Collection #9: High Life

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High Life (or Ghanaian pop music) combines reggae, rock, and traditional beats into a single, feel-good genre that floods radio stations across the nation. We attended a live High Life concert beside an empty soccer stadium in Kumasi, where a band played inside an elevated tent upon a large cement clearing. When we arrived , the scene was nearly empty. The Americans danced alone beneath the scrutinizing stares of the few Ghanaian couples who came to sit and relax.

As the hours pushed forward, the audience expanded and Ghanaians shuffled onto the dance floor. Dizzied by liquour, we clung to the bodies of strangers and danced to unfamiliar rhythms.

One man, Nanaprempeh, took me by the waist and clung to it for the remainder of the evening. Pressed close to his chest with my head bent down, I could not even see his face. I only heard his deep voice as he continuously barked a request to his friends:

“Kwame! Simon! Picture! Picture!”

Once again, I felt like a white trophy: prized only because of the palor of my skin, and acquired only because I was too passive reject my own objectification.

When we sat down to rest, he wrapped his arms around me, pointed me out to another Ghanaian friend, and said, “This is MY Julie.”

This was my cue to escape and take a walk. From a short distance away, I enjoyed all the liberties of solitude and wouldn’t return until the concert had petered into silence.

Collection #8: Family Chapel (Pentecostal Church)

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Dressed in traditional fabric, I entered Family Chapel: one of Ghana’s rising mega-churches. The interior of the church was large enough to fit several hundred, and was filled mostly by parishioners between the ages of eighteen and forty.

At the front of the church, a mourning woman in black and white expressed her passion for Christ through song, accompanied by a large band with multiple electric guitars, drums, and keyboards. On every pew, people danced and clapped as if at a live concert. My host sister, Nancy, pressed her head to the nearby wall in a surge of passion, and the young Ghanaians around me lifted their hands in praise.

In Ghana, music plays an enormous role within churches of every denomination: engaging its members and drumming them into states of spiritual ecstasy, as it did in traditional ceremonies many centuries ago.

Despite the welcoming community and phenomenal music, I felt no more Christian when I left than when I came. Ever the stubborn skeptic, I kept my distance from the Christ-fearing world, and so felt nothing but curiosity for the swaying bodies around me.

Collection #7: Ashanti Priestess

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The Ashanti priestess stood casually on a cement clearing in front of her home, where her personal drummers erupted into polyrhythm. She wore a strapless white cloth over her torso and a full grass skirt around her waist. Her body exuded a white glow from the flour she had poured over her face and body.

From her ghostly lips dangled a dirty cigarette, which she had snatched from a generous American. Her large stomach hung lazily forward as she slumped into the fog of nicotine, which she broke only to shake along with the vibrating drums. For each student who danced with her, she rewarded a passionate hug that exploded from her body in white dust.

Later, in her shrine, the priestess reclined her body onto the carpeted floor. The shrine was small and empty, but the light was such that it hit each curve on her body and thus magnified her size tenfold. Almost as soon as I entered, she opened her mouth to bestow the following warning:

“Be careful of who you befriend. Do not be too trusting, for if you are not careful, a man you love will physically harm you and make you cry.”

As I sat in the small room, I felt the immediate urge to disregard her warning. After all, what did this strange woman know of me and my manners of love? On the other hand, the voice that spoke to me was not of a human priestess, but of a visiting spirit. For that reason, I thought I might listen.

As the priestess had assured me, the spirits who possessed her were never, ever wrong.

Collection #6: Cockroach

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A cockroach welcomed me upon my arrival at my new home in Kumasi. The bug was the size of a large drawer knob, and stuck its black behind high in the air as it scampered across the bathroom’s fake tile. I came after it with a bottle of hand soap, but by the time I returned to the bathroom, the roach was gone.

In the morning, as I prepared to leave for Sunday Mass, I found a half-eaten cockroach lying on its back near my apartment’s exit. Hundreds of small ants had pried open the belly of the beast and had taken their fill of food.

Collection #4: Kin Shaka

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I met Kin Shaka at the public beach near Accra, where he sold patchwork clothing and local weed. Because his eyes were concealed by thick sunglasses, I noticed only his partially-chipped front tooth and his long dreads, piled high into a beanie cap.

As I sipped Coca Cola in the shade, Kin Shaka sang me an improvised a song in which he claimed me as his “Goddess Divine.”

I wanted to puke.

Kin Shaka (Rastaman) sat with me for two hours and then stared at me from the neighboring table. When I wandered to another area of the beach, he followed me there with a fresh joint in his hand. I permitted him one dance before I washed away my discomfort with boxed wine. I left the shore unhappy, shaken, and thankfully unattached.

Collection #3: Funeral Ceremony

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In Accra, the huts clump together like scales on a fish. Chickens travel through dirt gutters that run from one side of the district to another, and baby goats brush together as they scamper freely past local street vendors.

In a clearing at the center of the district, I was brought to a large, open tent, where Ghanaians (dressed in matching blue clothing) clapped their hands and sang in their native tongue. Women sat in benches that formed the perimeter of a square. Outside the square, the local men beat their drums. The women periodically rose from their seats, tapped their friends on the shoulder, and violently “flapped” their arms in tandem to the poly-rhythmic sounds rising from the hands of their husbands.

Sweat dripped down the head of the local priest as he danced in the center of the ceremony. His arms jerked forward and back, his pelvis thrusting upwards in urgent motions. He opened his palms toward the ground, pumping them up and down to symbolize the retrieval of life from the earth.

The women grabbed my arms and pulled me into the center, where I “flapped” to small, rhythmic steps and embraced the energy rising up my legs and into my pelvis.

At last, at the conclusion of this ceremony, the recently-deceased acquired admission into the Ancestral World.

Collection #2: Taxi Man

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Driving through the chaos of Babayara, the taxi driver informed me that he was rich and I was poor. When he dropped me at my gate, he took my hand and told me he would like to take me out some time. His gaze was earnest, and somehow seemed to beam through the gap in his front teeth. I accepted out of confusion and flattery.

In this foreign place, I don’t know if I can promise friendships I cannot keep, or if I should lend my hand to anyone who finds my white skin my only mystery.

Collection #1: Honkohonkoman

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I saw a car with this title parked in a dirt clearing by the road, overlooking Medina Market in Accra. Around the car, men and women shuffled through the dark evening with food large metal pots on their heads. As we (the students) waited for our bus, children stopped in the street and giggled innocently at our white skin.

From the car came a loud booming noise, which resonated from loudspeakers attached to the vehicle’s roof. The words were foreign, but the message of urgency was easy to understand. On the side of the car, the owner’s name was painted in light blue: Dr. Alhagi Akanaya, of black herbal medicine. A young man lounged in the driver’s seat: quite obviously bored, yet ready to deliver questionable “remedies” through the opening of his greasy car window.

Greetings From Africa!

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It has been over one week since my arrival in Ghana, and already I have seen a great deal.

Where should I start? With the trash burning in countless heaps by the roadsides? With the dozens of friendships acquired simply by walking alone through a crowded market? With the ubiquitous smiles and musical rhythms? Quite frankly, I am flooded with so many curiosities that I can hardly process them, let alone fit them inside my figurative cabinet. However, as the days unfold, I will hopefully improve at picking out the jewels worthy of displaying here in my mental interior.

After the program’s short orientation, all twenty-one students transported their bags to separate homestays near the University of Ghana Campus in Legon. I moved into a home thirty minutes from campus in a town called Babayara. I stay there until this coming Friday, when my group and I will gather our belongings and move to Kumasi.

My home is occupied by a man, his wife, the wife’s mother, and five children of various ages. Below (if you are interested) I have included their character descriptions:

Mavis: Compact, and with a pleasant, high-pitched voice that sounds like a drumstick hitting a tin can. She smiles with a soft and self-conscious reserve. While generous and kind, she never comes too close. Some nights, I hear her singing church songs to her son, Nathan, before she puts him to sleep.

Papa: Always friendly and smiling, but never available to converse for more than two minutes at a time. His business requires him to wake at 3:30 in the morning and return home after 8pm. Most of our encounters occur after his evening bath, when he exposes his unusually small, bare body half-tucked beneath a wash towel.

Grandma: Never leaves the living room couch. She looks like a large balloon that has partially deflated into a flowing tub of skin. Although she speaks kindly to the members of her home, she never initiates conversation with me, and seemingly regards me as a spoiled pest.

Kelly: The daughter of Mavis’ sister, who works as a businesswoman in New Jersey. At age 15, she has perfect curves and sensuous, fat lips. She likes to borrow my iPod so—as she completes her nightly chores—she can sing along to Eminem and Chris Brown.

Giftie: The cousin, age 16, who serves as the House Help. She has a shaved head and delicate facial features. By far, her smile is the one I appreciate the most. She works hard to make me feel comfortable, and never glances at me without a slight hint of curiosity.

Tisha: Kelly’s younger sister, age 13. She suffers from the typical symptoms of teenage insecurity, and so constantly seeks attention. I offer it willingly because she is smart and assertive, and because she constantly makes me feel welcome. When we first met, Tisha was painting Disney princesses with watercolors.

Freddy: The only child of Mavis’ third sister, who died last year. Although he is only seven, he is extremely well-mannered. He spends most of his time building sculptures with the Play-Do I brought in my suitcase.

Nathan: Nearly four, rambunctious, and (very often) naked. He has a precious way of smiling and rambling away in English that I never understand. He enjoys kicking into cartwheels within the confines of the living room, and likes to barge into my room without warning. Yesterday, while I attempted to focus on an assignment, he rushed into my room, attempted to run me over with my suitcase, and proclaimed me a “Rasta man”  doomed to eternal imprisonment within the walls of my mosquito net.

Each day, I travel on two tro-tros (buses) to get to class at the University of Ghana. Class entails three hours of intensive Twi language study, followed by at least one lecture regarding Ghanaian culture. After class ends in the early afternoon, the students are free to explore local markets, lounge in internet cafes, or pop by bars for Ghanaian beer (which is very, very good).

While I’m starting to grow adjusted to my new lifestyle, I still experience a great deal of difficulty adjusting to cultural differences. Constantly, I’m surprised by the “oddities” I see on my journeys to and from school. Like a newborn baby, my insatiable curiosity inspires me to grab hold of these spectacles and suck on them for awhile.

Below is a list of cultural differences I have noted since my arrival.

  • Vendors carry heavy items  on their heads
  • Water is sipped from small, plastic bags
  • White skin is the source of shameless staring
  • The markets smell of hot earth and human waste
  • Trash is discarded by the roadside, where it is burned in piles at night
  • Vendors sell their furniture and house goods on the sides of busy streets
  • One must never simply approach a stranger and ask for directions; he or she must first deliver a personal greeting in which names and health inquiries are exchanged
  • Nearly every Ghanaian belongs to a church (no Jews whatsoever)
  • Roosters actually crow each morning
  • The sun sets at 6pm and rises at 5am
  • Running water is extremely rare, even among wealthy families
  • Even the poor women dress fashionably in colorful, local fabrics
  • In public, the wealthy mix seamlessly with the poor
  • The finest delicacies have a paste-like consistency
  • All of the meat is fried
  • The fish actually tastes fishy
  • Families don’t dine together
  • Family evenings are spent watching foreign soap operas (dubbed in English) on television
  • There is no such thing as a microwave or washing machine
  • Church songs may be heard throughout the streets on Friday nights
  • Most people—even the Christians—believe in ancestral spirits
  • No one smokes cigarettes
  • Funerals are joyous occasions
  • Polygamy is legal
  • Homosexuality is illegal
  • Everyone gets married and has children
  • The most attractive women are “full of flesh”
  • People believe in friendship over profit
  • Everyone is patriotic