So while scouring the internet for more information regarding the African prostitutes of Europe I learned that some of the Ghanaian prostitutes are not actually Ghanaian but Nigerian women who have secured Ghanaian passports and that a lot of the Nigerian women involved in this trade in general come from Benin City, Edo State. I came across an article, in which the author states that there is no term for prostitute in the Benin language and that prostitution is “both alien and taboo” to that culture.
Now, I’m not going to pretend that I know anything about Nigeria, but I do believe that the term “ashawo” used for prostitutes in Ghana comes from Nigeria. Also, now before anyone thinks I’m on a Naija-bashing expedition, after all some of my best friends are Nigerian hee-hee, let me just put out there that the prostitutes in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, are Ghanaian. Fair? Now back to the point of this post.
I was quite surprised to hear that Benin people have no concept of prostitution. Surely, that must be as tall a tale as “homosexuality in Africa is a European import”. So I decided to explore the nature of sexuality “in our call-cha (culture) in the olden days”. Thus, I happened upon this scholarly work that I will now share with you.
For the sake of his paper, Professor Akyeampong defines prostitution as “the commodifcation of casual sex”.
He points out that there is a relative absence of male pimps in this trade. These prostitutes were autonomous women who controlled their own sexuality and their earnings and often formed support groups for each other. With colonialism and the proliferation of towns as economic centers, prostitution became one of several options for migrant women. These towns blended people from different ethnic groups and provided anonymity. He quotes early Ghanaian scholars such as Ione Acquah and K.A Busia who blame colonialism for the proliferation of prostitution. Yes, another one of those European imports.
[On a side-note I continue to learn that everything negative in Ghana was imported from elsewhere. Even news reports of armed robbery or drug smuggling in Ghana today will tell you that the perpetrator was Nigerian or a Ghanaian who used to live in Nigeria or elsewhere abroad. Left to our own we are saints! SAINTS I tell you!]
Luckily (or should that be unfortunately?), Professor Akyeampong is able to find descriptions of prostitution written by European men including Pieter de Marees in his1602 publication Description and Historical Account of the Gold Kingdom of Guinea describing prostitutes as numerous and quite distinguished in appearance amongst the people of Elmina, Feta, and Fantyn (Fante?). He then makes a clear distinction between “prostitutes” and “public women” a term I have never heard of before. “Public women” were not prostitutes. They were a pre-colonial phenomenon of women, often slaves, acquired by the chiefs and elders for the sole purpose of providing sexual services for the local bachelors. Could one call that “institutionalized rape”? I think one could make an argument that it is. But it’s fascinating none the less and I wonder where they went. Just wondering.
Professor Akyeampong gets his information about “public women” from the writings of European men such as Olfert Dapper who documented hearsay from Axim and its surroundings in his 1668 book Description of Africa. Mind you dude never left the Netherlands! Just saying. Dapper wrote that every village maintained about 2 or 3 Abrakrees. The Abrakree, usually an outsider slave purchased for this sole purpose, took part in an elaborate public ceremony in which she took an oath to never refuse any man the use of her body for a minimum fee, that this income would go directly to the chief/elder of the village, and in return she would enjoy the liberty of being able to take any food she wanted from anyone’s ‘s home or stall in the market. Once the ceremony was over, she would be examined privately to make sure she was indeed a woman and then would be paraded throughout the village. She would assume her assigned location in the village about eight days later and get to work…
Willem Bosman who visited Axim in the late 1600s described the same practice but called the women Abelcre. He also made it a point to state that the people of Elmina, Commany (Komenda?), and Fantyn (Fante?) did not have the same practice and he delineated the difference between the Abelcre of Axim and the prostitutes of the latter groups. His book “A New and Accurate Description of the Coast of Guinea, divided into the Gold, the Slave, and the Ivory Coasts”, published in 1702, is another key text of African history. He at least lived fourteen years in the area though he left several black descendants in his wake.
Jean Godot wrote in 1704 that the king of Assini (just over the border in modern day Ivory Coast) maintained about six “public women” per village and the French Governor was also obliged to maintain an additional one or two more. The women wore white linen around their heads to distinguish them from other women. They like those in Axim, lived on the outskirts of town where they could not refuse any bachelor man who wanted to use their body. But woe onto any married man caught patronizing them! When these “public women” became too old to work, the king of Assini gave them a pension and they were allowed to live the rest of their lives in peace. Wow!
It may be that part of my interest in these accounts is that the people of Axim and Assini were likely Nzema. It’s also interesting that Bosman did not encounter “public women” in the other Akan states. But the explanation for the existence of “public women” is far more interesting. It was an attempt to maintain the status quo of gerontocracy. Yes, we and our honouring of our elders, of the rich and of the powerful. For polygyny was the norm and a man could marry as many wives as he could maintain. Which meant that women were precious commodities and not every man, especially a young one, was guaranteed a wife. So the elders had to provide those men who could not have their own wife or wives with a means to release their sexual tensions to maintain the peace. Because the bottom line here is that men have sexual needs, women not so much…. Anyhoo, in a sense the “public woman” was the wife of the bachelors in the village. Which explains why a married man who slept with a “public woman” would get into so much trouble because he essentially commits adultery by sleeping with the bachelors’ “wife”. Neat!
I actually found it comical when Bosman is quoted as writing that the Europeans in Axim would often imprison a “public woman” thereby causing agitation amongst the bachelors who would go to the elders and petition them to give in to whatever demands the Europeans had so as to get their “public woman” back least they, the bachelors, lie with their, the elders, wives. Okay, not really comical, but you know what I mean.