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Carving for the King: Art and Peace Bond in Ghana

By Catherine Ryan

Nana Frimpong is the chief carver for Otumfou, the powerful King of the Ashanti, also known as "The King of the Golden Stool."  I've seen pictures of Otumfou seated on Nana’s carvings on postcards all over town, and I’m curious to meet the man who makes such royal objects.

Nana is a very affable man with a broad smile and easy manner.

Though he has traveled far and long to meet me here today, he is gracious and, in his own way, regal. I am duly impressed by his chief carver status, but want to know how one went about becoming chief carver for the king of an African nation.

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"In the old days, there was a war between the Ashanti and the Denkyira," Nana told us. "Sixteen generations ago, when my Denkyira ancestors surrendered to the Ashanti, our leader collected plantain leaves to signify that he wanted to sit down at the table with the Ashanti king and make peace."

According to legend, peace was made, and the king gave the Denkyira tasks instead of killing them. "My family, a family of very good carvers, was ordered to carve for the king. This was their punishment, instead of being hung. We gladly accepted our task," Nana said.

Over time, it became an honor to carve for the king. "No longer was it a punishment," Nana explained. "Now we actually form part of the decision makers of the kingdom."

Nana carves the king's ceremonial sitting stools. The king has presented Nana's stools as gifts to the President of Nigeria and even to Pope John Paul II, Nana told us with pride, adding, "And I carve with great care, for my king is not a small king."

Nana invites me to visit his village, but there isn't time before my mandatory departure. I can't believe it!

This would be the ultimate adventure, but it will have to wait until another time. For various reasons, I'm on an unusually inflexible schedule this particular trip. Nana made that reality even more difficult by throwing in an enormous lure -- promising to help arrange a meeting with the king for whom he carves! I assure Nana that I will be back soon to accept such a tremendous opportunity. It's killing me that I can't drop everything and go!

The next evening, as I waited for my departing flight to Zimbabawe, my new Ghanaian friends and I dashed across the street to the outdoor Aerostar Restaurant.

We pushed several tables together, ordered pineapple juice all around, foofoo, and vegetable dishes, and then collapsed into our chairs.

Eddie entertained me with stories about the origin of the Ashanti King's Golden Stool. He said a powerful priest conjured the stool in 1844.

"That was when the Ashanti Kingdom was in turmoil and on the verge of collapse," he said.

The priest, Okomfo Anokye (the king's advisor and protector), used a human head, nails, and voodoo to conjure up the Golden Stool.

"Thereafter," Eddie explained, "it has been believed in Ashanti culture that the loss of The Golden Stool would signify the complete disintegration of the Ashanti Kingdom."

He told me about some British explorers who attempted to steal The Golden Stool. "The King switched the real stool with a fake," Eddie concluded, "But we still fear the day it might be taken away."

The mood at the table turned sober. I looked at my watch. It was time to run -- fast -- to catch my plane.

My new friends saw me off as far as the guarded terminal doors. It had been a whirlwind visit, but it felt like I was being torn away from family.

I jogged up the stairs and through customs, my heart suddenly pounding as I hurried to make the final boarding call. Suddenly I found myself disoriented, lost amidst a gaggle of people unexpectedly crowding about and sleeping all over the floor.

A man grabbed my arm, spinning me around to face him.

"We've been here for three days," the stranger said, still holding my arm. "We can't get to our country. What should we do?"

He looked at me and shook his head sadly. "The fighting won't stop. I suppose there's nothing that can be done."

That incident served as a reminder that although my trip had been smooth so far, all was not well in many parts of Africa. Ghana is relatively calm at the moment, but it, too, maintains its share of serious economic, political, and human rights issues. I was sorry the passengers were stranded in the airport, but at least they were in a safe spot. They had food and shelter - and they enjoyed the privilege of travel, which put them in a much better position than most of their countrymen, whoever they may be.

As I climbed the stairs into the waiting plane, I wondered what I could do. I determined yet again to be more appreciative of all good things -- including peace.

Soon, this silver bird will whisk me away to Zimbabwe, a country deeply mired in economic and political chaos -- perhaps even poised on the brink of civil war. I do not know if their kings have such things as Golden Stools, or if they have royal carvers. But I do know that the Ghanaian Ashanti king is honored to have a dedicated artisan like Nana Frimpong working to insure the future of his kingdom.

 

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