Jan 25, 2016
Asafo - Military Organization
The asafo is a political-military institution of the Akan. Even though its social and political functions have been well documented, the expressive and aesthetic culture of the Asafo institution has received limited scholarly attention (de Graft Johnson, 1932; Fortes and Evans-Pritchard, 1940; Datta and Porter, 1971; and Sutherland-Addy, 1998). Sutherland-Addy (1998, p. 90), for example, suggests that "the rhetoric, libations, historical songs and chants, praise-poetry, legends and drama texts may now be examined with a view to demonstrating how they provide the texture, context, impact and value of historical fact" that mark the asafo institution. Even though the Akan societies, had no standing army, the asafo - i.e., a people's militia - was a well established social and political organization based on martial principles. Every able-bodied person belonged to an asafo group; every child automatically belonged to his or her father's company. Internal sub-divisions within an individual company included the main fighting body, the scouts, reserves, and the minstrel unit whose main job it was to sing patriotic and war songs to boost the morale of the military.
The asafo companies forming the national army were organized into main fighting divisions thus: adonten (vanguard - main body under the adontenhene), twafo (advance guard), kyidom (rearguard - under the kyidomhene), nifa (right wing under the nifahene), benkum (left wing under the benkumhene), akwansra (scouting division), ankobea (home guard under the ankobeahene), and gyaase (the king's bodyguard under the gyaasehene).
Asafo companies were also differentiated by the different colors of headgear and hairstyles worn by members, exclusive drums, horns and other musical instruments, appellations, and emblems. Other units within the main divisions included afonasoafoo (the carriers of spears and shields), sumankwaafoo (the herbalists and medicine men), and the asokwafo (heralds). Asafo companies existed in all the Akan states. In Asante, the national asafo was commanded by the Asantehene, but two generals, the kurontire and akwamu, were the military leaders. The Fantse went a step further by incorporating some European customs in their Asafo companies. The typical Asafo company in a Fantse township, according to Aggrey (1978), was headed by the Tufohene, the military advisor to the chief of the township. Next in line is the Asafobaatan. Supi was the commanding officer, while the divisional captain within a company was called the Safohene (for the male) or Asafoakyere (for the female). Other ranks in the Asafo were the Asafokomfo (the priest), okyerema - head of the akyeremafo (the drummers), frankaakitani (flag bearer), sekanboni (sword maker), okyeame (spokesperson or linguist), and abrafoo (police officers) and adumfoo (executioners).
Datta (1972) distinguishes between formal and informal offices, the former being characterized by a specific ritual with which the assumption of the office was marked. Among these offices are the tufohene, asafobaatan, supi, safohene, frankaakitani, sekanboni, and okyeame. These office-holders take the appropriate oath on the assumption of office at formally organized ceremonies. The Akan Asafo scouting system is what Baden Powell is believed to have used as the model for the Scout Movement (Tufuo and Donkor, 1989). Military titles of honor that were conferred on individuals for their heroism and bravery included osabarima, baafoo, osahene, katakyie, oberempon, osagyefo, and ogyeatuo. The akyem (shield) symbol depicts heroic deeds and bravery. Such heroic deeds were treasured long after the death of the hero as implied in the following maxim: ekyem tete a, eka ne meramu (When a shield wears out, the framework still remains).
Even though the asafo, in the past had as its primary role the defense of the state, it did perform other social services. In the present times, the social services performed by the asafo include serving as a search party when one is lost or when one drowns in a river, public sanitation, maintain public trails, foot paths and bridges. The asafo companies also engage in competitions during festivals.
Every able-bodied person was expected to serve a military duty when called to action. Each township will have at least one asafo company. One's membership in an asafo company was determined by one's father's lineage (ntoro - among the Asante or egyabosom - among the Fantse). While among the Asante, women did not usually go to the war front, the Fantse had women who were war captains. The rare case of Yaa Asantewa of Edweso who led the Asante army against the British in the Yaa Asantewaa War of 1900, is well chronicled.
Asafo flags are popular among the Fantse of the coastal area. The flag is a cloth of solid color that is about three feet by five feet in dimensions. The symbols on the flag are appliqued and occasionally embroidered. The Asafo flag has on it the British flag (Union Jack) or the Ghana flag. The asafo flag bearing the Union Jack indicates the flag was made during the time that Britain ruled Ghana (Gold Coast), and the asafo flag bearing the Ghana flag indicates it was made after 1957 when Ghana gained her independence from Britain. The asafo flag with its symbols and colors often represents "important historical occasions in the life of the company or, unpleasant past events such as wars, deaths and defeats" (Labi, 1998, p. 101). As Sarbah (1906, pp. 26-27) put it, "the honour of his company flag was his first consideration and his service to his company was his indispensable service."
The asafo flag symbols are pregnant "with meaning by allusions to historical accounts, myths, rituals, sacred places, and prominent persons etc., and as such they were essential in the construction of a company's cohesion, persistence and feeling of exclusiveness; thus, to defend the cherished symbols was to defend the integrity and pride of the company" (Labi, 1998, p. 102).
The asafo are also known for their cement shrines called posuban, which may be defined as fenced-in trees and/or sacred rocks or mounds designating a god. The artistically embellished shrines attract the most attention, especially the ones that have sculptures and are multi-storied buildings. The more elaborate structures are referred to as monumental posuban.
Ross(1977; 2007) has researched and documented more than seventy posuban in the central region of Ghana from 1974 to 2006. Many of the shrines contain writing of the name and number of the company and the town in which it is located. In addition, company mottoes and the names of important asafo leaders may also be inscribed. Each posuban is multi-functional and serves as a site for ritual sacrifices and offerings for at least one god. They are also used for many company activities such as the installation of company officers, during the funerals of its members, and the observation of a variety of festivals. Some of the larger shrines may serve as storage areas for asafo regalia such as sacred flags, gongs, or drums.
Visit our Gallery to view pictures of Asafo flags (Textiles - Asafo Flags) and posuban (Architecture - Military Post).