Lesson 15: Status and Prestige: To Make the Chief’s Words Sweet: A Counselor’s Staff, Ghana

Summary and Objectives. Learning activities focus on the importance of oratory wisdom among the Akan peoples of Ghana. Through writing and artmaking experiences students explore the ways that verbal and visual ideas can work together to express notions of importance for the Akan and by extension, in their own lives. Students will

  • Examine the importance of oratory wisdom among the Akan peoples of Ghana through discussion and oral presentations.
  • Use creative writing and artmaking activities to explore how verbal and visual ideas can complement each other in expressing knowledge, wisdom, and power.
  • Consider the relationship between tradition-based systems of oral communication and the concerns of modern media through discussion and role-playing opportunities.


Download Lesson.
Lesson 15: A Counselor’s Staff, Ghana Lesson Plan (PDF, 650 KB)

Background Information

Background Information

One of the most telling and visually striking documents of Akan regalia is the gold-leafed staff carried by the chief’s counselor on all public occasions (fig. 3.9). Its resplendent imagery communicates the status and wisdom of leadership. The okyeame (or counselor) serves as mediator between the chief and those who wish to speak with him and repeats the words of the chief and those of his guests—he is said to “make the chief’s words sweet.” This image of two men seated at a table with one reaching for food and the other grasping his own stomach implies the maxim, “The food is for the man who owns it and not for the man who is hungry,” an assertion that chieftaincy belongs only to the rightful owner or leader.


About the Artist

Nana Osei Bonsu is considered the most important Asante carver of twentieth-century Ghana. During his lifetime he was the chief carver to three Asantehenes or kings of the Asante people. Bonsu’s work has been widely recognized, published in many scholarly journals, and appears in private and museum collections. You can learn more about the artist in Lesson 6: Mother of the Band: The Ntan Drum, Ghana in Unit 2 of this curriculum resource unit.

Suggested Activities

1. The Old Woman and the Stick

According to Herbert M. Cole and Doran H. Ross in The Arts of Ghana (1977, 160), “the first Asante linguist, surprisingly, was an old woman, Nana Amoah. Whenever anyone did wrong they would run to the old woman and ask her to beg for them in front of the Asantehene. Nana Amoah, bent with age, could walk only with the help of two sticks. When she came before her king she stood with the two sticks, always rejecting his offer of a seat. Nana Amoah argued eloquently for the offenders, who were invariably forgiven by the Asantehene. When she died, her son Adoku took her place and used her walking sticks in her honor.”

Activity. Students, working in pairs, can offer original versions of how the counselor’s staff came into use. They should compose narratives to be read to the class. (Some scholars believe the European mace carried by officials as a symbol of authority was the inspiration and others say it mimics the European use of walking canes, originally called messenger sticks.)

Activity. For an alternative activity students could relate how other objects in the Status and Prestige section of the exhibition were first used or began to acquire significance to the people.


2. The Okyeame Speaks

The ability to speak with wisdom, confidence, and conviction is especially valued by the Akan peoples, and best understood through the office of okyeame, wise advisor to the Asantehene and other chiefs. The okyeame (pronounced o-cham-ee) acts as chief advisor, judicial advocate, military attaché, foreign minister, prime minister, and political trouble-shooter. He offers prayers and toasts, is known as the authority on local lore and traditions, and serves as intermediary between the chief and those who wish to talk to him. People who wish to converse with the chief speak instead to the counselor (okyeame), who in turn speaks for them to the chief. Conversely the chief does not speak directly to his subjects or guests but speaks through the counselor who embellishes his words with appropriate proverbs and other sayings.

Activity. Have the students evaluate what would result from the arrangement of a linguist serving as an intermediary (The chief does not make decisions lightly or on his own, the wise counselor must always be part of the decision-making. Speaking through the linguist keeps a chief from speaking foolishly in public, without thinking or with anger.)

Activity. At times during the school week each student should have an opportunity to speak as a chief, never directly to others but always through his or her own designated “linguist” who will relay his/her words to those who wish to have conversation. They in turn, must not speak directly to the chief, but to the linguist who will speak for them. At the end of the week have the students evaluate the experience.


3. Akyeame and Modern Media

The traditional role of the akyeame in Akan chieftaincy—as a state counselor or linguist—has continued even after Ghana gained its independence from British rule in 1957. This position maintained the importance of the spoken word and traditional communication arts. In his article “African Folk and the Challenges of a Global Lore” in Africa Today (1999, 16), Kwesi Yankah discusses the difficulties of retaining these traditional arts in a time of modern communication. In the same article he repeats Akan references to the telephone as ahmomatrofo, meaning “liar,” “the tale-bearing wire,” “string or wire that conveys lies, unverified information”… This implies, he says, that fast traveling news, whose veracity cannot be checked, is not trustworthy. He continues:

“Similarly, a newspaper is called koowaa krataa, which literally means loose-tongued paper…and the general word for foreign language, apotofoo kasa, (implies) a language hurriedly improvised for ad hoc use, lacking permanence or authenticity…and among the Yoruba, many refer to the radio as ‘the machine that speaks but accepts no reply’” (1999, 16).

Activity. Students should list the advantages and disadvantages of three modes of communication: 1) two people in ordinary conversation, 2) speaking through an intermediary such as an okyeame, and 3) speaking via electronic media such as telephone or television.

Activity. In the previous activities do students bring up the importance of listening? To reinforce this important part of communication, let them engage in the following thirty second activity: Each student should work with a partner and when signaled to begin, each of the pair should begin—simultaneously—to tell of something important that happened to him or her this week, or something terrible that they remember, or something that they are now or used to be afraid of. With each member of the pair involved in relating his or her own story, how much of the other’s story were they able to absorb before the thirty seconds passed? Follow with a discussion of the experience.


4. Staffs of Wisdom

The earliest staffs were probably topped by plain rounded knobs, but today’s staffs feature elaborate, gilded, and meaningful figures at the top. Those on the finial of the staff in the exhibition (fig. 3.8) represent two men seated at a table with one reaching for food and the other grasping his own stomach.

Activity. After closely studying the image carved by Osei Bonsu, the students should give their impressions of the message the artist meant to depict, and then compose a saying to go with the image. After they have given their original interpretations, inform the class that the saying represented is “The food is for the man who owns it and not for the man who is hungry,” an assertion that chieftaincy belongs only to the rightful owner or leader, not just anyone thirsting after power.

Activity. Osei Bonsu and other Ghanaian carvers used a wide variety of images on the counselors’ staffs that they carved. These illustrate other proverbs well-known to the Asante. As above, let students make drawings to illustrate the following maxims, and expand on their meanings:

“If the chief takes care of his subjects, they will in turn take care of him.”
“One should not attempt to do what is beyond one’s capabilities.”
“If you fire at a lion and do not kill it, it would have been better not to fire at all.”
“If one man scrapes the bark [medicine] off a tree, it will fall to the ground.”
“To be a ruler is like holding an egg in the hand; if it is pressed too hard it breaks; but if not held tightly enough it may slip and smash on the ground.”


5. A Staff for Yourself

Activity. Students can make their own staffs with clay and long dowels or handles from brooms or mops. After creating the saying that they want to represent themselves, each should use a ball of clay to shape a figure over the top of the staff. Wrapping tape around the figure would insure its stability. Use gold or yellow paint on the figure. The staff itself can be decorated (Asante staffs are often elaborately carved).

Useful Readings

Avins, Lyn and Betsy D. Quick
1998 Wrapped in Pride Curriculum Resource Unit. Los Angeles: UCLA Museum of Cultural History.

Cole, Herbert M.
2001 “Akan Worlds” in A History of Art in Africa, edited by Monica Blackmun Visona, Robin Poynor, Herbert M. Cole, and Michael D. Harris, 194–227. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.

Cole, Herbert M., and Doran H. Ross
1977 The Arts of Ghana. Los Angeles: UCLA Museum of Cultural History.

Ross, Doran H.
1978 “The Verbal Art of Akan Linguist Staffs.” African Arts 16 (1): 56–67, 95.
1998 Wrapped in Pride: Ghanaian Kente and African-American Identity. Los Angeles: UCLA Museum of Cultural History.
2002 Gold of the Akan from the Glassell Collection. Huston: The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Fitzgerald, Mary Ann with Henry J. Drewal and Moyo Okediji
1995 “Transformation through Cloth: An Egungun Costume of the Yoruba.” African Arts 28 (2): 55–57.
2002 Gold of the Akan from the Glassell Collection. Houston: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Yankah, Kwesi
1995 Speaking for the Chief: Okyeame and the Politics of Akan Royal Oratory. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
2001 “African Folk and the Challenges of a Global Lore” in Africa Today 46 (2): 9–27. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Notes to the Teacher

This lesson is part of the curricular materials developed to accompany the exhibition Intersections: World Arts, Local Lives. Although this and companion lessons are self-contained, each will be enhanced when used in conjunction with others in this resource. Addressing several lessons within each unit will facilitate the incorporation of the study of world arts and cultures into your curriculum.

The lesson is based on works in the third section of the exhibition called Art and Power. In this gallery works are introduced that serve to define and assert power. See “Unit Three—Art and Power” for an introductory statement on the unit, along with some provocative “Questions for Thought,” and suggestions that will inspire the students to relate the unit to their own lives.

Images of objects to be shown to students may be printed as handouts (from within each lesson), viewed online at the Intersections web link http://collections.fowler.ucla.edu, or downloaded from the curriculum page on our website.

More Unit Lessons