Fred Hunter traveled eagerly to Ghana to cover what might be one of the last great tribal rituals in Africa, the enstoolment of the Asantehene, the king of the Ashanti. Donanne went with him. In Accra he received warnings against going to Kumasi where the ceremony would take place. Strange things might happen. Their flight to Kumasi was cancelled. Maybe the next morning, the day of the ceremony. They persevered. Fred’s report:
Enstoolment? Whuzzzat? The kings of England are enthroned. The kings of the Ashanti are enstooled. The Golden Stool – which, legend says, descended from the sky in the 17th century – symbolizes kingship. The English kings, those rubes, actually place their posteriors on the English throne. The Asantehenes do NOT place theirs on the Golden Stool. It has been hidden for at least 175 years to prevent the brutish British from stealing the gold.
We caught the morning flight to Kumasi. It arrived late. A mad chase through a town full of celebrants into the city centre. There I checked in with the information officer and got us into our hotel. Then out to Pampaso for the ceremonies. An absolute crush of people there: the heat of their bodies, the smell of their joy and their sweat, the taste of anticipation in the air, the sound of drumming so insistent that everyone moved to its rhythm. Hundreds of men awaited the new king, dancing, swaying, moving their arms. Most were wrapped in swirls of fabric, often kente cloth, their chests naked, many with headdresses – peaked hats adorned with gold, ringed with emblems fastened to them – some with necklaces and regalia of gold, others blowing into the tapered ends of cow horns. Many wore bracelets and anklets of gold, others of cowrie shells. Many of them held gilded staffs crowned with carved figures or emblems that resembled the famous gold-weights.
Opoku Ware II, the new Asantehene, arrived. He wore traditional cloth, rather like a toga, and a wristwatch on his arm. Attendants eager for the honor bore him on a palanquin, a splendid cloth-draped litter, carried shoulder high, sheltered by an enormous umbrella. Attendants waved large raffia fans to cool him. Escorting the new king were middle-aged courtiers, carrying gilded staffs and enormous twirling umbrellas of brocade skirted with red flannel, some of them ten feet tall. Frenzied chanting and shouting greeted him. An Ashanti chief stepped forward to meet the king and “gave” him, as the Ashantis say, to the Amanhene, a select group of chiefs. They were assembled in a small closed building attended by ritual functionaries.
Outside the building, chiefs and their retinues waited in tense excitement. Porters of ritual regalia – staffs, swords and gilded symbols of chieftaincy – laughed and chatted and raised their arms in gestures of allegiance, watching carefully those who entered and left the small building.
Suddenly the Asantehene himself burst from it.
Aprede drums struck up. Holding a sword and shield, the Asantehene danced in a tight circle of men. They shouted, swirled and danced with him. From a collection of individual bodies the crowd fused into a single mass of dancing flesh. It surged forth, jumping, pushing. A Rolls Royce awaited the new king. He danced toward it. Eventually he reached it. As an attendant wiped sweat from his neck, the new Asantehene entered the car’s sanctuary and drove off.
We returned to the hotel for showers and a lunch of orange juice. Donanne began to feel unwell and wondered if she should stay at the hotel. But she would come with me. In the hotel lobby we ran into Mary whom we had met at church in Accra. She was bright, young and English, working in Sierra Leone with Volunteer Service Overseas, an English version of the Peace Corps. She had driven up with one of the Ghanaian church members, a family man whom we had also met.
As we had orange juice together, she asked, “Would you mind terribly if I spent tonight in your room?”
The request surprised me. “Actually Donanne’s not feeling all that well.”
“I could sleep on the floor.”
“You have no place to stay?”
“Well— I could stay in the room of Mr.–” She mentioned the name of the church member. “But if I do that,” she said, “he’ll expect me to sleep with him.”
I laughed, puzzled. “But we all know each other from church.”
“Really, he will,” she said. She began to laugh, too.
I recalled my conversation the night before with my journalist colleague about the CSM stringer’s several wives. “You’re in Africa, right?” he had asked.
“I suppose you could,” I said, wondering if D were up to having a guest. “Why don’t you check with us later? We’ve got to get out to the enstoolment.”
As expected, an even larger crowd swelled the sports stadium. Down on the playing field Ashanti chiefs were assembling for a durbar or reception of the new king. They arrived borne on palanquins, dancing from their seated positions – heads swaying, shoulders moving, hands brandishing swords and ancient pistols. Drums, trumpets and chants heralded their arrival. The giant umbrellas sheltered the chiefs from an overcast sky. Everyone seemed to be wearing kente cloth and carrying gold regalia.
At last the Asantehene himself appeared. He had donned his traditional battle dress. After inspecting bodyguards and greeting dignitaries, he demonstrated his ability to lead the Ashanti in war. He was to do this by firing a rifle into the air three times. On each occasion more than 100 men at arms were to answer his shot with salvos from ancient muzzle-loading rifles.
By this time Donanne really was feeling unwell. We found a taxi in which several Ghanaians were sitting. We entered the cab and I asked the driver to take us immediately to the hotel; I would pay double the price. The men already in the cab looked annoyed. But if they did not understand our need to return quickly, they understood a taximan’s following the money.
Once we got Donanne settled in the hotel – a nap might prove restorative – I hurried back to the sports stadium. I arrived in time to see the Asantehene walk about greeting his chiefs. As he moved, drums and twirling umbrellas followed him.
Crowds rushed onto the playing field to dance alongside him. I watched a colleague, a Life/Time photographer, dive into the crowd to get pictures of the participants’ excitement. All in a day’s work for him, I supposed, but I wondered if he’d get trampled.
Returning to the hotel, I found D feeling better. We had some dinner and I left again to go to the Asantehene’s palace for the final ceremonies. There, outside the palace walls, in the early morning hours, the Ashanti stalwarts cried out: “Long live the King of Ashanti! May the Asantehene’s reign be happy, long and prosperous!” And there this possibly final paroxysm of African tribal assertion ended.
We slept late. We had breakfast with Mary who had found a place to stay. Returning to the room I wrote a “color piece” about the previous day’s events, the first of three stories I wrote about the enstoolment. (My editors in Boston must have concluded that ethnic splendor deranged me!) I finished just in time for us to race to the airport for the plane back to Accra.
We had dinner with Jeannie at the Black Pot, a new restaurant enjoying a vogue. In her Ghanaian way she was scornful of the place and its local cuisine. “What did you pay for this dinner?” she demanded. I refused to tell her; I was certain she would chastise me for allowing myself to be bilked. We finished up the evening at Dan’s Milk Bar where once again Jeannie had coffee ice cream.
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