Some people say cancer is caused by bitterness and the resentment people hold on to. If this were true, Nana Achaa Boahemaa the II, Queen Mother of the Ashanti Kingdom would have lived longer. She was the most caring, loving and kind-hearted person anyone had ever met, yet she died of breast cancer at the age of 49. I wish I had met her. She was my Grandmother. I was looking for all the “spoiling” and pampering I would have gotten if she were alive. At least that’s what my mum and my aunts tell me all the time. “If Grandma were alive, you would have been so pampered!”. She gave more of herself to ensure that her children, her family and those she was “responsible” for lived well. She was more than a woman, more than a Queen. I had the pleasure of speaking with my Aunt about her. She lives in the Ashanti region in Ghana. We talked about Nana’s wedding and Ashanti marriage customs. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How would you describe Ashanti people but more specifically the Ashanti women?
The Ashanti people are very traditional. They believe in traditions and uphold their customs. Ashanti women are strong women, very diligent, strong-willed, yet very submissive to their husbands. We have traces of Yaa Asantewaa-a Ghanaian warrior Queen-embedded in us.
You refer to the Ashanti women as strong yet submissive, is there a contradiction here?
The Ashanti people are a matrilineal society. This means that our line of decedents is traced through the female and land, and other properties are inherited from the mother’s side. The women take charge of their uncles’ estates, and the men take care of their nieces and nephews. We are very involved in our nuclear and extended families. There are consequences when you step on our toes. You must not take us for granted. Still, I will describe us as being marriage material.
What was Grandma’s life like before she became Queen mother of the Ashanti Region?
She was down to earth, forgiving, never bore grudges and she was like a “mother to all”. Her motherly tendencies showed in her role as a Queen mother of the Ashanti Region. When she was younger, long before she became Queen, she finished technical school to become a typist. Then she was a secretary to the Minister of Health in Ghana. That’s where my father met my mother at the office of the Minister of Health. My mother was only 19 years old when my father married her. My father saw how beautiful my mother was and decided to marry her. He was much older than she was. In those days, people got married very young.
How would you compare marriages in Grandma’s time to marriages now?
My father and mum’s marriage, I would describe as a “marriage of convenience”. My dad cared for my mother, but I wouldn’t say they married for love. My father married my mother because she was beautiful, but he made sure to support her and her family. In those days, you married someone who had enough money to take care of you and possibly your family. It’s not like these days where people marry for love. My father was very supportive, and he made sure to help my mum’s siblings travel outside of Ghana. Back then, my father was the first chief pharmacist in Ghana, and his company at that time was doing very well. That’s how my mother was able to fund her siblings’ education.
Before a man and a woman would get married, were there any practices that would take place before the marriage?
Oh yes. In my parents’ time, both families will inquire of the other family, which is referred to in twi as “Busa” to ask or inquire. The parents from the man’s family will research the woman and her family to ensure that there are no illnesses in the woman’s family, no drunkards, no thieves, no adulteress and the list goes on. The woman’s family will also conduct their research about the man and his family. Suppose the result of the inquiry is positive, meaning that both the man and woman’s family don’t have a history of disease or any criminal or questionable background. In that case, the families allow the man and woman to get married.
How are marriage ceremonies like in Ghana now? Are they any different now compared to my grandparents’ time?
During their time, when children are born, the male and the female child are betrothed to one another. The male’s family will come to the home of the female’s family and ask for her hand in marriage. She will marry the man that her family has agreed from birth that she should marry.
During their time, there was no such thing as a ring. Both the man and the woman married without a ring. Our traditional marriages now would have been legal then. Now marriages have to be registered so that it is legal. It is known as customary rites in the municipal assembly. The government made this a requirement to protect both the man and the woman. What I mean is that, if a man was to die and leave his family, the woman is still recognized as the wife of her deceased husband. This prevents the family members from the man’s side from claiming everything of his. By law, if a man should die and leave his wife, the woman will obtain 1/3 of his assets, 1/3 goes to the children and 1/3 goes to the man’s family.
Both now and in my parents’ time, the man will come with his family to the woman’s family. The man is given a list of things that the woman’s family requires. The list comprises several things like Nsa(Alcohol), expensive cloth-like Kente, gold, cooking utensils, jewellery (like our beads). The man must provide a list of these things for the woman’s dowry. If the man’s family cannot offer some of the items on the list, they speak with the woman’s family to see if both families can reach a compromise. Still, it is essential that as a man you provide the list of things because if you are unable to provide the list of things to the woman’s family, they will not give their daughter away to the man and his family.
Then there are white weddings. This was not so common in my parent’s time. Weddings conducted in churches are a symbol that God is witnessing the marriage between the two people. This is also as a result of when the whites brought religion into Ghana. Very traditional families will say that, if you do not have a traditional marriage ceremony, you are not married. Traditional marriage must take place before a white wedding.
Why does this list of things determine if the family gives their daughter away or not?
The woman’s family wants to ensure that as a man, you can take care of your wife. The Ashanti people believe that a man must provide for his family, and the woman is the caretaker of the home. The father of the bride entrusts the man and his family with his daughter. He is not only giving her away to be married to the man but the man’s family too. So if the man and his family are unable to provide the list of things for the woman’s dowry, the bride’s father and his family do not trust that their daughter will be well taken care of. Again, you married for convenience, and more often, your family decided who you married.
How did Nana Achaa Boahemaa become the Queen mother of the Ashanti?
She was called. You had to be called to serve the role as Queen. My Grandma was a Queen mother as well before she died. After my Grandma died the stool of the Queen mother was left with no one sitting on it, and since my mother was the first daughter of my Grandma she had to play that role of a Queen. She was 40 or 41 when she became Queen mother. She was Queen for 7 or 8 years until she passed. She died of Breast Cancer, but my mother lived a good life. To be honest, I strongly feel that my mother may have lived longer if it wasn’t for the rituals she had to perform as a Queen mother.
What were these rituals?
She had to pour libation to the gods in that region, she had to make some rituals to the Queen mothers stool (seat) in acknowledgement of the Asantehene (King of the Ashanti Kingdom). She also had to offer sacrifices by the blood of goats/lambs. The blood from the lamb or goat would be poured over the Queen’s stool. These were all part of the rituals she had to perform as a Queen mother.
What did it mean to pour libation?
For instance, there is a festival celebrated by the Ashanti people called Akwasidae. This festival is celebrated on a Sunday once every six weeks. There, Grandma would pour libation to invoke the God of the stool to come around. This may have affected her health even more, spiritually speaking. At that time, Grandma was still attending a catholic church. While going to church, she would still perform her duties as a Queen mother, including pouring libation and making animal sacrifices.
Who replaced her after she died?
After she died, no one took over the stool of the Queen-mother, they have inquired of her daughters, and they all turned it down. No one would take up the role of Queen mother.