The Attitude Lounge: Yaa Asantewaa and our Democracy

Kodwo Brumpon

The needle’s end has a hole in it, but it sews other people’s holes.” – Akan proverb

Yaa Asantewaa is probably the most inspirational woman in our modern history. Martyred some 97 years ago, her name remains a rallying cry for freedom among the pan-Africanists. But how well have we understood the late queen mother of Ejisu, and how have we strived to imitate her courage as a nation? Even though we barely mention her when discussing politics, her influence on our nation’s independence and liberation of the African continent can only be compared to political icons like Patrice Lumumba, Ahmed Sékou Touré, or Julius Kambarage Nyerere.

Perhaps Kwame Nkrumah was closest to understanding Yaa Asantewaa when he chose the central concern of the late queen mother of Ejisu – freedom and justice – as our nation’s motto at independence in 1957. Apart from him, not many among us have ever been mesmerised by her famous tongue-lashing of the federation of chiefs who were considering surrendering to the British following the capture and exiling of the Asante king, Prempeh 1.

Appalled by the timidity of the leaders of her society, she spat her opinion of them like the disgorging of phlegm stuck in a throat. “Now I have seen that some of you fear to go forward to fight for our king. If it were in the brave days of Osei Tutu, Okomfo Anokye and Opoku Ware, leaders would not sit down to see their king taken away without firing a shot. No white man could have dared to speak to a leader of the Ashanti in the way the Governor spoke to you this morning. Is it true that the bravery of the Ashanti is no more? I cannot believe it. It cannot be! I must say this; if you the men of Ashanti will not go forward, then we will. We the women will. I shall call upon my fellow women. We will fight the white men. We will fight till the last of us falls in the battlefield.

At the heart of Yaa Asantewaa’s tongue-lashing was the notion that “a people are only as free as they desire to be”. She understood freedom to be the determinant of a people’s attitude; one which they must confront to achieve it. It should be an attitude that challenges them to understand their essence and their presence in time, pushing them to overcome all barriers and therefore free themselves.

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As an individual, she could not bear to lose herself as a hypocrite, kow-towing to an authority whose only aspiration was to exploit. And as long as she was aware of herself and could marvel at her being, there was no way she was going subject herself to an authority that had no business being an authority in the first place – much less dictating how she could or could not live. She could not bear the humiliation of her culture.

It has been almost a century after Yaa Asantewaa, and our society is blighted by a disgrace that would have made her weep. We are not free, and we do not have justice. And it is simply because the majority among us, especially the educated elite, have draped ourselves with a cowardice similar to that of the chiefs in Yaa Asantewaa’s time. Many of us have avoided politics like the plague because we are prejudiced by the lure of individualism and competition – to the point where we selfishly learn to put ourselves first. And we excuse our appalling attitude by saying, ‘we have lost faith in our leaders.’

Maybe we do not understand the folly of our apathy, but truthfully it is only a revelation of the hopelessness that drives our dreams. It is like telling the world we see ourselves as useless masses of energy just waiting to be extinguished from this physical life. That is why it is not strange many of us have taken to delighting ourselves with the acquisitions of materialism. We are more interested in our next ‘buy’ than we are in the development of systems and policies which would ensure our average lifespan improves.

Openly, we have surrendered our freedom to the dictatorship of delights and are losing out on justice to our apathy, our laissez-faire, our unimaginativeness and our attitudes of ineptitude. We have situated our society in a queer mess – and it is the result of all our actions, all of us. Suffice to say, we are stuck in the vile mess we have made of the Korle Lagoon.

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Sadly, instead of transforming ourselves, we have taken to the intense public veneration of foreign heroes to demonstrate we are hungry for a more compassionate and principled form of leadership. Yaa Asantewaa was so right. We have sat down for demagogues and propagandists to take over our democracy. The result is that they have weakened the ‘by the people’ process by turning us ‘the people’ against each other. Now we cannot criticise without criticising ourselves for allowing them to get nothing done.

It is time to see the world through the eyes of Yaa Asantewaa – in the context that without a free society the goodies we are clamouring for will taste like ash on our tongues. We need to demand results from ourselves and from our leaders. As long as we relentlessly demand inventiveness and ingenuity in our everyday interactions, we can be assured that we will make a difference.

We have to stop accepting people and things at face-value. And we do not have to go along with mediocrity, for we can think through issues to understand what the results will be like. That is the essence of our education; to use it for the greater good of all humanity and not to enrich ourselves in a selfish manner.

To those who have assumed that things will work out fine if we let them be, you need to understand nothing is working because you have decided not to do anything. You are a causal force, but what is your use if you will not cause anything to happen? It is your apathy that brings about the casualties you hear on the news. And it is your unimaginativeness that is allowing special interests to ruin our economy and bleed our nation. And if you care to know, the great queen mother of Ejisu, Yaa Asantewaa, is looking at you with a scorn. She detests and despises your cowardice…


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