Kra Tri – 3

The Universe Has Three Souls
Notes on Translating Akan Culture (1)
By Phil Bartle, Journal of Religion in Africa, Volume XIV, Number 2, 1982, pp 85-114

Part 2


The Twi word usually translated as “culture” is amane, but I soon discovered it meant only traditional customs and rituals. Its meaning is equivalent to high culture of western society: ballet, coronations and the fancy wigs of high court judges; it includes drumming, dancing, etiquette and dress in priests’ and chief’s courts. Culture means all learned human behaviour, high and low. To be learned, culture must be transmitted by symbols, and it is those symbols to which we now turn. Names of people, group identity and behaviour rules such as food avoidances, rites recognising status changes, and the assumed characteristics of colours, are some of these. What is significant in the examination of the ways these signs are used is the reflection of the tripartite cosmology (mentioned above) in these symbols.

Let us begin with labels: how do Akan people get names? Red: Naming is not matronymic in this matrilineal society, but everyone belongs to a named ntכn which one gets from mother. Black: Everyone is born on some week day and receives a day name directly from God. White: Later, when a child is outdoored and reckoned to be human, it is named by, but not usually after, its father. The father chooses the name of some respected person, living or dead, who by virtue of having that name, imparts some of the personality and respectability to the child. These three origins of three kinds of identity labels are complicated by the use of different names in different social contexts.

The borrowing of fathers’ names to register at schools (founded by western missionaries and administration who expected “surnames”) results in children being called something like Afua Adae at home and Mercy Mensah at school. If she was named by her father after a man called Mensah or woman called Mansa, or if she were third born, she would be Mansa at home. But she would adopt the male name, Mensah, after her father, to conform to the school’s demand for a surname. Although the tripartite pattern is identifiable in naming people, the organic and dynamic nature of the culture results in delightfully complex naming and a fluid use of identity labels for individuals and groups.

Another aspect of identity is the avoidance of certain foods or certain behaviour often at specified times. […] To eat an ntכn animal would be like cannibalism, and often the name of a clan would be based on the animal akonkran (white crested raven) for Asona clan, ekuo (buffalo) for Ekuona clan, and so on. Knowing clan secrets such as food taboos, other than the clan animal, was a way a stranger, in these dispersed clans, could be identified. Totemism (if one may use the term in this sense) in the matrilineal side, was based on “brotherhood,” corporate identity, and conceptualised as avoiding dangerous acts such as cannibalism. Food avoidances associated with ntr] (patricategories) operated under different principles.

To avoid pollution, rather as a Jew avoids treif food, a person had a set of proscribed plants and animals according to his ntr] category. Many of the items were avoided by more than one (but not every) ntrכ group, for this was a matter of purity rather than descent group identification. The ‘treif’ items were closely associated with the abosom (deities) who all had ntrכ proscriptions. A pregnant woman also avoided her husband’s forbidden foods because the foetus obtained its proscriptions patrilineally. Barren women seeking spiritual help would be told, among other things, to avoid her husband’s proscribed foods so as to keep her body pure and receptive for the husband’s hoaba (semen) and sunsum (spirit).

An כkomfo (כkom = spiritual possession), whether priest or priestess, would be called a “wife” of an כbosom (deity), whether a god or goddess, who would be the “husband” of the human medium. To keep his or her body pure and clean so that the deity would be able to enter it for possession, the human medium, as a dutiful “wife,” would observe the ntrכ avoidances of the “husband” deity. Thus the patrilineal , ntrכ food proscriptions were a matter of maintaining purity and fertility, in contrast to the matrilineal ntכn ones which were a mailer of descent group identity, blood danger, and cannibalism abhorrence. Red is danger: white is purity.

If we turn to a different aspect of social organisation, the public recognition of changes in status, we call identify the tripartite classification symbolised by the three colours. We can look at the life cycle as a kind of migration, each status change marked by rites which themselves have black, red, and white stages. Rites of passage apply to (a) birth or migration from Asamando (land of dead), (b) puberty or change from asexual child to adult female (no male rites: a boy becoming an adult when his father gave him a gun and wife), (c) bringing forth or becoming a mother, (d) possession or becoming a priest or priestess, (c) enstoolment or becoming a chief or elder, and (d) death or migration back to Asamando to become an ancestor or common ghost. Marriage, the important rite in Western societies that changes bachelor or spinster status to husband or wife status […] is mentioned below. In each of the six status change rites mentioned, there are stages of black (change), red (danger, defilement), then white (victory, joy) marking public recognition.

Birth, as mentioned above, is both a migration from Asamando and a joining of blood (mother) and semen (father) with breath (God) to form the tripartite individual. The physical event, parturition itself, when the baby takes its first breath and cries, is a change, is an insertion of energy or anima by God, is instantaneous − and is black. The child is immediately thought to be in a state of danger and defilement, not only because it is bloody, but because its life is in danger. Although it is washed it remains defiled, and is dressed in old rags or baha (plantain fibres used for parturition and menstrual pads). It is not made to look pretty in the fear that the spirits in Asamando will covet the child and take it away again.

After the spirit of every week day has seen the child, it is then considered human or onipa (literally “good face” or “good eye”) and deemed victorious. It is then washed, dusted with white powder (called hyere or “blessing powder”), dressed in white or bright clothes, and presented to the public (“outdoored”). After that the father may claim and name the child. If, however, it dies before that, it is put in a pot, called kukuba (“pot child,” an unproductive person) and other insults, thrown on to the rubbish heap (but nowadays buried because of sanitary regulations), and abused for wasting everyone’s time and effort. If it lives, it is welcomed as a newly arrived member of the living segment of the community. The three symbolic stages in the arrival of this hoho (stranger, visitor, newly arrived member, guest) are (a) black for the physical event of change, (b) red for seclusion and defilement, and (c) white for victory, recognition, and presentation.

In each of the other life changes there are parallels, varying to suit each circumstance of course, of going through the three recognisable stages. The physical event is instantaneous, dynamic, invisible, caused by God, and seen as black: the first menstrual flow of a young woman (who is then given an egg because her kra has arrived), the bringing forth of a child (becoming a mother), being possessed by a god or tutelary deity, being chosen as a new chief or elder, and dying. The next stage is a stage of danger and defilement, a time for shame and seclusion, and seen as red; a secluded week of singing lewd songs with girlfriends, a secluded week with the baby also wearing old clothes, up to three years training as a new כkomfo (priest or priestess), up to forty two days as an incumbent chief, and until the beginning of the wake keeping for the corpse.The third or final ritual stage is one of victory, joy, and a celebration of successful passing through the rite, and seen as white: being washed (three times for a corpse, in the river for a new adult woman), covered with white powder, dressed in fine white or bright clothes, and presented to the public. There is not enough room here to give details or to note changes over time, but this highly attenuated description is enough to indicate the parallels.

Marriage, it was noted above, did not follow the same pattern of rites for recognising status changes. […] Marriage is not seen as a sacrament. Conjugal residence must be viewed as merely a stage of a domestic cycle which is only part of an overall matrilineal organisation. Not only is separate residence common, especially where spouses live in the home town of their respective matrilineages, but divorces, or at least separations, are frequent.

Marriage, as an institution regulating sex, is seen mainly as a moral institution in contrast with a matrilineal descent group which is a political, military, and economic institution. Sex, unlike birth, belongs to the white or male category, thus (although social structure is matrilineal) weddings are performed by fathers rather than by mothers or matrilineal uncles. Neither the bride nor groom need be present. The father of the groom gives a pot of palm wine, (nsa = alcohol, fufu = white), and a token payment called tirisika (tiri = head, sika = money or gold) to the father of the bride. The wine may be referred to as tirinsa (head wine), and part is poured on the ground as a libation prayer to the gods and ancestors before being passed around and shared. The bride’s father reserves a portion of the money and wine for the bride’s mother’s brother, head of her lineage, or representative. That portion confirms the earlier union between the bride’s father and mother’s lineage, which resulted in the bride’s birth.

Marriage everywhere may be seen both as a status and as a social process but in Western bilateral societies the emphasis is on the status, so a wedding is seen as a change in status. In Akan society, being married implies the carrying out of conjugal rights and obligations, so marriage continually stops and starts according to how well those are carried out; and the Akan verb ware (to marry) reflects that process aspect. Marriage and divorce rituals are merely formal acknowledgements of that process. For the above reasons, weddings do not take quite the same form as the other passage rituals.

In the process of recognising social activities, the symbolic meanings of the three colours or colour categories become clear. For each of the three ritual colours there are two root words koko, bere (red), tuntum, biri (black), and fitaa, fufu (white). Other colours tend to be made up of references to physical things; thus yellow is called “chicken fat.”

The three ritual colour categories are also rather more broad than their equivalent English usage. Red includes a whole range of ruddy colours from brown, through orange, to red shades of purple. Light red, violet, or pink, however, when used on festive occasions, belong to the white or bright category. The word biri is also translated as dark, and includes all dark shades. Just as semen is seen as a concentrated form of water, so blue is often seen as an intense form of white. Indigo from Nigeria is highly regarded and thought to be beautiful. Most important is the social occasion; persons wearing colours slightly out of context usually are not chided. Indefinite colours can be redefined. Let us look at the ritual colour categories in turn. (See Table 3.)

Table Three
Ritual Colour System

Status Change \ Colour Black => Red => White
The Process The Physical Event Danger, Defilement Victory, Joy
Becoming a Live Human Parturition Hide,
Dress in rags
Dress brightly,
Outdooring, Naming
Girl to Adult First menses Hide,
Dress in rags
Dress brightly,
Becoming an Elder or chief Chosen by elders Hidden,
Ancestral stool
Public “durbar”
Becoming a Priest Chosen by a god,
Epileptic seizure
Three years
of apprenticeship
public recognition
Becoming an Ancestor Death Hidden, watched
and washed by old women
Funeral: corpse
wears white (bright),
others wear red and black

Red is the sign of seriousness and danger. (5) “Ma ni a bere (my eyes are red),” translates as “I am serious.” Red clay is smeared, usually in three streaks, on one’s arm or forehead to indicate that a person is seriously in mourning, as at an important funeral. Red or reddish funeral cloth is usually worn by members of the deceased’s lineage. Bright blood red bands of soft cloth are worn around the neck or forehead by elders at funerals of chiefs, important royals, (6) or “big” persons. Strips of red cloth are worn by students and other hot bloods when demonstrating against the government. The sacred oath of a chief I studied, like all oaths, refers to a shameful or serious event in the history of the royal lineage.

A former royal had been a pawn (a common practice; it kept potential contenders away from the home town) at the time he was “captured” by his people to become enstooled, he was brought back home still with red ochre on his hands from when he had been plastering his master’s hearth. Reference to that red ochre, used as that stool oath, is a serious utterance meant to disturb the ancestors while opening up the most important kind of case. It is not used lightly, and a sheep must be slaughtered to pacify the ancestors again. In these various ways, red is used to indicate defilement, danger, and seriousness.

The colour black is the sign of power and time. Although black funeral cloth is and was worn at a funeral it formerly did not signify morning or sadness as in Western society. Rather it showed recognition of life changes: death, reincarnation, ancestral power, stool power, history, tradition, and memories. On sacred days such as Akwasidae, after the chief linguist pours a libation of schnapps on to the sacred black stool, he rubs the spot or puddle on the stool with his fingers and smears black on to the forehead of the chief. Black powder (boto) is used to give patients strength in sickness and warriors strength in battle. [Healing] of children suffering (malarial) fever, consist of incision on the cheeks into which a mixture of boto and fever reducing herbs is inserted. Boto was also painted round the eyes of lawmen, abrafo (from bara = law) misnamed “executioners,” to give them the strength of ancestral sanction when they would publicly execute criminals condemned by pre colonial chief’s courts.

Even now during festivals some deities (also called abrafo because they kill witches and other evil spirits) possess their priests or priestesses, who then wear boto powder smeared around their eyes. Dolls used at both ends of the life cycle are black: akuaba, fertility dolls, (organic; carved of wood), are used to encourage children to come from the land of the ghosts (Asamando) the world of the living (Awiase), while sampon, funerary dolls, (inorganic, fired clay), are used to remember the deceased who have thus travelled from Awiase to Asamando. The symbol of political power in a lineage is the blackened stool of some honoured ancestor. No one sits on it; it is kept hidden and offered food and drink at regular intervals as a shrine. Black is the colour of strength, immortality, and dynamics.

The colour white is the sign of purity and victory. The absence of white (rather than the presence of black) signifies their unhappiness at the funeral. In contrast, the corpse who has successfully undergone a rite of passage, is powdered white and dressed in bright colours to signify victory. Parents of deceased little babies were forbidden to cry, were dressed in white, and given a victory meal to celebrate the good riddance of the little monster who did not come to bring wealth, honour, and more children to the community. The parents are then told to di which has the double meaning of eat and sexual intercourse − they are encouraged to produce more children.

White powder is smeared on those judged innocent or victorious in the chief’s court, and is thrown on the feet of a divorced wife by the husband (or his representative) to signify her return to a virginal or marriageable state. It is spread on arms and face on various joyful occasions: children’s parties, recovering from sickness, or successful possession by a deity. White strips of cloth are worn by students and others demonstrating in the streets in favour of the government, and at victory celebrations after football matches. White powder is called “blessing” powder, hyire, and can be viewed as a dry or symbolic baptism medium. It is put on after any odwira (ablution rite) to signify purity or cleanliness. Palm wine sellers put white paper in a bottle outside their bars to signify that Palm wine is available, while traditional healers fly white flags to advertise that they are open for business.

Nowadays girls in their last year of school who complete their confirmation rites in church are dressed in white and go around town thanking the people for their prayers and encouragement. This may be viewed as a modern adaptation of one function of the old puberty rites: public recognition of availability for marriage. White is the colour of fertility, joy, and success.


[The] colour categories are not only symbols of that trinity/unity in themselves, they are used to separate certain characteristics − to separate categories − in the culture. For example, black sacred (ancestors) and white sacred (deities), should normally not contaminate each other.

Once, when I was attending a secret black stool ceremony on an Akwasidae, in the chief’s house, I saw the chief linguist become possessed by a god while he was pouring the libation on to the stool. He quickly gave the glass of schnapps to one of the linguists to carry on, and ran out of the room. The elders whispered their disapproval that the deity should intrude into an ancestor ceremony. (The priest of that god was present and had donated a bottle, and the god’s name was invoked, along with most important Obo deities, but the god was not expected to come). Black and white are separated.

Nor should black and red be mixed indiscriminately. The chief (who is black sacred) wears large black sandals to separate himself from both red and white. For example, most people must remove their sandals out of respect when they enter a compound, shrine area, or sacred grove of a god. The chief leaves his on. People remove their sandals when approaching a chief or elder. An elder or chief approaching another of higher rank in the hierarchy of confederated lineages, slips his (right only, or both) off, but then stands on top of his sandal to greet, not touching the ground. This is because a chief or elder is black sacred.

From the time of enstoolment (which consists of being lowered gently three times onto the chosen black stool) the chief’s body is itself sacred, being continuously possessed by the collective spirit of all matrilineal ancestors. That is why the chief may not be abused or insulted, and why the chief may not touch the ground. In the ceremony for destoolment, the Kontihene (who acts as regent) asks the chief for the big black sandals (called ahenema = chief’s children). The chief’s body stops being sacred as soon as his feet touch ground. To preserve their separate integrities, black and red must be separate, but a chief may have three smears of red clay on his arm, or wear a bright red neck cloth at an extremely important funeral. The degrees of separation depend upon context.

Nor should white and red be mixed except under special circumstances. Possession by gods of priests, in contrast to ancestors possessing chiefs, is discontinuous and accompanied by much shaking and frenzy. To separate the white sacred possessed akomfo (priest or priestess) from the ground, even in the chief’s palace, an acolyte will precede the akomfo, throwing white powder on to the ground. The כkomfo can then walk barefoot. In nature, of course, the white (in the form of water) “fertilises” the red (in the form of earth) by raining, and semen is thought to join with blood in the process of conception. The mixing or separating of red and while therefore depends upon the cultural context.

[…] Colour symbolism, and the implied categories, permeate every cultural dimension from the economic sub structure through the institutional superstructure, to religious and cosmological ideas. Labour, land, production, and reproduction belong to the red category and the economic dimension. Fertility, capital, purity, socialisation (personality and psyche), and morality belong to the white category and the ideological dimension. Power, change, dynamics, politics, strength, tradition, and prediction belong to the black category and politico-military dimension. In some senses these are analytically separate categories, in others they are inseparable parts of a super-organic dynamic whole.

Finally, we can summarise that unity in parts by an adkinkra symbol stamped on linguists’ cloths. Gye Nyame means “unless God (without God there is nothing).” It implies the phrase “If l call one, I call all,” used in libations. It is a black symbol that resembles a symmetrical prickly sponge. It may be seen as the shape formed by the red category, the left hand, in front of you, palm out, with the thumb down, pointing to red Mother Earth; held together with the right hand, white category, palm in, with the thumb pointing to the white source of rain. “The right hand washes the left.” God is beyond male and female, but both. The image is Gye Nyame.



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