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Rebirth & revolution

This women’s history month, Fulham Palace partner Michelle Yaa Asantewa shares how she connected with the story of Nana Yaa. 

Fulham Palace partner Michelle Yaa Asantewa shares how she connected with the story of Asante queen mother Yaa Asantewaa (c. 1832-1921), one of the resistance figures featured in the Palace’s current exhibition on the Bishops of London, colonialism and transatlantic slavery: resistance.

Fulham Palace’s exhibition ‘The Bishops of London, colonialism and transatlantic slavery: resistance’ examines several forms of spiritual and physical resistance that ultimately led to the end of the transatlantic traffic of enslaved people, and slavery itself, in the British Empire. Also featured are key resistance figures such as Grandy Nanny, Paul Bogle, Touissant Louverture and Yaa Asantewaa.

The Asante people of present-day Ghana fought against the British Empire to keep their land.  In the 1900 Asante War of Resistance (the War of the Golden Stool), Queen Mother Yaa Asantewaa (c. 1832-1921) led an army, capturing around 3,500 British missionaries, officials and their families in Fort Kumasi. She surrendered after several months and was exiled to the Seychelles where she died.

Written by Fulham Palace partner Michelle Yaa Asantewa.

In the summer of 2011, I was told that I would be in hospital for four days following an operation to remove fibroids. Instead of four days, however, I remained in the hospital for four weeks. Complications from the myomectomy, caused me to have a further operation – a laparotomy because the fibroids had caused obstructions to my bowels. My immune system became severely compromised, I was on a drip and unable to eat or drink for three weeks. Because of this, the medical team insisted I had a blood transfusion. I had instructed that this should be given only as a matter of life and death. I wasn’t dying but my haemoglobin had fallen way below the level at which they would normally transfuse. My cries of resistance now seemed futile and irrational. As well as this, the wound from the myomectomy became infected and had to be opened to release inflammation.

Due to the severity of the infection and the discovery of yet another internal obstruction it was decided that I should have a third procedure. By this time my family and friends feared I might not survive yet another intervention. In truth when I was told about this third operation, I felt that some greater force was seeking to utterly destroy me, not satisfied that the two earlier and major surgery had failed to do so. I called on my family and friends to add their prayers and chants to mine – rather I needed them to intensify their support which had so far been remarkable.

Early one morning I was prepped to have the third procedure. Psychologically I felt I was about to complete the battle with an unrelenting enemy. It would be a final confrontation out of which there could only be one victor. Who would be victorious and what ‘victory’ would mean to me is what I’m hoping to explore in this article, marking Women’s History Month and honouring Nana Yaa Asantewaa. I will consider the story of NanaYaa Asantewaa whose name I have claimed as a cultural realignment with my ancestry. I use her story to reflect on some issues that confronted me after that life-threatening time in hospital. They relate to my spiritual development – rebirth – my renewed commitment to Pan-Africanism and the cultural, political and spiritual activism I felt was needed for the African revolution.

By now most of us know the legend of Nana Yaa Asantewaa, but I will briefly outline her story for those who might not be aware of this remarkable African warrior queen and ancestor. Queen Mother of Edweso (Ejisu), part of the Asante region of Ghana, led a war, sometimes referred to as ‘rebellion’, against British imperialists who sought complete dominance of the Asante Empire. This war (1900-1) was the last in a series of such wars between the Asante and Britain throughout the 19th Century. It is also remembered as the last combative war in Africa to be led by a woman. Having seized power of Kumasi, the Asante capital and exiling its King Prempeh I and other members of the Asante government, including Yaa Asantewaa’s grandson, Edwesohene (Chief of Edweso) Kofi Tene to the Seychelles, the British demanded the Golden Stool, which was sacred and symbolised the soul of Asante people. It had been summoned into existence centuries earlier by the spiritual leader Okomfo Anokye to unite the divided and warring states within the Empire.

This brazen and offensive demand by Frederic Hodgson, the British governor of the then Gold Coast, as the British had called Ghana, incensed Yaa Asantewaa. She wondered why members of the government, mostly men, were allowing Hodgson to make this demand, insulting and disrespecting Asante sovereignty by his facetious demand when instead they should be demanding the return of King Prempeh. After the meeting with Hodgson, she declared that where the men had exhibited cowardice, contrary to the fighting spirit of Asantes of old, like Nana Osei Tutu I, she would rouse other women to fight the British and thus liberate her district Ejisu, Asante generally, its King Prempeh and her grandson from their exile.

Her brave campaign, widely supported by other Asante leaders, lasted a year before she was betrayed, captured and exiled to Seychelles. There she died on 17 October 1921. Prempeh I was repatriated to Kumasi in 1924 whereupon he later negotiated the return of all exiled Asantes. Yaa Asantewaa’s body along with others was exhumed and returned to the Gold Coast in 1930 where she received a royal burial.

Following my first visit to Ghana in 2002 I adopted the name of this celebrated African warrior queen who sacrificed her life for her people. At the time I didn’t know very much about her. I was born on Thursday, like Nana Yaa, so the locals called me Yaa the moment they learnt this and I realised she was the most well-known ‘Yaa.’ It would take several years later to register a spiritual precision in our birth and death dates. I was born on 16th October. I changed my name to Michelle Coretta Yaa Asantewa by Deed Poll, which was signed on 17 October 2002 after I returned from Ghana (an instance of rebirth, it may be said). This was not a deliberate convergence. I was not aware of her birth and death dates when I chose the name – just about the campaign she led against British Colonials – which was inspiring enough. It might be considered coincidental, but I prefer to see this as an intuitive activation, a spiritual vibration that signalled the poignancy of my rebirth.

Statue of Yaa Asantewaa in Ejisu, Ghana. Courtesy of Ariadne Van Zandbergen, Africa Image Library

More than a symbol of patriotism, resistance, liberation and womanhood, Yaa Asantewaa for me also represents continuity and the incarnate vibration of struggle. This vibration of struggle, for example, would see Ghana achieve Independence in 1957, the first Pan-African-led country to do so. Yaa as Earth Mother (“Asase Yaa”), warrior, and freedom fighter might be said to have metaphorically birthed a son of the African revolution, Dr Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president following independence.

The return of Yaa Asantewaa’s body, remnants of her spirit one might say, to Ghana in 1930, the same year Nkrumah had completed his theological studies, symbolises a re-memberment of the struggle not only for Ghana’s liberation but that of Africa. Nkrumah pursued the liberation struggle she had initiated with  (re)newed emphasis – in the form of Pan-Africanism. Inspired by the ideas of Ancestor Marcus Garvey and others he called for the unity of all Africans, diasporic and continental for mass organisation and politicisation, a movement that would confront and ultimately defeat the forces of imperialism and colonialism. This revolution as underpinned by Pan-Africanism called for the participation of the masses without which it carried little force. Dr Nkrumah declared that ‘all people of African descent whether they lived in North or South America, the Caribbean, or in any other part of the world were Africans and belonged to the African Nation.’ Nkrumah called for the creation of an All-African People’s Revolutionary Party, (A-APRP), that would form the bedrock for an All African People’s Revolutionary Army for the military struggle against colonialism, neo-colonialism, imperialism, Zionism and capitalist exploitation.  The A-APRP was realized in 1968, operating from Guinea’s capital Conakry with chapters in several countries, including the UK. One of its founding members was Kwame Ture (formerly Stokely Carmichael). The Party continues to act towards the liberation and unification of Africa and its people.

Nana Yaa Asantewaa was exiled while Ghana remained a site of struggle for its independence. Her body, depicted in a photo taken when she was a prisoner of war in Seychelles, as emaciated and frail can be regarded as a symbol of struggle and resistance: as Africa is under the siege of colonialism and neo-colonialism.

But how does the foregoing relate to my time in hospital? The battle over my body was fought during August 2011, the same time as the UK uprisings that were catalysed by the killing of a young African man, Mark Duggan. It reminded me of the persistent assault on Black lives on the continent and the diaspora against which Nana Yaa had waged war with the British. Dr Kwame Nkrumah, taking up this struggle had recognised the value of collectivism and unity of struggle in his inaugural presidential address. In other words, this ‘rebellion’ as the uprisings might otherwise be called had evolved without the political ideology that would ground the movement toward the Pan-African goal of revolution.

So, while I slept, London burned, but ever so briefly: enough time in any case to signal a potential for change. While in hospital I heard an African patient denouncing the ‘rioters’/’looters’, as the papers referred to them, claiming that they were opportunists and should all be locked up. Contrarily a European patient countered that the uprisings were the consequence of a lack of opportunities for the youth, working and lower middle classes and condemned the government for its blatant alliances with the banks (the 2008 recession was still reverberating). I am trying to show that unity of consciousness as called for by Pan-Africanism will identify clearly that the enemy of oppressed and exploited people is not merely racism but also capitalism, imperialism and neo-colonialism. Those structures enrich the few through the labour and exploitation of many. Some of us may believe the struggle against these forces is outside of our present cultural experience, and therefore remote – in Congo, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Haiti, Ghana, Guyana, Jamaica, Niger, Nigeria, Venezuela, Palestine, Papa New Guinea, Sudan, Syria, an endless list of states impacted by neo-colonialism, Western imperialism and capitalism – and therefore has nothing to do with us. But this only suggests a failure to know and face the surreptitious enemy, and a misjudgement of the Pan-African movement and its potential for liberation. Notably, the Pan-African movement established solidarity with many non-African states impacted by the same instruments of Western imperialism, neo-colonialism and capitalist oppression.

Michelle Yaa Asantewa with the statue of Nana Yaa at the museum in Kumasi, Ghana. Image courtesy Michelle Yaa Asantewa

So, I had been considering my time in the hospital amid the period of ‘uprising’ in relation to Yaa Asantewaa in her exile. My body had been under siege by a number of fibroid tumours for years. Though considered benign they are still harmful and mostly affect African and Asian women. When I looked at photos of myself at the time, my emaciated body reminded me very much of Nana Yaa Asantewaa when she was forced to live and die in exile. There remains poor research about what causes fibroids so I can only allude to what may have caused mine. But removing them became an unavoidable necessity. After the operation, risks manifested and ignited a deepening battle to preserve my life – and ultimately my regenerative function.

The regenerative function – that is life/rebirthing – is expressed out of love. A body riddled with tumours can be said to reflect only love in stagnation. It is a body embattled, confused, stressed and un-liberated. The body has to be freed of limitations imposed upon it by these inhibitors of love. I’m not speaking about love in the reconstituted and false form pertaining simply to romance and sex. I’m speaking of love as the driver of our humanity: love as the apex of spiritual evolution; love as a manifestation of the Universal and Creative Life Force. The full expression of this love – in essence, divine consciousness –is realised when its inhibitors are challenged and defeated. Yaa Asantewaa’s struggle against the forces of colonialism – inhibitors, oppressors, colonisers – was borne out of that love of her people and for humanity. Love then as a driver of humanity cannot complement oppression and is relentlessly pursued by such forces, as capitalism and imperialism that seek to destroy it.

The African revolution requires an awakened consciousness that will in the fullest light direct our economic empowerment: our social, cultural and spiritual evolution. Our collective activism towards achieving the objectives of Pan-Africanism underlies a powerful act and expression of love.

Victory over the fibroids and comprehension of my purpose in the Pan-African struggle could not be attained without elimination and renunciation of the inhibiting factors in my consciousness. For that process of elimination would signal my readiness for love – that my regenerative function was attuning itself for my rebirth. But it would be some time before my consciousness was awakened.

I became aware that becoming conscious requires the elimination/renunciation of redundant ideas and experiences and the relinquishing of harmful emotional and psychological experiences. A bowel obstruction can be said to express an unwillingness to release and let go of those harmful experiences that entrap the emotions and psyche. This hinders spiritual development and awakening consciousness that would enable ascension to the Divine (that is God within, not without and abstract) through the route of love. For it is love that opposes oppression; it is love that must be reborn to challenge and defeat imperialism, capitalism and colonialism in the revolutionary struggle for a unified Africa and a much better world.

Although I was prepped for a third procedure, which I had considered a signal of my certain demise,  I chanted to the Creative and Universal Life Force and all my ancestors to relieve me of this burden. It turned out that I didn’t have to have this third operation after all – no one gave me a reason – it just didn’t happen. I have scars, physical, emotional, and psychological. But like Africa, remapped, divided and desecrated the struggle of my rebirth continues.

In the last few years, I have had the chance to tell Nana Yaa’s story during the Black History River Cruise, organised by Black History Walks. I wear a proud warrior’s outfit to play the role of Yaa Asantewaa, transforming the image of emaciation to one of pride and the emergence of the revolutionary African personality.