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L. Pescador, 1995

 

 

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THE FANTI, THE COMPANIES AND THE FLAGS OF THE ASAFO

 

by Federico Carmignani

 

               

 

 

Ethno-geographical orientation

 

Ghana lies on the west coast of Africa, facing the gulf of Guinea just north of the equator. Given the constant migration, various populations live within its boundaries. The most relevant population in terms of numbers, cultural weight and tradition is the Akan. They speak Twi PP and are divided into several different groups, among them the Ashanti one is the most relevant followed by the Fanti (or Fante). The Fanti are primarily based along the coast, above all, in the area which extends approximately from the town of Senya Beraku, east of the capital Accra, across to Shama which, is situated just before the port of Takoradi. This vast territory is historically divided into ‘traditional states’ with regions and inhabited centers which are under the authority of a traditional Chief, Paramount Chief or Omanhene (superior tribal chief). Among the Akan-Fanti populations the tradition of military organization in groups known as ‘Asafo’ goes back for centuries. ‘Asafo’, in the Twi language is a compound noun made up of two words: Sa which means ‘war’ and Fo which means ‘people’. The Fanti unlike the Ashanti have never had one unified central power and so each one of these states organized its own single and different companies (photos 2, 3 and 4) for protection and military necessity. Even today, each Asafo is guided by a chief elected for life called the Supi (photo 5). This means ‘a vase containing water’. Effectively, they constitute the essence of the company with their followers or Asafohenes which command other subgroups. There are also other minor but equally important figures including: the flag bearer (frankha-kittihin) (photos 6, 7, 8 and 9), the player of the sacred drums or gongs (kyerema), the flag keeper or (asinkanmbahin) and in times gone by the executioner (abrafo). There are also the Tufuhene or sub-chiefs (who manage things in the absence of the Chief) and act as coordinating links between the companies and the chief himself. The women too, called Asafokyere (photo 10) can take command equal to the men in the Asafohene. Each company is also run by a  council of elders (asafo-mpenyin) made up of seven members and known as ‘Beesuonfo’ (the seven greats). For the Fanti, the number 7 traditionally has a symbolic role. Within a ‘traditional state’ one or more companies operate, according to the size of the territory. For example, Anomabo, Asebu and Cape Coast have 7 Asafo companies (photo 11). Komenda has 5, Shama 4 and Winneba 2.

 

 

                   

 

 

The companies represent a powerful force within the Fanti society even in times of peace and often found themselves in conflict because of rivalry causing fights and civil disorder which disturbed the society. (photo 12). Each company has its own sacred place or ‘Posuban’ (photos 13 and 14). This place represents the power and the seat of the higher spirit and serves as a symbolic military emplacement. Without going into the complicated animist beliefs of the Fanti culture with their numerous ‘Obosom’ or gods, it is useful to remember that this place, originally represented by a tree surrounded by a wooden or brick fence (photo 15), is also the place where the ritual emblems are kept: the Asafo flag or (frankaa), the sacrificial knives, the gongs (photo 16), the drums, the amulets and the characteristic trumpets of colonial importation. Each of these elements represents a symbol of value and is at the same time a sacred object. The Posuban have since developed into major constructions in cement and brick which have taken on notable dimensions. They are decorated with figures representing the values of the companies, (animals, mythological figures and cannons etc. photo 17) and can be considered real works of art. Many of the traditional activities of the Asafo are linked to the Posuban. These include animal sacrifices and the invocation of protection and power as well as those celebrations related to the annual festivals of the various companies.

 

 

                   

 

 

Historical background

 

The Englishman Phillips Thomas, commander of the ‘Hannibal’, vessel of the Royal African Company who had conquered the Danish fort of Christiansborg (Accra-Ghana) visited the area in 1694 and provides the first description of an Akan flag… “the flag he was flying was white with a black man painted in the middle brandishing a scymiter”… There is no doubt that the flying of flags by the English, Danish, Dutch and Portuguese above their forts along the ‘Gold Coast’, destined to protect the slave trade, influenced the local populations who then imitated the practice. The lithograph in image n. 18 is, historically speaking, one of the first figurative examples of an African associated with a flag. (1820 W. Hutton – British and a public official of the ‘Africa Company’ with offices in Cape Coast - Ghana).

With time, the flags which had become part of the culture and traditions of the Fanti, developed as local elements with their own styles and precise functional and artistic characteristics.

Another example in Western Africa which can be associated with the Asafo flags is that of the ceremonial drapes with applied figures from the Fon ethnic group in the republic of Benin.

The Asafo flag served a social function, then and now, which was and is relevant, handing down culture and tradition, conserving the memory of significant events in the life of the village and creating a sense of identity, belonging group pride, establishing and governing the order and direction of each society (photo 19, 20, 21 and 22).

Each company, in fact, assumed as the symbol that best represented them, one or more flags that embody their spirituality while remembering the deceased that belonged to the organization. Usually, an Asafo Company commissioned a new flag in the occasion of the installation of a new Supi. There are also other motivations including: the installation of an Asafohene, the celebration of a relevant event involving the village in the past, a donation by a well-off member of the company and the construction or development of the ‘Posuban’.

The substitution of the flags is also a factor which stimulates the production of new ones. This was once due to the natural deterioration of the fabric caused by the difficult tropical climate, but more recently has been motivated basically by financial considerations on the part of various local art dealers.

 

 

               

 

 

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