Ghana Life: Trees and Place Names

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Trees play a major part in Akan culture. They feature centrally in the famous anansesem or spider stories, and are associated with diverse spirits in the traditional fetish religion. Collectively, as the forest, they provide a home for those mischievous mythological midgets, the mmoatia, and the terrible monster, the sasabonsam. In modern times the forests have been felled at an alarming rate and many towns and villages are now surrounded by secondary bush, but the memory of the great trees lives on in the names the ancestors gave to the places where they chose to establish their homes.

The Ashantis even named their capital after a tree. According to legend the location of the capital was decided during the reign of Otumfuo Nana Obiri Yeboa in the late seventeenth century. The king is reputed to have asked his chief fetish priest where he should build his capital city. There were two suitable sites, so the king was advised to plant two okum trees (Bombax Buonopozense), one at each location. One okum tree died so they called that place Kumawu, the okum tree has died. The other okum tree thrived, so that was where they built the great city of Kumasi, the okum tree has stood. Nana Obiri Yeboa is said to have been Kumasihene (King of Kumasi) from about 1660 to 1680. The very next Kumasihene was the first to take the title Asantehene, King of Ashanti.

One of Ghana’a finest timbers has the Akan name odum (Chlorophora Excelsa). Known in the international timber trade by its Nigerian name, iroko, odum is a hard wood of exceptional strength and durability and a major export commodity. A number of towns and villages have taken the name Odumase, under the odum tree, and the name persists long after the odum trees have been felled and their timber exported. The same fate has befallen Pepiase, now devoid of its mahogany trees (opapea).

Many place names have been created by adding ‘ase,’ meaning ‘under,’ to the name of a tree. Thus one finds: Abease, under the oil palm (abe), Besease, under the bitter cola nut tree (bese), and Anyinawase, under the kapok tree (onyina). Oil palms and cola nut trees are still around to adorn the places that bear their name, and the residents of Anyinawase are lucky that as the wood of the kapok tree has no commercial value these mighty trees are left standing after the logging companies have moved on to virgin forests.

Even features of the forest have given rise to place names. The name of Wenchi in Brong-Ahafo Region is said to be derived from wan akyi, the light behind, as the founders walking in the forest saw a light ahead created by a clearing behind the trees in which they could start to build their town.

Many more examples could be given to illustrate the Ghanaian’s traditional affinity with trees. In an age in which men everywhere are relearning their veneration of the natural environment it is to be hoped that commercial logging will soon be reduced to sustainable levels. Then all the trees known to the ancestors will not only be preserved in place names but will stand again over the towns and villages to excite wonder in the children of the future.


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