Chiefs and Umbrellas in Ghana

The Chief is the main figurehead and representative of a community in Ghana. He belongs to the royal family of a particular place whose ancestors originally settled on that piece of land.

How someone becomes a Chief varies throughout the country and greatly depends on the social group into which you are born. For example, many areas of the Western Region, of which Sekondi-Takoradi is a part, are settlements for the Akan groups, Fante and Ashante, who recognise matrilineal inheritance. This means that the chieftaincy is passed through the female line. If a royal woman has a daughter and a son the son could be a Chief but his son could not. The next Chief would instead be the daughter’s son.

The Chief’s primary role, alongside his female counterpart (known as the “Queen Mother”) is to look out for the welfare of his people. If you have a problem, for instance a marital dispute or not enough money to send your child to school you can visit your Chief for guidance as he has taken a vow to help you.

There are four main kinds of Chief: ‘Paramount’, ‘Divisional’, ‘Sub-divisional’ and ‘Sub-Chiefs’. Sub-divisional Chiefs take care of small villages and towns or areas within cities, such as Tavistock or Estover. Divisional Chiefs’ responsibilities lie with larger areas which incorporate sub-divisional places, for example Plymouth. Paramount Chiefs represent entire regions like Devon or the South-West.

Sub-Chiefs are appointed by these other Chiefs to take care of a particular aspect of their community, for example education.

So there is a hierarchy of chieftaincy which itself is incorporated into Ghana’s central government. Sub-chiefs meet with Divisional Chiefs who consequently meet with the Paramount Chiefs in order to give feedback about their people’s needs. The Chiefs of each of Ghana’s main regions then enter discussions with the Government’s Chieftaincy Minister via the National House of Chiefs.

Being such an important representative of a community means that these individuals have a significant part to play in ceremonies. An example of such an occasion would be the Akwambo Festivals which are held around August-time each year to give thanks for the new harvest. The Chief might process under an umbrella such as presented to the Plymouth Ghana Link to the ceremony grounds where he makes an impressive entrance in front of his people who have gathered there. It is his job to taste the first yam (behind a screen, as it is taboo to see a Chief eating) before sharing food with the whole community and giving a rousing speech to his people. We are extremely honoured to be given such a prestigious gift from the people of Sekondi-Takoradi.

Lastly it must be said that chieftaincy in Ghana is a lived and dynamic institution. That is to say that a Chief is not merely a role defined by a ruler and some ‘ancient tradition’ but a unique individual who has his own personal input into chieftaincy, therefore is constantly shaped by the changing times and by those who fill the shoes of this highly respected position.

Briony Jones
May 2011