The Ashanti king was no figure-head ruler. All power was given to him. He was the maker of all executive decisions and the power behind all Ashanti laws. He was chief justice, and commander in chief of the Ashanti army. In order to choose a new chief, those who were eligible through the Queen Mother’s relatives were assembled, and the clan leaders voted on a successor, chosen on the basis of qualifications of leadership and political ability.
The inheritance rights of the Ashanti pass through the mother’s side of the family. Land belongs to the woman, not the man. Children belong legally to the mother, since they belong to the mother’s clan, called the “matriclan.” When a man marries a woman he agrees that “he will take responsibilities if there by any, but her assets and property should return to the matriclan.” (Tufuo, p. 44) The woman also recognizes her dependence on her husband for protection, and his right, while he lives, to claim what is hers. There is an Ashanti adage which refers to possession of property: “if a woman weaves a shield, she stores it in a man’s room.” (Tufuo, p. 45)
There are strict rules about marriage partners. A person cannot marry within his or her “matriclan.” Parents must approve of the mate a young man or woman chooses, and the girl is expected to be married soon after her “coming of age” (Puberty) ceremony, in which she is officially displayed as “eligible” to the rest of the village. A man is allowed to marry several wives, as long as he can adequately provide for them; this demonstrates his wealth and generosity. Also, among the Ashanti there are fewer men than women, so that polygamy helps to assure that all women will become married, with children, the fulfillment of an Ashanti woman’s goal of success.
When a baby is born, whether it is male or female, there is great rejoicing among the clan. A few days after the baby is born, the mother carries the baby around the village on her back. The people of the village give gifts and money; they wish the mother congratulations and the baby a long life. A special drink ceremony is held “to create the voice and imbue him (or her) with wisdom and intelligence,” so that the baby will resemble a “true Ashanti.” (Tufuo, p. 54)
Everyone joins in the child’s training as the child begins to walk and talk. Aunts, uncles, cousins and brothers and sisters are always there to encourage and instruct the baby in Ashanti ways. The child is never alone and knows he will always belong to the people of his family and community.
The child has a great deal of freedom at home, with parents seeking to guide rather than discipline the child. Children are reasoned with and parents tend to be very patient, even indulgent with their young ones. The home is where customs and traditions are learned and practiced, stories told, and the past relived. Home is a secure place, where everyone is accepted and respected, where values and attitudes are molded. If a child misbehaves, it is considered the parents’ fault, and a shame and an embarrassment to them. In court, it is Ashanti custom to penalize parents equally for serious crimes committed by their children. The Ashanti believe that “parents are responsible for the training of their children and if they were trained well they would have behaved well.” (Tufuo, p. 35)
Boys are trained by the fathers to be farmers. From the time they are old enough to walk, they are taken out into the fields to help to weed the garden and learn the names of the plants. Later, they are taught to hunt and fish, and learn the ways of the forest. When young, boys and girls play together, but girls are discouraged from playing rougher games and sports. Fathers have regular story times for sons and daughters each afternoon. Girls spend most of their time with their mothers and other women, learning to carry water, prepare meals, keep a clean house, and, in general, take on domestic responsibility. They sing while preparing bath water and helping to prepare the evening meal which is shared by many relatives. They are expected to become active in the community social life and to join a dance group or a musical society. Mothers carefully instruct their daughters how to use special herbs and spices which keep the body smelling clean.
The men eat a communal dinner together. The wives take the food to the father-in-law’s house for the men, who eat out of a common dish. Boys can dip their hands in too, as soon as they are old enough to wash their own hands; until then they eat with the women. Unmarried men go to their uncle’s house to eat, where all the cousins and nephews gather. Women in the same house eat together, but not from the same dish. Women who are having their menstrual period eat separately from all the others because they are believed to be unclean until their period is over.
Each day at dusk, it is time for stories, games, dancing and singing. Everyone is in bed by ten o’clock because work begins the next morning before sunrise!
When a girl has her first period, it is cause for celebration. The old women of the village sing special songs commemorating the occasion, and the girl’s mother pours wine and says a special prayer. The next day the girl’s body is shaved and she is dressed in a special dress and adorned with gold necklaces, hair ornaments and leg and ankle beads. Young girls sing songs to her, and friends and relatives give presents. She is given a special bath in the river, followed by dancing and singing. Special traditional foods are prepared and more traditional rites performed. Five days later, she dresses up in her best outfit and goes around the village to thank everyone who had attended the ceremony. (Rattray, Religion, pp. 69-74) There are no similar customs for males among the Ashanti.
In order to marry, a young man must get permission from the bride-to-be’s parents, and offer gifts to any members of the clan to whom his bride-to-be directs him. These gifts may be fish, tobacco, salt or gold dust. Once the customary “bride price” is paid, along with the consent of the girl and her parents, a wedding day is set. On the morning of the marriage, the bride dresses up in her best dress adorned with gold ornaments, and is led by her mother to the bridegroom’s house, where they thank him for all his gifts. They leave, later to return, when the chief of the village says a few words and performs a short ceremony, including a sip of customary wine. (Rattray, Ibid., pp. 84-85)
As stated above, polygamy is traditional among Ashanti, one wife being the “senior” wife, who would be consulted if any additional wives were contemplated. The Ashanti word for co-wife means, “jealous one,” although there were apparently families where everyone seemed to live rather peacefully. Whichever wife sleeps with her husband cooks for him, usually for a week at a time. Disputes among wives are not the responsibility of the husband, although he is expected to administer an orderly household. Both husbands and wives can divorce each other. Reasons for divorce among the Ashanti include: adultery, sterility, drunkenness, physical abuse, and refusal to give support (husband). In case of divorce, a married woman’s property is totally separate from her husband’s; he has no claim on them. The children also, are the mother’s, since they are of the mother’s clan. (Rattray, Ibid., pp. 97-98) Often, however, in case of divorce, the sons stay with the father.
Generally, private arbitration is the approved manner for legal settlement among the Ashanti, since they do not wish disputes to come to public attention. A minor complaint is usually judged by a family member; a serious matter would have to be taken up by a head of the clan plus two other community members. Juries are not used; the only need for a large group of arbiters would be in the case of two members from different clans, when the village chief, his elders and a local priest may be called in. Young offenders are often excused from guilt on grounds of ignorance. Even adults can be excused from legal punishment if they can reasonably prove that “the commission of the offense has been without deliberate intention and knowledge.” (Tufuo, p. 71) The Ashanti believe in justice, but justice with mercy.
The Ashanti culture strives to benefit everyone through the efforts of the individuals who make it up. Competition is seen as something healthy; power and wealth are not to be despised, but ultimately the test to a true Ashanti is to strive toward a unity which benefits everyone. Struggle and disagreements, even jealousy are built into the Ashanti way of life, and the Ashanti proverb says it this way:
Yenyuina y’afruru ako
Nanso yedidi a, yeko.”
Which means: “We are two crocodiles sharing one common stomach; yet when it is mealtime, we struggle with one another.” (Antubam, p. 193) Struggle and strife are necessary, but unity born of diversity is worth the price!