Joseph Essuman

Anonymous artist, first half of the 20th century, wood, 161 cm, origin: Bamileke, Cameroon; exhibited at Museum Fünf Kontinente, Munich. © Museum Fünf Kontinente

Motherhood - Maternity in Western Africa

Munich 201911 0 det      

 This contribution is part of the gallery                                                                                 

  Perspectives from Ghana on Museum Objects in Germany



The author is looking at a wooden statue of a pregnant woman from the Cameroon grassfields, dealing with his very own personal reflections on motherhood and with meanings of maternity generally in Ghanaian society. He is also discussing social roles and conflicts of infertility as well as the educational relevance of such statues.

  • Joseph Essuman
    Joseph Essuman


    Choosing this object stemmed from my experience I had when my mother passed away in my arms. It was a painful reminder of mum's death when I saw the facial expression of the object. The question was; ‘So after all the painful moments she went through, she could not stay a little longer for me to pamper her before she died’? I therefore want this to be part of the project so that the world would appreciate responsible mothers and motherhood no matter the circumstance.


    To be a mother marks female social completion in Africa especially among Ghanaians where motherhood is a pride. Without it, one is not quite an adult, or certainly not an adult who receives full respect. Images of this nature, especially in most communities of Ghana are very significant because of the belief systems of the indigenous people before conversion to Christianity or Islam. Though not so common today as a result of modernization and or Christian and Muslim religion as compared to a decade or two ago, it is still believed that, regardless of the changes in time and technology, these beliefs are still as revered as it used to be.


    This work is a wood carving in the round portraying a standing, heavily-pregnant woman with her left hand on the chin; but laid on the left breast with the right-hand providing support beneath her belly. The legs are bent at the knees and she has a painful facial expression.


    It is a semi-abstract form of work that is 161cm high which stands firmly on a pedestal. The pose of the figure gives an idea of life and death. The opened wide mouth indicates the pain she must be going through and the hand beneath the belly indicates a support for the weighing pregnancy and support for the unborn child.


    The concept behind this piece of work depicts strain and stress most women go through before giving birth and it symbolizes fertility and good health. The elongated breasts suggest the vulnerable state of the woman though it has lots of breast milk to feed the unborn child.


    This carved image is a representation of a pregnant woman which signifies life. This figure could be interpreted to represent several ideas in different cultures. However, Costa (2019) opined that, a wooden figure of a nude pregnant woman, which has been present at events, is not the Virgin Mary, but a female figure representing life.




    In a similar narration, Costa (2019) said that, a wooden figure of a pregnant woman has been described as both a Marian image and as a traditional indigenous religious symbol of the goddess Pachamama, or Mother Earth. Costa maintained that it is an indigenous woman who represents life; it is a feminine figure and is neither pagan nor sacred but represents life through a woman.

    Fundamentally, many indigenous Ghanaians believe that women are like trees that produce and reproduce to sustain life continuity. The woman is also believed to be a fertility goddess. It is with high esteem therefore that Ghanaian women who are capable of giving birth are exalted. As a result, these images or similar ones have been used to ‘serve’, particularly in the Akan and Ewe dominated communities in Ghana. They are seen as religious figures, an expression of health, fertility and grandmother goddesses, and they have over the years served as ritual or symbolic function.


    Without children one cannot have a traditional funeral nor become an ancestor. While these issues relate to men as well as women, infertile men can acquire children through cooperative wives who ensure they become pregnant. Unfortunately, per the traditions of Ghana, women do not have that option. In practical terms, wives who are childless may be divorced or have to accept a co-wife. They have no support in their old age, if their husbands die, because that is the duty of children. In extreme cases, they are sometimes ejected from the husband’s house no matter their economic or social status and endure the pity or mockery of family members, friends, and acquaintances.      


    In most communities in Ghana, it is believed that babies born after a longed-for conception often bear names that reflect their mothers’ anxiety. For example, ‘Brenya’, which literally means “suffer and get” is such a name from the Akan people of Ghana. Also, ‘Nukomeko’, which literally means “I just laugh” is one of the names from the Anlo-Ewe of southern Ghana. These names are among many examples that reflect joy, triumph and satisfaction in a successful delivery after the pain of barrenness. Other names pointedly refer to previous distress and are meant as retorts to those who might have tried to block their pregnancy or had made fun of them. Examples are; ‘Dzitorwoko’, literally means “Only those who have the heart”, Azunukpenawo “It will be shame unto them”, or Nyavedzi “Matter that grieve the heart”. There are other unpleasant names that parents give their children as a mockery in return for what they suffered from either family, and/ or for child mortality. This has been buttressed by Agyekum, when he says that,


    “the Akans, like other cultures in West Africa, believe that if a mother suffers constant child mortality, then the reason is that it is the child’s mother in the underworld that does not want the child to stay in the living world. To combat such an unfortunate situation, the parents give the child a weird name (2020: 221).”


    For instance, a name such as ‘Asaaseasa’ which literally means ‘the land is finished’ is one of the many names that is used to combat such a situation. This suggests how important pregnancy and childbirth are revered in most communities in Ghana.


    So, in the olden days in Ghana, just like in many parts of Africa, girls have received doll-like figures to care for – not as playthings when they are children, but as teenagers preparing for marriage. This sometimes occurs during initiation practices, when their attentiveness may be assessed. In the meantime, the girl would be detached from her family and allowed to stay alone in a small structure. The doll serves as her sole companion, and she “feeds” it, washes and oils it, decorates it with seed beads at neck or hips, and otherwise tends it like the infant she hopes to bear. Most of these dolls are made of females, as their breasts and genitals indicate. The reason being that, female children are especially desirable in order to increase the size of the matrilineage despite the desire that fathers always want their names to remain as a memorial for generations yet to come.


    In direct reference to the subject under review, it is suggested that the woman is undergoing some form of pain. But as to whether it is a labour pain, abdominal pain, or crumps, could be a subject of debate depending on individual’s discretion.


    It is good that technology has improved greatly over the years and there is a complete education on pregnancy as I try to analyze this piece of artwork. It is therefore necessary to note that these forms of education are very essential and there is no doubt that it will remain useful and also see tremendous improvement with time. Most of these challenges are normal occurrences during adulthood as stated earlier. It is in sharp contrast to what is used to be the case among other people across the globe where such issues are most often associated to evil spirit attacks hence creating fear in prospective mothers and a potential threat to motherhood.


    It is relevant to note that womanhood is an undisputable way to ensure life’s continuous existence. In that regard, one can conclude that this artwork is tangible, contextually realistic (though physically semi-abstract) and precise to address the question of whether it communicates, represents or symbolizes the argument in the text. The world today and future will find its educational and cultural relevance as outlined in the context above. It is also appropriate to conclude that the interpretation of the meaning of the object was based not only in the belief systems of Ghanaian communities but transcultural significance and sensitivity to cultural aspects with regards to tolerance and respect as subjects of consideration.





    • Costa, G. (2019).  A communications official for the Amazon synod: https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/amazon-synod-final-report-an-instrument-communications-official-says-36081. Retrieved On the 19th March, 2020.
    • Agyekum, K. (2006) The Sociolinguistic of Akan Personal Name: http://www.njas.helsinki.fi/pdf-files/vol15num2/agyekum.pdf. Retrieved On the 19th March, 2020.



    This article is part of a gallery: Perspectives from Ghana on Museum Objects in Germany


    published January 2021