Who the Asante Are
The Asante are located in the Ashanti region of Ghana. The 2010 population census estimated the
population in the region at 4.780, 380; and Kumasi, the traditional capital of the Asante, at
2,035,064 (Statistical Service Ghana 2012: 1, 8). Even though there is migrant population, it is
arguable that the Asante form greater proportion of the population in this region. The Asante are
part of a socio-cultural group known as the Akan. This group consists of the Akwamu, Guan,
Fante, Denkyra, Brong, Akyem, Kwahu, Sefwi, Wassa, Akwapim, Assin and Asante.
Geographically, the Akan occupy the western, central and Ashanti regions and parts of the BrongAhafo, eastern regions of Ghana and the eastern part of the Ivory Coast. There is consensus that,
together with the rest of these Akan groups, the Asante have migrated from ancient Mesopotamia
to sub-Saharan Africa (Gedzi 2009; Osei 2004).
Each of the Akan ethnic groups is autonomous but linked by similar culture and the Twi language.
A discussion with Asokore-Mamponghene (paramount chief of Asokore-Mampong) and other
traditional elders during fieldwork in Kumasi has revealed that the Asante migrated from the north
to Techiman and then drifted to the southern coast in places like Mankesim. Most of the Asante
people were hunters and since the coast was not conducive to this kind of life, they decided to
move back to the north and settled in Adanse where they learned to build houses. Thus, the name
of this settlement Adanse etymologically refers to the art of building houses (i.e., Adansie). From
Adanse, the various groups moved further north again toward Bekwai, Asantemanso and Kokofu.
Other places people went to were Dwaben, Mampong, Nsuta, Kumawu, Offinso, and Nkoranza,
while others also went to Kwaman, which was the original name for Kumasi.
The obvious question one may ask is:
Who are the Asante? It is therefore appropriate that in this
initial stage we define the name Asante (Asanteni – an Asante; Asantefo – Asante). One may have
to start with Asantefo as a word and as a linguistic problem. What did the word Asantefo originally mean?
What is its etymology? Historians and anthropologists continue to debate this issue and
have offered various answers (see Allman 2000; McCaskie 1995; Osei 2001; Wilks 1993).This
paper addresses three main attempts made to arrive at a Twi2
etymology for Asante. These are namely, Asan-te-fuo (clay producing group), Esa-nti-fuo (because of war group) and Asanteni-ba (a child of Asante). All this reflects the kind of reasoning involved.
The Curator of the Kumasi Manhyia Palace, Osei Kwadwo (2001), for example, proposed that:
The Asante got the name from the special commodity they served Denkyira with. All the states
were sending commodities like plantain fibre, firewood and gold dust to Denhyira [hene] every
Akwasidae. But in addition to these commodities, the Asantes were sending red clay as a special
commodity to Denkyira. The Akan call the red clay “Asan”, therefore the Asante were
differentiated from others with the name Asan-tefo i.e. those who dig for clay (Osei 2001: 1).
The second theory, which the Curator has come out with and looks somewhat plausible, is that
the name Asante is said to emerge as a result of the people’s activity as they prepared for war. This
was at the time of Osei Tutu in the 16th century when the famous traditional priest, Okomfo Anokye
purportedly gathered all the Asante chiefs from the various ‘micro states’ and advised them to
form a single, larger confederacy against their warring enemies such as the Denkyra. To cement
the union, Okomfo Anokye was said to have commanded a golden stool, which he made to rest on
the lap of his friend Osei Tutu, who at the time was the chief of Kwaman (old name for Kumasi).
Okomfo Anokye managed to convince the other chiefs to accept the Kwaman chief, Osei Tutu as
their king. The golden stool, therefore, is believed to be a symbol of the unity of all the Asante
microstates represented by their chiefs.
According to an Asante legend, the golden stool contains the soul of the Asante nation and thus, belongs to the Asante nation. Every chief in the union pays allegiance to it. As indicated, the union was formed to fight the Denkyera king, Ntim Gyakari. In other words, it was ‘because of war’ (esa nti) that the union formed. Thus, the people came to be
the Esa-nti or Asante—meaning those who formed a union because of war (Osei 2001). While the
Curator’s theories seem to have its basis on the etymology of Asantefo, the derivation does not
seem to prove much because it does not give any clue to the meaning of the word.
The third theory that appears more ingenious but less convincing is Asanteni-ba. This is taken
from the Asante observation that an Asanteni (sing.) is a child born of an Asante mother and an
Asante father. This explanation concerns the biological origin of a person. However, it seems that
this alone also may not be enough to make someone an Asanteni.
Jean Allman (2000) argues the fluidity of history of the concept, Asante. Ivor Wilks (1993)
indicates that the Akan in the 15th century were distinguished and defined by their sedentary
agriculture, matriclans and matrilineages, ‘states’ (aman) and bonds of ‘language, religion and a
common sense of shared identity’ (94). As the Asante emerged at the end of the 17th century
however, various dynamics of the developing Asante state shaped their identity (Allman 2000:
101). This fluid process continued in the 18th and 19th centuries. Arhin (1983), in his study of
‘Peasants in Nineteenth Century Asante’, indicated that ‘be(com)ing Asante’ was associated with being or becoming urban and worldly or being pulled towards the urban life of Kumasi, the traditional capital (Arhin 1983: 475). Thus ‘being’ Asante was something you ‘did over time and across space. It was not something you flatly were or were not’ (Allman 2000: 103). ‘Asanteness’ as a process of ‘be(com)ing’, according to Allman, historically became evidenced in the annual odwira festival where the ‘unity of the Asanteman was re-enacted; allegiance to the golden stool
was affirmed; the centrality of Kumasi was reinforced; and the seamless unity of dead, living and
unborn was remembered. Power, moreover, was reconstituted and reaffirmed’ (Allman 2000: 103).
This symbolic re-enactment of ‘Asanteness’ through the celebration of the odwira lapsed between
1896 and 1985 (McCaskie 1995: 151). Although later reintroduced, its significance was lost. Thus,
being an Asante had become an ascribable attribute. Allman concluded that ‘Asanteness’ was no
longer something that had to be performed; it only had to be believed. But the social base, in
women’s roles as mothers of the lineage, in the values and symbols and rhythms that marked Akan
communities, there remained for Asante a ‘seamless unity’ between an Akan past and an Akan
present (Allman 2000: 110).
It seems therefore, that the various etymological attempts are social constructs, which the Asante
themselves have made over the years in trying to understand their own identity. This understanding
is fluid and continues to change according to the passage of time. Therefore, it is important not to
be restricted to one etymological explanation. Observation on the social life of the Asante; their
actions and interactions with themselves and others demonstrate that an Asanteni or an Asante
(Plural, Asantefo) may be someone capable of speaking the Twi language, whose parents,
especially the mother, is an Asante and more significantly, must be one who owes allegiance to
the Sika Dwa Kofi or the Golden Stool. This assessment corroborates T.C. McCaskie’s explanation
that the right of full citizenship in Asante society seems exclusively vested and defined by
membership in an abusua kesee or the extended family (McCaskie 1995: 88) whose origin in any
case comes from an ancestress. This, according to McCaskie, lays the foundational premise of
social and cultural order of the Asante. To alter this definition and construction of the jural
corporateness in any way, may be tantamount to tearing up the charter of Asante society.
Anthropologists identified the social convergence of this for the ordinary Asante citizen in the
sense that the severance of lineage ties may be comparable to passing a death sentence over him
or her (McCaskie 1995: 89).
Enid Schildkrout also argues that this phenomenon of identifying oneself with a particular ethnic
group and seeing others outside that group as strangers or outsiders was a legacy of, and
complicated by, British colonial rule. This is because during the colonial period, people whose
traditional homelands or states were not known or defined were tagged by the British as ‘nonnatives’. In moments of political crisis, the ‘non-natives’ were susceptible to deportation to their
places of origin. By this definition, the concept of nationality links with the concept of ethnic
origin, since the place of birth alone did not confer the status of native (Schildkrout 1970: 254).
Thus, it could be said that it was only by pragmatic considerations that the Asante society gave
rights of ‘Asanteness’ to anyone whom they perceived could bring economic prosperity to their
For the Asante, Kumasi was a structure in which the economic, social, and political systems
merged intricately, where everyone received his or her due. Within this pattern, the king provided
the protection within which trade could flow with limited official interruption. Even though this
structure has changed over time, there are traces left behind since the present Asantehene still
controls stool lands and benefits that accrue from their resources. The rationale behind such policy
is simple. The king’s wealth, and indirectly that of the state, is potential rather than real. It relies
on the capacity and the readiness of the people to pay all the extraordinary taxes and tributes
needed to sustain the state.
There were some other changes. During fieldwork in Kumasi, I observed how powerful traders
integrated with the traditional order to obtain political offices in addition to their trading activities.
In addition, some of these immigrants to Kumasi remain socially and culturally aloof from Asante
society. They retain their status as strangers (Schildkrout 1970: 256). Admittedly, in the presence
of foreigners in large numbers and the fact that some powerful traders seem supported by
foreigners against some of the traditional rulers, makes the process of integration difficult and
leads to what is described here as diffused authority.
The Asante, like the Anlo society, is lineal and thus, divided into clans. There are eight clans in
Asante. A person belongs to the clan of his or her mother. This means all extended family members
in this society, as earlier indicated, trace their descent from a common ancestress. In other words,
the matrilineal family consists of all persons, whether male or female, who have descended from
a common ancestress. The basis of the genealogy is the common blood that feeds and nurtures the
child in the mother’s womb. The peculiarity involved here is that the matrilineal blood passes only
through females. This naturally leads to a system of diagonal succession where the matrilineal
blood dies with every male member (Josiah-Aryeh 2005: 116). This means males are only regarded
as members of the matri-family during their lifetime. This implies children belong to their mother’s
family and not to their father’s.
According to Peter K. Sarpong (2002: 64-76), the matrilineal society is governed by certain norms,
- The clans or lineal groups are exogamous (i.e., people marry from outside it.)
- Women are more important than men are. Women continue the lineage while the latter ends
- Ideally, there is a collective ownership of property or wealth by the clan. The property does not
belong to individuals. Individuals receive and use it but cannot dispose of it.
- Succession, inheritance and rank are all determined lineally. This means one succeeds in his or
her clan and inherits in his or her clan.
- The kinship terminology deals with sociological as well as biological factors. That is, one’s
father’s brothers are one’s fathers while one’s mother’s sisters are one’s mothers. This means
these people must treat one as if they are one’s biological father or mother.
In the matrilineal kinship and family system, maternal siblings take precedence over the spouse in
many spheres of life. This includes investment decisions and the joint acquisition of property
(Oppong 1981). Many Akan proverbs encapsulate the importance of this maternal relationship
over the paternal. For example, Enii yento or ‘One can easily get oneself a partner but not a
mother’; and Dabre me mmame awo or ‘provided my mother gives birth and I have a sibling’, it
does not matter whether there is a father or not (Awusabo-Asare 1990: 15). Further, a wife and a
husband in theory have no right to inherit each other’s property. Additionally, children do not
inherit from their father. This is because, as indicated, the clan owns the property. In other words,
one cannot succeed his or her husband or father because one’s clan determines all these things.
One succeeds and inherits in his or her own clan. This is why, when there is a dispute over
succession or inheritance, a chief tries to find out the clan of the disputing parties. The matrilineal
family members enjoy common ownership of property. Moreover, they are liable to contribute to
pay family debts and possess the rights of representation at family meetings. Further, the head of
the family holds all property in trust and also manages and controls it on behalf of members
(Awusabo-Asare 1990: 117). The purpose of the study is to highlight who the Asante of Ghana
are; and to clear probable misconceptions and miscommunication about this socio-cultural group.
This knowledge about the Asante may create peaceful co-existence for foreigners who may want
to have business interactions with them. The significance of the study is that it has contributed
both nationally and internationally to anthropological theory about people of other cultures like
the Asante of Ghana.