I plan to introduce the Ashanti culture to the students in several stages. First, map-reading and map-making. Second, poetry and proverb appreciation, including myths and legends. Third, art and artifact analysis. Fourth, family life. And, last, a course art project. A brief description follows of how I plan to teach each of these subjects within the unit. The question on which I want the students to stay focused throughout the course is, “Who are the Ashanti?” This major question assumes at least three related questions: Where do they live? What ideas are important to them? What do the objects they make tell us about their culture?
The first lesson is a geography lesson. Students will review some basic geographical concepts (direction, scale of miles, latitude and longitude, legend), and learn to use topographical symbols and place them accurately on a map (symbols such as those for mineral deposits, grassland, forest, swampland). Students will be expected to “read” the map and write an essay speculating about the physical environment and possible climate, diet, possibilities for trade, vocations, and even political structure. What area(s) on the map would be ideal for settlement and why? This activity should “warm-up” students to think inductively, an important process used throughout this unit.
Next, we will discuss Ashanti poetry and proverbs in order to discover something about their values. A sample poem follows:
“A charge to keep they have
The human race to glorify
All other neighbors to save
And raising human esteem high.” (Tufuo, p.7)
This poem about Ashanti heritage reveals that the Ashanti have set several important goals for themselves. The students should be able to identify these goals and determine some ways they might be able to accomplish these goals. Also, what does this poem tell us about Ashanti regard for themselves, their neighbors and their culture? Students will subsequently learn that Ashanti feel very fortunate to have been born into such a highly advanced civilization. The Ashanti are proud people who have struggled to achieve a unique identity among their neighbors in Ghana, among the Akan people. One author has put it this way:
“The Ashanti thinks that by being born Ashanti he has been ordained by deity to bring into the world all that is the best in the human race.” (Tufuo, p.66)
A sample proverb: “if no time is allowed for cooking, one eats half-cooked food.” What does this tell us about the Ashanti view of being in a hurry, compared to considering matters carefully and planning ahead? What does this tell us not only about food preparation but also about considering the importance of what a person says before he or she says it? Another proverb that applies to family members is this one: “Too much or too frequent undue criticism distracts and disrupts.” An Ashanti poem about courage says: “Death is better than disgrace.” Students should be interested to learn that very few Ashanti soldiers were ever captured alive, and that deserters in the army were no longer considered as men in the village. The women of the village sing a song, “Deserter, may Kobiri (an important goddess) kill you if you speak as a man to a woman.” The Ashanti also believe that ancestral spirits are everywhere, and cowardice (or any other misdeed) will be found out and punished, here in the hereafter. “True justice is God’s justice.” The omnipresent spirits of good and evil will, the Ashanti believe, mete out rewards and punishment; as a result, everyone tries to do right.
Lesson Three is an introduction to Ashanti artifacts. The students will look at a slide of a well-worn
figure (see Introduction above) and asked to respond to a series of questions designed to help them observe and draw conclusions about what they see. If this object were alive, could it speak? (Yes, it has a mouth; no, it’s not human.) Could it see? (Yes, it has eyes.) Could it hear? (No, it does not have ears.) Could it walk? (No, it has no legs.) And so on. Next, does this object remind you more of a lollipop, a cross, or a doll? (Each are appropriate responses; one has a more “human” element to it.) Would you want to touch or pick up this object? (Yes, it seems sad. No, it’s old and mean looking.) What seems to be missing from the object? (Hands, legs, ears, hair.) What do you notice most about it? (Large head, sad eyes, small mouth, high forehead, curved eyebrows, holes along the top, etc.) What shapes do you notice? (Oval-shaped head, oval eyes, round breasts and navel.) Teacher should explain that certain shapes had special meaning to the Ashanti. For example, a circle shape meant either God or the male spirit, a religious meaning. In noticing which objects are round, what might that tell you about Ashanti beliefs? (The Lesson Plan section below has a complete list of the Ashanti shapes and symbols.) Next, the students view several more slides of
igures to demonstrate similarities and differences. Following this, a slide of three
figures, of which only one is authentic; this helps students review what they have learned to observe. The teacher at some point informs the students that these objects symbolize certain Ashanti characteristics of beauty, and that pregnant women carry them on their backs during their pregnancy as a way of assuring a healthy and beautiful child.
Next, the teacher shows slides of other Ashanti artifacts to the class. (See Lesson Plan section below.) There are four types of objects for the students to discuss: First, Ashanti stools (the Golden Stool and a chieftan’s stool) which contain ancestor spirits, and represent the power and unity of the Ashanti chiefs; they are purely ceremonial, not functional; Second, pictures of two pots, one ceremonial (a
) and one practical (a
); Third, two pictures of ceremonial swords (
), which are richly decorated; Lastly, several pictures of animal carvings made of brass and gold, used as gold weights. The first stage of observation should be very general and free-wheeling, describing the objects and speculating about the object’s usefulness. (What kind of problems might an artist encounter in creating such an object?) Next, the teacher will assign students to look more carefully at one particular item and analyze it in more detail. This can be done individually or in small groups. Afterward students report back to the entire class, describing the objects in appropriate ways. At the end of the reporting time, the class makes up a “class list” of characteristics that we all feel are important in describing an object. The class then tries to organize our questions into categories: (1) Descriptive (size, shapes, colors, etc.); (2) Interpretative (purpose or use, personal viewpoint and interest in object, deductions about the people who might have used it); (3) Speculative (possible hidden meanings). This final list of questions serves as the same checklist used when students analyze our “test object” the
figure, already described above.
For the “formal analysis” exercise, the students observe a slide of a free-standing sculpture of an Ashanti woman who is pregnant. They will be expected to describe this object on paper, using guidelines we have developed in class. The students then will be asked to compare standards of beauty among three cultures, using slides of an Ashanti akua-ba doll, a Barbie doll and an African American baby doll. What are the inherent difficulties of being less than “ideal?” How important is physical beauty in our culture? (Refer to the $millions spent on cosmetics annually.) Why is this so? (Influence of the media, beauty pageants and commercials.) Who is hurt (if anyone) by failure to meet “industry standards?” (What about sensitive people who can’t compete in the areas of slimness, youth, clothing styles, etc.?) What other standards of beauty, besides physical beauty, are there? (Give examples of people with “inner beauty.”) Are these qualities important in a culture? Are they important to you? Ask students to give examples of people with admirable qualities whom they see as possible “role models.” The teacher should remind students that Ashanti names describe a person’s character and that a “good name is better than riches.”
Following this, the teacher assigns students to bring in objects or pictures of modern objects that fit into one of the four “types” or categories discussed above in regard to the Ashanti, e.g., stools, pots, weapons, decorative objects. Students describe their objects to the class, using descriptive methods we have already practiced. (What is the size of the object? Its shape(s)? Its color(s)? What material(s) is it made of?) Students encourage each other to ask interpretative questions. (What is the thing’s primary use? Its secondary use(s)? Is this a necessary or a luxury item?) In some cases, ask speculative questions also.
During the final few days of the unit, the class will spend time discussing Ashanti family and cultural traditions from a “problem-solving” point of view. To the Ashanti, a successful marriage is very important, and divorce is rarely permitted. How does one go about insuring that a marriage will last? Students will discover how carefully the parents of the couple-to-be investigate the character and private life of the intended bride or groom. Also, there is a three-year traditional “live-in” arrangement before the formal marriage ceremony takes place. According to the Ashanti, what is a “good husband?” A “good wife?” How does a woman prepare for the birth of a baby, and what if she has difficulty becoming pregnant? (A discussion of the
figure’s usefulness here.) Students will learn that men and women eat from separate common dishes at mealtime; and that mothers carefully inspect the children’s hands and teeth for cleanliness before meals. Women bathe often, sometimes as many as three times a day, to guard against offensive body odors, a possible cause for divorce among the Ashanti!
Life among Ashanti is communal, not communistic. Every Ashanti is expected to be his “brother’s keeper,” so it is expected that good Ashanti will involve themselves in the affairs of their family members or neighbors. Privacy is, therefore, rare and guarded jealously.
The remainder of the narrative of my unit will treat Ashanti history, diet, legal standards, religious rituals and attitudes towards success. In a culture where parents are highly respected and regarded there is an even higher loyalty, expressed by an Ashanti maxim:
“If power is for sale, sell your mother to obtain it. Once you have the power there are several ways of getting her back.” (Tufuo, p.26)
We can assume that among the Ashanti, that whatever sacrifice is necessary, it is important to “go for the gold.” The Ashanti desire to achieve status and political power through obtaining property and wealth is very strong. To be recognized and held in high esteem by the community is a worthy goal, but what of the methods used to obtain such recognition?