We Are Akan: Our People and Our Kingdom in the Rainforest — Ghana, 1807 — Paperback – October 16, 2020
This work of historical fiction offers a richly illustrated story of life in the Asante Kingdom of 1807. Three boys, ages 11-13, strive to become leaders in the Akan culture. They balance the life they know with their experience of domestic slavery and the role of the Asante Kingdom in the Atlantic slave trade.
WE ARE AKAN is a work of historical fiction that follows three months in the lives of Kwame, Kwaku, and Baako, ages 11–13, who live in and near the fictional town of Tanoso in the Asante Kingdom. It is a richly illustrated story set in 1807
Kwame, Kwaku, and Baako strive to become leaders in the Akan culture. They farm, learn spear throwing, take part in ceremonies and dances, and listen to stories while gaining an understanding of the rainforest and its animals. In the capital city to see the king and the Golden Stool and take part in an important festival, the boys encounter the wider kingdom: fine crafts, livestock, foreign people and books, and witness the sale of prisoners as slaves. Kwaku cares for a leopard cub that the king wants returned to the forest. Traveling to the coast, Kwame and Baako are kidnapped and threatened with sale as slaves. The Asante Kingdom faces rebellion and the decline of its role in the Atlantic slave trade. Change will come. Kwame, Kwaku, and Baako balance the life they know with new possibilities for their future.
As a PCV Dorothy Soper taught French to Akan students in a rural boarding high school in Ghana. At the time she was the only female teacher in the school and was placed in charge of the girls’ dormitory. Her experience was an immersion in the Akan culture. Returning to the U.S., she earned an MA in African history at UCLA and subsequently developed units on African culture and history for elementary school classes. She wrote the book in response to her experience as a teacher. She found little material for young readers and few visuals to illustrate African cultures of any historical period.
While in Kenya as a PCV James Cloutier created audio-visual materials to train land recipients to become cash crop farmers. Today he is a well-known artist in Oregon who specializes in illustrations, caricatures, and cartoons. For We Are Akan he created two maps and over ninety illustrations of Akan people, daily life, and celebrations. There is nothing similar on the market.
Reviewed by Sue Hoyt Aiken (Ethiopia 1962–64)
Imagine this reader’s surprise to see the date of 1807 implying this was a historical story, in Africa! Lucky would be the kids in school today who get to read about a powerful, intelligent, community-minded kingdom located in Ghana in West Africa, in 1807!
The story follows young people going about their daily lives doing work for and about the community. Their “educations” are mapped out and led by elders or older relatives. Women do honorable work and most important of all, each child’s experiences and attempts to accomplish tasks are rewarded with warm words of encouragement from those teachers/parents. They are encouraging, grateful and caring. Thus teaching the children about responsibility and humility.
Most interesting was the parallel between what this kingdom was experiencing in terms of threats to their ways as they knew them and today’s world with climate change, disregard for diverse perspectives, for building community, and the willful destruction of our resources. Today’s readers may be saddened as the fate of the kingdom’s future is fast approaching, from our perspective.
Ancient indigenous peoples lived close to the land, were dependent on it for survival and livelihood, and gave it a great deal of respect. I can only imagine what a teacher today, using this book with students, could discuss with them: values, caring for resources, the importance of family, caring for less fortunate and old vs. new ways of doing things. And so much more.
The amount of research and knowledge required to write a series of stories filled with daily routines and events as well as fear of the unknown, and heightened awareness of the world outside through travel and adventure, is impressive. Seeing young people on the way toward a more informed, educated future, is very significant. We might wonder, what happened to these people and their dreams? Are they the better for it or not? This was a question we PCVs often asked ourselves. Are we helping by bringing the values and tools of the outside-developed world into a less developed country? Will they be better off? Or will it destroy their culture, as they knew it? Is that inevitable? Is history repeating itself?
Equally impressive is the section at the rear of the book entitled, “Introduction to the Akan People.” Placing it at the end after reading the book brought the work full circle. We Are Akan is based on the work of many scholars including the language, culture, art, ceremonies, trade and so much more. The Akan who later would adopt and release them references European slave trade as well as the use of slaves and prisoners.
This review would not be complete without the mention of the charming illustrations by James Cloutier. They bring the stories to life!
Sue Hoyt Aiken (Ethiopia 1962–64) is the granddaughter of Quaker missionaries who were in Kenya in the early 20th century when travel to Africa took months by steamer and her grandmother wore long skirts. Her grandfather’s task was to teach the Kenyans to make and build homes with bricks, eliminating native grasses and trees as building materials. Their careers spanned 30 plus years by which time the world was very much changed. Their work in Africa ended shortly after WWII. Their stories inspired Sue to choose Africa as the continent for her Peace Corps service.