The Krobo people are grouped as part of Ga-Dangme ethnolinguistic group and they are also the largest group of the seven Dangbe ethnic groups of Southeastern Ghana. They are farming people who occupy Accra Plains, Akuapim Mountains and the Afram Basin. The Krobo people are well known for their initiation rites called Dipo.
The ancient form of Dipo
The Dipo ceremony used to last a very long time as there was no formal education and it served as vocational training for matured girls. It could last several months and even up to a year. The girls were camped and made to go through several processes, in the form of a “curriculum” for the training. They were taught how to tend a farm, collect firewood for cooking in the home (they had to have a reserve of firewood in their homes as good women because they could have visitors at night), fetching of water, doing dishes and laundering clothes. They were sent to a riverside and taught how to wash their clothes and learnt personal hygiene in the process. The girls also took turns to do the cooking during the period of seclusion. Pounding of the traditional fufu was taught and also how to serve food to the extended members of their husband’s family when they were married.
After going through this process, the blessing of the gods were sought for the girls and the ‘old lady’ gave the consent or approval that the girls have passed the training process and were ready for marriage. Some of the girls may have been betrothed before going through the rite. Their suitors were therefore expected to contribute to the performance of the rite for the girls. They also carried the girls from the shrine after the ultimate test of sitting on the sacred stone as a means of warding off other interested men. This also signified that they would one day carry the girl to their bed. The girls had their bodies exposed during the rite as a form of marketing – to show the members (especially men) of the community that the girls were beautiful and ripe for marriage and therefore attract potential suitors. They were taken to the market place to dance also as a form of exposure to the outside world. It was common in those days, for girls to be married soon after Dipo was performed for them. As evidence of initiation, marks were made on the back of the palms and wrists.
More about the the ritual
At the start of the ritual the girls enter the ritual house where they shed all of their clothes and their ritual mothers will dress them anew. These women are not the actual mothers of the girls but serve as mentors to the initiates.
The only thing that the girls will wear, is a single band of carnelian beads. A red piece of cloth will hang from this strand, which symbolizes the blood of menstruation. The color of the stones and fabric is believed to keep away the bad spirits to which the girls are the most vulnerable. The souls of the initiates are called prior to the performance of the rite so they could tell what exactly they wanted to be done for them during the rites. For example, if an initiate’s soul demanded she be dressed in a certain way or be given a certain dish, the organizers would grant this request. It is believed that if this is not done and anything is performed contrary to the wish of the initiate’s soul, it could have serious repercussions on her.
All of the girls will also have their heads shaved by their ritual mother, except for a little patch on the back of their head (This is called the Yisi-pomi), marking a new stage in their life. The little patch left on their head, will be shaved off when they are done with the whole initiation process. This is the first stage for the girls. To mark this stage, The girls are stripped naked and a string, bead in front with a blade. A string of palm fibre called soni was then tied around their necks. The tying of the string (soni) is performed by either the old lady of the house called yomoyo,the ritual mothers or the priestesses The girls were thus identified as Dipo-yo (which means Dipo girl. The plural of this is Dipo-yi).
In the first three weeks the girls are secluded from the rest of the community. The morning following the day which their heads were shaved, they follow their ritual mothers to the river to bathe. The girls lined up with big calabashes in which they had a strip of red loin cloth, raffia sponge, soap, waist beads, wax print cloth and towel which were needed for the bath. The girls joined the queue as soon as they were called. They had their breasts exposed but wore the wax print cloth on their waists. The priestesses led the way to the well or a okwe stream followed by the girls with the younger ones in front, amidst singing by women. The very young girls were carried by their mothers. The girls stands on plantain branches to bathe and first had to wash the red cloth they had been wearing. The very young initiates were bathed by their mothers. After bathing, they had their necks, chest and shoulders smeared with a brownish substance which served as powder.
The initiates wore new cloths and covered themselves with a wrapper from their waist downwards. They then walked back to the Dipo house with their calabashes containing the bathing sponge, soap, towel and the washed red cloths. This isn’t just a purification ritual, it also teaches the girls the correct way to cleanse themselves. After they are done with the bathing, they receive a special meal of water-yam, porridge, and palm oil which their ritual mothers prepared for them.The women also prepare the traditional meal, ho-fufui (Saturday’s fufu made from plantain) and palm nut soup with traditional cooking utensils.
When the food is ready, it is served in traditional bowls and once again, placed on the ground for initiates to eat in groups.
The names of the initiates were called by the priest from a register. Upon hearing their names, the girls went to the priestess who first put pieces of the food in their mouth three times and they swallowed the third time. The initiates are allowed to eat the ho-fufui in groups after this. Later, the girls had their bodies marked by the priestesses with charcoal on the sides of their faces, chests and stomachs.
The climax of the Dipo ritual is when the girls are brought to the scared rock to test their virginity. During this ritual they replace the red cloth with a pure white one. They also have a piece of calico around their head and across their chest. During this whole ritual the girls must remain silent.
The girls have a leaf in their mouth which is supposed to help them remain silent and bring their thoughts inward. Their ritual mothers follow the girls to the sacred rock, all of them are carrying a special stick called dimanchu. Dimanchu means “to make you a woman.” Before they start their way to the stone, the girls are splashed with chalky water to ward off the evil spirits that they could encounter on their way to the rock.
Once the girls arrive at the rock the priestesses will inspect them to see if they are pregnant. The priestesses splash the girls with a blessed chalky water; if the young girl is pregnant the unborn child would tremble within which the priestesses would see and therefore be able to tell that the young girl is pregnant.. If a young girl would start to menstruate right there when she is splashed with this holy water, the rock will get even more power. The girls are test in the rock one by one. When a initiate passes the test she is run out by her guardian mother. This represents the chaos that used to exist. In the past there would be men from other tribes waiting to kidnap a newly initiated young girl. Preventing this, the guardian mother had to run the girl home has fast as she could so that she could be protected by their families.
Girls arrive home excited; they have completed their initiation process. Now they will be able to demonstrate to their family, friends, and future husbands what they have all learned in the three weeks that they were gone. For the celebration the girls dress up; they were many different color beads, a headdress called cheia, and beautiful cloths. Mothers beam with pride that their daughters passed the initiation. The girls are now accepted into the Krobo society as women.
Recent changes in the ritual
Unlike the past when Dipo was performed for matured young women who were of marriageable age, it is now performed for girls as young as two years and even infants.
Initiates are now allowed to cover their breasts with a wax-print cloth except when a ritual is being performed. This covering is allowed even in the Dipo house which was not the case in the past. Initiates had to be exposed the entire time during the initiation whether in the Dipo house or not.
A reason given for this change was the numerous criticisms against the practice. The Queen mothers explained that the bodily exposure served to attract men to the initiates and was a form of temptation for them. They therefore advocate that the girls be covered.
Gone are the days when it was a reserve of men to carry initiates from the shrine. These days, women also engage in the carrying. It was more practical for men to do the carrying in the past as they were probably potential suitors.
The girls were also a lot grown-up than they are now and with the large number of beads on their waists, they were very heavy. It was therefore easier for men to carry them. Women now engage in the carrying because the girls are now much younger. They are no longer betrothed so there is less motivation for the men to carry them as was the case in the past.
The marks which initiates were given at the back of their hands, on their bellies and their waists are no longer given. It is only done symbolically. The priestesses only passed the blade on the hands without making any marks. Shaving of the hair could easily be avoided by paying money to keep it.
It is common knowledge that a girl who did not pass the litmus test of visiting the sacred stone was ostracized from the Krobo society. She was hooted at, banished and regarded as a shame to her family and the community at large, a bad example of womanhood. Such an occurrence is now virtually non-existent. It is not common to hear of a girl being ostracized. This could be attributed to paying for purification rituals so that girls who had previously conceived can be initiated.
Text: Memory Lane (edited)
Photos: Anthony Pappone, Retlaw Snellac, Ronnie Dankelman / Memory Lane, Flickr, Google