In honor of the 50 Women Of Yaa Asantewaa campaign, we thought it appropriate to share the story behind Yaa Asantewaa for those who don’t know who she is nor why the campaign is named after her.
Nana Yaa Asantewaa is a beacon of feminist glory in semi-recent history due to her courage and fearlessness in the face of adversity. She was born into an aristocratic family circa 1840 in a small town called Besase, in southern Ghana and was the first of two children born to her parents. Her younger brother, Afrane Panin, eventually became the chief of a nearby people. Her place of birth was a part of the then Ashanti Empire which had existed for over 300 years. The empire itself was a force to be reckoned with as it boasted immense riches and military expertise among other things.
Around the time of Yaa Asantewaa’s birth, the Ashanti people had already been knee-deep into a series of wars against Britain and its colonial force. War had been formally declared between the British and the Ashanti empire in 1823 which was a little ways before her birth, however the fact remains that the threat of losing her culture’s identity to that of the colonizers was quite overwhelming in her early life and beyond.
It is worth noting that in her early life, during the times of moderate peace and passive cooperation with the British, Yaa Asantewaa did what was traditional of women to do. She did farm’s work before eventually getting married and bearing offspring. However, seeing as the Ashanti were a people that followed a matriarchal order, it was not uncommon for women to be active in regional politics much like Yaa was in her middle age.
Moving this brief history forward, when her brother Afrane became the Edwesuhene (i.e chief of the Edwesu), he appointed Yaa as the Queen Mother. So, power and authority were nothing new to her. When Afrane passed away, she used her authority to nominate her grandson for the role of Edwesuhene.
In 1895, a seriously detrimental Anglo-Ashanti war happened as the British proved relentless in their pursuit of the region as part of their territory for several lucrative reasons, and this time, the Ashanti lost which resulted in the Asantehene (i.e King of the Ashanti people) and his lesser chiefs and top elders being exiled, leaving the people vulnerable. These chiefs included Yaa’s grandson, leaving Yaa herself to rule as regent over the Edwesu in his stead as the British did allow others to step up to rule the Ashanti despite banishing the leading tribesmen. She did not shy away from this.
Now, it is a well known fact that a symbol of great importance and power to the Ashanti people for imperial and religious reasons is the Golden Stool of Ashanti, and it had a great bearing in cementing Yaa’s story in history.
In the year 1900, a British representative sent to Ghana declared ostentatiously that he was well within right to grace the stool, something that not even the wealthiest or most prominent of the Ashanti people who understood its importance would dream of doing. Undoubtedly so, this did not sit right with the Ashanti who took great offence and insult at the representative’s presumptuousness. Those who had stepped up to rule in the absence of the Asantehene and his elders gathered to critically think about a response to this, and at this meeting, our feminist heroine was present.
As a matter of fact, she gave a speech that beckoned her fellow men and women alike to action, to fight for their values and for the return of their chiefs. And she herself was chosen to lead the war effort. This is phenomenal because in as much as women did take part in the day to day politics of their regions, war and physical conflict were solely a man’s areas of play. More so than this, she was well beyond the prime of her years, aging gracefully and nearing her 70s, but with all the valor and courage she could muster, she took this role on like a true leader.
This was not the only way in which this army was unusual. It may have been led by a woman, but it was also MADE UP of women initially, all of them armed and ready to bring their men back. They held their own for roughly a year before they unfortunately lost. What matters though, is the lengths that these women were willing to go to to protect their own and preserve their culture. This war was the last of many against the British and although it ended with Yaa being exiled to Seychelles where she eventually passed away presumably over the age of 80 years old, it is still a story that every woman who seeks to be the difference and make a change, whether Ghanaian or not, must remember. We can do great things, unthinkable things even, if we put our minds to it.
Though she did not live to see her people freed from the clutches of the colonial era, Yaa Asantewaa did what many people have always been afraid to do. She stood up for herself and for her people, forging a way in times of murky waters, – and she almost saw it through. She died knowing that she did everything she could for her people.
So, why did we need to know her history? Seeing as today, the 4th of August is Founders Day in Ghana, we thought it appropriate to release our annual 50 Women of Yaa Asantewaa campaign. The purpose of this campaign is to honor women who within their own respective industries and professions have been making headlines and trailblazing a path for those after them to follow. Generally, we live in a male dominated world, however, the impact of COVID-19 has made it that much more harder for many to earn a living and even survive. These women have defied the odds that have been painstakingly stacked against them and have continued to let their light shine regardless of having responsibilities at home. Many are wives and mothers. Others are young adults and students. One thing they all have in common is determination.
Today, we give them flowers.
Today, we put a spotlight on these queens.
Today, we honor this year’s 50 Women Of Yaa Asantewaa.