We both got up early. I jogged down to the STC to get a bus ticket, worrying unnecessarily that the bus might be too crowded and I would miss it. Shortly past seven we went across the street to the unjustly renowned Windmill Bakery for breakfast, because the evening before the girl there told me they open at seven. Wrong again. But they have an excuse: their menu lists two eggs any style for 600 cedis (28 cents), and since a single egg on the street goes for 400, it's probably not worth it for them to wake up. So we go back across the street to the second-floor Family Restaurant, run by an old Lebanese gentleman in Muslim get-up with paintings of naked African women juxtaposed with sayings from the Koran on the walls. When he ran out of nescafe he served us turkish coffee, which was awful. And when a Muslim can't make good coffee, you know you're in a strange land. It was actually an intriguing space with a real north African feel, but we were both preoccupied with our immediate futures, Richard's in Bolgatanga and Burkina Faso, mine getting to Italy that night. The events of the previous evening had convinced Richard that there is nothing in Kumasi worth an interminable bus ride, so it was time for him to head for the airport. We went to the room, packed, checked out, shook hands and went our separate ways. Poor Richard: the Asantahene's palace was absolutely the high point of my stay in Ghana.
We enter the house through the study. The guidebook said that many are disappointed that the "palace" is no more than a simple small house. I'm not. By now I'm used to the fact that terminology in Ghana is often irrelevant to function and practice. Moreover, while many of the mundane articles of life on display border on the silly, so does life itself, and the small scale allows you to focus deeply on every small, significant item. In the study we are shown the Asantehene's desk, and his telephone, and in the corner, his filing cabinet with a stack of official documents. There is a bookcase. Although the Ashanti civilization is quite sophisticated and has a very long history, and although the importance of communication is evident in the symbols carved everywhere in stools and on speaking staffs, I saw no evidence that they ever had a written language. So I am not surprised, on perusing the titles, that each book, of whatever quality, would be held as equally strange and important. There were several bibles and devotional tracts, books on world history and African history, mostly of Reader's Digest quality, and an exposition by some forgotten English blade-bender on the game of golf. The first floor was mostly devoted to the personal effects of the previous Asantehene, Prempeh II. Various items were scattered over and around genteel furniture. "These are the glasses in which the Asantehene served drinks to his guests." There were many pictures of Prempeh II, a dignified and good-looking gentleman with eyes of calm intelligence, with various foreign and native dignitaries, including a picture of him receiving his knighthood from the English king, and in many captions "K.B.E." was proudly appended to his name. In one room there was a life-size figure of Prempeh II sitting on his throne. When a new king is officially installed, one does not say that he is "enthroned," because the Ashanti man is symbolized by his stool, so one says instead that the king is "enstooled." However, the Asantehene does not sit on a stool, he sits on a large chair, or throne. Go figure. I ask the guide about things relating to Prempeh I. He says we'll get to him later. Upstairs, we go first into a side room devoted to the current Asantehene, Okopu Ware II. Again, there is a life-size wax figure, and a large photograph that I recognized from a postcard, of the king in full ceremonial regalia, with gold dripping down his shoulders. The guide points out two men at either of his arms, and tells us that they are servants, whose sole duty is to lift up the Asantehene's arms, because the gold jewelry he is wearing is so heavy that he can't raise them himself. In a glass museum case is a pair of somewhat ordinary looking sandals, but these are not ordinary, these are worn by the new Asantehene only at an enstooling. I ask a stupid question"when the next Asantehene is enstooled, will these sandals be taken out of the case for the ceremony"because I am struck by the realization that many of the museum pieces we are seeing are living active symbols of a great people. This is a living museum, or not a museum at all. My first glimpse of Prempeh I in the next room was a photograph taken on his way to exile, of a not haughty but truly proud man, taken on a side angle looking up at a head held not defiantly but truly proudly back. (In the next room was a miraculous modern impressionist painting of the golden stool being delivered from heaven to a fortunate Ashanti man.) The image of a white slave-hunter chasing an African through the bush is false. The whites stayed mainly around their castles, and the slaves were brought by rival tribes, such as the Fante, who had captured them to use as trading material. When the international slave trade came to an end by the mid-nineteenth century, however, the British suddenly realized that the Ashanti people in the interior were being left alone in peace, so they had to do something about it, so they moved into the interior to conquer them, and built Fort Kumasi. To add insult to injury, in a despicable provocation deliberately designed to afflict the maximum humiliation, they demanded in tribute the golden stool. When the Ashanti refused, the British arrested Prempeh I, imprisoned him in Elmina Castle for a time, then sent him into exile in the Seychelles. While Prempeh I was in exile, Prempeh's queen mother (whose name I didn't record but which should be enshrined in history) rallied the Ashanti against the insult and besieged the British at the fort, and the war ensued, and, inevitably, unfortunately, the British won, so the Ashanti craftsmen assembled and carved a fake golden stool to give to them. So here's how nice these people are. There is a painting of Elmina Castle. As the very definition of euphemism, the caption reads: "The residence of Asantehene Prempeh I when he visited Elmina Castle en route to the Seychelles." Beside the life-size wax figure of Prempeh I, seated on the throne with full ceremonial regalia, is a crucifix rising two feet from a wooden pedastal with a prominent figure of Christ. Why is it there? Because, while in exile in the Seychelles, Prempeh I converted to the Anglican faith, so the cross is now an official symbol. There were pictures and paintings of this extraordinary woman the queen mother (a position always important in the matrilineal Ashanti hierarchy), both as she was leading the uprising and as a woman of eighty also exiled in the Seychelles. There were also artifacts going further back. Ghana is rich in gold (and the beans that make the world's best chocolate!), the very name Ashanti has something to do with "people of gold," and they had on display the Asantehene's money bags, officially called his "bank," two leather pouches, one with a silver and the other with a gold latch, the former for his silver the latter for all of his gold. Once, the Asantehene sent emissaries to a neighboring tribe, whose chief had the emissaries put to death. So the Ashanti went to war; the inhospitable chief was captured, and now his face rests on the sheath of a sword in the museum in Kumasi. Like the speaking staff, swords too bear symbols of what they are meant to communicate. Like the ceremonial pipe, carved out of metal, not wood, with an impossibly long stem, because it was not smokedwhat was important was the proverb carved on its side. On a porch on the second floor were more ancient articles. Lying casually on a grass-woven chaisse lounge was a golden axe. The guide picked it up, confidently, familiarly, and explained that whenever the Asantehene's private guard would find an Ashanti running from battle, one would strike him on the forehead with this golden axe. Afterward, anyone in the village with a vertical scar running down his forehead would be prohibited from achieving positions of prominence; furthermore, such a man's wife is free to divorce him, and even if she doesn't, another man may come into her bed and sleep with her, and the man cannot complain, because he is no longer a man.
The house we were in was offered to the Ashanti by the British as a residence for the Asantehene. The Ashanti declined the offer until they were able to buy it for themselves. On the way out I had first intended to direct my 1000 change toward a tip for the guide, but out of respect for the proud young Ashanti, I chose not to treat him as a beggar and kept it for myself.
I was filled with admiration and respect for the Asantehene. I saw a parallel between the Ashanti king and an Orthodox bishop. Both are vested in all the finery the community can muster, as a sign of collective prosperity, and both are treated liturgically and ceremonially with adoration and veneration, and both in day-to-day life are just nice guys. Richard was correct in chastising my lack of patience over the hotel water supply, but I didn't feel bad about that. I did feel sinful, however, over all those postcards I had sent outthe big fat guy turns out to have been Okopu Ware II himself, and I was writing snide comments and sacrilegiously sending out his image as a souvenir. On the other hand, it made me more confident about taking pictures. If it's all right for you to sell me a postcard of the Asantehene that people halfway around the world can make fun of, then what's wrong with me taking your picture?