Ga people


Ga / Ga-Adangme / Adangbe

Identification and Location

The Ga-Dangbe, Gã-Daŋbɛ, Ga-Dangme, or GaDangme are an ethnic group in Ghana and Togo.

Ga is the preferred name for the heterogeneous people of the Accra area who are closely related to the Adangme or Adangbe people to the northeast of Accra.

It is bounded on the west by the Densu River, on the east the Chemmu lagoon, on the south by the Atlantic Ocean, and on the north by the Akwapim hills.

The topography is largely flat and relatively dry, averaging 25 inches (65 centimeters) of rainfall per year concentrated in one season. Unlike most of the rest of the West African coast, the Accra plains are savanna, marked by large termite mounds after which the city was named.

Ga people


In 1993 the Ga population was estimated to be 300,000, centered in Accra


Linguistic Affiliation

The Ga language is a western representative of the western Kwa subfamily of languages within the Niger-Congo family. It has a closer relationship to Yoruba in its tonality and cognates than to the immediately neighboring subfamily of Akan languages and an even closer relationship to its eastern neighbor, Ewe. Since English is the official language of Ghana and the Ga are a mixture of peoples concentrated in the capital who have had superior access to Western-style education, many first-language Ga speakers also know English, one or more of the Akan languages (Fante or Twi), and/or Ewe.


History and Cultural Relations

The Ga have lived in southern Ghana for more than a thousand years. They largely displaced or intermarried with the indigenous Kpeshi people, established their system of rotating slash-and-burn horticulture, and eventually adopted maize as a primary staple as opposed to the earlier millet. The date of the earliest settlement at Accra is not known, but that settlement was flourishing by the fifteenth century. Accra developed from a series of contiguous settlements formed at different times by different peoples who developed a coherent but flexible sense of Ga identity.

The growth of Accra was stimulated by the arrival of the Europeans, the first being the Portuguese, who built a small fort there in 1482. In the seventeenth century the English, Dutch, Swedes, and Danes established spheres of influence, entering into a preexisting coastal trade. Further growth came with the destruction of the original capital, Ayawaso, 2.1 miles (3.4 kilometers) northwest of Accra, by the Akwamu kingdom in 1677. After being in a tributary relationship with the Akwamu until 1730, Accra regained and largely maintained its independence until it was occupied by the British in 1874. By the beginning of the nineteenth century Accra had a population of approximately 7,500 to 10,000 and was well developed, with extensive interior and exterior trade connections. Merchants in Accra acted as middlepersons in the trade of slaves, gold, and other commodities between the Europeans and the Asante kingdom to the north. From the 1820s on European missionaries arrived in the area and had a substantial impact.

Ga ethnicity was constructed out of many strands because of the multiplicity of trade contacts, religious influences, founding ethnicities, and cross-cultural contacts fostered by intermarriage. A common saying at Asere is, "There is no such thing as a pure Ga." Not only were many European and inland African ethnicities represented in Accra over hundreds of years, but also the lateral coastal connections produced migrations of Brazilian, Sierra Leonean, and Nigerian families, who formed clans and assumed Ga identity.

Around the turn of the twentieth century Accra experienced a series of disasters, including famines, a fire in 1894, an earthquake in 1906, bubonic plague, and the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919, as well as continuous emigration of skilled laborers. A severe earthquake in 1939 destroyed much of Central Accra and gave added impetus to settle in new suburban settlements such as Kaneshie and Adabraka. When Accra became the West African headquarters for British military operations during World War II, its population increased, doubling in size between 1931 and 1948 to 135,000. The next burst of expansion was in the prosperous 1950s, when the population doubled to 388,000. Accra boomed as the capital of Ghana after independence in 1957, expanding to include far suburbs such as Nima. Central Accra, however, continued to be dominated by the Ga, many of whom had relatives living in the suburbs or receiving an education in the United Kingdom or the United States. Because of the confined space that inhibited expansion, the elderly amenities and construction, and the high population density in Central Accra, observers have long characterized Accra's area of core settlement as a slum, rivaled only by areas such as Nima that have borne the brunt of new immigration. However, the diversity of connections and its status as the historical home of most Ga clans, as well as the longevity of residence of much of its population, make Central Accra an area rich in tradition. It now sits in the heart of a sprawling urban complex of several million persons, many of whom are not Ga. However, many learn Ga and over the years and the centuries have become Ga.



The oldest area of settlement in Accra, now known as Central Accra, is composed of seven quarters, among which Asere, Abola, and Gbese are oldest and considered to be the most traditionally Ga. Otublohum originally was settled by people from Akwamu and Denkyera to the northwest. These four quarters make up Ussher Town, the area placed under Dutch jurisdiction in the seventeenth century. The other three quarters—Alata or Nleshi, Sempe, and Akanmadze—are said to be of later origin. Alata was settled by Nigerian workers imported to construct a European fort. These three quarters are commonly called James Town and formed the original area of British jurisdiction at Accra. Asere is by far the largest quarter in terms of population and area. All quarters have clan houses known as wekushia, the original homes of Ga patrilineages, and chiefs called mantsemei.

Houses in Central Accra are arranged roughly in blocks that were sometimes forcibly created by colonial government demolition. Most are one-story rectangular compounds with large courtyards in which most of the functions of daily living are carried out. Women's compounds are usually livelier with the presence of small children and chickens, and because cooking, laundry, and household production are carried out there; men's compounds may be somnolent in the noonday sun, their residents absent at various jobs. There are a few two-story houses with courtyards beside them. Adjoining compounds may share a boundary wall, but most are separated by narrow pathways. Rural houses are usually smaller and form small villages; most are rectangular and are roofed with metal sheets that have replaced the older thatch.



Subsistence. In the Accra area the horticultural activities of the Ga were changed substantially and permanently by increasing incorporation into the world capitalist economy that began in the fifteenth century. The move to the coast also brought about increasing involvement in fishing; men first fished off the beaches from canoes; beginning in the eighteenth century they started using nets, a skill taught to them by their Fante neighbors. The villages in Central Accra became fishing villages, with the women working as fish sellers.

Commerical Activities. After the advent of Western education men took up skilled occupations as artisans (carpenters, masons, tailors) or clerks trained in missionary schools. Men had wide opportunities for employment, often traveling upcountry or abroad to help construct colonial buildings, for instance. One such Ga mason, Tetteh Quashie, became famous when he returned from working on the island of Fernando Po in the late nineteenth century because he brought back cacao plant seedlings and began a plantation. This initiated the transition to dependence on cocoa as an export crop that marked the twentieth-century economic history of Gold Coast/Ghana. The fortunes of the Gold Coast colonial economy were tied to the cocoa production that was carried out largely in the Akan areas northwest of Accra. Accra profited once again from its intermediary role in trade. As time went on more Ga women gained access to Western education, especially after independence. Although unemployment is a big problem for Central Accra youth, few educated young people are interested in trade or fishing. An old apprenticeship system for both genders has mostly disappeared. Accra has also experienced some industrialization, with many men, in particular, being employed in small-scale manufacturing and a few large factories. Central Accra has become a refuge for the underemployed, while those who are better off live in the suburbs. Much farming disappeared with the building of suburbs on Ga land; commercial farming was never important in the twentieth century because of the low rainfall and relatively infertile soil. Commercial fishing is now an important industry with involvement by multinational corporations and the dominance of mechanized trawling, which has largely displaced canoe fishing. Imported or factory-manufactured products have displaced home manufactures such as cloth and soap.

Industrial Arts. Ga material culture and skills seem to have been less notable than those of their neighbors. Whereas the Ewe and the Asante are known for producing richly woven cloth; the Asante for brass gold weights, elaborately carved stools, and gold heraldic artifacts and jewelry; and the Ga-related Krobo/Shai for pottery, the Ga seem to have served more as transmitters of culture as traders. There was a woodcarving tradition that produced small household implements, and men also worked as blacksmiths. Basket making was a dying art in the 1940s. The relatively early exposure to missionary artisanal training may have displaced certain arts, while woodcarving would have been difficult because of the absence of large numbers of trees. Women's skills are mainly in the culinary areas of manufacturing beer and prepared foods of various kinds, most of which is quite labor-intensive and requires knowledge of elaborate methods.

Trade. Ga were heavily involved in trade in many commodities, including slaves, over a long period of time. As late as the early twentieth century a few slaves were still sold in or near Salaga Market in Central Accra. Women were traders as far back as at least the sixteenth century. Over time increasing numbers of women took up trade as an occupation, at first selling their own agricultural produce and then, as urban expansion took up more land, selling fish and imported goods or products of home manufacture such as soap, pottery, maize beer, and prepared foods. An important commodity was and continues to be kenkey, or komi, the Ga staple food, which is made of fermented steamed corn dough.

Division of Labor. Before the advent of Western education boys and girls were taught skills appropriate to their gender by older relatives of the same sex or in an apprenticeship system. Once trained, young people were supposed to do the more strenuous aspects of their occupation. Women did much of the farm labor, especially weeding and cultivating, while men cleared new land. Men fished, wove, and maintained nets. Women were and are the preeminent small-scale traders, relying on elaborate knowledge of contacts, profit margins, supply sources, and sales locations. Women as well as men bought and sold slaves. Some women became successful large-scale traders. Out of this activity came the rights of women to own and convey property without male permission.

Western-type education brought gendertyping into various occupations in accordance with missionary and colonial ideas of appropriate behavior. Less education was provided for girls both under colonialism and after independence in terms of availability of school space in a largely single-sex system, and girls' education often was confined to subjects suitable for the creation of Western-style housewives. The result is a stratified job and labor market in which women are largely confined to lower-paying and more labor-intensive occupations. Female enrolment in universities is usually around 15 to 20 percent of the student population. Ga men, because of early and greater exposure to educated skills and jobs commensurate with those skills in a growing city, have more often been able to take advantage of the benefits of literacy. However, in Central Accra unemployment and underemployment are a problem for both genders due to the weaknesses of a neocolonial economy and poverty that restricts the availability and quality of education.


Land Tenure

Land rights came initially through the high priests associated with the land as representatives of the original Guan inhabitants. These rights were usufructuary rather than absolute. People had a right to the products of the land that they cultivated or, in the case of elders, that their juniors cultivated for them. However, once allocated, land may have become private property that could be handed on to one's heirs. Today virtually all land is private property in Accra; it may belong to an individual or to a corporate lineage, but it can be disposed of according to the owners' wishes. Private land sales in Accra may have existed in the fifteenth century, encouraged by the population density. Twentieth-century land dealings became the subject of lengthy court battles as the value of the land rose, especially in central Accra. All the members of a lineage have use rights in its property, but the authority to determine its use lies mainly with the male elders. Income from rental property usually is divided into shares, with the largest share going to the senior lineage members. Some lineages keep the property together, while a few have dissolved the corporation and sold the land to their wealthier members.



Kin Groups and Descent. Ga society has always been in flux, influenced by groups that exploit indeterminacies and redefine rules or relationships to maximize their positions. The original seven quarters of Accra have mantsemei who are the heads of influential patrilineages that have land rights within the quarters. The patrilineages also have priests and priestesses who mediate relations with ancestors and family gods. Patrilineage members usually know the clan (we) or major lineage from which they come, which membership is now expressed in surname. Even if they have never lived in Central Accra, they know the quarter from which the clan came and perhaps the name of the eponymous ancestor who founded it and which house is the wekushia. Smaller nearby coastal towns such as Osu (now part of Accra), Teshie, and Labadi also serve as clan homes, with each clan having a unique surname that distinguishes it from the others and locates it spatially. At the yearly harvest festival, Homowo, which falls in August or early September depending on the clan, all members of a clan are supposed to return to their houses of origin, adeboshia. Before the Ga became widely dispersed, people from the villages came to visit for the duration of the festival, bringing gifts of food. Village clan affiliation was determined by the affiliation of the village's founder.

Patrifiliation is the dominant method of tracing descent in central Accra. Exceptions exist and are attributable to intermarriage with Akan or children's adoption by the mother's patrikin in the absence or unwillingness of a father to claim them. Matrilinearity sometimes exists among chiefly families, some of which derived from Akwamu. Villages west of Accra have more intermarriage with Fante and more matrifiliation as a result. In general, the older the settlement, the less matrifiliation is present.

Kinship Terminology. Terms of reference and address are by generation; all persons of the same gender in the same generation are considered to bear a similar relationship to each other. For instance, a woman's mother's mother's sister and her father's mother's sister are called Naa by her, just as her paternal and maternal grandmothers are. At the naming ceremony (outdooring ) eight days after the birth of a child the father gives the child a family name, patrilineally in accordance with sex, order of birth, and alternate generation. If the child's father refuses to name it, thus claiming it nowadays when bride-wealth is largely in abeyance, a male relative of the mother will usually do so and the child will belong to the mother's patrilineage. There is no stigma of illegitimacy involved so long as someone names the child, but the namer must be male. Each clan has its own set of names. Twins have a special set of names regardless of clan, as do the children who are born following the twins, but most names are clan-specific. Because the names in every other generation are recapitulated, there is a lot of repetition. Confusion is avoided by giving people nicknames, and many people now also have Christian baptismal or Islamic names. Thus, a man's name demonstrates to another person his clan affiliation and quarter of origin, gender, and birth order among his full brothers.


Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage is arguably a less important institution for Central Accra Ga than for many peoples due to the separate residence of spouses, a flexible divorce system with both men and women making multiple marriages, and the lack of a cooperative husband-wife economic unit within marriage, which has been exacerbated by contemporary developments.

Contemporary marriage among the poorer classes is signaled by a simple gift of drink. Spouses do not normally live together when in town. Economic cooperation is not a usual aspect of marriage, and spouses keep their property separate. The girls' puberty rite has vanished. Lineages have a reduced interest in keeping spouses together if no bride-wealth was paid, elders did not arrange the marriage, and the union did not have political importance. Christianity and Islam have affected the ceremonies performed through the evolution of syncretic forms. Marriages of wealthy or middle-class people often are accompanied by the accoutrements of Western middle-class marriages, but most couples do not socialize together or practice community of property.

Childbearing and childrearing are still an important function of marriage but marriage increasingly lacks ceremonial ratification. Divorce under customary law, as opposed to Western-imposed civil law, is informal, and the dominant pattern among women is serial monogamy. The most common reason for divorce is nonsupport of the children by the husband. Women are expected to support themselves and provide more child support than men do because of the high divorce rate in Central Accra. Polygyny, once a symbol of high status for a man and a generator of wealth for him through the production of his wives, is now uncommon, but many high-status men have what are called "outside wives," de facto second wives who are younger and more educated than first wives, similar to United States "trophy" wives. Intermarriage with non-Ga is increasingly common, especially among the highly educated; if a matrilineal Akan man marries a Ga woman, the children may be disinherited due to the conflict in inheritance customs.

Domestic Unit. Clan houses (wekushia) in Central Accra and other coastal towns were and continue to be residences for patrilineally related relatives but have developed a distinctive gender segregation that does not conform to any conventional anthropological term because people do not change residence at the time of marriage. Men usually live with their male patrilateral relatives, and women with their female matrilateral relatives. To perpetuate this pattern boys are sent to their fathers at some time between the ages of six and twelve; the fathers' compounds may be several kilometers from the mothers' but are usually closer. What began as a system of patrilineages with a male section and a female section has become effective segregation of the genders, with many men living in suburbs, leaving more women downtown. There are two types of residential groupings, with the most common being a multigenerational compound inhabited by a matrilaterally related group that includes mother, daughters, granddaughters, and sisters. Next in frequency is patrilateral groupings consisting of fathers or several brothers and their sons and grandsons. Because men are more likely to move out and begin neolocal conjugal households in the suburbs, Central Accra now has more female-headed households. Because mothers leave their residential rights to their coresident daughters, the daughters' rights become de facto only, since they do not belong to the original patrilineage that owned the compound. In the contemporary struggle over land ownership of ever more valuable property, those de facto rights have become more difficult to assert.

Many Central Accra Ga have variable residential choices available to them and take advantage of them in an opportunistic manner over a lifetime, joining various relatives at will or living in conjugal households, which dominate in rural areas. Each quarter has rural land that historically belonged to it, where its residents farmed. The mantsemei of the quarters still have ceremonial jurisdiction over those areas and play a role in the assignment of property usage.

Inheritance. Although descent is traced unilaterally, inheritance rights are more complex and have been affected by women's economic independence. In the past sons inherited from fathers, younger brothers from older brothers, and daughters from mothers, but the increasing individuation of property ownership and inheritance through the use of written wills has introduced more variation into an already flexible system. Part of the flexibility that remains regards the heir's obligation to contribute substantially to an individual's funeral. Paying for a funeral in a society where funerals are far more important than marriage in perpetuating lineages is regarded as creating an obligation such that the payer inherits a substantial portion of the deceased's estate. However, lineage property devolves according to corporate rules enforced by the mostly male elders and the courts of the mantsemei. The elders are more likely to bestow property on collateral relatives than on children, but emphasis is placed on the fulfillment of mutual obligations in making that decision. Women tend to leave self-acquired property to the daughters with whom they were in business or coresident. Because of the devolution of the residential system and the attenuation of some males' rights in lineage property as a result of nonresidence and because of the residence of women who are not patrilineage members on it, in some cases both men and women invest in private property elsewhere rather than improving property in which their legal rights are tenuous. Most people follow a cognatic pattern in leaving self-acquired property to children of both genders, but there is a lot of variation.

Socialization. The ideological separation between genders and the superior ranking of males are enforced by social conditioning. Being male is associated with everything good, straight, rational, and right as opposed to left, while women are thought to possess opposite and negative attributes. Men take precedence at all life cycle rituals. Boys and girls are encouraged to play in separate groups at different games and are expected to behave differently at a young age. Infants often are indulged, but older children may be punished harshly. Child abuse by both sexes is more common than spouse abuse, but neither is common. Girls are brought up by their mothers to take care of household responsibilities and are expected to mind younger siblings, while boys sent to their fathers are removed from much contact with young children and are not trained in domestic tasks, which are viewed as women's work. The labor value of girls militates against their completion of schooling in many cases, as does expulsion from school for pregnancy, a punishment not applied to boys who father children. Male dominance is apparent in the allotment of more space to boys, who are entitled to a room of their own in a compound, while girls are expected to share space with their sisters and/or children.


Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Before the rise of the mantsemei in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as war chiefs, supreme judicial authority rested with the priests of the Sakumo, Korle, and Nai lagoons, with each town having its own high priest, or wulomo. As in most preindustrial societies, there was little distinction between religious and secular authority. No divine objects are associated with the gods represented by the wulomei; they are responsible for interpreting to the people the wishes of the gods and for pouring weekly or daily libations. They have the final say in regard to what is right or wrong; for many Ga their authority remains influential though not absolute. They dress in pure white calico and are supposed to be free from any wrongdoing; uncircumcised men and menstruating women are not supposed to enter their compounds; anyone who enters is supposed to go barefoot. The wulomei command more respect than do the mantsemei, who are representatives of old secular authority. The mantsemei originally derived their authority from the wulomei, who delegated some of their secular duties to minor priests, the mantsemei, who then glorified their positions with the paraphernalia of Akan political authority, such as heraldry and parasols. During the colonial era the authority of the mantsemei was damaged by their ineffective leadership and sometimes cooperation with the colonial regime, as well as disunity and rivalries. In some cases involvement in corrupt land dealings has given all mantsemei a reputation for venality.

Political Organization. Each quarter has a mantse; their ranking relative to each other depends on many factors, including the antiquity of the position, the age and personality of the holder of the position, and the authority and perquisites delegated by the government. The British used the mantsemei as appointed authorities for the imposition of "indirect" rule, removing from them the right to impose capital punishment. The Abola Mantse was appointed paramount chief, or Ga Mantse, the "father of the Ga people," but that authority remains largely ceremonial.

Social Control. Colonial rule introduced to Gold Coast/Ghana a two-tiered legal system in which secular civil and criminal law following British custom was imposed for those who chose to use it and covered major financial and criminal matters. The authority of the mantsemei was reduced to dealing with minor crimes involving small sums of money or marital disputes, slander, and conflicts over clan land matters, with the latter being the source of most of their remaining power. British marriage law was introduced, which some educated persons used to make an "Ordinance" marriage, but the requirement for monogamy and for giving women an undisputed share of their husbands' estates was unpopular with many people. Most marriages in the early twenty-first century are governed by customary law or church requirements. Most family matters are handled by government social services, clan elders, or the chiefs' courts. Secular government courts handle most criminal cases, with chiefs serving in an advisory capacity on occasion. A High Court patterned on the U.S. Supreme Court is part of a supposedly independent judiciary.

Conflict. The decentralized Ga decision-making system seems to have prevented most large-scale conflict before colonialism. There were mock and sometimes real rivalries between quarters that were expressed in small-scale "battles" with few casualties, but clan elders settled most disputes, the most intractable of which were referred to the mantsemei or wulomei. Large-scale wars were fought with those who came from the north to seek dominance in the European trade. The Ga united across quarters to pursue this warfare, sometimes successfully. The British conquest was gradual more than violent, a matter of increasing influence fostered by the Gas' desire to protect themselves from those living inland. Organized street violence is rare in Central Accra, but political demonstrations are common at election time.


Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. In the indigenous religion a dzemawon, or spirit, is a powerful intelligence that is omnipotent, omniscient, and largely unseen. Some are associated with places. They normally manifest themselves in an anthropomorphic form and can change shape at will. Humans who invade sacred space will die from horror if they see one. However, most dzemawon are beneficent and do not punish those who see them accidentally. In each quarter or town there are many dzemawodzi associated with sacred locations. There are also spirits associated with different immigrant groups, including war gods brought by Akan immigrants. Spirits are worshiped with singing and dancing called kple. The language used is no longer understood by the performers. Every god has a wulomo. More important gods have houses or groves dedicated to them.

Christianity gained many converts in Accra in the mid-nineteenth century, but from the beginning the Ga exhibited a propensity for syncretism. Most Ga now are at least nominal Christians, but many combine elements of indigenous religion and Christianity. The Protestant sects that have had the greatest impact, Methodism and Presbyterianism, have been joined by a proliferation of syncretic cults. Islam has joined the mix in recent years, and so the religious situation is extremely fluid and innovative.

Religious Practitioners. High priests are male and speak as authoritative persons. The minor wulomei are sometimes female. The woyei, the spirit mediums through which the dzemawodzi communicate in their own voices, are usually female. Each dzemawon has its own woyoo, but some woyei are attached to more than one dzemawon and also may be possessed by the spirits of dead ancestors. Woyei, after an initial fit of possession in which they are seized by a spirit, receive rigorous training. Some priestly families are known for producing woyei, but the spirits choose their own mediums, who may be taken anywhere and at any time, even during a church service. Serious harm to the chosen individual is thought to result if that choice is resisted, even if many propitiatory gifts are made to the spirit. Christian ministers usually come from the Western-educated sector of the population, and ministers of syncretic sects from a wider population. The syncretic sects often allow women to be ministers, something that was forbidden in the dominant sects.

Ceremonies. The most important life-cycle rituals are "outdoorings" and funerals. The no longer practiced puberty rites for boys did not involve circumcision, which was done separately at a young age and took place in public. Girls' puberty rites involved seclusion for several months and emphasized the value of premarital chastity. Marriages by customary law are celebrated with parties today. Christian marriages often involve elaborate Western-influenced ceremonies. Otherwise, there are public installation ceremonies for the various mantsemei and wulomei, worship ceremonies of all sects, and impromptu spirit possession ceremonies or processions.

Medicine. People consult a variety of healers, including men and women who use wodzi, or all-purpose spirits, to identify and find the cure for health problems. Western medicine is often supplemented by the use of healers; in recent years there have been increased efforts to test the efficacy of indigenous medicines, which have increased the syncretic aspects of Ga and other Ghanaian forms of medical practice. The source of sickness is often thought to be psychological or a manifestation of some misdoing by the sick person, so that confessional medicine is a common aspect of practice.

Death and Afterlife. Death may be attributed to supernatural or natural causes or a combination of both. Angry spirits can cause death. Spirits of the dead are thought to wander after death for a specific period before joining the ancestral spirits in the sky. Ancestral spirits must be propitiated for many reasons, often with libations or other offerings. The dead formerly were buried in the compound or at specified burial grounds. Now Christian rites have largely superseded those of the indigenous religion, but often elements of both are incorporated into funerals. Funerals often involve a lavish expenditure on food, entertainment, and ceremony. They perform a redistributive function in regard to wealth to a certain extent. All comers are supposed to be well fed. The celebration of death is connected to the celebration of the continuity of the lineage.

For other cultures in Ghana, see List of Cultures by Country in Volume 10 and under specific culture names in Volume 9, Africa and the Middle East.



Encyclopedia of World Cultures Supplement
Robertson, Claire


Funerals and "Fantasy" Coffins

The Ga people are known for their funeral celebrations and processions. The Ga believe that when someone dies, they move to another life. Therefore, special coffins are often crafted by highly skilled carpenters since this tradition spread in the 50's. Pioneers were master craftsmen like Paa Joe, Paa Willy and Seth Kane Kwei from Teshie.

The coffins can be anything wanted by relatives of the deceased from a pencil to any animal such as an elephant. Coffins are usually crafted to reflect an essence of the deceased, in forms such as a character trait, an occupation, or a symbol of one's standing in the community. For example, a taxicab driver is most likely to be buried in a coffin shaped as a car. Many families spend excessive amounts on coffins because they often feel that they have to pay their last respects to the deceased and being buried in a coffin of cultural, symbolic as well expensive taste is seen as fitting.

Prices of coffins can vary depending on what is being ordered. It is not unusual for a single coffin to cost $600. This is expensive for local families considering that it is not unusual to meet people with an income of only $50 a month. This means that funerals are often paid for by wealthier members of the family, if such a member exists, with smaller contributions coming from other working members of the family. This is needed as the coffin is only a portion of the total funeral cost that will be incurred. Some people foreign to Ghana are known to have been buried in Ga-styled coffins.

The use of these fantasy coffins is explained by the religious beliefs of the Ga people regarding their afterlife. They believe that death is not the end and that life continues in the next world in the same way it did on earth. Ancestors are also thought to be much more powerful than the living and able to influence their relatives who are still living (lucky as they are). This is why families do everything they can to ensure that a dead person is sympathetic towards them as early as possible.

The social status of the deceased depends primarily on the size and the success of the burial service and of course the usage of an exclusive coffin. Design coffins are only seen on the day of the burials when they are buried with the deceased. They often symbolise the dead people’s professions, the purpose being to help them continue with their earthly profession in the afterlife. Certain shapes, such as a sword or chair coffin, represent royal or priestly insignia with a magical and religious function.

Only people with the appropriate status are allowed to be buried in these types of coffins. Various creatures, such as lions, cockerels and crabs represent clan totems. Similarly, only the heads of the families concerned are permitted to be buried in coffins such as these. Many coffin shapes also evoke proverbs, which are interpreted in different ways by the Ga. Design coffins have been used since around the 1950s, especially in rural Ga groups with traditional beliefs, and have now become an integral part of Ga burial culture.

Today, figural coffins are made in several workshops in Togo and Greater Accra. Successful coffinmakers are for example Cedi and Eric Adjetey Anang of Kane Kwei Carpentry Workshop, Paa Joe and Kudjoe Affutu. Most of the figural coffins are used for funerals, only a few are exported for international art exhibitions.

For the Ga tribe in coastal Ghana, funerals are a time of mourning, but also of celebration. The Ga people believe that when their loved ones die, they move on into another life. They honor their dead with brightly colored coffins that celebrate the way they lived. The coffins are designed to represent an aspect of the dead person's life -- such as a car if they were a driver, a fish if their livelihood was the sea -- or a sewing machine for a seamstress. They might also symbolize a vice -- such as a bottle of beer or a cigarette.


Sheikh Mustapha Watson-Quartey



African Indigenous Religion, like other world religions, is the way of life of Africans since it permeates into their daily activities as well as their social lives; and the Ga of Ghana are no exception. In view of this, my focus in this discourse shall be on the religious belief system and cultural practices of the Ga people. Here, I shall examine the doctrine of the Kpele cult – the religion of the Ga people, as well as their cultural norms and practices.


The contemporary Ga, who speaks a Kwa dialect: one of the sub-languages of the Niger-Congo language family, are an ethnically and culturally diversified people. According to Kilson, “Their cultural heterogeneity arises from a variety of factors which include penetrable natural boundaries; the entrepreneurial role of the Ga in prehistoric and historic times; the Akwamu domination of Ga society during the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; the location of the centre of colonial and later national authority and international commercial activities of Accra.”

These she attributed to the fact that the Ga perceived their cultural heritage as unique and distinct from other Ghanaian cultures. Even though, much of contemporary Ga culture may owe its richness to contacts with other African nationals: and not to say the least, to that of Europeans during the past three centuries. These contacts, they assume not to be limited to the exchange of ideas and customs, but also believed that the impacts of these interactions are reflected conspicuously, in their political and religious institutions.

This view is also shared by Field (1937), who was of the opinion that the polytheistic nature of Ga religion and their habit of toleration, and consideration for other people’s gods gave impetus to such amalgamations. To support these assertions, Kilson further argued that with respect to religious institutions, three of the four major traditional cults practiced by contemporary Ga are non-Ga in origin.

For example, “me is an Adangbe cult, otu and akong are Akan cults. Kpele, the fourth cult is believed to be the indigenous Ga religious system.” A religious system, whose level of linguistic usage has been influenced by the mixture of Akan, Adangbe and Guan words, which appear in the liturgies of both the eastern and western Ga people.


Kpele is an ancient religion that the Ga kroŋ considers as the religion of their ancestors: a religious belief system, which fundamental theology and doctrine is the systematic conception of the ordering of the universe. A doctrine, which Kilson opined, validates the cult’s activities insofar as certain rituals are thought to be necessary to maintain and restore orderly relations within the universe.

Indeed, the fundamental concept of the Kpele doctrine has the taxonomy of the hierarchy of beings made up of a Supreme Being, divine beings, human beings, animals and plant as its principal teaching. These groups of beings according to Kilson are classified, based on their four distinctive characteristics that set them apart for one another, namely: creative/created, immortal/mortal, rational/irrational, and mobile/immobile.


In her analysis of the classification of the above named characteristics of beings as found in the Kpele doctrine, Kilson argued that the creative powers of the Supreme Being distinguishes it from all other classes of beings, while the perceived immortality of the gods or divine beings differentiates them from all other creations. Moreover, the rationality of human beings sets them apart from both plants and animal, and the mobility of animals distinguishes them from plants.

Thus, at the apex of the Ga religious belief system is the Supreme Being: a personified creative life force that the Ga has termed Ataa Naa Nyongmọ. An indication of the importance that the Ga attaches to the attributes of this personified life giving force: for in daily usage, Ataa is a term that means father, provider or protector based on the context in which it is being applied. In this context, however, the usage of the term has a different connotation.

Since indigenous exegesis of the name Ataa Naa Nyongmọ has been interpreted to mean taolọ naanọ nyoongmọ (seeker, eternal, nocturnal being). A notion considered by the Ga, which suggests that Ataa Naa Nyongmọ is an eternal, nocturnal being; creator of the universe, who seeks and care for all his creations.

However, another aspect of the exegetical commentary indicates that Ataa Naa Nyongmọ nurture his creations through the provision of sustenance from the bounties of the earth, as a mother does for her offspring. Thus, in Kpele thought, the bisexual nature of the Supreme Being is acknowledged in the belief that Ataa Naa Nyongmọ not only created the universe in the distance past, but also continues to be the source of all forms of life in the present.

This conception is expressed in the following Kpele song:

  • Nyongmọ Adu Akwa,  God
  • Lε dzi okua agbo lε;  He is the great farmer.  
  • Lε ebọ dzeng;  He created the world; 
  • Ni eha anyieọ mliŋ ahi.  And He gave it to them to live in.

As lyrics of the above Kpele song imply, the Ga believe that human beings not only depend on Ataa Naa Nyongmọ for their existence, but also for their means of sustenance and the perpetuation of life on earth.


The second aspect of the doctrine of the Kpele religion is the belief indivine beings or spirits of nature(dzemànwọdzi). According to Kpele teachings, these are sky-dwelling spirits associated with certain topographical features such as the ocean, lagoons, rivers, mountains, etc: which are thought to be the natural habitation or places of descent for these dzemànwọdzi. Of course, these terrestrial beings not only manifest themselves in these topographical features, but also more often than not, do manifest themselves in human forms or may speak directly to the people through mediums such as Wọŋtśεmεi (traditional priests and priestesses).

Consequently, the Ga regard the dzemànwọdzi as intercessors or mediators between humanity and Ataa Naa Nyongmọ for the protection and blessing of the living, and the future generation of the Ga people. Whereas, the dzemànwọdzi are believed to be the most important intermediaries in the affairs of the Ga, ancestral shades on the other hand, equally play an important role in the lives of their descendants by liaising between them and the dzemànwọdzi when the need arise.

Field (1937), researching into the religious belief system of the Ga was of the opinion that an idea common in West Africa, but foreign to them is the worship of fetish, and that the typical Ga high priests (Wọlọmεi) have no fetishes (wọdziŋ) in their shrines (gbatsui) and therefore are not fetish priests. She emphasized that these Wọlọmεi are servants of the dzemànwọdzi who interpret the will of these divine beings, through the medium of wọŋyei to the people.

Moreover, she tried to differentiate between a fetish (wọŋ) and a deity (dzemànwọŋ), by giving the definition of the latter as understood by the Ga people. In her opinion, the word that the Ga translate into a deity is dzemànwọŋ (divine being or spirit of nature that moves around the world and the towns) and therefore concluded that a wọŋ “is anything that can work but not be seen and include smaller beings of specialized and limited activity associated with medicines and magic”.

While a dzemànwọŋ on the other hand, is regarded as a powerful type of intelligent wọŋ (deity)not only specialized in its activities, but also equally omnipotent and omniscient though not limited to any particular locality. For these and other reasons, the Wọlọmεi do believe that direct communication with the Supreme Being is not possible since He is Invisible,Omnipotent as well as Immortal.

This in their opinion, can only be achieved through the mediation or intercession of the dzemànwọdzi (deities/spirits of nature) believed to be intermediaries or messengers of God with earthly features. For example, deities such as Sakumọ (Tema), Sakumọ fio (Accra), Kọrle (Accra), Klọte (Osu), are residents of rivers and lakes; Gbọbu (Nungua) in a hallowed grove, while Nai and Trotroe (Accra) are spirits of the sea.

Thus, as illustrated in the Ga belief in the Supreme Being – Ataa Naanọ Nyongmọ/Atta Naa Nyongmọ; Creator of the world, Invisible, Omnipotent and Immortal, there are about similar beliefs expressed in the intercession of the dzemànwọdzi who are regarded as Nyongmọ tsulọi (messengers of God), and in this case are referred to anthropomorphically as Klewi. Thus indicating the mysterious relationship between God and humanity, as expressed in the following Kpele song:

  • Atẹ Nyampong baana;  Father God will see;
  • Klewi baana.  Klewi will see.

This is an assertion that has been given credence by Reindorf (1897) who had earlier on argued that, “The Ga worship must be of foreign origin. As there is no African nation or tribe ever known to have advanced in their religious views as the Akrahs, one is inclined to suppose that the Jewish system of worship has been earlier on introduced or imitated from the people who came out first to this coast.”

On these bases, the Kpele worship of the Supreme Being through the intercession of the dzemànwọdzi as indicated earlier on by both Kilson and Field may be compared to the angels of God, which appeared to Moses, Abraham, Joshua and other leaders of the Israelites.

In corroborating these assertions, Henderson-Quartey noted that the Ga sharing of similar religious beliefs and cultural practices with the Hebrews could be traced to the Semitic people. Especially, Jews and Arabs in their encounter with most Africans believed to have originated from the southern Sudan and the Niger plateau region.

He further argued that traditional Ga religion and culture fundamentally differs from the Fante, Twi and many others systems in Ghana. This is because investigations conducted into Ga religious belief system and cultural practices from oral sources have revealed some similarities between the two cultures and religious traditions.

Prominent among some European researchers who conducted these investigations were scholars/authors such as Bosman, Barbot and Cruickshank. Their findings have confirmed as well as commented on the semblances between Ga religious beliefs and cultural practices, and that of the pre-Christian Jews.


In order to understand and fully appreciate the role of the ancestral shades in the Kpele doctrine, one needs to examine the concept of a human being (gbọmọ adesa) from the Ga perspective. According to Kilson, the Ga believe that all persons (adesai) have two aspects of humanity namely, the corporeal and the spiritual: and that in the mortal life of everyone, the soul (susuma) inhabits the body (gbọmọ tśo) except during sleep, when it leaves the body and travels about without being limited by time or space.

However, at physiological death, the soul (susuma) is believe to remain in the body for three days, after which it vacates or abandons the body to wander about, until burial and the performance of final funeral rites (faafo). It is therefore, at this stage, that the souls of the deceased persons achieve their ultimate social status as ancestral shades (sisai/nsamantanŋi), in the underworld or “dead person’s world” (gbohii adzeng).

Nevertheless, the Ga firmly believe that the ancestral shades continue after death to show much concern in the affairs of their living descendants, due to the blood relationship which a person derives from both parents at birth and which affiliate one with individuals and groups (we kui) in the Ga society

As a result, ancestral shades may sometimes manifest themselves to the living in human forms or through dreams. Moreover, their spiritual presence may sometimes be invoked to assist the living during periods of crisis or calamities. On this basis, the role of the ancestral shades in the Kpele doctrine cannot be underestimated, since they not only act as guardians of the welfare of their living kith and kin, but also serve as the custodians of Ga culture. A culture firmly established by the founding fathers of the Ga State.

This latter aspect of the Ga belief is particularly relevant to the Kpele religious system for the fact that it is the embodiment of Ga traditions, which achieves its authority through the enactment of customs established by their predecessors. Thus, the role of ancestral shades as embodied in Ga customs and traditions in general; and the Kpele worship in particular, are expressed in the verbal form of Kpele ritual prayers in the following words:

  • Tśwa, tśwa, tśwa.   Hail, hail, hail.
  • Manye aba!   Let happiness come.
  • Wọgbèi kome?   Are our voices one?
  • Ngmεnε ashi mέ?    What is today?
  • Ngmεnε ashi họgba.   Today is Sunday.  
  • Niimεi ahọgba.   Grandfathers Sunday.   
  • Naamεi ahọgba.   Grandmothers Sunday.

This form of prayer expresses the importance that the ancestors attached to the unity of the Ga people and some specific days of the week during their existence on earth. Days set aside for the benefit of both humanity and nature in the form of rejuvenation after human activities, and for the regeneration and reproduction of flora and fauna. As well as, unity that translates into harmony, cohesion, peace and tranquillity for the development of the Ga State.

Others can be found in Kpele ritual songs, which express the importance of Ga cultural practices to the contemporary generation of Ga people as seen in the lyrics of this song:

  • Ataamέi shi ha wọ.   Ancestors left it to us.
  • Tśεmέi shi ha wọ.    Fathers left it to us.

Thus, the belief in the role of the ancestors as founders and custodians of Ga culture and Kpele religious belief system as substantiated in the above Kpele song, is the authority for contemporary Kpele rites: based on the precedents that they have established in the Kpele religion and Ga cultural practices of the distant past.


Finally, the Kpele doctrine teaches that though animals and plants like human beings may wither and die, humanity is quite different from these two species; since human beings have the capacity to reason, hence the Ga expression (dzwεŋnmọ dzi gbọmọ) meaning “the mind is the person”. This is deduced from the fact that, the rationality of humanity enables them to coordinate their social and moral existence: especially, their sexuality on which the procreation of humanity depends for the survival of the human race on earth.

In view of this, the Kpele doctrine has utilized the concept of the taxonomy in the hierarchy of beings in explaining the relationship between the Supreme Being, divine beings, humanity, animals and plants. A relationship based on the dependency of each class of beings within the hierarchy, to promote peace and harmony within the universe.

Furthermore, this explains the Ga belief that all creations depend on the Supreme Being (Taolọ naanọ nyoongmọ/Ataa Naa Nyongmọ) for their existence, sustenance and security. Hence, the Ga axioms, Nyongmọ gbeọ ni wọ yeọ (God slaughters and we eat), Nyongmọ dzi wala tśε (God is the owner of life), Nyongmọ dzi wọ hiε nọ kamọ (God is our hope),etc.


Having said that, I wish to state categorically that with regard to all religious faiths the world over there are some basic principles and practices which are fundamental; and therefore, such rites or rituals are obligatory to their followers or adherents. Hence, African Indigenous Religion, which is an integral part in the lives of the people is no exception to this rule. Rather, such practices are the main features found in the religious observations of most African communities throughout the continent.

Indeed, since the fundamental aim of the Ga religion is to harmonize the relationship between the Supreme Being and humanity through the intercession of divine beings and ancestral shades, Kpele rituals are performed by cult groups, each of which is responsible for the performance of the rituals associated with a specific dzemànwọdzi (deity).

Of course, cognatic kin units (we kui) associated with the dzemànwọŋ (deity) of a particular Kpele cult determines membership into the group. However, these are restricted to the Gamεi kroŋ (true Ga) families of the Ga society who are the custodians of these dzemànwọdzi, and whose prerogative is to perform, as well as observe all rituals and worships associated with the cult as for example, in the case of Kpakpatsewe Royal Family and the Gua deity.

According to Kilson (1970), although theoretically, all members of such cognatic groups are automatic members of these Kpele cults, responsibilities for the performance of rituals are entrusted to two categories of ritual specialists: a Wọlọmọ (high priest) and a wọŋ yoo (female medium). Indeed, in the Ga customs and traditions just like the Hebrews, the priesthood is a hereditary office where a person is selected by the elders of a particular household (We) or in some cases by the dzemànwọdzi themselves.

Besides, since the office of a Wọlọmọ is a lifetime occupation, due diligence is done by these elders in selecting a chaste and an unmarried young man after a thorough vetting and examination of the proposed candidate. As already discussed in the taxonomy of the hierarchy of beings, at the apex of Kpele doctrine is the Supreme Being who is creative, immortal, rational and mobile: the source of life and controller of the natural processes in the universe of his creations.

In view of these attributes and other reasons, the Ga believe that contact cannot directly be made with Him. Rather, relationship between Him and humanity must be channeled through the mediation of the dzemànwọdzi and ancestral shades. Consequently, humanity may appeal directly to the dzemànwọdzi and thereby to the Supreme Being through libation during prayers.

While at the same time, ancestral shades may act or serve as intermediaries between their living descendants and the dzemànwọdzi in the time of crisis or calamities. Although, animals and plants formed part of the taxonomical hierarchy of beings in the Kpele doctrine, not much exegetical commentaries have been made about them. Except for the anthropomorphic utilization of these non-human classes of beings as analogues of human existence in some of the Kpele songs, as for example stated in one of the songs “wuọ nuu looflọ shishi” meaning, a domestic fowl does not understand a wild bird.


The act of offering prayer through libation has been an integral part of the African culture, and since religion as already stated is the way of life of African, libation play an important role in the daily activities of the people. As a result, libation forms the core of Kpele rituals since it is the vehicle through which both the dzemànwọdzi and ancestral shades are summoned during prayers and worship, to serve as mediums for the supplications offered to the Supreme Being.

Kilson in her analysis of the ritual act of libation among the Ga stated that “Libation involves two actions: one verbal, the other non-verbal. These actions according to her are performed sequentially; a priest prays before he libates. Sometimes a number of such sequences of ritual actions may comprise a single act of libation.” She further posited that, libation prayer consisted of three successive elements which are the invocation of divine beings and ancestral shades; explanation for the summons; and supplications to the divine beings.

Even though, the form and approach to libation prayer is constant, the length, content and context may vary depending on the intentions or reasons for the invocations and supplications as well as the ritual knowledge of the supplicant. Consequently, the performance of certain rituals and prayers are the prerogative of ritual specialists who are conversant with the rules of these acts.

Libation prayers among the Ga, therefore, elucidate certain ideas about the Kpele doctrine, which recur in every prayer irrespective of the supplicant or occasion. This is reflected in the summons and invocations of the three categories of immortal beings by the supplicant to come to the aid of the community or individual; among whom are, Ataa Naanọ Nyongmọ, dzemànwọdzi and sisai/nsamantanŋi. This in my view is based on the taxonomical structure of the hierarchy of beings as discussed earlier on.

An assertion corroborated by Kilson in her differentiation of the method and approach adopted by ritual officiants (Wọlọmεi, Mantsεmεi, Wekuu Nkpai, etc), when gods and ancestors are invoked; as against when the Supreme Being and other major deities are summoned during libation prayer and worship.Thus, in Kpele religious thought, libation prayers contained three formal elements namely: invocation, prayer or supplication and libation.


The first part of the libation prayer which is verbal, comprise of the invocation of the Supreme Being through the appellations of His various attributes such as His bisexuality (Ataa, Naa i.e. Father, Mother). His role as Creator of the universe, Provider for the needs of His creations, Sustainer of life and the only One who gives Divine guidance to humanity through His messengers (dzemànwọdzi). These ideas are explicitly expressed in the following Kpele prayer text:

Ofe Nyongmọ nibọ ngwei kε shikpong kε shikpong nọ tśei kε tεi, fai kε godzii, nudzii kε nibii krokomεi. Sεε mliŋ ni ebọ adesai, ni eto adsai adeng kε tsọ nonọ ni eha Ga hu bọfo…………..

Tśε Nyongmọ Mãwu, nọni ogblenaa lε no dzi nọni wọbaa nye wọtsu. Nọni ofèè ko daŋ lε, wọ nyeng he noko wọ fè, ni nọni otshiko taŋ lε, wọnye henii wọtsu.

This translates as follows:

Almighty God who created the sky and earth and on earth trees and stones, rivers and mountains, valleys and other things. Afterwards He created human beings and He put all things into the hands of men and through this He also gave Ga a messenger (i.e. Sakumọ)………..

Father God, what you have opened that is what we will be able to perform. What you have not done before, we cannot do anything about it, and what you have not mentioned, we cannot perform.

The second category of beings invoked in the course of the prayer are the dzemànwọdzi (divine beings) which is illustrated in the second part of the prayer as can be observed in the following supplication:

  • Nii/Nuumo Sakumọ;  Grandfather/old man Sakumọ;
  • Klọọte kotobridza akotobri;  Great, great Sakumọ;
  • Odai wọmu oye;   Sakumọ, it is good you are present;
  • Afite osaa;  They destroy and you repair;
  • Abuo Tete ke tśei;  when Sakumọ is called, he answers;
  • Ọnyanku afle;  one whom one calls when in danger;
  • Oku ama Nkran.  you kill for Ga;
  • Tete yee, tete yee;   Sakumọ senior, yes; Sakumọ junior, yes;
  • Angula sro, Ashanti sro.   Ewe fear you, Ashanti fear you.

These appellations showed the awe and reverence that the Ga hold for the immortal beings i.e. the deities. While believing that Ataa Naanọ Nyongmọ assists humanity, especially the Ga, through the dzemànwọdzi when the need arise. Indeed, the maintenance and restoration of harmonious relationship between immortal beings and humanity depend to some extent on the performance of rituals whereby the latter reaffirm their subordinate status in the taxonomical structure of the hierarchy of beings as well as acknowledge their dependence on the super-ordinate beings.


In the non-verbal aspect of the libation prayer, water, corn wine (nŋmaa daa) or alcoholic beverages play an important role in summoning the dzemànwọdzi and sisai/nsamantanŋi as a means of establishing contractual relationship between mortal men and immortals spirits. Through this act, the Ga believe that immortal spirits can be manipulated to perform the tasks that has been addressed to them, for the onward transmission to the Supreme Being.

While at the same time, it is believed that by accepting the offering of the above named items, immortal spirits not only sanction the actions of the Ga, but also acknowledge their responsibilities towards them. Libation, therefore, in Kpele rituals is a sacrificial act and communion, which seeks to emphasize the taxonomy of the hierarchy of beings in order to validate and ensure the success of the rites, which are performed.

Here, instead of sacrificial animals and in some cases human beings that are immolated for the propitiation of immortal beings, the offering of water, nŋmaa daa and liquor are symbolically annihilated by being poured on the ground. Thus, libation emphasizes the communion between the taxonomical structures of the hierarchy of beings; both mortal and immortal, whose cooperation is essential for the existence and prosperity of humanity.


Furtherance to the taxonomical structure of the hierarchy of beings in the Kpele doctrine, Kilson in researching into the phenomenon of twin births among the Ga, was of the view that the Ga believe twins (haadzii) are human beings associated with certain sky dwelling spirits. In order to fully comprehend and appreciate the Ga belief about twin births, one needs to analyse the Kpele doctrine to grasp its fundamental teachings: the taxonomical conception of the hierarchy of beings.

A doctrine, which teaches that both mortal and immortal beings, depends on one another for the harmonization of the universe, and the prosperity of humankind. In this regard, twin births among the Ga are seen as desirable anomalies, which resulted from the parents’ unusual reproductive powers and at the same time; a gift from the Supreme Being.

Expatiating further on this phenomenon, Kilson averred, “the Ga believed that for every pair of human twins born on earth, there are corresponding pair of spirits in sky, which are the bush cow (wuo) spirits.” This belief may be attributed to the conception of the hierarchy of beings in the Kpele doctrine, due to the fact that next to human beings, animals play an important role in the survival of humankind on earth since they serve as food and beasts of burden.

To the Ga, therefore, although the bush cow spirits are sky dwelling beings they sometimes descend to the earth and become localized in human beings, other animals and plants; either by their own volition or through human intention. Indeed, the belief of the existential nature of the bush cow spirit explains in large measures the rituals surrounding twin births in Ga culture. The bush cow, a ferocious and wild forest dwelling animal that attack other creatures and objects with its horns.

This animal is believed to be gregarious, travel in groups and enjoy bathing in ponds. Above all, its spirits is believed to cleanse the yam (yεlε) crops, of any inherent mystical dangers. Thus, the birth of human twins or multiple births are a source of joy among the Ga who believe that there is strength in numbers.

Moreover, such births are believed to be gifts from the Supreme Being, which must be handled with all the care that it deserves. For these, and other reasons as explained earlier on, elders of the patriarchal family consult a medium of a Kpele cult who invoke the twins spirits to determine whether they wished to be worshipped or not.

When the latter is determined, arrangements are made for the construction of a twins’ shrine (kodziŋ) which are kept in their home. This shrine consists of a small hand woven raffia purse (flọtọ), a pair of bush cow horns (kodziŋ), a bottle of Schnapps, a small ceramic plate and a piece of kaolin (ayεlọ), which are all kept in a tray or wooden bowl (tsese) and covered with white cloth. The most important objects in the shrine according to Kilson, is the pair of bush cow horns that are procured for the twins. Since as human beings, they lack the natural horns of their counterparts: the bush cow spirits.

Furthermore, it is belief of the Ga that since the spiritual powers of the terrestrial twin spirits are localized in the bush cow horns, mortal twins equally derive and exert their powers (hewalε) through the replicated horns. Consequently, twins are feared among the Ga because, when angry, they may beat their horns to invoke and thereby localize the twin spirits in the horns and through these spirits to cause sickness; if not death, to those who have incurred their wrath.

On the contrary, Field (1937) having researched into the rites performed during childhood of special children among the Ga earlier on, held an entirely different view from that of Kilson. In analyzing her findings she posited that, the cult of twins which is one of the yam-eating cults are connected with animal worship, and that twins are supposed to have ‘the same spirit’ as the wuo, a very savage kind of wild cow.

She contended that, “When the twins are a week old, in addition to their ordinary naming ceremony, each receives a little clay pot which is embedded in a little clay platform outside the house.  Offerings of herbs, rum, cowries, money, are put into these pots, and chickens are killed and the blood sprinkled on them…When the twins are a few months old, and had evidently ‘come to stay’, the pots are exchanged for a pair of wuo horns.”

However, in my opinion, even though there may be variations in the findings of both researchers, the performance of certain religio-cultural rites may vary depending on the locality as can be seen in the celebration of the annual Họmọwọ festival among the various Ga groups. For example, while the Wọ Sagba of Ga Mashie and Osu celebrate the Họmọwọ with the satirical Oshii dzo as a side attraction, the Wọ Doku of La and Teshie have the Kpã Shimọ or La Kpã Yo Kpèèmọ with śakamọ the ceremonial embracing of the opposite sex as a special feature of the celebration.

On the other hand, while the Wọ Krowor of Nungua performs the Obeneshimọ after the Họmọwọ celebration, the Wọ Kpele of Tema performs the Kpeledzo before the annual agricultural harvest festival of the Ga society. Again, we do agree with Field on her assertion that twin cults are basically, yam-eating cults, associated with animal worshipping tribes such as the who were believed to be the shikwέbii of La, Tema, Nungua and Kpone. These aboriginal tribes were worshippers of the snake, leopard and hyena who were assimilated by the Adangbe and Lashbii.

Consequently, it is not surprising that the Ga adopted the twin cult and worship as part of their cultural heritage due to their consideration and tolerance for other people’s religious beliefs and practices that preserves human life and dignity. Hence the Ga axiom, Ablé kuu aba kuma wọ: literally meaning, “let a good and abundant harvest of corn be our lot.”

In other words, all manner of persons are acceptable to, and welcomed by the Ga as neighbours, provided they live in peace with them. Of course, the Ga consider themselves as affable people with open heart that embraces everyone irrespective of race, colour, gender, religion or creed without any form of discrimination.

This can be seen from the composition of the various Ga communities in the Greater Accra region. Hence, the twin worship ceremony formed the prelude to the celebration of the annual Họmọwọ festival after the lifting of the ban on drumming and noise making in all the major Ga towns, especially, Ga Mashie. Thus, though twins may be notoriously capricious and difficult to nurture, their parents are always proud of them. Additionally, they are regarded as divine beings that never bring misfortune to their families when treated with tender care and loving kindness, but rather, blessings and prosperity.


The supposed Hebraic origin of Ga religious beliefs and cultural practices are illustrated by some rites of passage practices among which are the kpojiemọ (naming ceremony) performed on the eight day for all newly born babies irrespective of gender, and the circumcision of the male child (hii aniŋ/ketia) after the kpojiemọ rituals (Gen. 17: 9-14).

Amartey (1991) corroborated these assertions when he noted that the Ga group, who were exposed to the Israelites in the land of Goshen due to their common habitation and social status, assimilated some aspects of their culture through intermarriages and acculturation. Moreover, he discussed the patriarchal naming of the Ga kroŋ and argued that this system is based on the family or clan names for easy identification, in addition to the inheritance and succession, as found in the Ga social organizational structures.

However, Kilson (1974) in analyzing the Ga customs and traditional ceremonial rites of passage observed, “The aim of the cycle of life crisis ceremonies is based on the physiological development of the human organism……each ceremony defines an individual as a member of a bio-social category and failure to observe a ceremony entails mystical and practical sanction.”

She further argued that five major ritual ceremonies marked the social transitions during the life span of every Ga person, who live up to adulthood. These ceremonies, which comprise of kpodziemọ (naming rite) among others, transforms an eight-day-old child from a biological fetal nonentity into a Ga person. Based on this, an infant who dies before the naming ceremony is performed is not considered a social being and for this reason, its mother does not achieve the respected social status of motherhood, which reflects in the use of a family/clan name: for example, Kpakpanye.

Another ceremony that she laid much emphasis on is the hiianii (men’s thing) – the circumcision of all male children, which has to be performed at any time after the kpodziemọ, and or before the age ten. This ritual masculinizes the boys and at the same time, differentiates the Ga from other ethnic groups on the West Coast of Africa.

Other rites of passage ceremonies in her estimation are the physiological puberty rites (dzengniŋ) performed for both genders, and which marked the transition from immaturity to maturity. The performance of which signify the purification and preparation for the assumption of the adulthood role of marriage, parentage and other social responsibilities.

Without which a person may be branded ‘immoral and stupid’ thereby being denied ancestral status after death. One other important bio-social transition to Kilson is that of marriage, which constitutes a major change in the process of maturation for both men and women in the Ga customs and traditional life cycle.

Indeed, the institution of a first marriage is contracted by two sets of ceremonies namely: shibimọ (betrothal) and yoo kpèèmọ (wedding) rites. On the issue of betrothal, Kilson observed that “It involve the transfer of goods from the groom’s kin to the bride’s family, which establishes the groom’s exclusive rights to the bride’s sexuality and his kindred’s right to her reproductive capacity.” Thus, the formal wedding, which entails a week of merriment and feasting, transfers the bride to the groom’s family and ends with a blessing at the shrine of Nai: the senior Kpele deity in Accra, at the Nai We.

However, as it is with all human existence and life transitions, the funerary rites marked the end of all rites of passage. In the Ga customs and traditions, certain conceptions of humanity are relevant in the life of every person. In accordance with that, the Ga believes that a person has two aspects of humanity namely: a body and a soul.

In view of this, while the body is believed to have only temporary existence; the susuma (soul) has eternal life, though its association with the body is limited. Thus, it is believed that every soul has a predetermined length of human existence, and when it leaves the body, it wanders about ‘nobody knows where’ until the performance of the final funeral rites (faafo) has been completed.

This aspect of the Ga funerary observation according to Henderson-Quartey has the semblance to that of the Hebrews practices. He observed that at death and mourning, burial rituals such as kotśa gbamọ (separation of sponge) which signifies the separation of the dead from the living as against that performed by the Jewish special group; the Hevra Kaddishah (Sacred Society), formed part of the Ga cultural practices.

These rituals are strong indications of the belief in the after-life. For, to both the Ga and the Jews, death is the separation of the body from its life giving force: the soul, and the continuation of life in the hereafter. Thus, the after-death treatment of the body is a strong indication not only in the belief of the sanctity of life, but also in the equality of all humanity and the mutual responsibility entrusted to all families and friends in times of bereavements.


One of the major occupations among the Ga is agriculture, since it plays an important role in their livelihood, as no family is without agricultural or fishing interest in one or any of the villages of the six Ga coastal towns stretching from Langma to Tema. Again, as part of the Ga religious system as can be seen from the analysis of the Kpele doctrine of the taxonomy of the hierarchy of beings, even though animals and plants formed part of the subordinate beings, their role in the harmonization of the universe cannot be overemphasized.

On these bases, periodic, occasional, and calendrical rites as well as festivals are performed on behalf of the entire Ga community by the various Kpele cults as a means of harmonizing the relationship between the super-ordinate beings and humanity. Among these rites are the weekly rituals performed by the various Wọlọmεi on the days of the week that are sacred to their family deities.

In addition to these, are other annual rituals such as the nŋmaa yeli (eating of millet) festivities to celebrate each deity, annual nshor bulemọ (purification of the sea) by the Wọlọmεi of the various Ga coastal towns assisted by the Wolεiatśεi (chief fishermen). Again, rituals to close the Sakumọ, Tśεmu and Korle lagoons to fishing in order to replenish the fish stock as well as protect the fish fingerlings from extinction, thereby preventing the depletion of marine life in these water bodies.

While on the other hand, the opening of these water bodies to fishing ensure that there is enough fish for the celebration of the Họmọwọ festival.However, all these activities serve as a prelude to the Nŋmaa dumọ (cultivation of millet)by the various quarters in both Ga Mashie and Tema communities prior to the celebration of both Kpeledzo and Họmọwọ festivals.


The institution of the Jewish Passover according to Henderson-Quartey has some similarities with the Ga Họmọwọ festival. These are manifested in the way and manner in which both the Jews and the Ga count the yearly calendar of twelve moons for the commencement of religious rituals and festivals.

For example, the counting of the number of nyanyara garlands used in purification rites from the first Monday after the Họmọwọ celebration, and subsequent Mondays throughout the yearby the Dantu Wọlọmọ of Lante-Djan We clan. Hence, the method through which the Wọlọmọ announce the days of the Kpele religious rites; and most importantly, the commencement of the Ga Họmọwọ festival.

He further argued that unlike other festivals in Ghana, the Ga Họmọwọ portray the sense and significance in which the celebration of the Roshanah and the Yom Kippur by the Jews does. The significance of which is meant to fulfill the commandments of God by bringing all the people into the experiences of their ancestors and the gathering of kith and kin together. Moreover, the need to face up to past mistakes and to let go of resentments against one another, and a time for reconciliation by giving a genuine chance of a fresh start in family relationships and neighbourliness.

Finally, to appreciate each other’s need as well as role in the harmonization, progress, and development of the family in particular, and the Ga community in general; through the ŋgọwala greetings offered to the family and members of the Ga community, a day after the Họmọwọ celebration (Ex.12:19).

However, Amartey on the other hand has argued that, the only festival, which the Ga-speaking immigrants do then celebrate, is yihoo gbi (the day of Passover). A festival that they adopted from their encounter with the Israelites. This, he strongly believes have been substituted with an agricultural harvest festival – the Họmọwọ. The celebration of which the Ga groups may have instituted due to hunger they suffered from famine, during their long journey from their place of origin to their present locations in the then Gold Coast.

Besides, Field also alluded to the fact that the Kpeledzo festival is another annual agricultural harvest celebration of the Kpele cult assimilated by the Ga of Teshie, Nungua and Tema into their cultural practices. While, in places like Ga Mashie, Osu and La, elements of Kpeledzo such as Kpele ha manbii ŋgọwala greetings (Kpele offering of life to the people) have also been incorporated into the annual Họmọwọ festival celebration.

Although these religio-cultural practices vary in both scale and magnitude in respect to the number of participants and complexities of the rituals, they are system-maintaining or redressive acts, which are considered essential for maintaining harmonious relationship between the super-ordinate and subordinate beings as already stated.

Thus, the success of Kpele rituals and worship depends on a number of dramatic forms which include songs, dance, music, prayers, libation and sacrifice all aimed at achieving orderly and harmonious relationship between the taxonomical structure of the hierarchy of beings in the universe.

In conclusion, the religion of the Ga people just like its language have undergone a lot of changes even though originally, its was supposed to be monotheistic in nature; as per their association and intermarriages with the Israelites in the land of Goshen in Egypt. And although they may have acquired the cultural traits of other ethnic groups, they have still retained their belief in the Supreme Being as can be seen in most of their cultural practices and rites of passage.       


  • Field, M. J. Religion and Medicine of the Ga People, 1937
  • Field, M. J. Social Organization of the Ga People, 1940.
  • Greenburg, The Languages of Africa, 1966.
  • Henderson-Quartey, David K. The Ga of Ghana, London: 2001.
  • Kilson, M. African Urban Kinsman, 1974.
  • Kilson, M. “Taxonomy and Form in Ga Rituals” Journal of Religion in Africa, Vol. 3, Fasc. 1, 1970.
  • Kilson, M. Kpele Lala: Ga Religious Songs and Symbols, 1971. 
  • Kilson, M.“Libation in Ga Rituals”, Journal of Religion in Africa, Vol. 2, Fasc.3. 1969.
  • Kilson, M.“Twin Belief and Ceremony in Ga Culture”, Journal of Religion in Africa, Vol. 5, Fasc. 3, 1973.