1 April 2011 – Posuban Shrines

I went to Elmina to face the cruelness of my ancestors but I didn’t see the evidence. For some reason my guide at St. George Castle in Elmina didn’t talk about the horrors perpetuated at that castle by three European conquerors. He didn’t show us the  door of no return  nor the scratch marks on the stone walls. Neither I didn’t hear how they lined the slaves up on the bottom of the slave vessel like sardines for the transatlantic crossing nor the terrible statistics of death in that crossing: 60,000,000 loaded  12,000,000 landed.   Instead I found the joy of Ghanaian creativity.

The Posuban Shrines of the Fante Asafo companies. They are whimsical, eclectic concrete shrines created by Asafo companies. The Fante people live along the coast of Ghana west of Accra. These companies were traditionally militia who helped to keep the peace and fight wars. They kept their weapons and regalia in the shrine buildings.  These shrines now serve as cultural and ceremonial centers of the town.

Late in the afternoon I took out my Bradt guide and tried to memorize the small map of Elmina with the location of the shrines. I didn’t want to carry a guide book in the streets. The guidebook is a magnet for every Kofi, Kau and Kwame to come and ask the rich tourist for money.

The road that lead to two of the shrines was just outside my hotel. A right at the end of that road would take me to two more shrines. It seemed easy enough to keep that info in my head. With camera in hand I set out.

I took the road to the first two shrines. I walked by Fort St. Jago. I looked up the steep road to the top of the hill. It was paved. It was 4:00 pm and cooling off. Did I want to climb up the hill to see another military installation? Nah it wasn’t worth it.

As I walked down the road I greeted those who called out a friendly Obruni (white man) and ignored the rest.  Some days walking alone in a new Ghanaian town here in the south can be an emotional obstacle course. Locals shout Obruni. Children hold out open palms for money or put their fingers together and point to open mouths in the universal plea for food. Strange men propose marriage and a trip the America. Everyone wants to be the white lady’s friend. On good days I remind myself that it is much better to be liked for the color of your skin. Luckily today was a good day so I greeted everyone and chatted small small with two or three market ladies.

Thus I made my way to the first junction where the first shrine was supposed to be. I was looking for something like a large totem pole. I imagined a 3 ft square foot print towering 2 or 3 stories with people. animals and machines sculpted into it. There was nothing at the corner where I thought one was located.  I took a left onto the dirt road and walked down the road looking on either side of me for the second shrine. I walked around the block back to the main road. No shrines.

For someone who likes to travel alone I am certainly directionally challenged! When I got to the main road I could not recall the map from the guide book so I had no idea where to go for the next two shrines. I decided to head back to the hotel. I knew where that was. I would now try to put my practical knowledge of the lay of the land together with the guide book map. It was getting dark so I would try again in the morning. I considered taking the walking tour offered by the castle but it was two hours long and I wanted to leave in the early morning. It was also 10 Cedis.

The next morning was cool with a nice sea breeze. I headed out before breakfast at 7:00 am. During the evening I had reviewed the map and saw that I could also take a right out of the door of the hotel and then the first left. Eight hundred meters down that road would be two of the shrines and another left should take me to the shrines I was looking for the night before.

I was going to find those shrines by myself. I passed The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. This one’s for you Jack!

There were two white rectangular cement buildings with names on them. I bet the walking tour would have told me about them. Then I saw this orange church.

When I took my first left I realized that the taxi had taken me on this road. When we drove down the road I had seen a porch with statues of men and animals on it. DAH! That was the shrine. I picked up my pace. There is no real reason I had imagined the shrines as a sort of totem pole but its not the first time my expectations had gotten in the way of reality.

There it was!

There were two statues of white people sporting leaves over their genitals who stood among seven statues of Ghanaians. I assumed the whites must be Adam and Eve. Two black four legged animals with white spots adorned the rails on either side of the porch.

I greeted two people standing around the shrine and continued to take photos. A graying Ghanaian gentleman came across the street and asked me if I liked the shrine. When I said yes he continued “Do you know the story?”  “No” I said “Shall I tell you?” he asked. He must have had lots of experience with whites who are in a hurry because when I said I did want to hear the story he replied “Now do you have the time? It’s a long story. There are two more shrines down the road. IF you have the time I will tell you and ask for a Fanta in return. “

I wanted to hug him for his up front approach to payment. I agreed to the terms of the tour.

Asafo #4 Co.

Joseph, my guide, told me that the white people were indeed Adam and Eve. The company chose Adam and Eve as their symbol because they were the first company in Elmina. When I looked confused he said that the #4 refers to the order in which the companies were asked to entertain at the castle. I was still slightly confused but didn’t push the matter.

From my reading I learned that the date on the shrines was the day the shrine was outdoored  or presented to the town. This one was outdoored on 31 December 1966. The companies go back to precolonial times and the locations of the shrines themselves go back to colonial or pre-colonial times. My reading indicated that the shrines were renovated and updated every few decades but the ones in Elmina haven’t been updated in over 50 years according to their outdoor dates.

Joseph explained the different figures to me. The two men in matching red and black uniforms are the chiefs guards.

The woman to the right of Adam and Eve was carrying libations.

The chief was to the left of Adam and Eve wearing a red and white smock and carrying a machete.

The god of the company stands in the back between Adam and Eve with his hands outspread.

Asafo #2 Co

At this shrine the chief was standing on a pedestal, towering over all objects in the courtyard of the militia building. He was wearing a sky blue cloth slung over one shoulder, like a toga. This company added airplanes to their shrine because the chief was an educated who had flown on airplanes to the outside.

Asafo#5 Company

The highlight of Obese No 5 Co was the European ship on the roof with two sailors on either side.The ship awed me so that I forgot to take a photo of the whole shrine. Sorry-O!

This shrine included a lot of symbolism. The many carrying palm nuts on his head showed the local abundance of produce. There was a crab that showed their connection to the sea.

The company had chosen the elephant as their symbol because it was strong. The elephants trunk was wrapped around the tree to pull it out.

The European ship was chosen because this Asafo company was the first to see the foreign ships come to harbor.

Joseph gave me his address so I can send him his photo and I gave him enough for a few Fantas. He was very informative and he didn’t ask me to marry him once.

If this small small post about the shrines sparks your interest here are two more sources of information on them. Thank you Lucy Robbins Welles Library for your online databases.

Bradt Guide Ghana, Philip Briggs 4th edition Pages 144-145.

Ross, Doran H. African Arts, Autumn 2007, Vol 40, Issue 3, P12-35. (You can find the full text of this article on Masterfile.)

This is not the last you will hear of these interesting art forms. There are more shrines along the coast and I hope to visit a few in the time I have left.


1 Comment

  1. Marie said,

    January 6, 2013 at 6:34 pm

    Thanks for the info! I am googling Posabo shrines for my art class in Ireland and your article has been wonderful, especially as you’ve included the meanings behind individual sculptures. Thank you 🙂

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