Ghana is full of people who came to the country, fell in love with it and its people, and ended up staying.
Rod McLaren’s story is a little different. Like many others, his journey took him back and forth between Saskatchewan, Canada and Ghana, but he’s also received a distinctive accolade – Nkosuohene. He is now a chief in charge of the progress of roughly 200 villages.
After graduating from the University of Saskatchewan with an English degree in 1971, a 23 year-old McLaren went to Ghana on a two-year teaching contract with the then Canadian University Service Overseas, a Canadian development organization.
“When I was nearing the end of my degree I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and the idea of working overseas appealed to me. I had no idea where I wanted to go, so when the posting came up for Ghana I just took it,” he said.
He finished his contract and headed back to Canada, but returned to Ghana for a couple weeks in 1976 to pick up his future wife and take her back to Canada. They soon were married and had three children while McLaren worked for First Nation’s communities, farmed, and even opened a hardware store.
In 2001 they sold their business and moved back to Ghana to open the African Rainbow Resort in Busua, on the coast of the Gulf of Guinea in southern Ghana.
Three years later, an old friend and Asante chief approached McLaren to offer him the title of Nkosuohene. It is a relatively new position in the ancient tradition of the Akan Chieftaincy – the long-established power structure of the various Akan people that populate the area around Ghana and Ivory Coast.
The Chieftaincy is a pre-colonial institution of governance with judicial, legislative, and executive powers. “The chief of a village or a town was the leader, politically, spiritually, militarily, judicially. He spoke for his people, led them in battle, and heard the cases of his people,” explained McLaren.
Although the traditional chieftaincy is active only in history books in other countries, it exists alongside the presidential system as a parallel political structure in Ghana.
Its survival can be linked to the fact that while the neighboring countries were French colonies or protectorates, Ghana, then the Gold Coast, was British. Because of the British colonial system of “Indirect Rule,” they relied on chiefs and elders to help govern the Gold Coast and the chieftaincy survived.
When the Republic of Ghana was founded in 1957, because of the Chieftaincy’s historical and cultural significance, it was agreed that the chieftaincy system should be respected. Its relevance was again guaranteed in the 1992 constitution.
The chiefs work with sub-chiefs and elders to aid the development of their areas, making provisions for water, education, roads and other infrastructure. It is an especially important role in the more rural areas where the other government has less of a presence. Once a chief dies, the elders select a successor from the region’s old families. Although their role has somewhat diminished, chiefs remain hugely important and powerful people.
“The chief is assumed to be the embodiment of the ancestors. He embodies all his people and all the spirits of the people who have gone before,” explained McLaren.
The position of Nkosuohene was the brainchild of the Asantehene, the king of the Ghanaian Asante people, a sort of chief of chiefs. The Nkosuohene is a “sub-chief” responsible for the development of the region. The title was created to honour someone who does not have to be member of a royal family and is meant to bring in people from outside the area who have a different education and new ideas.
“He [the Asantehene] was trying to incorporate people who were not necessarily members of the royal but whose education and experience who could help the people develop,” said McLaren.
It is a lifetime appointment that comes with prestige but responsibility. Along with the title, McLaren was given the name “Nana Akwasi Amoako Agyemen.” He is charged with overseeing development in the Edubiase Traditional Area, an area comprised of about 200 villages in the Asante Region.
“There’s quite a difference in the expectations on the chiefs in the Asante Region opposed to others. The Asante take the position a lot more seriously and don’t give it out haphazardly,” he said.
The position has been challenging; there was a steep learning curve that he was responsible for overcoming on his own.
“I really thought I’d have a vigorous training and orientation, but I ended up doing almost everything myself,” he said.
He took an active role for the first five years after the appointment, appearing at various functions, attending funerals, meeting every 40 days, and applying for countless grants.
“I tried my best to find them funding, but the proposals have never really gone that far,” he said. “I don’t know if I deserved to get the position at all. Although I’ve worked hard at doing things, I’m not sure I can show any results that can justify the hope that people have had for me.”
However, there have been successes. He says the accomplishment he is most proud of was the successful establishment of a daycare.
Currently, he divides his time between Saskatoon, Saskatchewan and Busua, Ghana.