Encyclopedia Womannica

Leaders: Pokou

Episode Summary

Pokou (c. 1700-c. 1760) was Queen of the Ashanti people in what's now Ghana. She overcame significant hardship, stood up to an army, and eventually established a new homeland.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, and Grace Lynch. Special thanks to Shira Atkins and Edie Allard.

Follow Wonder Media Network:

Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan. And this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

Our story today highlights a leader whose life was surrounded by legends and magic. She overcame significant hardship, stood up to an army, and eventually established a new homeland. Let’s talk about Queen Pokou.

Pokou was born around 1700, likely in what is now Ghana, to a noble family of the Ashanti people. The Ashanti were a centuries-old African tribe with roots dating back as far as the year 1300. 

Pokou was the niece of Osei Tutu, known as the greatest Ashanti king.  Because the Ashanti monarchy was matrilineal, Pokou was included in the line of succession. 

During his rule, Osei Tutu united many smaller kingdoms into the larger Ashanti empire. In 1718, he was ambushed and killed. Power passed on to Pokou’s brother, Dakon. 

During Dakon’s rule, Pokou selected a husband and attempted to produce an heir, but didn’t get pregnant.

Pokou was quite brave. One day while Dakon and the army were away from the Ashanti capital, enemy troops ambushed the town and killed all of the royal princesses except for Pokou. Pokou arranged for others to escape, but decided to stay behind and defend the town however she could. The enemy warriors took her hostage.

Dakon soon returned from war, furious to discover the besieged capital. He appointed a warrior named Tano to lead Pokou’s rescue party. Theysuccessfully defeated the enemy group and got Pokou back.  Tano and Pokou then got married. The new couple had a baby boy together -- the heir to the Ashanti throne.

Dakon fell ill while Pokou’s son was still only a baby, so he attempted to appoint an older  heir -- but Dakon’s choice was murdered by his rival who hoped to seize the throne.

After killing the chosen heir, the rival tried to gain favor with Pokou to secure his place on the throne. Pokou refused to endorse him. He was determined to seize power regardless so Pokou left the Ashanti capital altogether and established her own kingdom. She invited anyone in the Ashanti empire to come with her -- and many of the smaller kingdoms previously united by her Uncle Osei Tutu decided to follow Pokou to a new land.

The story of Pokou’s peril-filled adventure to a new land has been passed down in legends for centuries. In many ways, it echoes the story of Moses and the Hebrews’ escape from Egypt.

Pokou and her followers fled the capital city, with the soldiers of the guy who wanted to be king hot on their trail. They had to navigate a treacherous jungle filled with snakes, panthers, and giant elephants. Many of them also fought illness through the hazardous journey.

Pokou and the fleeing subjects reached an impasse at the bank of the Comoé River, which was too deep and violent to cross. According to legend, the group decided they had to make a sacrifice to the river gods in order to make crossing possible. Pokou knew that she would have to sacrifice something hugely important to her in order to save her people. In anguish, she sacrificed her son to the river..

Different versions of the legend claim a variety of magical means helped Pokou and her people cross the river, including an enormous tree-bridge, and the help of crocodiles and hippos. Regardless the refugees crossed the river,narrowly escaping pursuit.

When Pokou was safe, she cried, “ba ouli,” which means, “the child is dead.” Because of this, the new group of settlers came to be called the “Baoule.”

The exodus from the Ashanti capital occurred sometime between 1730 and 1750. The migration took the Baoule into what is now Côte d'Ivoire. There, Pokou conquered territory and established a new homeland for her people. She was known as a just leader and expert mediator.

Not long after establishing this new settlement, around 1760 Pokou died. Her legacy lived on and in the years following her death, Baoule influence continued to grow.

Tune in tomorrow for the story of another strong leader who fought for independence. 

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator!

Talk to you tomorrow!