The Se or Shai people as they are popularly known belong to the Ga-Dangbe group of Kwa people who inhabit the Greater Accra region of present day Ghana. The Se (Shai) people are specifically known as Dangmes alongside Ada, Krobo, Gugla (Pampram), Klo, Osudoku and Ningo. The Shai people are agriculturalist and beads-making people just like their fellow Dangme Krobo neighbors. Shai people speak Se, a distinct Dangme language. Shai people also observe Dipo practice to initiate their young girls into adulthood.
Shai people can be found in Dangme East district of Greater-Accra and they have the famous Shai Hills Resources Reserve that attract many tourists into their community. Shai Hills Resources Reserve is located just about 50km from Accra and about 65 km to Akosombo is the Shai Hills Resource Reserve. It is a unique reserve in Ghana because it is the driest evergreen savannah forest in Ghana.
The area used to be the home of the people of the Shai Traditional area until the British colonial masters forcibly expelled them in 1892 on the allegation that the natives were committing ritual murders. The area did not come under protection until 1962 when the government of the day decided turn it into a resource reserve to protect flora and fauna.
The history of the Se people is a fascinating story of perseverance and resilience. Oral history documents that the Ga-Dangmes [Se, Klo, Ada, Osudoku, Gbugla (Prampram) and Ningo] migrated from Israel through Egypt and Southern Sudan, settling for a period of time at Simeh in Niger and then at Ileife in Nigeria. In the year 1100 A.D. they migrated again to Dahomey, Togo and later settled in Huatsi, where they stayed for a short time.
From Huatsi, they traveled to the eastern banks of the River Volta, originally named Jor. They managed to cross the Volta at a place between Old Kpon and Akuse, establishing settlements on the plains of Tag-logo, where they remained until 1200 A.D. They later migrated to the plains of Lorlorvor, between the Lorlorvor and Osudoku Hills.
Archaeological research at the ancient site of Se has shown that their settlement was already in existence by AD 1300 and that it had expanded into large townships by the 1500s. The Se witnessed tremendous prosperity and expansion during the 16th and 17th centuries, primarily due to coastal trade with Europeans.
The Se kingdom continued to flourish in the secluded Se (Shai) highland fortress until the end of the 19th century. A number of Basel Missionaries who visited the Se (Shai) hills recorded eyewitness accounts on the government, culture, architecture, and pottery traditions of the locals. One missionary who visited Se (Shai) in 1853 recorded in his diary, “The Shai people are well-known potters and as one who knows something of pottery making, I was astonished how they make pots, as beautifully round as if they were turned on a potter’s wheel”.
It is in the area of herbal medicine, however, that the historic Dangme have left a most important legacy for Ghana as well as the world. According to archival records of the late 18th century, two Danish scientists, Paul Isert and Peter Thonning, researched Shai ethnomedicine. They collected some 2000 plant specimens, which were sent to Professor Martin Vaal of the Botany Faculty at Copenhagen University. Annotated samples were distributed to herbaria throughout the world such as Britain, Denmark, France, Holland, Germany and Russia. Many of the wild and cultivated medicinal and nutritional plants collected and studied by Isert and Thonning from the Se in the Accra plains are still well-known and used by present day herbalists and nutritionists.
During the 18th century and first half of the 19th century, the Government of Denmark, operating from Christiansborg Castle, exercised a loosely-defined “Protectorate” over most of the territories of Ga, Dangme and Ewe principalities of southeastern Ghana. In March of 1850, Denmark sold its possessions to Britain and left the Gold Coast. The Danish Governor, Carstensen, and the British Governor, W. Winniett, together journeyed to the royal courts such as Se, Prampram, Krobo, Akuapem and Auna for the purpose of arranging the “transfer” of the different ethnic groups to their new colonial governor, Britain. The change of colonial lordship did not bode well for the Dangme. Near the end of the 19th century, the relative peace and prosperity which the Se had enjoyed in their highland Kingdom came to an abrupt end.
In 1892, allegations reached the British Administration that the Se (Shai), Krobo and Osudoku people living in the hills were offering human sacrifices to their gods – Kotoklo, Korle, Sabu and Nadu – and were sacrificing strangers for annual propitiatory rites. The British Governor, Griffith, sent a Regiment of colonial troops to the Krobo, Se (Shai), and Osudoku hills. The Dangmes were driven from their hill settlements in 1892. All the kings of the Se (Shai), Krobo (Yilo, Manya) and Osudoku people had to seek shelter in their farming villages spread all over the plains. The forced displacement of these ethnic groups had a significant effect upon them, from which they are still recovering.
In Seland (Shailand), the general populace was scattered in the plains west of the Se (Shai) hills where they had farms. Over the next two years, some regrouped and founded a number of villages and townships that subsequently became the new Se (Shai) – Dodowa, Agomeda, Kodiabe, Doryumu, Ayikuma and Jopanya. Dodowa became a seat of government for colonial powers. The Se (Shai) played a significant role in the development of cocoa as the Gold Coast’s leading and most highly profitable commodity. Many Se (Shai) people migrated to work as farmers on palm and cocoa plantations in various regions throughout the country and were able to accumulate capital for the purchase of their own lands in diverse territories. The Se (Shai) can currently be found in over 160 townships throughout the nation.
For the Shai and Krobo people, the Dipo is the formal rite of passage. Originally designed as a formal marriage training for mature women in their twenties, Dipo has evolved into a pre-marital sexual purification rite that involves teenage girls conducting traditional religious rituals and putting on dance performances for the public. Initiates are partially nude throughout much of the ritual. In addition, they are each adorned with custom-made glass beads, colorful loin cloths, and various forms of woven headgear. According researcher and author Priscilla Akua Boakye, "[Dipo] was a form of vocational training for young women in which they were taught generally how to assume their roles as responsible women." Despite the ritual being designated for older teenaged girls, it is not uncommon for young pre-adolescent and even toddler aged girls to take part.
Dipo is a Ghanaian traditional festival celebrated by the people of Odumase in the Eastern region of Ghana. The festival is celebrated in the month of April every year. The festival is used to usher into puberty, girls who are virgins and it signifies that a lady, who partakes in it, is of age to be married.n Parents upon hearing announcement of the rites send their qualified girls to the chief priest. However these girls would have to go through rituals and tests to prove their chastity before they qualify to partake in the festival.
On the first day of the rites, the girls have their heads shaved and dressed with cloth around their waist to just their knee level. This is done by a special ritual mother and it signifies their transition from childhood to adulthood. They are paraded to the entire community as the initiates (dipo-yo).
Early the next morning, the chief priest gives the initiates a ritual bath. He pours libation to ask for blessings for the girls. He then washes their feet with the blood of a goat which their parents presented. This is to drive away any spirit of barrenness. The crucial part of the rite is when the girls sit on the sacred stone. This is to prove their virginity.However, any girl found to be pregnant or not a virgin is detested by the community and does not entice a man from the tribe.
The girls are then housed for a week, where they are given training on cooking, housekeeping, child birth and nurture. The ritual mothers give them special lessons on seduction and how to treat their husbands right. They learn the Klama dance which will be performed on the final day of the rites.
After the one-week schooling, they are finally released and the entire community gather to celebrate their transition into womanhood. They are beautifully dressed in rich kente cloth accessorised with beads around their waist, neck and arms. With singing and drumming, they perform the Klama dance. At this point, any man interested in any one of them can start investigating into her family. it is assumed that any lady who partakes in the rites not only brings honour to herself but to her family at large.
After the child naming ceremony, puberty rites are the next set of rituals of social status transformation which children undergo in Ghanaian culture. The most well preserved puberty rites are the Dipo of the Krobo and Shai ethnic groups. These ceremonies mark the entry of young women into adulthood.
Shai girls celebrate three stages in their Outdooring ceremony.
In preparation for their Outdooring ceremony, Shai initiates are draped with strings of glass beads often weighing up to twenty-five pounds. Tied around their necks and hips, the beads are of great value to the Krobo and have often been passed down through a family for many generations. The Krobo are among the oldest and most famous makers of ground-glass beads in Africa. Many of the beads, known as Akori, or Aggrey, are made locally; others hace been traded from Venice since the seventeenth century, and from Holland and Czechoslovakia since the nineteenth century. Denoting family wealth and social status, each type of bead worn by an initiate has a name and significance. Blue beads, called Koli, which literally means, something you love very much, are associated with affection and female tenderness. All shades of yellow beads symbolize maturity and prosperity. White beads represent purity, and when worn by initiates they denote virginity: when priestesses wear them, they signify respect for the gods and ancestors. The two large yellow beads in the collection are imitations of the legendary bodum bead, which is believed to have magical properties. Kept in a jar of water at the entrance to a bedroom, this bead allegedly will bark like a dog should an intruder enter. Said to be so powerful that they can even reproduce themselves, bodum beads are shrouded in mystery, and are among the most coveted in all of Africa. Dipo initiates wear beads of all colours, and of considerable value. Some girls will dance at their Outdooring ceremony wearing a collection of beads worth as much as $5,000.
In preparation for their Outdooring ceremony, when the girls will be presented to the public as women, Shai initiates wear an elaborate headdress called Cheia. Made of hoops of cane wrapped in blackened cord, the headdress is constructed on the girl's head the day before the ceremony. It takes six hours to complete and will remain in place for a week. Unique to the Shai, this dramatic headdress is reminiscent of styles recorded in Central Africa in the nineteenth century.
At the end of the first week of instruction, the girls put on Dipo-pe straw hats and perform the klama dance, which emphasizes the graceful movement of hands and feet. With small rhythmic steps and heads turned demurely downward, the dancers embody quiet elegance. The different movements of the dance are designed to reveal the beauty of the dancers. Suitors watching from the sidelines will often approach a girl's family after the ceremony and make an offer of marriage.