Beverly J. Stoeltje

Weatherhead Resident Scholar


Asante Queenmothers: Performance and Custom in Contemporary Ghana

Along with a cluster of neighbors, Sister Ataa waits respectfully one morning to register a complaint with the queen mother of her neighborhood. She glances at the man across the room, who figures prominently in her story: with his connections and her money, they had together set up a booth in the market to sell timber scraps, but she believes now he has cheated her. The local queen mother will consider the complaint and determine what should be done. What Sister Ataa does not know is that the man has come to court with a plan to invoke a curse on her and will threaten to kill her himself. She would have to take this problem to the formal court of the Asantehemaa—the Asante queen mother.

With the support of a Fulbright grant, Beverly Stoeltje spent many months in Ghana observing such disputes and resolutions in the queen mother's formal court. Her book, Asante Queen Mothers: Female Leaders in Contemporary Ghana, will be the first study of these important figures and their role in the ancient system of custom and chieftancy. The Asante are the most studied people of Ghana, one of the Akan groups, known especially for Kente cloth, gold, and brass weights. Ghana was the first African country to gain its independence, in 1957.

Queen mothers are female authorities whose position parallels that of the chief in the indigenous political system known as chieftancy. Chiefs and queen mothers are never married to one another, but each has his or her own stool, the symbol of authority among the Akan. Queen mothers are responsible for selecting and advising the chief and for the welfare of women in their domain. They are especially important in settling disputes and resolving conflicts—their legislative domain could be compared to that of a small claims court.

Stoeltje describes her ethnographic study as "an attempt to bring together perspectives of power and authority with those of performance and discourse to demonstrate the actual practices of custom and the politics of chieftancy." In contemporary Ghana, she explains, the influence of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank mixes with the forces of traditional authority, creating a complex and layered society in dynamic transition.

"My approach argues for a theory that recognizes the significance of the dual gender political system among the Asante and Akan peoples and the importance of viewing the political system, the legal system, the kinship system, and gender relations as one integrated system. Chieftancy provides a political as well as social foundation for the institutional practices of everyday life in Ghana today, bringing the modern state into conjunction with local affairs.

"My research on specific queen mothers in their local settings addresses the point at which cultural identity and modern politics intersect and identifies the significance of queen mothers in today's Ghana."

A native Texan who grew up barrel racing in the rodeo, Stoeltje began her anthropological career by studying American culture, specifically rodeos, cowgirls, and festival queens. She has coauthored a book, Beauty Queens on the Global Stage, with Colleen Ballerino Cohen and Richard Wilk. "My continuing interest in festivals was revived once again in Santa Fe by the fiesta and the burning of Zozobra," she said.

Affiliation at time of award:
ssociate Professor, Folklore Institute, Indiana University

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