Two Asante Queen mothers in their kente cloth and golden regalias with their ancient "Ahenemaa densikran" ( Queen`s down-cut hairstyle at public ceremony in Kumasi, Ashanti region of Ghana.
This article will consider the Queen Mother's role and responsibilities in the political system of the Asante as it is articulated by individuals who hold these positions, recognizing that they fulfill very specific functions vvhile at the same time they bring to life images that express key concepts in the culture.'The term ohemmaa (sing., ahemmaa pi.) in Twi refers to the female leaders who parallel the
male chiefs (phew sing., ahene pi.), in the indigenous political system known as chieftaincy. The term for chief or queen mother combines with the name of a specific location (or "stool" as it is
known) to create the full title.
The Asante, one of the several societies who constitute the larger cultural group known as the Akan, are located in the Ashanti region of Ghana. This article focuses on Asante queen mothers, but the
political system of which they are a part characterizes all of the Akan peoples located in southern Ghana and Ivory Coast.
In the Ashanti Region every town, village or division has a queen mother and
chief who serve as traditional authorities. Each local chief and queen mother belongs to a division, headed by a paramount chief and queen mother, and all of the divisions together complete the Asante
culture. At the top of this hierarchy sit the King and Queen Mother of the Asante, the Asantehene and the Asantehemmaa. This principle of replication of the political system from (he top of the pyramid to
the bottom distinguishes the Akan from many other kingdoms in Africa, and it also ensures that every individual has a direct link to a political leader, who has a direct link: to a superior. A development of some interest in recent years is the fact that patrilineal ethnic groups who are not related to the matrilineal Akan, and who have not had queen mothers in the past, have begun incorporating theminto their systems as well.
This form of leadership has been characterized as a dual gender system by scholars, or one with gender parallelism (Okonjo 1976; Sudarkasa 1987). Central to the dynamics of chieftaincy and to the
identity of every individual member of the culture is the kinship system which is matrilineal. That is to say, one's family and one's clan are defined through the mother's line, and if one is to be a queen mother or a chief, one must be descended from a royal ancestress through the mother. Not only are political leadership and kinship defined by the precolonial cultural system, but it integrates other institutions and practices, including religion, gender, law and land use. Recognized locally as "Custom," and sometimes labeled "traditional rule" or "traditional authority," queen mothers and
chiefs are involved in all domains of custom, while at the same time they are engaged in adapting tompostcolonial society Queen mothers of the Akan have their own stools. Among all of the Akan peoples the stool symbolizes power and authority just as the throne does in European monarchies. Thus when it is said that a queen mother "has her own stool," the reference is that she has her own power. She occupies her stool on the basis of her own qualifications. This distinguishes Akan female leaders from many others in Africa who derive their power from their relationship to a chief..
Among the Akan both a queen mother and a chief must be members of the same royal family. Each stool has a royal family
associated with one of the seven or eight clans, and the chief and queen mother will belong to that royal family. In some instances the queen mother may, in fact, be the biological mother of the chief
(as with the current Asantehemmaa and Asantehene), but more often they are aunt and nephew or uncle and niece, or, frequently they are cousins; they can also be sister and brother. The current
Dwabenhene and Dwabenhemmaa are sister and brother, and the previous Dwabenhemmaa was the biological mother of the chief. When a queen mother's or a chiefs stool becomes vacant, a new queen mother or chief is selected by the royal family and/or the chief, and enstooled. They never assume their positions simultaneously and certainly cannot ever be married to each other as they must be members of the same family.
A queen mother's duties reflect her relationship to the chief and, equally as important, her responsibility for the welfare of women in her domain. She is also the embodiment of motherhood and is thus considered to be the mother of her clan in her town and consequently the mother of the chief. She possesses knowledge and wisdom as the mother of the clan and is expected to impart that
wisdom to the chief on a regular basis. This knowledge and wisdom legitimates her authority; it includes t he g enealogy o f the royal family a nd p olitical w isdom a s w ell. S he exercises her moral authority officially as an advisor to the chief on matters of tradition and religion, but also on secular affairs. In addition she is the nominator of the chief. When a chiefs stool becomes vacant, she
nominates a candidate (on the basis of her knowledge) from among those who are qualified to the elders of the royal family and the kingmakers (elders and sub-chiefs). If that candidate is not
acceptable, she can nominate two others, always on the basis of her knowledge and wisdom. When political matters run smoothly, the queen mother advises the chief regularly and sits on his left in his
court and advises him as he makes decisions there. But when the political affairs of any stool erupt into conflict, the relationship between the queen mother and the chief will reflect these controversies.
Equally important is the queen mother's responsibility for the welfare of women and domestic affairs in her domain. Covering a broad range of social relations, the heaviest responsibility she bears
is for the resolution of conflict. All queen mothers are available for hearing cases involving women, domestic affairs, or issues of everyday life and commerce.
The Asantehemmaa holds a formal court each Tuesday to which many women and some men bring their conflicts, whether they are matters of insult or curse between two women, or a conflict that has
occurred between a woman and a man. The Asantehemmaa has six to eight linguists (akyeame) (all male but one), who direct the court, and twelve to fifteen male elders who listen and interrogate the
litigants, finally coming to consensus in regard to the outcome of the case in the absence of the Queen Mother, who hears and rules on some cases but not all. Paramount queen mothers also hear cases
involving various kinds of domestic problems, not only those between a man and a woman, but those involving extended family members in a household or tenants in a house. These queen mothers, as well as those in the smaller towns (who are known as obaa paniri), do not have a formal court, but they do have one or more linguists (akyeame) through whom litigants speak to the queen mother and who report her questions and directives back to the litigants, They may also have numerous other elders, relatives, or servants who attend the hearing of cases. No matter how small a queen mother's domain may be (neighborhood in a small city or a small village) or how important she may be, she has the authority to hear cases in her domain and pronounce the outcome, providing guidance and direction for the resolution of conflict in the everyday lives of ordinary people. Attending to these many disputes and determining the outcome, which o ften involves a fine and s ome form of ritual behavior, constitutes a major portion of a queen mother's duties.
A queen mother has many ritual duties, but one of the most important concerns the recognition of a young woman's maturity. Custom dictates that all young women must be brought to the queen mother to be registered when they first begin to menstruate. She examines each young girl to make certain she is not pregnant and then records her name in her registry. This practice has taken the place of female initiation rites formerly practiced by the Akan which involved the celebration of a girls womanhood by her friends as well as family (Sarpong 1977)."
Like a chief, a queen mother is expected to celebrate Akwasedae and Awukudae in her own village or town. These are the major religious rituals in the traditional religion; they honor the ancestors by religion that places great emphasis on the ancestors. In addition to these observances that occur every six weeks, queen mothers, like chiefs, participate in the funerals of other royals or family
members or prestigious members of their community, large event;- of public display, especially for those of high rank. Although these are the major public rituals, individual queen mothers are also
responsible for more private forms of ritual life as well.
This brief overview of a queen mother's authority and responsibilities illustrates that the queen mother and the chief function in parallel roles based on the principle of complementarity, not on a basis of equal power and authority. Also important, the political system has far more actors in it than these two prominent leaders who also act as signs of authority, female and male. A powerful position in every clan carries the title of abusuapanin, an elder who serves as the head of the clan and the royal family and provides the link between the royal family and the chief and Queen Mother. In addition there are sub-chiefs in every town who are the chiefs of the clans other than that of the royal family, and these sub-chiefs work together with the chief in stool matters. However, if a chief fails to perform
his duties satisfactorily, the sub-chiefs are authorized to destool him. A most important role is that of okyeame. Paramount chiefs will have a number of akyeame as well as the sub-chiefs, and numerous
other people who constitute their entourage.
Because the political system is inextricably linked to the kinship system, queen mothers also serve as the embodiment of Asante identity, the mother of the clan and the link between the individual and the larger kin group (Stoeltje 1995). A very complex form of leadership replicated in every town and village, chieftaincy is without questiona political system. I n it authority has clear parameters but
power is always under negotiation. Queen mothers and chiefs were engaged in these negotiations of power in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (in pre-colonial Asante) as the record, both oral and written, shows, and though the various functions have shifted in terms of dominance, chieftaincy has remained a powerful force in the social and political life of the twenty-first century.
BY: Kweku Darko Ankrah