KUMASI, capital of the powerful and aggressive Asante (or Ashanti) kingdom, was regarded by early European visitors as a centre of bloodshed and barbarity. Today it seems accepted that a trip there is one of the smartest moves a visitor to Ghana can make.
Despite its destruction in 1874 by Sir Garnet Wolseley, the Asante capital retains much traditional culture. Tribal chieftaincy remains a strong parallel structure to the modern national government. Asantis are canny, proud, good at business and slightly superior. Mention in Accra that you are off to Kumasi and you are guaranteed a finger-clicking power handshake of approval.
I bought a pounds 2.50 ticket on the excellent state-run STC coach (motto: 'One Man One Seat') and set off across the coastal plain of Accra towards the hills and forests up-country. Four hours later we pulled into Kumasi. Just time to check into the Hotel de Kingsway and spruce up for the Thursday court of the Asantahene - the King of Asante. Twice a week, Asantahene Otomfuo Opoko Ware II, in non-tribal life a lawyer, or one of his officials judges disputes between families over land rights or succession to chieftaincies.
I arrived at the palace, a low, rambling, tin-roofed complex built in 1926, to find the court in full swing. Black- and maroon-robed men milled around in the courtyard, listening to the proceedings and sucking on sachets of iced water. I was befriended by a couple of sub-chiefs, who took me across the road to a shack for a fried egg and Coke break (on me) and a briefing on tribal procedure. We went to the Asantahene's secretary's office to request an audience, but His Majesty was out of town. The chiefs found me an especially trustworthy taxi driver, and I headed back to the Hotel de Kingsway for a pre-market siesta.
Kumasi's renowned market is possibly the biggest in West Africa. It was colonial rule and the advent of the railway that acted as the catalyst for the trading boom. The railway still runs through the middle of the huge maze of stalls, and traders perch on stationary abandoned rolling stock and wash up on the platform of Kumasi Station.
If the central market is impressive, Kumasi's other commercial claim to fame, the vast sprawling used-vehicle lot of Suame Magazine, is triply so. Named after its original location on the site of an old munitions store, it covers 75 acres of undulating scrubland on the edge of town. It is an incredible jumble of wrecked, cannibalised and repaired trucks and cars. There are workshops, and training sheds where about 40,000 people busily smelt mountains of broken engines and machine to order quarter- price replicas of any automotive spare you care to name.
Kumasi's more conventional tourist attractions include two good little museums. The Military Museum in the old red-brick fort contains a mass of conventional weaponry, flags and portraits. The Asante Museum includes a tribal military display, most impressive of which is the leopard drum, secret weapon of the tribe's commandos, who would surround an enemy village at night with 100 drummers scraping the rough hide of the drumheads to produce a terrifyingly realistic rumbling growl.
To learn more about the Asante today, I left the old- fashioned comfort of the de Kingsway Hotel to sample Kumasi's bed and breakfast facilities. An enterprising one-man operation, Insight Travel of Preston, had given me the address of the Kyereme family. Mr Kyereme, a retired headmaster, lived in a bungalow in the suburb of Fankyene-bra, 'Bring-Salt', so-called because it was far from the market. I was shown to a pleasant room with a new mosquito net, embroidered sheets and, unexpectedly, its own lavatory and shower.
Before dinner, Mr Kyereme, his sons, Kwame and Isaac, and I sat on the veranda and discussed religion, sociology, demography, education and cats. After grace, we ate groundnut soup, black-eyed beans, and fish and fried plantains, then returned to the veranda to tackle politics, tribalism, economics, superstition, the arts, publishing and second-hand clothes dealing.
Next day, Kwame took me to a funeral. Mr Kyereme had already touched on the closeness and reality of the afterlife in West African thinking: 'That is why in the past the servants of an important man were killed so he wouldn't be unattended as he went.' Every weekend, droves of figures in maroon and black funeral cloth make their way around Kumasi. Ours was a medium- size affair - 400 or 500 people on rows of chairs under canvas awnings, two different drum groups pulsing out the mourning dances, important figures filing past the head of the bereaved family under black umbrellas.
Like hardened Asante freeloaders, we moved on to another function at the Calvary Methodist Church, on the basis of a poster I had seen: 'Cassette Launching] Michael Kojo Arhondo (ex-convict) launches his maiden album] Come hear, listen what Jesus has done]'. What Jesus and Mr Arhondo had done was produce an excellent little gospel album, well up to the raw but lively standard of the numerous similar albums that were advertised by home- made posters or by chalk all over Kumasi.
On Sunday, as 100 churches across town jumped with boogying worshippers, I made an excursion to the great crater-lake Bosumtwi and puttered across its serene surface in a small launch.
I left Kumasi with a good deal still to see: the City Hotel casino, the Adehyeman beer gardens, the Obuasi gold- mine, the Yam Sellers Association. As the excellent Rough Guide remarks, Kumasi is unusual for West Africa, a city where tourism really makes sense.
Visas: pounds 15 from the Ghana High Commission at 104 Highgate Hill, London N6 5HE (081-342 8686).
Getting there: Circle Travel (071-637 9656) has a fare of pounds 520 from Heathrow to Accra on Ghana Airways.
Accommodation: For details of B&Bs in Kumasi, contact Insight Travel on 0995 606095.
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