In Chinua Achebe`s book, “Things Fall Apart,” Unoka received a neighbour-visitor Okoye in his house, he quickly dashed into an inner room and soon returned with a small wooden disc containing a kola nut, some alligator pepper and a lump of white chalk. “I have kola,” he announced when he sat down, and passed the disc over to his guest. “Thank you. He who brings kola brings life. But I think you ought to break it,” replied Okoye, passing back the disc.

This anecdote succinctly sums up the interesting and important role Kola nut plays in African traditional culture. Chewed for extra energy, identified with local deities and taken as an aphrodisiac, the Kola nut has been a major part of the fabric of African life for centuries. Apart from its importance in the social life and religious customs of people in the tropics of West Africa, in every traditional gathering, Kola nuts are highly esteemed channels of blessings. It is used during ceremonies related to marriage, child naming, installation of Chiefs, funeral and sacrifices made to the various deities in Africa.

Igbo proverb: Onye wetara oji, wetara ndu.
English translation: He who brings kola nut, brings life.
IMG: crashdburnd. Flickr

History of Kola Nut

Kola nut plant is unanimously acclaimed to be indigenous to the tropical rainforests of Africa. It is the ripe seed of sterculia acuminate, a tree of about 40-50 feet with light brown carpels containing one to fifteen seeds. It is chewed and has a bitter but not unpleasant taste. The plant has about 120 species in Africa. In Ghana, the Akans called Kola as Bise, Hausas as goro or qourou, kokkorokou (Lake Nyansa and East Africa), ombené, nangoué, and matrasa. Its chemical and therapeutic aspect: Kola contains roughly as much caffeine per 100 grams of coffee and as much theobromine per 100 grams of tea. Kola contains a heart stimulant, kolanin, caffeine, traces of theobromine,’ strychnine, quinine, theine, and tannin. Both caffeine and theobromine stimulate the nervous system and the skeletal muscles.The most common species of Kola for trade, consumption and cultivated in large quantity by Africans farmers are the Cola nitida, Cola acuminata and Cola Verticillata. However, Cola nitida has emerged as the commoner variety in Kola trade for many years with Cola acuminata species trailing behind it. White kola was much more valuable and rare, occurring in the same pod as white and pink or red nuts. Where red and white nuts were borne by the same tree, the proportion of white nuts rises as the tree grows older. Red kola was the preferred kola of trade because of its long lasting quality.

The plant was first mentioned in the pre-colonial West African book, Tarikh al-Fattash, by the Islamic scholar, Mahmud Kati. Kati contends that Kola trade was evident in the ancient Kingdom of Mali under the reign of King Mansa Musa. In the North Africa, an Islamic doctor, al Ghansani, in his renowned materia medica (medical journal) written in 1586 to the Moroccan Sultan Ahmed al-Mansur, also mentions that Kola came from the Western Sudan; from “a place called Bitu’ [Begho in the middle Volta in present-day Ghana in West Africa] where there are mines of gold and gold dust.”

Edmund Abakah, Kola nut historian in his 2005 ground-breaking book, “Kola is God’s Gift”: Agricultural production, export initiatives & the Kola industry of Asante & the Gold Coast c. 1820-1950,` explains that on the West African Coast the first evidence of Kola nut was mentioned by the Portuguese traveller, Duarte Pacheco Pereira in his book, “Esmeraldo de Situ Orbis,” published somewhere between 1501 to 1508.  Pereira writes that he witnessed Gambian merchants trading in Kola nuts and also used together with cowries, after inspection and bargaining for slaves. This attests to the existence of the West African kola trade as early as the late fifteenth century. Another Portuguese traveller in 1593 likened kola to “a chestnut but splitting into four parts, of a red or pink colour.” But, it was Palisot-Beauvais who gave a vivid account of a kola tree he had seen near Benin in 1805, from which he named the tree sterculia acuminate (botanical/scientific name). This tentatively placed Kola to the sterculiacae family.  

The first major colonial African Kola trade occurred in the 1800s in the Northern Gold Coast (Ghana) towns of Salaga, Kafaba and Yendi. It attracted participants from the whole of the Niger bend and the Volta basin such as the Fulani (Fulbe) from the North, Hausa from Kano (Nigeria), Berbers from Niger, Yoruba from Southern Nigeria, Kong (Akans) from Cote d` Ivoire, Kotokoli from Togo, Grunsi from Ghana and Burkina Faso, Asante, Gyaman, Basari,  and others from Ghana. The trade in the Kola nut, Western clothes and products, agricultural products and to some extent slaves, made Salaga in Ghana the biggest trading center (Market) in the world.

Upon the mighty Asante`s conquest in the North, the Brong and Abron to the north-east and north-west, facilitated the forest-savanna exchanges, especially in kola nuts which became the backbone of the northern trade and contributed to the welfare of the Asante people. Asante controlled the trade by ensuring that northern traders did not come south of Salaga, nor Coast traders go to the north. The Hausa dominated the Kola trade in what became known as “fatauci,” (long-distance trade). The Hausa caravan transported items from Borno and Hausaland to Gonja to buy Kola nut to Nigeria and other centres of Kola consumption in West Africa. The Hausa utilized their kin networks for access to local markets, capital and information about the kola trade. This positioned the Hausa to become a vital link in the trade between the Sokoto Caliphate, Asante and the Volta-Afram basin. However, Asante monopoly over the Kola trade waned following the British invasion of Kumasi in 1874 and the establishment of a French administrative post in Bonduku. In 1876, Gold Coast became British Colony, and the Hausa in the Gold Coast Constabulary and Ashanti Kingdom, who were Islamic clerics and freed slaves, living in the zongos, participated in the Kola trade by extending it to the coast. This ensured that Kola was exported to African descents living across the Atlantic.

Uses of Kola nut in Marriage and Weddings

As earlier noted, Kola nut is used as a masticatory stimulant by Africans and has numerous uses in social, religious, ritual and ceremonial functions. When it is given as a gift, Kola nut indicates respect and gratitude. Those who chew Kola together show to the world that they love and trust one another. Anthropologist Susan Drucker-Brown avers that among the Mamprusi people of Northern Ghana, a gift of kola is utilized to initiate an on-going relationship in which the recipient may be expected to a future request from the donor. She explains that Kola is also associated with courtship, and Mamprusi “marriages are established by a distribution of Kola which passes through the king or chief.”

To understand the role of Kola nut in traditional African marriage, it is very important to demystify the concept of presentations (payments in marriage) and the typology marriages in African societies which have been transported into global arena under the aegis of modernity. In all the societies that Kola is used in their marriage rites, there is ample evidence that in the past that society practiced some form of “capture” marriage.

In this form of marriage, a suitor tricks a woman he intends to marry into his or his friend`s house, and forcefully seize her into his family compound for safe-keeping amidst screaming and struggle. Alternatively, the suitor will seize the woman he wants to marry whenever he comes face-to-face with her. The seized maiden is kept in the man`s family house for a day. Depending on whether that society is acephalous or centralized, the suitor and a member of his family (father or uncle) goes to the chief`s house or the maiden`s family house to announce their act of capturing the maiden, and to assure them of her safety. Some cash and gifts of Kola are given to the King or the maiden`s family. In a society where the King plays an important role in the marriage, such as the Mamprusi, the King, upon receiving gifts from the man`s family, use some of the money to invite the maiden`s family into his palace to accept cash and gifts from the suitor`s family. The Kola given this way is called, gift of message Kola, and it symbolizes peaceful notification of the maiden`s whereabouts, the suitor`s intentions and reaction of the maiden`s family to the suit. When the message Kola is accepted it is presumed that the match is approved, but if it is rejected then it means the family of the prospective bride intends to regain their daughter from the “capturer.” The message Kola does not legitimize marriage even when it is accepted.

The second presentation of Kola is made to the maiden`s family to express remorsefulness for capturing the maiden, and this is called pardon Kola. The Pardon Kola, received from the suitor`s family by the King, is given to the maiden or the bride`s family or the father. In a non-centralized society, the suitor`s family gives the Pardon Kola straight to the maiden`s or the bride`s family. The Kola is chewed immediately by the members of the would-be bride`s family to signify their acceptance. Drucker-Brown contends that the acceptance of the Pardon Kola signifies that the loss of the maiden in her natal home will cause grief, public renunciation of her family`s claim to their daughter and at the same time it ensures children she may bear obtain protection from her agnatic ancestors. However, in the case of divorce, Pardon Kola and the gift of money are non-refundable.

This ancient capture typology of marriage had fallen into disuse as a result of modernity and Christian religion. But the time-honoured use of Kola nut as a symbolic object to ensure its socio-religious and juridical legitimacy has maintained its effectiveness in the traditional marriages of certain African ethnic groups such as Yoruba, Hausa, Igbo, Mamprusi, Dagomba and many others. Thus, global marriages of Africans in the diaspora with links to any of the African societies which used to practice Capture marriage had witnessed the proliferation of Kola nut usages in the global weddings and marriages.

It must be noted that in global marriages, Kola nut plays two significant roles, as a message Kola and a Pardon Kola. A message Kola is given to the woman`s family and is chewed, making them witnesses to the entire process of the courtship between the suitor and the woman. This process takes place long before the marriage ceremony. On the marriage day, the drink (palm wine or pito/millet drink) is sent from the woman`s family to the man`s family, which is consumed, but the empty tumbler (glass) is filled with money and Pardon Kola. The chewing of the Pardon Kola by the woman`s family makes them and the public observers who attend the ceremony to be witnesses to the marriage. The Kola in the empty tumbler (glass), with the bride`s hand covering it whilst walking in the full glare of the public is seen as a kind of registration of marriage, which is also an insurance in case a dispute about the legitimacy of the marriage arises.

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