Postcard From Ghana: A Date With Royalty – By Rodney Nkrumah-Boateng
I am in Ghana on a trip from the UK, and just the other day, I had the privilege of witnessing the swearing in of a chief before Asantehene Otumfuo Osei Tutu II at the Manhyia Palace in Kumasi . Given that the said chief is a relative of mine, there was no way I was going to miss it. An uncle told me he would pick me up at midday. Of course, this being Ghana, I snorted in derision to myself and decided that if he turned up on time, I would proceed to eat my head. I am proud to announce my head is still intact as he turned up two hours late and without any apology whatsoever for his tardiness. Irritated as I was, I kept my big mouth firmly shut to avoid a family diplomatic war.
The palace forecourt was teeming with a sea of black cloths against a background of red plastic chairs when we arrived, ready for a splash of culture and ceremony. Hawkers of ‘pure’ water, handkerchiefs, chewing gum, yoghurt and groundnuts did brisk business. Drumming pervaded the air and clashed with the noisy vehicles chugging along the nearby streets, whilst giant colourful umbrellas leaned against walls, awaiting new chiefs. The day’s graduating class consisted of four chiefs-elect, with my relative being the last. Members of my extended family were there, many of whom I hardly recognised or cared about, really.
After slapping on a plastic smile to endure a never ending round of equally plastic smiles, limp handshakes and insincere queries of ‘how are you?’ and ‘when did you come down?’, I took my seat. Then began the endless wait and milling about among the assembled crowd of various families, friends and hangers-on, and I could not help but wonder at the sheer waste of time and human resources on a Monday afternoon for the simple act of swearing a person into office. No wonder trading (or ‘business’) is the main source of employment in Kumasi, for no public servant or office worker would dare be at this event at that time of a working day.
Questions popped about in my head in no particular order. Was all this necessary? Did some of these people have to abandon their businesses and turn up? Had they nothing better to do? Just what was the point of chieftaincy, a system where your blue-blooded right to lead a people was based solely on the accident of your birth? Would this institution ever die? My mind whirred endlessly like a village ‘nika-nika’, until rescued by a sachet of frozen yoghurt courtesy of a Fan Milk vendor.
Finally it was our turn and we were ushered in. Otumfuo sat on his dais, with a retinue of chiefs, sub-chiefs, advisors and servants surrounding him. This was the first time I had seen him in the flesh and he looked truly majestic in his black cloth with gold ornaments adorning his right arms and a short gold staff to boot. From where I stood, I could feel power and authority oozing from him. Two servants caught my eagled-eyed attention-one who was fanning him constantly with a huge fan, and another whose sole purpose was to wipe the sweat off Otumfuo’s face, shoulders, back and chest as the need arose. I envied them not one bit.
Protocol was strict as the ceremony got under way. Speech after speech was made in poetic, unadulterated Asante Twi, with many of the profound words and complimentary proverbs whizzing past my tainted, anglicised ears at twice the speed of light, and leaving me both with a slight migraine and a dizzying sense of admiration.
Then Otumfuo spoke through his linguist. His words were measured, chosen with care and delivered with unfettered authority. He admonished and warned and yet encouraged the new chief-elect. He reminded him of the history behind his new office, the Domenase stool, going back to the foundation of Asanteman about three hundred years ago. The gravity and solemnity of the occasion hung in the air like dense smoke.
Finally, after his appellations were sung ad nauseum, the chief-elect wielded a ceremonial sword and swore by the Great Asante Oath (the Ntam Kese) that he would serve Otumfuo faithfully and dutifully and would respond to his calls whatever time of the day he was summoned. Thus sworn, he duly and officially became Baafour Yaw Boateng, Chief of Domenase, with additional responsibility for fifteen other towns in the Asante nation. A huge cheer broke out as he was carried shoulder high in the courtyard and doused in talcum powder amid the throb of drums.
Eventually Baafour was carried out of the palace in his own palanquin followed by his elders, fontonfrom drummers, cheering relatives and supporters. He looked rather majestic as he swayed gently like palm fronds in the evening breeze. He acknowledged the crowd with precise, practiced hand movements, each heavy with meaning. No one seemed to notice the sweating, grunting men who bore heavy headpads on which rested the palanquin as they carried the new chief towards his residence near the palace. My idle mind wondered why in this day and age, chiefs could not be carried aloft in mechanised palanquins-I am confident that the KNUST mechanical engineering gurus can come up with one contraption or the other. Or the Suame ‘magazine’ boys, for that matter…
As I look back on my day and at the pictures I took, I recognise two powerful yet opposite arguments about chieftaincy in Ghana. On the one hand, it is an archaic institution that is based on the lottery of one’s birth and is completely at variance with the tenets of the democracy that we are trying to build. A chief once installed is difficult to remove and has life tenure. It is a relic of the past and has no place in a 21st century world, especially with the many chieftaincy disputes that have held many communities back.
Yet, against the backdrop of these valid arguments, and aside the argument that it is an embodiment of our cultural heritage, I find myself veering towards the position that despite its difficulties, it is worth having, even if it cannot be fully justified in a modern democracy. Not everything in life makes or should make logical, textbook sense. If what I witnessed at the palace is anything to go by, it is clear that the institution is buried very deep within the Ghanaian DNA, is a source of immense, if illogical pride for many and offers them a sense of identity and belonging that cannot be taken for granted.
Its abolition by the state, rather than as the result of the people themselves rising up in rebellion against it (as in France in 1789), would create more problems than solve them, and I don’t think any serious politician has the balls to even float the idea. After all, modern democratic countries like The UK, The Netherlands, Japan, Spain and Denmark still maintain constitutional monarchies in one form or the other.
I started my palace date with a healthy dose of skepticism about the institution and some desire that it be abolished. I ended the day with far more admiration of it than I have ever held, and I find myself urging that it be preserved, if reformed. Throwing out the baby with the bathwater is self-defeating.
In fact, I already find myself dreaming of being sworn in as a chief one day. Of course, being of rather ample proportions, I will need to get an XXL steel palanquin and then commandeer twelve men, each built like an ox, to carry me on that glorious day, if it ever dawns. Wishes, horses, free rides and beggars float lazily through my mind. Ah, I sigh wistfully..