Our family has embarked on virtual travels to various countries and regions. To explore these countries and their cultures, we have followed along with the festivals, cooked and eaten traditional foods, learned of traditional handicrafts with hands on exploration, along with many activities to immerse ourselves. Chronicled here are some of these activities.

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Thursday, February 26, 2015

Learn all about Ghanaian Kente Cloth with Books & Crafts

Kente cloth is the best known and most recognizable African fabric. It's a hand woven cloth with geometric shapes, bold designs, and bright colors. Kente is worn by many in the African diaspora as a statement of their pride in their African heritage. For example, students will often wear a strip of kente on their graduation gowns. This colorful cloth originates from Ghana, in West Africa.

Colorful Kente Cloth
Photo Credit: John Nash (CC)

Kente comes from word "kenten" which means basket. It's made by the Ashanti people of Ghana, the Ewe of Ghana & Togo, and the Akans in Cote d'Ivoire. First made in the 17th century, it was originally the cloth of Kings, and only worn by royalty. Now it's the national cloth of Ghana, often worn for special occasions, like festivals, ceremonies, weddings and births.

Ashanti chiefs carry extra kente when gathering with the king, because if they're wearing the pattern the king has chosen, they have to immediately change. Read more about Ashanti royalty and chiefdom here.

Photo Credit: Vicki See (CC)

To make kente, bright brilliant colors in silk or cotton are used. They are woven on narrow looms 4" to 8" wide, and these narrow strips are sewn together to make the fabric. Traditionally only woven by men, the skills are passed down from one generation to the next.

See more examples of Kente cloth here.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Ashanti Royalty & Chiefs:The Golden Stool, Their Entourage & Regalia

The late Nana Adu Ababio II, Ankobeahene of Amanokrom
Photo Credit: Kwadwo Kwarte (CC)

The Ashanti (also known as Asante) are a major ethnic group of the Akans in Ghana. The Ashanti kingdom has flourished since the late 1600s, and was one of most successful kingdoms in West Africa. 

Current King Asantehene Osei Tutu II of Ashanti
Photo Credit: Enzo Rivos (CC) 
The government of the Ashanti has a hierarchical order. The leader is the Asantehene, similar to a king. His position is protected by the constitution in Ghana. He heads the Ashanti Confederacy Council, a group made of paramount chiefs. Paramount chiefs preside over district chiefs, who in turn preside over a district council of elders, made up of subchiefs.

Foreign guests of state usually visit both the president and the Asantehene.

Ashanti chiefs must come from royal families, and each town or village has a royal family to choose from. Traditionally, chiefs had power over all aspects of life and law. These days, chiefs have power over tribal matters and traditional customs. They can enact bylaws, just as long as they don't contradict with state laws. They have the power to judge over matters of inheritance and land ownership. Local initiatives must be cleared by the chief, and are often organized and overseen by them. Because they are closer to the people, chiefs generally exercise more influence than the government, which is a power in itself.

The Golden Stool

Ashanti stoolPhoto Source: Part of the Children's Museum of Indianapolis collection (CC)

The Golden Stool is a symbol of great power. It isn't a seat, it's considered sacred and is believed to hold the soul of the nation. It's so sacred in fact that no one is allowed to sit on it. The Golden Stool should never come in contact with the ground - it either sits on its own stool or an animal skin, or both. It's kept in a safe place, and only the king, queen and trusted advisers know of its location. It's only rarely taken out for special occasions. "Enstoolment" is the ceremony when the new Asantehene takes power. He doesn't sit on it, he is raised and lowered over the stool three times, while never touching it

Friday, February 20, 2015

Make your own Senegalese Reverse Glass Painting (With Printable Templates)

Reverse glass painting, or souwer in the Wolof language (from the French "sous verre") is an art form in Senegal that has been popular for over a century. Reverse glass painting itself is an ancient technique that came to Senegal from Northern Africa in the late 1800s. When it was first introduced, the subject matter was mostly of religious scenes like Noah's Ark or Abraham's sacrifice or of religious heads. After Senegal gained its independence from France in 1960, subject matter took on new directions. Scenes were, and are, painted to depict every day life, like a marabout (holy man), a scene in courtyard, women pounding fufu, a Koranic school, a thief caught by a policeman, a ritual tea ceremony, the market, and peanut selling - these are but a few examples. Contemporary paintings also include portraits, social commentary and wild animals. 

These paintings are done in the naive style, that is to say not focused on formal drawing or needing the painting to look exactly like the subject. Bright colors are used, and perspective is ignored. 

This painting is a depiction of the slave trade, with white traders offering weapons in exchange for slaves (c.1987)Source: Tropenmuseum of the Royal Tropical Institute

To be a reverse glass painting, the paint is applied directly to the glass and then viewed through the glass. What I mean is that once the glass is painted, the side with the paint on it gets a backing covering it, and you see the painting through the clear glass side. This means the process of painting is done in reverse. Any words or letters (or signatures) need to be painted in reverse. Details are painted first, then color filled in over it. 

Al-Buraq by Gora Mbengue, 1975
This painting follows the tradition in Islamic art of not directly depicting the Prophet Muhammad. Al-Buraq, depicted in this painting, was the angel that carried Muhammed to the throne of God upon his death.
Source: Brooklyn Museum

Take a look at Senegalese Reverse Glass Painting

I love the simplicity and bright colors of this art form. Before making your own, take a few minutes to appreciate some of the paintings produced in Senegal by going here, here and here

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Discover Nigeria through Books

Ifeoma Onyefulu is a children's book author and photographer who grew up in Nigeria.  She's been prolific in writing about and photographing every day life in contemporary Nigeria. She offers a great selection of books to introduce kids (and ourselves) about life in Nigeria, in ways that kids can relate while being exposed to the diversity of life in one area of West Africa.

Becky at Kid World Citizen, one of my all time favorite multicultural blogs, has written a post that spotlights Ifeoma and reviews her books. Hop on over for her recommendations and reviews of these great books, and explore Nigeria.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade | Black History Month Blog Hop & Giveaway

The Trans-Atlantic slave trade ravaged practically all of West Africa. Although slavery had existed in West Africa for many centuries, the astounding number of people affected and the distance of migration had never been at this scale and magnitude. In fact, the Trans-Atlantic slave trade is considered the largest long distance forced migration of people in world history. Between the 16th & 19th centuries, millions were violently and forcibly removed from their homes, their culture, their society and ancestors, and forced into enslavement in the Americas - across the Atlantic.

Source: Slavery in America, an educator's site made possible by New York Life

The Trans-Atlantic slave trade started with the Portuguese in the 16th century, with all major European powers following suit, and by the early 18th century Britain became the world's leading slave trading power. Those taken into slavery were used as free labor in the European colonies in the Americas, working in various plantations, like sugar, tobacco, coffee, cotton and other crops.

The slave trade is sometimes called the "Maafa" by African and African-America scholars, meaning "great disaster" in Swahili.

The kidnapping of Africans occurred mainly in the region that now stretches from Senegal to Angola. African kings sold captured enemies or criminals that were being used as slaves for themselves to the European traders. However, for the most part, Africans sold into slavery to the Europeans were free people who were kidnapped. European traders encouraged Africans on the coast to raid & attack neighboring tribes and take captives. People were often captured inland and marched for weeks to coastal slaving stations. They were exchanged for European goods like cloth, horses and guns, which perpetuated the vicious cycle that enabled more tribes to be invaded and captured.


Although there is no exact figure, estimates range that between 10-28 million people were captured. Packed onto ships in deplorable conditions, up to half died during transport to the Americas. There was a constant demand for slaves because conditions on plantations were so bad - especially in South America - that many only survived a few years after arriving. The North American mainland played a minor role in the trade, with only 5% taken directly from Africa. It was the relatively "better" conditions that resulted in natural growth of a population of slaves - that is, those enslaved having children themselves. The horrible laws at the time meant that children were also considered slaves, and as such property to be bought and sold - often being taken away from their families. 

Slavery's footsteps in West Africa

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Creative Kids Culture Blog Hop | #24

Welcome to the Creative Kids Culture Blog Hop! This month I'll be joining Multicultural Kid Blogs and various excellent bloggers in co-hosting a blog hop featuring what I love most: learning about different cultures with kids. This link up is an excellent resource for virtually traveling the world - I hope you'll join us.

The Creative Kids Culture Blog Hop is a place where bloggers can share multicultural activities, crafts, recipes, and musings for our creative kids. We can't wait to see what you share this time!

Created by Frances of Discovering the World through My Son's Eyes, the blog hop has now found a new home at Multicultural Kid Blogs.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Talking Drums of West Africa

Originating from and primarily used in West Africa, talking drums were historically used to send messages over long distances. They were some of oldest instruments used by griots, and also used in religious rituals and royal occasions. They continue to be used today in popular music.

Listen to an ensemble of talking drums here.

Talking drums are known by many different names - almost as many as there are languages in the region - such as dundun, lunna , tamanin, and dondo. They come in different sizes and have two drum heads and an hourglass shape with leather strings attached from one end to the other. Because of the tension in the strings, they can be manipulated to make different sounds. The drums are typically tucked under the arm and squeezed  when struck to change the sounds. A curved stick is used in order to strike the center of the drum (this protects the edge, which would break) and allows the drummer to hit the drum with lots of force. These sounds are made to mimic the tones, rhythm and pitch of regional languages. By mimicking speech, messages can be conveyed from one village to the next.

Hear a talking drum being used with a demonstration of its many tones here.

Getting messages to outlying areas was faster with a drum than by sending someone out. These messages were to inform or warn others of impending war, attacks and ceremonies. 

Talking drums being used during festivities at a cultural festival in Ghana
Photo Credit: Paul Williams (CC)
Drums of all sorts are at the heart of West African culture. You can find crafts to make your own West African drums here and here

Find all our posts related to West African instruments and music here.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Watch, Read & Dance with Traditional West African Dance

Dancing has a long history in West Africa, and has been passed down from one generation to the next for thousands of years. Music and dance are such an important part of West African culture, and are as diverse as the many ethnic groups in the region. Each group has its own traditional dances, reflecting its particular customs. Most children learn the dance steps by watching and imitating dancers at celebrations. 

These women are an Igbo bride and her bridesmaids in Nigeria, dancing their entrance
Photo Credit: Jeremy Weate (CC)

Generally, traditional dancing is about expressing the life of the community. Each community has ceremonial dances to mark important events. These can be for good harvest, births, baptisms, marriage and death. There are traditional dances for coming of age ceremonies marking the passage from childhood to adulthood, like the Krobo Dipo ceremony

Sometimes dances are a means of communicating with gods, spirits and ancestors. Ancestral spirits can be appealed to - and thanked - for things like healing and harvest.

Traditional dance during the voodoo festival in Benin
Photo Credit: Willem Heerbaart (CC)

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Recipe for Jollof Rice

Jollof rice is considered a staple dish in many West African countries though it's said to have originated in the Senegambia region (Senegal, Gambia) among the Wolof ethnic group. There are lots of variations on recipes for this, differing between regions as much as between families. Some include a multitude of vegetables, others none at all; fish, chicken or beef, or no meat at all. Some use spices like curry and turmeric, others only the quintessential maggie cube and hot pepper. Essentially, it's a one pot dish with the basic ingredients of tomatoes, tomato paste, onions, hot pepper and of course, rice. 

Jollof rice came up in so many books this past year - whether non fiction books teaching about West African countries, a mention in picture books, and in the memoirs I've read - this dish was on my list of recipes to make from the beginning of our "travels". And it does not disappoint! It was tasty and comforting, all four of us enjoyed it and it's a dish we'll be making again.

I wanted us to fully appreciate the rice, so opted to serve it as the main dish with Nigerian dodo on the side (fried plantains, recipe here). Had it been grilling season though, I would have served it with suya, West African peanut & beef kebabs - these look so good, I'll just have to try those this summer. 

Jollof Rice

Serves 4-6 as a main dish, or 6-8 as a side dish


  • 2 cups long grain white rice
  • 3 cups chicken broth (or 1 maggie cube dissolved in 3 cups water)
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 3 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1 onion, finely diced
  • 3 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1 tsp fresh ginger, grated
  • 1 scotch bonnet pepper, finely diced (optional, for a bit of spice)
  • 1 cup carrots, finely diced
  • 1 28oz can of diced tomatoes
  • 5 tbsp of tomato paste
  • salt & pepper to taste
1. Puree together the tomato paste and the diced tomatoes. Set aside. Preheat your oven to 350.

2. In a large, oven proof pot with a cover, heat the vegetable on medium-low heat. Add the onion, garlic and pepper, and fry until softened, about 5 minutes stirring occasionally. Add the carrots and ginger, and cook for another 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the water, and cook until it's completely absorbed, about another 5 minutes.

3. Once the water is absorbed, add the rice and season with salt & pepper. Stir while cooking for 2 minutes. Then add the tomato puree and broth. Bring to a boil.

4. Once the rice mixture is boiling, cover the pot and bake in the oven for approximately 1 hour. Be sure to stir occasionally to keep it from sticking to the bottom - once every 15 or 20 minutes. 

Serve with your choice of sides and enjoy!

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Chiefs, Chieftaincy & Tribal Government in West Africa

This is just a very general overview that gives us a peak into the system of chiefs in West Africa, with has its own nuances from one country to the next. It may raise more questions than it answers!

Chiefs in Benin
Photo Credit: Willem Heerbaart (CC- Adapted with overlay)

Tribal government in West Africa is a long standing tradition that has adapted over the years through ancient history, colonialism, independence and modern day. It's found at varying degrees throughout much of West Africa.

In ancient times, each tribe had its own ruler who reigned over his area, be it a handful of small villages or across the country. These rulers governed with a council of elders, who were local village chiefs, and in times of war called on the loyalty of their villages. Before colonization, a tribal chief had power over all aspects of life and law.

Generally these days, tribal chiefs have power over tribal matters and traditional customs. They can enact bylaws, just as long as they don't contradict with state laws. There's a hierarchy within the tribal government and various protocols that range depending on the level (and area). They have the power to judge over matters of inheritance and land ownership. Local initiatives must be cleared by the chief, and are often organized and overseen by them.

Look through an incredible photostream of portraits of African Kings and tribal rulers here.

Because they are closer to the people, chiefs generally exercise more influence than the government, which is a power in itself. A chief's endorsement is often sought after from politicians and business people. Chiefs may or may not have other employment. 


Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Children's Books About Mali

Take a peak into Mali, its culture and village life with these books. This list includes a legendary king, traditional folktales and stories based on real life experiences growing up in Mali. Some of these books are no longer in print, but you might be able to find them at your local library (like we did) and I've linked those to Better World Books, a site that sells second hand books (I am not affiliated with them).

"Words must go from old mouths to new ears" - Malian proverb

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Around the World with Pancakes: Dutch Poffertjes

We're trying out pancakes from around the world, looking beyond fluffy pancakes and beyond breakfast food

Can you think of a sweet treat that pops up during fairs, carnivals, festivities and holidays? In the Netherlands, that sweet treat is a type of pancake known as poffertjes. They're especially popular over the colder months, when stands pop up everywhere and you can order a plateful with one to two dozen of them, covered in icing sugar.

Explore gorgeous Dutch landscapes, canals and of course windmills and tulips in this photo gallery.

Find the Netherlands on the map; a poffertjes restaurant
Photo Credit (right): Paul Perreijn (CC -adapted into a collage)

Poffertjes (POH-furt-jes) are made with buckwheat and yeast, and have a light, spongy texture. They're served with melted butter and lots of icing sugar, which in our house means they're a hit! They're made with a special pan with indentations, but you can still make them on a griddle or frying pan. My sister happened to find the pan in a curio and antique shop and thought of me :) We also tried these on a regular flat cast iron pan, and though the shape was different, they tasted just as good.Turning them over in the pan takes a bit of practice - I started off using a fork, but found that a toothpick worked better. Keep in mind that being a yeast batter, it needs to rise for an hour so be sure to plan ahead.

You can see them being cooked and flipped, which it turns out isn't quite as easy as it looks, at a poffertjes restaurant in this short video
On the left is my cast iron poffertjes pan that sits right on the stove top. On the right is a poffertjes pan used in restaurants and pancake stands. I don't know how they keep up with making so many at a time without ruining them!
Photo Credit (Right): Ritzo ten Cate (CC-adapted into a collage)

Monday, February 2, 2015

How to Play Ampe: A Children's Game from Ghana

Photo Credit: Terrie Schweitzer (CC)

Can you think of your favorite childhood game? In Ghana, without a doubt it's Ampe, especially for girls. I've read it described as kind of like rock, paper, scissors with feet - but it's also a jumping and clapping game that feels like a dance. Sounds fun, doesn't it?

Ampe is a traditional children's game, played mostly by young girls in Ghana, but older girls play as well (and some boys too). Kids play it all the time, at home, at school during break times, when out and about. It can be played with two individuals or with two teams. Basically, players jump up at the same time, clap, and thrust one foot forward as they land. The patterns of legs determine the winner. It's a fun game that keeps kids active, and requires being able to anticipate your opponent, making snap decisions and having quick reflexes.

Before you read the rules, take a quick look at this video to get a feel for the rythm of it. 

How to Play

With two individuals:

Choose which player is the leader. The leader and the other player jump up at the same time and clap twice - on the second clap, as they land they thrust on foot forward. If the leader and the other player have the same foot forward, "bend" (both of the right feet or both of the left feet), the leader wins a point. If opposing feet are thrust, "straight" then the other player becomes leader. Players keep score until one has a certain amount to be announced winner. 

As a group:

Choose which player is leader. The same game play as with individuals, but this time the leader makes her or his way along the line of other kids (in a line up, or circled around her). A point is scored every time the leader is successful, and points are tallied after she makes her way through the group. Another person becomes leader and tallies her/his points. Everyone takes a turn as a leader, and the one with the most scored points wins.

As 2 teams:

Each team should have equal numbers. One team chooses how it will win points - whether if feet land "bend"  or "straight" (see individual game play). The second team wins points the opposite way.

Teams line up facing each other. One person from the first team jumps & claps with a person of the second team. The person who wins a point moves onto the next person in the opposing team. This continues until all players on one team have been beaten. When this happens, the winning team gets to choose a player from the opposing team to be ejected from the game. Once a team has ejected all the players from an opposing team, they've succeeded in winning. 


It's more of a schoolyard game these days, but traditionally it was a competitive sport between ampe groups from several villages. The origin of the game is unknown, and I can't find when it's believed to have started. I did watch an interview of a 100 year old woman who recounts being in a competitive ampe group when she was in her mid to late teens. Crowds of spectators would watch the tournaments, which could last as long as two or three days. It was either an event on its own or part of a ceremony.

The girls were full of giggles playing this - but refused to allow me to photograph them :) It certainly brought out their competitive sides! 

Find more games from West Africa here.

Find more posts exploring culture, geography and history with kids at

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Nigerian Adire Cloth | 3 Ways to make it at home with paper & cloth

Adire is a traditional method of resist dyeing white cloth in indigo used by the Yoruba in Nigeria. The word adire translates as tie & dye, and it's thought the earliest form would have been simple tied designs on woven cloth. In the early decades of the 20th century, new access to large quantities of European imported factory produced cotton shirting gave rise to new designs and techniques - like cassava paste resist. 

Adire Oniko - the midle cloth has three baskets indicating money, education and power.
Photo Credit: Eugene Kim (CC

Adire was traditionally made by women. Designs are created by "painting" or tying the cloth - these areas keep out the dye. The cloth is then dipped in the large earthenware indigo dye pots, partially sunk into the ground, multiple times to get a dark color. 

Indigo dye pitsPhoto Credit: Eugene Kim (CC)

To make the indigo dye, indigo leaves are pounded and mixed with water and ashes (made by burning cocoa pods). This mixture is left to ferment in the sun for 7 to 10 days to turn blue and become a dye.

There are several methods of resist: 

  • Adire oniko is made by tying seeds or rocks with raffia
  • Adire eleko is made by painting with cassava paste and a chicken feather or with a metal stencil
  • Adire alabare is made by folding and stitching patterns with cotton thread
  • More recently, adire eleko is commonly made with wax, similarly to batik

Adire was an everyday cloth worn as a wrapper on women, and though it was produced until the 70s, it was most fashionable in the late 30s with different patterns highly requested from one year to the next. It was considered a dying tradition, though in the past decade or so a famous Nigerian artist & chief has revitalized it by offering free workshops & courses in centres opened to preserve and update this, and other, traditional arts. 

Watch a great 2 min introductory video of modern day artisans creating adire cloth in its different forms here.

This adire cloth was made using a stencil over the fabric, and filling in the openings with cassava paste.
Find this, and other examples of adire cloth at Hamill Tribal Textiles

3 Ways to Make "Adire" at Home

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