Understanding our body language: Bodily sensations among the Anlo Ewe people

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Body language, a way of relaying the words that are often left unsaid. Its existence draws attention to the important role that our bodies can play in divulging how we truly feel about situations. Cultivating the space to explore our bodies and how they store emotions is crucial in the process of knowing who we are. This ideal played an important role in the societal shape up of the Anlo Ewe people, where importance was placed on understanding how the body stored emotions and nurturing a space to be guided by intuition. Through this approach, one was able to establish a strong connection to the body and be in alignment with emotions.

The Anlo Ewe form part of the larger Ewe ethnic group that have inhabited parts of present day Ghana and Togo since the seventeenth century. Looking back at their history, they are a people that pay homage to the feelings and reactions stored in the body, which draws attention to the emphasis placed on the spaces in-between what is said and not said. On her recounts of her ethnographic field work with the Anlo Ewe people, Anthropologist Kathryn Linn Geurts, noted the importance of the term Seselelame (literal translation: feel-feel-at-flesh-inside) in the communities, “they pointed to Seselelame as a more generalized feeling in the body that includes both internal senses (such as balance and proprioception) and external senses, as well as other perceptual emotional, and intuitive dimensions of experience”. This gives an indication of the importance paid towards intuition and the way that the body can be used as a vessel to connect and understand our conscious and sub-conscious actions. Here are some examples which highlight the link between body sensations and emotions:

Bodily sensations in proverbs –  As is the case for a number of African societies, proverbs were a key way of representing social values. Many Anlo Ewe proverbs feature references to bodily sensations and its role in shaping a wider outlook towards life. These include Mese detsi a la fe veve (I hear the soup’s aroma) which draws attention to paying attention to the subtleties created from something and Ze a nu/nuti ko (the outer surface of the pot is clean) which notes that what may appear as ok on the outside may not be the same on the inside. From these examples, one can gauge an understanding of how senses were experienced and the role this played in shaping perspective.

Body sensations for social traits– Guerts (2005) also recounted her witnessing of childbirth in the communities that she stayed with, “new born babies often received a ritualized first bath aimed at beginning the process of making flexible bodies and inculcating ‘adaptability’ as a character trait”  The emphasis placed on bodily fluidity in the bathing ritual for babies points to the importance of remaining open, physically and mentally in order to allow emotions to pass through instead of keeping them entrenched in various parts of the body. In Cultural scripting of body parts for emotions: on jealousy and related emotions in Ewe, Felix Ameka highlights the close correlation between emotions and body sensations as he unpicks the concept of jealousy. Va nu/nu (move eye/body) refers to “a complex of physical states, mental processes and dispositions which are thought to happen in the body” when expressing jealousy and envy. Ameka concludes that “’jealousy’ in Ewe is more behavioural and action-related than just a mental state”. These two examples point to the importance of body language as a gateway in understanding attitudes towards a situation.

Bodily sensations for milestones – Bodily sensations through dancing were used to depict certain events in a community as well as for an individual. Put by Ghanaian music scholar Kofi Agawu, “their gestures symbolize fundamental belief systems, systems that express the very basis of physical and spiritual life.”. For the Anlo Ewe, sound and movement were inextricably linked in the process of divulging sentiments. Examples of the types of dances include Agbadza, which originates as a dance performed during times of war and Dzovu which was performed as a form of prayer to pay homage to ancestral spirits.

The examples highlighted point to a close correlation between body sensations and understanding who you are.  Furthermore, intuition appears as the product of the conscious and subconscious and the body is used as a vessel to strengthen and foster greater ties towards our instinct. For the Anlo Ewe, treating the body as a homestead to nurture, heal, and learn from aids the opportunity to understand emotions better and the idea of feeling more in tune with the body. Taking inspiration from this approach, the process of intimately knowing ourselves includes knowing how our bodies work, how to look after it and how to listen to the signs lodged in the various parts of our body when faced with challenging situations. May we continue to honour our bodies as we evolve.


Consciousness as ‘feeling in the body’ – A West African theory of embodiment, emotion, and the making of mind – Kathryn Linn Geurts

On rocks, walks, and talks in West Africa: cultural categories and an anthropology of the senses – Kathryn Linn Geurts

Cultural scripting of body parts for emotions: on jealousy and related emptions in Ewe – Felix Ameka

African Rhythm: A Northern Ewe Perspective – Kofi Agawu (1995)

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