Were There Inns in Ancient Africa?

Just hang in there with me.

I was watching a kung fu film set in ancient China called ‘Drink With Me’ earlier this week, and a wandering warrior named Golden Swallow was passing through town in search of her brother, who had been captured by bandits and was being held for ransom. Golden Swallow and her brother were the children of the local magistrate and the bandits wanted to do a prisoner swap for the return of their leader. Of course, Golden Swallow didn’t negotiate with terrorists, so she had to go in there and handle her bidness.

Anyway, her first encounter with the bandits was at an inn, which also served as the town’s only restaurant. After she single-handedly whopped up on 15 or so men and sent them off, licking their wounds, she informed the inn keeper that she needed a room and a hot meal. (Her first order of food never arrived in all the chaos.) He bowed obsequiously and showed her to her room for the night.

So of course, that got me to thinking: Were there inns, hotels, motels or traveler’s rest stops in ancient Africa? If so, what did they look like? Who manned them? How and where did they operate?

My interest stemmed from some reading I’ve been doing to try to make sense of how Africa got to the abysmal state she is now. With all this bootlicking prattle about how Africa is ‘rising’ or ‘on the move’, if you want to dress the same tired narrative in different attire, I believe the we Africans have allowed ourselves to be lulled into a false sense of security about the true state of affairs with the deceptive praise of the West.

“Oh! You guys figured out how to get pipe borne water to your village square, but are still using communal pit latrines to do your poopy business? Never you mind. Great job! Africa is on the move!”

There is a wealth of information and opinions available online, so I turned to social media for a reaction – any reaction – to my query. Africans have been trading and learning from each other for centuries. I recently read that kente, Ghana’s unofficial official national cloth, did not originate from Ghana. The Asantehene commissioned artisans and weavers to go to Ouagadougou to learn and perfect the art from other weavers in the region and return to the Ashanti Empire with their knowledge. One can justifiably deduce that there was some sort of relationship between the two empires, most likely rooted in trade. If there was trade, there were trade routes. If there were trade routes between the Ashanti Kingdom – and any other kingdom – people had to have somewhere to sleep and eat along the way. So were there inns?

tents tents2

I know that these two people were half-joking, but they wisecracking still betrayed a certain mindset about African life as it was lived and conducted prior to colonization. Neither of these people, or yourself included, could conceive of the idea of Africans running a hotel-style business for profit. It’s never been depicted in film or popular culture. There are no famous (or fictional) inns or taverns sporting romantic names like The King and Cross or The Red Dragon that excite the Ghanaian imagination as these names do the Anglicized fancy; so maybe there never were any to begin with. And let’s be honest: From Cape Town to Cairo, Ancient Africans wouldn’t be smart enough to dream up such an enterprise at all, since this was the Dark Continent, waiting to be civilized by the Europeans…right?

What if I told you you were on the right track? Indeed, there were no inns or temporary rooms for rent in either Ghana or possibly the rest of Africa. (An episode of Globe Trekker (PBS) told how the Venda people in South Africa keep a vacant kraal to host the occasional traveler in need of rest.) The reason is, real, uncorrupted Africans are civilized and kind. I asked my father for his input on my query.

image source: southafrica.net

image source: southafrica.net

“No. There was nothing like that in the old days,” he replied sleepily. “It was only until these Europeans came with their concept of hotels to charge hungry and tired people that we started doing these things. If you were a stranger or a traveler from out of town, the people in the area would put you up for the night. In fact, as long as there was no war, you could even go to the chief’s palace and he would host you for the night. The people would feed you and in the morning, see you off as you continued on your way.”

“Did you have to leave a gift or a token for the chief or whoever put you up for the night?”

“How? No! It was a kindness and a duty of the people in the area. The next day, all you had to do was thank your host and they were happy. That’s all they would expect. The thanks was like a blessing.”

He then went on to tell me how as a teen, my grandmother was traveling from Larteh to the coast and when they got to Adoagyiri, she spent the night in the chief’s palace. She was terrified the entire night, but she was well looked after and obviously lived to tell the tale.

I was incredulous. Kindness without expectation of something in return? Was this even possible in today’s modern Ghana? I have lived all of my youth and teen life in Accra, the country’s capital, and the attitude of the people is nothing like that. It’s even worse today. From the president to the street hawker, everyone is looking for a way to exact their pound of flesh from their neighbor. A friend recently told me that if you really wanted to experience Ghana, “leave Accra at once.”

If this was the attitude adopted by our ancestors, that you have a duty to look after the alien once they arrived within your vicinity, it certainly explains how easy it was for the Europeans to trade with us and then eventually trade us. We were (and still are) too trusting, too hospitable and too eager to see the humanity in our fellow man. The first thing a white person does when they visit alien shores is to build walls and forts to keep danger out. They are suspicious. This behavior has been exhibited from the time they landed on America’s east coast, all up and down the West coast of Africa, and any other place Europeans have “discovered” and resettled.

So what do you think? Is it possible that in all the thousands of years of the African’s existence, there were never any pay-to-stay dwellings on the continent? As always, I welcome any comments that will lead to further enlightenment! ↓

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5 thoughts on “Were There Inns in Ancient Africa?

  1. Cara Siskova

    We Ghanaians have always prided ourselves on our hospitable nature. Your grandpa is very right. Also from what I gleaned from my African studies class, it’s in our nature (or used to be) to be kind and trusting, gullible. We used to consider it a point of pride to treat aliens or travellers to the best that we could offer, expecting nothing in return but the blessings of the gods.
    Great topic, Malaka!

    1. Malaka Post author

      Right! And why shouldn’t we be proud that we would treat aliens with kindness and lean towards “gullibility”, which I really think is just plain human decency. Consistently aiming to subvert your neighbor or a stranger is nothing to crow about, I say. It’s no way to exist!

      Thanks for chiming in with your memories from class. Much appreciated! 🙂

      1. Wesi

        @ Cara, your comment about African Hospitality is actually really true from my experience.
        I was born and raised in Nigeria and saw how well foreigners were treated. Even Idolized.
        Since i moved to Sri Lanka, i noticed that the acceptance of foreigners is a very “touristy”, people often give you the “hey Look dollar signs approach” look.
        In fact i have come to learn that Africans are hated in most of south east Asia…while the Indians and Sri Lankans flock Africa by the thousands and are openly received.
        The fact that our hospitality is often repaid with condescending and even spiteful reactions make me think we need to rethink African Hospitality.
        Its time we wizened up!

  2. Vanessa

    Interesting article, In regards to the information on the Kente, I doubt very much that the asantehene went all the way to Ougadougou when the Ashanti’s neighbours the Ewe had been weaving kente for generations! From my understanding some Ewe craftsmen were captured during war and then taught the craft, which then came to be reserved for royalty. There are many places throughout the Volta region that still weave a wide variety of Distinct Kente today.

    The origin of the word kente is thought to be a Twi corruption of the Ewe words ‘Ke’ which means to open and ‘Te’ which means to close, which refers to the motion of the loom as cloth is being woven. The process and technology of weaving is thought to have been brought with Ewe’s as they migrated from Oyo in present day western nigeria, through present day benin and togo to their current place in south eastern ghana. There are many books and resources on Ewe kente; I hope you look it up and find this information useful.

    1. Malaka Post author

      This is interesting! I’m far more open to this explanation than the silly spider lore we’ve been sold. That just doesn’t seem plausible to me at all, since kente doesn’t resemble the patterns in an arachnid’s web in the least.

      Thanks for your comment!

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