Ghana is a world of difference from those places where you might get “handicrafts” that end up being mass-produced and sold only to tourists. No, in Ghana, artisans are still common, the diversity of handcrafted items is broad, and locals are the main customers. Since spending the last few months at a school that teaches women to be artisans and other sorts of creators, I have developed even more of an appreciation for the gorgeous handicrafts that are made and sold around the region.
The way I see it, the Volta Region is the home of two main things: waterways and Ewes. The region itself is a tall strip at the edge of Ghana, with the country of Togo to the East and the Atlantic Ocean to the south. The Volta River, mightier before the building of the Akosombo Dam in the 1960’s to create Lake Volta (the largest reservoir in the world) , wends its way through this traditional area of the Ewe people. Both the river and the Ewe culture contribute to the handicrafts.
Ghana’s most famous handicraft is likely the distinctive, colourful, hand-woven kente cloth. Though kente is most associated with the Akan people (Twi-speakers, the largest Ghanaian group), the Ewe people also weave their own. This seems to be primarily a men’s occupation, though women in the area weave and other things regularly, such as mats. Kente cloth is mostly used for ceremonial and special outfits, though knockoffs of the Akan kente patterns – printed fabric, not woven – are everywhere, and used for anything at all.
Batik takes fabric designing a different route. It’s all about plain fabric being transformed with hot wax, wooden stamps, dye baths, and steady hands. It seems to be more of a women’s art and is taught right here at the school. The finished products are used for many things: women’s dresses and men’s shirts, tablecloths, curtains, housewares of all sorts, etc.
Wood carving is another traditional craft that seems to be mostly done by men. The woodcraft here may take the form of things such as: useful household items like bowls and spoons, life-size artsy statues from tree trunks, or decor like wooden animals and wall masks.
The no-longer-as-mighty Volta River contributes its clay banks to the local production of pottery. Natural, clay-coloured vessels of all sizes are used to store things in the everyday home. The distinctive black, ridged bowls seen for sale at markets and carried in teetering stacks on women’s heads are used for grinding spices. Then there is the fancy, painted clayware – it’s for times when you want something a bit more special. The town of Vume, not too far from where I’ve been staying, is well-renowned for its pottery.
Beading is another traditional craft that uses the river’s clay, and is taught here at the school. It’s quite a process. The women take chunks of hard clay from the river, crush it to dust, wet it so it’s workable, and form beads out of it, rolling it between their hands carefully and using thin branches to poke holes. The beads sit to dry for a couple weeks before its time to bake them, then paint them, then string them into jewellery. And the beading isn’t limited to clay beads either. Glass beads are for sale in the markets along with the fish and veggies, and those beads, as well as tiny seed beads, also make their way into the many beaded items created locally.
Beyond these handicrafts, I know there are more. I’ve seen drums and the maraca-like percussion instruments, woven hats, and other curious items as we whipped past tiny shops on the roadsides. The region’s artisans make both what the people need, and what the people want, so it ends up covering a great deal of ground. The handicrafts of the Volta Region range from the strictly useful to the specifically ceremonial to the simply beautiful, and everywhere in between.
* Note: all photos are my own except the Ewe-style kente cloth photo, which comes from here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ewe_kente_stripes,_Ghana.jpg