There’s a Monalisa in Ghana: Behind the Country’s Iconic Akwaaba Portrait

Angelina Nana Ekua Oduro is the face of Ghana’s hospitality. When you touch down in Ghana, right from the airport to the homes one of the first few words you’ll hear is Akwaaba, which translates to “you’re welcome” in Twi one of the local languages here. For a country renowned for her hospitality and peace it is no surprise that Akwaaba is always rolling on the tongues of the indigenes accompanied by a broad smile. 

While Akwaaba is a greeting to many here, it is also synonymous with a photo of a young girl clad in a traditional kente two-piece, drawing water from a pot into a calabash wearing a broad smile; the epitome of a hospitable Ghana. It is this same “Akwaaba” photo; a piece of home, that you’ll find in almost every Ghanaian house either here or in the diaspora, the airport, Ghanaian embassies abroad, arts and craft centres and the many souvenir shops that lace almost all of the tourist sites here.

Just like how many wonder who Davinci’s Monalisa was, the people that set their eyes on Ghana’s “Akwaaba” picture can’t help but wonder who this lady was? What her story was? And how did the virality of her picture come to be? 

This iconic symbol of Ghana’s hospitality was birthed when young Angelina decided to fulfill her childhood dreams of recreating a painting of a young lady dressed as an initiate of Dipo, a puberty rite performed among the Krobo tribe here. 

Seeing the young lady clad in kente, Ghana’s world-famous fabric and colorful traditional beads that trailed from the girl’s waist to the lower part of her body sparked a desire in Angelina. A desire that didn’t die but lived on till she recreated the picture in 1999 when she became of age. 

Angelina was 17 years old at that time working as an intern at Tetteh Plahar; a fashion establishment, finally got the chance to satisfy her longtime desire of recreating the painting from her childhood when she met up with Joe Osea; a photographer close to her workplace. After sharing her ideas with Joe, she commissioned him to bring the picture to life. 

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Getting her Kente cloth, beads, pot and calabash and other props, Angelina and Joe got to work in his Ceejay Multimedia Studio. The end result became a picture of a beautiful Angelina dressed in a curve embracing two-piece Kente cloth, wearing her signature welcoming smile whilst pouring a drink from her pot into a calabash. 

She wanted to hang it and her room and he had also wanted a copy for his studios. That is how it all began for Angelina’s Akwaaba photo. Her photo became a national photo when Joe started receiving requests for copies of Angelina’s Akwaaba picture whenever people came to his studio. Had it been a world of social media; Angelina would have been one of the many famous social butterflies and influencers we see on Instagram today yet she got her own portion of attention regardless.

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