Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Forward with Yaa Asantewaa

Women's History Month
The warrior wins a battle by pressing forward. (Ghana)

Nana Yaa Asantewaa (around 1840 - 1921)

If I need to top my my courage, I think about Nana Yaa Asantewaa. Like the time a judge closed down her court to try to find a way to lock me up or at least prevent me from returning to her court. She objected to my divulging to the public what was happening in a court to which the public has right of access. Well, I can’t say for certain if Nana Yaa Asantewaaintervened, but the day came and went, and many months of the court hearing came and went, and I remained seated inside that judge's court room.

If I am tempted to do what is easy and expedient rather than what is risky and principled, I think about Nana Yaa Asantewaa. Like staying in the corporate job that was draining away my spirit, but gave me a regular income with benefits (like health insurance), and promised me a pension. But when the security felt like a shackle, Yaa's spirit moved me on.

Nana Yaa Asantewaa did not scare easily. She didn't back down even when Ashanti soldiers, experienced fighters, thought it was wisest to yield when faced with the military might of the British.

This was the early twentieth century. The British Empire was such that the sun could never set on it. Powerful. Strongest in the world at the time and only getting stronger. Boosted by the profits from slavery, the empire was now colonizing as much of Africa as it could.

This British governor Frederick Hodgson thought he show the Ashantis how low they had fallen. One the Ashantis were empire-builders in West Africa, but now the British had sent the Asantehene (Ashanti king) Prempeh into exile. The governor believed the Ashanti were subdued, and he wanted to make sure they understood the extent of their defeat. He insisted on sitting on the Golden Stool.

The Golden Stool. According to tradition, the Golden Stool had floated from the sky and landed on the lap of Osei Tutu, the first Asantehene (Ashanti king). It was made of pure gold. Akomfo Anokye, Osei Tutu's chief priest, said the soul or sumsum of the Ashanti people lived in this Stool, and therefore the Stool was central to Ashanti unity.

Replicas of the Golden Stool existed, but few people ever saw the real Golden Stool, and no one ever sat on it. When an Asantehene was being enstooled, he was raised and lowered over the Golden Stool, but even he could never sit on it. If the Stool were in a room, it was always placed higher than the head of any person in that room. Even today, only the Asantehene and a few trusted advisors ever know where the Stool is stored.

But the British governor Frederick Hodgson was demanding to sit on the Golden Stool. As of right.

Nana Yaa Asantewaa was a part of the secret meeting to decide what message to sent back to Hodgson. She was Queen Mother of Ejisu, an Ashanti state. Her grandson was the King of Ejisu (Ejisuhene) who was exiled in the Seychelles with Asantehene Prempeh. In her grandson's absence, Nana Yaa Asantewaa was the regent of Ejisu.

The Ashanti warriors in the secret meeting found reason not to resist the governor's demand. Some wanted to negotiate with the British for the return of the Asantehene and his advisors, so they thought allowing the governor to sit on the Stool might placate the British. Others thought the Ashantis would be further defeated if they went to war over the Stool,and then they would be treated worse than before.

Nana Yaa Asantewaa disagreed. When she addressed the gathering, she said,

“Now I see that some of you fear to go forward to fight for our king. If it [was] in the brave days of Osei Tutu, Okomfo Anokye, and Opoku Ware, chiefs would not sit down to see their king to be taken away without firing a shot. No European could have dared speak to chiefs of Asante in the way the governor spoke to you this morning. Is it true that the bravery of Asante is no more? I cannot believe it. It cannot be! I must say this: if you, the men of Asante, will not go forward, then we will. We, the women, will. I shall call upon my fellow women. We will fight the white men. We will fight till the last of us falls in the battlefields."

With that, Nana Yaa Asantewaa took charge of the war against the British. She may not have been in the battlefield, but she was chief strategist.

When the British realised the Ashantis were resisting the governor-general's demand, they took refuge in a fort in Kumasi. Ashanti soldiers kept the British hostage for about four months, beating back all efforts to free the governor general and those who accompanied him. Finally the British were able to send enough troops to push back the Ashanti soldiers.

Nana Yaa Asantewaa was captured, and according to oral tradition, she spat in the face of her the British commanding officer. She and her closest advisors joined Asantehene Prempeh in exile in the Seychelles. However, the British never again tested the mettle of the Ashanti soldiers. In addition, British governors kept at a respectful distance from Ashanti traditions and governance.

Nana Yaa Asantewaa died in exile, and Asantehene Prempeh returned to his kingdom three years later. He made sure that Yaa's remains were returned to the land of her birth for royal burial.

Just over thirty years after Nana Yaa Asantewaa's death, her dream was accomplished. British rule ended and the Gold Coast became independent Ghana.

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