Growing up in Ghana, one of my favourite history lessons was the story of Yaa Asantewa, the warrior Queen of the Asante Empire. Yaa is the day name of any girl born on a Thursday. Ghanaian’s and some African countries have a naming culture that gives you a name based on the day of the week you were born. Kofi Annan the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Secretary-General of the United Nations (may his soul rest in peace) is a Friday born, hence being named Kofi.
I cannot remember exactly when I first heard this story but the character of Yaa Asantewaa, her strength and resilience in the face of adversity and her ability to stand up to fight and to save the Asante Empire from the British who wanted to get their hands on the Asante Golden Stool and to rule the empire.
The British captured and exiled the Asante kings leaving the empire without a ruling monarchy. Yaa Asantewaa stepped in and fought to guard the empire, her grandchildren and to protect the Golden Stool the British were after. The Golden Stool was believed to house the soul of the Asante Empire and so needed to be protected at all cost.
The resulting war was bloody and led by a woman on the Asante side. Ultimately, this war became known as the Yaa Asantewaa War of 1900.
The story follows that Yaa Asantewaa rallied her fellow women to fight and protect the Asante Empire when the men were fearful of further wars and death. She gave a rally speech which stirred up the men to continue fighting the British for months. They fought bravely led by Yaa Asantewaa and kept the British at bay until a reinforcement of the British army resulted in their defeat and the capturing of Yaa Asantewaa.
She was then imprisonment at Elmina Castle and finally exiled to Seychelles where she died in 1921. This memory was triggered by a recent visit to Ghana to deliver entrepreneurial training to a cohort of Pan African scientists and researchers as part of Global Challenges Research Fund’s (GCRF) RECIRCULATE fund which was set up to support a new partnership-based approach to enable African researchers to grow transformational impact through equitable partnerships with UK researchers.
A visit and tour of Elmina Castle, one of the main ports where slaves were held before being transported to foreign lands, included a visit to the cell where Yaa Asantewaa was held in captivity before being exiled to Seychelles.
Yaa Asantewaa’s life and death were not wasted because a few decades later Yaa Asantewaa’s dream for an Asante free of British rule was realised on March 6, 1957, when Ghana regained control and independence from the British and became the first African nation in Sub-Saharan Africa to achieve this feat.
Yaa Asantewaa is immortalised in songs, folklore and has a girl’s secondary school and a museum was also set up in her name. There is a Yaa Asantewaa Arts and Community Centre in London.
I grew up hearing this story and being likened to Yaa Asantewa because I too was born on a Thursday and since Yaa Asantewaa, it is believed that her spirit lives and breathes in all women born on a Thursday. Yaa Asantewaa remains a much-loved figure in Asante history and the history of Ghana as a whole for her role in standing up to oppression.
We have inherited some stories of female heroism but none that showcases the bravery of female warriors like Yaa Asantewaa as she doesn’t fit the stereotypes of how we believe women need to behave or how we expect them to behave.
As we celebrate this month of women’s achievement and history it seems apt to share this story as one that has not only inspired me over the years but also reminds us all of what is possible when one person has the heart and the courage to stand up not only for themselves but for others.
As Maya Angelou put it: “Each time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it possibly, without claiming it, she stands up for all women.”
This quote applies to both men and women. Each time a woman or a man stands up for another person, without knowing it possibly, without claiming it, they stand up for all of us.
For Yaa Asantewaa and other female warriors their heroism live on today in the lives of many women as they stand up for their rights in today’s unbalanced workplace. As we build a gender-balanced world, let us remember that everyone has a part to play – all the time, everywhere.
These untold stories of female heroism need to be told more often because, without them, young girls like me would never have believed that they too have something to offer the world.
Which female heroines inspire you? You can tweet me @gktogobo.