A Reflection on Two Weeks in Ghana
“Too much freedom is a bad thing. Too much freedom will kill you.” – master drum maker David Amu
To be comfortable means to be at ease. You conjure up images of sweatpants and lazy days curled up on couches with familiar movies. You picture the embrace of a parent or a spouse. You think of the Converse All-Stars you’ve worn to countless movies and trips to the grocery store, laces so loose and frayed you no longer need to untie them. You seldom consider routine until you leave it and can identify what about it was so crucial. The traffic lights which change in just the order you expect. The zipper on your purse which sticks so that you can’t close it, but it doesn’t matter, you’re safe.
On the airplane to Ghana you lose a battle in your lifelong war against nail biting: you’re glad you thought to stuff a couple of Band-Aids into the backpack pocket where you normally stash tampons as you tend your hangnails. It does not occur to you that this bad habit is a form of comfort. These Band-Aids pilfered from your roommate’s drawer in the bathroom.
I am, as an American mutt, biologically predisposed toward comfort. It’s a preconceived notion: what I define as comfortable might be better defined as familiar. Yet from birth, I can recall images of travel to remote continents, defined by commercials and full-page advertisements as luxurious. The first passport I was issued at age thirteen was stamped for a drive across the northern border of New York state, up into Montreal where grimy sidewalks and towering skyscrapers gave no indication of foreignness; “luxury” was a replica of the Norte Dame cathedral; the only unfamiliar thing was a café around the corner in which the barista replied merci as I slipped a Canadian dollar coin into the tip jar. Wandering the aisles of an open-air convenience store in Belize (women’s razors beside bottles of rum beside Ziploc bags) seven years later, I felt remote from my culture. But then. What culture?
Overseas travel—or to be more specific, travel to countries in which English is not spoken—is regarded by friends who have never done it as brave. To those from my hometown, even my departure to Illinois to attend college bordered on recklessness. Thus, when I receive a Facebook message from a high school friend as I sit in the Schiphol airport in early December 2015 awaiting a flight to Accra, Ghana, my reason for declining his offer of coffee is met with, “You always were the adventurous one. Seems like you’re getting just what you wanted.”
You are not surprised by much. This is not to say that nothing scares you, because, let’s be honest: spiders, burns, abandonment, the list goes on. But when you deplane onto cracked tarmac and are shunted alongside a crowd of strangers into a lurching bus rather than filing through an orderly terminal, you are not surprised, only mildly interested. It’s late enough in Accra to be dark; you’ve long since given up wondering what time your brain thinks it is, as math has never been your strong suit and what good will it possibly do to torture yourself?
Before you even approach customs, a woman rifles through your passport, where you’ve tucked the form declaring the date of your yellow fever shot. She checks it, shoves the documents back at you.
Perfect, awkward capital letters on your forms. The official with the badge and military stripes whose pronunciation renders your last name unrecognizable. The oppressive humidity which has seeped through the walls, which seems aggravated by the fluorescents, which will prevent you ever feeling clean for the duration of the subsequent two weeks. The roar of voices when at last everyone has collected their luggage and you leave the relative security of the airport, your guide’s the singular blonde head in a surge of black, the lightness you will find yourself constantly, subconsciously seeking in every crowd.
A few days into our trip, the director of Dagbe Cultural Center, just outside of Kopeyia, Ghana, tells us that every traveler sets out to answer a question: a who, a why, a how. I do not disagree with the sentiment when he says it, but I do not know what my question is. I am here, alongside fifteen other members of my liberal arts college community, as a dance student who happens to sometimes major in Creative Writing. We will study Ewe dancing and drumming here and reflect upon these lessons in the context of a class most of us took last term. The intention of the trip is ostensibly to explore different styles of art; these are not the questions I want answered.
When we are seated in the central, cheerfully-named Summer Hut at Dagbe and asked to introduce ourselves by name, place of origin, and “what we are,” I hesitate to refer to myself as a “dancer”; there is something presumptuous about the title in the United States, an ideal of grace and flexibility which, as a latecomer to the discipline, I feel ill-equipped to claim. Enrolling in the prerequisite course to attend the trip felt both like embracing my decision to pursue dance academically and like attempting to buy my way into belonging in the department. Everything that happens in Ghana I file away as ammunition for a future lyric essay or poem; words are the way I interact with the world, there is rhythm in my head but not of the variety communicated by the body.
But when we actually start working on the dance piece, gahu, watching my peers who identify as “non-dancers,” I recognize my advantages: in just two years, my limbs have grown dramatically more obedient. I can watch and replicate. I am strong. I know how to look peaceful, even happy, under stress. The thunderous boba, or lead drum, whose cues we are taught to respond to, sometimes rolls through combinations which I recognize on what feels like a cellular level; sometimes my Western-raised ears can hardly distinguish individual beats.
Each evening, I hit my mattress bone-tired. Drums boom distantly through the night. Draped mosquito netting reminds me of the canopies in staged American Furniture Warehouse bedrooms I coveted as a child. Sporadic electricity feels luxurious in a way my father’s high definition TV never has.
The first time you touch a Ghanaian person is at the National Theatre. Your guide has plastered a rumpled five cede note to a drummer’s sopping forehead during the rigorous performance, and when it drops to the floor, the drummer picks it up, hands it to you, and points back to his face. You mimic the gesture of your guide. You don’t find it strange until later reflection that you were so willing to rub your palms in a stranger’s sweat.
When the formal performance ends, you are not immediately able to identify it, because the dancers swarm their small audience and begin grabbing hands. You are pulled out to the floor where you are taught by example and expected to follow. Drums throb, the high-ceilinged room cacophonous with many-parted music and the heaving breaths of the other Americans. You will discover an enormous, blood-filled blister on the bottom of your foot when you return to the hotel. But from this moment forward you cease to notice attractiveness or normalcy in your fellow travelers—from this moment forward you cease to exist in terms of anything but sweat, dust, and bottled water.
On the second day at Dagbe we attend a funeral in the local community. Nothing our guide tells us about this experience is in any way helpful to processing it; nothing he could have said would have been. There is no corpse. Upwards of five hundred people shout and cheer and move, skin gleaming dark, heads and bodies swathed in vibrant patterns. Enormous baskets of dead fish, fruits, some grouped by contents, displayed on the ground, others perched precariously on women’s heads. Four different ensembles beating drums (boba, sogo, kidi, kagan, bells called gankogui, and rattles called axatse, pronounced a little like a-hat-shay) with vigor unmatched by the angriest American punk rocker. Everywhere I turn, a cell phone camera is pointed into my face—a white girl, and a white girl with freckles, at that, trying to dance. I feel on display at all times, self-conscious, but not for any easily defined reason. When any of us strays too close to a circle of drums, five or six people grasp our forearms and tug us into the swirling fray of dancers. My professor and I are delighted to discover that one of the groups is performing gahu, which means we’re almost able to keep up. The barefoot Ghanaians stomp to a beat I can only just identify. We tumble back toward Dagbe grimy and overstimulated.
On the side of the sand road, a group of five or six is assembled, one woman lashing out with sharp fists as a man holds her back. One of the Dagbe drum instructors tells us the woman is in a trance brought on by the music, that this is a somewhat coveted experience, that this is why we were not allowed to dance in certain circles: we couldn’t handle it. How unlike America, to covet the loss of control. I can only fathom it in terms of tequila, and I’m sure that’s not even close. It’s one of those moments, precious and unsettling; I don’t know whether to laugh.
The drum maker takes care to explain why he’s allowed his hair to go white.
“I don’t want to chase anymore ladies,” he tells you. “I’m tired.”
He holds your wrist in place for a moment before letting you try your hand at chiseling the soft wood which will eventually become a sogo. You are unsteady, awkward with the heavy tools, but you can’t wipe the smile off your face.
“If you want to learn patience,” he says. “Learn to make drums.”
Later, as he scatters ash onto an antelope skin, scraping the hair away effortlessly with the rim of an empty Coke bottle, somebody asks him how this works. How he knows to do what he does, in which ways, in what order. Why ash removes antelope hair from a skin so that it can be made into the head of a drum.
“This is how our ancestors have always done it. Why question how it works? It works.”
Mensah is one of our teachers at Dagbe, steady and mellow. On this particular afternoon, he’s teaching us the art of batik fabric printing. I, afraid of burns, hesitate the first time I dip a chunky wooden stamp into the simmering vat of wax, but once I’ve retrieved it and shaken it out once, I’m at my cloth with a gleeful rhythm. I print stacked spirals across the rough cotton, wet wax on white fiber, a ghost-pattern. It dries for less than an hour before Mensah dunks it into hot, dark dye—blue-black, midnight, which will seep across what is unprotected by the wax, seep into the cracks, making each spiral utterly dissimilar from its neighbor. The finished result is beautiful. Strange.
We beat the chipped scraps of wax from the cloth, flapping out each piece in pairs and stringing them from the clotheslines behind the building in which we sleep. It has been a long time since I used a clothesline in the first place. It has been a long time since I went barefoot.
You are relieved at the feel of the ocean as it laps up your hips. Days of dancing, days of dirt, have left you feeling perpetually unclean. People you had seldom spoken to a week ago are your entire connection to “home.” And what does home mean?
You were born nearer to the ocean than you now live. California, but not the sun; the backwoods, land of flannel shirts, hunting rifles, and saw mills. You plan to go back that way, move west, crash into the Pacific more than once or twice a year on vacation in your real life. You distinguish “now” and “real life” as though having a diploma in your hand will grant entrance into the cult of adulthood you once assumed you’d discover at eighteen. As though you don’t occasionally feel ancient, made so by the difference between a billing and a shipping address, made so by the ache you felt in your lower back the last time you went to a rock concert, made so by knowing what it is like to adopt the habit of folding the laundry of another person and then, abruptly, to stop. You are young, aware of it. You are exhausted. And yet, here, standing waist-deep in lukewarm, African Atlantic, bits of trash in the murky current, you feel, if not young then new again in a way you haven’t felt in years.
Home has been relative since childhood: divorces are splits not only of marriages but of bedroom furniture, pairs of underwear, days of the week. Home became strung out across time zones with college; the apartment you live in, your first, is a nest of you-ness because you have never felt so grounded in place. You will still move out in less than six months.
Here, tossed by waves, you feel gentle. You feel like you’re on the brink of an answer to the question you came here asking.
We are curled in chairs set up alongside the Summer Hut. It’s twilit dark; the haze of burning trash, of trade winds, of kicked up dust hangs heavy in the still-warm air. Mensah’s calm is frayed at the edges, his lips twitching into the occasional smile as he sings at us. We attempt to mimic him. We sound terrible.
“I want you to be full of the words before I give you their meaning,” he tells us.
I’ve scrawled the lyrics—Ewe phrases for which there is, in truth, less direct translation than loose interpretation. Writing it down, I realize quickly, doesn’t help. My brain switches to French, which I studied as a teenager, when confronted with reading any non-English word, so I will have to learn by ear. The key switches. The rhythm is malleable, sometimes discernable. As I get the hang of it I find I like it. Still, the prospect of singing and dancing at once is daunting.
Flopped on my mattress, mosquito netting bunched around the corners, I try to write about this place. All that comes to mind is the tingling, sticky feeling of my feet against the cotton sheets: they’re filthy and I’m finally (almost) beyond caring. At long last, I manage to put a few words on paper: There are so many different kinds of chaos. I believe in my own sort: controlled, scheduled-to-the-minute. I believe in the comfort of my many gentle shades of grey.
And then, because I’m trying to be honest: I cannot wait to be clean.
Emmanuel, the director of Dagbe, told us at the outset that every traveler comes on their journey with a question in mind. One thing they’re trying to solve or learn. I can feel my brain expanding, my horizons, my context shifting. I know that every concrete sidewalk pane my boot-clad feet tromp across when I get back to Chicago will feel newly solid. I know that the terms in which I understand my world will be different than all my friends’ are; I know that I’ve witnessed only the slimmest fraction of this culture. Immersion takes more than two weeks and dirt on the soles of feet.
So if I came here intending to learn something, I think I knew enough not to assume it would be something of substance about the place. I expected dance steps, sore muscles, stories to tell the people who would inevitably wind up asking “how Ghana was” as though a two-minute summary could encapsulate the other side of the world. I think I knew enough not to ask questions of this place, but to let it speak for itself.
So what was I asking, in Emmanuel’s reality where there are always questions? I still don’t know.
You feel peculiar admitting the excitement you feel on the bus to Cape Coast Castle. It was a slave trading site. People keep making comparisons between the subterranean dungeons and the death camps in Germany and Poland. It’s not that you don’t see the tiny, historical threads interweaving them. It’s just hard to compare distinct atrocities.
When you are congregated in the entrance, ready to begin, your guide Morgan tells you that there are two disclaimers you must understand before entering.
“One thing, it is not for us to judge what has happened here. It is for God,” he says. “Only God can decide.”
You don’t know what to say. What to think.
“The second thing is, this is not only the burden of the Europeans. The world did this. We did this to each other,” Morgan pulls two of your peers, a man and a woman, toward him, to use as examples. “If she owes him money, maybe she has a son. She can give him her son, to work, instead of paying her debt. Or maybe she conquers his village, she keeps some of those people as subjects, but maybe she brings some of them here to sell for profit. Africans did this to each other, it was not only the English, or the Dutch, or the Portuguese.”
You want to linger longer once you’re in the bowels of the castle, standing on the rough-hewn floor, worn soft with time and years of human waste. You want to stay here, breathing this air in silence, to let the history of the place wash over you. You want to be able to hear the echo. It all suddenly seems hurried. Surface-level. So much remains here.
It is an inaccessible horror. The idea you will discuss with friends weeks later on an Illinois highway that a person’s humanity can be wounded in more than one way: Ghanaian people who were sold at Cape Coast endured, on average, three weeks’ imprisonment in overpopulated darkness before being inspected like livestock for slaughter. They were herded onto ships, stacked like lumber, tossed in dark cargo holds. The living bodies which staggered onto American soil on the other side must have born little resemblance to humans, their personalities and histories stripped of them in transit and torture. It makes the whole concept worse, somehow, to think that the white man’s fascination with the African otherness might have been circumstantially justified. No way the traumatized people ripped from their homes could have resembled anything the colonists had seen anywhere before.
More in this moment than in any other before in your life you feel safe in your own skin. Your white skin which gives no clue as to origin. You could be from almost anywhere, and no matter what assumption is made, you cannot end up dead for it. You feel powerful. You feel a little sick. You don’t know what you expected but this was not it.
Our waists are wrapped in colorful, patterned cloth. Our hair is wrapped in scarves, our necks and wrists adorned, our faces painted with black lines. We are ready to perform gahu for the assembled audience of mostly children from Kopeyia.
We begin by drumming, which goes off mostly without a hitch. I have wrapped my forefingers with Band-Aids to protect from the deep vibration of the drumsticks against them; it’s almost a good-hurt. The rhythm still sounds foreign. But my hands are willing to submit to it in a way they were not on the first day.
When it comes time to dance, I steel myself for the twenty-plus minutes of cardio which have not grown any easier with practice. I stumble through the singing. I forget the first move of the dance. I smile as sincerely as I can manage, my lower back seizing in pain when we are bent in half, arms and feet pumping to the downbeat. The boba cues are clear as day to me now. As it goes, I realize I am going through the motions, but dissociating, exhausted. But somewhere around the fourth variation it hits: I am dancing a traditional piece in a small village in Ghana. In Africa. I am doing something almost no American can say they have ever done or will ever hope to do. I have something rare in my heart in this moment. And it hurts. It’s hard. It’s intense.
You wish almost immediately that you could stay forever on the system of twelve-story-high rope bridges which make up the Kakum National Park canopy walk. From the vantage it affords you, what seems like an ocean’s worth of rainforest. You want to stop and breathe, breathe, breathe. Look at everything that is beautiful in the world. Look at what the same species that could steal one another’s children has chosen to protect for the future. Look at how pain can coexist with beauty, how neither is harmed by the presence of the other.
This is not a question. This is not an answer. This is just what there is to see, and there is so much.
We leave Dagbe early in the morning. At the party on the last night, I borrow a skirt and put on eyeliner for the first time in days. My version of beautiful still feels beautiful, but so much less definite than it used to. My sadnesses, carried over from home, seem distant, less painful, cast into light by the specific types of difference we have encountered here.
After jokes and Coca-Cola and dancing with the children of Kopeyia, I settle back in bed, trying to write one last time while I’m still in this strange, magical space where art has so much heft. Little comes at first. But then, at last:
It has never occurred to me to be thankful for certain things: the thickness of walls, the right to toilet paper, the absolutely, achingly beautiful fact of clean water in my everyday life. We travel, supposedly, to learn. Someone here said we travel because we have a question. A “what.” A “why.” A “how.” But I think maybe I have been traveling to know what the question was in the first place. I think I know what I needed to find out, and that is “what do I still have?”
This year has revolved around the things I lacked. Things lost. Things taken. Things absent in unknowledgeable ways, in overwhelming ways. I have lived with constant reminders of vacancy.
But here is what I still have: this body, mind, soul, intact. The privilege of my particular body, mind, and soul.
Look at all there is to see, at the way we can find misery amid warm beds and clean tap water, at our luxurious varieties of sadness. At how no pain hurts less than any other, no matter the circumstances.
Look at what remains. There is so much.
Carly Taylor is a Knox College alumna and poet living in Galesburg, Illinois while she applies to MFA programs, dances, and (theoretically) writes. More of her work can be found in Door Is a Jar Magazine and the inaugural issue of Bright Sleep Magazine.