‘Abele Azani’: The spiritual grain that sustained the Ahanta people throughout the ages

Red maize also known as "Abele Azani" (Photo provided by Ahanta Apemenyimheneba Kwofie III

The traditional food for the people of Ahanta is “Foomfoom” and the best of it is the one prepared with RED MAIZE also known as “Abele Azani” in the Ahanta language. Preparing “Foomfoom” is a bit hectic and time-consuming but it is actually what a traditional Ahanta man or woman would want to have as his or her last meal of the day. Why? Our forefathers said it cures and heals us of our diseases, sicknesses and grants us long life with good health. 

Aside from being their traditional food, the Ahanta believe in the spirituality of “Abele Azani”. For them, “Abele Azani” is a source of long life and good health.  They believe it has spiritual connotations and ancestral connections which tightens the bond between the living and the dead. They consider it as a weapon to drive away demons and evil forces in their homes. It fortifies them against dark powers and misfortunes but brings them good luck and fortunes during planting and harvesting seasons.

Today, the Ahanta, especially those in Sekondi-Takoradi in Ghana, have lost touch with “Abele Azani” and its spirituality. That is very sad and it tells our true state as a people and reasons meaningful Ahanta people should be worried. In the 1700s, Wellin Bosman, the Dutch explorer, toured Gold Coast (now Ghana) and on reaching Ahanta, he noticed that they were the only people in the then-known Gold Coast and other places he had toured in Africa who had the “Abele Azani”, which he described as SWEET. He further described how the Ahanta were religiously, spiritually and customarily attached to these red grains apart from using them as a staple food. They performed almost all their customs and practices with it and in fact, their whole lives centered on it. 

How the Ahanta came to possess this maize remains a mystery but our oral traditions and myths say that it is the exact maize that Dwarfs handed over to Akpoley, a hunter, when he chanced on them dancing while he was on a hunting expedition. There other accounts which say that maize, in general, was introduced to Africa by Portuguese from South America but Bossman’s account indicates that the RED MAIZE was unique to only the Ahanta. If this is true, then Akpoley’s account certainly predates the arrival of Europeans in Africa though one should admit inaccuracies in oral traditions and myths. Inasmuch as we should admit inaccuracies in oral traditions and myths, we should also admit the fact that not everything good came from Europe to Africa.

Our oral traditions and myths narrate that the Ahanta had been hit with intense famine as soon as they settled at their present locations after long years of migration from Bono. Akpoley, being one of the Ahanta’s chief hunters, was on a hunting expedition to find food or possibly another suitable area for settlement considering the intensity of the famine. In the course of his expedition, he chanced on Dwarfs dancing under a certain palm tree. He hid and studied how they danced for several days and in one of the days, the Dwarfs noticed his presence and caught him. He pleaded with them to spare his life and also narrated how hunger was killing his people. Out of pity and mercies, the Dwarfs spared his life. They also gave him some red grains and asked him to go and grow them to feed his people, and that was how the Kundum festival celebrated by the Ahanta and the Nzema began. The Dwarfs also taught him how to dance the ABISA, which eventually became the traditional dance of the Ahanta and Nzema people and the official dance for the Kundum festival. 

Today in Ahanta, Kundum is gradually fading away with the Abisa dance. It is only celebrated in villages around Agona Nkwanta. Kwesimintsim has also been celebrating it and that is really commendable by the chief of Kwesimintsim, Nana Egozi Esoun VII and his people. They are probably the only people in Sekondi-Takoradi who are keeping alive the traditions and spirituality of Ahanta in Sekondi-Takoradi. It saddens some of us how we are throwing away such dignified cultural heritage bequeathed to us by our forefathers. We are greatly losing touch with our spirituality as a people and the very reasons many Ahanta people, especially the youths, shy away from their identity. 

Indeed, Bosman is on record to have been the first European to witness the Kundum festival in Ahanta and he gave a vivid account of how it is celebrated with “Abele Azani” featuring prominently in all activities as far as Kundum is concerned. He spoke about how they used it to prepare all their meals as well as performing other practices including spiritual fortifications with it. On the subject of the Kundum festival, Bosman spoke about how the Ahanta danced at night in circular forms around fires with bangles tied to their legs. They would stamp their feet hard on the ground with the bangles making noise. They also used the same formations when they are going to war. 

While growing up with my grandmother at Apemenyim in the Western Region of Ghana, she held certain spiritual and traditional beliefs about “Abele Azani” that made me wonder. She treated it with some kind of reverence and specialty. She always made me feel that our whole lives as people depended on it. I never understood her until I started researching the Ahanta and red maize. In fact, I never believed my grandmother in those and felt she was being overly superstitious with her beliefs in “Abele Azani” but she kept on telling me that I would understand it someday and I guess I have understood it now. 

Even though we lived on subsistence, we sometimes had enough maize and sold some of them for cash for household needs and my grandmother would sell most of her farm produce but certainly not “Abele Azani”. No matter how she was in need of money, she would never sell it but would rather give it out freely to anybody who needed it. If I ask her, she would tell me “Abele Azani” is not for sale. She would never trade “Abele Azani” for anything that brings money. According to her, their forefathers cautioned them not to trade it for money and wealth but rather they should give it out freely to anybody who is in need of it. 

She recounted to me how in the olden days, Badu Bonso (a leader of the Ahanta) would call all his sub-chiefs in the kingdom to gather at his palace in Owusua (Busua) and share among them grains of “Abele Azani”. He would then charge them to grow it into larger folds and return some to his palace after harvesting so that he does not run out of stock. The chiefs would return to their various communities and share the grains to heads of various families and households and also charge them to produce them in folds just as Badu Bonso charged them. This was done every year to religiously ensure the sustainability of “Abele Azani” in the Ahanta kingdom.

Sharing of the “Abele Azani” signified the beginning of the planting season for the Ahanta and after harvesting, the first yield must be sent to Badu Bonso at Owusua. Failure to do that can result in your death based on the orders of Badu Bonso. To those who were faithful to this ancestral tradition, he rewarded with gold dust and elevated some chiefs for keeping faithful to this tradition to ensure that the Ahanta does not go back to the days of famine as it happened in Akpoley’s days. 

She further narrated how “Abele Azani” signified the passage between life and death in the Ahanta beliefs and customs. She recounted how “Abele Azani” was considered the most important family inheritance that must be shared equally among members of a family before one’s death. It is the reason she always had some grains of “Abele Azani” hidden somewhere and ready to share before her death. 

If an elderly person in the family calls family members together and shares his or her stock of “Abele Azani” among them, it signifies that he or she is prepared to leave the world of the living and join the ancestors. Soon after sharing “Abele Azani” among family members, that person may not live beyond one week. It is for this reason that every Ahanta must have some stock of “Abele Azani” and pass it on to family members before dying else it is believed that the ancestors will not welcome such a fellow in their midst.

Today, the Ahanta has lost touch with “Abele Azani”. I personally don’t remember the last time I set my eyes on “Abele Azani”, let alone taste it. How sad when we cherish the culture and practice of others and spite our own which gives our identity and spirituality as a people. Things are not the same anymore in Ahanta and I am very worried. 

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: March 13, 2021


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