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Full streets and rich spirits – Kumasi and the Asantes

Originally published in Public Agenda on August 24, 2012

By Schuyler Durham

I don’t know if there is a place in the world that is more densely populated than the streets of Kumasi. I certainly have not been to one, and coming into the city with my fellow University of Oregon students, I could not focus on anything besides the intense amount of activity taking place all around our bus; taxis, trotros, venders, cars, hawkers, gawkers, and everything in between.

I was told that Kumasi’s population is about 800,000 more than Accra’s 4 million citizens, but if I had to take a guess coming into the city; I would have assumed there were twice as many people in Kumasi.

This initial reaction was only solidified with the first stop in our Kumasi adventure, the Kejetia Market, which is the second largest in all of West Africa. I’ve frequented open air markets and outdoor gatherings all of my life, but nothing back in the United States can compare with the apparent chaos held within the narrow paths winding like a maze through the vendors. I have never felt so claustrophobic in an outdoor setting before, but the sheer volume of people, sights, sounds, and smells left my senses completely saturated.

I felt a sense of awe that people manage to navigate these areas with determination and accomplishment on a daily basis. The ability to go into the market with a clear goal, and a clear route to accomplish said goal, opens my eyes to yet another skill set that had previously been off my radar. As one of my friends ahead grabbed onto my hand as a last minute effort to avoid being sucked into a passing crowd, I felt that a keen sense of physical awareness and direction must be some of the many treasures of the Ashanti people.

After a tour through Kejetia, my fellow Oregonians and I climbed back onto the bus to take a short trip to the Manhyia Palace, constructed for Asante royalty by the British in 1924.

In the palace, the wealth of the Ashanti people was proudly displayed from corner to corner in each room. The palace itself was meant to be an apologetic gift to the Asante people, after the British wrongly exiled their king, Prempeh I. However, the Asantes refused to accept such a gift and demanded to pay for it, hoping to avoid unnecessary obligations.

Weapons, decorations, and furniture adorned with gold were prominently featured in each room. Modern displays of wealth clashed with traditional treasures as kente cloth lay proudly next to a television set in one room and a refrigerator in another.

The Asante people pride themselves on the wealth of their kingdom, but it is worth noting that their wealth lies in much more than gold. As our tour guide explained that the hand-carried chariots are used to transport the King and Queen Mother during celebrations, even in this age of rapid transportation, I recognised the wealth in the spirit of the Asante people. The Asantes are rich in a way that American moguls will never understand or obtain. They are rich in a way that transcends material wealth. The Asante have a spirit that has survived for hundreds of years, in spite of multiple military clashes with colonisers, opposing Kingdoms and clans, and each other. In the face of globalisation, in the largest city in Ghana, the Asantes still carry their leaders in palanquins through the streets on their shoulders, and this speaks volumes to their cultural richness.

On top of touring the palace, my group visited several other sites in Kumasi, giving me the chance to try my hands at weaving kente cloth, stamping adinkra, and witnessing how beads are made. All of these sites just further drilled the image of Kumasi’s cultural wealth into my head. Designs and weaving styles make use of a vast array of symbolic meanings. Glass is recycled and ground into powder to form beads, boasting the sustainable brilliance of local craftsmen and women. Around every corner, the Asante people found new ways to introduce me to the wealth of their spirit. As long as the Asantes recognize the amount and variety of their wealth, their culture and traditions are never going to be endangered by outside influence.

The largest danger to Kumasi would be to trade the Asante Gold Spirit for the American Green Dollar.

Schuyler is a student of University of Oregon, Eugene, United States.

Writer trying his hand at kente weaving


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  1. So nice to hear you talk about the true meaning of wealth. I got dizzy when hearing of the weaving in and out of crowds.

  2. Absolutely loved your paper on the Asantes, Schuyler. You captured the beauty and essence of the people that others would have overlooked. I trust you will never lose your gift of perception and what it means to have grace. Thank you so very much for your insight. Sandra.

  3. I guess the Manhyia Palace was not constructed by the British for the Ashantis…there is one particular building which is now a being used as a museum that was constructed by the British. And as you rightly point out, history has it that the exiled Asantehene after the Yaa Asantewaa war and upon return was compensated (given that building in return for peace- to stop further war)….but even that he insisted paying for the building before using it. The Manhyia Palace has a longer History than the Ashantis encounter with the British.

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