Gouri Dange brings back a patchwork quilt of sense impressions from Ghana.
My very first day in any new country has always been way different from anything that I have imagined it would be. A new culture rarely reveals itself to you at the well-orchestrated pace provided by a Lonely Planet, Wikipedia, Google maps or TV travel shows.
I had little or no co-ordinates before I left for Accra, Ghana, recently for a 24-day stay. I had looked it up on the map only after my niece-daughter had moved there with her husband and two tiny kids late last year. What I hadn’t read or heard about is that Ghanaians across the board are one of the most soft-spoken people in the world. This strikes you in many places, but particularly so on a hot-hot day sitting in the food court of Accra Mall. Whispers and murmurs. That’s what you hear at best, and for a brief second you wonder if you have gone a bit deaf. But then you meet them everywhere — you get into a taxi and the driver will ask you how you are, smile you in, negotiate the fare, all in the softest of voices. Then you remember that the officials at the airport where you disembarked were the same — touching you lightly at the elbow and steering you through immigration, customs and out. At +233, a landmark Jazz club in Accra, the waiter or the manager too will lean close and take your order. You are not supposed to shout over the sound of the band — you’re supposed to, like the Ghanaians do, speak under the noise. I love it.
Perhaps the contrast between soft-spoken Ghanaians and err…us… can be understood via this sign that was prominent in several places in Accra Airport: “The Ghana Airport Authority will not tolerate any verbal abuse or violence in this airport. Failure to observe this will lead to denial of boarding or disembarking.”
At a children’s clinic, anyone who administers an injection or takes blood from a child, says softly, holding the terrified gaze of the child, something like: “So sorry baby, you are so small and it pains me to give you pain.” Now if this is not a ‘soumya’ culture, as a south Indian gentleman that I met there said, I don’t know what is!
A visit to the azure waters of Cape Coast three hours away from Accra was lyrical and sobering in equal parts. The Cape Castle was once the hub of the slave trade — men and women first imprisoned in unbelievably bad conditions, then auctioned off, and then packed into to the hideous slave ships headed for the Americas. Weighed by this piece of history, we make our way to Kakum National Park, where the seven narrow swaying rope bridges that you walk high above the rainforest tree cover don’t so much help you deal with the sad past that you have just revisited at Cape Castle as simply scare every thought out of your mind. Ridiculously coloured (orange, ash and white, for instance) chameleons gaping at you, too close for comfort, add to the need to be in the here-and-now and simply keep putting one foot in front of the other till you reach firm ground — where you are gleefully presented with a photograph of yourself looking ashen-faced as if you’ve been made to walk-the-plank.
I am told severely by certain kinds of politically correct young persons in India that it is just not done to ever say things like “Gosh, Black people have so much rhythm in them.” It seems that by saying this you are typecasting and diminishing an entire race. I considered this advice, and decided that it is not of use to me or to any black person really. It is of use only to those that tiptoe around the most ordinary distinguishing features of different human beings and make an elaborate dance of political-correctness.
And any hesitation I might have had over this issue is simply drummed out of my head on the first day that I drop off the two-year-old to her Ghanaian play school of 40 kids. Assembly in this school begins with one of the teachers murmuring the Ghanaian welcome reassuringly on the PA system; “Akwaabe, Akwaabe” she sings out. Another teacher plays a big drum, the djembe, as the kids come in through the gate. Tears and reluctance vanish as each child begins to involuntarily sway and sashay to the beat of the drum. Attendance is taken thus: the teacher sings and raps out: “If - your - name - is - Kimaya, come-and-dance.” And the toddler does a small jig or a skip around the drum player and back to her place.
The drum is, across Africa, their spirituality, their comfort, their entertainment, their intoxication and their signature.
Every kind of church under the sun is present here, in the lanes and back alleys of Accra as well as the smaller towns and villages of Ghana. As is every shade of NGO. Many put up signs that make much sense, like “Tend to your children now so that you don’t have to mend them later.” Or “God can help you only if you give him all the pieces.” But there are some interestingly bizarre juxtapositions too. My favourite was “The Lord is my Shepherd Cold Storage” — complete with pictures of leg and thigh pieces, liver, goat shanks, and suchlike. More like the Wolf was their Shepherd. Then there was a big sign saying ‘Veterinary Services’ and below it, ‘Meat Spices Sold Here’. Go figure.
Hawkers on the street — mixed parties of men and women selling everything under the sun, including possibly the world’s best pineapple and year-round mangoes, toys, weighing scales, textiles, bonda-like yam balls, tilapia fish, and just-baked bread — will not badger people in a car to buy their wares. Were you to say or signal “No thank you,” they will go on their way with a most courteous “Next time, maybe”. And while the women hawkers wear a variety of clothes ranging from the traditional to a small singlet and shorts, the ‘male gaze’ is conspicuously absent.
Traffic comes to a halt when you try to cross, something that you experience routinely in the First World (or as we say, just like phoren). Ghanaians too simply stop for pedestrians. In my true-blue Indian way, at first I would scurry across, till I got used to the pleasant fact that no one was honking or driving me off the place. And if you are walking with a toddler, you will be waved on with many smiles. Is this a Pico Iyer moment, you wonder (he describes a population paid/coerced into smiling and waving at all visitors, I forget in which old East bloc country.)
But no, here it is not staged. In Ghana, they are like-that-only.