Kumasi – City of Art and History

– “Hey, my friend!”.

I suppose it’s unavoidable; the culture in West Africa is to be outgoing. People always want to say ‘hi’; people always want to shake your hand. Sometimes it’s easier to be guided than to shut your mind and ignore them, but once you’ve acknowledged them, there is no going back. Somewhere, in the back of my mind, I just know this conversation is going to end in a business proposition.

– “How are you my friend? Where do you come from?”
– “I’m fine thanks, are you okay? I’m from England.”
– “Ah, England, nice place. I have been to [insert random obscure town here]”. It’s very strange, as if the population of Ghana is attracted to out-the-way places that even the Brits tend not to visit, places that are not tourist towns, places that wouldn’t normally be named outside of the football results: Preston, Luton, Crewe …
– “I’m an artist” (here we go) “, here in Kumasi, at the college of Art. That’s my shop over there, come come, let me show you, I’m not trying to sell you anything.”

I admit I don’t know if Kumasi College of Art is a real place. If it is, then they need to embrace the concept of individuality. Yes, what their alumni produce is very nice, sometimes with good, striking contrasts, and a definite grasp of the idea of taking a traditional theme and making it accessible to all. But it’s all the same. Everyone offers the same prints, the same landscapes, the same symbols. Yes there’s a few tweaks here and there, yes some people displayed the occasional piece I hadn’t seen, but in general, once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Identikit sketches of symbolised African women, of elephants, of tribal huts on a red sky background. I prefer my art to have a bit of personality.

Student's artwork.  #1 of a series of legion.
Student’s artwork. #1 of a series of legion.

Personality is something that Kumasi does seem to have. Allegedly it’s home to the largest market in West Africa; a number of places vie for that honour but Kumasi’s claim isn’t without merit – it’s not just the central market area itself, which on its own is absolutely huge, but also the fact it leaks out onto the surrounding streets, like some kind of relentless mould, expanding into space left for it to the extent that it’s hard to tell where the market ends and the normal city starts. It’s certainly difficult to tell by the traffic – even in the heart of the market, motor-scooters and men pushing carts flit through as if they own the place; in the wider city they battle for the space between stalls with tro-tros, taxis, and private cars, all desperately leaning on the horn as if it were a magical item for creating space.

Part of the market in Kumasi.  It's the size of a small town in itself.
Part of the market in Kumasi. It’s the size of a small town in itself.

Kumasi is also home to the old Ashanti kingdom, one of the most famous old kingdoms in Africa – or am I the only person to remember a role-playing game called ‘Ashanti High Lightning’? In fact the kingdom still exists; the King still lives in a palace here in Kumasi, albeit a much smaller one than in the height of the kingdom’s power – because the British burned the original one down in 1900. There are in fact two new palaces; the first was built in 1925 by the British to house the now-vassal King; this became a museum in 1995 once an even newer palace had been built.

Outside the King's Palace in Kumasi.  It's quite a dull building, but with nice external ornamentation.  Apart from the geeky, grumpy, tourist.
Outside the King’s Palace in Kumasi. It’s quite a dull building, but with nice external ornamentation. Apart from the geeky, grumpy, tourist.

The Ashanti King’s symbol is a stool, a very literal ‘seat of power’. Each King has his own stool, and only the King is allowed to use it. Stools from previous Kings are stored in a special room, and upon coming to the, er, ‘throne’, each new King is blindfolded and taken into the room of the stools. The stool he picks out belongs to the previous King whose name the new King will now use as a Regal Name. It is possible for the new King to pick out his own stool. ( In British terms, if a new King had the name Charles, but picked out the stool of a King called Henry, he’d now be known as Henry IX.)
The war in 1900 between the British and the Ashanti has the name of the ‘War of the Golden Stool’; in a nutshell, the British demanded that the Ashanti subject themselves to British rule and, as a symbol of this, commanded that they hand over the Golden Stool – the literal embodiment of the Ashanti soul, believed to have descended from Heaven to the first Ashanti King. Although the Ashanti lost the war and the royals were exiled (to the Seychelles, of all bizarre places), the spirit of the Ashanti was preserved as the British were fooled into accepting a replica of the stool rather than the real thing.

This and more was learned on a ‘guided tour’ of the palace museum. This was the second museum tour I’d been on in Kumasi, the first was around the old Kumasi Fort, now a museum on Ghanaian military history (from the ‘War of the Golden Stool’, through the two World Wars and how Ghanaian troops fought for the British in many of the African campaigns, past independence and onto the modern Ghanaian armed forces); in the arts and crafts area to the West of the city centre I came upon a third – a museum dedicated to the Ashanti Kings and the 20th Century Prempeh II in particular – which had a replica of the Golden Stool which obviously I was not allowed to photograph …
It’s interesting how these museums all want you to explore with a ‘guide’, even though much of the time it’s pretty obvious what you’re looking at because there are labels and summary boards. Having a ‘guide’ does make things more interesting as it means you can ask follow-up questions, but I wonder if they’re just scared of tourists wandering around museums making their own conclusions. (The guide’s included in the entry fee to the museums, so it’s not (always) a money-making exercise).

The old fort of Kumasi, now a war museum.
The old fort of Kumasi, now a war museum.

I’d again not booked ahead my hotel in Kumasi, instead relying on my guidebook and a travel website to get me somewhere. Even arriving in the city this caused a problem as it wasn’t exactly clear where the bus station I’d been dropped off at was, but a quick word with the locals had me going in the right direction. However, it was over an hour before I’d found the side-street I was looking for with what sounded like a brilliant backpacker hostel, mentioned on the website, only to find out it had been closed for a couple of months … nearby however were two hotels mentioned in my guidebook and, after playing them off against each other (particularly badly), I settled on the Presbyterian hotel, 40 Cedis/night but I did have reliable Internet and power. So that was all right then.

I’ve also discovered here what may be the world’s least offensive scam. Imagine if you will a street stall serving snack food, that’s next door to a bar. The naive tourist walks up to the street stall and orders a local dish, say jollof rice. The vendor says ‘no problem, just sit down there and I’ll let you know when it’s ready’. However ‘there’ happens to be the outdoor seating area for the bar …
… coming to the end of your bottle of beer, you enquire how long the jollof will be. ‘Not long, about 10-15 minutes’ he says. Time enough, evidently, for a second beer …

… either that, or I’m just easily persuaded :p

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