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Black Linguist Staff Ritual

by Phil Bartle, PhD

While I was doing my research for a PhD at the University of Ghana (1971-79), an ethnography of a community extended by cyclical migration, I learned of the black staff (apoma. tuntum) ritual.

My work was on the social organisation and culture of the Kwawu people, following members of the community of Obo to their various places of migration, and looking at their home links and maintenance of an extended community. I used various research methods, including household surveys, qualitative interviews and participant observation. This led to the observation of much material that was serendipitous ─unexpected delights.

In Akan, the word "okyeame" means something much more than "linguist" (as it is usually translated). The linguist is a spokesperson, ambassador, diplomat, interpreter, confidant, advisor and assistant to an elder or chief... In court, all prayers are in the form of libations, pouring of palm wine or schnapps on the ground to the gods and ancestors, and they are always done by linguists or individuals acting the role of linguists. As the person of the chief is sacred, possessed by matrilineal ancestors, members of the public cannot speak directly to the chief, and the linguist must be used as an intermediary. Very often, if frank expressions are used, the okyeame puts them into more polite and less offensive language. The elders in a chief’s court are sometimes said to be speaking the "language of the dead," which sometimes mean they speak using traditional proverbs, and may hide their deliberations from the public who are unlikely to know what those proverbs can imply.

Every six weeks on the traditional calendar (Bartle, 1978:82) Akwasidae is set aside as a special day. It is one of the "dabone" in that no funerals may be held, nor can news of any death reach the ears of the chief. When such an adae is declared to be "kese" (large), a large "durbar" (an Indian word introduced by the British during the colonial era) is held. It is called afahye in Twi. Outside the chief’s palace, under a sacred tree (Ohantrase), the people gather in a large circle, and the priests and sub chiefs will go around the circle in a counter clockwise direction and greet all those already present. .. Priests and priestesses will often go around more than once, if they are then possessed by their gods, who then make the same circuit. There is much drumming and dancing, as sub chiefs and priests and priestesses each may come her or his entourage, including helpers and musicians. .. The afahye on an adae kese is a public ceremony which publicly reinforces the identity and solidarity of the community.

Obo akyeame at an adae kese

Obo Chief Linguist May Sit on Another Linguist's Knees

The Obo chief, who is also the head of the Nifa Division of Kwawu, a very senior office, has seven linguists. Each of them is the head of a different matrilineage, among the confederation which makes up the Obo "oman" (state) structure. .. The Chief linguist is a member of the Aduana (dog; Lycaon pictus) clan, the same group as that of the chief, and one which was resident in Kwawu long before that of the chief came from what is now Brong Ahafo (headwaters of the Tano River) to become installed as top dog.

What is less known is that on every Adae (kese or not) the chief, linguists and key elders always meet in the chief’s palace, in the inner room where the black stools are kept, and will pour a libation of schnapps to the ancestors. .. This is done usually about five o’clock in the morning (it becomes light every morning about six o’clock). .. The ritual is very beautiful as the elders and linguists chant the responses to the Chief Linguist, in a most melodious and harmonious manner, like medieval Christian monks singing in plain song.

I had been adopted by the previous Obo chief a few years earlier when I was a teacher at a nearby school in another town. My adoptive father died while I was in Canada. .. When I returned with a Commonwealth scholarship paid by Ghana, and as a sociology student at Legon, I reintroduced myself to Obo, and the new chief accepted me, inheriting me as his son in honour of his deceased matrilineal ancestor. He joked that he inherited all assets and liabilities from his matrilineal uncle, but would not say which of those I was.

As one can never inherit from a father in Akan matrilineal social organisation, so I was to remain the son of the chief. "It is the duty of fathers to help with their children’s education. The State of Ghana paid your school fees and accommodation, but I can help you by opening doors for you in your PhD studies. If you promise to keep their secrets, then I will announce to all sub chiefs and priests that they shall tell you and teach you whatever you want to know." .. He was good to his word, announced that I was to be allowed into all buildings and rituals, and that was worth more than any scholarship fees I got.

I was also adopted into a matrilineage, as the nephew of Nana Kwame Ampadu, Head of the Asona (white raven) and Dwumina clans of Obo, and Gyaasewahene of Obo (under the Gyaasehene, Minister of the interior on the Obo oman). .. Nana Ampadu was the father of the musician who was to become the leader of the African Brothers International Band, who told so many traditional stories in his music, all of which he learned from his father. .. Nana Ampadu was one of my key informants (second only to the Kontihene), and a source of much of the history and culture of the Akan in general (he is related matrilineally to the Okyenhene, Chief of Akyem Abuakwa in Kyibi, and the Dwumina (Asona) clans that dominate the Benkum Division of Kwawu) and Kwawu and Obo in particular.

The Obo linguists were teaching me to say prayers (pour libations). .. When European or American Christian missionaries came to the chief’s court, they had to bring a bottle of schnapps, even if they were teetotallers. .. Theologically they did not like that the schnapps would be used to pray to the gods and ancestors. It was obvious that some were quite uncomfortable, that they sincerely believed that the traditional spirits were devils or Satan. .. But if they wanted to build a church, school or clinic, they needed the blessing of the chief and elders. .. The Obo chief took delight in using such phrases as "brothers and sisters in Christ" and "In the name of Christ our saviour" which was quite compatible with his African syncretic theology, but alien to conservative protestants. .. Since I was an apprentice linguist, the chief also took ironical delight in asking me, a young European, to pour the libations for him whenever missionaries came to his court.

Akyeame on Adae Kese

Linguists at Adae Kese (Held at Mpraeso football field)

One Saturday, prior to an Akwasidae, the Obo Chief Linguist told me to come to his ancestral home about an hour prior to the five o’clock prayers at the Obo Chief’s palace. .. I did so, and there I witnessed a ritual about which I had never heard or read. The sacred black linguist staff ritual.

Let me first say a little bit about the "apoma" (Akan linguist staff).

Although some European specialists try to see the origin of the apoma in the silver stick carried by the Governor of the castle at Elmina, and thus related to the mace or black ebony rod (used by Black Rod) of European royalty, I argue that it is unimportant. .. What the Akan have done with the linguist staff is to make it distinctly Akan, and it should be seen like that1. The staff is the size and shape of the walking staffs of Boy Scouts, and perhaps Baden Powel introduced them to the scouts after hearing of their use by Ghanaian elders.

The top of the staff has some carving or symbol. ..That of the Chief Linguist of Obo is a carving of a dog, the totem of the Aduana, royal matrilineage of Obo. Every linguist staff used by the seven linguists of Obo is gold plated, perhaps because of the wealth for which Obo is well reputed. Staffs in a photo of the paramount chief of Kwawu when Ramseyer arrived in 1888 had forked tops.

When the okyeame in a chief’s court stands to speak, she or he holds the staff, and is respectfully heard, because whatever is said then is official and formal.

In the ancestral stool room of the Obo Chief Linguist, I saw the usual collection of blackened stools, but on the table in the centre of the room was a broken staff, blackened as if it were an ancestral stool.

When a chief or elder dies, her or his bath stool is then prepared to become an ancestral stool. It may first be marked only with a swath of black on its bottom, but placed in the ancestral stool room. Matrilineages are not rigid though history; their fame, power and wealth may rise and fall as fortunes do. In a reflection of this, as a matrilineage is on an upward swing, some of its ancestors may receive promotions. The lineage may gain new offices in the chief’s court, or elsewhere in the living part of the community. An ancestor, thus the stool of that ancestor, can become promoted in stature and respect.

The first raise in level is to become completely blackened. To do that, the caretakers of the stools, usually elders, males and non menstruating females, will use boto powder.

Boto is an interesting traditional medicine. .. It includes charcoal, several medicinal herbs, and for blackening a stool it is held together by egg albumen. .. When you see a small scar on a child’s cheek, it is not a tribal scar as found, say, in Yoruba groups; it is because a traditional herbalist has made a vaccination against "fever" (malaria). .. These are herbs such as found inside the bark of certain trees (similar to quinine in South America) which can reduce fever and help the body to fight malaria. The same boto powder is mixed with egg albumen and applied to an ancestral stool, and it hardens to form a lacquer on the stool. .. If the ancestor receives further promotions, sometimes up to a century later, it may be overlaid with a strip of silver, and perhaps a second one laid round the stool at right angles to the first.

The staff that I saw on the table looked like an ordinary stick. .. There were no carvings on its end. But it was handled with reverence, and it was properly blackened with boto, as if it were an ancestral stool. .. Present in the ritual were only the seven linguists and myself. At that time one of the linguists was a woman. .. One of the linguists performed on behalf of the chief linguist, and poured a libation of schnapps while calling God (Supreme Shining Saturday), Mother Nature (Earth Thursday) the gods and the ancestors, some by name, some generically, and asked for a blessing to all the linguists, and that their work on this adae day, especially in public at the chief’s court, would go well, in dignity and without mistakes.

Later the Obo Chief Linguist explained to me that the original carving had been removed and attached to his own linguist staff which he inherited from his matrilineal uncle.2.. The carving had been plated with gold. One of the seven linguists was a goldsmith by trade, and did much of the work of things like plating royal artefacts.

While an ancestral stool picks up some of the "power" of a living chief when the chief sits on it in the bath, and it keeps that power after the death of the chief, so an apoma picks up some of the power of a living linguist, absorbs it, and retains it after the death of the linguist.

After the sacred blackened apoma ritual in the Chief Linguist’s ancestral home, we all walked over to the chief’s palace to perform the 5 am sacred ancestral black stool ritual on the chief’s ancestral stool3.

1. You can trace the guitar as an instrument to Spanish and Arabic origins, but what African American blues musicians have done with it makes it distinctly African American.
2. The word “wofa” is translated as “uncle,” but can be any older male member of the matrilineage. It cannot be used for father's brother.
3. Only one of the ancestral stools is set on a table in the middle of the room; the others, each representing named ancestors, are stored along the walls. The chosen stool is the one the chief touches first when blindfolded during the enstoolment rituals, and whose stool name is adopted for his reign.

The classical writing of Akan social organization is that of Robert S. Rattray.
Rattray, R.S. (1923) Ashanti, Oxford, Clarendon Press, reprinted 1969
___ (1927 U) "Kwawu," Manuscript No. 108, Hand written. Three field notes books (II, III and IV) pp. 3001-3239, Royal Anthropological Institute Library, London
___ (1927) Religion and Art in Ashanti, Oxford. The Clarendon Press
___ (1929) Ashanti Law and Constitution. Oxford. The Clarendon Press. reprinted 1969 OUP
(While he describes the ancestral black stool rituals, he does not describe the black ancestral apoma). This note is based on my own field notes, not on anything written by Rattray. I advise anyone pursuing a serious study of the Akan to read Rattray.

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