In Kojo Antwi’s song ‘Akuaba’ he describes the beauty of a woman he’s seen – the slimness of her nose, the whiteness of her teeth, and then the best feature of all, her figure, which he compares to that of an ‘akuaba’. Now to those of you not familiar with Ghanaian culture, ‘akuaba’ is a fertility doll who’s legend and tradition is still very much a part of Ghanaian culture today.
Legend has it that there once lived a woman called Akua who was unable to conceive. Because Akan society is matrilineal, it is extremely important that Akan women are able to give birth, preferably female children to carry the family line. So women who are barren often find themselves ostracised in their communities. The story goes that Akua visited a fetish priest who carved her a wooden doll to carry on her back. Akua took the doll home and cared for it as she would a real baby. She was laughed at by those in her village, who referred to the doll as Akua’ba’, meaning Akua’s child. Soon Akua fell pregnant and gave birth to a girl and it is said that from then on women adopted the practice of carrying ‘akuaba’ on their backs in order to conceive.
Genuine akuaba figures are female, carved to represent the Akan ideal of beauty; a flat disc like head featuring a high oval forehead, slightly flattened in actual practice by moulding a new born infant’s cranial bones on a round stone. The rings on an akuaba’s neck represents rolls of fat, which in Akan culture is a sign of beauty, prosperity and health. Small scars are made below the eyes for medicinal purposes to protect against convulsions and a small delicate mouth is set low on the face. Akuba figures also serve as protection against deformities and even ugliness – when a woman is pregnant she’s warned against looking at anything or anyone unattractive lest it influences the features of her unborn child. Most akuaba have abstracted horizontal arms and a cylindrical torso with simple indications of breasts and navel, with the torso ending in a base rather than legs.
Though carrying akuaba on your back to conceive is not as widespread as it was in the past, the practice is still carried out in
some part of Ghana today. If a woman wanted to conceive, she would visit a local shrine accompanied by a elder female family member. A carving would then be commissioned by the local priest, who would then give the doll to the woman, sometimes along with traditional medicine. The woman would then carry the doll on her back tied by cloth the way a real child would, and she would also feed and bathe the doll – by doing this she’s thought to have a better chance of having a beautiful healthy baby. Once the woman conceives and successfully gives birth, the akuaba is often returned to the shrine as a form of offering to the spirits for granting them a child. Families sometimes also keep their akuaba dolls as a memorial if the child died.
Today akuaba figures are mass produced, often used a souvenirs or decorational pieces in the home. However its symbolism is still prevalent, with parents often buying these dolls for their daughter to play with, in hopes that it will influence child-bearing in their adult lives.
By Yaa Nyarko (@yaa_fremah)