legend that holds that they learned weaving from a spider.

Kente is the main form of clothing for the Ewe. It can be made into dresses for women or shirts and pants for men. The chiefs often wrap themselves in a large and beautifully embroidered kente cloth. In modern times, Ewe weavers make kente cloth primarily for sale through markets drawing buyers from all over Ghana and surrounding countries. Some of their cloth finds its way to markets in North America and Europe.

Ewe weavers utilize the narrow-strip loom, similar to that used by the Asante, which serves as evidence of mutual influence between the weavers of the two groups. One distinctive type of Ewe cloth features a rich variety of weft float inlaid pictures (in a zig-zag pattern across the width of the fabric) on a cotton background. Often a rich variety of objects, ranging from animals such as cows, sheep, and horses to human figures, ceremonial stools, hats, trees, and flowers, and household objects such as dining forks, are depicted on these cloths.


Among the Ewe, forest crops, such as plantain, cassava, cocoyam, and tropical yams, form the basis of the staple food. The starchy foods are pounded into flour to make the staple akple, a thick porridge that is taken with okra soup or stew made of common vegetables and some animal protein, such as fish, chicken, and goat meat with palm oil and hot peppers. Palm nut and peanut soups are considered a delicacy. Corn is increasingly becoming an important food crop among the Ewe. In urban areas, rice and bread have become the foods of choice for those who can afford them. Palm wine made from the fermented sap of the oil palm is the preferred drink among the Ewe while those who reside in urban areas feast on bottled European-style beer.


In traditional Ewe society, children are socialized according to the customs and culture of the Ewe as they grow up. The cultural emphasis is on community and individual destiny as dictated by the gods and the spirits. Moral values through stories, myths, and legends are inculcated in the children by storytellers. The arrival of the German missionaries in the 1840s, and later the British and French, added a new layer of modern education among the Ewe. Over the years, Western education has been well entrenched in Ewe society with over 60% of eligible school aged children attending schools from primary through secondary school education to college or university level.

Today, Ewe people are among the highest educated groups in both Ghana and Togo. They consider themselves to be the human resource basket of these countries providing intellectual material at the University level as well as white collar jobs in the civil and private sectors of the economy. In addition to obtaining a modern education, many are naturally gifted in handicrafts, such as tinsmithing, iron smelting, building and construction, carpentry and joinery, weaving kente textiles, and so on. They also pride themselves on their music and for adhering to certain core values, such as honesty and hard work. These skills are a testament to their high levels of attainment of a modern and western oriented education with literacy rates of as high as 60% of the population with the ability to read and write a language.


Music and dance is one of the most enduring aspects of Ewe cultural heritage. The Ewe express their emotions through songs, drumming, and dancing. Songs are an integral part of funerals, festivals, weddings, storytelling, and other happy or sad occasions. When women are pounding yams or cassava into flour to make fufu (a hard porridge), they will often sing songs. Fishermen pull their nets with music and farmers will sing while tending to their gardens. Weaving of kente cloth is also an important aspect of Ewe culture that dates back to their origins in this region.


Ewe who still reside in rural areas or on the coast and the many lagoons immediately after the Atlantic Ocean still practice a subsistence form of livelihood. Many are still peasant farmers who cultivate crops such as corn, cassava, and yams with some livestock, such as goats and chickens. Those on the coast and in the inland lagoons and lakes engage in artisanal fishing. There is also a great deal of trading that goes on in rural areas largely carried out by women. The highly educated Ewe residing in the big towns and cities, such as Accra and Lome, are employed in the modern as well as the informal economy.


One of the most enduring sports in traditional Ewe society was wrestling between men. In the modern era, soccer has become the premier sports for the peoples of Ghana, in addition to other European introduced sports, such as tennis, cricket, and basketball.


To pass time, the Ewe people devised all kinds of activities, which included an assortment of games, dances, and music. The games were and still are enacted with songs, which make them interesting and enjoyable. Many of these games are done during a full moon at night.


Ewe people have a long-standing tradition of arts and crafts. The most important is the weaving of kente cloth, mostly done by men. Pottery is another craft that is done by women. The beautiful pots are used for storing water and cooking purposes. They also have the tradition of iron smelting and smithing to produce various implements.


Social problems among the Ewe are similar to the ones prevalent throughout Ghana. Although the government established the Ministry of Women and Children's Affairs to promote the welfare and rights of children and protect them from defilement, incest, underage marriage, and sexual abuse against minors, violations of these rights continue to take place throughout the Ewe region in Ghana and Togo. The most widespread problem is the use of child labor. Children are used in market centers, for fishing, stone quarrying, and food vending. Female child laborers are particularly vulnerable, as they are sometimes forced into prostitution or are sexually exploited. Underage and forced marriage for girls continues to be a main human rights abuse in some parts of Ghana. HIV/AIDS is another intractable problem for the country of Ghana as a whole in spite of the fact that HIV/AIDS rates have stabilized at 2.7%.


Among the Ewe, traditional patriarchal views continue to hinder the advancement of women's rights. Traditional religion, culture, and marriage customs continue to reinforce the low status of women in Ewe society. Women are often denied the right to inherit property or land and many become destitute once the husband dies or once they are divorced. Early and forced marriages for girls are often justified by parents claiming that the girl had been promised to the man when she was young and that the man had spent money looking after her while she was growing up. Women also frequently experience domestic violence. The custom of trokosi among the Ewe puts young girls in a constant vulnerable position. Among the Ewe cult system young girls, usually virgins, are offered to shrines to atone for a crime committed by a family member. While in bondage, the girls become not only free labor, but also sex objects for the fetish priest. If the trokosi bears a child while enslaved, the child becomes the property of the shrine.


Avorgbedor, Daniel K. “Freedom to Sing, License to Insult: The Influence of Haló Performance on Social Violence Among the Anlo Ewe.” Oral Tradition 9/1 (1994): 83-112.

Awoonor, Kofi. Guardians of the Sacred Word: Ewe Poetry. New York: Nok Publishers, 1974.

Beckwith, Carol, and Angela Fisher. African Ceremonies. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1999.

Cottrell, Anna. Once Upon a Time in Ghana: Traditional Ewe Stories Retold in English. Leicester: Troubador, 2007.

Dennis, Ahiagble Bob. The Pride of Ewe Kente. Accra: Sub-Saharan Publishers, 2004.

Dzobo, N. K. African proverbs: guide to conduct : the moral value of Ewe proverbs. Cape Coast, Ghana: University of Cape Coast, Dept. of Education, 1973.

Greene, Sandra E. Gender, Ethnicity, and Social Change on the Upper Slave Coast: A History of the Anlo-Ewe. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1996.

Kwaku, Ken. “Tradition, Colonialism and Politics in Rural Ghana: Local Politics in Have, Volta Region.” Canadian Journal of African Studies / Revue Canadienne des études Africaines. 10, no. 1 (1976): 71-86.

Meyer, Birgit. Translating the Devil: Religion and Modernity among the Ewe in Ghana. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1999.

Rosenthal, Judy. Possession, Ecstasy, and Law in Ewe Voodoo. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998.

Steckle, J. The Effects of Industrialization on Food Consumption Patterns; A Study of Two Ewe Villages. Legon: Institute of Statistical, Social and Economic Research, University of Ghana, 1972.

Verdon, Michel. The Abutia Ewe of West Africa: A Chiefdom That Never Was. Berlin: Mouton Publishers, 1983.

—revised by E. Kalipeni


views updated May 11 2018

ewe OE. ēowu, corr. to OS. ewwi (MDu. oie, Du. ooi), OHG. ou(wi) (G. aue), ON. ær :- Gmc. *awi- (repr. in Goth. by awistr sheepfold, aweþi flock) :- IE. *owi-, repr. also by L. ovis, Gr. ó(F)is, OIr. ´i, OSl. ovĩca, Lith. avis, Skr. ávi- sheep.


views updated Jun 11 2018

ewe / yoō/ • n. a female sheep.