Despite the atrocities of slavery, over 20,000,000 black people endured. Although stripped of much of their culture, language, and heritage upon their arrival to the Americas, inhabitants from African shores (including Ghana) held on to many traditions: extended family, overt expressions of faith and ancestral worship, the ability to improvise and make do with minimal resources, the creative use of seasonings, okra, peanuts, and yams; language and terms of endearment, woodcrafting and ironwork, cornrowing and body adornment, music and dance are evident throughout the Africa Diaspora.
. While visiting Adukrom, a small township along Ghana's Akrupam Ridge, I resided with the Adjei family. My stay there reminded me very much of being in Harlem during the 50s and 60s, a time when Black communities were strong and striving. I wondered why despite never having visited Adukrom before, I felt so connected.
On the first day of my four-day homestay visit, I chatted briefly with the lady of the house, Mrs. Grace Adjei. Grace was busy in the kitchen preparing a welcome meal for me. Grace apologized for not sitting with me, for she simply had to complete the welcome meal. I shared it was fine, that until she was finished, I would love to meet the children of the household. Taking advantage of the moment, Grace called for her granddaughter, Ivy, an eight-year old who had been playing with a group of children in front of the house. All dashed in, curious to meet the new visitor. Ivy introduced the remaining bunch while her grandmother ran out to put the finishing touches on the fufu, kelewele, and okra stew: "Mah-dam, dis ees my braadah, Bismarck," Ivy shared with a Twi accent. "Dis ees my seestah, Cynthee-ah. Dis ees my braadah, Willyum…" I met 8 children--each who appeared to be so close in age, their relationship was questionable! As soon as the opportunity availed itself, I spoke with Grace. "Ivy introduced me to
." "Ohh yeahs, awl ov dem are my chill-drehn." "You're kidding me!" I responded. "No, day are my chill-drehn. Two lev dowhn dah way, tree lev next dohr, and tree are my grahn-chillren." Needless to say, I burst into smiles for I should have remembered: extended family is an integral part of Ghanaian culture (and African culture overall). My question was answered. It was the sense of community and inclusiveness that reminded me of my younger years in Harlem. For me, it served as a confirmation that my old neighborhood embraced an African tradition.
Extended family defined includes every member, from mother and father, grandparents and cousins to Godparents and life-long friends. The extended family is also comprised of many households. Each family member knows his or her place and responsibilities. Elders are treated with respect and are often sought after as a source of wisdom and guidance. Ancestors are revered and at times called upon and honored during ritualistic ceremonies. Children belong to everyone in the family; it is not uncommon for one to call an elder Mother, Father, or Auntie even if there were no or minimal genetic ties. Extended family serves a source of guidance and emotional and spiritual support. Children from different sets of parents think of themselves as brothers and sisters.
It is phenomenal to observe that despite the dehumanizing impact of the slave trade, the concept of extended family has been translated into black culture throughout the Caribbean and the Americas past and present. On the plantation, many blacks of differing African ancestry took on the role of
. (These and other terms of endearment meaning
were carried over from West African shores and are still used today.) Children from different sets of parents called themselves brother and sister. Many lived in the same households, working together much like their ancestors in the Motherland. Several historians specializing in the field of African Studies, like Professors John Henrik Clark and Yosef ben-Jochannan, contend it is one aspect of African heritage that helped black people endure the brutal conditions of slavery.
Many households today throughout the Americas and the Caribbean continue to embrace this tradition. Grandparents, aunts, and uncles often living in the same household serve as caretakers for the children. Responsibilities are given to respective family members. Ancestors, long deceased, are often discussed, revered, and remembered during special holiday gatherings and family reunions. Although the concept of extended family is still embraced by many people of African descent, it has been negatively impacted by social patterns (particularly in the United States) of individualism, divorce, and the integration and/or scattering of once close-knit communities. Cultural celebrations such as Kwanzaa, a seven-day African-American holiday created in the United States to commemorate the rich heritage of Black people, encourage Black people to hold on to this important tradition.
Similarities found in cooking among blacks throughout Africa, the Caribbean, and the Americas are astounding! I found this to be particularly true when traveling to West Africa, the Caribbean, and the American south.
While dining with the Adjei family in Ghana, I gorged myself on a hearty meal of okra stew accompanied with rice, a spicy mucilaginous dish remarkably similar to one my father often made for our family during my childhood. The tantalizing dish is a blend of diced okra, tomatoes, corn, onions, cayenne pepper, with a pinch of salt simmered over medium heat.
In 1984, while visiting Barbados, I came upon a roadside stand. The woman there sold a wide variety of sweets; her coconut cakes and sugared peanuts caught my fancy (and helped me gain a few pounds). Later travels to Bahia, South America , Nassau, Bahamas, and Ghana resulted in similar roadside encounters. In each instance, the scrumptious coconut cakes were made of grated coconut, sugar, water, and ground ginger. The combined ingredients were simmered in an iron pan, cooled, shaped into patties, and eaten as a tasty in between meal treat. Unshelled peanuts were similarly simmered in a shallow pan containing mixture of more sugar than water. Cooked until the sugar crystallized around each nut, the treat satisfied the most voracious sweet tooth.
Dumplings, a small mass of leavened dough cooked by boiling or steaming, is similar to banku, a large Ghanaian dumpling made of pounded cassava and corn meal. Oxtails with dumplings, a savory stew often referred to as Southern and/or Caribbean cuisine, is similar to meat and/or vegetable stew dishes accompanied with banku eaten in Ghana and in many other countries in West Africa.
The use of spicy seasonings, corn, black-eyed peas, greens, okra, peanuts, watermelon, and starchy fruits and vegetables like plantains and cassava by blacks throughout the Africa Diaspora are deemed rooted in African culture.
. Today in the United States and abroad, it is not uncommon to find people across cultures donned in wearing apparel made of authentic Kente cloth or cotton fabrics duplicating the Kente design. People from all walks of life today use this fabric, long ago worn solely by Ghanaian chieftains and their royal court. Many clergy members in traditional black churches throughout the United States and the Caribbean wear Kente as part of their religious uniform. Many priests at parishes housed in Black communities wear Kente collars and overlays as part of their religious attire. Kente sashes and collars have become a familiar adornment and college graduation ceremonies
Authentic Kente continues to be painstakingly woven in the small town of Bonwire in Ghana, West Africa. Its popularity has extended that township; cotton replicas of the fabric have also been created in other parts of the world, particularly China and Turkey.
For many who wear it, Kente serves as fashion statement. For others, it depicts a connectedness with Africa and her people. Note too that its use is not limited to the clothing industry. Kente today also serves as an international symbol for the entire African continent; an eye-catching Kente wall-hanging is proudly displayed in a main corridor of the United Nations.
The use of Adinkra symbolism has carried over into Caribbean, the United States, and Europe. Originally, these symbols were not created for art sake but rather to convey a message: in the past, Adinkra fabric was used extensively for funerary occasions. As holds true for the use of Kente cloth today, Adinkra fabrics are worn and used by people of all cultures spanning the globe for wide variety of occasions and reasons.
A visit to major department stores like Rich's in Atlanta, Georgia or specialty shops like Pier 1 Imports or the Authentic Things Boutique in New Haven, Connecticut, will find you amid clothing and artifacts filled with Adinkra symbolism. A stopover in Brooklyn, New York will find you at Sankofa Ironworks, a company specializing in home repair and iron fencing. The company proudly displays its Sankofa logo. Ajuuwa and Muchson Halim, artisans who specialize in the creation of sterling silver jewelry laden with Adinkra symbols, distribute their creations throughout the United States and the Caribbean. Their work (available through cultural centers such as The Studio Museum and The Schomburg Center of African Research Gift Shop, both located in Harlem, New York) is rich in meaning and painstakingly created.
For many people, the use of Adinkra symbolism has become an art form, but for a large number of blacks throughout the Africa Diaspora, the symbols continue to convey a message.
Black hairstyling trends in the U.S. have taken on many twists and turns: Post slavery and up through the 60s, blacks have embraced fashion trends closely associated with larger Euro-centric standards of beauty. A large number of men wore their hair straightened, processed, and wrapped in do-rags, while many black women resorted to the hot comb and permanent waving methods. During the 60s, with the rise of Black awareness, many African-Americans began to embrace aesthetic values based on West African culture. Letting ones hair grow out naturally became the norm. Hair braiding as a symbol of beauty and identity became popular and continues to grow. (Interesting to note is that during and post slavery times and up until the 60s, natural hairstyles and corn-rowed hair were deemed "bad hair, niggah naps, or pickininny dos." Today, for many Blacks throughout the world, cropped and corn-rowed hairstyles serve as a symbol of beauty and pride.)
Hair braiding salons owned by Ghanaians, Senegalese other African people, along with Black American-born entrepreneurs, are thriving businesses in the 21st century. These salons service people across cultures. (Ironically in Ghana and many parts of the African continent today, many women are taking on Westernized values: hair straightening and perms are not unusual. Nevertheless, a huge percentage of Ghanaian females from childhood to 18 continue to tale pride in holding on to past traditions, wearing their hair natural or meticulously braided in impressive styles.)
Music and Dance
. From October 1996 through March 1997, an exhibition accentuating African musical instruments and their visibility throughout the world was featured at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. According to descriptive notes provided by Ken Moore, Associate Curator of the Musical Instrument Department at MMA, during the presentation (see www.furious.com/perfect/kenmoore), "The essence of African music is rooted in the concept that simple rhythmic patterns played on rattles, drums, bells, horns, and other musical instruments simultaneously form a dense mixture of polyrhythmic impulses that fade in and out, constantly renewing and recombining as a kaleidoscope of sound textures. Handclapping and jingles worn on arms and legs or attached to clothing accentuate dance movements and add to this rhythmic complex of layered sound. The music invites the active participation of each member of the community and distinctions between performer and observer become blurred as the infectious rhythms demand that the body react." Moore added that the use of musical instruments from all parts of the African continent has had a significant, enriching impact on music and dance throughout the world.
Pre-slavery, African music and dance were used as a source of communication. Membranophones (drums), idiophones (slit gongs, bells, clapping sticks, thumb pianos, xylophones and rattles), aerophones (woodwinds of the "African orchestra"), and chordophones (stringed instruments) were used to convey messages, thoughts, warnings, values, and feelings. Music and musical instruments served as a phone line for African people. Slavetraders and slaveowners, aware of this fact, made every attempt to disconnect this mode of communication. However, singing, drumming, and dance resurfaced in Caribbean and the Americas in disguised forms. African traditional music and dance were ingeniously fused with African rituals and celebrations.
Africanisms in music and dance across cultures are evident past and present. Long ago, when confined to slave quarters, the African slapped out Hambone rhythms across knee and chest. They made catchy tunes with swift feet movement against dry earth, laying the foundation for tap. Sandman Simms, Sammy Davis, Jr., Gregory Hines, and Savion Glover are masters of this legacy. Dance steps performed by the Asante during the Akwasidae festival influenced rhythmic movements found in Charleston, a popular dance in the U.S. during the roaring 20s. Saxophonist John Coltrane and trumpeteer Miles Davis fused modern day sounds with rhythms played in the Asantehene's court. Quincy Jones, Earth, Wind, and Fire, and Ralph McDonald combined African rhythm with modern-day melodies: these artists used such instruments as the twene dua (slit log drum), dawro (bell), djembe and dunno (talking drums), and mbiri (finger piano) to create contemporary sounds we enjoy today. Tito Puente, Celia Cruz, and other Latin musicians undergird their salsa, meringue, and mambo beats with African sounds. Punk, rock, raggae… all have an undertone of African rhythm. A full circle has truly been made, for today, the works of such Ghanaian recording artists as Gyedu-blay Ambolley and Konimo resound not only in their homeland, but throughout the world.
Inventiveness and Creativity
. The ability to take limited resources and transform them into functional objects is a part of African tradition that has endured throughout the Africa Diaspora.
During slavery, particularly in the South, blacks used tattered pieces of cloth to create patchwork quilts, many of which contained the strip method of weaving prevalent in Ghanaian and other West African cultures. Quilts were used not only as a source of warmth and comfort; but at times as a source of relaying information. The cloth often contained patterns and symbols that like Adinkra "talked" to the user, helping runaways make it North to the Promised Land, away from slavery's clutches. (An African-American quilt exhibition is currently being featured at the Yale Art Gallery; scheduled for exhibition at other museums across the country, it wonderfully portrays this aspect of history.) The waste products from the pig, doled to the slave by his/her master, were transformed into edible foodstuffs like chitterlings, pig feet, and blood pudding. Remarkably today, these once undesired parts of the pig are served as delicacies in many fine restaurants across the U.S. Washboards and a sturdy piece of thread strung from a nail hammered into a board served as musical instruments. For many blacks throughout the world, the tradition lives on.
Activity 1: A Taste of Ghana
Many wonderful recipes made their way across the Atlantic from African shores. Here are a few variations to give you a taste of Ghana and the Africa Diaspora.
1 16-ounce can of unsalted peanuts
1 to 2 teaspoonfuls of cayenne pepper
Open the can of unsalted nuts. Sprinkle cayenne thereon. Close the lid. Shake vigorously to ensure all nuts are dotted with the savory spice. Open and enjoy. A glass of papaya, mango, or pineapple juice with ice serves as a delicious accompaniment! Enjoy!
Grace's Groundnut Stew
I had the opportunity to sample this savory stew during my home stay visit in Ghana. Although I have not mastered the original recipe, this modified version resembles what I experienced in the home of Grace Adjei. It is delicious served with a fresh garden salad and whole-wheat bread! This hearty meal should be prepared in an uncovered three- quart pot.
1 package chicken cutlets (cut into bite-size wedges)
McCormick Monterey Chicken seasoning
1/2 cup of peanut, olive, or vegetable oil
1 32-ounce can of Bruce's Yams
28-ounce can of pureed or diced tomatoes
2 large white potatoes (diced)
1 medium head of cabbage (diced into thin, bite-sized pieces)
1-2 cups of water
1 large onion (diced fine)
1-16 ounce package of baby carrots
8-ounces of peanut butter
1 to 2 teaspoons of cayenne pepper (or season to taste)
1 level teaspoon of sugar
Pre-heat oil in three-quart pot. Using McCormick's Monterrey Chicken seasoning, season chicken wedges to taste. Add chicken wedges, diced onion, and cabbage to heated oil. Sautee until vegetables and chicken are tender. Add two cups of water and tomato puree. Simmer over medium heat for 30 minutes or until stew slowly thickens. Stir occasionally. Add sweet potatoes, carrots, cayenne, and the remaining water. Stir. Continue to slow cook under medium heat. Add peanut butter. Simmer for an additional 15 to 20 minutes, until vegetables are tender. Serves six to eight.
This recipe, served as a side dish or in-between meal treat, is simple to make. Brother Eddie, manager of the Cozy Lodge Restaurant in the beautiful city of Kumasi, prepared it for me.
2 large, firm plantains
cup of vegetable oil
Heat vegetable oil in skillet. Slice plantains into ½-inch wedges. Cut wedges into fourths. Sautee wedges in skillet for 2 to 3 minutes until golden brown. Remove and drain on a paper towel. Sprinkle lightly with sugar or salt to taste.
(An Americanized Version)
1 ¼ cup of sugar
¼ cup of water
2 cups of grated coconut
Optional: for a true Ghanaian flair, include 1 piece (about 2" long) of grated ginger.
Mix sugar and water in a heavy saucepan. Stir over moderate heat until sugar is completely dissolved. Cook without stirring until the sugar mixture lightly browns and slightly thickens. Add grated coconut and stir until mixture is thoroughly combined. Remove from heat and allow mixture to cool until it can be handled. Using an ungreased cookie sheet, scoop a heaping teaspoon, shape into a ball. Place each ball 1" apart onto the cookie sheet. Press lightly to flatten. Let it set until completely cooled and firm. Yields 30.
Our Musical Heritage Series: Music of Africa
. This video focuses on West African musical instruments with emphasis on Ghana. Reasonably priced, hands on instruments can be purchased at such stores as T. J. Maxx, Marshalls, 1001 Villages, and Pier 1 Imports.
Funding permitted and/or permission granted, learn more about African and Ghanaian culture by visiting: New Haven's Yale Art Gallery and/or Luchson's Casa Blanca African Artifacts Shop; New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art, American Museum of Natural History, Brooklyn Museum of Art, and the Africa Museum.