Okyeame Poma (Linguist's Staff)

By: Adenike Cosgrove Tagged:

A chief's linguist sits at the top of the hierarchy of non-royal court officials.

Known as okyeame, the court linguist is employed as the primary royal spokesperson and is a highly regarded advisor in an Akan palace.

A chief will usually have more than one okyeame. Any number up to six is common, depending on the size of the state. Employing a greater number of linguists is seen as a sign of stature. Famously, the king of Asante employed twelve.

The responsibilities of okyeame are wide-ranging, covering everything from mediation, judicial advocacy, and political troubleshooting to preserving and interpreting royal history.

They also often act as an intermediary between the king and those who wish to communicate with him.

Identifying the court linguist is his distinctive staff. Each linguist carries their own, with many containing motifs designed to deliver messages to the king's people. "Akan akyem poma embody information about ethical and moral values and are used as an unspoken form of communication at public gatherings and in government."2 Coded communication aside, the linguist's staff — known as an okyeame poma (akyeampoma in some sources) — serves no practical purpose.

They are simply ceremonial, used to announce the arrival of the chief's principal counsellor. They may also set the tone for a meeting or announcement. If an okyeame poma is present, you are set for serious business.

Today, linguist's staffs are still used by many institutions, most notably by the voluntary associations of masons, fishermen, and musicians.

Distinguishing Features

  • Early sources describe only non-figural linguist staffs
    • Perhaps the most commonly used staff, asempa ye tia (meaning, ‘the truth is brief’)
  • Made of shaft topped by a finial
    • Detachable staff-finial (finials are interchangeable)
    • Wooden shaft made of at least two sections and a carved 'wisdom knot'
    • Shaft may be carved in segments to make staff collapsible
  • Staff finial frequently figurative
    • Richness of staff motif imagery
    • Typically illustrates Akan proverbs about character and power of chief and institutional responsibilities
    • Principal theme of chieftaincy and ruling family continuity
    • Most common finial depicts two men seated at table with one reaching for food and the other grasping his stomach. Alludes to the proverb, “The food is for the man who owns it and not for the man who is hungry." The food is a metaphor for chieftaincy, which belongs only to the rightful owner or heir to the stool
    • Another example depicts a small boy holding the tail of a lion (kobia nnim gyata; meaning, ‘a boy does not know a lion’) suggesting naivety, ignorance, innocence and uninformed behaviour when in danger
  • Shaft covered in geometric decorations
  • Staff often covered in gold leaf or can be cast in gold or painted
  • Adhesive used to adhere gold leaf to staff (older examples use small gold staples to adhere thin gold sheets to wood)

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