Akan Settlement Patterns

The Akan farming system sustains relatively high population densities for a system based on extensive cultivation, averaging between 200 and 300 people per square mile. Contemporary settlement in the region is based on administrative and market centres articulated through a network of motor roads. The modern system has been built to a major extent upon a precolonial structure of permanent nucleated settlements that sometimes contained a thousand or more inhabitants. Such densities and concentrations are manageable within the limits of swidden cultivation and are commonly observed throughout West Africa, where population increase and concentration have been encouraged by ancient traditions of long distance trade and state formation.

The settlement system involves a substantial population nucleation into towns, or nkuro (sing. kuro), which served primarily as administrative centres within traditional kingdoms. A town normally contained several hundred people but could grow to a thousand and still be supported by agricultural lands within a one or two hour walking distance. More distant lands could also be cultivated through the establishment of seasonal agricultural villages, called nkura (sing. akura), which which were sometimes transformed into nkuro in their own right. An additional settlement network of market towns was kept distinct and often removed from the political centres. No matter what its size a commercial centre which has not developed into a political centre through the installation of a chief is still considered to be a village (akura) or at best a "cosmopolitan town", mframanmframan kuro. (The Akan word usually translated by the term "cosmopolitan" has a derogatory connotation and is reminiscient of Redfield's notion of the "heterogenetic city".)

The traditional kuro was mainly inhabited by farming families, as many are today, but also incorporated administrative officials and specialized craftsmen, most of whom did some farming as well. However, town residence confers a sense of urbanity, which is conveyed by a linguistic distinction between town and bush (wuram) and between a townsman and a krasini, a "bush man" or yokel.

While the Akan system falls near the upper end of the population scale supported by swidden cultivation, another West African group, the Yoruba, represent a further elaboration on settlement structures. The Yoruba have population densities similar to the Akan but traditionally lived in urban centers that contained thousands and sometimes tens of thousands of inhabitants, almost all of whom were farmers, a pattern which still typifies most Yoruba cities. Supporting such populations concentrations through extensive cultivation methods requires massive amounts of land, and some farms are located at distances involving almost a whole day's walk. The Yoruba deal with their substantial transport problems by setting up temporary agricultural camps on their farms, which they inhabit during the growing season. After the harvest they return to their cities and engage the craft production, trade, and ceremony, which formed the focus of urban life for the remaining half of the year.

© Brian Schwimmer
University of Manitoba
Created: 1996