Tribes, names, and matrilineal inheritance (Private blog re-post from April 14, 2011)

Ashanti King Otumfuo Osei Tutu II

Ashanti King Otumfuo Osei Tutu II

(Originaly published on April 14, 2011. I have updated the day name section and added some points for clarity.)

Sub-Saharan Africa is made up of many tribes. Each tribe has their own customs, culture and language. For Americans, “tribe” is not an ideal description because it conjures up small bands of Native Americans roaming the Great Plains. Think of Europe as a continent of “white” tribes: Sicilians, Scandinavians, Basque (Spain), Anglos (English), Saxons (French), Germanic tribes. Each tribe may be further divided into clans. A tribe will have a language; each clan will speak a dialect of the tribal language.

The colonial powers – British, French, Dutch, Portuguese – arbitrarily divided the continent. Thus, tribes may overlap several countries. The largest tribe in Ghana is the Akan tribe and they speak Twi (pronounced Choo-wee) Their tribal center is Kumasi, the second largest city in Ghana, located in the central west. The largest of the Akan clans is the Ashanti who number in the millions. The Akans also include the Akyem, Akwapim, Fanti, and Bonos clans. Thus, Africans who come to Accra will speak their native language and related dialects, English, and Twi.

When Ghanaians see foreigners they usually call us obruni or “white man” based on the color of our skin. It is not a pejorative. I have not been called obruni very frequently because foreigners are relatively common in Accra. They do not break down foreigners into different colors but they do think of me as coming from the “American” tribe. Similarly, there are the Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Arab tribes. The night watchmen, George, has been calling me Kwasi Obruni, or “Sunday White Man”. Apparently, Ghanaians believe the day you are born gives you certain attributes. From the Bradt guide book,

“…most Ghanaians’ first name is not a given name, but one determined by their day of birth. It is the child’s second name that is chosen by the parents eight days after birth, and is normally a respected family member, in the belief that the child will have some attributes of the person after whom it has been named.”

Many of the Ghanaians I have interacted with also have English names.

According to Wikipedia, Akan names by day and the associated characteristics of people born on those days:

  • Sunday – Kwasi (male); Akosua, Asi, or Ese (female) –  is the passive, sensitive and warm member of the family. He/she tends to be shy and likes to keep to his/her self, but is very aware of his/her surroundings and usually is the secret keeper of the family.
  • Monday – Kwadwo or Kojo (male); Adwoa or Ajao (female) – the father or mother in the family; nurturing in nature, dependable and organized, and protective of his/her family.
  • Tuesday – Kwabena or Kobina (male); Abena or Araba (female) – the problem solver and planner of the family. They are structured in nature, neutral in all matters and never take sides.
  • Wednesday – Kwaku (male); Akua (female) – is fully in control of every situation, does not want to be told what to do, knows it all, is spontaneous, vibrant and cordial (Hey, this sounds like me!)
  • Thursday – Yao or Ekow (male); Yaa (female) – is quiet in nature and incredibly observant. They are generally listeners, not talkers, and analyzes situations very well.
  • Friday – Kofi (male); Afua, Afia, or Efua (female) –  a leader, not a follower. He/she is very temperamental but has a big heart. Generally the instigator of everything.
  • Saturday – Kwame or Kwamena (male); Ama (female) –  likes to take control of family situations. He/she runs the show and make the rules, but will go out of his/her way for others any time.

Ghana is a patriarchal society with matrilineal inheritance. This is may be an apocryphal story of how this came into being:

Several hundred years ago, there was a powerful Ashanti King who was very sick. His doctor offered a grave prescription. In the next two days, the king needed to sacrifice one of his family’s sons to cure his disease.

The Ashanti King had four wives and he explained his situation to his wives. He asked who among them would volunteer a son to be sacrificed. All the wives agreed to think it over and return with a decision.

Before the day of sacrifice, all the wives fled with their children. Of course, the Ashanti King was distraught. His sister offered him a solution. She volunteered to have one of her sons die to save her brother’s life. Cured, the king made a declaration that became the law for the entire tribe: matrilineal inheritance. This means that when a man dies his wealth does not pass to his immediate family. Instead, his wealth is inherited among his sisters’ nephews and nieces.

Matrilineal inheritance is fading away in modern Accra but it is still practiced in some parts of the Akan. The government has encouraged women to step out beyond traditional roles “in the kitchen.” In modern Ghana, women are encouraged to go to school and to work. Apparently, women began to enter the workforce as equals in the 1990s. Currently, the Chief Justice, Speaker of Parliament, and Head of Police of Greater Accra are all women.

Nonetheless, Ghana is patriarchal society and women do not have the same opportunities as men.

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One comment

  1. Pingback: The tourist paradise of Africa – Accra | Travel , Booking & Leisure Guide

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