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The Life and Afterlife of Yaa Asantewaa

  • T. C. McCaskie

This article is about Queen Mother Yaa Asantewaa (c. 1830s–1921) ofEdweso (Ejisu) in Asante, locally famous in tradition for her supposed leadership role in the last Anglo–Asante conflict (1900–1), and now internationally celebrated as an epitome of African womanhood and resistance to European colonialism. The article is in three parts. The first part examines the historical record concerning Yaa Asantewaa and sets this within the conflicted context of Edweso–Kumase relations before, during and after her lifetime. It also considers her role in the 1900–1 war and the nationalist constructions placed on that role by later Asante and other Ghanaian commentators. The second part examines the politics of the celebrations held in Asante in 2000 to mark the centenary of the last Anglo–Asante war and to honour Yaa Asantewaa for her part in it. Discussion here is concerned with the struggle between the ruling Asante elite and the Rawlings government in Accra to take possession of Yaa Asantewaa's reputation and to define and reinterpret it for contemporary political purposes. This was also a significant and revealing episode in the run–up to the Ghanaian national elections of 2000, in which J. A. Kufuor's Asante–based NPP finally ousted Rawlings's NDC which, in various incarnations, had ruled Ghana for twenty years. The third part examines the recent and ever–growing afterlife of Yaa Asantewaa in the age of globalization and the Internet. Attention is paid in particular to the constructions placed on her by Americans of African descent and to cultural expressions of her present status as, perhaps, the most famous of all pre–colonial African women. Finally, Asante reactions to the internationalization of Yaa Asantewaa are considered. In general, and using the case of Yaa Asantewaa, this article sets out to show that in Asante – as elsewhere in Africa – history is a continuous and vivid presence, constantly fought over, reworked and reconfigured to make the past serve new needs and aspirations.

Cet article est consacré à la reine mère Yaa Asantewaa (vers 1830–1921) d'Edweso (Ejisu) en pays Ashanti, localement célèbre dans la tradition pour son rôle supposé de leader lors du dernier conflit anglo–ashanti (1900–01), et aujourd'hui célébrée internationalement comme le symbole de la femme africaine et de la résistance au colonialisme européen. L'article s'articule en trois parties. La première partie examine les archives historiques concernant Yaa Asantewaa et les place dans le contexte contrasté des relations entre Edweso et Kumasi avant, pendant et après son existence. Elle étudie également son rôle dans la guerre de 1900–01 et les interprétations nationalistes qui seront données à ce rôle plus tard par les commentateurs ashanti et ghanéens. La seconde partie examine la politique des célébrations organisées en pays Ashanti en 2000 pour commémorer le centenaire de la dernière guerre anglo–ashanti et honorer Yaa Asantewaa pour le rôle qu'elle y a joué. Le débat porte ici sur la lutte entre l'élite ashanti dirigeante et le gouvernement Rawlings d'Accra pour s'approprier la réputation de Yaa Asantewaa, et la définir et la réinterpréter à des fins politiques contemporaines. C'était également une période importante et révélatrice précédant les élections nationales ghanéennes de 2000, dans lesquelles le parti NPP ashanti de J. A. Kufuor a fini par renverser le parti NDC de Rawlings, qui était au pouvoir depuis vingt ans au Ghana sous des incarnations diverses. La troisième partie examine l'après–vie récente et croissante de Yaa Asantewaa à l'ère de la mondialisation et d'Internet. Elle s'intéresse en particulier aux interprétations qui lui sont données par les Américains de descendance africaine et aux expressions culturelles de son statut actuel, à savoir, peut–être, la plus célèbre des femmes africaines précoloniales. Elle se penche ensuite sur les réactions ashanti à l'internationalisation de Yaa Asantewaa. De manière générale, et à travers le cas de Yaa Asantewaa, cet article vise à montrer qu'en pays Ashanti, comme partout en Afrique, l'histoire est une présence continue et vivante, constamment disputée, retravaillée et reconfigurée afin que le passé serve de nouveaux besoins et aspirations.

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