ETHNONYMS: Ga-Adangme, Adangbe
Identification and Location. Ga is the preferred name for the heterogeneous people of the Accra area who are closely related to the Adangme or Adangbe people to the northeast of Accra. The area is centered at approximately 2° W. longitude and 5° N. latitude. It is bounded on the west by the Densu River, on the east the Chemmu lagoon, on the south by the Atlantic Ocean, and on the north by the Akwapim hills. The topography is largely flat and relatively dry, averaging 25 inches (65 centimeters) of rainfall per year concentrated in one season. Unlike most of the rest of the West African coast, the Accra plains are savanna, marked by large termite mounds after which the city was named.
Demography. In 1993 the Ga population was estimated to be 300,000, centered in Accra.
Linguistic Affiliation. The Ga language is a western representative of the western Kwa subfamily of languages within the Niger-Congo family. It has a closer relationship to Yoruba in its tonality and cognates than to the immediately neighboring subfamily of Akan languages and an even closer relationship to its eastern neighbor, Ewe. Since English is the official language of Ghana and the Ga are a mixture of peoples concentrated in the capital who have had superior access to Western-style education, many first-language Ga speakers also know English, one or more of the Akan languages (Fante or Twi), and/or Ewe.
History and Cultural Relations
The Ga have lived in southern Ghana for more than a thousand years. They largely displaced or intermarried with the indigenous Kpeshi people, established their system of rotating slash-and-burn horticulture, and eventually adopted maize as a primary staple as opposed to the earlier millet. The date of the earliest settlement at Accra is not known, but that settlement was flourishing by the fifteenth century. Accra developed from a series of contiguous settlements formed at different times by different peoples who developed a coherent but flexible sense of Ga identity.
The growth of Accra was stimulated by the arrival of the Europeans, the first being the Portuguese, who built a small fort there in 1482. In the seventeenth century the English, Dutch, Swedes, and Danes established spheres of influence, entering into a preexisting coastal trade. Further growth came with the destruction of the original capital, Ayawaso, 2.1 miles (3.4 kilometers) northwest of Accra, by the Akwamu kingdom in 1677. After being in a tributary relationship with the Akwamu until 1730, Accra regained and largely maintained its independence until it was occupied by the British in 1874. By the beginning of the nineteenth century Accra had a population of approximately 7,500 to 10,000 and was well developed, with extensive interior and exterior trade connections. Merchants in Accra acted as middlepersons in the trade of slaves, gold, and other commodities between the Europeans and the Asante kingdom to the north. From the 1820s on European missionaries arrived in the area and had a substantial impact.
Ga ethnicity was constructed out of many strands because of the multiplicity of trade contacts, religious influences, founding ethnicities, and cross-cultural contacts fostered by intermarriage. A common saying at Asere is, "There is no such thing as a pure Ga." Not only were many European and inland African ethnicities represented in Accra over hundreds of years, but also the lateral coastal connections produced migrations of Brazilian, Sierra Leonean, and Nigerian families, who formed clans and assumed Ga identity.
Around the turn of the twentieth century Accra experienced a series of disasters, including famines, a fire in 1894, an earthquake in 1906, bubonic plague, and the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919, as well as continuous emigration of skilled laborers. A severe earthquake in 1939 destroyed much of Central Accra and gave added impetus to settle in new suburban settlements such as Kaneshie and Adabraka. When Accra became the West African headquarters for British military operations during World War II, its population increased, doubling in size between 1931 and 1948 to 135,000. The next burst of expansion was in the prosperous 1950s, when the population doubled to 388,000. Accra boomed as the capital of Ghana after independence in 1957, expanding to include far suburbs such as Nima. Central Accra, however, continued to be dominated by the Ga, many of whom had relatives living in the suburbs or receiving an education in the United Kingdom or the United States. Because of the confined space that inhibited expansion, the elderly amenities and construction, and the high population density in Central Accra, observers have long characterized Accra's area of core settlement as a slum, rivaled only by areas such as Nima that have borne the brunt of new immigration. However, the diversity of connections and its status as the historical home of most Ga clans, as well as the longevity of residence of much of its population, make Central Accra an area rich in tradition. It now sits in the heart of a sprawling urban complex of several million persons, many of whom are not Ga. However, many learn Ga and over the years and the centuries have become Ga.
The oldest area of settlement in Accra, now known as Central Accra, is composed of seven quarters, among which Asere, Abola, and Gbese are oldest and considered to be the most traditionally Ga. Otublohum originally was settled by people from Akwamu and Denkyera to the northwest. These four quarters make up Ussher Town, the area placed under Dutch jurisdiction in the seventeenth century. The other three quarters—Alata or Nleshi, Sempe, and Akanmadze—are said to be of later origin. Alata was settled by Nigerian workers imported to construct a European fort. These three quarters are commonly called James Town and formed the original area of British jurisdiction at Accra. Asere is by far the largest quarter in terms of population and area. All quarters have clan houses known as wekushia, the original homes of Ga patrilineages, and chiefs called mantsemei.
Houses in Central Accra are arranged roughly in blocks that were sometimes forcibly created by colonial government demolition. Most are one-story rectangular compounds with large courtyards in which most of the functions of daily living are carried out. Women's compounds are usually livelier with the presence of small children and chickens, and because cooking, laundry, and household production are carried out there; men's compounds may be somnolent in the noonday sun, their residents absent at various jobs. There are a few two-story houses with courtyards beside them. Adjoining compounds may share a boundary wall, but most are separated by narrow pathways. Rural houses are usually smaller and form small villages; most are rectangular and are roofed with metal sheets that have replaced the older thatch.
Subsistence. In the Accra area the horticultural activities of the Ga were changed substantially and permanently by increasing incorporation into the world capitalist economy that began in the fifteenth century. The move to the coast also brought about increasing involvement in fishing; men first fished off the beaches from canoes; beginning in the eighteenth century they started using nets, a skill taught to them by their Fante neighbors. The villages in Central Accra became fishing villages, with the women working as fish sellers.
Commerical Activities. After the advent of Western education men took up skilled occupations as artisans (carpenters, masons, tailors) or clerks trained in missionary schools. Men had wide opportunities for employment, often traveling upcountry or abroad to help construct colonial buildings, for instance. One such Ga mason, Tetteh Quashie, became famous when he returned from working on the island of Fernando Po in the late nineteenth century because he brought back cacao plant seedlings and began a plantation. This initiated the transition to dependence on cocoa as an export crop that marked the twentieth-century economic history of Gold Coast/Ghana. The fortunes of the Gold Coast colonial economy were tied to the cocoa production that was carried out largely in the Akan areas northwest of Accra. Accra profited once again from its intermediary role in trade. As time went on more Ga women gained access to Western education, especially after independence. Although unemployment is a big problem for Central Accra youth, few educated young people are interested in trade or fishing. An old apprenticeship system for both genders has mostly disappeared. Accra has also experienced some industrialization, with many men, in particular, being employed in small-scale manufacturing and a few large factories. Central Accra has become a refuge for the underemployed, while those who are better off live in the suburbs. Much farming disappeared with the building of suburbs on Ga land; commercial farming was never important in the twentieth century because of the low rainfall and relatively infertile soil. Commercial fishing is now an important industry with involvement by multinational corporations and the dominance of mechanized trawling, which has largely displaced canoe fishing. Imported or factory-manufactured products have displaced home manufactures such as cloth and soap.
Industrial Arts. Ga material culture and skills seem to have been less notable than those of their neighbors. Whereas the Ewe and the Asante are known for producing richly woven cloth; the Asante for brass gold weights, elaborately carved stools, and gold heraldic artifacts and jewelry; and the Ga-related Krobo/Shai for pottery, the Ga seem to have served more as transmitters of culture as traders. There was a woodcarving tradition that produced small household implements, and men also worked as blacksmiths. Basket making was a dying art in the 1940s. The relatively early exposure to missionary artisanal training may have displaced certain arts, while woodcarving would have been difficult because of the absence of large numbers of trees. Women's skills are mainly in the culinary areas of manufacturing beer and prepared foods of various kinds, most of which is quite labor-intensive and requires knowledge of elaborate methods.
Trade. Ga were heavily involved in trade in many commodities, including slaves, over a long period of time. As late as the early twentieth century a few slaves were still sold in or near Salaga Market in Central Accra. Women were traders as far back as at least the sixteenth century. Over time increasing numbers of women took up trade as an occupation, at first selling their own agricultural produce and then, as urban expansion took up more land, selling fish and imported goods or products of home manufacture such as soap, pottery, maize beer, and prepared foods. An important commodity was and continues to be kenkey, or komi, the Ga staple food, which is made of fermented steamed corn dough.
Division of Labor. Before the advent of Western education boys and girls were taught skills appropriate to their gender by older relatives of the same sex or in an apprenticeship system. Once trained, young people were supposed to do the more strenuous aspects of their occupation. Women did much of the farm labor, especially weeding and cultivating, while men cleared new land. Men fished, wove, and maintained nets. Women were and are the preeminent small-scale traders, relying on elaborate knowledge of contacts, profit margins, supply sources, and sales locations. Women as well as men bought and sold slaves. Some women became successful large-scale traders. Out of this activity came the rights of women to own and convey property without male permission.
Western-type education brought gendertyping into various occupations in accordance with missionary and colonial ideas of appropriate behavior. Less education was provided for girls both under colonialism and after independence in terms of availability of school space in a largely single-sex system, and girls' education often was confined to subjects suitable for the creation of Western-style housewives. The result is a stratified job and labor market in which women are largely confined to lower-paying and more labor-intensive occupations. Female enrolment in universities is usually around 15 to 20 percent of the student population. Ga men, because of early and greater exposure to educated skills and jobs commensurate with those skills in a growing city, have more often been able to take advantage of the benefits of literacy. However, in Central Accra unemployment and underemployment are a problem for both genders due to the weaknesses of a neocolonial economy and poverty that restricts the availability and quality of education.
Land Tenure. Land rights came initially through the high priests associated with the land as representatives of the original Guan inhabitants. These rights were usufructuary rather than absolute. People had a right to the products of the land that they cultivated or, in the case of elders, that their juniors cultivated for them. However, once allocated, land may have become private property that could be handed on to one's heirs. Today virtually all land is private property in Accra; it may belong to an individual or to a corporate lineage, but it can be disposed of according to the owners' wishes. Private land sales in Accra may have existed in the fifteenth century, encouraged by the population density. Twentieth-century land dealings became the subject of lengthy court battles as the value of the land rose, especially in central Accra. All the members of a lineage have use rights in its property, but the authority to determine its use lies mainly with the male elders. Income from rental property usually is divided into shares, with the largest share going to the senior lineage members. Some lineages keep the property together, while a few have dissolved the corporation and sold the land to their wealthier members.
Kin Groups and Descent. Ga society has always been in flux, influenced by groups that exploit indeterminacies and redefine rules or relationships to maximize their positions. The original seven quarters of Accra have mantsemei who are the heads of influential patrilineages that have land rights within the quarters. The patrilineages also have priests and priestesses who mediate relations with ancestors and family gods. Patrilineage members usually know the clan (we) or major lineage from which they come, which membership is now expressed in surname. Even if they have never lived in Central Accra, they know the quarter from which the clan came and perhaps the name of the eponymous ancestor who founded it and which house is the wekushia. Smaller nearby coastal towns such as Osu (now part of Accra), Teshie, and Labadi also serve as clan homes, with each clan having a unique surname that distinguishes it from the others and locates it spatially. At the yearly harvest festival, Homowo, which falls in August or early September depending on the clan, all members of a clan are supposed to return to their houses of origin, adeboshia. Before the Ga became widely dispersed, people from the villages came to visit for the duration of the festival, bringing gifts of food. Village clan affiliation was determined by the affiliation of the village's founder.
Patrifiliation is the dominant method of tracing descent in central Accra. Exceptions exist and are attributable to intermarriage with Akan or children's adoption by the mother's patrikin in the absence or unwillingness of a father to claim them. Matrilinearity sometimes exists among chiefly families, some of which derived from Akwamu. Villages west of Accra have more intermarriage with Fante and more matrifiliation as a result. In general, the older the settlement, the less matrifiliation is present.
Kinship Terminology. Terms of reference and address are by generation; all persons of the same gender in the same generation are considered to bear a similar relationship to each other. For instance, a woman's mother's mother's sister and her father's mother's sister are called Naa by her, just as her paternal and maternal grandmothers are. At the naming ceremony (outdooring ) eight days after the birth of a child the father gives the child a family name, patrilineally in accordance with sex, order of birth, and alternate generation. If the child's father refuses to name it, thus claiming it nowadays when bride-wealth is largely in abeyance, a male relative of the mother will usually do so and the child will belong to the mother's patrilineage. There is no stigma of illegitimacy involved so long as someone names the child, but the namer must be male. Each clan has its own set of names. Twins have a special set of names regardless of clan, as do the children who are born following the twins, but most names are clan-specific. Because the names in every other generation are recapitulated, there is a lot of repetition. Confusion is avoided by giving people nicknames, and many people now also have Christian baptismal or Islamic names. Thus, a man's name demonstrates to another person his clan affiliation and quarter of origin, gender, and birth order among his full brothers.
Marriage. Marriage is arguably a less important institution for Central Accra Ga than for many peoples due to the separate residence of spouses, a flexible divorce system with both men and women making multiple marriages, and the lack of a cooperative husband-wife economic unit within marriage, which has been exacerbated by contemporary developments.
Contemporary marriage among the poorer classes is signaled by a simple gift of drink. Spouses do not normally live together when in town. Economic cooperation is not a usual aspect of marriage, and spouses keep their property separate. The girls' puberty rite has vanished. Lineages have a reduced interest in keeping spouses together if no bride-wealth was paid, elders did not arrange the marriage, and the union did not have political importance. Christianity and Islam have affected the ceremonies performed through the evolution of syncretic forms. Marriages of wealthy or middle-class people often are accompanied by the accoutrements of Western middle-class marriages, but most couples do not socialize together or practice community of property.
Childbearing and childrearing are still an important function of marriage but marriage increasingly lacks ceremonial ratification. Divorce under customary law, as opposed to Western-imposed civil law, is informal, and the dominant pattern among women is serial monogamy. The most common reason for divorce is nonsupport of the children by the husband. Women are expected to support themselves and provide more child support than men do because of the high divorce rate in Central Accra. Polygyny, once a symbol of high status for a man and a generator of wealth for him through the production of his wives, is now uncommon, but many high-status men have what are called "outside wives," de facto second wives who are younger and more educated than first wives, similar to United States "trophy" wives. Intermarriage with non-Ga is increasingly common, especially among the highly educated; if a matrilineal Akan man marries a Ga woman, the children may be disinherited due to the conflict in inheritance customs.
Domestic Unit. Clan houses (wekushia) in Central Accra and other coastal towns were and continue to be residences for patrilineally related relatives but have developed a distinctive gender segregation that does not conform to any conventional anthropological term because people do not change residence at the time of marriage. Men usually live with their male patrilateral relatives, and women with their female matrilateral relatives. To perpetuate this pattern boys are sent to their fathers at some time between the ages of six and twelve; the fathers' compounds may be several kilometers from the mothers' but are usually closer. What began as a system of patrilineages with a male section and a female section has become effective segregation of the genders, with many men living in suburbs, leaving more women downtown. There are two types of residential groupings, with the most common being a multigenerational compound inhabited by a matrilaterally related group that includes mother, daughters, granddaughters, and sisters. Next in frequency is patrilateral groupings consisting of fathers or several brothers and their sons and grandsons. Because men are more likely to move out and begin neolocal conjugal households in the suburbs, Central Accra now has more female-headed households. Because mothers leave their residential rights to their coresident daughters, the daughters' rights become de facto only, since they do not belong to the original patrilineage that owned the compound. In the contemporary struggle over land ownership of ever more valuable property, those de facto rights have become more difficult to assert.
Many Central Accra Ga have variable residential choices available to them and take advantage of them in an opportunistic manner over a lifetime, joining various relatives at will or living in conjugal households, which dominate in rural areas. Each quarter has rural land that historically belonged to it, where its residents farmed. The mantsemei of the quarters still have ceremonial jurisdiction over those areas and play a role in the assignment of property usage.
Inheritance. Although descent is traced unilaterally, inheritance rights are more complex and have been affected by women's economic independence. In the past sons inherited from fathers, younger brothers from older brothers, and daughters from mothers, but the increasing individuation of property ownership and inheritance through the use of written wills has introduced more variation into an already flexible system. Part of the flexibility that remains regards the heir's obligation to contribute substantially to an individual's funeral. Paying for a funeral in a society where funerals are far more important than marriage in perpetuating lineages is regarded as creating an obligation such that the payer inherits a substantial portion of the deceased's estate. However, lineage property devolves according to corporate rules enforced by the mostly male elders and the courts of the mantsemei. The elders are more likely to bestow property on collateral relatives than on children, but emphasis is placed on the fulfillment of mutual obligations in making that decision. Women tend to leave self-acquired property to the daughters with whom they were in business or coresident. Because of the devolution of the residential system and the attenuation of some males' rights in lineage property as a result of nonresidence and because of the residence of women who are not patrilineage members on it, in some cases both men and women invest in private property elsewhere rather than improving property in which their legal rights are tenuous. Most people follow a cognatic pattern in leaving self-acquired property to children of both genders, but there is a lot of variation.
Socialization. The ideological separation between genders and the superior ranking of males are enforced by social conditioning. Being male is associated with everything good, straight, rational, and right as opposed to left, while women are thought to possess opposite and negative attributes. Men take precedence at all life cycle rituals. Boys and girls are encouraged to play in separate groups at different games and are expected to behave differently at a young age. Infants often are indulged, but older children may be punished harshly. Child abuse by both sexes is more common than spouse abuse, but neither is common. Girls are brought up by their mothers to take care of household responsibilities and are expected to mind younger siblings, while boys sent to their fathers are removed from much contact with young children and are not trained in domestic tasks, which are viewed as women's work. The labor value of girls militates against their completion of schooling in many cases, as does expulsion from school for pregnancy, a punishment not applied to boys who father children. Male dominance is apparent in the allotment of more space to boys, who are entitled to a room of their own in a compound, while girls are expected to share space with their sisters and/or children.
Social Organization. Before the rise of the mantsemei in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as war chiefs, supreme judicial authority rested with the priests of the Sakumo, Korle, and Nai lagoons, with each town having its own high priest, or wulomo. As in most preindustrial societies, there was little distinction between religious and secular authority. No divine objects are associated with the gods represented by the wulomei; they are responsible for interpreting to the people the wishes of the gods and for pouring weekly or daily libations. They have the final say in regard to what is right or wrong; for many Ga their authority remains influential though not absolute. They dress in pure white calico and are supposed to be free from any wrongdoing; uncircumcised men and menstruating women are not supposed to enter their compounds; anyone who enters is supposed to go barefoot. The wulomei command more respect than do the mantsemei, who are representatives of old secular authority. The mantsemei originally derived their authority from the wulomei, who delegated some of their secular duties to minor priests, the mantsemei, who then glorified their positions with the paraphernalia of Akan political authority, such as heraldry and parasols. During the colonial era the authority of the mantsemei was damaged by their ineffective leadership and sometimes cooperation with the colonial regime, as well as disunity and rivalries. In some cases involvement in corrupt land dealings has given all mantsemei a reputation for venality.
Political Organization. Each quarter has a mantse; their ranking relative to each other depends on many factors, including the antiquity of the position, the age and personality of the holder of the position, and the authority and perquisites delegated by the government. The British used the mantsemei as appointed authorities for the imposition of "indirect" rule, removing from them the right to impose capital punishment. The Abola Mantse was appointed paramount chief, or Ga Mantse, the "father of the Ga people," but that authority remains largely ceremonial.
Social Control. Colonial rule introduced to Gold Coast/Ghana a two-tiered legal system in which secular civil and criminal law following British custom was imposed for those who chose to use it and covered major financial and criminal matters. The authority of the mantsemei was reduced to dealing with minor crimes involving small sums of money or marital disputes, slander, and conflicts over clan land matters, with the latter being the source of most of their remaining power. British marriage law was introduced, which some educated persons used to make an "Ordinance" marriage, but the requirement for monogamy and for giving women an undisputed share of their husbands' estates was unpopular with many people. Most marriages in the early twenty-first century are governed by customary law or church requirements. Most family matters are handled by government social services, clan elders, or the chiefs' courts. Secular government courts handle most criminal cases, with chiefs serving in an advisory capacity on occasion. A High Court patterned on the U.S. Supreme Court is part of a supposedly independent judiciary.
Conflict. The decentralized Ga decision-making system seems to have prevented most large-scale conflict before colonialism. There were mock and sometimes real rivalries between quarters that were expressed in small-scale "battles" with few casualties, but clan elders settled most disputes, the most intractable of which were referred to the mantsemei or wulomei. Large-scale wars were fought with those who came from the north to seek dominance in the European trade. The Ga united across quarters to pursue this warfare, sometimes successfully. The British conquest was gradual more than violent, a matter of increasing influence fostered by the Gas' desire to protect themselves from those living inland. Organized street violence is rare in Central Accra, but political demonstrations are common at election time.
Religion and Expressive Culture
Religious Beliefs. In the indigenous religion a dzemawon, or spirit, is a powerful intelligence that is omnipotent, omniscient, and largely unseen. Some are associated with places. They normally manifest themselves in an anthropomorphic form and can change shape at will. Humans who invade sacred space will die from horror if they see one. However, most dzemawon are beneficent and do not punish those who see them accidentally. In each quarter or town there are many dzemawodzi associated with sacred locations. There are also spirits associated with different immigrant groups, including war gods brought by Akan immigrants. Spirits are worshiped with singing and dancing called kple. The language used is no longer understood by the performers. Every god has a wulomo. More important gods have houses or groves dedicated to them.
Christianity gained many converts in Accra in the mid-nineteenth century, but from the beginning the Ga exhibited a propensity for syncretism. Most Ga now are at least nominal Christians, but many combine elements of indigenous religion and Christianity. The Protestant sects that have had the greatest impact, Methodism and Presbyterianism, have been joined by a proliferation of syncretic cults. Islam has joined the mix in recent years, and so the religious situation is extremely fluid and innovative.
Religious Practitioners. High priests are male and speak as authoritative persons. The minor wulomei are sometimes female. The woyei, the spirit mediums through which the dzemawodzi communicate in their own voices, are usually female. Each dzemawon has its own woyoo, but some woyei are attached to more than one dzemawon and also may be possessed by the spirits of dead ancestors. Woyei, after an initial fit of possession in which they are seized by a spirit, receive rigorous training. Some priestly families are known for producing woyei, but the spirits choose their own mediums, who may be taken anywhere and at any time, even during a church service. Serious harm to the chosen individual is thought to result if that choice is resisted, even if many propitiatory gifts are made to the spirit. Christian ministers usually come from the Western-educated sector of the population, and ministers of syncretic sects from a wider population. The syncretic sects often allow women to be ministers, something that was forbidden in the dominant sects.
Ceremonies. The most important life-cycle rituals are "outdoorings" and funerals. The no longer practiced puberty rites for boys did not involve circumcision, which was done separately at a young age and took place in public. Girls' puberty rites involved seclusion for several months and emphasized the value of premarital chastity. Marriages by customary law are celebrated with parties today. Christian marriages often involve elaborate Western-influenced ceremonies. Otherwise, there are public installation ceremonies for the various mantsemei and wulomei, worship ceremonies of all sects, and impromptu spirit possession ceremonies or processions.
Medicine. People consult a variety of healers, including men and women who use wodzi, or all-purpose spirits, to identify and find the cure for health problems. Western medicine is often supplemented by the use of healers; in recent years there have been increased efforts to test the efficacy of indigenous medicines, which have increased the syncretic aspects of Ga and other Ghanaian forms of medical practice. The source of sickness is often thought to be psychological or a manifestation of some misdoing by the sick person, so that confessional medicine is a common aspect of practice.
Death and Afterlife. Death may be attributed to supernatural or natural causes or a combination of both. Angry spirits can cause death. Spirits of the dead are thought to wander after death for a specific period before joining the ancestral spirits in the sky. Ancestral spirits must be propitiated for many reasons, often with libations or other offerings. The dead formerly were buried in the compound or at specified burial grounds. Now Christian rites have largely superseded those of the indigenous religion, but often elements of both are incorporated into funerals. Funerals often involve a lavish expenditure on food, entertainment, and ceremony. They perform a redistributive function in regard to wealth to a certain extent. All comers are supposed to be well fed. The celebration of death is connected to the celebration of the continuity of the lineage.
For other cultures in Ghana, see List of Cultures by Country in Volume 10 and under specific culture names in Volume 9, Africa and the Middle East.
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GA • abbr. ∎ Gamblers Anonymous. ∎ General Assembly. ∎ general aviation. ∎ General of the Army. ∎ Georgia (in official postal use).