When I was about 14, my sister and I got this poster that we hung on our bedroom closet that listed the ‘Great Queens of Africa’. It featured your usual suspects: Nzinga, Nefertiti, Queen Nandi and Yaa Asantewaa.
With their faces staring back in the moonlight, I used to wonder what their majestic lives must have been like in ancient Africa. Every durbar I’d hitherto attended in Ghana featured some 200+ pound something queen mother being hoisted about in a palanquin, clad in gold and kente. I imaged these ‘ lives must have been the epitome of luxury. It wasn’t until I did a little research on my closet decor that I found out I was completely wrong.
Nzinga spent much of her reign rebuffing Portugal’s invasion of her lands. After disappearing for 14 years, it is believed that Nefertiti returned as a cross dressing male and ruled Eqypt as a “man” until she was murdered a few years later in an attempt to return Egypt to more “traditional” values. Nandi fought tooth and nail to have her bastard son (fathered by her 1st or 2nd cousin, I believe) enthroned to rule over the Zulu nation. And then there was my favorite – Yaa Asantewaa, Queen Mother of Ejisu, who after the men of her clan feared/resisted open combat with the British (in)famously said:
Now I see that some of you fear to go forward to fight for our king. If it [was] in the brave days of Osei Tutu, Okomfo Anokye and Opoku Ware, chiefs would not sit down to see their king to be taken away without firing a shot. No European could have dared speak to chiefs of Asante in the way the governor spoke to you this morning. Is it true that the bravery of Asante is no more? I cannot believe it. It cannot be! I must say this: if you, the men of Asante, will not go forward, then we will. We, the women, will. I shall call upon my fellow women. We will fight the white men. We will fight till the last of us falls in the battlefields.
So, as an impressionable pubescent girl, I decided that if I ever had a daughter, I would name her Yaa Asantewaa. Simple enough, right? Wrong.
When my second daughter, Aya, was born on a Thursday, I thought “What luck!” I could fulfill that youthful dream and have a child named after a warrior queen. When I called to ask my father’s council (as I often do with most things under the label “Ghanaian”) he shot down my lofty notions immediately.
“You can’t name her Asantewaa,” he said with finality.
I was bewildered.
“Because we are not Ashantis.”
Well…that made sense. Or at least it did until I thought about all my very Ghanaian school chums with names like Christabel, Archimedes and Phineas. They weren’t English, Greek or Crete either, but I suppose it’s far more acceptable for a Ga to call his son “Phineas” than to name him “Osei”. My father suggested I name her Yaa Otubia after my great-grandmother. There were only two problems with that: I didn’t (and still don’t) find Otubia a particularly attractive name, and the only memory I have of my great-gran was meeting her in the market where she was a trader. Make no mistake – a market trader is indeed a noble profession (people’ve got to eat after all), but it hardly compares to a gun toting, trash talking queen mother who was ready to duke it out with the Imperial army! So in compromise, Aya was outdoored as Yaa Owusua, much to my father’s satisfaction and to her great-grandmother’s delight.
I thought my dreams of giving the Queen Mother of Ejisu another namesake died that week in 2006… until I gave birth 2 weeks ago on another Thursday. When the nurse handed me our birth certificate sheet to fill out a few days later, I looked tentatively at the phone. With a swiftly beating heart, I filled out the form and handed it back to her an hour later. I didn’t really want to hear Kwasi Gyekye’s mind or opinion on the matter, and as they say “it’s easier to get forgiveness than to get permission”. He’d understand, right?
And with that, Liya Malaka will be outdoored as Yaa Asantewaa, Queen Mother of Roswell, GA next week.