Kundum: A Western Ghana Festival, expelling demons and devils.

Kundum as celebrated by the Nzema and Ahanta peoples of Western Ghana.

Figure 1: Map of Ghana.  The Nzema and Ahanta live in the southeast near the border of Togo (GraphicMaps.com)

 

Abstract

Kundum is a festival celebrated in Ghana by the Nzema and Ahanta people.  Kundum is often labeled as a harvest festival and involves dancing, drumming, and feasting.  The original purpose was to expel demons and devils from town.  Today, Kundum has evoled into a way for the Nzema and Ahanta people to preserve their cultural ideas of social, political, and economic structure.  Kundum brings families who have moved away back together.  It honors chiefs who have lost some of their political power to the modern nation states.  Kundum forces debts and disagreements to be reconciled prior to celebration which instills moral values of humility and fairness.  Kundum also takes a great deal of financial planning to cope with the economic burden of feasting and gift giving.

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Figure 2: Kundum drums. Ansah pp.25 Figure 3: Chief on palanquin. Ansah pp.61

Introduction

The Kundum festival, celebrated in western Ghana by the Nzema and Ahanta people is a religious festival including drumming, dancing, and feasting traditionally meant to expel demons and devils from town. (Ansah 1999)  This website is designed to discuss the origin, performance elements, and artifacts used in the festival.  Kundum is classified as a harvest festival but also has the elements of a religious celebration.  The Kundum festival can also be interpreted by its ability to display and reinforce the administrative structure and sense of community for the Nzema and Ahanta.

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Context of Ghana

Ghana is located in Western Africa, bordering the Gulf of Guinea and between the nations of Cote d'Ivoire and Togo.  Ghana has a tropical climate with most of the country being warm and dry.  The land is mostly dry plains and plateaus.  The total population of Ghana is 20,757,032 (CIA World FactBook) with a life expectancy of 56 years and an infant mortality rate of 52 deaths per 1000 live births.  These numbers are greatly affected by the high incidence of AIDS in the country.  Christians represent the largest religion with 63% of the population followed by Muslim at 16% and finally indigenous beliefs at 21%.

Ghana has an abundance of natural resources compared to other countries in the region.  Their natural resources include “gold, timber, industrial diamonds, bauxite, manganese, fish, rubber, and hydropower.” (CIA World FactBook)  35% of the GDP comes from sustenance agriculture and employs 60% of the labor force. (figure 2.)  Service and industry make up equal portions of the GDP but employ a much smaller percent of the population.

Once a British colony, Ghana was the first country in colonized Africa to gain its independence in 1957.  A series of coups suspended its constitution until 1992 when the current constitution supporting multi-party politics was approved. (CIA World FactBook)  Today the country is stressed by the AIDS epidemic, international drug trade, and refugees fleeing from neighboring Cote d'Ivoire to escape rebel fighting. (CIA World FactBook) 

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Origins of Kundum

The first record of Kundum was made by Bossman, a Dutch traveler who witnessed the festival in the 17th century, and therefore most believe the origins of Kundum to be in the 16th century. (Grottanelli 1988)  Kundum out dates the nation of Ghana and only oral tradition, which is not very accurate over such a long period of time, extends to the 16th century.  Most stories trace the festival to the city of Atuabo but the modern Kundum festival is centered around and concludes in Axim. (Grottanelli 1988) 

Grottanelli (1988) and Ansah (1999) support the same story of the origins of Kundum.  The story involves Akpoley, a hunter on an expedition, happening upon some dwarfs dancing in a circle and upon his return, introduces his village to the dance. (Ansah 1999:6)  This dancing eventually developed into a way to drive the devil and evil spirits from towns and villages.  Kundum is often labeled as a harvest festival because of the manner in which the start of the celebration is determined.  The festival was set to begin on the day the fruit of a certain palm tree became ripe

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Performance

Traditionally Kundum was celebrated for four weeks but modern Kundum has been condensed to eight days.  Kundum festivals occur separately in each town of the Ahanta area.  Each town schedules the Sunday in which their festival will start independent of each other.  Kundum consists of three main components common to many harvest celebrations in African cultures; dancing, drumming, and a feast. (Ansah 1999)

Men and women where distinctive dress, footwear, and sometimes masks for the Kundum.  The costumes can range from simple to elaborate depending on the economic conditions.  How ever there is always a distinction between everyday attire and Kundum dress. (Ansah 1999)  The festival always begins by taking the drums to the out skirts of town.  Usually to five different places that remain the same each year.  A certain god is thought to inhabit each of these five places.  Requests for the good of the town are made and rum is poured on the ground. (Ansah 1999)  In the traditional four week celebration the drummers will spend the next three weeks in the outskirts practicing and preparing for the fourth week. (Ansah 1999) 

On Monday of the fourth and final week there is no drumming or dancing.  The Kundum fire is lit at the chief’s palace and is kept burning for the remainder of the week.  The Kundum fire is a center of activity and the main festival meal will be prepared on it.  The fire is lit in the same ritualized fashion each year. (Ansah 1999)

On Tuesday sacrifices of fowl or sheep are offered in the stool room.  This room is a sacred palace where the stool of departed chiefs and elders is kept.  All of the sacrifices in the stool room are preformed privately by a small designated group.  Finally a public sacrifice of a fowl is preformed in the court yard. (Ansah 1999)

Throughout Tuesday and into Wednesday the singing begins.  Often there are signing competitions between neighboring towns and public ridicule of some individuals.  These are carried out in good spirit. (Ansah 1999)  The public ridicules often mimic the chief’s court but could be compared to comedic roasts.  They usually bring to light a humorous piece of gossip from the preceding year.  Wednesday is also the day the chief joins Kundum.  He enters on a palanquin accompanied by a parade of people singing and drumming. (Ansah 1999)

Each night there is a large meal which culminates in a great feast of the final Sunday.  All the food is collectively prepared using the Kundum fire by the women and directed by the elder women. (Ansah 1999)  The remainder of the week is spent performing the ritualized Kundum dancing.  There are dances performed by men and others by women and some by other unclassified people.  The dancing concludes in front of the castle in Axim.  The traditional purpose of the dancing is to drive the evil spirits and devils from the town and therefore preserving another successful year. (Grottanelli 1988)

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Artifact

Dorson (1982) contends that every celebration has sacred or symbolic elements and the artifacts contribute to the phenomenon.  Artifacts can be removed and displayed in museums and offer insight and help us understand what we can not personally witness. 

Kundum drumming is highly ritualized and uses specific drums.  The Kundum drums (figure 2) are used only once a year during the festival.  It is taboo to play any other drums or any other music during Kundum.  The drums are maintained during the year by the Kundum family whose lineage is traced back to Majole family which was thought to be the group responsible for bringing Kundum from Aboade to Axim.  The drums are used throughout the celebration to accompany the dancing.  A special drum called the boma is the chief’s drum and is played only at the chief’s palace or during the chief’s dance.

Another important event during Kundum occurs on Wednseday (Kundum always begins on Sunday).  Wednseday is the day the chief joins the celebration.  The chief is carried into town on a palanquin as the bomaa drums are played and participants dance.  The palanquin is a platform which is born on the shoulders of men and often adorned with colorful fabric or young women riders.  Figure 3 shows a chief joining the celebration on a palanquin.

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Interpretation

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Prognosis for Kundum

Culture is dynamic.  As culture is Ghana changes, so does Kundum, and therefore remains culturally relevant.  All ready we have seen changes from the traditional celebration of Kundum, the shortening of the festival from four weeks to eight days, and the change from a way to ward off spirits and ghosts to a way of reinforcing the traditional social, political and economic practices of the culture.  Similarly, Americans no longer celebrate Thanksgiving because Native Americans have shared enough food to allow us to survive the winter.  We celebrate Thanksgiving as a way to bring family together that may have moved far away. 

Just as many western holidays have transformed into something other than what they began as, Kundum continues to evolve to meet the needs of the culture.  It will continue to be celebrated not as a harvest festival but as a way to bring the community together and remind the Nzema and Ahanta people of their traditional cultural values.

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Conclusion

The Kundum festival in Ghana still retains its traditional elements of drumming, dancing and feasting, but instead of celebrating a good harvest or driving demons from the towns it serves as a way for the Nzema and Ahantas to remind themselves of the traditional ideas of social administration, sense of community, and economic ideals.  Kundum is a way to bring the community together is a world that is becoming global and traditional African cultures are disappearing.

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Internet References Cited

  • Unknown Author

    2004    GraphicMaps.com, http://worldatlas.com/webimage/country/africa/gh.htm, accessed Sept 20.

    (Site for building custom maps of the world)

    Unknown Author

    2004    Ghana: A Golden Experience at the Center of the World,    http://www.ghanatourism.gov.gh/regions/highlight_detail.asp?id=7&rdid=228 accessed Oct 26.

    (Travel journal site.  Contains information confirmed by peer reviewed sources)

    Unknown Author

    2004    CIA World FactBook,  http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/geos/gh.html, accessed Sept 20.

    (provides history, political, and economic information on various countries)

    Unknown Author

    2004    Title, http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/cs/ghana/gh03.07b.jpg, accessed Sept 20.

    (information from the government of Ghana including festival dates)

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Peer-Reviewed References Cited

  • Ansah, Timothy

    Kundum Festival of the Nzemas and Ahantas., pp1-88 Onyase Printing Press, Accra Ghana. (ill pp23)

    Grottanelli, Vinigi L.

    The Python Killer., pp223 The university of Chicago Press, Chicago and London.

    Pavanello, Mariano             

         
    The Work of the Ancestors and the Profit of the Living: Some Nzema Economic Ideas. Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, pp36-37
         

    Dorson, Richard M.

    1985  Material Components in Celebration., pp33-34

    Tuner, Victor and Edith

    1982    Religious Celebrations., pp201-206

    Cronk, Lee

    1989    Reciprocity and the Power of Giving The Sciences May/June.,  pp64-69

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