Seeing double at the Ga Mashie Twins Yam festival in Jamestown Accra

Twin ladies wearing white lace dresses at the Jamestown Accra Ga Mashie Twin Festival
Twin ladies at the Ga Mashie Twin Festival in Accra Ghana

When my mom and I went on a walking tour of Jamestown Accra last year which I wrote about here, Collins our tour guide from Jamestown Walking Tours mentioned the upcoming well known Homowo and Chale Wote local festivals taking place in a few weeks time, and then he mentioned something about a pre-celebratory local ‘Twins festival’. My ears pricked up like a curious puppy.

Weeks later I found myself back at Jamestown with Collins, having absolutely no idea what to expect from this Twins Festival but ever curious, I wanted to find out more and felt a sense of excitement and anticipation!   

West Africa – the ‘Land of Twins’

Interestingly, West Africa has been dubbed the ‘land of twins’ with the rate of twin births four times higher than the rest of the world. Nigeria is the country where multiple births are most prevalent. Some studies have suggested that this is linked to the diet of women there and the high estrogen content of a yam like vegetable that is a staple food but nobody has proven this definitively.

The Ga people are an ethnic group in Ghana and there is a popular belief that every Ga family has at least one or more twins in it. Twins are seen as a blessing from God, and a sign of good luck and prosperity. Ga Mashie in the title of this post refers to the original Ga settlers who settled in Old Accra.

The Origins of the Ga Twins Festival

The Online Cultural Encyclopedia Project offers an explanation for this celebration:  

“One oral narrative (as there are several) explaining the origins of the twin festival connects it to the Homowɔ festival. During a period of severe famine there was coincidently a boom of twin deliveries. There were suggestions of an infanticide but the priest (Wulɔmɔ) advised against this and argued that twins are symbol of plenty and the plenty that is to come in the future. Shortly after the Ga experienced a period of abundance from both the sea and the land. Twins are therefore associated with symbols of abundance, good luck and blessings.”

Back to Jamestown last August 2019….

A young Ghanaian woman comes to greet us. She is dressed in a modest style shiny white satin dress and white court shoes. With her sleeked back hair, she has this lovely air of joy about her as she greets us. We follow her to her family home where preparations have started for the afternoon celebration.

We weave through crowded maze-like homesteads and are led into a small common area where women are preparing food. Purple onion skins are strewn on the floor and a lady with a head full of yellow curlers is stooped over big bowls of peppers in bold traffic light colours!  The excitement is tangible – shouts, chatter and activity fill this small space. A cauldron burns on a hot fire on the ground very close to our legs, and momentarily I think of all the small children who are around and what a crazy hazard this is. Before I can give that too much mind space, the volume in this hub of activity is further intensified with trumpet blasts and the thumping sound of drums! An exuberant band enters the already full space and there are shouts of cheer, and people move to the music! These minutes are point blank overwhelming on all of our senses, but in such a good way because you can’t but help but feel UTTERLY alive and present when you get to witness such moments!

Bowls of Tsese – herbs, sea water, Schnapps and eggs – for fertility luck

On the floor is a calabash bowl containing what the Ga people call ‘Tsese’. This is libation to the gods to thank them for the blessing of twins and is an important part of the street procession we will witness later. The bowl is filled with different herbs, water, leaves and vegetables and floating atop is the small face of Dr Kwame Nkrumah on a two cedi note!  “Put your hands inside!!” the people around us encourage, with huge grins on their faces. The idea is that you dip your hands into the bowl of Tsese which will give you some  ‘twin’ fertility luck and then you make a small cash offering for this good fortune! We end up doing this several times in various bowls as we move around to different homes and as the idea of adding two children to our lives isn’t very appealing to any of us, we laugh and joke as we play along with this superstition and we dub it the ‘Twin Sprinkle!’. Lying on the floor next to the bowl are the pink curly intestines of chickens which don’t sit so comfortably with my pescatarian stomach, broken eggshells and piles of brown yam peels. The big celebratory meal later is sure to be good for many! I later read about the 7 specific herbs used in the Tsese and how these are mixed with sea water, Schnapps and eggs for the offering in the bowls.

Meeting the special, celebrated pairs!

We meet the stars of the show in this family – adorable twin baby boys who are not more than a few months old. They wear white socks, little white golf shirts and white pants and their hair has been braided in a style I’m familiar with seeing in cool soccer players. Strings with a few glass beads are tied around their small wrists and white chalk has been used to mark their foreheads and arms. One of the boys gazes intently at my phone as I capture his sweet face and the other is fast asleep breathing in the comforting smell of his dad’s chest.

We are kindly offered piping hot yam chips fresh from a bowl of bubbling oil and two ladies who are sitting on the floor stirring huge silver bowls of golden yellow Kpepele with their fingers, also offer us some of this. It is a typical dish prepared for the Homowo festival using steamed and fermented maize. I reach into the bowl with my left hand and the one lady is quick to stop me. I have completely forgotten about the Ghanaian taboo that involves using your left hand for eating, drinking, and gestures like pointing or giving directions. This is considered to be very rude! I switch hands this time and reach into the bowl to taste the maize and we thank the ladies for their generosity!

We pass by children who are joyfully playing jump rope together and singing. We see more bowls of ‘Tseses’ that look wreath like – densely packed with leaves, eggs, straw and animal horns, the eggs are a strong symbol of fertility. Local flour bags have been used for shade over some of the communal areas and we are thankful for a small reprieve from the sun as it is beating down on us today, and we are sticky from the heat and humidity! African wax cloth that is hanging from washing lines brushes our shoulders as we walk single file through the narrow busy spaces, dodging bowls and babies sitting on the floors.

Suddenly we stumble upon two little twin girls! There is great excitement! They are just as curious it seems about these Obroni’s (the friendly name for white people here) as we are by them! We touch hands and they call out “How are you? How are you?” to us in their sweet squeaky voices. Their mother wears a brocade white lace dress and her chest and arms are covered in white chalk. The girls heads have been adorned with blonde short wigs with bright red stripes through the middles and they wear matching halter neck lace white dresses. They have beautiful wide baby toothed smiles! They are seated together to be admired, and just behind them are two horns placed in a circular formation, blobs of yellow Kpepele dotted around and two bottles of Fanta orange in the middle. Immediately I think of all the exquisite detailed pretty I’ve seen in Thailand which always include opened bottles of Fanta with a straw, but I suspect these ones may be for the girls and not the thirsty gods!

We are joined by some more friends and now we make our way to the streets where the procession will take place shortly. We see groups of young boys sitting together with their own ‘Tsese’ on the floor in front of them, who are hopeful that they can make some money too!

Young boys sitting around at the Ga Twin Festival in Jamestown Accra
Young boys and their hopeful Tsese!

Bumping into a famous fighter

As I mentioned in my previous post about Jamestown, it is well known for its boxing culture, and home to many boxing clubs. We see posters of world class boxer Richard Commey on the walls, and Collins tells us about him and his career. He has competed in boxing matches all over the world and has won 29 fights (which is actually how old he is now!) out of 32! Then very coincidentally Collins realises Richard is sitting chatting with some friends close by so we get to have a photo with him! He now lives abroad but has been on holiday in Ghana.

The Twin street procession

We make ourselves comfortable on some plastic chairs on the street and have a late afternoon local beer and some crispy plantain chips from the ladies who regularly pass who are balancing enormous piles of them on their heads. Then as the light starts to change to a dusky golden glow, the procession of the twin families starts. We had not asked Collins what this involved so were totally surprised by the display that filled the road for the next hour and a half. I love that often times at these sorts of events you are just totally amazed at what unfolds before your eyes!

Each twin family is led by a person who carries a big silver bowl with the Tsese (the libation for the gods) inside it, on their head. Most often they are ladies who carry it and many are dressed in white t-shirts and pants, to match the family they represent who are dressed in smart outfits all in white, or dresses made from the same baby blue and white African wax fabric (which is traditionally used when a baby has been born to symbolise new life).

It is confusing and shocking to us as some of these ladies leading the family appear almost ‘drunk’ and they are stumbling and falling at times and the water in the bowls sloshes out and spills onto the road. Their faces are expressionless and their eyes wide and somewhat vacant as they walk haphazardly with this heavy bowl filled on their heads. Often they have someone beside them to assist, guiding them on their route and holding onto their arm.

A woman carrying the Tsese at the Ga Mashie Twin Festival in Jamestown Accra

At one point I am rather freaked out because one of the ladies comes abruptly crashing into the table we are sitting at and the drinks on the table smash to the floor! We hastily get up and move further from the road! I stand rather dumbfounded at all I’m seeing – wow this is for sure one of the most unusual Friday afternoons I’ve ever had! Later when we discuss these happenings with Collins we find out the belief is that the carrier becomes possessed by the twin spirit of the Tsese, so this is why they appear to be in a sort of trance.

A woman carrying the Tsese at the Ga Mashie Twins Festival in Jamestown Accra

Some families have an entourage of loud trumpet players and others are led by energetic people with large palm leaves sweeping the street floor. Baby twins in their little white outfits are lovingly carried by their parents. Two toddler boy twins wearing white hats are on the shoulders of adults and proudly waving handkerchiefs in the air! Twin girls are wearing long wigs, false eyelashes and large earrings and their small bodies seem incongruent with these womanly faces! The excited crowd cheers them on! At times the displays get more elaborate with outlandish floats with twin children sitting on large models of horses, bandanas covering their mouths under the shelter of a canopy! My eyes can’t believe what is momentarily in front of them as the float makes its way down the road carrying this family who look like they are travelling in the desert!

The gathered onlookers are dressed in distinct style fashion in trendy Western wear and there’s a strong street vibe with lots of patent leather, skintight lycra clothing and layered gold chains. A man standing close to us is most excited when I offer to take a photo of him getting cosy in between two identical ladies with long curly wigs, matching necklaces shining on their necks and beautiful white lace formal dresses that match their dazzling smiles ! The crowd is alive with singing and dancing and the street pounds with life.

The rebellious boys

There is another fascinating element to the twin procession that adds even bigger doses of energy to the already hyper happenings! The groups of young men who were sitting with their bowls of Tsese earlier are also out in full force!! They are dressed completely contradictory to the families all in white –  some wear dark oversized formal suit jackets and pants, some are in women’s dresses and skirts and wear long wigs, and others are in soccer gear with their faces completely painted in bright colours! To me it looks like they play a ‘rebellious’ part of the procession – they run up the street in the opposite direction to the twin families, loudly chanting and stomping!  They perform acrobatics in the middle of the road and one of the men blows an enormous ball of fire from his mouth in the crowd just like a dragon! Some carry ‘mock’ Tsese’s of piles of plastic and rubbish!

Whereas the twin families have women carrying the Tsese, the rebellious boys have men and women carrying their bowls and suddenly things get heated and a little aggressive when one of the possessed men ends up in an altercation with one of the women carriers (see the video below).

I found an informative essay titled ‘Artistic Evolutions of the Ga Mashie Twins Yam Festival and Its Cultural Implications by Samuel Nortey of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology which I can highly recommend as further reading into how this festival came about, what goes into the Tsese and the rituals performed earlier in the day and he also offers an explanation for this heated display we witnessed: “Furthermore, an intense drama unfolds when the carriers of the tsese seem to be possessed and moves in an uncontrollable and frenzied manner. The climax of this drama is reached when the carriers from different households seem to be wrestling against the tsese. They sometimes wrestle with other tsese carriers. According to Nii Larkote, the brafo in the Nai We (The family house of the Nai Wulomo), the herbs that are carried are very powerful and the carriers wrestle against each other to release the tension in them.”

Once the procession starts to thin out and is nearing the end, we make our way through the streets of Jamestown to wind down the day with some drinks and yam chips . To be honest after all of this excitement it feels very much like we need a ‘debrief’ drink! Sitting on a far quieter street we chat about the days events and it is here that I first discover the incredible live jazz on offer on Friday evenings at the Jamestown Boutique, that fills the balmy evening air like clouds of the sweetest perfume.

A year later I can report that we have not yet seen any of the powers of the ‘Twin Sprinkle’ on those of us who dipped our hands into the Tsese bowls! But you never know it may just be taking a little longer to work its magic…..

**Writing this post I can honestly say that the local festivals I have experienced in Ghana are unlike ANYTHING I have experienced before! Like the Bakatue festival I wrote about last year I feel thankful for these cultural rich experiences that are filled with fascinating sights and sounds. If you have the opportunity to attend a festival while you are here, do it! I would highly recommend this being a part of your Ghana experience. Contact Jamestown Walking Tours for Jamestown related tours and Jolinaiko Eco Tours for cultural festivals and tailor made trips around Ghana and neighbouring countries.

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