Crowning peoples’ heads were crocodile jaws and leopard skins, eagle feathers and shotgun cartridges. This wasn’t Ascot gone bonkers. This was Akwasidae and a celebration of the Ashanti king’s 20-year reign in Ghana. It was an exclusive party and I had an invitation.
The radio stations had been talking about it for weeks, the newspapers brimmed with good wishes, and across Kumasi, the kingdom capital, towered billboards bearing the image of Asantehene Otumfuo Osei Tutu II himself.
The Ashanti (or Asante) – meaning “because of war” – people crowned their first king in 1675 to unite the clans against their warring neighbours, the Denkyira. By trading gold and slaves, they created one of the largest and wealthiest kingdoms in sub-Saharan Africa.
Choosing a porcupine as the national emblem may seem somewhat prickly, but today the Ashanti’s warlike reputation is just for show and Osei Tutu II is a modern king. He qualified as a chartered accountant before taking the throne, has only one wife and has visited Buckingham Palace twice. But the office is still considered higher than the president’s.
“The king is our father and mother – the guardian of our heritage,” said Janvier Houlonon, my guide. “The president belongs to the community, so he too must follow our traditions.”
Celebrations weren’t scheduled to start until the afternoon, so I visited Prempeh II Jubilee Museum to brush up on Ashanti traditions. It houses items from the palace. Guiding me was Yaa Agyapomaa Addai, who has worked at the cultural centre for nearly three decades. She pointed out a centuries-old golden lion ring “so heavy they have to hold up his hand for him while he’s wearing it”, waved at clay plates and pots used for his food – “still tasted by the chief cook first, in case it’s poisoned”, and showed me a treasure bag that was presented by a priest in the 1600s “with instructions that it never be opened”.
“Aren’t you dying to know what’s inside?” I teased. “Of course we are!” she said, winking. I asked how she was feeling about the celebrations. “It’s a great day!” she beamed. “I bought a new kente [an intricately woven cotton cloth unique to Ghana] especially.”
Also open was Manhyia Palace, which was built by the British as an apology for exiling King Prempeh I when he returned in 1924. The Ashanti declined and paid for it with gold so it couldn’t be reclaimed. In 1995, it became a museum and a new palace was built next door.
It’s a rather homely affair with worn sofas, a gramophone in the living room, mismatching crockery in the kitchen and a Sixties television – the first in Kumasi. “You had to book an appointment with the king to watch it,” chuckled Teddy Kyei Poku, who was working at the museum as part of his national service.
Afterwards we sat in the shade of the porch waiting for our festival passes. “My uncle got me the job. He was the king’s driver for 20 years – he died last week, so he’ll be so sorry to miss this. God gives and takes,” he added, sadly.
As Teddy finished, a group of men left with all the old guns from the cabinets, and behind them another bearing a silver casket clad in white netting I’d seen earlier, propped beside an effigy of the king. “It was once filled with gold dust,” he said.
In the streets surrounding Manhyia Palace, carnival music blared from speakers. Weaving between the army and police, women balancing silver bowls on their heads plied candied peanuts, bottled water, sunglasses, yams and sweets. I bought boiled eggs laced with chilli sauce from one.
Men and women, swathed in bespoke kente, swept lengths of it over their bare shoulders, flashing gold bangles and smoothing their hair that glistened with coconut oil. Some donned canary-yellow kente shirts and dresses printed with the king’s 20th-anniversary seal.
I flashed my badge and entered the palace grounds. Off to the left, foreign dignitaries and diplomatic officials, seated on raised stages, tugged at their collars as fans blew cool mist in their faces, while we “commoners” crowded together, straining to see the chiefs from across the kingdom as they arrived with their entourages.
Preceding them were drummers, hammering on the tight skins with such force the hum hit your own heart. Others cleared the way by firing guns (blanks) into the air; everyone flinched at the crack. Followers sang, clapped, clanged bells and danced, kicking up the dust, and into the commotion someone led a confused goat.
Reporters wrestled microphones to the chiefs’ mouths for a comment, while photographers tried to avoid the crossed sabres of guards. Horses reared and snorted; riders placed a calming hand on their necks.
Warriors adorned with “bullet-proof” amulets marched past; players from Asante Kotoko (the professional Kumasi football club) turned up in their kit, arms raised in victory as bystanders shouted their surnames. Representatives of the Ashanti diaspora came to pay homage: the king of Buganda from Uganda, the vice-president of Suriname and dignitaries from Nigeria and the Seychelles.
The grounds were now a sea of red-fringed parasols like sails from a fleet of ships. Then, through the clamour, came a roar. The etwie drum. Clad in leopard skin, it imitates the snarls of a leopard and the Ashanti once used it to scare away their enemies. It marked the start of the king’s procession.
In quick succession came a man bearing a brass pan brimming with herbs and talismans – this was Samanka, the war deity, clearing the path of all evil; then came the golden sandal bearers, so the king’s feet may never touch the ground; next the key bearers, holding bunches of silver, to show the size of the palace; men with leather bags filled with gold and silver; others sounding horns made of elephant tusk to herald the king’s arrival; a man bearing the silver casket filled with gold dust I’d seen earlier; and, resting on the shoulders of a courtier, the solid-gold stool.
It houses the spirit of the Ashanti nation – the living, dead and yet to be born. “We call it Sika Dwa Kofi (Golden Friday), after the day it came down from the sky,” Eric Ofari, a museum official, had explained earlier. “The sky?” I inquired.
“When we were a bunch of un-united clans, Okomfo Anokye, the high priest and friend of paramount chief Osei Tutu, realised we needed a symbol to unite us, so for seven days he prayed to the ancestors and in a dream he saw the stool. ‘Gather the leaders’, he told Osei Tutu. So they did and the priest danced in the middle of them, shouting to the sky ‘Come down, come down, come down,’ hitting a cow’s tail on his left hand with each cry. And the golden stool floated from the heavens right into the lap of Osei Tutu, choosing him as first king of the Asante.” Here, kings aren’t crowned, they’re “enstooled”.
The seat features on the yellow-black-green flag of the Ashanti and wars have erupted over its protection. In 1900, Sir Frederick Hodgson, governor of the Gold Coast, demanded to sit on it. Quietly the queen mother, Yaa Asantewaa, said: “Tomorrow, ghost widows will have husbands” – an Ashanti declaration of war that resulted in a David-and-Goliath battle between the British and Ashanti. The kingdom was eventually annexed to the British Empire, but today remains a proto-state with the Republic of Ghana.
Following the stool was Asantehene Otumfuo Osei Tutu II himself, reclining in a palanquin. He waved to the masses, arms encrusted with gold bangles; borne along on the shoulders of men towards the raised platform.
Beside him, on its own throne, was the golden stool and beneath his feet spread a skinned lion, the jaw agape and eyes glassy. The chiefs and their courtiers rose to form a queue, taking turns to pledge their allegiance. Approaching the king, they shrugged the kente off their shoulders until bare to the waist, then prostrated and kissed or shook his hand.
The scene hasn’t changed for centuries; the line of kings unbroken in spite of colonialism and Christianity. Perhaps I should have bought a crocodile-jaw hat after all.