The natives of Simpa (Winneba) adore and hold in high esteem their principal deity, Penkye Otu, for leading their ancestors through the arduous journey from Timbuktu to their present settlement. Oral records indicate that all along this route, their leaders propitiated the deity for all forms of protection against the numerous challenges that confronted them, including diseases and hunger. At their present location, the annual rites were performed by the principal elders of the Otuano Royal House who established Simpa (Winneba). Penkye Otu and its “sons” (lesser gods) did enjoy human sacrifices in the beginning but this had to be changed with the dawning of civilization. Slaves were kept for this purpose but the gruesomeness of the rituals created a social concern that led to consultations with the deity for a more humane alternative.
It was also noted that by then, the able-bodied men and fearless among the leadership of the Gyateh family would have deserted town. Eventually the “Wansan” (the deer) became a practicable and most acceptable substitute, probably before or during the reign of King Bondze Enyinam around the mid-1400s. All this while, the propitiation and the preparation of the ambrosia for the deity was the sole preserve of the principal elders of the royal family at Otuano.
The capture of a live “Wansan”, like the leopard, required many more hands than the members of the royal family could find. The additional hands required were solicited from the local militia as a service to the stool. It was this change in form; i.e. the involvement of the local militia, that the annual consecration and appeasement of the deity became a public, state-wide affair. This marked the birth and hence the origin of the “Aboakyer” festival we have today
Deer Hunt Festival as the early European writers who witnessed it called it was recorded by de Marees (1620) that “four miles below lies the high mount Mungo, on which the blacks sacrificed to the Devil”… (Courtesy: Anthony Ephrim-Donkor in “The Making of an African King). The design of the Effutu State emblem tells this story; the black stool at Otuano on which the King is installed sits on the wansan. The festival is thus important for the stool, its occupant and the entire royal stool family. It is a religious duty and an obligation for the general citizenry to ensure its celebration annually to ensure a prosperous life in the coming year.
King Bondze Abe II (1560 – 1600) first formed the asafo and named it Akomfor; later this became the Tuafo Asafo No. 1 Company. Years later his son and successor, a reformist and pragmatic ruler, King Bondze Essiedu (d. 1666) created the Dentsefo Asafo No. 2 Company and established a second house out of the Otuano House; Piatɔ and used that as the nucleus of the new asafo company. He also established and appointed the Tufuhen stool for the Eyipey family as liaison chief between the asafo companies and the Paramountcy. With two competing groups, the King was sure of a catch each year for the sacrifice.
Structurally, each asafo company has three divisions with each having three age-based sub-divisions. The age based sub-divisions are Enyimpa (seniors), Nsen (middle) and Asam (juniors). During asafo processions and expeditions, the asafo is led by the Asam followed by the Nsen with the Enyimpa behind. A division of the asafo has a Supi, the head, a Chief (safohen) and a Kobae, who supports the safohen. In all, each asafo company has nine Supi(fo) but for command and general administrative purposes, one of them leads the asafo as the overall Supi. The divisions within the Tuafo Asafo Company are Akomfor, Apagyafo and Kyeremfo while those of the Dentsefo asafo company are Petufo, Etsibafo and Asomfo.
The costumes of the two asafo companies are distinct in colour; and serves to differentiate them while giving a cosmetic appeal during celebrations. Fabrics used by Tuafo groups must be in white, green, blue and violet while those by Dentsefo must be in red, yellow, orange and pink with black as a universal colour.
Another form of differentiation between the asafo companies is in the musical instruments used; Tuafo use the rattle, bugle and the three-in-one gong (dawur-sa) while the Dentsefo employ a bell and a two-in-one gong (dawur-nta). Companies are prohibited from using the other’s colours and instruments; breaches can result in conflict between them. The songs and flags employed by them depict stories of successes of the group and failures of the rival group or their key personalities.
The antecedents of asafo rioting from records have often emanated from actions of wealthy and recalcitrant leadership; a determination to wilfully offend or spite the other, or intentionally flout some regulations on colour and flag designs. The results have been disastrous in some cases. During the days of King Ghartey V, it was instituted that prior to the hunt, the King’s court inspects costume and paraphernalia before they are used for the Aboakyer festival.
There are two forms of asafo dance. The Akosuadontoba is performed by the Tuafo asafo company. It is believed that during their long migration south, the men after a hard day’s work would drum and Akosuadontoba, a charming beauty and a romantic dancer, a grandchild of Kwamena Gyarteh Ayirebi-Gyan would dance to entertain them. Hence, this name. Dentsefo perform the Owombir. Paraphernalia which adds colour to asafo processions include two floats; Tuafo has a safohen on a wooden horseback and Dentsefo asafomen pose as crew in a wooden ship.
"Preparation for the Festival"
Active preparation towards the festival starts soon after the Esther holidays. Long before then the youth begin to learn asafo songs from their elders. They assemble on canoes along the fish landing beaches and at times open parks to learn the art of performing asafo songs. Around the same time preparations towards the festival also start at the Otuano house with rituals aimed at eventual consecration of the deity. However, two weeks to the due date, a special offering of a ram is performed that signifies the opening of the doors of the deity for the festival; this door remains open until a week after the festival.
A week before the festival, the asafo companies consult their shrines for clearance, protection and early catch. Tuafo invoke the gods Eku and Katawer on Wednesday and Thursday respectively. According to history, Eku sebo was brought in by the Akomfor while Katawer was brought in by Kyeremfo. Dentsefo invoke Sakagya, Efirim (meaning to be released, or to free one’s self) and Kofi during the week. These gods are invoked indoors between noon and sunset.
The Friday preceding the hunt is spectacular for Aboakyer; Tuafo invoke and outdoor Gye mesi (meaning restore, protect), while Dentsefo come out with Sekanba (a deadly small knife). These are paraded along selected routes in town and in turn so as to prevent clashes. Tuafo are supposed to come out between noon and three in the afternoon and then Dentsefo follow. These outdoor performances by the asafo are really exciting as their respective head priests carry their idols in a trance amidst shouts and chanting of asafo war songs and led by one person playing a pair of locally crafted oval shaped bells - nkojow.
The asafo members disperse at the end of the day to prepare for the actual hunt the following day. There is no asafo drumming during this parading of gods. Scouts are sent to respective hunting grounds to observe the movements of animals and thereby secure the best hunting site. They are followed by an advance party at dawn and the main body at day break.
"The hunt and the climax"
By 4.00 am on the hunting day, Saturday, asafo members are awakened by the sounding of drums, bugle, rattles and bells to start trooping to their respective meeting places. Supis, Asafohenfo and Kobae are escorted from their homes to their respective asafo bases. While this goes on, asafo youth groups parade the streets in readiness for a final departure command. The singing and playing of asafo musical instruments awaken everyone to come to the road sides as they begin moving out of town to the hunting grounds. This movement is gradual until at the appointed time, 5.30 am for Tuafo and 6.00am for Dentsefo, (because of the distant location of the former’s hunting grounds) the head Supi of each asafo gives the command for the groups to move out. The asafo depart in groups according to age and all pass in front of the King’s palace where the King and his elders and state linguist are assembled to offer them a final blessing.
Just after Abosomba, the priestesses of Otuano, Dawur prama and others sprinkle herbal mixture on them meant to offer another form of protection for a safe and successful hunt. Soon after their departure, the King and his Divisional Chiefs and linguists leave the palace in a long procession to the durbar grounds to wait for the arrival of the first catch. This procession is done with all available royal drumming: fontomfrom or bombae, mpintsin, mmensuon and aprede.
When a catch is made, message gets to the people in town within minutes and this turns the people into jubilation. More people then troop to the durbar grounds for a glimpse of the catch. The jubilant Asafomen now carry the animal shoulder high, present it to the King who then performs the acceptance rites. The process involves an offer of libation and then an impression with the right bare foot on the animal thrice. The victorious side then picks it up from the feet of the King and parades with it to Abosomba. At this strategic position, visitors who could not go to the durbar grounds also troop to catch a glimpse of the catch. After a while, the priest and some elders of the god Akyeampong (messenger god) all clad in white calico along the waist come with twigs, they spread them out to form a mat, lay the animal on it, and with the stem of a creeping plant as twine, the twigs and animal together are bound firm and carried away.
On their way, the senior member of the prama (Akeampong ano) plays the gong requesting all to clear from their path. With a head pad as support, the catch is carried to the ceremonial Penkye Otu shrine at the ancestral marketplace for the next day’s sacrifice. On their way back to the shrine, the person who led them in now wields an ancient cutlass in a fashion that is reminiscent of one clearing a bush path as if the animal is being brought from the bush to the shrine. An additional catch by any of the asafo companies is not material to the festival but only adds to the fun fare. In such situations all animals are carried by the people of Akyeampong ano (ano when used this way refers to the prama) to the ancestral marketplace but the one for the sacrifice is marked for easy identification.
Soon after noon it is time to take the king back home; to the Palace. This is the time for the afternoon procession. By 1.30 pm the asafo now in full regalia; very colourfully decorated, start the procession from the outskirts of town. There is asafo singing, drumming and dancing to Akosuadontoba and Owombir; a free for all dance time. The King rides in palanquin along the procession led by his chiefs in rich regalia. The victorious asafo company, i.e. the one that brought the first catch that year leads in the procession followed by the King and his entourage, and at the rear of the procession is the asafo company that returned last from the hunt. This procession ends at the King’s palace where libation is poured in prayer and a ram is slaughtered to thank all and sundry including the souls of the departed and the deity. Then the asafo is dismissed pending the King’s appreciation drinks; the ayekoo nsa which the King pays to the asafo for honouring their vow to present to him a live deer for the propitiation of the deity, Penkye Otu annually.
"Women Asafo group participation"
The female members of the two asafo companies have their own music and dance forms. This is the Adzewa music, quite different from the Akan version. The music is performed by gourd (‘mfowba’) playing. There are eight players; gourd sizes vary, the largest producing the low pitch and the smallest the high pitch sound. During their performances, one member or any other person touched by the music and is desirous in dancing, enters the arena (guaso) to dance; a short performance is made thrice for the dancer to make brief turns, after which they play continuously for the one to dance, possibly joined by others.
Both groups use the mpetsiba as an additional musical instrument but for each group, depending on the asafo, the bell or rattle is employed by the women too. During the procession, normally the Adzewa groups lead their male counterparts.
In the afternoon on Sunday, the ancestral marketplace, “Tsetse guaso” is filled to capacity for the sacrifice. The deity and its effigies are arranged under an umbrella. After libation is offered, the Os?w (priest) and his assistants from Dawur prama slaughter the animal and cook it. They use parts of the meat and corn dough to produce mpotroba (ambrosia). The cooking is done in a special earthenware pot with fire made by the priestess at Otuano using okisibiriw as firewood. Raw and cooked meat cut into smaller pieces, mpotroba both raw (white) and coloured with red oil are sprinkled all over Penkye, Aboadze and Eyipey areas. This is how the gods around are served.
The rest of the meat is shared among the elders of the Otuano, Akyeampong ano, Dawur, Kweemu and Akramano families. The head is given to the head of kingmakers of the Otuano family. Some of the people gathered there are served the cooked meat; usually this is not orderly as they scramble for the meat. The second part of the ceremony is the casting of lot, Ebisatsir, and the god Akwa Tubu is used in this segment. An earthenware pot is placed bottom side up.
Two or so palm fronds are folded into a pad and placed on it. The Chief Priest then picks the Tubu after offering libation, runs it around his head three times and then places it on the pad placed on the inverted pot. A gong is sounded as the people join in chanting for the Tubu to fall on a good side. In a dartboard pattern are five lines drawn with red clay, charcoal, salt, millet (or mixture of small grains – efua pa) and ash/white clay. As the gong is beaten amidst incantations, the Tubu rolls over and falls on one of the marks signifying what is to be expected in the course of the year. On the third cast of the lot, the festival rites are said to be over for the public.
When the Tubu falls on the red clay it signifies a period of bloody conflicts and disasters, the charcoal signifies abundant rain, ash/white clay signifies peace and prosperity, millet shows there will be bumper food harvest and good fishing season when it falls on salt. The Priests and Priestesses stay at the shrine for a week and a ram is sacrificed to bid farewell to the deity’s guests (gods) that came to join in the celebration of the festival.
A broom is then given to the priestess of Kweemu to sweep the area around the shrine; guaso (marketplace, referring to a central meeting place for such traditional events). Again, the most senior woman at Kweemu start chewing sponge which she keeps in a raffia basket. It is said that she ties them in the order of full moon to full moon and on the 12th count (on attaining the 12th bundle) she sends message to the King and based on that the date for the celebration of the festival is announced.
However, this customary practice has long been shelved because sometimes the date could fall on or soon after the Christian Easter celebrations resulting in difficulties and inconveniences for some would be festival attendants. For instance, workers who relied mostly on their monthly salaries had problems mobilizing funds to make it to the festival. It was also difficult for prospective foreign tourists to include Aboakyer in their itineraries. Upon advice and pressure from the national tourism authorities, the Effutu Traditional Council in 1965 finally settled on the first Saturday of May every year as the fixed date for the celebration of one of Ghana’s most popular traditional festivals, Aboakyer.