The legend of “Akuaba” literally translated to mean “Akua’s missing children” emerged when girls born on Wednesday were having difficulty getting pregnant in the West African nation of Ghana. The antidote to this bad omen was for Akua (a childless woman born on Wednesday) to bring a woodcarving of a little child to the traditional priest.
The instruction from the priest was for Akua to tend to the wooden doll as she would her own baby. This required her to carry the doll on her back and tuck her in a cloth to provide it with comfort with only its head appearing above the cloth at her back. In her paper titled ‘Akua’s child and other relatives’, researcher Doran Ross explained that the role of Akua in this traditional narrative was to fend for the doll, bathe it, place it in her bed, and give it gifts that come in the form of waist beads and beaded earrings and necklaces.
However, Akua was mocked anytime she appeared at the village circle with community folks pointing fingers at her with slurs such as “oh, look at Akua’s child”. With time and assiduously following the ritual to the letter, Akua gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. This is what gave birth to the culture of women struggling to have children adopting the ritual of placing a carved doll at their back in respect of Akua’s journey to motherhood.
The legend of Akua is symbolic of the challenges women across the world endure in their quest to procreate and have as many children as they desire. This sometimes takes the form of seeking divine intervention as well as medical treatment to understand what the challenge is. Researcher Malcolm McLeod, who has explored the subject thoroughly, said the issue is more complicated than having a simple wooden doll at a woman’s back. According to him, the ritual commences with a traditional priest handing over the doll to the mother facing fertility issues on a certain given day mainly because the woodcarvings need to be blessed by the gods.
After that, the mother is given some herbs to drink and bath to fully free her from whatever misfortune might be posing a challenge to her ability to give birth. The traditional priest sometimes gives such a mother some rules she must abide by before the child is born. McLeod explained that what happens to the doll after the woman has given birth to a child varies from culture to culture. In some cultures, it is returned to the priest in acknowledgment and praise to the spirits for the good fortunes they have brought to the life of the woman while others ask the family to preserve it as an heirloom or give it to the particular child after birth as their doll for playing.
In an instance where the woman was unable to conceive after the ritual, the doll is kept with the family and buried with the mother on the day of death. These cultural practices are not cast in stone; there is room for some flexibility as McLeod explained. The wooden dolls are sometimes carved before a woman begins witnessing challenges with giving birth.
In some traditions, young maidens are given the dolls when they attain puberty to look after these dolls to guarantee the chance of giving birth to healthy babies. The Akuabas have distinctive looks. The head takes the form of a disc shape with a face cast down to the bottom half or in some instances third of the disc. The mouth is placed at the bottom with no chin.
The eyes are carved in the form of coffee beans or half-moons and framed by long, arching eyebrows that connect at the bridge of the nose. The cheeks bear some tribal marks which represent the medicinal powers expected to spiritually fortify the child from all sorts of sickness when born. The ringed neck holds the head of the doll. The arms are cone-shaped and spring from the upper part of the body. The Akuaba is often legless and in place, the base holding it down is expanded to support the doll.