The Republic of Ghana evokes both the ancient Empire of Ghana and the riches of the “Gold Coast,” as the area was called by the British. The historical abundance of Ghana’s gold, timber, and kola nuts drew Europeans to its shores first to trade these goods and then to buy slaves. Though the Colonial Era was destined to forever change this land, Ghanaians remain proud of the armed might with which the Ashanti people resisted the British until 1900. In 1957, Ghana became the first sub-Sahara nation to achieve independence, and its first president, Kwame Nkrumah, funneled state resources into the expansion of traditional arts and culture. Nkrumah also introduced strong support for Pan-African ideas, and Ghana has become a leader in researching and celebrating African culture in its largest sense as well as in its most local traditions.

As in most West African countries, local tradition varies among the nation’s distinctive ethnic groups. The Akan (which include the Ashanti) constitute the largest group in Ghana. Other major societies are the Dagomba, who reside primarily in the north; the Ewe, who live mostly in the east; the Ga and Adangbe, who populate the south; and the Guan, who are northeastern dwellers. Each of these groups speaks one or more languages. The Akan, for example, comprise both Twi and Fanti speakers. English is the nation’s official language. Nearly 40% of Ghanaians practice animist forms of worship, and even among Christians and Muslims people retain respect for the traditional beliefs of their ancestors. Accra, Ghana is home to a unique faith called Zetaheal, which claims a growing number of several thousand adherents. Established in the mid-1970s, Zetaheal combines the teachings of the Koran and the Bible into a single service led by both a pastor and an Imam.

In every Ghanaian village there is a wealth of traditional music and dance that marks the rites and celebrations of the community. Ghanaians were also pioneers, however, in developing a popular music that could represent the entire nation. “Highlife” music, begun during the 1920s as local musicians enhanced traditional music with European instruments and Latin rhythms, first became popular in the dance clubs of Accra and other coastal cities. For those who could not afford imported instruments or the champagne of the dance clubs, “palm-wine” musicians developed their own version of the highlife style. By the 1950s highlife music had entered its golden era and became the musical trademark Ghana. Ghanaian culture has been further conveyed by national authors whose work explores the encounter of local traditions with the West. In her drama and fiction, Ama Ata Aidoo is very critical of the West, while the poet and novelist Kofi Awoonor writes of the difficulties met by the Western-educated Ghanaian upon returning home. The early novels of Ayi Kwei Armah stressed the materialism of the West, but his later work is more focused on Africa.

Ghana’s rich heritage has produced many landmarks. Near the city of Kumasi are traditional buildings of the Ashanti people, as well as many villages where artisans continue to practice the industrial life of the past. Of the items produced by these artisans, the most famous is the kente cloth, which has become a symbol of Ghana. In Kumasi and other regions are the Posuban Shrines, traditional Fante military fortresses that were also decorated with fanciful folk art emblems. Along the coast are the 32 forts and castles left by every European nation that had a navy. The oldest of these is the Castle at Elmina, completed by the Portuguese in 1482 and commandeered by the Dutch in 1637. Enslaved men and women were kept here waiting for ships, and the castle’s dungeons bespeak their horror. Nearby is the impressive Fort St. Jago, which guarded the castle. Another emotive landmark to the slave trade is Cape Coast Castle, fortified by the Swedes in 1637 and taken over by the British in 1664. The enslaved also passed through the tunnels of this castle with its massive ramparts and phalanx of seaward cannons. In addition to the museums and cultural centers in the capital city of Accra, there is also the dramatic Mausoleum of Kwame Nkrumah, an important monument in a culture with such reverence for ancestors. Nearby is a center established by W.E.B. Du Bois, the great representative of Pan-Africanism from the United States who became a Ghanaian citizen in 1961.

The Centuries Old traditions of Ghana’s many distinct ethnic groups have created a rich culture that is the splendid legacy of Ghana today. To the people of Ghana, the traditions of their ancestors are still an important part of daily life. Traditional leaders have historical authority over tribal and family matters, and ancestral lands are an integral part of our heritage. People mark important events with special rites and rituals. Seasonal festivals bring entire clans together in a spectacular fashion.

Support for the Arts: The arts are primarily self-supporting, but there are some avenues of government financing and sponsorship. The publically funded University of Ghana, through the Institute for African Studies, provides a training ground for artists, especially in traditional music and dance, and hosts an annual series of public performances. The government also regularly hosts Pan-African arts festivals, such as PANAFEST, and sends Ghanaian artists and performers to similar celebrations in other African countries.

Literature: While there is a small body of written literature in indigenous languages, Ghanaians maintain a rich oral tradition, both through glorification of past chiefs and folktales enjoyed by popular audiences. Kwaku Ananse, the spider, is an especially well-known folk character, and his clever and sometimes self-defeating exploits have been sources of delight across generations. Literature in English is well developed and at least three authors: Ayi Kwei Armah, Efua Sutherland, and Ama Ata Aiddo have reached international audiences.

Graphic Arts: Ghana is known for a rich tradition of graphic arts. Wood carving is perhaps the most important. The focus of the craft is on the production of stools that are carved whole from large logs to assume the form of abstract designs or animals. These motifs generally represent proverbial sayings. The stools are not merely mundane items, but become the repositories of the souls of their owners after death and objects of family veneration. Carving is also applied to the production of staves of traditional office, drums, dolls, and game boards. Sculpting in metal is also important and bronze and iron casting techniques are used to produce gold weights and ceremonial swords. Ghanaians do not make or use masks themselves, but there are some funerary effigies in clay. Pottery is otherwise devoted to producing simple domestic items. Textiles are well developed, especially handwoven kente, and stamped adinkra cloths.

Most of the traditional crafts involve artists who work according to standardized motifs to produce practical or ceremonial items. Purely aesthetic art is a modern development and there is only a small community of sculptors and painters who follow Western models of artistic production.

Performance Arts: Most performances occur in the context of traditional religious and political rites, which involve intricate drumming and dancing. While these are organized by trained performers, a strong emphasis on audience participation prevails. Modern developments have encouraged the formation of professional troupes, who perform on public occasions, at international festivals, and in theaters and hotel lounges. The University of Ghana houses the Ghana Dance Ensemble, a national institution with an international reputation. More popular modern forms focus on high life music, a samba-like dance style, which is played in most urban nightclubs.

Sunseekers’ Cultural Tours are designed to showcase the best that Ghana has to offer in tradition, customs and festivals. Our tour programmes highlight the traditional way of life, interaction with local people, and often include cultural events and festivals.

 

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