An Extract from the story “Akua’s Foolish Wish” in the book “Tales My Ghanaian Grandmother Told Me”by Dzagbe Cudjoe


Akua’S Foolish Wish

I want you to know the reason why young
women in the Akan region of Ghana in West Africa are no longer allowed to make
clay figures in memory of the dead.

Imagination is a wonderful thing
because it allows us to travel in our minds to any part of the Earth or the
Heavens. So let us close our eyes and think of ourselves traveling over land
and sea. We are heading for Ghana on the West Coast ofAfrica. Ghana used to be
called the Gold Coast. On our arrival, we can see a golden haze covering
everything, which is the sunlight glinting on the gold in the earth. Not only
have we traveled through space, we have also traveled through time. We have
turned the clock back three hundred years.

The women of this village earn their
living through making cooking pots, other uten­sils, and commemorative figures
of the dead. There is no need to be alarmed at the idea of commemorative
figures being made for dead people. The figures are placed in a special area of
the forest. Dead people are not buried there.

The village itself lies within a mile
of a small, twisting river. The river is very important to village life. It
provides water for drinking, cooking and bathing. It is from the river banks
that the village women collect clay for their work. The men and young boys
catch fish which the women dry, salt, or smoke to preserve them. The women also
lend a hand with the farm work. So as you will understand, the women are
hard-working and kept very, very busy.

Making clay pots
might seem like easy work. But in fact, it is quite the opposite. At regular
intervals, fresh clay must be collected. Mter having completed their early
morning chores, the women and some of the children set out to go to the river
bank. They walk along the narrow forest path in single file balancing large
woven baskets on their heads. In the baskets are the tools which they will
require. Some of the children are too young to re­ally help, but they will
learn through watching what the grown-ups do. The women always go in a large
group to fetch the day. This way they can bring back more and it becomes an
enjoyable occasion to exchange news and make jokes while working.

On arrival at the river bank, the women
remove their hoes from their baskets. A hoe (though a different shape and used
differently) has the same functions as a spade. The women and older children
use the hoes to dig the clay out of the river bank. This is hard,

heavy, and dirty work. The clay is piled in the baskets. When they
are full it is time to re­turn home. Owing to the weight of the baskets, the
journey back to the village takes much longer than the journey to the
riverbank. From time to time, the party comes to a halt so that everyone can have
a short rest. It is early evening before they return home.

I am describing all this in detail so
that you will better understand the story I shall tell you later. Even after
the tiring task of collecting the clay, it still is not ready for use.

On arriving home,
everyone lends a hand helping the women to unload the clay from the baskets. It
is stacked up in piles outside the house so that the roof of the house offers
protection from the rain. This is to help the clay “weather down” and
become easier to


Tales My Ghanaian Grandmother Told

work with. Mter four to six weeks, the lumps of clay are put into
a mortar and pounded with a pestle; then the clay is sieved to remove stones.
Broken pots which have been ground to powder or sand is added to the clay.
Finally, water is sprinkled on to the mixture. Then the women knead the clay
until it is the right texture to use.

Only at this point can the making of a
pot or a commemorative figure begin. Many of the most useful things in life
were made by the women from clay-cups, soup bowls, platters, cooking pots, huge
water pots, and large bowls for bathing.

The actual modeling was the part of the
operation that the women and young girls enjoyed best. Not all women had the
necessary talent. A young girl would be taught the skill by her mother or other
female relative. The pots and figures are made without using a potter’s wheel.
A number of large, shallow pots are placed one on top of the other until they
are at a comfortable height for the potter when she is working standing up. She
places the base from a broken pot so that it covers the mouth of the topmost
vessel. This serves as a mould for the round base of the new pot.

The potter begins by forming long
cylinders of clay. She then coils the roll of clay round in the base of the
broken pot. After this, she pinches the rolls together so that a good bond is
formed and then smoothes them over. Further coils and lumps of clay are used to
build up the pot.

The commemorative figures are also
formed in a similar fashion. The tools used are very simple and consist of
things that are easily to hand such as pebbles, seeds, or corn cobs from which
the corn has been eaten, and pieces of wood to smooth and beat the pots into
perfect shape.

Once the pots and the memorial figures
have been made, they then have to dry out. The newly made objects are put in a
shady hut so that they do not dry out too rapidly and crack. Depending on the
time of year, drying takes between a few days and a week or so.

The next step is the firing of the pots
and figures. This is the final and most nerve-rack­ing stage. The entire
village helps to collect wood for a gigantic bonfire. All the potters fire
their pots and figures together. The objects to be fired are carefully stacked
on a bed of firewood, and then very, very carefully covered with more of the
same material.

A libation is offered to the Great
Spirit asking for a successful firing. Then the bonfire is lit. The blaze may
continue for many hours and the pots and figures will not be removed until the
embers are cold. Every now and again, there is an explosive sound signifYing
that something has shattered. Each potter hopes that it is not one of her own
pots or figures.

Early the next
morning, the pots and other items are removed from amongst the cold, blackened
embers and the grey ashes. Each woman identifies her own pots and other ob­jects.
They are then transported to her home on the heads of as many helpers as she
can find. Mter being washed to remove the grime of the firing, the pots are
ready for use and for sale. The pots for sale must be taken to the local market
some miles away. So this is a

further chore.

you can understand that the life of a potter is a very hard life. You will also
un­derstand the story I am about to tell you better available in Soft Cover & E book  Now available through



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