When did self-help vanish from Ghana?

The disappearance of voluntary service has affected the improvement of many local communities

The disappearance of voluntary service has affected the improvement of many local communities

When I was growing up, our little town had a marvellous system of self-help that now seems to have vanished from most areas in Ghana.

All the men took part in weeding the paths leading to our farms, about once a month. The dawuro or gongong would be sounded by the town-crier as follows:


Omanfo eeeeei!

Nana, the Chief says I should tell you

That this Wednesday coming

Is for weeding the paths.

So everyone, whatever you intended to do

Should be set aside for that work!


And true enough, on that Wednesday, everyone would assemble in front of the Asiakwa Chief’s palace, and some people would be assigned to weed the paths leading to the farms around River Supong, whilst others would be sent to the paths near the Twafuor River. Some even went as far as the Birem River, on the way to the rubber plantation operated by a company called Fisher (or “Fusha”, as it was known locally).

On another day, the public toilet would be the focus of attention. Its surroundings would be weeded and all waste matter around it burnt. Any wooden boards or logs on the latrine that appeared weak, would be replaced. These jobs were so expertly done that I never heard of an accident happening anywhere during my childhood.

What has happened to this spirit of self-help that we inherited from our ancestors? Of course, today, because local and town councils greedily levy taxes on markets, shops and anything else they can tax, the populace too, expects them to do the work that would otherwise have been done with voluntary labour. The trouble, though, is that Central Government interference in the way local and town councils are elected has ensured that only politicians get to serve on local and town councils, instead if people with a proven track record of service to the community.

The disappearance of voluntary service has also affected local co-operative ventures of all sorts. During the Second World War, many villages and towns offset the hardships brought about by the war – a lack of imports of essential items like kerosine, rice and tinned foods; the recruitment of almost every able-bodied male as a soldier – meant that life in villages and towns was quite depressing. Well, the people didn’t just sit down and allow themselves to be depressed.

At Asiakwa, the men who hadn’t gone to Burma or Abyssinia [Ethiopia] to fight, formed themselves into a band called “Kolomashie” and went to Accra to learn how to play the instruments of bands of that name. There were four or five drums, as well as an iron nnawuta which beat out the rhythm. They cleverly adapted what they learnt in Accra into something they called Adaha, which used some of the local rhythms.

How the people loved the music! They could dance from about 6 pm. to midnight without sweat– no-one cared about the fact that there was no electric light! For everyone knew every step of our own village and we could walk and dance as much as we liked without ever getting hurt. The uplifting thing was that no-one paid the bandsmen (and the thought would never have occurred to them to charge us money for their efforts.) Of course, occasionally, they were given gifts by those who could afford to do so. What mattered to them was to notice the appreciation that their fellow townsmen showed for their music, and the great respect they received in the society because of their contribution to making life better in the town.

Eventually, the Adaha band died. But a short while later, an even better musical group sprang to life. This was the Asiakwa Brass band, which became so good that some kind folks have out some of their music on Youtube.

How did the idea occur of forming the band come to them? I don’t know! They just got together spontaneously, found some money,and went to Accra. They came back with a full compliment of brass musical instruments. Before long, they had turned Asiakwa from a dull village into a place of tremendous amusement and fun. As with all brass bands, everyone knew how to dance to their music. So part of the fun was to watch others try new steps, and to try to better them, if they had the ability to do so!

I saw the band’s beginnings, because my elder brother, Opanin Akrasi, known as Kwaku Nsuapem before he was enstooled as an Elder, was one of the band’s leaders. He and his age-group, all less than 30 years old at the time, contributed almost all money to buy the instruments. I think it must have been when the cocoa price was very good, because they had no other means of getting money, apart from their cocoa farms! Certainly there was no bank anywhere nearby to give them a loan. Even if there had been a bank, they would not have qualified for loans, since they were all illiterates who had no regular jobs – in fact, ‘non-persons’ as far as most modern banks are concerned!

My brother played the cornet. I remember the parts he used to play, for he practised endlessly. The heroic effort of the bandsmen illustrates clearly, what could have been achieved all over the rural areas if the predatory Government had not cornered most of the cocoa money for itself through the Cocoa Marketing Board. One of the more stupid arguments used to justify the blatant theft of money from the cocoa farmers was that if the Government allowed the cocoa farmers to obtain the full world price for their cocoa, the farmers would use the money to “buy gramophones” and “marry more wives”! Ever heard such paternalistic nonsense?

Meanwhile, Government employees and other non-cocoa workers – and especially, traders – were being allowed to use their salaries and profits for whatever caught their fancy. It was the displeasure of the cocoa farmers at the way the Central Government cheated them that nearly led to Ghana becoming a Federal State, with each part controlling its own revenue.

The first song the Asiakwa Brass Band learnt — thanks to an ex-member of the Police Band whom they engaged as their tutor — was “God Save The King” (George The Sixth!). Of course, they were not aware that it was the civil servants of George The Sixth who set up the Cocoa Marketing Board!

The Band used to march properly along the one street in the town, trying to march in the way done by the “Band of the Gold Coast Police!” Their attempts at mimicry were hilarious – I think the guy who played the big side-drum even had a red band slung across his shirt!

I can still hear in my ears, my brother splitting the afternoon air with his cornet playing something like, “Doh-doh-mii, fah-re-mii, fah-re-mi-do-oo, fa-fa-remi!”

After they had satisfied their imperial duties by playing God Save The King, they struck up proper village hi-life numbers, which we could all dance to. These included Adaha numbers they remembered, as well as Yaa Amponsaa Gya’ware and other popular songs of the time. One killer they had was Yaw Donkor which allowed every member of the band to improvise. They also had a special hi-life composed for them by the band’s tutor. It was called : “Wam-pah-lahlah” They could play it without pausing for over one and a half hours, during which improvisation after ingenuous improvisation took place.

The rhythmic challenge posed by Wam-pah-lahlah was particularly appreciated by the young men in the towns and villages around Asiakwa, and they often came to hire the band to play for them. One of my oldest friends at Kyebi, Oheneba Yaw Takyi, loved it. The thing about it was that if one succeeded in getting a woman to dance with, one could have her for a long, long time, and if, during that length of time, one could not induce her to cultivate a mood for “other” things, then one had oneself to blame.

I say again: that Band was brilliant: it even t learnt to play a passable version of “Everybody Likes Saturday Night,” one of the most popular recordings of the “Band of the Gold Coast Police”!

It is amazing that the Band had lasted for over five decades, when I last saw them. That was at my mother’s funeral in 1998. Earlier, I had been surprised to find them playing at the funeral of my friend, Vincent Akwetey Kofi, the famous sculptor, at Odumasi Krobo. Now, Odumasi is over 60 miles from Asiakwa, and that the people there knew about the Band and thought it worth bringing it all that way to play for them at Odumasi, was an eloquent tribute to the Band’s popularity.

The longevity of the Band was a miracle in itself, for it was entirely run on a co-operative basis, with no single proprietor, but rather, everyone chipping in. In the formative years, they each contributed what they could to buy the instruments and more important, to hire a proper professional tutor to teach them how to make music. That professionalism has been of immense assistance to them, for although many of the original bandsmen have pegged off, they always get replacements for them.

Sad, isn’t it, that not too many of our institutions manage to last this long, especially in the rural areas? If only “self-government” had been a reality in our country, instead of a mere means of substituting one set of self-centred rulers resident in Accra, with another set!

Cameron Duodu

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