Asafo flags: How the Fante of West Africa used its flags to export cultural identity

The Fante ethnic group is mainly one of the coastal dwellers in the West African nation of Ghana. They were the first inhabitants to have come into contact with European settlers out of which a sustained collaboration between the two led to the construction of the St. George Castle by the Portuguese in 1492.

Their association with European traders started a cultural revolution of an important aspect of their belief systems and way of life, which became known as the Asafo companies.

The Asafo companies were initially created as military organizations comprising of the youth in Fante communities, but, they largely drew inspiration from European organizations, regalia and flags to shape this cultural identity, according to the Asafo flag.

The Asafo companies became military groups because the tribe lacked a standing army. Asafo in the Fante tribe literally means ‘sa’ which stands for war and ‘fo’ which represents people.

Aside from the Asafo group’s role as a citizen vigilante against incursions by other tribes in their trading activity with the Europeans, the various groupings were identified through the Asafo flags. The flags, which in the local dialect are called ‘Frankaa’, have since remained a key aspect of Asafo regalia.

The flags were used to communicate insightful Fante cultural values and preserve proverbs handed over from generation to generation.  

In the 18th century, according to scholars, the Fante tribe used raffia or trade clothes as flags which they inscribed their paintings on it.

The creative director of Asafo Flags, Barbara Eyeson, who has been researching the meanings of the flag for over a decade, said the paintings evoked strong visual metaphors because they relied on the use of animals to convey powerful meanings.

According to her, creatures in the Fante culture are seen as more powerful than humans in communicating a position.

Citing examples, she said the crocodile, for instance, stands for strength, adding that, the fish and crocodile Asafo flag called ‘hen afu’ tells the proverb of how a fish only grows fat for the benefit of the crocodile who rules the river.

Eyeson indicated that the pepper tree flag also preaches obedience in the sense that if a child wants to pick ripe peppers, he/she should be allowed to go ahead, they will stop after it burns the eye.

She added that the cactus tree flag for example warns that it’s only a brave chicken that will approach a cactus tree given that the pepper and cactus tree is dangerous when eaten raw.

The creative director of the Asafo Flag explained that each Asafo company has a central shrine called a ‘Posuban’, which comprises an elaborate concrete structure decorated with brightly colored figures, and which serves as a store for regalia and a focus for sacrifices.

She said it’s customary to hang Asafo flags at funerals for company members, annual festivals, shrines and the same is paraded at such landmark occasions.

Eyeson stressed that the imagery the Asafo flag exudes in some respect is linked to the wealth and power they wield in the company and this sometimes stokes challenges between rival groups.

Clearly, since the 18th century, the Asafo flags have been one of the effective vehicles the Fante tribe has used in preserving its proverbs, its importance and giving other tribes the opportunity to learn from them in the Akan culture.

Stephen Nartey

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