INTRODUCING WE ARE AKAN TO EDUCATORS
Umbrellas of the Odwira festival in Kumasi
Welcome to educators who include the study of African cultures and history in their programs. Over many years I developed such units for elementary classrooms. My experience as a teacher led me to write We Are Akan because I found little fiction or non-fiction for young readers and few illustrations of African cultures of any historical period. The exception is the trove of folk tales about Ananse the spider from the Akan people of Ghana. These stories remain a rich resource.
We Are Akan is organized in three parts with a total of fifty short chapters. In the ‘About the Book’ section of this website, each part is described and its illustrations posted and available to download and reproduce in limited quantities. The book includes two maps and over ninety illustrations.
In folders at the conclusion of this introduction, you’ll find a series of chapter overviews that include chapter summaries, general vocabulary, listings of individuals and Twi words introduced, and discussion questions for a broad age range. Below I offer suggestions of introductory material and follow-up activities. I hope you’ll find this information helpful. I wish you success and would welcome learning about your experience.
classroom units on African cultures and history
Assess your audience. Learn what your students already know about Africa. Identify questions about Africa that students want to answer. You may be fortunate to find students who are well informed and, if so, invite their contributions and adjust your program accordingly. With your students, define the goals and activities for your unit on Africa.
Underscore that African-Americans are descendants of Africans who have come to the United States as both slaves and free people from 1619 to the present. As a class learns about Africa, students may be able to identify the ancestral peoples of African-Americans.
You may find resources in your community including Africans, other individuals who have visited Africa, and groups that play African music, perform African dances, or give other relevant performances. Invite them to share their knowledge or performance, no matter what part of Africa they represent. They’ll give your students an introduction and will answer questions.
Look for publicly available resources such as films, recordings of African music or ceremonies, online sources, and the offerings of the National Museum of African-American Culture and History. Pull from all of these sources.
We Are Akan in the classroom
Depending on the grade level of a classroom, We Are Akan may be used as a reference or a text. The book is long. Assigned reading may be limited to a few chapters with options for more extensive reading and follow-up activities.
The themes of We Are Akan are accessible to all readers. They include life in the rainforest, family and clan organization, the practice of showing respect, cooperation, and mutual care within a community, and the veneration of ancestors. The role of community activities including storytelling, rituals, parades, and dances is portrayed. In a culture without schools, adults teach their way of life to children by modeling and calling upon ancestors and deities to confirm their values. This will be evident.
Akan culture included slavery. The recruitment of domestic slaves, work assigned to them, their connection to Akan families, and the fate of their descendants are topics explored. The Asante Kingdom played a major role in supplying prisoners to the Atlantic slave trade. The origin of the prisoners, their trek to the Atlantic coast and sale to slave traders, and the role of the slave trade in the economy of the Asante Kingdom are depicted.
Above all, the story describes basic features of the Akan culture in 1807. I hope that readers will identify them, explore them in follow-up activities, and compare them to features of other cultures.
Younger students always enjoy the challenge of carrying something on their head and it’s good to identify possible head loads in advance. With help from parents, teachers might have baskets available to fill with light, unbreakable items such as erasers, cloth, empty milk or egg cartons, small cardboard boxes, etc. The popular Bolgatanga baskets from northern Ghana are perfect containers for head loads. Other baskets work well also.
In We Are Akan most people wear a cloth wrapped around their body at the waist or across the chest and often with one end tossed over the left shoulder. Students should wear a cloth to see its impact on physical activity, especially walking and carrying a head load. It may be practical for only a few students per day to wear a cloth, which may be worn over regular clothing. Twin or cot flat bed sheets make excellent cloths. Demonstrations of wrapping a cloth may be found online.
Readers will enjoy identifying the weekday of their birth and their Akan day name. After reading the chapter about Arabic writing, some will be interested in writing their name in Arabic letters which may be found online.
You may be fortunate to identify someone who will share a kente strip, shawl, or cloth with the class. Students will appreciate the fine weaving. We Are Akan gives many examples of the role of kente cloth in Akan life of 1807. Students might explore this role in modern Ghana as well as Americans current use of kente cloth.
You may find individuals who can share other Akan items for discussion and prompts for art projects. These include gold weights, brass lamps or other decorative items, baskets, adinkra cloth, beads, dolls, and pottery. Interesting items from northern Ghana include robes with hoods, a man’s shirt called a fugu or smock, and Bolgatanga baskets.
Readers will enjoy group dancing to Akan music. You may find someone who is willing to teach your students. You and your students may also find videos of dances online and use them to learn one or more dances.
Students can learn the game of Ampe. Someone in your community may know the game and be willing to teach your class. You may also find videos online and learn from them. Ampe is a challenging game and learning it can be both a workout and great fun.
Sharing an Akan meal of peanut soup and fufu will be of interest. Most readers will like soup flavored with peanut paste. Avoid American peanut butter which includes sugar. Recipes for and demonstrations of making peanut soup are online.
Fufu is difficult to prepare with a mortar and pestle but there are methods to prepare fufu in a modern kitchen and demonstrated online. Bread may be substituted for fufu. Many cookbooks with recipes for African dishes are available.
If you can find banana tree leaves, use them as fans or portions of them as plates. They're biodegradable!
Students might construct an Akan village including a chief’s palace and one or two other family compounds, a marketplace, and fields of crops. More illustrations of Akan buildings are available online.
Writing activities may include writing dialogs, diaries, or plays featuring individuals in the story or a student interacting with one or more of these individuals. Students may incorporate Twi in their dialogs using the Twi vocabulary listed in the glossary as well as the recordings of Twi words and the Twi conversation posted on this website. Students might illustrate a writing with a collage of found photos, a model or diorama of a building or village, or drawings, possibly based on illustrations in We Are Akan.
For art activities students might use crayons, pens, modeling or fimo clay, a sponge and paint, computer based drawing programs, etc. to create representations of Akan crafts. Some kente and adinkra designs portray proverbs and are an expression of cultural values that may be identified and discussed. Many illustrations of Akan art are available online.
Older students may want to investigate why horses and cattle could not live in the rainforest and speculate about how this influenced Akan life. The role of endemic malaria among people living in the rainforest also bears investigation. What was the impact on the Akan and the caucasians living in the trading depots on the Atlantic coast? Did Europeans introduce diseases to the Akan?
Exploring the organization of the Asante Kingdom might include investigating taxation and census taking, recruitment to the army, the building of great-roads from the capital to all parts of the kingdom, the many roles that domestic slaves occupied, and the relevance of the Odwira festival. How was the kingdom governed by the king, his council, and the regional and local district chiefs? How did the Asante Kingdom govern the savannah kingdoms to its north?
Pursuing the role of long distance trade in the Asante Kingdom and West Africa in general will reveal its historical importance. How did these connections influence West African cultures? What was the role of West African peoples as both prisoners and traders in the Atlantic slave trade? How did long distance trade influence the colonization of Africa by European nations?
Students might explore the ways in which literacy, beyond the use of Arabic, was introduced to the Akan. How and when did Twi become a written language as seen in the written version of the Twi conversation included on this website? Many African languages are spoken in Ghana. Why is English now the nation's official language?
With knowledge of African history, students will be ready to learn about modern Africa.