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About Asafo company flags (Fante people, Ghana)

Last modified: 2017-09-04 by ian macdonald
Keywords: fante | asafo | scouts |
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What are Asafo flags?

A typical Asafo flag has a wide border (usually not including the canton), a naive scene in the field and the national flag in the canton.
António Martins, 31 May 2005

They are essentially tribal flags/ military colors from colonial times to the present. The Union Jack in canton is borrowed from their then colonial masters, the British.
James Ferrigan, 10 August 1998

The best way to characterize these flags is in my opinion “occasional vexillology”, meaning that flags were made and used for every occasion. As such there is not much difference with the flag-use in the Netherlands and Belgium. What is different is that flag-making in Ghana is closely related to youth-companies and also with uses in the past, which may not survive long. I have understood that there are hundreds of them around, and a lot are lost for ever by wear and tear.
Jarig Bakker, 04 January 2000 and 31 December 1999

Even though the Akan societies, had no standing army, the asafoi.e., a people’s militia — was a well established social and political organization based on martial principles. Every able-bodied person belonged to an asafo group; every child automatically belonged to his or her father’s company. Internal sub-divisions within an individual company included the main fighting body, the scouts, reserves, and the minstrel unit whose main job it was to sing patriotic and war songs to boost the morale of the military.

The Asafo companies forming the national army were organized into main fighting divisions thus: adonten (vanguard — main body under the adontenhene), twafo (advance guard), kyidom (rearguard — under the kyidomhene), nifa (right wing under the nifahene), benkum (left wing under the benkumhene), akwansra (scouting division), ankobea (home guard under the ankobeahene), and gyaase (the king’s bodyguard under the gyaasehene).

Asafo companies were also differentiated by the different colors of headgear and hairstyles worn by members, exclusive drums, horns and other musical instruments, appellations, and emblems. Other units within the main divisions included afonasoafoo (the carriers of spears and shields), sumankwaafoo (the herbalists and medicine men), and the asokwafo (heralds). Asafo companies existed in all the Akan states.

In Asante, the national asafo was commanded by the Asantehene, but two generals, the kurontire and akwamu, were the military leaders. The Fantse went a step further by incorporating some European customs in their Asafo companies.

The typical Asafo company in a Fantse township, according to Aggrey (1978), was headed by the Tufohene, the military advisor to the chief of the township. Next in line is the Asafobaatan. Supi was the commanding officer, while the divisional captain within a company was called the Safohene (for the male) or Asafoakyere (for the female). Other ranks in the Asafo were the Asafokomfo (the priest), okyerema — head of the akyeremafo (the drummers), frankaakitani (flag bearer), sekanboni (sword maker), okyeame (spokesperson or linguist), and abrafoo (police officers) and adumfoo (executioners).

Datta (1972) distinguishes between formal and informal offices, the former being characterized by a specific ritual with which the assumption of the office was marked. Among these offices are the tufohene, asafobaatan, supi, safohene, frankaakitani, sekanboni, and okyeame. These office-holders take the appropriate oath on the assumption of office at formally organized ceremonies.

The Akan Asafo scouting system is what Baden Powell is believed to have used as the model for the Scout Movement (Tufuo and Donkor, 1989).

Military titles of honor that were conferred on individuals for their heroism and bravery included osabarima, baafoo, osahene, katakyie, oberempon, osagyefo, and ogyeatuo. The akyem (shield) symbol depicts heroic deeds and bravery. Such heroic deeds were treasured long after the death of the hero as implied in the following maxim: ekyem tete a, eka ne meramu (When a shield wears out, the framework still remains).

The prestigious title of oberempon was conferred on individuals who not only rendered public service, but also on those who excelled in military service. In Asante, chiefs who earned the oberempon title were allowed to carry sika mena (gilded elephant tails). The highly prestigious title of oberempon was seldom conferred for other than valor, but later it became one with which distinguished service to the state might be rewarded. Hence the expression: obarima woye no dom ano, na wonye no fie, meaning a man is made facing the enemy on the battlefield, not in the home — not lording it over women.

This posuban (military post) is to be found in Mankessim, Central Region, Ghana. Other Fantse towns have the posuban.

Even though the asafo, in the past had as its primary role the defence of the state, it did perform other social services. In the present times, the social services performed by the asafo include serving as a search party when one is lost or when one drowns in a river, public sanitation, maintain public trails, foot paths and bridges. The asafo companies also engage in competitions during festivals.

Every able-bodied person was expected to serve a military duty when called to action. Each township will have at least one asafo company. One’s membership in an asafo company was determined by one’s father’s lineage (ntoro — among the Asante or egyabosom — among the Fantse).

While among the Asante, women did not usually go to the war front, the Fantse had women who were war captains. The rare case of Yaa Asantewa of Edweso who led the Asante army against the British in the Yaa Asantewaa War of 1900, is well chronicled.

Asafo flags are popular among the Fantse of the coastal area. The flag is a cloth of solid color that is about three feet by five feet in dimensions. The symbols on the flag are appliquéed and occasionally embroidered.

Jarig Bakker, 04 January 2000, quoting from Akan art page at Marshall University

Most flags of of the Asafo-companies can easily be handled by a flag-dancer (Frankaatunyi or Frankaakitsanyi) during a festival or a ceremony with a spectacular dance-performance. Very few flags are so big that they have to be escorted by many men, or to be presented at a company-post (Aban or Posuban).
Jarig Bakker, 04 January 2000, quoting [gru95]

The flags of the Fante-people from Ghana are very special regarding their history and appearance. They form the only example of figurative art on a flat level, that is well known in all Africa, apart from modern African art. More known are the statues and objects, which are figurative of nature, and flat wall- and floor-carpets, which show abstract-decorative patterns; but the Fante flags cannot be compared to anything.

That this people has developed this form of expression may be due to European influence, dating from about three centuries ago. Unusual in the Fante is their tendency to assimilation, in adopting new elements, which signify an enrichment of their culture. Much more than their neighbours, or whichever other African people they have been in regular contact with Europeans — especially the English and Dutch left their traces, as can be seen in the Fante flags.

Remarkable to the social structure of the Fante is the organisation of their warriors who are called asafos. These were arranged in companies. Each company designed its own flag, which was to express its own power and might and, quite often, the inferiority of the adversary. At special occasions like feasts and funerals the flags were showed and special dances were executed with it. These exhibitions could result in little wars when a depicted prank on a flag caused offense to another party. A competitor could be depicted as a pack of vultures or as a shoal of fish, eating its fill, only to be eaten by the crocodile — the flag’s company. Apart from this rivalry proverbs from everyday life could be depicted.

The oldest kept specimens date from the second half of the 19th century, but even today these flags are being made. There are, however, restrictions for replacement of old by new flags. Each new flag has to be approved by the highest authority within the hierarchy and subsequently has to be inaugurated in a special ritual. Flags dating from the time after the English left Ghana in 1956 don’t have the UJ in the cantons, like the flags from before 1956, but the own national flag. For determining the age of the flags there are some rude criteria, but exact dating is nearly impossible. The quantity of flags of an early date is limited. The flags have been “discovered” a long time ago and were described in literature. Several collectors started to collect them some ten years ago. Nevertheless the flags have led a rather obscure existence. Only now the value is duly appreciated.

The images are striking by their simple, powerful forms; its composition points at a preference for asymmetry, which has a dynamic effect.
Jarig Bakker
, 22 May 1999, quoting from Apunto site.

The Fante state was adjacent to the sea, and in the Asafo-system the position of Pofohen was quite important, as he had to decide about anything about the catching of fish. As a rule he was the best fisher, and one of the poorest people, because the catch belonged to the whole Company. At the same time he was captain of an Asafo-company, so one shouldn’t be too worried about his well-being. Fishes are a metaphore for enemies, which can be defeated without any trouble. Accordingly flags like this were considered to be extremely insulting, and showing them often led to bloody battles.
Jarig Bakker, 30 May 2005

For those interested in these Fante Asafo flags, the book Asafo — Fahnen aus Ghana [gru95], by E.G. Gruese (1995), has been remaindered.
Mark Sensen, 22 May 1999

See also ASAFO!, African Flags of the Fante [adb92], by Peter Adler & Nicholas Barnard (1992).
James Ferrigan, 10 August 1998

Apparently Asafo companies are numbered (within the same… what? Clan, tribe, village, neighbourhood?) — we know flags with "Nº1" (crowned rooster, Taysec, three gong-gongs etc.), "Nº2" (dragon), and "Nº3" (shark).
António Martins, 03 June 2004

A museum in Washington DC (US) is going to have a performance by Fante flag dancers, and «more than a dozen colorful appliqued Asafo flags» will be on exhibit. See the Textile Museum website.
Roger Moyer, 15 July 2001

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