From Houston to Sydney 2013

West Africa



The leading sentences that each of my two guide books uses to introduce Kumasi are correct.  In the words of ‘The Rough Guide’, “Kumasi still oozes with the traditions and customs of the Asante (Ashanti), one of the most powerful nations in West Africa at the end of the nineteenth century”.  My ‘Lonely Planet’ guide says that “Kumasi is worth as much time as you can give it”.

We had a great day today exploring this vibrant, colourful, pulsating city and its surrounding villages.  Beginning at 8:30 am, we headed first to visit four of the villages to the north-east of the centre of Kumasi.  Once separate villages with their own identity, the villages have now all become part of metropolitan Kumasi in a process of conurbation as the city has sprawled outwards across the hills and valleys of the region.

The first village we visited was about 8 kilometres from the city centre.  Known as Pankronou, it is known for its pottery.  To some extent, hand-made pottery is a dying art in the village (not lucrative enough), and these days most of the pottery is made by the old women.  We were fortunate enough to find two especially cantankerous but sprightly ladies, one in her 80s and one in her 90s, who with considerable ill-will allowed us to watch and observe them as they mixed the clay and made two vessels, one for holding water and one for storing things that are not water.  Fascinating as they were to watch, being in a village and observing everyday life and the living conditions was at least as illuminating in my opinion.

Our second village was just a few kilometres further on the same road.  Known as Ahwiaa, this village was known for its wood carving.  I had visited this same village in 2000, and the contrast with today was sadly breathtaking.  Whereas there had been six or eight thriving workshops in 2000 making stools, coffins, table stands, and some ornaments, today there is just one workshop remaining, set amidst a row of small shops selling wooden masks and tourist souvenirs.  Moreover, the one workshop that does remain was at a standstill today because many of the workers were attending a funeral, and the others were just sitting around in mourning.  We were told that it has become increasingly difficult (and thus expensive) to obtain decent wood, and as a result the craft is experiencing a long, painful decline.

Funerals were something of a theme of the day.  Apparently, Saturday is ‘funeral day’ for the Ashanti of all religions.  As black and red are the colours for funerals, we saw dozens of groups of people dressed in black and red as we drove around the city (especially in the morning).  We were told that it is the custom for the family of the deceased person to receive money from those attending the funeral, and as no-one wants to take time off work, Saturday is the most favoured (and lucrative) day for funerals.

The third village we visited, Ntonso,  was a few kilometres further along the same road.  Ntonso is known for its adinkra print cloth, and we were able to see the whole process of its manufacture in a small roadside stall, from pounding and then boiling the tree bark into a thick syrup, to making the wooden blocks with various highly symbolic patterns, to applying the print and waiting for it to dry in the sun.  There was a wonderfully colourful display of adinkra cloths for sale, and unlike the wood carving and pottery, adinkra seems to be a growth industry.

Our fourth village was located on a different road that led back towards Kumasi.  Bonwire (pronounced Bon-weary) specialised in a different type of cloth known as kente.  Kente is woven into long strips of material about 8 centimetres wide, and the patterns produced are bright, colourful and distinctive.  We were welcomed into one of the weaving workshops where we received a good explanation of the quite labour intensive weaving process, and were able to see it in action.

That concluded our visits to villages, so we headed back into Kumasi, past a few dozen funerals, to the Manhyia Palace Museum.  Located next door to the palace used by the present Ashanti king, the Manhyia Palace Museum is housed in the old palace that was built by the British in 1925 to accommodate the former Ashanti king (Prempeh I) when he returned from a quarter of a century’s exile in the Seychelles.

This was a surprisingly interesting museum.  Clearly set out as a proud monument to Ashanti nationhood, the museum shows everything as it was when occupied by the three Ashanti kings who lived and worked there, as well as several rooms that have been converted into memorials to the last four Ashanti kings (including the present one), featuring very lifelike wax models, photographs and personal items.

Our visit began with a 10 minute video showing armed Ashanti warriors with a commentary describing “the peace-loving Ashanti people who are never afraid to defend themselves”.  At the end of the video, I dropped my camera while standing up, shattering the lens filter.  They say that the purpose of UV lens filters is really to protect the lens of the camera, and today mine did just that – the lens was fine, but this was at the cost of a smashed UV filter that was obscuring the view of the lens and which could no longer be unscrewed to allow the lens to be used.  My photo taking seemed to have stopped for the day.

Our next visit was to the National Cultural Centre, a nicely landscaped area where it is theoretically possible to see artisans at work.  As the Lonely Planet guide says “the craft workshops aren’t always active, especially on Sunday”.  I would add to that “or on Saturdays when there are many funerals to attend” – the large workshop shed had just one solitary man making a wooden drum.

However, the visit to the Cultural Centre did have a positive effect on my camera lens.  Being in Africa, improvisation rules, and we were lucky to find an off-duty artisan (!) who offered to fix the problem by removing all the smashed glass from the filter (by smashing the rest gently with a knife), leaving just the ring of the filter still jammed to the front of my lens.  It worked, and I was very grateful, especially because of our final visit of the day was so photogenic.

Kumasi’s Kejitia Market is the largest market in West Africa.  From a distance it resembles a run-down, rambling ensemble of rusty tin shacks, but once inside it is a labyrinth of claustrophobically narrow lanes, filled with jostling people in bright clothes carrying cargo on their heads, and thousands of stall holders engaged in lively commerce.  Traders apparently come from all over Ghana, and some even come from as far away as Burkina Faso – it truly is a market that sells everything that can be obtained in West Africa.  The aromas in the various sections ranged from fish to soap to spices to pungent fruits and vegetables to open drains, and the sounds ranged from excited yelling to attract customers, amplified music and excited talking, the bumps of collisions, and the cries of “No!” whenever Andrew or I dared to raise a camera.

Huge as the market is, its activity spills out on to the surrounding roads, creating a traffic jam that is virtual gridlock from dawn to dusk (as we found twice today when we got caught up in it).  For that reason, we walked to the market from the Cultural Centre and back again, which was faster than driving and saved Harouna the agony of trying to find a parking spot near the market.

Central Kumasi, and especially the market area, is something of an assault on the senses.  There is so much activity, so much colour, so much noise, so many smells, so much to take in, that some might find it overwhelming.  Andrew and I found it to be just the opposite – it was exciting, invigorating, energising and outrageously photogenic.  Photogenic as it was, however, it was not that easy to actually take photos because of the dense crowds and the reluctance of stall holders to be photographed.  It was a challenge that we enjoyed doing our best to overcome.


25 January 2014

Day 29 - Kumasi, Ghana