Ghana is home to one of the world’s only surviving traditional architecture belonging to the Asante people which is one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites (WHS).
Their design and construction, consisting of a timber framework filled up with clay and thatched with sheaves of leaves, is rare nowadays. All designated sites are shrines, but there have been many other buildings in the past in the same architectural style. They have been best preserved in the villages, away from modern construction and warfare.
The WHS consists of a number of buildings (10, 12 or 13?) around Kumasi in central Ghana. Kumasi was once the capital of the great Ashanti Empire. The buildings consist of four rooms around a quadrangular courtyard. Three of the rooms (those for drumming, singing and cooking) are open, while the fourth (the actual shrine) is closed to all but the priest and his assistants. The inner courtyards are usually littered with fetishes. The shrine is home to Obosomfie, the spiritual abode of a deity, who manifests itself through a fetish priest. Some of the enlisted buildings still have priests, some don’t.
The buildings traditionally have steep thatched roofs. Their lower walls are painted orange/red, and the upper walls are whitewashed. The walls hold symbolic murals, like those on the adinkra cloth.
The Asante culture is an ancient culture, containing many mysterious elements whose origins remain obscure. One of such elements is the Asante Traditional Buildings, whose intricate designs and decorations caught the attention of visitors – especially Europeans – to the Asante Kingdom from the late eighteen century to the early part of the twentieth century. They were particularly impressed by the comfortable and clean houses and the extensive decoration of the walls.
These buildings served mainly as palaces, shrines houses for the powerful deities who protected the Kingdom, homes for the affluent, and finally, as mausoleums. And like all buildings of value, the structures were the result of the Asantes’ desire to achieve harmony on earth with their creator, the Supreme Being, through the mediation of the lesser deities.
The typical house, whether designed for human habitation or for the deities, normally consists of four separate rectangular single-room buildings set around an open courtyard; the inner corners of adjacent buildings are linked by means of splayed screen walls, whose sides and angles could be adapted to allow for any inaccuracy in the initial layout. Typically, three of the buildings are completely open to the courtyard, while the fourth is partially enclosed, either by a door and windows, or by open-work screens flanking an opening.
The most striking feature of the buildings is their elaborate mural decorations. The upper walls are covered with interlacing geometrical designs, while the lower parts are boldly modelled bas-relief with a large variety of designs in red clay polished to a dull shine. The designs are frequently abstract or arabesque. Images of reptiles and other creatures like crocodiles, fish and birds also abound, amidst a profusion of plants.
It should be noted that these images were not merely ornamental. They had symbolic meanings, and the people who lived among them knew how to read and understand them perfectly. Like the Akan Adinkra symbols, wood carvings and sculptures, these pictures generally refer to Akan proverbial sayings that reflect the moral and social values of society. One of the unique cultural traits of the Asantes (who belong to the Akan ethnic linguistic group) is their widespread use of non-verbal communication. Indeed, almost every Asante activity can be expressed by means of symbols. One of the most common decorations on the Asante traditional buildings is the Sankofa bird standing with its head turned backward. It is a reminder that one needs to refer to the past, as a guide to the future.
Unfortunately, most of the masterpieces of the Asante indigenous architecture have been lost to the world, some due to warfare, especially during the 19th century, when the British destroyed most of the buildings with canons. But what really spelled the doom of the treasures of Asante heritage, was the irresistible socio-cultural and economic change of the 20th century, such as the phenomenal prosperity resulting from cocoa and gold trade and its attendant ‘modern life’. In the wake of this, ‘mud’ houses were replaced by houses made with ‘sandcrete’ blocks and corrugated aluminium. Added to this was the influx of Christian and Islamic religion, much to the neglect of these buildings, some of which were shrines of traditional religion. Lastly, the humid tropical rainforest, which has always represented a threat to earthen and wattle-daub wall and palm-thatched roofs, also took its toll on the Asante Traditional Buildings.
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