Asantes are a storied group of people. And they are great at telling it: it’s in their blood, in the swaggering braggadocio of their talk. It’s in the majesty of their king’s throne.
From the Anglo-Ashanti Wars to the mighty decent of the Sika Dwa Kofi (the Golden Stool) from the sky, Asante history has been extensively advanced in Ghana’s educational system, from the elementary level through to Senior high and in academia. Asante history, arguably, has more histographies by British authors than any ethnic group in Africa.
But if the influence of one of the oldest media, the written word, to promote Asante history was easy to miss, the ripple of admiration for kingdom’s culture that was set off by live television and radio coverage of the Doteyie (Burial Rites) of the late Queen Mother of the kingdom, Nana Afia Serwaa Kobi Ampem- who died in 2016 at the age of 111 – must have opened Manhyia’s mind to what happens when culture and the 21st century old and new media converge.
For the better part of four days, millions of Ghanaians watched on as the might and splendour of the kingdom were displayed. It is not clear the extent of Manhyia Palace’s involvement in this rare, elaborate promotion of the kingdom. But what was unmistakable was the impeccably choreographed parade of music, drumming, custom, rituals and kingship. With dedicated live telecast and studio discussions by dozens of television and radio stations, experts on Ashanti culture walked viewers through even the minutest detail: from the hierarchy of the kingdom to a bow.
The late matriarch’s burial rites was a history class for people outside the Asante tribe, and for native Asantes whose knowledge of the kingdom hitherto hinged on narrow narratives from history books and BBC documentaries. Beamed to millions of Ghanaians home and in the diaspora, it was arguably the grandest public enactment of Asante history and culture, generating tidal waves of emotion and admiration for kingdom, and for as long as the event lasted, its people.
The most recent reference to such grand promotion of a Kingdom was six years ago, in 2011, when tens of millions of people worldwide, roughly 24 million people in the United Kingdom alone, watched on television and via internet streaming, the wedding ceremony of Kate Middleton and second in line to the British throne, Prince William, at Westminster Abbey in London. Merrier than the occasion in Kumase, it was a testament to how the media can be utilised to entrench an old institution like the British Monarchy.
In fact, no Empire or Kingdom in the history of this world has expertly exploited the media for its advancement than the British Empire. At the heart of this self-serving promotion has been The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), which has been at the centre of the most important events in British History since its creation in 1922. But perhaps, the biggest advertisement of the British Empire came in 1953 when the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II was broadcast to an estimated 300 million viewers worldwide by the BBC television.
In his book, The BBC and National Identity in Britain, Thomas Hajkowski (2010) described in meticulous detail the BBC’s role in forging a sense of national identity through the promotion of the monarchy and the empire. Hajkowski writes that the BBC achieved this through deliberate programming that sought to express and reinforce British national identity by ‘praising imperial values and telling imperial tales’. By the 1920s, according to Hajkowski, the BBC had made it a policy to use radio to promote the empire to British listeners. Partnering with the Empire Marketing Board, the network first launched a major series of talks on India, a British colony in 1929. This was followed by two major series of evening talks on Africa: of Empire Service programmes such as Africa: The Dark Continent (1930) and Life Among the Natives Tribes (1932). From 1936, the BBC broadcast two monthly talk series, Empire at Work and From the Four Corners, and a weekly series for discussing groups, The British Commonwealth and Colonial Empire.
Hugh Chignell (2011) adds that a programme like the eight part serialisation of the Four Feathers served to portray imperialists’ values of heroism, courage and perseverance while another, In It Together, praised the part played Commonwealth troops in the Second World War. In empire-era films such as the Royal Cavalcade (1935), made in commemoration and celebration of the jubilee of King George v, the British Film Industry also elected itself alongside the BBC as a marketer of the monarchy and British Identity.
An editorial eulogy of George V in the January 25, 1936 issue of Film Weekly extoled the king’s relationship with the media at that time, articulating that it was under the monarch that the British Film Industry had developed, thus, it was through the film industry that George V has become so immediately recognisable to all his subjects. In this way, the editorial emphasised, the British film industry has both helped and been helped by the monarchy.
Criticism of its thin regard for cinematic art and quality remain as boisterous as ever yet it has the most recognisable actors in Ghana, and upstages the English-dominated films both in reach and in sales.
The turn of the Millennium has seen dozen of feature films and television drama series produced by the BBC and independent filmmakers about the English and British monarchies. Productions such as The Crown (2016), Victoria (2016Tudors (2007) The Other Boleyn Girl (2008) The King’s Speech (2010), The Young Victoria (2009), The Queen (2006), have served to thrust from the peripheral, English and British monarchs, and their history into the centre of worldwide popular culture.
In contrast, the Asante Kingdom stays largely confined to fat history books and tedious documentaries, two-thirds of which were produced and financed by Europeans and European institutions, including the BBC. Thus even when its story is narrated, the Kingdom is more often than not, not in charge of the narrative.
The solution to this error lies very close to home.
In little video shops that line the interconnected streets of Kumase, and on giant film posters that wall the city’s beautiful buildings, Kumawood stands as Ghana’s biggest film industry and the perfect cultural vehicle the Asante Kingdom needs in promoting and entrenching its history to a larger global audience.
Kumase is the capital of Asante Kingdom. A city still clung to its traditions. It is no coincidence that Ghana’s film industry resurgence, after prolonged years of grappling with the influx and domination of films from Nigeria was birthed there. At its production peak, Kumawood churns out at least 10 low-budget films in a month. Helped by little production cost, films are made, edited and marketed in a matter of days.
Criticism of its thin regard for cinematic art and quality remain as boisterous as ever – plots are often hollow and scattered and dialogues seem more improvised than scripted- yet it has the most recognisable actors in Ghana, and upstages the English-dominated films both in reach and in sales.
Twi, spoken by more than 7 million ethnic Akans as first or second language and by arguably 70% of the Ghana’s population, has been the driving force behind this thriving film industry of cottage film companies. Through authentic stories that humanises Ghanaian life, Kumawood has stood alone, for the past decade, as Ghana’s biggest culture vehicle at home and in the diaspora; a gigantic, bellowing machine which if expertly steered would set into motion Asante’s culture and historical renaissance in popular culture.
Relevant structures however have to be laid for that to happen. First, Manhyia must create an institution to oversee the production of films that specifically promotes the Kingdom, its monarchy and people. Investment must be made in state-of-the-art film equipment and studios. There must also be a blueprint to assemble and train the best cinematographers, Asante history experts, scriptwriters and film crew. More importantly, the Kingdom must be willing to back film projects with funding.
Manhyia has money to do that. It spends millions of cedis every year to keep its football club, Kumasi Asante Kotoko in the Ghana Premier League. No entity embodies the spirit and identity of the Asante Kingdom better than the 24 times champions of Ghana.
But with actors and filmmakers immensely loyal to the kingdom, Kumawood may prove to be Asante’s most distinguished and powerful champion, yet.
Reggie Kyere is a writer and film enthusiasts. He is with the African Film Society, organizers of Classics In The Park (a monthly open air free movie screening event). Follow him on twitter @reggiekyere