Traditional wood carving in Ghana is an ancient industry. It has also been a major means of livelihood for a number of Ghanaians for many years. However, events such as COVID or challenges such as deforestation and even the ban on tree felling have caused the industry to suffer a little.
Despite all of this, wood carving is still a strong representation of Ghana’s arts & crafts industry with many wood souvenirs and gitfs available for you to take back home as a gift.
In this article we will explore a brief overview of wood carving history in Ghana, some of its challenges as well as an insight into the “Tree of Life” located in Aburi Gardens.
History of Wood carving in Ghana
Wood-carving can be traced back to the Ashanti people of Ghana, specifically the small villages of Aburi and Ahwiaa referred to as the wood carving centres. Legend has it that in olden times a man named Akwasi Yoyo traveled to the Ashanti kingdom of Denkyira, where he learned the craft of wood-carving. You can learn more about the Ashanti people with the story of Asase Yaa, Ashanti Earth goddess.
After mastering these skills, he brought his finished carvings back to his hometown (which today is called “Ahwiaa”) and showed them to the King. The King was so impressed that he instructed the entire village to learn and practice the art form. Since then, this beautiful craft has been passed down from family to family, generation to generation.
Nowadays, wood-carving is seen as more of an individual creativity. If we travel back 100 years or so, this was not the case. Wood-carving was a communal form of expression done under strict dictates of clan leaders, chiefs, religious leaders and other opinion leaders within a community. Its forms of expression were based on the ideas and ideals of a community or an ethnic group.
This meant that individuals could not express themselves through wood-carving as you may see today. On a positive note, carving did help sustain communal and social life, producing a variety of drums for traditional orchestra and ensembles which also led to the promotion of coal cohesion, solidarity and entertainment.
Wood-carving began in forest areas due to the abundance and easy access the locals could get to the wood. It was a skill only done by men, but not any kind of man, rather by a limited number of carvers which were regarded as the privileged minority because they had the skill.
It was believed that this skill was gifted by God, and because of this they were given great respect within the community, as well as being admired for their creativity and ingenuity. They even had their own secret initiation rituals for apprentices. Some of the wood carvers of the Akan people were called “Ohene Dwumfour”, literally translated as “The chief’s carpenter”.
The wood-carving profession progressed over the years but remained a male-profession only. Females were not allowed to be involved in this skill because it was considered to be hard, so rather they would only involve themselves in selling the carved objects. Even if we observe today, the majority of wood carvers are still men.
The type of wood and wood-carved items
In the past, wood carving was used to create a wide range of items including: household utensils, combs, baby rattles, and furniture. They’re also use for drums in many of the festivals in Ghana; masks for ritual dances; figurines for religious practices; and, perhaps most significantly, the Ashanti Kings’ and Chiefs’ sacred stools.
Today, the majority of wood-carved objects are produced for tourist trade, or for export to other countries. However, the design of the objects has changed very little.
The Ashanti Kings’ and Chiefs’ sacred stools hold great importance. They are carved from a single piece of wood. The seat part is curved and represents the warm embrace of a mother. The center middle section contains symbols that indicate the owner’s beliefs, history or values. Most stools had an Adinkra symbol in the front.
The primary wood used for carving in Ghana is Sese (Holarrhena wulfsbergii) and Tweneboa (Cordia millenii). Other woods used include: Afromosia, Mahogonay, Odum “Iroko”, Cedrela and Sinuro.
The tweneboa is a sacred tree (since ancient time, trees in Ghana were considered dwelling places of supernatural spirits and powers, both benevolent and malevolent). Its name literally means “drum tree”. It is relatively soft and easy to carve and sometimes already hollow, which makes it ideal for drum making. Most Kpanlogo drums are made from tweneboa.
Challenges that the wood-carving industry experiences today
Like any other industry in Ghana, the wood-carving industry also experiences its own challenges. One of the main challenges includes the difficulty in the acquisition of wood due to the ban on tree felling by the Government of Ghana, the high cost of available wood due to the activities of commercial timber loggers and chainsaw operators.
Another important factor is the lack of financial support as well as lack of modern tools for production (there is still over-reliance on outmoded tools, equipment and techniques used).
The Tree of Life at the Aburi Botanical Gardens
If you want to witness a beautiful piece of wood-carving, you should visit the Aburi Botanical Gardens and witness the Tree of Life with your own eyes.
It’s a sculpted dead tree which is believed to have stood for over 300 years and took over 4 years to carve. It depicts man’s journey to the top. Some are kings and some are still “climbing”. Some are pushing others down and some are giving a hand. They may all be doing different actions but at the end they all have the same goal: get to the top.