A visit to Akpafu by Nicolas Clerk, 1889

Travel journals provide some of the first written sources on Akpafu. I have previously posted an excerpt from a 1887 journal by David Asante. This here is an excerpt from a similar journey two years later. The whole journey took three months, but this excerpt relates only a trip to two Akpafu towns on 17-18 December 1889. Nicolas Clerk, an indigenous missionary born in Aburi, was alone during the first part of the journey and accompanied by his colleague Hall from Dec. 30 onwards. Continue reading

The Albert Einstein Award of Excellence: another ABI scam

Last year’s post on the Great Minds of the 21st Century award continues to attract attention from people who want to find out more about the American Biographical Institute (ABI) and its vanity awards.

Surprisingly, there are still people clueless (shameless?) enough to list vanity scams like this on their CVs. Thankfully, the ABI decided to nominate me again this year, this time for another honour: the Albert Einstein Award of Excellence for 2011, no less. Here’s an excerpt from their letter: Continue reading

Finalist in the AAA Photo contest

The results of the AAA photo contest have just been announced. Congratulations to the winner, Peter Biella! Of my four submissions, one made it to the finals (best 20) and one to the semifinals (best 54). All 294 submissions will appear in the AAA Flickr gallery in due course; mine follow below.

My finalist was the following photo, titled “Kããã“:

Kyeei Yao, an age group leader, oversees a festival in Akpafu-Mempeasem, Volta Region, Ghana. The expensive draped cloth, the Ashanti-inspired wreath, the strings of beads which are handed down through the generations, and the digital wristwatch work together to remind us that culture is a moving target, always renewing and reshaping itself.
Kããã is a Siwu ideophone for ‘looking attentively’.

This picture was taken by my wife, Gijske de Boo, while I was busy videotaping the same events that Kyeei Yao is attending to. Together with the other 19 finalists it will be featured in the upcoming issue of Anthropology News; the finalists will also be hung as prints in the AAA office.

The photo that made the semifinals is called “The drum makers“:

Two artisans repair an atumpani drum in preparation for the funeral of a chief in Akpafu-Mempeasem, Volta Region, Ghana. A newly prepared antelope skin is fastened to the hard wood frame of the drum using a nylon cord and wooden pegs.

This picture was taken on the compound of Joseph (the man to the right), very close to my own home in Akpafu-Mempeasem. The earthen wall behind the men is Joe’s house, built of sun-hardened puddled mud like most houses in the village.

Bad Death

A submission which I thought was perhaps the most interesting even though it didn’t make it to the semifinals was “Bad Death ritual“:

A ‘bad death’ ritual in Ghana’s Volta Region. On the village cemetery, relatives of a man who died in a hunting accident listen anxiously to a woman who is possessed by the spirit of the deceased. The hunters, who have just brought the spirit home from the place of the accident deep in the jungle, keep their distance. Red is the colour of danger, black that of death.

This event took place right after a long and tiring march into the jungle and back, to pacify the spirit of a hunter killed in a tragic accident. I was able to take the picture from this perspective because I was dragged right in front of the possessed woman by Foster, one of my assistants, who had been my guide on the expedition. I also have an audio recording of her speech, which turned out to be a very interesting mix of prophesy and admonition. I’ll have to write more about that some time.

My final submission was the photo of Akpafu-Todzi which is also featured on this blog.

It’s a sunny day in Akpafu-Todzi, the old mountain citadel of the Mawu people in the central Volta Region of Ghana. The town, which has endured numerous sieges and which was the site of an ancient iron industry, is tranquil because this is the time for most people to engage in collaborative rice farming.

Scandalised missionaries and quite a new class of priests: some unforeseen effects of early missionary efforts in the Gold Coast

In pursuit of early written sources about Kawu I came across a useful summary of explorations in the Volta Basin in the 1870s and 1880s. The document is clearly based on some dead serious German reports from around the same time, but it is written in a dry tone with barely submerged irony as only the British can do it.

These travel reports are probably of greater value to anthropologists than to geographers. Here are two fascinating bits on some of the unforeseen effects of the diligent missionary efforts of the Basel Mission:

On the 17th, much to our surprise, we reached the pleasant village of Nkaneku after a march of only an hour and a half. It is inhabited by fifty or sixty Asante, who are hunters, and were busy smoking the meat of the buffaloes which they had killed the day before. We here met with another caravan coming from Salaga. Its guides were two Fante Christians from Cape Coast Castle, who much scandalised us by alternately calling upon Allah and Christ. (p. 250)

The fetishes have quite recently come into discredit, for rumours have reached Adele and Akabu from Efe, affirming that a son had been born to God, who had forbidden all work on the Sabbath-day. At the same time quite a new class of priests, male and female, has arisen, who claim to prophesy by inspiration of God, and not of a fetish, and who have built themselves huts at the outskirts of the villages, where the credulous may consult them. One of this new order of priests claimed fellowship with David Asante. (p. 256)

(David Asante, you will remember, was an indigenous pastor educated by the Basel Mission. It is not difficult to imagine how inwardly torn he must have been at times.)

Excerpts from:

  1. N.N. 1886. Recent Explorations in the Basin of the Volta (Gold Coast) by Missionaries of the Basel Missionary Society. Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society and Monthly Record of Geography 8, no. 4. 2 (April): 246-256.

Kawu in January 1887

The earliest description of Kawu (Akpafu) I have found so far is quite special in that it was written by an African in an African language. A German translation of it appeared in 1889 and can be found below. The original is a report of a travel made in early 1887 by David Asante. David Asante (1834-1892) was the son of a christianized chief in Akropong, and one of the first Africans to be trained in Basel. Together with a few unnamed white missionaries, Asante travelled throughout what is today the central Volta Region of Ghana, visiting Nkonya, Boem, Akpafu, and Santrokofi (amongst other places). He wrote down his experiences in Twi and sent the report to Basel, where it was subsequently translated into German by J.G. Christaller, one of the founding fathers of West African linguistics. The translation was published in 1889 in the transactions of the Geographische Gesellschaft für Thüringen zu Jena.


Akpafu-Todzi in the late nineteenth century (the picture is from a later date than David Asante’s expedition)
Source: Staatsarchiv Bremen #7.1025-0077

According to the account itself, this was the first time that Europeans set foot in Kawu. I hope to be able to provide a full English translation later, but here are a few nice excerpts to start with:

We arrived in Akpafu somewhere around nine; the town is big, its main street wide. When we arrived, all of the townspeople flocked together to see us — even the smiths stopped their work — because there had never been a European there before. Had it depended just on them, we would have stayed for several days. They first led us to a place where we could refresh ourselves; from there we went to salute the king, an old, powerfully built man. (…) Their giant king was very amiable and wanted us to stay for several days; however, our schedule did not permit us to do so.
Of the people of Boem, these are the brightest. (…) Because of their ironwork, everything is well-organized; for people from all places come here to buy iron tools. (…) The diligence of these people, their hospitality, and their tranquil behaviour pleased us so much that we really came to love them.
David Asante, 1889.

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Adjectives and the gospel in Ewe

Previously, we’ve looked at a perceptive account of ideophones in nineteenth-century Ewe by Joh. Bernard Schlegel. But Schlegel was not just a keen observator of the synchronic structure of Ewe, he also had clear ideas on where the language came from (damned primitivity) and where it was going (blessed enlightenment). A Pietist missionary above all else, Schlegel was quite sure that the coming of the Gospel would have a profound impact on the Ewe people — and on their language:

Dass die Ewe-Sprache in der Entfaltung und Entwicklung der Adjektiven noch so zurück ist, hat darin seinen Grund, daß sie viele Verben hat, welche schon an sich eine Eigenschaft ausdrücken. (…) Die Ansätze zu einer reicheren Entfaltung sind in die Sprache vorhanden, und wenn erst einmal das Evangelium und was in seinem Geleite folgt, in diese westafrikanischen Völker und Sprachen Eingang gefunden hat, so wird sich zeigen, welche schöpferische Momente in denselben (…) verborgen liegen. (Schlegel 1857:84)

That the Ewe language is still so backwards in the unfolding and development of adjectives, has its ground in the fact that it has many verbs that already express properties. (…) The prerequisites for a richer unfolding are available in the language, and when the Gospel with all its consequences will have found acceptance in these West African peoples and languages, it will be seen which moments of creation are lying dormant in them.

One and a half century later it would seem we are in the position to behold the awesome influence of the Gospel on the Ewe language. Alas, at last count, Ewe still has no more than five or six basic, underived adjectives (Ameka 1991) — not counting ideophones, that is (Ameka 2001). One wonders whether there is perhaps another area in the language where we may behold its beneficial effect. Or did the Gospel misfire (at least as far as Ewe adjectives go)? Anyway, what is probably most astonishing is how Schlegel in writing this passage could overlook the sparkling creativity so apparent in ideophones. The moral seems to be that if it’s not a damn adjective, it can’t be civilized, let alone sanctified.


  1. Ameka, Felix Kofi. 1991. Ewe: its grammatical constructions and illucutionary devices. PhD thesis, Australian National University.
  2. Ameka, Felix Kofi. 2001. Ideophones and the Nature of the Adjective Word Class in Ewe. In Ideophones, ed. F. K. Erhard Voeltz and Christa Kilian-Hatz, 25-48. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
  3. Noss, Philip A. 1999. The Ideophone: A Dilemma for Translation and Translation Theory. New Dimensions in African Linguistics and Languages, 261-272.
  4. Schlegel, Joh. Bernhard. 1857. Schlüssel der Ewesprache, dargeboten in den Grammatischen Grundzügen des Anlodialekts. Stuttgart.

The mysteries of Christian doctrine, or, How an African language was mistaken for an Amazonian one

In an excellent post over at Greater Blogazonia, Lev Michael unravels a spectacular error which led several eminent specialists of American languages to believe that a West African language named Arda was actually spoken on the Amazon between the Nanay and Marañon Rivers.

Lev’s post is recommended reading (as is his blog Greater Blogazonia in general), so in what follows, I will assume that you’ve at the very least glanced through his fascinating analysis of how this error came to be propagated in quite a few reference works on the indigenous languages of southern America.

It seems very fitting to me that Lev’s excellent piece of sleuthing comes at this point in time, exactly 350 years after the first appearance of José de Najera’s Doctrina Christiana y explicacion de sus Misterios en nuestro idiom Español, y en lengua Arda, the mysterious manuscript that is the pivot on which all of this hinges. So go read his exposé and after that, feel free to check back here for some more background information.

Doctrina Christiana - Y explicacion de sus Misterios en nuestro idiom Español, y en lengua Arda

The first page of the 1658 Doctrina Christiana – Y explicacion de sus Misterios en nuestro idiom Español, y en lengua Arda
(from Labouret & Rivet 1929)

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Pfisterer on Akpafu, 1904 (part II)

Today’s posting brings you the second part of Pfisterer’s 1904 article (see the previous posting for details on the context and provenance of this piece of missionary writing). This part gives us information on religious beliefs; myths of origin; the afterlife and reincarnation; so-called ‘fetishes’ (kùɣɔ/àɣɔ in Siwu) and how they are to be served (the indigenous upland rice plays an important role); functions of priests and their servants; the mabia cult of priestesses; amulets and other objects wielding spiritual power; and funeral customs, including an all too brief bit on the funeral dirges Agawu (1988) has written about. All of this is brought in a characteristically dismissive tone, clearly designed for a specific audience: the loyal and pious supporters of the Norddeutsche Missionsgesellschaft in Germany.

Andreas Pfisterer in 1891 (BMPIX QS-30.001.0982.01)

Andreas Pfisterer in 1891 (BMPIX QS-30.001.0982.01)

In the future, I want to talk about some of the issues this text raises. To mention just one thing, Pfisterer narrates how he destroyed a powerful object (left in someone’s home by a witch doctor) by burning it on the public forum for all to see. The significance of this event cannot be overestimated. Pfisterer simply wanted to demonstrate the irrationality of the beliefs of the Mawu. But in the eyes of those present, he was participating in a rather dangerous type of spiritual power play. The fact that he could destroy the bewitched object without being harmed himself established his own spiritual power over that of the witch doctor, providing the Mawu with excellent reasons to align with Pfisterer and the superior power he apparently represented. More on this later; now, let’s see what Pfisterer has to say. Continue reading

Pfisterer on Akpafu, 1904 (part I)

One of the goals of The Ideophone, besides functioning as a sounding board for ideas on expressivity and sound symbolism in African languages, is to make available sources on Siwu and other GTM languages which are otherwise hard to come by. This posting is the first in a series furthering that goal. Below you will find the full text (in German) of an early account by Pfisterer, the first missionary to live in Akpafu. Ignoring the colonial tone of voice and the inevitable racial prejudices, we get valuable information on sociolinguistics, oral history, housing, smithing, socio-economical conditions, polygamy, and slavery.

Before giving the floor to Pfisterer, let me provide some context to his account (if you can’t wait, you can skip right to Pfisterer’s own words — don’t forget to look at the beautiful picture below, though!). A lot of material documenting the missionary history of Akpafu can be found in the archives of the Norddeutsche Missionsgesellschaft, which have been deposited at the Staatsarchiv Bremen. More often than not, these missionary documents consist of only marginally interesting chitchat about building projects, visitations of other mission posts, and the health of the missionaries, but every once in a while we get more ethnographic detail.

One source offering such detail is a 1904 piece by Andreas Pfisterer on Kawu and the Mawu in the periodical Monatsblatt der Norddeutsche Missionsgesellschaft. Pfisterer was the man who established the first mission post at ‘Akpafu’ (today’s Akpafu-Todzi) in 1897. He was originally with the Basel Mission, but was ‘dismissed in 1899’, upon which he changed to the Bremen Mission and stayed in Ghana until 1910. According to a brief history of the station by one of the later missionaries, Hermann Schosser (Schosser 1907), Pfisterer had abandoned the Akpafu station by 1902, leaving behind an unfinished house and the indigenous catechist Mensa with his Christian family.

Pfisterer’s account was published in two parts, and in an attempt to keep the postings here within reasonably length I will keep to that division, reproducing the first half of his account below and the second half in a second posting. I have marked a few obvious errors that were present in the source; any remaining typographical errors are probably mine.

Andreas Pfisterer with his pupils before the school in 1899. Note the 'chosen ones', especially the smartly dressed boy (in black) to his left, who is even wearing a pocket watch. No names are given. The chalk board says 'Schule in Akpafo, 1899' (BMPIX D-30.52.016)

Andreas Pfisterer with his pupils before the school in 1899. Note the ‘chosen ones’, especially the smartly dressed boy (in black) to his left, who is even wearing a pocket watch. No names are given. The chalk board says ‘Schule in Akpafo, 1899’ (BMPIX D-30.52.016)

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