Background information: Ewe migration stories and the Hogbetsotso celebration

Ewe migration stories

“The story is told in oral tradition of the Ewes in Ghana that in their migratory journeys to their present homes, probably the most important single step they took into the future had to be done walking backward. It is said again and again that to escape from tyranny of king Agokoli and the walled city of Notsie (in present-day Togo), the Dogbos, as they were then called, had to break out at night through a secret opening in the great wall and then proceed toward freedom by walking backward for a considerable distance from Agokoli” (Anyidoho, 2003:3).

In the above text, renowned scholar, poet and writer Kofi Anyidoho summarized one of the most famous versions of Ewe oral narratives of migration (usually defined as xotutu) in a very lively manner. He recounts how the Ewe escaped from Notsie and from the sufferings endured under the reign of King Agokoli I. The King assigned difficult tasks to the Ewe people; they had to build houses and the city wall with mud and pieces of glass, rock and thorns, and were severely punished if they did not obey him. Another impossible task assigned to the people was to produce a rope out of clay. The Ewe were finally able to escape thanks to a cunning plan suggested by one of the last elders still alive (since Agokoli had previously demanded the Ewe to kill their elders). The women —while washing— would throw water against one single spot of the city wall so that the wall would become softer and it would be possible to cut a hole in it. Women, children and older people escaped through the hole, while the younger men and drummers followed later on walking backwards so that nobody could see from their footsteps that they were leaving.
Oral sources and archaeological remains suggest that a series of migrations started in the 11th century and that the present Ewe settled in Ghana in the early 17th century; the Ewe exodus was probably caused by the progressive expansion of other populations, probably the Yoruba (Amenumey 1997: 15-16; Gayibor and Aguigah 2005: 6-7). Lawrence (2005) gives a map of contemporary Ewe settlements spanning from the banks of the Mono River on the Togo-Benin borders to Ghana, where large Ewe communities live along the eastern side of Lake Volta and in the area around Keta Lagoon on the sea-coast (see also the map included in the present volume). Several xotutu versions agree that the Ewe moved westward from northern areas in present-day Benin and settled, following successive displacements and subdivisions, in what is nowadays Togo and eastern Ghana. Through genealogies of royal characters, narratives of migrations collected at Tado (along the Mono River) relate that Adja and Ewe peoples came from Ketu in Yoruba country, while narratives collected at Notsie (central Togo) recount another flow of migration from Tado to Notsie. The most frequently narrated story includes the episode with the King Agokoli and locates the Ewe ancestral home in Notsie. Some versions collected in Anlo-Ewe include the episode of the conflict between Agokoli and Sri, chief of the Dogbos in Notsie, what fuelled Agokoli’s harsh behaviour towards the Dogbos/Ewes. Other stories narrate incidents that took place after the Ewe departed from Notsie, such as the episode relating how the right to alternate succession to the Anlo stool (symbol of ritual and political authority) was established between the Bate clan and the Adzovia clan (Aduamah 1965: 5-6, 18-20).
The theme of the conflict between generations, whether between king and elders or between father and son, is widely diffused in West African oral narratives (Paulme 1976, Görög-Karady 1995). Similarly, the motif of the ‘rope of clay’ is common in West African and Arabic narratives (Gayibor 1984: 31, Pazzi 1973: 24). In the Notsie narrative such themes are specified and localized: the episode when King Agokoli orders the elders to be killed highlights the political conflict between kingship and amega (council of elders) in a system in which the spiritual and political leader was usually secluded from public view and the council was the political power that communicated with the people. “A young foolish Agokoli seeks to rid himself of the confining advice of his elders by ordering all to be executed. His Ewe subjects, however, are successful in saving a few from death […] And it is the elders who successfully lead them [the Ewe] out of Notsie when they make their escape” (Greene 2002: 1035). If the solution offered in the Notsie narrative re-states the authority of the elders, other stories offer a more ambiguous discourse on seniority. For example, a version collected by Gayibor (1984: 27) recounts that one of the elders became drunk during a celebration and revealed the trick played by Ewe people to induce Agokoli to kill his own son. According to Sandra Greeve, the theme of elderly authority took up particular importance when social, political and economic changes during colonialism jeopardized the social system based on seniority. “Resistance to this change in the authority culture of the area took a number of forms, but perhaps the most interesting was the popularity of narratives that reinforced elderly authority” (Greene 2002: 1034).
An intense interaction between oral and written xotutu versions has taken place since the colonial period. According to researchers Gayibor (1989), Sandra Greene, and Birgit Meyer (Greene 2002), the German missionaries who were active in the area since 1847 promoted not only linguistic standardization based on Anlo-Ewe language, but also the idea of a common origin of all Ewes from the city of Notsie. The xotutu versions identifying Notsie as the ‘original home’ were known in the Anlo area (present south-eastern Ghana) and became generally accepted since they were used for the reconstruction of Ewe migratory displacements in the missionary school readers. One of the first collected versions of the migration was offered in French translation by the Ghanaian priest Henry Kwakume (1951).

The belief that Notsie was the ‘original home’ of the Ewe was further strengthened by both political and religious movements (Gayibor 1989: 212; Greene 2002: 1035). The Ewe (pre-independence) nationalist movements referred to their common origin when they sought to include all Ewe-speaking peoples into one of the nations to be created after the end of European colonization. An important moment for the diffusion of such views was the rally organized at Notsie in 1956, on the occasion of the first Agbogbo (referring to Notsie’s wall) Festival, when the authorities reunited from all the Ewe-speaking areas decided to harmonize their historical narratives. On the other hand, following Greene (2002: 1035-36), “the Notsie narrative’s popularity was further enhanced during the colonial period among the ordinary and the average in the religion as a result of local efforts to make sense of their own traditions in light of the Biblical narratives introduced by the Bremen Mission. Instead of embracing the notion that they were the children of Ham who had diverted from the path of God and who needed the guiding hand of the missionaries to lead them back onto the road of righteousness, many among the Ewe associated their exodus from Notsie with the Jews’ escape from Egypt. The Ewes were not heathens but had been one with the Israelites”. Greene mentions a number of authors who favoured this interpretation, such as Mamattah 1979 and Fianu 1986.
All these narratives of migration, whether orally transmitted or written down, give form to and convey knowledge of the Ewe land and community, crystallizing historical processes of identification through migrations, settlements, interactions with, and interpretations by different groups. The power of the Ewe migration narratives as a means to negotiate and create identity is still perceptible in the present times. An example is the re-enactment of the migration journey in the Hogbetsotso (see below). The interview with Dr. Datey-Kumodzie illustrates new ways in which the xotutu are activated and negotiated in the present globalized (and globalizing) world.


Aduamah, E.Y., Ewe Tradition, No. 1, Institute of African Studies, University of Ghana, Legon, 1965. Anyidoho, K., The Back without which there is no front, Africa Today, 50 (2), 2005: 3-18. Agbodeka, F. (Ed.), A Handbook of Eweland, The Ewes of Southeastern Ghana, Woeli Publishing Services, Accra, 1997. Amenumey, D.E.K., ‘A Brief History’, in F. Agbodeka, 1997: 15-16. Fianu, D.D., The Hoawo and the Gligbaza Festival of the Asogli State of Eweland: A Historical Sketch (Self-published), 1986. Furniss, G. and L. Gunner, Power, marginality and African oral literature, Cambridge UP, Cambridge, 1995. Gayibor, N.L. and A. Aguigah, ‘Early Settlements and Archaeology of the Adja-Tado Culture Zone’, in B.N. Lawrence 2005: 1-13. Gayibor, N.L. , Le remodelage des traditions historiques: la légende d’Agokoli, roi de Notse, in C.-H. Perrot 1989: 209-214. Görög-Karady, V., ‘Tales and ideology: the revolt of sons in Bambara-Malinké tales’, in Furniss and Gunner 1995: 83-91. Greene, S. E., Notsie Narratives: History, Memory, and Meaning in West Africa, The South Atlantic Quaterly 101 (4), 2002: 1015-1041. Hartter, G., Spieth, J., and G. Daeuble, Ewegbalehlela fe Sukuwe IV [Ewe Syllabi], Bremen, Norddeutsche Missionsgesellschaft, 1906. Kwakume, H., Précis d’histoire du peuple evhe, Lomé, Ecole Professionnelle, 1948. Lawrence, B.N. (Ed.), The Ewe of Togo and Benin, Woeli Publishing Services, Accra, 2005. Mamattah, C.M.K., The Ewes of West Africa, Advent Press, Keta, Ghana, 1979. Paulme, D., La mere dévorante, Gallimard, Paris, 1976. Pazzi, R., Notes d’histoire des peuples aja, éwé, gen et fon, Lomé, 1973. Perrot, C.-H., (Ed.) , Source orales de l’histoire de l’Afrique, together with G. Gonnin and F. Nahimana, CNRS, Paris, 1989. Spieth, J. , Die Ewestämmen, Berlin, D. Reimar, 1906.

Hogbetsotso and the Ewe Festivals. Excerpts

Notsie narratives. Excerpts

The most frequently narrated story of origin locates the Ewe ancestral home in Notsie, and the departure from this town is enacted in the Hogbetsotso (“leaving Hogbe”, ie. leaving the ancestral land) festival that takes place in several Anlo-Ewe (Aŋlɔ in Ewe orthography) towns such as Anloga, Anyako, Dzodze and Klikor in Ghana. Sandra Greene offers the following insight

“As early as the 1960s, various Ewe communities began to define Notsie not so much as a basis for defining an Ewe identity and not so much as a place of religious significance but rather as a convenient focal point around which to rally a sense of local cultural pride. This development is perhaps most evident in the Ewe-speaking coastal polity of Anlo. In 1962, Anlo developed what became an annual festival commemorating the exodus front Notsie. Named Hogbetsotsoza (from the Ewe words hogbe [homeland], understood to be Notsie; tsotso [exodus therefrom]; and za [festival], the organizers used this particular title because Notsie (or Hogbe) was known to every Anlo who had either been taught or had heard about the history of the Ewes in school or from local traditions. In the first year of its organization and in all those festivals held since, however, emphasis was placed not on a larger Ewe cultural identity, but rather on identifying and taking pride in Anlo culture […] In addition to a focus on the local, the festival also attempted to encourage those who had left the area for greater economic opportunities elsewhere in Ghana to return psychologically, physically, and financially so they could contribute to the development needs of the district.” (Greene 2002a: 26)

“Since its inception, the organizers have included at each Hogbetsotsoza [Hogbetsotso festival] a dramatic re-enactment of the Notsie narrative. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, however, interest in this aspect of the festival had begun to falter. In 1978, for example, when I first attended the Hogbetsotsoza, a clan elder who was widely respected for his knowledge of the oral history of the area, presented a most dignified and moving account of Notsie’s history and the exodus that mesmerized those who attended. The audience was sparse, however, and over the years it attracted even fewer interested observers […] Refusing to abandon the very heart of the festival, the organizers had opted by 1996 to pursue another approach. That year, they invited a drama troupe from Accra to perform the exodus re-enactment. The response was overwhelming […]. Significantly, to attract such a crowd, the troupe took considerable artistic license in dramatizing the events leading to the exodus. Agokoli was portrayed not as the insensitive tyrant of the well-known Notsie narrative, but in slapstick form as a drunken, lecherous, bumbling ruler who was presented as more an object of amusement than abhorrence. The fact that only a more light-hearted account […] could draw such an engaged crowd illustrates the extent to which older meanings and memories have undergone yet another set of transformations” (Greene 2002a: 27-28)
From: Greene, S.E., Sacred Sites and the Colonial Encounter: A History of Meaning and Memory in Ghana, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2002a.

Ewe Songs. Excerpts

From Kofi Anyidoho, “Ewe Verbal Art”, in F. Agbodeka 1997: 123-152

Ha (Song). The Ewe term for what we call song is ha and the singer is Hɛnɔ/Hɛsinɔ, especially among the Anlo, or Hakpala/Hadzila, especially among the northern Ewe. The term Henɔ is an adaptation of ha (song) plus , (mother/owner). The term encompasses the largest single genre of Ewe verbal art. An exhaustive sub-classification of the Ewe song is almost impossible, with so many of the various types of song belonging at once to many different categories depending on what criteria we use: structure, subject matter, social group, occupational group, religious group, occasion of performance, style of performance, musical style or “drum” with which it is associated, etc.” (Anyidoho, 1997: 138).
“With regard to the musical dimension of the Ewe song, we can make a distinction between two broad kinds of the music mode in song structure and performance The first kind of song requires melody only for its full realization. The second type of song will require instrumental accompaniment as well, and this may range from a single ideophonic instrument such as gaŋkogui (double bell/gong) to a whole ensemble of drums and other percussion instruments, including clapping. The second kind of song is by far the more common in Ewe tradition” (Anyidoho, 1997: 139-140).
"Probably the most obvious example of the first kind is the lullaby. However, one has to consider that even though lullabies are typically performed without any instrumental accompaniment, it is not impossible to accompany them with instruments. In fact, some popular bands in Ghana and Togo today have various adaptations of some of the most popular traditional Ewe lullabies, such as “Tuu Tuu, Gbɔ Vi”. On the other hand, almost all the songs that are typically performed to full instrumental accompaniment, are also capable of being performed only as words and melodies” (Anyidoho, 1997: 140).
“Sacred Verse. As pointed out earlier, the Ewe believe in a metaphysical dimension to physical existence and in the metaphysics of the word. We must now turn to one area of verbal art where the potency of words achieves preeminence in various attempts by humans to create and recreate the world in their own image, largely through metaphysical means. We talk here of “sacred verse” because these are verbal art forms whose creation and performance serve a primarily religious purpose: the tapping of occult or divine power for inducing physical results, the gaining of access to the will of the gods. There is another reason to make a clear distinction between these verbal art forms and others; the audience for sacred verse is often understood to be the gods or other mystical forces. In strict communicative terms, the humans often present at the performance of these forms must be properly seen as spectators rather than the direct audience. This is especially true of the prayer text and of the magical incantation. Much of divination poetry is also directly addressed to deities, with occasional switches to the client who has requested the divination. Three forms of sacred verse are of special significance: gbesa, aɖegbedodo and afakaka. The three forms are very closely interrelated, seen as appeals to various manifestations of the creative (and destructive) metaphysical powers of the divine." (Anyidoho, 1997: 140).