Nzema Clans and their Akan counterparts

I grew up knowing that I was Nzema, but it wasn’t until I came across a book “The Python Killer: Stories of Nzema Life” (1988) while sightseeing and browsing hole-in-the-wall stores in London in 2003 did I become aware of my clan. In fact, I ordered 3 copies of that book, one for myself, one for my father, and another for my paternal uncle whom I was visiting with in England that summer. The author, an Italian anthropologist named Vinigi L. Grottanelli apparently had discovered the rich culture of [the Nzema] in 1954 and spent the next three decades learning about their beliefs, traditions, and practices.(from the dustcover)

My father actually claims that one of the men whose story is written in the book is his own grandfather. I remember him clearly reading that story, exclaiming, “yes…yes…that’s him, so true, aaaah, I remember…yes”.  He then proceeded to fatten the story with his own memories. That was a wonderful afternoon.

As much as I am an individualist I love culture and traditions…from an intellectual standpoint.  I guess that’s why I studied Anthropology in college. I remember moving to Ghana at the age of 11 discovering my parents school books from the 1950-1960s or so and just reading about the various Ghanaian ethnic groups. My father would take me to the University of Legon bookstore where I would proceed to buy more of these old historical books and pamphlets – many of which were thesis dissertations of former Legon students.

With all that, I’m still not clear as to what the origin of the Akan is. It seems that most people agree that we came from “up north” in a series of migrations to escape Muslim influences. As we came into what is now modern-day south western/coastal Ghana as well as south-eastern/coastal Cote d’Ivoire we broke off into different tribes eg. Ashanti, Brong, Akwamu, Fanti, Nzema, Baule, Agni, Kwahu, etc. and settled…and fought wars between ourselves. I guess there was no further south we could go without ending up in the Atlantic ocean itself. Ironically, the Europeans came from said ocean and dominated us with their Christianity instead. So much for religious freedom.

For a more exciting tale of the origin of the Akan, I actually remember reading in one of these old books that the Akan came from the Middle East region specifically the Seir mountains. They were said to be of the Horite group and were driven out of the region by the Edomites led by the biblical Esau (Deuteronomy 2:12). I should mention that another story actually has the Akans as descendents of Israel. I wondered if that version was made before or after Christianity was imposed on us.  Moving on, after leaving the Middle East, the Akan  moved into modern day Egypt/Sudan region (ancient Kush/Nubia) where they were part of the ruling class.  The 7 ancestresses that each Akan person can trace their lineage (clan) to are said to have been wives of the biblical King Solomon in this particular version of the story.  They were partly to blame for his downfall because they insisted in worshiping God through their lesser gods.  When the Muslims began to invade the region in the early centuries AD, the Akans moved into modern day Mali/Senegal/Mauritania region (ancient Ghana) to maintain their religious freedom where they again became the ruling class.  You can tell this is an Akan story right? It is from here that they migrated in waves to their present location. Yes, it is a fantastical tale for me as well. 

Some say that there are seven clans; others say that there are eight. But essentially, the clans link all who fall under Akan to one of seven (or eight) female ancestresses, and not necessarily wives of Solomon either.  What is the purpose of a clan? Well that too is a bit unclear to me but it seems one would need to understand how the Akan view themselves.

What makes the Akan unique, I think, is that they are linked by matrilineal descent, inheritance, and succession.  In basic English, in traditional society, women are important members of society, politically, judiciously, and economically.  I’m sure that was a shock for the waves of Europeans who came across our shores with their Christian and patriarchal ways.  But that’s another story.

For the Nzema, Fante, and a few other Akans, it is believed that the mbowule (bones) and the nwonane (flesh) come from the mother; the mogya (blood) and the sunsum (personality) come from the father; and the ɛkela (principle life force or soul) comes from Nyamele (God). However, for the Asante and some other Akans, the mogya (blood) comes from the mother and her abusua (lineage or clan) which is their basis of matrilineal descent.  Likewise, the mbowule (bones) are a logical basis of matrilineal descent because they are structurally strong and durable. The importance of the ɛkela is seen in the concept of ɛkela duma (soul name or day name) because God puts the ɛkela into a human at the time of his/her birth which is why every Ghanaian (provided they are Akan) is called Kofi, Kwame, Abena, Yaa or one of the other day names. I actually had an African-American friend try to tease me that all Ghanaian men are called Kofi. I refused to be teased.

When a human dies the ɛkela returns to God, the sumsum is silenced, the mogya stops running and becomes a ghost in the spirit world awaiting reincarnation, and the mbowule remain in the ground forever.

But what is the purpose of a clan? Hmmm  Well you have the nuclear family, then the extended family, then the abusua (clan), then the village, then the ethnic group (tribe), then the linguistic group (Akan), and then the political country (Ghana). In any given village, there are likely to be representatives of each of the 7/8 clans, however each village has a dominant clan representing whomever settled there first.  That first clan owns the land and thus holds the chiefdom for that village. Which means that one could travel to unknown village X and if the chiefdom belongs to one’s clan, one can claim royalty or a right to that throne…assuming it’s vacant. It also means that were I to travel to unknown village X, I could seek out members of my mother’s clan (who aren’t necessarily blood relatives of recent generations in the European sense) and they would embrace me as family.   The other significance of a clan is that one is forbidden to marry within the clan because that’s family.  Actually, I am told that if a man is of one clan (let’s say Adahonle) and he marries a woman of a different clan (let’s say Ezohile), none of his matrilineal relatives can marry Ezohile.  That’s quite something. On the flipside, a man could marry his father’s sister’s daughter or his mother’s brother’s daughter (cross cousins) because they do not belong to the same family/abusua/clan. Wild!

This year, I had to have my mother remind me (again) what clan I belong to.  I’m not sure many younger generation Akans know their clan. I’m not sure what significance it plays in our day to day activities especially when we do not live in our villages. I do know that when Grandfather died last year he was buried in his village and my mother and her siblings had to go seek out the abusua-panyin (elder) for their clan (different from that of grandfather inherently) as part of the funeral arrangements. I learnt this year though, that since all Akan come from the same 7/8 ancestresses, the family and marriage rules technically apply across ethnic groups. So that means it would be taboo for me as an Nzema woman from the Ezohile clan to marry an Ashanti man from the Asona clan as according to the table below, we share the same female ancestress. A taboo, which back in the day, and I mean at least a century, was punishable by death. Ok, who goes around ensuring that doesn’t happen these days?!

Nzema clan

Clan names for other Akan people

Totem & symbol

Qualities

Twea

Aduana, Atwea

Dog (fire)

honesty, industriousness

Ezohile

Asona, Nsunafo, Dumana

Crow
(rice, rain)

statesmanship, patriotism

Alɔnwɔba

ɔyoko, Yokofo, Dehyena

Falcon
(raffia palm)

statesmanship, bravery, patience

Nvavile

Agona, Eguanafo

Parrot
(corn)

eloquence

Adahonle

Asakyiri, Anonafo, Asankera

Hawk/Eagle
(palm)

calmness, patience

Azanwule

ɛkoɔna,
Asokorefuo, Kwonnafo, Asamanguèma

Buffalo
(yam)

honesty, uprightness

Mafole

Bretua, Twidanfo,  Asamankoma

Leopard/Panther
(gold)

bravery, aggressiveness

 ———-

Aseneɛ, Atwafo

Bat

diplomacy, faithfulness

Disclaimer: I created this table based on my own research and by enlisting the help of my grandmother. Though the names and symbols of the Nzema clans are correct, I may not have mapped them correctly to their corresponding clans in the other Akan groups. I welcome any discussion. 4/25/11

Share Your Thoughts

  1. Interesting Read.

    Lol @ Daddy's recollections. And before I read the line, "This year, I had to have my mother remind me (again) what clan I belong to.", I literally turned to her and stated "I didn't now we were a part of the Akan family." She just looked at me…

    Keep me updated.

  2. Hi very interesting. I have actually read Grottanelli’s book with interest myself. My father’s side of the family hail from Grand Bassam and settled in Half Assisi. My maternal grandmother also hails from Grand Bassam and settled in Axim. My maternal grandfather hails from Niger ,was born there , then moved and settled in Axim.
    The joke of it is my brother when on his travels in Egypt was stopped by natives who thought he was Nubian Sudanese and I have been mistaken for an Egyptian once. I think this stems from the fact that my mother’s father originates from Niger…..as she herself has very northern features.
    What I am actually interested to know is are Nzemas really Ghanaians or would you say Ivorian’s, because sometimes to me the distinction is not clear and to be honest I would say that the Nzema tribe is very small in comparison to other Ghana tribes.. would be good to know your thoughts as you appear to be quite knowledgable in this area….

    • Yes the Nzema’s population is small because of civil wars in the past. Quiet sad, Yes! there was some serious civil wars in Nzema, and amongst Nzemas and its neighbors eg anyi-nzema war, nzema (evalue, gwira) vs nzema (ellembelle and jomoro) and later nzema ellembelle vs nzema jomoro.. Sad days, nzema population reduced as a result even though a powerful magic was made to remedy the loss but was not enough to restore the glorious nzema size in terms of numbers.

  3. Hello,
    Thanks for your comment. In regards to whether the Nzema are Ghanaian or Ivorian, I think it's important to stress that we came before the Europeans. Our land was largely appropriated by the English and incorporated into what is now Ghana. A smaller section was incorporated into what is now Cote d'Ivoire. We are a small group, that's right.

  4. Hey K'che, thanks for your reply,I am realy enjoying your blog,its very refreshing, informative and fills in lots of gaps for me.Well done and keep it up!
    From your reply , I would say the origins of Nzema and how we developed as a people is shrouded with a bit of mystery , which I quite like but there is certainly the Ivorian- Ghanaian link there for sure and like you say we were there before the Europeans which I take to mean as far back as prior occupation of the Portugese.
    Look forward to more.. and perhaps recommended literature

  5. the Nzema's are not Ivorians if I should add to what has already been attended to.If you contacted paramount chiefs in Nzema,you would realize that there were demarcation lines after Bassam and all the adjoining Nzema/Apollo villages. Due to illiteracy among the population, past chaos, coup d'etats in Ghana and the untimely death of Kwame Nkrumah, Houphouet Boigny (the then Ivorien President) was able to appropriate part of the Nzema lands, changed documents and called them Ivorien territories. In fact, the Anyili and the Nzemas are from Ghana.

  6. Hi Anonymous,
    Thanks for reading. I think we are going to have to disagree about the Nzema. My point is they existed in that area before there was a "Ghana" and before there was a "Cote d'Ivoire". Just because the majority of Nzemaland is now in Ghana doesn't mean those left in what is now Cote d'Ivoire are not Ivorian Nzema.

    This divisive attitude contributes to civil wars in our African countries. Most of the ethnic groups didn't get to choose who they wanted to share their country with – that decision was made by the Europeans in Europe. So it's wrong to deny ethnic groups along the border rights within the country just because there is another part of their ethnic group (larger or not) across the border.

    Bassam was the French colonial capital in the 1800s. So Houphouet Boigny was not the one to incorporate it into Ivory Coast.

  7. Hi
    Very interesting article, I was facinated reading it. Actually I will like to know a little bit more about the Nzema tribe. I am not African or belong to a tribe, I am a hispanic female planning to visit Ghana next month.The man I am meeting there belong to the Nzema tribe, is there any special way how to deal or treat them. No offence intended with this question.

    Thank you

  8. No offense taken and thanks for reading. I don't think you need to do anything other than be yourself which hopefully is naturally respectful. Cultural customs are often not expected of foreigners and if you were to be ingrained long term you will soon learn whatever nuances there are.

    However, I will say that if you are going to Ghana to meet a man you do not know (eg. met online) I would be very careful as there are dating scams out there, both financially and emotionally, and unfortunately Ghanaians are not exempt from being perpetrators.

  9. Peace K_Chie, I was reading a book called "Africans who wrote the bible" the author states that the modern Nziman were at one time in Mesapotamia they were known as the people of Akka. Since you have they were in the middle east, what has your research told you about this?

  10. Hello El Jahiem Allah, it is my understanding that Mr. Darkwah's book traces the Old Testament not just to Africans but specifically to the Akan of modern day Ghana/Ivory Coast. I don't really know anything about that aside from what I wrote above. That as a youth learning about the origins of the Akan, it seemed commonplace that the Akan (and the Ga in a different wave/migration) trace their roots to the Middle East area.

  11. Iam Michael Abadi-Lartey, of mixed Akan (Akwamu, Aburi) and Guan (Okere, Aseseeso-Akwapim) heritage. I also have blood from Ningo, Yendi, Oyoko, at least, so I'm a happy mongrel. And I'm married to an Nzema from Esiama, with 6 kids between us. Thanks so much for an enlightening and enthusiatic piece. But i think you need to check your facts, preferably from outside your family, as they may be unintentionally biased.
    Nzemas are NOT Akans. They are GUANS this link may be of help: http://okere.ghanamps.gov.gh/about/index.php?id=35). The Ashanti (Asante) subjugated Nzema culture since their empire days. They imposed Asante ruling classes t5o control the rest. This is still a problem today, as chieftaincy succession turns ugly by the day. The Guans are patrilinel, so any matrilineal system you are told of pertians to those of Akan origin, not the actual Nzema.Susch detailsmatter when we have to explain to our smart kids.

    • The Asantes never subjugated the Nzemas (will explain as I go on). Nzema is an akan tribe just like the Akwamu, akyem, asante etc. However, those (the likes of Prof. Adu Boahene) who wrote about the akans was by merit of the Twi language. Historically, the original akan language was not necessary twi – it is like saying Latin must have come from English just because English is the language of the day. In fact, the original akan language was bono-guan which are more closely related to the nzema, baule, anyi, aowin bono etc meaning the twi was an offshoot of the akan big dialect in the past, just as the English is to the Latin (more specifically the Germanic language of the past).

      Now the trademark to identifying an akan (akan means the enlightened) more so akan tribe is by the “Boklo” meaning by the matrilineal heritage and its institution (clan arangement of 7/8, naming criterion etc): That is what all the akan abusua agrees on, be it asante akyem nzema and what not. The clans of the nzemas were actually 8 but the last one was distroyed (exterminated) due to a dispute somewhere in the 1500s; they were those who sympathized with the Portuguese (the nzemas were mad when the Portuguese named them Appolo because they reached the shores on the day of Appolo) when they arrived on nzema shores – of course that is oral history the nzemas don’t talk about.

      Before I come to the issue of Nzema vrs Asante, I would want you to read this on wikipedia atleast although not sufficient: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Okomfo_Anokye. Just read about the early life of Okomfo Anokye.

      Let’s begin. 9 years after Okomfo Anokyi was no more to be found specifically in 1715 the asantes attacked the nzemas ( well by oral tradition its like the asantes lost because they underestimated the nzemas therefore asante retreated). Why do you think they attacked the Nzemas (called Apollonia from the days of the Portuguese to 1928 when the nzemas rejected the name) ?. Well the Aowin people having been defeated by the asantes, (wanting to make themselves valuable to their new masters) told the asantes that they (the Aowin people) control the commodities or the business route of Apollonia. So the asante already aware of the fact that anokye was no more wanted to strengthen their muscles on their brothers the nzemas. Of course the Aowin people were not in control of Nzema-Apollonia; they (Denkyera sub Aowin) staged several wars on nzema and lost but the nzema king Nana Amihere gave all the akan tribes easy route of trade on his shores except that they are to pay an annual compulsory gift of their choice to the king of nzema. And the asantes did not want any of that to happen. Don’t forget Nzema had never held or would never hold any grudge against asante because of the covenant of Anokyi and other subsequent covenant between them (the asantes seemed to be naughty though).

      Again, 5 to 6 years after the first attempt, in 1721 the asantes attack nzema again. You can guess what happened; Serious casualties on the part of the asantes. Now the asantes have now realized that Anokye was right that nzema was a secret force to reckon with. So they made a final pact of alliance that continued till to day. Read this:
      “That Asantes bestowed one of the highest accolades on two tribes who in their various ways had assisted them during different wars? That is the reason why apart from Asante Kotoko, there is Anwaa Kotoko for the Dagombas and Nzema Kotoko for the people of Nzema. Since then there is a cordial relationship between the Asantes and those two tribes..” sub-section of http://www.ghanaweb.com/GhanaHomePage/tribes/ashanti_facts.php. So the question is what wars did Nzema fought with the asantes for them to be accorded “kotoko” ? Anyway ignore the asante politics, nzema was kotoko before asante (after all that appellation was inspired by Anokyi himself who had that knowledge growing up as an nzema child).

      During the days of king Kaku Aka I ( Kweku Ackah or Ackaah), that is early 1800s there began internal wranglings among the Apollonians:
      (1) that king kaku aka is very wicked (Tyrant) and does not respect the council of elders ( nzema ngbanyema and belemgbunli nkyi kyi)

      (2) that he has shifted the seat of kings from Beyin to Aduabo (Atuabo). A travesty against the foremost king of nzema, King Ano Asaman.

      (3) That his selfishness and misguided ways, has reduced the population of nzema significantly.

      So a plan was hatched to overthrow him (in fact, oral history tells us that kaku aka had a powerful magic that caused many other kings and chiefs alike to fear him). Therefore, there were some separatist among kaku aka’s government on his blind side. And also some open opposition in exile at Nvuma ( currently called Dixscove). These separatist connived with the then British government to halt kaku aka at Sanwoma (Ankobra).
      Now nzema was divided. Some separatist claim the lineage of kaku aka should not rule and that the person who helped the British to arrest kaku aka should be the acting king, others rejected that option with the view that in time it may become a problem. And they were right.
      So Nzema has become two zones, those who agree of the new British order and those who disagree even though they are happy kaku aka is no more a nuisance to them.
      This ushered in the final civil war of nzema. Nzema was now getting to the point of obliteration. So the separatist ruling class called upon the asantes (for Okomfo Anokyi sake) to come and help defend Nzema. So this is how the war went on Nzema ellembelle (Separatist + Asantes) against Nzema Jomoro. Guess what Nzema Jomoro conceded defeat (although not too much casualties). So the asantes who were now under the British protectorate together with the colonial government upheld that there should be two kings in nzema (one for evalue-gwira-ellembelle and another for Jomoro) so that peace may prevail in Nzema. Is there actual PEACE in Nzema now ?

      So you see there are no subjugation of any sort, nzema culture stood in time past and it is still the same nzema culture today. Whatever you find as a similarity between asante and nzema is because they are both akan and or the nzema stuff okomfo Anokyi taught the asantes.

      Hope that helps.

      • correction paragraph 6 should begin : During the days of king Kaku Aka I ( Kweku Ackah or Ackaah), that is early to mid 1800s there began internal wranglings among the Apollonians:

  12. '' me kulo wor ''…..could also mean 'i like you …im not sure if the spelling is correct cz i hvnt studied how to write in nzema but dats exactly how it sounds

    • Very interesting, I am a Highlander Guan and most often when the Nzemas speak, I sit back and understand almost everything they say. In Kyerepong, we say “me keray wo”. My reading traces the Guans as one of the Nubian sub-divisions.

      • There is not much known about guans in Ghana but I have noticed that they general have a different physic compared to most other Ghanaians/Ivorian’s they have a majority caramel brown complexion {wich other ghanians and ivorians also have} with very northern/ semi fulanioid looks especially in eastern region which is a region of mix ethnicities in itself from Ghana and Togo, Burkina this phenotype I saw among the larteh people who are guans but some are mixed with Akans witch changed some of their looks.

        but there are alot of etnicities in ghana people dont know about the fulanis, mandingas, dyula, guans, etc. nice article ghana and ivory coast are like a jewel in west africa beutiful civilazations,history and societies.

        • Mmmm.. This is getting very interesting. It’s surprising that little is known about the Guans (includes the Nzemas) yet most lower niger tribes cannot write/talk about their history without mentioning the Guans. The original Akans were pygmy looking but with the mixing of Guans, they attained their current physical looks. It is believed that Guan were Akanised, but I see it the other way round. This is evident in the Akan calendar, architecture, festivities, etc. Typical example is the Adinkra symbols that Akans use for cloth designing. This is know to some Guans as a form of written communication tool that is far greater that any spoken language if one understands.
          I am a Guan from the Kyerepong division and I’m naturally muscular built with very dark skin. I’m going to take a DNA test to see how many people will be linked to me on my Ancestry tree. Lol.
          I’ll encourage other black Africans to do this to help our brother and sisters across the globe to trace their roots…….:-)

  13. Very annoyed today that somebody chose to plagiarize my post and not give credit where credit is due. The very least Kwekudee of "Trip Down Memory Lane" could have done was to link to the websites he stole his information from. The whole blog, though quite informative, reeks of poor blogging etiquette. Not cool at all!

  14. Interesting,I am not Nzema but rather Kusasi and Sissala. It appears to me that you need to take your work further using DNA to compare natives of north Africa to your ethnic group. I am told there r still native Africans in Kemet and what is now called Israel. Perhaps,that could be applied to other ethnicities…it has potential for reunification of Africa..Awini Baaba