“If you the men of Ashanti will not go forward, then we will. We the women will. I shall call upon you my fellow women.
We will fight the white men. We will fight until the last of us falls in the battlefield.”
nana yaa asantewaa.
These are the backgrounds of live/epics & auto-mytho-biographies…..something like an a-z compendium of where we’re coming from, who we are, en what we need for our liberation….
the 3rd queen in our series is popular by today’s standards, yet even a cursory google search reveals the dearth of information there is about her teachings en relevance in our daily struggle(s). then again if you dig deep enough en know where to look, you might find some of what you’re looking for….so here’s a/nother case/study of afrikan herstory from…..
Jenda: A Journal of Culture and African Women Studies (2001)
YAA ASANTEWAA: A ROLE MODEL FOR WOMANHOOD IN THE NEW MILLENNIUM
by Wilhelmina J. Donkoh
The latter part of the twentieth century witnessed an intensified debate on gender among Africanists scholars.1 This is not surprising since African societies have been (and are) rich with local and culture-specific constructions of gender that are expressed in popular representations that were (and are) often considered to be outside academic discourse. The close focus of the debate called for incorporating of women’s views into mainstream activities covering the entire spectrum of human endeavors.2 Essentially, the arguments presented favored an approach that criticized and opposed what was presumed to be the traditional male dominated trend. Based as it was on received notions of male privilege from Western foundations, scholarly representations of the traditional milieu posited that the African woman was often perceived as an underdog who bore the brunt of male-dominated policies. Therefore, new forms of leadership that took on board women’s distinctive visions to transform social, economic and political development were required to counter the predominant masculine culture that invariably perpetuated patriarchal arrangements and inhibit women’s political, social and economic empowerment. Such arguments have clearly called for the rewriting of history such that the contributions of female leaders would be documented.
One such leader is the Edwesohemaa3 (Queenmother of Edweso, Ghana) Yaa Asantewaa. She was a woman whose bravery has won her international repute. Her reputation as an international figure began with her defiance of the might of British colonial hegemony. In 1900 she inspired the indomitable Asante to take up arms in defense of their sovereignty. This was at a time when the ruler of Asante had been abducted together with members of his close family and his principal advisors and sent into enforced exile.
Yaa Asantewaa’s singular act of bravery that catapulted her to international fame provides an interesting case for a close study in the attempt to document and acknowledge the contributions of female leaders. Significantly, in a worldwide competition organized by the BBC Focus on Africa Program at the end of 1999 to select the African Personality of the Millennium, Yaa Asantewaa placed 20th out of a hundred nominees. Yaa Asantewaa’s reputation is such that Africans both in the Diaspora and on the continent, in search of suitable names for their offspring have selected hers. Examples here include the President of Ghana, Flt. Lt. Jerry John Rawlings who named his second daughter after her. Also Tony Williams, the current Mayor of Washington, D.C. in the United States named his daughter in honor of Yaa Asantewaa. In spite of her great renown, research indicates that there is more to be known about her life and deeds.4 She has remained a mythical icon that has been packaged, appropriated and presented in various moulds to suit the purposes of particular groups and individuals.5 It is heartwarming, to note that such trailblazing and torch-bearing women of colour as Mary McLeod Bethune, Mary Ann Shadd and Ida B. Wells whose careers occurred in the Diaspora have received scholarly attention.6 However, similar studies are yet to be conducted on their counterparts in the continent. It is appropriate now that such African women of distinction in the continent as Yaa Asantewaa are identified and celebrated too.
The year 2000 marks the centenary celebration of her epoch-making act of defiance. It is therefore apposite that in this centenary year of her chivalrous deed, Yaa Asantewaa should be internationally honored. When examined critically, the story of Yaa Asantewaa cuts across such fundamental issues as nationality, race, ethnicity, class and history, which are important determinants in gender discourse. Indeed, properly situated, her story addresses the wider spectrum of female cultural experiences and differences. At the same time, it raises such new questions as: “What is the relationship between gender and history? How are representations of common historical experiences mediated by gender? In what ways are ideas of manhood and womanhood represented in a changing world? How do men and women restructure and assume new identities in the colonial and post-colonial eras? How do men and women relate to similar cultural myths?” The story of Yaa Asantewaa situates women in the core of wider political, economic and cultural discourse.
The present study is a close examination of Yaa Asantewaa’s complex life and career. It draws attention to her roles as a visionary, stateswoman, politician, military leader and tactician from whom lessons for the future could be learned. The study would help to bring new perspectives for establishing gender-balanced renditions of African history into focus. The challenge required is to work towards an understanding of social transformations that would at once highlight women’s history and project it into mainstream discourse. Thus, although it should be appropriate to employ woman-centered theories in exploring her career, at the same time other analytical frameworks and models should be used where necessary, in order to project the discourse of women’s issues in Africa into mainstream historical discussions.
Africanist historians who study gender issues, including Nancy Hunt, have in the past concerned themselves with negative representations. Thus, the study of gender issues in Africa has focused mainly on such themes as marriage and divorce, polygyny, love, female infertility and prostitution. They tended to be so restricted because, “where women most often appear in the colonial record is where moral panic surfaced, settled and festered. Prostitution, polygamy, adultery, concubinage and infertility are the loci of such angst throughout the historical record.”7
The result of a focus like Hunt’s is that there tends to be variations in the commentaries on women’s history. Some writers concentrate almost exclusively on the productive and reproductive capacities of women and overlook their leadership potentials and qualities. In “I Will Not Eat Stone”: A Women’s History of Colonial Asante, for example, Allman and Tashjian (2000) admit to concerning themselves “with an understanding of the profound economic changes of the twentieth century by examining, historically, women as producers and reproducers in a matrilineal society as well as marriage which is deployed as a tool in analyzing political and economic evolution in colonial Asante.” This study uses Yaa Asantewaa’s career and life history to demonstrate the relevance of these elements while focusing attention on women’s leadership capabilities, as demonstrated by Yaa Asantewaa’s extraordinary leadership capacity.
Like her male counterparts, Yaa Asantewaa played a key role in the political history of her people. Clearly, her role and career is as much an integral part of the mainstream Asante anti- colonial struggle against the British as it is about a woman determined to preserve her family values. Nasta’s (1991, xiii-xxx, xv) apt observation about women in colonial situations seems to apply to Nana Yaa Asantewaa. Nasta draws attention to the fact that:
In countries with a history of colonialism, women’s quest for emancipation, self-identity and fulfillment can be seen to represent a traitorous act, a betrayal not simply of traditional codes of practice and belief but of the wider struggles for liberation and nationalism. Thus to be “feminist” therefore involves a further displacement or reflect an implicit adherence, to another form of cultural imperialism.
Yet, Yaa Asantewaa’s life history demonstrates the limited relevance of analyzing African history through even the lens of post-colonial thought. Yaa Asantewaa was neither reviled nor vilified, but was recognized and acknowledged as leader by the Asante. The discourse on Yaa Asantewaa should also be tackled against the backdrop of the search for liberation and self-identity that emanates from Africa’s distinctive history. So the question should be asked, “How is Yaa Asantewaa perceived and assessed by posterity”?
Perceptions of Yaa Asantewaa
Yaa Asantewaa has been variously perceived by posterity. For some, Yaa Asantewaa was a brave army general who led her people to war. She has also been described as a courageous and outspoken woman who used her position as queenmother of the Edweso State to publicly attack British imperial encroachment, and to question gender ideologies in Asante. For others, she is simply the embodiment of female assertiveness, bravery and valor. For some, too, she is seen as the antithesis of Asante womanhood who went against the grain of accepted norms, defied the male traditional rulers and called the bluff of the British by declaring war on them. Some of the norms she was supposed to have overlooked are those couched in such sayings as “if a woman buys a gun it leans on the chest (bosom) of a man” or “if a woman buys a gun it leans in the room of a man” and “a woman sells garden eggs and not gunpowder.” The underlying logic in these sayings is that an ideal woman should be mild-mannered and should accept the dominant position of the man, at least in military matters.
Newell has observed that “West African women are born into fluid social worlds, and gender images and ideologies constantly shift to account for their changing status” (Stephanie Newell 1997, 1-8). Newell’s sociocultural analysis of West African women seems valid and appropriate for assessing the career of Yaa Asantewaa. The social conditions of the West African woman require her to operate at (and from) various levels.
Assessment of Yaa Asantewa
Yaa Asantewaa was aware of herself in the various categories that she belonged to as an individual. She was at once aware of herself as an Asante, a family member, a woman and a mother without seeming to be in any conflict or being deterred by any obstacle, Neither age nor gender was a barrier for her. A fairer assessment of Yaa Asantewaa’s career should be based on the various categories and roles in which she functioned. She was a daughter, wife, mother, grandmother, a member of a lineage, a queenmother and above all an Asante national. At the same time she was a farmer and a citizen of the Edweso state. Yaa Asantewaa was indeed a complex figure. In one sense, she was a very typical Asante (Akan) woman who fulfilled all the basic, traditional requirements of her gender such as marriage, childbearing and work. In another sense, she defied the stereotype.
Thus, in discussing Yaa Asantewaa’s role in the resistance war of 1900, Arhin observes that interest in her story emanates from the extent to which she conforms to or departs from the military and political roles of women in Asante (Arhin Brampong 2000). Some see her as being simply the embodiment of female assertiveness, bravery and valor, while others see her as the antithesis of Asante womanhood who went against the grain of accepted norms, defied the male traditional rulers and called the bluff of the British by declaring war on them. Yaa Asantewaa symbolizes defiance against all forms of oppression and domination.
Yaa Asantewaa a Family Woman
According to transmitted family traditions provided by the descendants of Yaa Asantewaa as well as by other well-informed sources, she had a normal childhood. This meant that she performed such mundane domestic chores as fetching water from the stream, doing the dishes, sweeping, running errands and assisting with farm work. When she attained the age of puberty, she had the necessary rite of passage for Akan girls (bragro) performed for her. She then went on to marry Owusu Kwabena, a son of Asantehene Osei Bonsu. As the only (surviving) daughter of her mother, this was a very important stage of her life because the hopes for the continuity of her specific lineage depended on her. Yaa Asantewaa took her role as a matriarch very seriously. She appeared to have married early. When she was about fifty-six years old, her third grandchild, Kofi Tene, already had about six children. She satisfied this important requirement by producing her only child, a daughter, Ama Seiwaa Boankra, from the only marriage that she was known to have contracted. Incidentally, Ama Seiwaa was to produce eleven children herself – three daughters and eight sons. One of these sons, Kofi Tene, later succeeded to office as Edwesohene Akwasi Afrane Kuma. He was abducted and exiled by the British in 1896 with Asantehene Agyeman Prempe I and other important advisors.
Nana Yaa Asantewaa a Farmer
Apart from holding office as Edwesohemaa, Yaa Asantewaa, as was characteristic of women of her generation, had to work and to be economically independent in addition to marrying and bearing children. Interestingly, this view has been corroborated by research conducted among Asante women who were born two generations after Yaa Asantewaa’s own birth (Allman and Tashjian 2000, xxxii). She engaged in agriculture, which was considered to be normal female work. She was known to have lived and farmed at Boankra near Edweso. Her daughter, Ama Seiwaa acquired her sobriquet “Boankra” from this village. At Boankra, Yaa Asantewaa was known to have been a prolific farmer who cultivated such food crops as plantains, coco-yams and vegetables such as peppers, garden-eggs and tomatoes. She was known to have specialised in the production of groundnuts (peanuts) and onions.
Yaa Asantewaa a Politician and Stateswoman
Yaa Asantewaa was a member of the important royal Asona8 clan of Edweso, In about 1887, when the female stool of Edweso became vacant, Nana Akwasi Afrane Okpesé, the then Edwesohene, used his traditional prerogative to appoint Yaa Asantewaa, to succeed Nana Ampobin I in office as Edwesohemaa. Yaa Asantewaa was the only (surviving) uterine sibling of Nana Akwasi Afrane Okpesé. She accepted this position and according to Edweso sources, performed the responsibilities that went with the office very effectively, When her brother died in about 1894, Yaa Asantewaa also used her prerogative as queenmother to nominate her own grandson, to succeed to the vacant office.9 There are three branches of the Edweso royal lineage, She could have chosen another person from another branch of the lineage but she decided on Kofi Tene for good reasons.
Kofi Tene was supposed to be the Krapa or reincarnation of his granduncle and immediate predecessor, Nana Akwasi Afrane Okpesé, who is generally regarded as a very great and influential ruler. During his reign the Edweso State attained its apogee. Thus, it could be inferred that Yaa Asantewaa’s choice was based on both her concern for the interests of her own particular lineage as well as those of the Edweso State. In 1896, she signed a Treaty of Protection with the British. Whether this action was undertaken out of a spirit of accommodation can be assessed within the context of the full record of Yaa Asantewaa’s interactions with the British. Also, it was in her capacity as Edwesohemaa, that between 1896 and 1900, she resisted European commercial and mining agents who had attempted to encroach on Edweso land under the guise of their role as mediators in the politics of the region. They alleged that the auriferous land at Brunumase belonged to the Kokofu State that had declared its allegiance to the British. Yaa Asantewaa took on both the mining agents and the Kokofu and fought for the rights of her own people. She insisted that she, as ruler of Edweso, was the rightful person to enter into negotiations with whoever was interested in acquiring Edweso land. Indeed she sent her case to the British courts that were established in Kumasi after the deportation of the Asantehene.
Yaa Asantewaa and the Asante War of Resistance
Yaa Asantewaa bore the British a grudge. After the Asantehene and the other notables had been exiled in 1896, the British then concerned themselves with what they described as “pacifying” or ensuring that peace prevailed in Asante. In actual fact their ultimate objective was to prevent the Asante from fighting against the institution of foreign rule. Measures taken to this effect included declaring Asante a protectorate and dismembering the union by signing separate treaties with the constituent states that were then given their political and judicial autonomy from the central authority based in Kumasi. At the same time, a British Resident was appointed to administer Kumasi directly with the assistance of a triumvirate of chiefs, namely, the Gyasewahene Opoku Mensa, Okyeame Kwaku Nantwi and Kwame Afrifa of Atwema. Also, the British concerned themselves with raising revenue through taxation to finance the cost of administration. Furthermore, they introduced a form of corvée or compulsory labor for public works and insisted on the abolition of domestic slavery in Asante.
The measures undertaken by the British clearly suggested that Asante had lost its sovereign existence. This situation was much resented by most Asante including Yaa Asantewaa. Nonetheless, there was still some hope that the Asantehene would be returned in time and traditional Asante would be restored. Therefore, there was a considerable amount of tolerance in the hope that the anticipated restoration of the status quo would be effected if peace could be guaranteed. This was the situation when on 28th March 1900, the British Governor of the Gold Coast, Sir Frederick Mitchell Hodgson, held a meeting with the Asante chiefs in Kumasi. Among other things, the Governor pointed out that:
- Neither Nana Agyeman Prempe nor Agyeman Atwereboana, who had also contested for the position of Asantehene with him in 1883-8, would be allowed to return to Kumasi.
- The British Resident, who was the representative of the British Monarch, had now assumed the traditional powers of the Asantehene.
- The Resident had the right to exact compulsory labor for public works.
- The interest on the expenditure of the war of 1874 and the British expedition of 1896 to Asante would be levied on the Asante.
- The Golden Stool, which is the symbol of Asante nationhood and is believed to be the soul of the Asante nation was to be surrendered to the British.
The Governor’s demands shocked the assembly of chiefs into silence. The implications of these demands were far-reaching indeed. They dashed any possible hopes of a restoration of the Asanteman. It clearly emphasized that the much-abhorred foreign domination with its associated demands for compulsory labor and payment of tribute to foreigners was to become a permanent feature. Worse still, the ancient symbol of nationhood was also to be surrendered.
This was the environment in which Nana Yaa Asantewaa, the only female present at the gathering in her capacity as the caretaker of the Edweso State rose up and defied British authority by questioning the Governor. She inquired of the Governor, whether he had seen the Asantehene before coming to Kumasi, since he was in British custody. She inferred further, that since the Asantehene was the traditional custodian of the Stool, he was the appropriate person to disclose its whereabouts. She then turned on her male counterparts who had been stunned into silence, and taunted them about their manhood. She challenged them to exchange their male underwear [danta] for her female variety [etam]. The meeting then dispersed and she proceeded to Edweso.
Yaa Asantewaa as Military Leader and “Mother Courage” Figure
From various accounts, Yaa Asantewaa comes across as a “Mother Courage”10 figure as well as an astute tactician and able military leader. For example, her taunts challenged some of the men to act. Eyewitness accounts from Edweso indicate that she herself did not physically take up arms to fight. Her role has been described as being mainly inspirational. Yet all accounts acknowledge her to be the leader of the resistance supported by some male leaders – Kofi Fofie of Nkonson, Antoa Mensa, Kwame Afrifa of Atwima and Osei Kwadwo Kromo. She was known to have visited the soldiers in the battlefield to ascertain how they were faring. She also gave directions and advice as well as supplied gunpowder.
In discussing Yaa Asantewaa’s role in the resistance war of 1900, Arhin observes that interest in her story emanates from the extent to which she conforms to or departs from the military and political roles of women in Asante (Arhin J Brempong 2000). Yaa Asantewaa personally demonstrated unusual but outstanding leadership qualifications and qualities. She deserves to be described as the leader of the uprising because her actions conform to Arhin’s definition of Asante war leadership. “A leader of the ‘rising’ was the one to initiate, in consultation with others, the planning and execution of the strategy and tactics of the war, the mobilization of men and material for it, the declaration of armistices(s) and the negotiation for peace with the, enemy” (Brempong, 2000).
On the other hand, Nana Yaa Asantewaa defied such Akan values that require the woman to be submissive and meek (at least in public). Yaa Asantewaa, it appears, by adopting the stance that she had violated those traditional values already referred to. Thus, she was not afraid to risk the stigma of being branded an “obaa kokonyini” which means “a female cockerel” or an “obaa sagyefoo” which literally means “the female redeemer in [times of] war.”11 What set Yaa Asantewaa apart from other Asante females were her spirit and ideals.
Nana Yaa Asantewaa was essentially an individual who believed in getting on with what needed to be done without standing on ceremony or allowing herself to be bound by protocol. For example, in 1896, when her grandson, the Edwesohone Akwasi Afrane Kuma was sent into exile, she stepped in as queenmother rather than look around for a male who might not have the requisite qualification, by birth or merit, to hold that office. There was also the real danger that bringing in an outsider could result in his turning round to be a usurper who would attempt to claim the office for his own lineage some time in the future.
Asante history is replete with incidents where stop-gap appointments led to succession disputes and protracted litigations. Even very recently many such cases have flared up. They often result in social and political unrest. This clearly suggests that Yaa Asantewaa had acute foresight, Besides, she was optimistic that her grandson would return soon to carry on. (In this assumption, though, she was wrong because he was to remain and die in exile in 1914).
It should be pointed out that in Asante history, there, have been many instances when women have excelled in a public capacity. There is, for example, the case of the Asantehemaa Adoma Akosua, who in 1814, was left in charge of the affairs of the Asante nation while the Asantehene Osei Bonsu went to the coast to visit his troops on the battlefield there. In the period, Adoma Akosua received a Dutch embassy with which she discussed trade. There is also the brief diplomatic career of Akyaawaa Oyiakwan, a daughter of the Asantehene Osei Kwadwo (1764-77), who headed two different diplomatic missions that successfully negotiated the Maclean Treaty in April 1831 with the British and with the Danes at Christiansborg Castle in August of the same year (Wilks, 1993, 330-346). In addition, is the example of the Dwabenhemaa Ama Seiwaa who in 1843 took over as chief of the Dwabeii and led her people back to Asante from exile in Akyem Abuakwa in the south east of the Gold Coast after the death of her two sons in succession. Indeed, her daughter, Nana Afrakoma Panin and her granddaughter Nana Akua Saponmaa both held the dual offices of Dwabenhemaa and Dwabenhene concurrently. However, the difference between all these examples and the case of Nana Yaa Asantewaa was that the latter took on the might of the technologically superior British.
Relevance of Yaa Asantewaa for Women in the New Millennium
As a role model for the woman of the new millennium, Yaa Asantewaa challenges women in particular and society in general to reconstruct a wider society that more fully explores women’s lives and experiences within it. The important lessons to learn from Nana Yaa Asantewaa are that she had a vision and ideals that she firmly held on to. She did not permit her gender to be a stumbling block in her march toward this vision. Thus she efficiently combined her various roles of a full time public career of holding the high office of queenmother of Edweso together with the private roles of motherhood, wife and farmer. In this regard, she literally, rather than figuratively, merits the title Obaa-Sagyefoo.
Modern incidence of the spirit of Yaa Asantewaa has been manifested by women both in Ghana and elsewhere in the world. These women have acted either individually or as identifiable groups. This group includes the numerous women who are single-handedly raising families while maintaining careers at the same time. Many too have taken up high-profile careers in all spheres of life without being inundated by factors like gender, age, race that usually keep women down.
I will here draw attention to some identifiable women groups in Ghana who fall into this category. During the nationalist struggle for independence from British colonial rule in the 1950s, the market women in Southern Ghana, in particular, including Asante, organized and actively participated in and financed political campaigns from their own resources. Today, some Non-governmental and professional organizations such as the Ghana Women Initiative Foundation (GWIF); Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA); Lady Pharmacists’ Association of Ghana (LAPAG) have taken it upon themselves to empower women economically, politically and socially. Among other things, these organizations educate women on political and legal rights, health issues and income-generating ventures/projects.
Another group of women associated with the spirit of Yaa Asantewaa is the beret-wearing 31st December Women’s Movement (DWM). The emblem of this group is a woman bearing arms, which marks the organization out as a militant one that is leading a struggle. The struggle that this group is engaged in is a psychological and economic one aimed at empowering women politically and socially. However, the DWM, which, according to its president, is an NGO, appears to be too closely affiliated with partisan politics. Also, it is widely alleged in the print media that the organization is a beneficiary of government funding. It is therefore shunned and criticized by many women in Ghana. The organization has the potential of being used as an instrument to mobilize and to champion the cause of women. Yet, as a result of these allegations, the DWM is unable to achieve its potential. Similarly, the National Council of Women and Development (NCWD), a quasi-non-governmental organization, which is all umbrella unit for women’s developmental matters, is criticized for being politically aligned. Consequently, it does not enjoy as strong a support as it should have.
If the story of Nana Yaa Asantewaa has any positive lesson for the woman of today, they are that she should dare to dream and have a vision. She should aspire to acquire requisite skills. Above all she should aim to be the best at whatever she does, without permitting any negative force to stand in her way.
- She should have ideals and a clear vision; and she should be prepared to fight for the fulfillment of these ideals whenever the occasion arises. This should be done even if it means sacrificing personal and present comfort.
- Besides, privileged birth or family background should not prevent one from learning the nitty-gritty of life. Informed and dynamic leadership comes about if the leader personally has hands-on experience about or at least understands the instructions given. A hundred years ago, within the worldview that Nana Yaa Asantewaa was raised, what mattered most were family values and loyalty to the state. She held up these values without allowing either her age or gender to stand in her way, she defied the might of Britain. Sadly, she eventually lost her personal freedom in the process. However, it seems that even this personal catastrophe did not break her spirit. While in exile, Nana Yaa Asantewaa was well loved and a highly respected member of the community. Besides, she lived long and died at the ripe old age of eighty-one years.
- Today, among the important aspects of life that open up all kinds of opportunities in human existence are education and marketable skills. In following the footsteps of Nana Yaa Asantewaa, the woman of today should be prepared to take up the arms of education in the fight against ignorance, poverty, disease and discrimination. This means that the woman of today should not allow negative forces to stand in her way.
- The woman of today should dare to be different in a positive way.
- So I challenge all women to be inspired by the qualities that Nana Yaa Asantewaa demonstrated and has come to symbolize today.
Paper presented at the African Studies Association Conference at Nashville, Tennessee, USA, November 16-19, 2000). Research for this paper was kindly supported by IDRC funding through the Traditional Leadership Determinants of Social Policy Reform in West and Southern Africa: Traditional Authority Applied Research Network (TAARN) project.
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Copyright 2001 Africa Resource Center, Inc.
Donkoh, Wilhelmina J. (2001). YAA ASANTEWAA: A ROLE MODEL FOR WOMANHOOD IN THE NEW MILLENNIUM. Jenda: A Journal of Culture and African Women Studies: , 1, 1