Inside the inner courtyard at Manhyia Palace, heart of the Ashanti Kingdom, a westerner would need an anthropologist’s knowledge to truly understand what happens on a Monday.
There were two factions of people, robed in black or white, waiting for an audience with the king, Otumfuo Osei Tutu II, the Asantehene, who was holding court.
The gathered Ashantis, or Asantes — about 300 people — wore formal cloth wrapped around their torsos. Men tied theirs toga-style over one shoulder; the women’s cloths were cut into gowns.
The king was out of sight in a darkened alcove, receiving supplicants, presumably seated on his golden stool that is the Ashanti symbol of royal authority.
When the elected presidents of Ghana visit Kumasi, capital of the ancient Ashanti Kingdom, they too come to Manhyia and bend the knee.
Although the Ashantis in attendance tolerated the presence of casually dressed white foreigners at their traditional court — as they tolerate us in their country — we obviously did not belong.
Nor could we understand the proceedings, which were held in Twi, the local dialect.
On our way out, a boy at the gate said the hearing was a land dispute.
Conflicts are common among the proud Ashanti. Formal and dignified in the presence of the king, in the streets of Kumasi arguments are abrupt and passionate.
Fights among cab drivers or between merchants and buyers rarely get violent but they are immediately aggressive.
This trait betrays the Ashantis’ warrior past.
The Ashantis are part of the Akan people, perhaps 10 million strong, representing 44 per cent of Ghana’s population and one of the larger ethnic groups in West Africa.
The Ashanti territory is now one of Ghana’s 10 official regions, but historically the Ashanti Kingdom extended beyond Ghana’s borders with Togo, Burkina Faso and Cote d’Ivoire, having captured much of its territory by conquering surrounding tribes during the 18th century.
“The name ‘Asante’ was derived from war,” historian Osei Kwadwo wrote in his Handbook on Asante Culture.
The name means: ‘Those who come together because of war.’
At first, in 1701, they fought their Denkyira overlords and won a victory that “urged them on to fight and extend their boundaries,” wrote Kwadwo.
The Europeans, having arrived on the coast 200 years earlier, offered lucrative trade, at first in gold and spices, later in slaves and guns, all of which fuelled Ashanti expansion.
Kwadwo’s book doesn’t mention it as one of his culture’s reasons for going to war, but undoubtedly part of the Ashanti’s success was due to the trans-Atlantic slave trade that reached its peak in the late 1700s.
Kumasi was at the heart of three major trade routes to the coast.
“Although it was forbidden for an Ashanti to enslave another Ashanti, their frequent military expeditions and slave raids ensured the flow of human cargo to the coast never abated,” wrote Philip Briggs, author of the Bradt Travel Guide to Ghana.
A derivative social hierarchy persists in Kumasi today.
Thousands of people of low caste — some Ashantis but mostly migrants from other tribes in Ghana’s underdeveloped northern regions — recently had their street shops and shantytowns bulldozed by the Kumasi Metropolitan Assembly, their meagre hopes for prosperity reduced to rubble as part of a citywide beautification scheme.
Compassion be damned; they were squatting illegally and deserved what they got, explained Kwadwo.
“They must go back to their villages,” he said. “It is a matter of obedience. If they cannot live here properly, they must go back.”
Social divisions are also evident in the way Ashantis relate to one another — typically with either fawning deference or a disdain that borders on derision. Unless both parties share the same caste, in which case they tend to laugh a lot together.
But many have told me that if a neighbour begins to make any sort of improvement to his life his fellows will conspire to bring him down, to speak ill of him, to keep him at his lowly station.
“We are wicked people,” said 80-year-old Ado Attah, who preferred British colonialism to Ghana’s present system of inequitable governance.
A man needs to know the right people if he wants to get anywhere, Attah explained.
“If he tries to change his life for the better, all the people around will destroy him.”
That sort of envious connivance happens in any society, said Kwadwo.
“You find that everywhere in the world.”
True enough. Racist or elitist attitudes persist in Western culture too, against blacks in the southern US, for example, or against First Nations in Canada.
Our cultures might connive differently, but the result is the same: some people just don’t get respect.
Maybe we’re not so different after all.
Former Yukon News reporter Graeme McElheran is currently living and writing in Ghana.