Sunday, June 10, 2007

Family Matters

After getting his contact information from Gwen Henderson, an EWB Long Term Overseas Volunteer (LTOV) based in Tamale, I arranged a meeting with Francis Azamza.

Francis is a modest success story by Ghanaian standards, having come from a farming village to finish a university degree in Agricultural Science and then using that to secure a job with an NGO (non-governmental organization). While many Ghanaian village children seem to share dreams with Canadian children of similar respected professions - Pilot, Doctor, Lawyer, Football (soccer) Hero - the reality is that most would end up being elated to follow a path like Francis. Fortunately for Francis, he was the eldest son in the family and was able to work hard and pursue this career. Some village families will be fortunate to be able to create the opportunity for four or five sons and daughters like Francis, while others will be lucky just to have the eldest son complete secondary school.

But, the purpose of meeting with Francis was not to do some sort of ad-hoc calculation of his economy - the man came to meet me to help find a family to stay with. After sharing an afternoon and a Guiness or two with him, he abruptly concluded that the best place for me to stay would be with his family, in a village called Zawse. And with that, he left to go tell his wife to prepare for my arrival. (Note that I implored for a democratic process but am confident that it didn’t happen).

He returned the next day to tell me the arrangements had been made, and that his family was excited to have me stay with them. I made a stand when he overwhelmingly abolished what I thought was my right to pay for accommodation, but in the end I caved. I resolved that if he wouldn’t let me shoulder the financial burden of my room and board through a cash transaction, I would just have to do it through gifts and other means. I don’t think this is a unique situation though - accepting guests in Ghana is a very exhaustive ordeal for the host, as they are absolutely expected to always provide the guest with all services and food that the guest could possibly want - the guest being Ghanaian or otherwise.

Fast forward through three fantastic weeks of staying with the Azamzas and doing my best to avoid the imported caviar and manicure movie star treatment that has been pitched at me. Okay, so maybe no villager could sell enough of their cows to provide caviar, but they certainly go to every length possible to provide everything else. I have found that being here in Zawse has made me feel as if I’ve embarked on a career of becoming a pop star: people go to amazing lengths to fawn and dote on me, and even just to greet me, despite the fact that it is universally known that I have a broad absence of both talent and merit.

This means each night I arrive home on my bicycle from work and a small boy will jump to take it into the house for me; the water for my baths and meals magically travels the kilometer or so (on the heads of the women and children) from the borehole to the house; my presence dictates the immediate vacancy of the most comfortable and luxurious sitting arrangement (and protracted squawking from the villagers until the seat is greeted by my posterior); … The list continues.

I mobilized whatever means I could to be certain that I was going to help break down this barrier. I tried to ensure that I would be able to work to prepare my own meals, wash my own dishes and clothes, fetch my own water, and ultimately be a resource and not a drain on the family itself - though so far I have accomplished this with mixed success.

The laundry went well, and although I’m dangerously incompetent at washing by hand compared to the locals, for the most part I can get away with a decent launder on my own. On the other hand, though, Francis had to sit down and talk with me about my adventure to the borehole to fetch water. Suffice to say that I don’t think it is something that I will be able to do again. Ditto washing dishes. Cooking is still a bit up in the air - most people find it pretty funny when I help pound the spices or stir the TZ (initials for a Hausa language word that means "hot TZ") - but it remains to be seen whether or not they will let me do it on a more consistent basis.

My goal is to pave a bidirectional superhighway of respect between the family and myself, and I have come to the conclusion that perhaps the best way to do this is to try and assimilate into the family’s inherent hierarchy. While this may mean that I will spend more time doing manly man farming and less time effeminately pounding chili seeds, I think it may be the only way to attempt to contribute at least as much as I am taking. And who knows, maybe by the time the asphalt of trust on the superhighway of respect has cooled small small, I will be allowed to hop back into the kitchen and wash my own dishes.

So, while I feel as if there has been so much packed into the past three weeks, I know I still have much more to learn and understand. In our pre-departure training, we explored the concept of the "Iceberg Model". As the name implies, imagine the learning experience as an iceberg. So far, I have been able to readily and quickly observe the parts of the family’s culture that stick clear out above the surface of the water. But, I need to keep in mind that there is so much that goes on in the family, like the remaining 90% of the iceberg, that hides away from immediate view. And, after all, it will only be when I understand some of these underlying challenges and goals within the family, that I will be able to truly understand their livelihoods. So, as I pause to ponder that fateful phone call to Gwen, I also take a deep breath and prepare to dive in and explore below the cultural surface!

Stay tuned!


Ps- pictures!

Nobody pounds like Amina pounds.

A few of the children.

Emmanuel hits the books.

Michael explains how to brood a fowl.

Farming with Lidiya.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Grave Implications

From what I can deduce, music seems to be a way of life in some African countries: consumed daily like some sort of staple grain in one’s diet. But in Ghana, the rhythmic artform is like a jaguar – lurking away from the naked eye then suddenly exploding marvelously into view when the time is right.

As I rode into my home village for the first time on a thin, dusty red dirt path which snakes its way through forests, parched farmers’ fields and mud & clay homes with thatched roves, I was astonished to see the serene beauty of what would be my home for the next three and a half months. Rolling green hills in the distance set against deep azure blue skies, the landscape checkered with boulders and rocks, clusters of trees shining an emerald green, and the fields of ridged brown dirt which lay idle, expiring into dust under the searing 40-degree sun.

But the bucolic bliss was torn from my mind by the shrieking and pulsing rhythm of a chaotic, tumultuous crowd. Gathered in a large, open space between two homes, the blur of colours and hues danced, stomped and clapped, narrated by the blistering pace of half a dozen drums and a howling crescendo of cries. As I drew closer, I noticed that there was the main throng of close to 100 people which had initially demonically captured my conscience, but there were also just as many in small groups: sitting under trees, chatting on rocks and complacently wandering about.

And like a visit to any hospital here it was immediately clear that everyone was decked out in their finest attire. Men wore billowing striped smocks which soared wildly in their spinning dances, and women glowed and sparkled with dazzling colours and patterns. But as my eyes wandered, a sobering wave of humility shivered down my spine; the reason for the gathering became clear. Two men, stationed between the large crowd and one of the houses, were labouriously shoveling away – waist deep in a grave.

I felt that I had been so excited to learn about the passionate artform that is African music – but now I had to appreciate it at the cost of someone’s life. Raw deal. Fortunately, my guilty conscience needn’t have lasted long. It was quickly explained to me that the funeral taking place was quite clearly a celebration, and for good reason. The woman who had passed away had lived to nearly a century, and thus the community was now simply celebrating her fantastic achievement.

But funerals in Ghana are relatively complex and diverse ordeals, and are not always such a performance. Sometimes, the body may wait many weeks at a mortuary while the necessary arrangements and preparations are made. But, depending on the amount of tragedy surrounding the death, sometimes the body is quickly buried so that the family can mourn their loss – with this sort of extravagant celebration being unspeakable.

Melancholic thoughts aside, I was appreciative to be able to observe the funerary ritual, especially in such a positive context. My first experience with drumming, dancing and howling was something I would have to drink an awful lot of Pito (local brew) to forget. I didn’t take part in the dancing this time – but I’ll leave that as a story for later!

Po'semyin (Please greet your family on my behalf)