Ghana is a country located in West-Africa. Ghana is wrapped in so many aspects of history and is particularly known as one of the biggest producers of gold (8th in the world) and cocoa (2nd in the world). Away from the gold and cocoa of Ghana, in this article, I will shed light on the history of leatherwork in Ghana.
- The History of Leatherwork in Ghana is known to have been introduced around the 15th Century by North African tribesmen known as the Fulani and the Moshie.
- The Northern Africans through the Trans-Saharan trade, sold a variety of goods of which leather articles were part. One of such leather items were leather clothing.
- The Trans-Saharan trade saw some indigenous trading settlers around the areas like Salaga in the Gonja land and Yendi in the Dagomba land. The upper east region of Ghana is known to have been the first point of contact and this is how the Ghanaian ancestors became aware of leatherwork.
- But it’s the Hausa peasant farmers and nomads from Northern Nigeria who later settled in Ghana skyrocketed the leatherwork industry.
- The leatherwork trade really spread in an awkward way from the coastal south areas including Accra (the capital of Ghana today), then to Kumasi, then settling back in the North of Ghana in Tamale. It later further spread to Bolgatanga, Bawku, Nandom, and Pusiga.
- Leatherwork survived and expanded in the Northern part of Ghana due to the fact that most of the inhabitants rared cattle, sheep, and goats.
- The livestock wasn’t mainly raised for leather but for food and the discovery of the benefits of the countless skins available was exiting.
- The availability of the animal skins also brought about the need to treat the skins into a non-decaying material that could last a long time. They used the vegetable tanning method process to treat leather. This was quite the ideal tanning method because of the abundance and the easy accessibility of special tannin plant known as the Bagaruwa or Acacia nilotica in the North of Ghana.
- Also, because of the abundance and the easy accessibility of the special tannin plant, a lot of tanneries were built. Tanning required special training which became part of the culture as people involved in the tanning profession handed down their knowledge to the generation after them through apprenticeships.
- Leatherwork in Ghana initially and until today serves mainly religious, social, and economic purposes. It included the making of leather items ranging from containers, upholstery, clothing that were used for domestic and economic purposes. Sheaths, slippers, wallets, traditional bags, drums, talisman, amulets, footrests, armlets, etc were all made to make life easy and enjoyable.
- For years and years, Leatherwork has remained one of Ghana’s low key indigenous sector and haven’t seen a lot of advancements considering how far it’s come.
- Today, the major places, where leather is produced in Ghana, include Bolgatanga, Bawku, Tamale, Kumasi, and Accra.
Modern Vrs Traditional Uses of Leather In Ghana
Today, leather is an important by-product of the meat industry and has many traditional and contemporary uses.
1. Recreational Use
On a fun note, leather is used for recreational purposes. Leather is used for making sports items such as boxing gloves, footballs, volleyballs, sports shoes, and other accessories. In addition to the sports items, leather is also used for making musical instrument parts like the African drums. You will also find leather used for recreational items such as toys and dolls for children. The use of leather for such items are made with natural or artificial leather.
2. Religious Use
Leather has a lot of applications and uses in religion. Most church pews or seats in Ghana are covered largely with synthetic leather. Natural leather can be found on shoes, watches, belts, bags, and bibles that people carry to church. Also, musical instruments like drums, tambourines, and musical instrument cases are all made of leather.
The Muslims in Ghana also make good use of leather as it’s used as a praying mat in the home or mosque called Farta.
In traditional religions, leather is used for making drums. These drums serve a communication tool for having dialogs with the spiritual world or to the general public. Special drum sounds are produced by striking curved sick that looks like a sickle on them. It is used to communicate the death of a loved one, or announcements from the chief’s palace, etc.
The leather drums can also be used to sing songs of praise to the ancestors, gods, and spirits during special occasions like traditional festivals. Other traditionalists also wear talisman, amulets or Mascot for spiritual protection against other spiritual forces.
3. Art Therapy
In Ghana, Leatherwork is employed as an activity to help people with emotional and psychological challenges. Leatherwork activities are used to help prisoners, trauma victims, etc to relieve them of their mental and emotional stresses. This is done under the careful supervision of a specialist. It includes engaging patients in a series of projects that aim to calm or shift the attention to something much more positive and productive rather than wishful thoughts, loneliness, and destructive behaviors.
The results is always uplifting as it helps people with emotional imbalances to rediscover themselves and also develop a spirit of belongingness.
It can also provide a means of livelihood to help people like prisoners become confident and self-sufficient when they are resocialized back into communities.
Generally, the art of leatherwork teaches values in life such as endurance, diligence, patience, persistence that can be applied in various aspects of life. These virtues are instilled because when executing a project in leatherwork, these qualities are the drivers that help to complete the project successfully.
4. Social Use
One of leather’s social application is festivals. Traditional Festivals are a big part of societies in Ghana and leather is used by most Ghanaians during festivals in the form of items such as drums, shoes, dresses and so many others.
The traditional Chiefs, Queens and their entourage all use leather to adorn themselves. These are body decorations that are usually synonymous to specific tribes and their traditions. Cultural groups who participate in these social events also use leather items as part of their costumes.
In other parts of Ghana, during festivals, the Chief and other attandants, sit on animal skins as a symbol of authority and social status.
The Ghanaian education system bee the years promotes the study of skilled subjects under an umbrella program called visual art. Students who sign up for the visual art program are enrolled to study a combination of subjects of which leatherwork included.
Students are trained to learn the various skills required to complete basic leatherwork projects such as cutting leather, making decorations, stitching, lacing, etc.
By studying and practicing leatherwork, young students develop and become competent and creative that can lead to a lifelong career.
6. Political Use
It’s quite interesting the leather plays politically. In the Northern part of Ghana, Chiefs are ”enskinned” which is how leaders are officially announced. The type of leather used for a particular leader represents the kind of authority he has.
Also, special native sandals known as “ahenema” worn by leaders on memorable occasions symbolize social status and authority. This is because the ahenema “is regarded as very expensive footwear in the traditional settings of Ghana.
The documentation of the history of leather is very minimal and this article was intended to piece together and document the remaining leatherwork history from the minds and hearts of 2nd generation leather crafters from all around Ghana.