My first palanquin

We talked about palanquins in class. I was astonished. Delighted. Real palanquins?! I don’t think I’ve ever had occasion to actually use the word, except when singing along to The Decemberists, so I had to be sure I had the right meaning; “A palanquin is a litter, right?”

Yes, it is. And last weekend, I saw one. More than one, actually. Regina and I went to Fetu Afahye, the big yearly festival of the Fanti people. The festival takes place in Cape Coast (Oguaa in Fante), which is both their main city and the site of the infamous Cape Coast Castle.

Women walking by Cape Coast Castle

Cape Coast Castle

The symbolism and ritual significance of festivals in Ghana is rich, and unfortunately much of it is still lost on me. They have a ritual aspect and a public aspect, and the two are intertwined. They reflect and reinforce – but also sometimes invert and mock – the traditional social order, and often span days. Fetu Afahye lasts a week, events and rituals gradually building to a climactic procession on Saturday.

That’s what we went to see.

We got up early, having heard that the procession started at 7:30 a.m. We were informed otherwise by people on the street. So we had some egg sandwiches at Janet’s Spot. They were to die for. And then we explored.

The Main Square

The Main Square in early morning, all decked out with MTN advertising. MTN is a big cellular and internet provider, and they seem to be the dominant advertisers here.

Cape Coast street before the procession

Before the procession

Regina and clowns

These clowns were everywhere. They would ask for money and then either dance for you or do some stunts. Pretty much everyone would give them a coin or two.

After we’d found a good place to watch the procession, we fortuitously ran into a really nice young man who worked at our hotel. (Actually, there were no rooms available at our hotel, so we stayed in a tent. It was really very nice.) He invited us to join his clan. They were hanging out in a back alley, preparing to join the procession. We shook hands with a couple of chiefs, told the queenmother she was beautiful (she was), and asked lots of questions. Then suddenly we were all pouring out of the alley into the street, where everyone began clapping and singing and dancing.

The chief

Me with the chief of our adopted clan, and a stunned onlooker.


And the striking queenmother…

Enthusiastic man

This man really wanted me to take his picture.

And then came the palanquins. With spinning elevated umbrellas.

The chief in his palanquin

A big chief in his palanquin

The chiefs in our adopted clan were sub-chiefs, so they walked instead of riding in palanquins. Apparently, at social functions, status disputes sometimes arise in various symbolic acts (like arriving in a palanquin vs. a car) between chiefs; there’s a whole mess of protocol to be observed. That’s what we’d been talking about in class when palanquins first came up.

I was there!!!

Each chief has his or her (yes, there are some female chiefs) entourage. Women dancing in front, the chief’s linguist walking seriously with his staff, drummers walking behind.


Part of the entourage. All of the dances, movements, gestures, clothing have significance. I’ll get into that later, as far as I’m capable.

There were all sorts of interesting characters. And way too much going on to begin to recount it all. Drums, dancing. Acting. Flag-spinning. A guy on stilts. I got a sunburn.

Flag dancing

Flag dancing. Among the Fanti, each clan (there are seven, I’m told) has its own flag. The applique tells a story unique to each clan.

Some kids dancing

This kid is awesome.

A vegan

There was even a hipster.


A festival’s not a festival until you throw your hands in the air.


The tables are turned….this guy saw me snapping him snapping me and started laughing, then came over and asked to take some together.

I couldn’t resist the urge to collect lots of sounds and pictures, so I’ll post more later, along with a (slightly) more in-depth look at the significance of some of aspects of this festival and Ghanaian festivals in general.