The annual yam festival is one of the most important moments of the various Akan groups from Ghana and the Ivory Coast. It is lived with great intensity.
The yam is a plant with a climbing stalk that is cultivated in many parts of West Africa. Its tuber is the basis of the food chain for many populations. It is such an important food that when it is harvested there is a great celebration that brings the whole group around the ancestors.
In the late afternoon of the day before the festival, held during the autumn season, a drummer travels the streets announcing its beginning. In the meanwhile, men and youths prepare big logs to be offered to the chiefs and elders of the village.
Source of life
At sunset, the adults gather in front of the village chief’s house, each with his log on his shoulders. The drumming begins and everyone sings an ancient chant to honour their chiefs. They then go into the chief’s court, one by one, offering their gift with a profound bow at the chief’s feet. He is seated on a throne, and before him, they say: “Here is your log.” This is the sign of “annual obedience”: it signifies submission and acknowledgement of his authority.
The wood is mostly used to prepare food but some logs are instead lighted the same evening and will burn the whole night. In the past, all the village’s fires were extinguished and everyone came to light their fires from the logs burning in the king’s court. Today this no longer takes place. The only ritual that continues is that of putting out the old fire in the sovereign’s courtyard and lighting the new one with the offered logs.
The fire is left to burn through the night because they think that the deceased chiefs return to discuss around it. The same fire will burn in the courtyards of the family chiefs. While the living are deep in slumber, those who used to dwell in the village return and roam the area, stopping in their old homes.
Litigations and problems are resolved through public debates during the days preceding the festival. After this internal cleansing, it is the turn of an external one: houses, kitchen instruments, pots, mortars, pestles (used to mash boiled yam), …
It is a festival in which everything and everybody is renewed: the “dirt” gathered during the past year is removed from people and things. Everything must be renewed: walls are covered with red earth, the main rooms are painted, mortars and pestles are washed and decorated with drawings. All the village’s garbage is collected, put in huge washbasins, and brought out of the village to be thrown away.
On the morning of the festival, the group gathers in the village chief’s courtyard, along with his authorities and spokesperson. The chief is dressed in gala attire: a traditional multi-coloured toga; decorative jewels; a gold studded crown; golden or gold plated sandals, rings, and bracelets.
Traditional ceremonies begin towards ten in the morning in front of the village chief’s house. A girl carries the stool of the ancestors covered in a drape on her head, and also two talismans – the group’s divinities. Some women carry the washbasins filled with waste to be thrown away. A rich velvet parasol and an ornate, decorated stretcher carried on the shoulders of eight youths await the king. The procession commences. A space not far from the source has been prepared, there the king’s first wife will wash his hands, feet, legs, and face; his cleansing is a symbol of the cleansing of the entire village. An elderly matron then lets the crowd “participate” by sprinkling it. The king, once purified, will wash the stool and the talismans.
Sacrifice and offering
The return is triumphant. One of the most solemn moments of group life is being celebrated. It is a choral hymn to the never-ending life of the community founded on the union with the ancestors that continue to assure protection to their descendants.
Once back in the chief’s courtyard, the central part of the ceremony is prepared: the offering of drink, food, and victims. The ancestors’ stool – the most sacred object – is at the centre of the courtyard with the two talismans: two pumpkins wrapped in a net. The stool is ancient, it belonged to the group’s founding ancestor. The first offering is the drink: the chief pours it slowly while invoking the names of his ancestors. It is now the food’s turn, the new tuber. The yam was boiled the night before and reduced to flour, which the king lays in handfuls onto the stool as a symbolic offering. The lamb’s sacrifice follows. Bowing before the stool with one hand leaning on it, the king presents the lamb to his ancestors while reciting a prayer of intercession for the entire village. He asks for blessings on the harvest, prosperity in work, fecundity for women, physical health for all, and peace among the population. At the end of the prayer, he sacrifices the lamb, letting some blood drop onto the stool and the rest in a bowl. Every object will then be rubbed with the victim’s blood.
It is the central and most sacred part of the ceremony. Everything converges here – in this renewed communion between all members of the community. Indeed, the invocations and sacrifices to the ancestors and the family divinities, to whom the first fruits and the blood of the victims are offered, beseech their presence. They aim to concentrate their good forces in the person of the king, and through him to all the people. Ties of unity are reaffirmed and restored; everyone receives a supplement of life, the energy needed to confront the new year. Even sacred objects are reinvigorated and regenerated.
In the afternoon, the girls go from house to house dancing the noro. Dancing in a circle, they throw themselves into the arms of a companion and say the name of a young beloved, be he real or imaginary. The dance is a symbol of the flowering of life, the joy of living, prosperity, abundant harvests. On the evening of the feast, everyone goes to the village chief’s courtyard to thank him for all his attention and for what he does for his people.
Asare Kwame F.