Everyday Islam in Kumasi: Devout Lay Men and Women in Daily Life

by Gracia Clark


The commercial importance of Kumasi encourages both men and women to trade, and many moved here for that purpose. The savannah-based trading networks to the north of Kumasi are dominated by Muslim men. Long before Kumasi was founded, towns like Salaga were important centers in this network, and attracted traders from present-day Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria and Mali. After British conquest allowed them access to Kumasi, men from these ethnic groups continued to control wholesale trade in cattle, kola nuts, and other important commodities.

About 80% of the total female population of working age in Kumasi makes a living by trading. Muslim women trade in the Central Market and in smaller neighborhood markets, especially in shea butter and in other foods popular with the Northern ethnic groups. A few women own stores in the commercial areas of town, but it is more often men who have this much capital. Many women also sell from tables on the roadside just outside their houses. Those who wish to stay at home can still trade, and many sell cooked food to regular customers. They can also buy and resell other goods by visiting suppliers and customers at their homes, by receiving visitors in their own homes, and by selling through hawkers who carry their goods from door to door.

Palaver Held at the Central Market, Kumasi

Date: October 13, 1946
Muslim traders settled freely in Kumasi after British conquest in 1898, but they had to negotiate a place for themselves politically and economically as a minority. Each immigrant ethnic group acknowledged a Kumasi headman, who maintained constructive relations with the Asante chiefly hierarchy and the British colonial authorities to protect their trading activities and legal traditions. Although most of the translations for this case will be from oral interviews, the paramount chief's archives contain valuable English language documents from earlier decades, such as petitions and court cases. The following sample document shows high-ranking palace officials mediating a conflict between male traders from Gao (Mali) and Asante women traders. Their rivalry over access to truckloads of yams arriving in Kumasi Central Market sparked several violent clashes between 1938 and 1952.