Ananse - Ghana’s Amazing Spider-Man

Ananse - Ghana’s Amazing Spider-Man

Editorial: Creative writer, Sammie Frimpong takes an insightful look at the tale of Ananse, Ghana's most iconic character in Ghanaian folklore, and what makes Ananse perhaps the real spiderman!

Whoever argued Spider-Man was created by, and thus is the sole property of, the West is horribly wrong, as any Ghanaian would tell you. At best, he's only half-right--and that's only if he's talking about the version that dons a red-and-blue costume, climbs along skyscrapers, saves cities, and is a devoted academic known as Peter Parker in real life.

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Well, in these parts, we do have our own Spider-Man, though not nearly as handsome or agile as Parker's alter-ego, and his legend has been built more on brains that brawn. Oh, his name? KWEKU ANANSE!!!

'Ananse' (a variation of which is 'Anansi'), in Ghana's Akan language, refers to the spider. Exactly what Ananse--the folktale character—is, though, isn't nearly as certain. Per the context he (or 'it', if you wish) is transplanted in, Ananse might be a man, spider or, yes…you guessed right, Spider-Man (as is often the case). There is more to Ananse, though; he is sometimes depicted as a god of sorts, coming together to present his profile as one of a 'deity-homo-arachnid', if any such being exists.

The story of how this little guy got to lay claim to divinity? Well, Wikipedia--if it's any authority--tells it best, via one of the best-known stories spawned around the Ananse brand.

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"Once there were no stories in the world. The Sky-God, Nyame, had them all. Anansi went to Nyame and asked how much they would cost to buy. Nyame set a high price: Anansi must bring back Onini the Python, Osebo the Leopard, and the Mboro Hornets. Anansi set about capturing these. First he went to where Python lived and debated out loud whether Python was really longer than the palm branch or not as his wife Aso says. Python overheard and, when Anansi explained the debate, agreed to lie along the palm branch. Because he cannot easily make himself completely straight a true impression of his actual length is difficult to obtain, so Python agreed to be tied to the branch. When he was completely tied, Anansi took him to Nyame. To catch the leopard, Anansi dug a deep hole in the ground. When the leopard fell in the hole Anansi offered to help him out with his webs. Once the leopard was out of the hole he was bound in Anansi's webs and was carried away. To catch the hornets, Anansi filled a calabash with water and poured some over a banana leaf he held over his head and some over the nest, calling out that it was raining. He suggested the bees get into the empty calabash, and when they obliged, he quickly sealed the opening. Anansi handed his captives over to Nyame. Nyame rewarded him by making him the god of all stories."

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The latter statement goes some way in explaining why all folk stories in the traditional Ghanaian setting are collectively named after Ananse, with the generic term 'Anansesem' applying whether or not they have Ananse among the protagonists. And that's why, down here, we like to refer to him as 'The Ubiquitous One'.

Yet even in the many stories actually stars, Ananse doesn't always emerge the hero. On the contrary, he often is portrayed—usually through his own doing--as a villain, but only the kind of rascal whose mischief may just draw applause from the observer. The typical Ananse story sees our little man try to outwit all others and, in the end, he proves too smart for everyone else (himself included), culminating in epic failure and embarrassment time and again. Such is Ananse’s legendary cunning that the designation 'Anansesem' refers to any narration that is too good to believe. And such is the razor-sharp edge to Ananse's wits that, as a popular Ghanaian saying goes, an attempt to deceive Ananse is akin to the ultimate act of self-deception.

Ananse, to us, is almost real, thus he features heavily in mythology. He has his own household, comprised of some very interesting characters: Nyame (Ananse's father and Sky-God); Asase Yaa (his mother and Earth-Goddess); Okonore Yaa (Ananse's ever-patient, enduring wife); Ananse's children: Ntikuma the firstborn (who occasionally dares to get one over his dad, occasionally mirroring some of his misdeeds); Tikelenkelen the big-headed one; Nankonhwea with his spindly limbs; Afudohwedohwe barely helping himself from falling over his pot-belly; and the beautiful Anansewaa, subject of Efua Sutherland's classic, timeless novel.

It isn't only in his homeland, though, that Ananse is celebrated. His fame, since the era when the slave trading business was at its peak, has long transcended these shores. Of all the elements of home slave raiders flogged out of their African captives, Ananse--along with Br'er Rabbit, a folk character of identical repute transported in the hearts of slaves from the Bantu-speaking lands of south and central Africa--was one of the few memories from home that remained etched in their minds as they crossed the Atlantic and into the New World. It is believed by some that inspiration, conscious or otherwise, from Ananse's guile armed those slaves who, in a bid to stand up and be counted, resorted to craftiness in rousing themselves against their cruel lords.

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It's also why Ananse has so many aliases throughout the Caribbean: Bru Nansi (Virgin Islands), Annancy/Anancy (Jamaica, Grenada, Costa Rica, Colombia and Nicaragua), Anansi (Trinidad and Tobago), Anansi Drew (The Bahamas), Aunt Nancy (South Carolina), Cha Nanzi (Aruba), Kompa Nanzi (Curaçao, Bonaire) and Ba Anansi (Suriname), et al.

In the face of modernity and all of its complexities, though, one might think our original spider-man would struggle to claim a place in the spotlight and carve a niche for himself in the pantheon of latter-day superheroes, but nothing could be farther from reality.

Among several appearances in the realms of popular culture, Ananse has starred in two episodes of 'Gargoyles', a Disney cartoon series, in the PBS children's series 'Sesame Street', and a string of choice comics. For what it's worth, Ananse is the proud bearer of the roots for half the name of English rock band 'Skunk Anansie'.

And so he continues to live, on our screens and by the fireside (where 'Anansesem' is traditionally told in rural Ghana), neither to be drowned in the sands of time nor robbed of all the factors that have always established him as one of Ghana's greatest yet often understated symbols.

Move over, then, Mr. Parker...

Ananse never dies!


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