- 1 I wish to aknowledge the contribution of Selenia Marabello in the elaboration of the paper and wish (...)
1The purpose of this paper is threefold. The prime aim is to provide an account of a female ritual, known as momome1 in its Sefwi variant, and to discuss the meaning of the choreographic props used in the performance by positioning these within the wider cultural framework of the Akan world of West Africa. Second, the historical transformations of the ceremonial occurrence in the course of the twentieth century will be examined closely to show that even though the performance has—informants claim and pre-colonial sources confirm—not been altered significantly, the timing and motives have. Finally, the paper evaluates the ideological autonomy of the ritual—presented by some analysts as a "ritual of inversion"—from institutional politics, both "traditional" chieftaincy and "modern"—colonial and postcolonial—governments. The conclusion will be concerned with a brief outline of the influence of political institutions upon the various forms of supernatural protection sought in the course of the twentieth century.
2The choreography of the momome is strongly female-dominated in terms of participation as well as in the cultural resources activated. The motive of the ritual is, in most instances, not gender-specific: the preservation of the community from external threats. Male-dominated rituals, mostly associated with the chiefly establishment, address the same existential preoccupations but are perceived as needing female support—and precisely the momome—in times of crisis. The momome can therefore be seen as the public recognition of female autonomy and importance or as a space of reversal of the established gender order. Colonial ethnographer Maurice Delafosse (1913: 267) provides a thorough description of the masculinisation of female behaviour during a ritual termed agya, a variant of the momome, performed further east:
"One of the most interesting aspects of this ceremony of the agya is that, over the whole length of the performance, women should transform themselves in men. Each one should be called with the name of her husband, her brother or her son; the sticks they carry are adorned with the names of guns. When the dancers are tired, sit on the ground and converse as men, addressing each other with male greetings."
3Delafosse’s short article is centred on alteration of gender conduct during what he terms "la comédie d’inversion sexuelle". He describes women taking up male characters, their mock invocation of military performances and of the masculine sexual pleasures resulting from the capture of female prisoners.
4The theme of inversion pervades the performance of the momome and catches observers’ glaze. Eschlimann (1984: 19, 21-22) similarly points out that women "take the place of men", arm themselves, perform mimic battles and take over the control of the community. Sexual relations are prohibited, wives stop performing household chores and "adopt a masculine behaviour". Moreover, they "insult the male order, incapable of protecting from such a great drama [...]. Where the masculine order is unable to generate life and safeguard it from evil, society reverts, in the last instance, to the potency of the forces of life of which the sex of women is the locus and the symbol. This is the last barrier to the annihilation of social and individual life". Short discussions by Gilbert (1993: 8) who stresses "women’s dangerous creative power", and Cutolo (2004: 224) who associates the momome to the suspension of the social order, lead analyses in the same direction.
5Similarly, Jones (1993: 553, 557) lengthy review of pre-colonial sources underlines reversal relating it to the work of Turner (1969): "War made it possible (or necessary?) to invert or reverse some of the etiquette which normally governed gender roles [...] in my view, the roots of this practice lay in the tension that existed between sexes: mmobomme offered women the opportunity to turn the tables." Jones (1993: 556) raises the issue of the historical transformations of the ritual and of the dynamic relation between its "form" and "function". The author, however, does not "consider a fieldwork project focused upon this question a viable proposition" because "even those scholars who have lived in the region for many years have not found out very much".
6Here an attempt is made to address some of Jones’s concerns by examining oral narratives on twentieth-century performances. The concern with ceremonies held for reasons other than military confrontation—on which most of the literature is focused—enables to gain insights on the ritual’s rationale in the colonial and postcolonial settings and to reflect further on the characterisation of the ritual as one of gender inversion. The momome maintains a strong female presence in the management of the choreography but not in the capacity to decide what represents a threat and what crisis merit a ceremonial cleansing. Performances have been a ritual space of apparent female autonomy used to render women’s therapeutic resources manifest and to express their concerns but the pacing of the occurrences over the last century was largely dictated by "traditional" political institutions. This paper—after having outlined female specificity—examines the ritual’s rationale to provide insights on gender dynamics of ideological hegemony, even where discourses, dances, locations are monopolised by women (Boni 2003).
- 2 Non-English names are in Sefwi. In an attempt to standardise Sefwi orthography, I follow recent wo (...)
7As elsewhere, in the Akan area, covering most of Southern Ghana and of south-western Ivory Coast, political festivals were privileged loci of in depth anthropological and historical research. The principal communal festivals of most Akan states—the odwira of the Asante, Akim and Akuapem, the ahuba of the Fanti, the kundum of the Nzema and Ahanta, as the eluo of the Sefwi—are spectacular events held to call the ancestral blessing on the first fruits of yam (Rattray 1927: 122-143; Danquah 1928: 125-144; Akomiah 1992; McCaskie 1995: 144-242; Valsecchi 1999; Ofori 2005). These rituals are quite explicitly aimed at representing the yearly re-establishment of a cultural, spiritual and political order through what McCaskie (1995: 144) aptly termed "a cathartic communal or societal purification" (Gilbert 1994). The cleansing exercise is guaranteed by two potent unearthly forces: the abosoe2, normally termed in the academic literature "smaller gods", and the ancestors of prominent kin groups. The king is not only the administrator of the rituals but covers a central performative role as mediator between unearthly forces and the community of the living. The unfolding text of these rituals—covering numerous days—is highly complex, dynamic and grandiose. Less elaborate cleansing performances, consisting of the call on abosoe and ancestors for a private blessing of the stools, occur every three or six weeks according to the local calendar in most Akan states and share the same overall intent of the more ostensive annual ritual. Authors have normally focused on the official, grand festivals which occur at regular intervals and express the ordinary process of cleansing. The momome, while making ideological statements similar to those expressed by chiefs’ festivals, displays peculiar features in terms of choreography, organisation, gender participation and timing. The festival has been regarded as curious because it does not conform to the general pattern of Akan ritual performances, but of little relevance to the structuring of political ideology.
- 3 Personal communication kindly offered by Fabio Viti and Giulia Almagioni.
8Performances similar to the Sefwi momome are documented—mostly in short papers or in hasty notes included in works concerned primarily with other topics—in several locations between the lower Bandama River (in the Ivory Coast) and the Volta (Ghana). The ritual was witnessed since the early seventeenth century on the Gold and Ivory coasts of the gulf of Guinea and in the nineteenth century by travellers heading inland (Delafosse 1913; Jones 1993; Perrot & van Dantzig 1994: 132, 186-187, 606). In pre-colonial Asante it was held often and known as mmumue, mmusu(o)yiedee, momome or mmobomme (McLeod 1981: 28-29; Arhin 1983: 96; McCaskie 1995: 295, 2000: 76-77). Recent ethnographies show regional variations—in both denomination and choreography—within patterned performances that appear throughout the western portion of the Akan world. The ritual is known as momome amongst the Aowin (Ebin 1982, 1989: 280); as mume, mumune or momone amongst the Anyi (Perrot 1982: 31-32; Eschlimann 1984; Duchesne 1996: 228-230); as adjanu amongst the Baule (Viti 2004: 143-145, 171-173); as aworabe amongst the Akwapim (Gilbert 1993: 8); as mumune or mume amongst the Anno of the Ivory Coast (Cutolo 2004: 224)3.
9In Sefwi, as elsewhere, women perform the momome, to purify and protect themselves and their community: participants hold that the ceremony is aimed at chasing away danger when their settlement is threatened. Society periodically underwent and undergoes periods of crisis that are viewed as attacks of evil spirits, sunzum bɔne. Malign strikes are considered to be both spiritual and tangible: negative supernatural dispositions are seen as leading to concrete disasters and palpable threats are perceived as being the product of an attack by evil spirits. The performance consists of a mimic fight, the terrestrial visible expression of a spiritual clash between malignant forces and the supernatural allies defending the community. While mystical entities combat in the unearthly confrontation, women support protective spirits with an allegoric battle. The momome is a symbolic shield against outside dangers threatening the community and is aimed, as a long-term participant put it, at "pa mmusoe", wipe away the evil.
- 4 Following some academic literature and popular translation I use, with some regret, "fetish priest" (...)
10Contemporary witnesses, as well as oral sources and academic research, associate the pre-colonial occurrence of the ritual principally to the community’s participation in warfare (Delafosse 1913; Arhin 1983; Jones 1993; Perrot & van Dantzig 1994: 606; McCaskie 2000: 76-77; Viti 2004: 143-145). Akyeampong and Obeng (1995: 492) suggest that the mmomomme was a "distinctly female form of spiritual warfare". The ritual was thought to influence the outcome of the confrontation and was also aimed at disgracing potential war-dodgers. The fact that the momome is a female ritual and that the religious-political establishment does not directly participate, is explained with the absence of men—warriors, chiefs and "fetish priests" ("akɔɔmiε")4—busy in the battlefield. The performance of the momome during warfare was viewed as compulsory and there was therefore no need to dictate its occurrence. Delafosse (1913: 268) holds that the momome was considered amusing but was—at the same time—"obligatory; when women show sings of fatigue, the elders insulted them by saying: ‘The men are fighting and you should perform the agya!’" With the establishment of colonial peace, the momome lost what was its primary rationale but did not die out. In colonial Gold Coast and independent Ghana other threats were seen as appropriate in provoking the performance.
- 5 Even though the exact dates of the performances are uncertain since memories are fading and because (...)
- 6 See Afuia Badu, 22 May 2000; Akosua Dua, 16 December 2005 (ESCHLIMANN 1984: 19-21; PERROT 1982: 31- (...)
11Besides war, the second cause normally mentioned for the performance of the ritual is the spread of diseases (McCaskie 1995: 295). In Sefwi momome were often held to protect the community from epidemics. In the first half of the twentieth century memories associate the ritual to the spread of small-pox, influenza, measles and chicken-pox5. In the Sefwi and Anyi areas, rituals which recall closely the momome have been held upon the death of pregnant women as their passing away was viewed as a general menace6.
- 7 NAG Sekondi WRG 13/2/154 and 155. See Akosua Buakua, 22 May 2000.
- 8 Rituals associated with "menstrual" rainbows were held in the Sefwi village of Wiawso in the late 1 (...)
- 9 Afuia Kintoh, 22 July 2001; Adwua Nkrumah, 14 July 2001; Stephen Mensah, 12 January 2003.
12A further motive that justified the performance was the occurrence of real or potential environmental disasters. A momome was held to avert the flood of river Tano in 19687. Unusual meteorological and astronomical occurrences are also thought to announce danger and should be countered by a momome, even though there is little agreement on what particular manifestations merit a performance. Some mentioned the appearance of the rainbow in any direction other than the usual eastwards location or at any time other than evening. An unspecified "circular" rainbow associated with menstruations, manzaa, is said to merit a performance8. Moreover, the kontonkroyie, the appearance of a dark halo covering the sun, different from the eclipse, has also triggered the ceremonial cleansing9. The momome is an adequate response to a broad spectrum of adverse spiritual signals: in the mid 1970s, for example, the ritual was held in south-western Ghana to cleanse the community before a witch-detecting exercise (Ebin 1989: 280).
- 10 Akosua Buakua, 22 May 2000; Afuia Kintoh, 22 July 2001.
- 11 Akuia Bennie, 12 January 2003; Akosua Badu, 16 December 2005. For details of the dispute see SWTCA (...)
- 12 Akosua Buakua, 22 May 2000; Akuia Bennie, 12 January 2003.
- 13 Stephen Mensah, 12 January 2003.
- 14 The momome is often performed after the death of kings but before this is publicly announced. The (...)
- 15 Oral narratives confirm performances for the illness of the king, Aduhene II, in 1975 and 1988, for (...)
13Even though those listed above are the most common causes mentioned when speaking of the ritual, actual occurrences indicate that in the course of the twentieth century performances were increasingly connected to political instability. Momome were held to react to national political threats such as the fall of Busia in 197210 or the expulsion of over a million Ghanaians from Nigeria in 1983 (Perrot & van Dantzig 1994: 132). During the past century the Sefwi momome was largely used as a political weapon adapting itself to the transformations of chieftaincy. While land disputes were largely resolved violently in the past, during the twentieth century they are negotiated in the framework of the colonial and post-colonial judicial system (Boni 1999, 2000). The momome adapted to the new context: rituals were held in the 1920s and in the early 1970s during court hearings over a boundary dispute between Sefwi Wiawso and the adjacent Aowin11. Performances were also aimed at averting decisions of the national government considered hostile to the Sefwi people, such as the creation of forest reserves in the 1930s or the arrest of the king of Sefwi Wiawso in 197212. The ritual was also activated in 1973 and 1992 when the king sought the government’s commitment towards the improvement of the road network within the district13. Rituals were increasingly performed to counter perceived threats to the chiefly establishment. The sickness of prominent chiefs was and is viewed as a communal menace and therefore a momome may be held when the infirmity of the king, his mother or of the ɔhemma, the female counterpart of the king, is publicly acknowledged14. In Sefwi the ritual was held over the last half a century for the illnesses and deaths of kings and other prominent figures of the chiefly establishment15.
- 16 Akosua Badu, 16 December 2005.
14The ritual may also be held when violent confrontations occur between different sections of the community. Performances were promoted by malcontents to oust reigning chiefs or could be organized by the king’s supporters when his opponents were trying to oust him (Viti 2004: 173). In 1935 an unsuccessful momome was held to resist to the deposition of Kwame Tano II; the king was ousted soon after. Another ritual was held to protect the office of his successor, Kwame Nkoah II, in the early 1940s as the king’s principal "fetish priest" ("kɔmiε") had perceived signs of troubles in his dreams and in the sky. Notwithstanding the momome, Nkoah II was also deposed in 194516. Even though experience had thought that the ritual was not always successful in preventing depositions, Aduhene II called for a "protective" momome during the attempt to oust him in the early 1960s. He had better lack than his predecessors: he was deposed in 1966 but readily re-enthroned (Boni 2000).
15The extension of the ritual occurrence to innovative threats marks an innovation of its rationale. Up to the twentieth century, sources suggest that the momome was performed principally in instances of tangible, palpable (one would be tempted to call them "real") threats such as warfare and epidemics. Over the last century the ceremonial purification has been increasingly used to counter immaterial, imaginary, metaphorical and supernatural dangers (Viti 2004: 144). The performance of the momome in cases of non-evident, intangible threats marks a crucial transformation. While in pre-colonial times the necessity of the ritual was to a certain extent self-evident and there was little need to program and orchestrate its performance, in the course of the twentieth century a legitimate interpreter of cosmological dangers became increasingly decisive in determining when the ceremony was needed. The elders, the principal "fetish priest" ("kɔmiε"), or the chiefly establishment—often through a combined hermeneutical process— have been those considered able to perceive the gravity of a menace which is presented to the community as immanent, even though not apparent to most. They have been the ones who decide that a ritual is indispensable and mobilise the community. In short, the ritual necessity is no longer manifest to the community but is announced.
- 17 Kɔmiε Asuo Suborε, 4 January 2003. The few ethnographies which address the issue indicate the (mal (...)
16While the momome was and is a ritual performed collectively by women, the "traditional" political and religious institutions play a major role. The authority to hold a momome comes from the king as he is the mediator and regulator of the relationship between the population of the kingdom, the Sefwi mman, and the cosmological order within which this fragment of humanity is inserted. The king’s entourage decides when, and for which purpose, the momome is required17. One of the king’s linguists or the ɔhemma, the female counterpart of the king, will then inform prominent women of the sovereign’s intention to perform the ritual. The women normally subscribe to the establishment’s interpretation of the cosmological presage and agree with the need for the ritual. A date is fixed for the beginning of the performance and the recruitment of women begins both through public announcements calling adult females to participate, as well as informally through the mobilisation of neighbours and kin by elderly women. While the political-religious authority decides the necessity of the momome, it plays only a marginal role in the performance.
- 18 DUCHESNE (1996: 230) states that the performance lasted either three days or a week (PERROT 1982: 3 (...)
- 19 JONES’s (1993) work had clearly shown patterns of variations, some authors— following local taxonom (...)
17The momome is a repetition of a standardised happening repeated thrice daily (early morning, noon and late afternoon) for a number of days that ranges from one to up to three weeks18. The wiping away of epidemics is deemed to require a special effort and therefore the momome will normally be repeated insistently, while other threats, such as the wrong positioning of the rainbow, necessitate a less sustained effort. There are no fixed days of the week in which the momome should begin. Some women, however, indicate as privileged choices Thursday (the day dedicated to the divinity of the soil, Azee Yaa) in which farming is forbidden and more people are present in the village or Saturday (the day of veneration of Asuo SuborεFONT Ε, the spiritual protector of the Sefwi Wiawso nation). Performances display continuous variations within patterned performances: some key, characteristic features are present throughout the Akan world while these are adjusted locally and contextually to adapt to the particular threat facing the community. Each ceremony thus assumes a unique form varying in length, intensity and importance: certain parts of the usual choreography may be omitted while additional, innovative ones may be inserted. The ritual cycle described below outlines the performance’s characteristic, recurrent features19.
18While participation in the momome has decreased in recent decades, in Wiawso—the capital of the homonymous Sefwi kingdom—the number of women taking part in the last performances was normally easily over hundred and exceptionally close to thousand. Even though only some respond, all adult and elderly women identified as Sefwi who live in Wiawso and in neighbouring villages are asked to participate in each occurrence with the exception of women who have not yet given birth, those in their menstrual period and widowers who have not completed the post-widowhood purification. The former are said to lack the knowledge of songs and appropriate behaviour (for example falling down during the momome is considered a bad omen); the latter, lack the purity. During the ritual no man should be present. If some are, they run the risk of being beaten and to see their spiritual strength permanently damaged.
19Early in the morning, women bath, smear their body with kaolin, a white clay (εwule), wear beads (tɔmaah), cover their heads with white handkerchiefs (nwera) and wear white cloths over red underwear (asiaa). After the domestic preparation, participants move towards the gathering point. The ritual for the cleansing of the whole nation is held at the nation’s political and religious centre, the principal road of Wiawso approximately three hundred yards long crossing the flat hilltop from side to side (Perrot & van Dantzig 1994: 132; Boni 2007). The gathering occurs in front of the major crossroad: from there, participants move towards the Southern end, or meet directly at the extremity. The momome proceeds from the southern to the northern limit of Wiawso as the community tries to block the evil forces at the edges of the settlement (kurotiwaa) (Parkin 1992). This liminal area between culture and nature contains ambiguous, alien and impure products: huts of menstruating women and confinement areas for those struck by epidemics in pre-colonial times, latrines, rubbish piles, and burial grounds still nowadays. The momome thus expresses and reinforces the distinction between human space and the hostile, natural and spiritual environment, surrounding it. Delafosse (1913) and Bonnat (Perrot & van Dantzig 1994: 132) state that, during pre-colonial wars, women performing the momome stopped at the edge of the village, in the direction of the enemy’s land, waved their sticks and shouted insults.
20Contrary to most Akan rituals, a song rather than a libation marks the beginning of the collective ritual activity.
1. "Osei Yie! Yie! Yie!
Glory Yes! Yes! Yes!
Nana Suborε apasuee o! Ye dan wo!
Nana Suborε the Great o! We rely on you!
Ye dan wo ahenewa!
We, the least privileged, rely on you!
Ye dan wo! Yed dan wo awura!
We rely on you, we rely on you Lord!
Yεngɔtuabε so! Yεtua bε so! (several times)
We shall not disturb you! We shall disturb you!"
Akosua Boakoa, 4 January 2003.
21Participants perceive themselves as depending on the "fetish priest" ("kɔmiε") of Asuo Suborε. The momome is a disturbance to the fetish’ required for the collective good.
22The women begin a procession. The main street of Wiawso is passed back and forward thrice. During the procession participants dance and sing. In cases of war, motifs insulted the rival chief and compelled men to join in the confrontation (Delafosse 1913), nowadays the message, especially when the threat can not be personified, is highly metaphoric and often difficult to discern for most of the participants themselves. Even though single passages may be obscure, both in the Sefwi area and elsewhere, participants agree that tunes are imprecations against the evil and injunctions aimed at its retreat (Jones 1993; Perrot & van Dantzig 1994: 186-187; Viti 2004: 171-173). Nketia (1962: 16) characterises the "mmobomme" motifs as "songs of exhilaration and incitement". Momome songs are performed by women alone and do not belong to the choreography associated with chiefs and festivals. Tunes do not follow a fixed order and there is no single person who calls the motifs: any women may begin a song and other will follow. Motifs may change to a certain extent from performance to performance but are often based on the repetition of some key, short phrases at times slightly altered from line to line. The works cited above transcribe some of the tunes performed during the ritual: the fact that motifs are different in all locations confirms that performances have manifested—within a clearly recognisable recurrent characterisation—a high degree of variability and geographical specificity. Here I transcribe a selection of the tunes presented by participants as "momome songs" and I focus, specifically, on those concerned with gender issues.
2. "Nana Nyame se yen o!
God told us!
Osee no sen ne! Ose momma yen sere na yanya adee! Sere kwa ei!
He told us! He told us let us laugh and get some benefit! We laughed for nothing ei!
Momma yen sere na yanya adee! Sere kwa ei!
Let us laugh and get some benefit! We laughed for nothing ei!
Momma yen sere! Hay, hay, ei!
Let us laugh! Hay, hay, ei!
Nana Suborε se yen o!
Suborε told us!
Osee yen sen ne o! Osee momma yen kyiam na yanya adee!
He told us! He told us let us work and get the thing!
Kyiam Kwaw ei!
Work for nothing!
Moma yen kiyam na yanya dedee o! (×2)
Let us work and get the thing!"
Mame Kɔkɔ, Wiawso, 15 May 2000.
23This motif is sang—normally in instances of chiefs’ depositions—when the women want to accuse an office-holder of embezzlement of funds or of incapacity to fulfil promises. In sharp contrast with motif 1., this tune evokes the ineffectiveness of chiefs’ protective shield.
3. "Yie! Ekoε adwu so! Yie! Yie! (×2)
Yes! The war has come! Yes! Yes!
Me ye Badu Aso me wanzε ekɔhɔ bieoo! (×2)
My wife Badu Aso, I thought you would join us!
Yie! Ekoε adwu so! Yie! Yie!
Yes! The war has come! Yes! Yes!
Me ye Badu Akoma ee yie ɔwɔnua nkɔhɔ bieoo!
If Badu Akoma is included, I will also take part!"
Mame Kɔkɔ, Wiawso, 15 May 2000.
24Badu Aso is remembered as the senior wife of the Suborε "fetish priest" ("kɔmiε") while Badu Akoma is the younger spouse. The first part of the song is the invitation to join him pronounced by the "priest" to the senior wife. She replies—in the last line—that she will go only if the junior wife joins. The spouses can be seen as evoking metaphorically soldiers, inviting all to join in war.
25The momome offers the opportunity to express women’s concerns and viewpoints on issues not directly related to the ritual’s rationale.
4. "Adeεkyea toto bɔdeε! (×2)
Since daybreak roast plantain!
Menyε odwan mawe bɔdeε!
I am not a sheep to eat only roast plantain!
Eh Seliwa! Mampong nsuo!
Eh Seliwa! River Mampong!
Menyε odwan, meyΕ odwan! Eno oo!
I am not a sheep, I am a sheep! Mothers!
Eh Seliwa! Meto asuo a mabɔ wo din na asuo bεsom!
Eh Seliwa! When I reach a river I shall call your name and the river will handle it!
Adeεkyea nom nsuo! (×2)
Since daybreak water!
Menyε kraman na manom nsuo! Enonom!
I am not a dog to drink only water! Mothers!
Eh Seliwa! Manom nsuo!
Eh Seliwa! I drink water!
Menyε kraman na manom nsuo! Eno oo!
I am not a dog to drink only water! Mothers!
Eh Seliwa! Meto asuo a mabɔ wo din na asuo bεsom!
Eh Seliwa! When I reach a river I shall call your name and the river will handle it!"
Mame Kɔkɔ, Wiawso, 15 May 2000.
26This song contains a lamentation and a threat of a woman who calls on female companions. The woman laments that her man is not taking good care of her, providing only basic goods (plantain, water) and thus treating her like an animal. She threatens to "call his name", that is curse him, as soon as she reaches a river. Rivers are thought to host powerful spirits and are therefore privileged loci of curses’ evocation.
5. "Aya nnieεma ngɔle deede dɔ nyamaa asosɔ me!
My elder sibling, I went far away and some liana tied me!
Yie! Yie! Na εkwaayε nzuo dɔ bɔ nyamaa asosɔ wɔ?
Yie! Yie! But what were you doing there for the liana to tie you?
Yie! Yie! ɔdɔyεwu ati nyamaa kɔhu me oo!
Yie! Yie! Because of my lover these liana will kill me!
ɔdɔyεwu ee! Nyamaa ee!
Oh lover! Oh liana!
ɔdɔyεwu ati nyamaa kɔhu me!
Because of my lover these liana will kill me!
Aya nnieεma ngɔle Wiawso oo nyamaa asosɔ me!
My elder sibling, I went to Wiawso and some liana tied me!
Yie! Yie! Na εkwaayε nzuo dɔ bɔ nyamaa asosɔ wɔ?
Yie! Yie! But what were you doing there for the liana to tie you?
Na edwule bɔ εse ne na afei εbisa me!
You know the reason but you are asking me!
Edwule bɔ εse ee! Nyamaa ee!
You know the reason! Oh liana!
ɔdɔyεwu ee! Nyamaa ee!
Oh lover! Oh liana!
Edwule bɔ εse ne na afei εbisa me!
You know the reason but you are asking me!"
Mame Kɔkɔ, Wiawso, 15 May 2000.
27A woman explains that since she left her parents, she has faced some difficulties, literally she was tied with liana. Her sibling responds asking the reason of her departure. The woman left to join her lover.
6. "Moni yε na ee! Moni yε na!
My mother is valuable! My mother is valuable!
Ngɔwuoo! Hi ngo!
I will die! Hi ngo!
Eni yε ɔlε eni! Eni yε ɔlε eni bɔ ɔworo wɔ oo! Hi ngo!
Your mother is your mother! Your mother is your mother who gave birth to you! Hi ngo!
Hi Ese yε ɔlε ese! Ese yε ɔlε ese bɔ ɔworo wɔ oo!
Your father is your father! Your father is your father who gave birth to you! Hi ngo!
Agyaa Mako ee! Agyaa mako alɔ me!
Pepper marriage! Pepeer marriage is hurting me!
Ngɔwuoo! Hi ngo! (×2)
I will die! Hi ngo!"
Mame Kɔkɔ, Wiawso, 15 May 2000.
28The wife cherishes the memory of her mother and father while oppressed by a "pepper marriage", an expression used by women to refer to conjugal unions in which women are maltreated or disregarded.
7. "Ama bɔɔse aleε to!
Ama knows how to cook food!
Ama bɔɔse ampesi to!
Ama knows how to cook ampesi!
Ama bɔɔse ngeka yɔ!
Ama knows how to prepare stew!
Ama Mmra ayira me oo! Ayira me oo! Ayira me oo!
Ama Mmra has divorced me! Divorced me! Divorced me!
Ama Mmra ayira me oo! Wa maa mabɔ tronka!
Ama Mmra has divorced me! I was made lonely!
Ama bɔɔse likyεε yɔ!
Ama knows how to prepare everything!
Ama bɔɔse ngeka yɔ!
Ama knows how to prepare stew!
Ama bɔɔse aleε to!
Ama knows how to cook food!
Ama mmra ayira me oo! Ayira me oo! Ayira me oo!
Ama Mmra has divorced me! Divorced me!
Ama Mmra ayira me oo! Wa maa mabɔ tronkea!
Ama Mmra has divorced me! I was made lonely!"
Mame Kɔkɔ, Wiawso, 15 May 2000.
29In this parody, a man laments that his resourceful wife, Ama, who could cook very well ampesi and stew—local dishes—, has divorced him. The last sentence which should be translated literally as "she makes me a private car (tronkea)" should be understood as a sign of loneliness.
30A privileged stopping point is in front of the household where the "fetish priest" ("kɔmiε") resides. Here the women form a semi circle and tune some specific songs to render homage to the protective spirit of river Suborε. The "fetish priest" ("kɔmiε"), at times, appears in the course of the ritual to spiritually support and legitimise it: possessed by his spirit, he may dance briefly and frenetically, throw or smear kaolin clay over himself and the participants and follow or precede the procession for a while.
8. "Yie! Asuo Suborε apasuee!
Oh! River Suborε the Great!
Yie! ɔto apenten a yε yεfrε wo hoo!
Oh! In difficult times we call upon you
Yie! Asuo Suborε apasuee!
Oh! River Suborε the Great!
Yie! ɔyε sea yε yεfrε wɔ hoo!
Oh! When things are becoming hard we call upon you!"
Akosua Buakua, Wiawso, 4 January 2003.
31Besides songs, certain ceremonial actions are associated with the performance of the momome, even though they do not occur in every ritual. Delafosse (1913) states that women, when rituals were held to facilitate success in wars, proceeded armed with sticks and that action intensified when gunshots were heard. Similarly, Asante narratives suggest that women, at times, pounded empty mortars with pestles, "as a form of spiritual torture" of the enemy (Akyeampong & Obeng 1995: 492). In Sefwi women are thought to chase away the evil by howling ("Huuuu! Huuuu!") at the edges of the settlement and by waving the asiaa and an herb known as anyain. In rituals aimed at the expulsion of a disease, often dirt, efieε, is placed on the street (normally peels of foodstuffs) and ritually swept in the course of the performance. As the concept of efieε covers material and metaphorical dirt (van der Geest 1998), the removal of the litter was a way of removing mystical pollution (Ebin 1989). The following song accompanies the cleaning exercise.
9. "Mpraee yεwon oo!
Yεpraee! Yεpraee yεwon oo!
We are sweeping! We are sweeping ourselves!"
Mame Aya, Wiawso, 25 July 2001.
32The women are sweeping—cleansing—themselves from malign attacks.
- 20 Anyain, for example, may be placed on the doorstep of the room of someone suffering from a disease (...)
33The dirt is placed—together with some foodstuffs and two herb, known locally as amumunyaa and anyain (costus afer, ginger lily), all bathed in kaolin—on the roads that lead to the town. The use of the anyain and amumunyaa is particularly significant: these herbs—principally used by female healers—are thought to facilitate fertility and cure sexually transmitted disease. Anyain is also used to keep evil spirits away from vulnerable locations20. The mounts of anyain, dirt and food are placed at what used to be the outskirts of the town up to some decades ago, and what is now only its political and religious centre (Boni 2007). It is thought that when the evil spirits try to enter the town, they will be repelled by the dirt and the herbs and may be satisfied with the consumption of the foodstuffs placed thereon.
- 21 ɔhemma Yaa Denta, 25 May 2000.
34In rituals performed to purify the community from the mystical disaster potentially provoked by the appearance of the kontonkroyie or the rainbow in a wrong location, the ɔhemma—a female office holder—is called upon to shoot a gun, provided and loaded by a male attendant, at the direction where the rainbow improperly appeared21.
10. "Nyangozonomaa e fi abra oo!
The rainbow has set at the opposite side!
Ofi abra bε kyioo!
Setting at the opposite time is abhorred!"
Akuia Bennie, Wiawso, 4 January 2003.
35At the end of every ritual cycle the women enter the king’s palace, inform him of the successful completion of the event and receive a symbolic offering of money as thanks-giving for their services. The money is too small to be shared amongst the numerous participants and is therefore used to buy consumables. If the threat is considered serious, a delegation may be sent to Subore river, either before or after the performance, to inform the smaller god, bosoe, of the occurrence and of the ritual.
36Even though the largest momome in the Sefwi Wiawso kingdom are performed in the capital, the ritual can be organized at the village level as well. Communities may have local problems for which a momome is needed (lack of childbirth, death of local chief, rainbow in wrong position). The king at Wiawso is normally informed and his consent received before the ritual is performed. The procession passes on the main street where the palace and the shrines of smaller gods, abosoe, are concentrated. Overall the performance is very similar in form and semantics, but not in its size, to the one held at Wiawso. Villagers are also asked to perform local rituals when the momome is performed at Wiawso or are called upon to join the one at Wiawso.
37The momome has survived the great transformations of the twentieth century even though participation in recent decades has dwindled. Some women complain that nowadays menstruating women at times participate in the ritual weakening its effects, others that the population is increasingly subject to diseases because attendance has decreased, still others complain that strict adherence to Christianity has reduced participation both in terms of number and conviction. Overall, however, the momome is still felt as an important ritual and many women, especially those less involved in church activities, still believe it has beneficial effects on the community and especially on those taking an active part in the performance.
38White appears as the dominant colour of the ritual. Fufue, is a chromatic range that includes light colours such as yellow and milk but is conceptually centred on immaculate white. It is a ritually auspicious colour associated with victory; it stands for health, success, spiritual purity and joy. For example, women on their first public exit after having given birth should wear white to mark their success over a liminal period, that of the pregnancy characterised by impurity. White is also the colour of church attendance, especially at festivities. Kaolin (εwule), a fine white clay, is used in a number of rituals amongst the Akan. It "whitens" persons chromatically and conceptually to indicate success, purity, sanity and absence of evil. The talc is gently placed on the shoulders of the party who has won the case at "traditional" court. It is smeared on the body of divorcees, young women performing their puberty ritual, newborn babies and in the past on slaves who were freed (McCaskie 1995: 287-288). In precolonial Asante it was used to signal the end of the menstrual period (Perrot & van Dantzig 1994: 606). εwule is used in rituals of purification of the soul (kra) and often placed on chiefs during festivals and in the ceremony of their enthronement and thrown on possessed "fetish priests" ("akɔmiε") (Duchesne 1996: 125, 266). The talc is thought to have therapeutic qualities and is used by local healers to prevent malformations of the foetus and diseases. Before the momome, εwule is smeared by women all over their bodies, including their faces. During the performance it is at times thrown by the "fetish priest" ("kɔmiε") on the crowd gathered outside his house as a sort of collective blessing. Together with anyain, the medicinal herb, Εwule is positioned on the village outskirts to keep the evil spirits from entering the settlement. In a neighbouring area, kaolin was spread at the limits of the towns during the momome (Ebin 1989). The nwera, a string of white cloth, is waved as handkerchief during the ritual. Nwera can be seen adorning drums and chiefly umbrella during the yearly festival and have been used to indicate the sanctity of locations. During the momome, women remove their cloths to show their underwear which may be a white nwera tied to a waist chain made with beads, or the red underwear, asiaa.
39While white characterises the ritual, the other colour that appears in the momome is red. Kɔkɔrε invests a wider chromatic spectrum than that rendered with "red", including a range from pink to purple and is associated with an ambiguous set of notions connected with blood (Hagan 1970: 9; Breidenbach 1976). McCaskie (1995: 290) describes red as the colour of "heightened (and confused) emotional states-combinations of danger, sorrow, impurity, anger, defiance". Rattray (1927: 29-34, 134) claims it is associated with war and witchcraft. Red is the colour of vitality and danger, or the violent attempt towards the re-establishment of peace. Participants, especially those with the highly valued rounded body, may, in the course of the procession, remove the white top cloth, to show the red underwear as a sign of defiance and to scare evil spirits away. The ritual uncovering —some women go as far as stripping themselves temporarily half naked— occurs most frequently at the two extremities of the settlement and is a way to menace the evil, to threaten the threatening (Perrot & van Dantzig 1994: 132). Red denotes both the evil that the women are trying to get rid of and the resolution with which they are prepared to oppose to it: the violence, associated with the colour, precipitates the crisis and leads to overcome of the liminal uncertainty of danger (Boni 2004).
40Out of the three principal chromatic polarities recognised by Hagan (1970), the one absent in the momome is black, associated primarily with (male-managed) ancestors and stools. The colours activated in the momome confirm the gender dimension of the ritual. While in pre-colonial momome the absence of the political and religious establishment could be justified with their involvement in warfare, the female monopoly persisted in twentieth-century rituals that no longer justify such exclusion. The persistent feminisation of the performance acquires a specific meaning that deserves to be explored.
41Community members do not have the capacity to invoke spiritual forces: friendly supernatural entities need to be revered, pleaded and obeyed through specific mediums. Chiefs and "fetish priests" ("akɔmiε") are thought to be in privileged contact with sources of supernatural support; their ritual activities are paced by a calendar which guarantees the ordinary shield from menacing supernatural interventions and a "safe", peaceful, stable environment (McCaskie 1980; Gilbert 1987, 1989; Boni 2004, 2007). The apparatus activated by these choreographs is strictly linked to the chiefly establishment both in terms of the locations of the rehearsal (palace, historical sites, graveyards, water sources, etc.) and of the symbols displayed (libations, exhibition of stools, drumming, chiefly gatherings, sacrifice of sheep, volleys of celebratory gunfire, chiefly movements in palanquins, ritual pilgrimages, etc.). There are, however, instances in which the ordinary protection proves ineffective; occasions in which danger approaches; times in which the cleansing exercises performed by the political-religious establishment prove incapable of delivering the valued stability, peace and security; moments in which the ideological apparatus is shaken. When severe threats appear, when a societal crisis occurs notwithstanding the prescribed ceremonies, a diverse source of remedy is sought.
42When the ordinary spiritual mediums fail, what is altered is not the supernatural forces from which assistance is sought but the actors and the instruments of the plea. The solution elaborated in the momome is orchestrated around a diverse ideological frame which—apparently—acts autonomously from male-dominated institutions. The ritual is held in the streets, it passes by locations associated with chiefs and known to be spiritually powerful without entering them. The performance lacks the atmosphere and the use of a recurrent set of ritual acts that characterise chieftaincy rituals while it activates a different array of devices. The symbolic tools are drawn from ordinary life, rooted in women’s experience: the purifying power of kaolin, medical herbs, songs and the removal of dirt are all charged with a metaphoric dimension in the feminisation of mystical dangers’ purification (Ebin 1989: 282). The transformative character of the momome is, at times, rendered manifest by the inversion of gender roles: women in some documented instances, dress and act as men, display mock or real arms, take temporary control of the settlement to voice female views publicly (Delafosse 1913; Eschlimann 1984; Perrot & van Dantzig 1994: 187). During the momome, the chieftaincy establishment voluntarily abandons the stage. It recognizes that the danger may not be addressed through the ordinary means of spiritual intervention and calls upon women and a different conception of the cleansing process. If the male-handled grandiose scenarios of chiefly rituals are thought to generate the spiritual shield, the community invokes the momome once such barriers have proved ineffective. The exclusion of men and of the chiefly establishment is, however, only apparent. Even though both chiefs and the "fetish priest" ("kɔmiε") play only marginal roles within the celebration, they have directed its rationale and occurrence.
- 22 Another notion often evoked when discussing the momome is that of bεkyi, that which is abhorred and (...)
43Wicked, harmful behaviour, and those committing it, are normally termed bɔne in Sefwi. The notion of mmusoe evokes something more than harm, Gyekye (1987: 133) defines it as an "extraordinary", "uncommon", "indelible" evil. Mmusoe gives the deviant conduct an intensified mystical and public dimension: it refers to acts from which the community should rigidly abstain because such deeds represent a threat to peace, stability and, more generally, to the established cultural order. This notion is central to understand the threatening forces countered by the momome and was explicitly mentioned by Sefwi women as the cause of the ritual. Amongst the Asante a ceremony strikingly similar to the one discussed here was termed mmusuyiedee, which can be literally translated as "what concerns the mmosuo"22.
44Mmusoe refers to diabolic, heinous human conduct that invites the wrath of supernatural powers causing disaster and calamity for the community (McCaskie 1995: 295). While the classification accepts regional, even village, variations some acts seem widely accepted as mmusoe: suicide, incest, certain sexual offences, witchcraft, swearing oaths as well as verbal abuse, stealing from and assaults against chiefs and their political and religious personnel (Rattray 1929: 28, 55, 290-315; Gyekye 1987: 133-134). The range of the offences is wide and dynamic, often associated to the agency of bonzam (often translated in English as "the Devil") and to the production of efieε (supernatural dirt). In the sense outlined above, the notion overlaps partially to the anthropological notion of "taboo". Mmusoe are deeds classified as negative by the community that are thought to bring ill fortune to a wider group than those directly involved in the "evil" act. The community—through the chiefly establishment—thus needs to control and minimise these acts through moral codes and judicial procedures for offenders.
45The construction of a taxonomy of evil is structured around two overlaps that organize Akan morality. First, an overlap is between menacing signs and their devastating fulfilment: the notion of mmusoe comprehends both the dangers of spiritual attacks (by ancestors, spirits, witchcraft) and the actual occurrence of misfortune (war, epidemics, disasters). There is a lack of lexical distinction and a consequent conceptual assimilation of what is classified as threatening, and the practical impact of devastating forces causing death and destruction. The implicit message is that society is based on the preservation of two interconnected orders: a tangible and spiritual one. Communities must guard themselves from both menaces as supernatural crises have immediate earthly repercussions. The preservation of good relations with friendly mystical forces and the capacity to halt harmful ones is indispensable for peaceful living. Morality is not just a question of relations between persons; it concerns the human connection to the spiritual world. Those who are recognised as able to interpret and decide what is a communal threat, are able to produce a conceptual association, expressed through the category of mmusoe, between presumed "evil" supernatural menaces and actual sufferings. The religious and the political institutions, have the recognised capacity to interpret the wishes of the "other" world and thus to properly and adequately connect the worldly domain to the spiritual forces by dictating norms of conduct and orchestrate the appropriate rituals. While women hold centre-stage in the momome, it is the religious-political structure that triggers off the ritual and that offers thanks-giving after its performance.
46During the colonial and post-colonial peace, the momome was no longer perceived as a necessary response to palpable threats: performances were no longer inevitable. Chiefs and "fetish priests" ("akɔmiε")—legitimate interpreters of the spiritual world on behalf of the community—have been recognised the authority to determine which signs require a ritual of purification, what are the mmusoe that merit a ritual cleansing. This shift between evident threats and menaces that required an elitist hermeneutic process, has had important consequences on the structuring of belief. The mobilisation of women in the momome has expressed the political establishment’s taxonomy of danger: participants not only need to accept and assimilate the classification of what evil is and what needs to be done to combat it, they are called upon to chase it away with their performance. Belief and ritual action diffuse the establishment’s classification of mmusoe as both tangible and spiritual.
47The second overlap is a consequence of the first. While the momome was previously aimed at preventing communal threats, it is increasingly used to valorise the king and its entourage. A menace to the chiefly establishment is presented not as the problem limited to the restructuring of the political elite but as a spiritual threat menacing the community as a whole. During the twentieth century momome were ordered upon the death and illness of the king and of his close associates. The body of the king and that of the kingdom are thus assimilated metaphorically and conceptually. The king’s illness is presented as a threat equivalent to a war or as an epidemic outbreak. Similarly, the attempt to oust the king is presented by his supporters not as a issue of personal rivalry amongst members of the royal matrilineage played out by the high ranks of the chieftaincy establishment, but as a potential communal disaster. Over the twentieth century, the ritual drama of the momome has insistently communicated that only the king’s persona guarantees order, protection, peace; any threat to his tenure is presented as a communal disaster.
48The arbitrary, cultural order that ritually reaffirms the identification of king and kingdom is conceptually stated and practically ritualised. The momome not only legitimates chieftaincy, it expresses the notion that it is up to every member of the community to make an effort to safeguard it, as its demise would be an inevitable cause of communal disaster. The vitality of society is associated with the absence of tangible dangers (war, epidemics), the lack of threatening spiritual signs (death of pregnant women, "unnatural" meteorological events) and the (re)establishment of unity under the encompassing persona of the king and his royal entourage.
49The momome has been one of various ceremonial options that have contended the capacity to regulate the cosmological equilibrium between stability and uncertainty, order and chaos, abundance and scarcity. The explicit ritual involvement of the chiefly establishment represents the ordinary, paced cleansing exercises. The persistent emergence of stress clearly implies a partial failure: perception indicates to Sefwi that evil and threats periodically menace the community notwithstanding the chiefly effort (Parker 2004: 401-402, 412). Alternative orchestrations have thus been activated especially when, with colonial rule, chiefs lost their monopoly over the management of mystical forces. The momome, Christianity and anti-witchcraft cults evoke cosmologies apparently autonomous from the ordinary enactment of chiefly ceremonial pomp. The gender and ritual specificity of the former and the "alien" origin of the latter two lead to conceive them as alternative means to address the cosmological and existential stresses which strike Akan communities. Christianity was of course seen as offering a cosmology which replaced the weapons used by what were termed "fetishes" in colonial discourse, which often included the whole, complex bundle of pre-Christian beliefs. Christianity, especially in the forms considered more respectable, was sustained by the colonial administrators, and after an initial suspicion, by chiefs as well. The momome—as we have seen—survived the twentieth century thanks to the indifference of colonial administrators and the incitement of the chiefly establishment, notwithstanding a fading of the original motives.
50The literature on anti-witchcraft cults in the first half of the twentieth century tells a different story. These cults provided a similar cosmological message to the one offered by the momome: one of harmony, stability and peace in a context of danger and evil, represented specifically by the perceived spread of witchcraft. These cults differ from the momome in some important aspects: the ceremonial activity is persistent while the momome has a volatile and temporary duration; the source of danger is sought within the community while the momome counters threats which are either not produced by human agency or, if human, by outsiders; anti-witchcraft practices include recourse to violence (to punish and neutralise the witches) alongside therapy while the momome activates the former only symbolically. These different attempts to solve society’s harms through the recourse of the supernatural have, however, a further element of difference: while the momome was, as shown, substantially inserted at wish within the choreographic messages proposed by the political establishment, anti-witchcraft cults maintained an autonomy and often disturbed the chiefly order (Olsen 2002; McCaskie 2004; Parker 2004). While various religious practices which were aimed at installing the belief in a safeguarded and harmonious supernatural environment were tolerated, anti-witchcraft cults—which proved more difficult to manipulate—underwent persecution and thus took the form of powerful but intermittent appearances. The momome—supported by the chiefs—lived a longer life, only to be gradually rendered redundant by the spread of church affiliation and by the growing lack of credibility of chiefly ideology.
51The compared recourse to supernatural healing since the late nineteenth century reveals the influence of the political establishment in containing, diffusing and manipulating cults. Colonial administration and chiefs were not the only but were crucial agencies in promoting the spread of convenient cosmologies. The analysis of religious practices which had a long life— such as the momome—and of those that were unable to flourish—such as anti-witchcraft cults—provide some insights on the extent to which our taxonomies, beliefs and associations are continuously shaped by institutional intervention. Some performances become visible, even predominant while others are no more—negated, repressed, vanished. The momome is a ceremonial unfolding that, in many respects, appears independent from the chiefly establishment. To view the momome as a ritual of inversion, as a moment of gender liberation, of successful autonomy from established predicaments is however a partial analysis. Social practices are continuously monitored and culture—as we experience it and as it is largely reproduced through disciplined subjects—is the result of a continuous process of selection—in some instances such as the ritual here examined—directed and managed to a large extent by political institutions. The pacing of the ritual, its motives and rationale show that ceremonial diversity may be tolerated, indeed encouraged, as long as it lends itself to be controlled and manipulated.
52Universitá di Modena e Reggio Emilia, Modena.
54Local terminology is in Sefwi. Even though there are a few publications in Sefwi, a dictionary or grammar have not yet been produced. Within Sefwi language there are local variations in expression and pronunciation; when literate Sefwi write their language, they often spell words differently. The spelling used here is therefore tentative and reflects the pronunciation:
55— e stands for an open e while ε for a close one.
56— o stands for an closed o while ɔ for an open one.