It was a week ago tonight that my flight landed in Accra. Since then, I’ve been immersed in the culture of the place I’m visiting more deeply than on any of my previous adventures save one, to Britain, and I was there for two years. Two features of this trip have made the difference: that this is an Orff experience, and that I’m in Ghana.
Orff courses are, by their very nature, immersive. That’s the Orff approach: rather than tell students about music, plunge them into it, let them learn it by doing it. It’s how Orff workshops and training courses are taught, as well: not by lecture, but by experience. Kofi Gbolonyo, our host and teacher during this master class, has been an exemplary Orff teacher in this regard, getting our hands on drums, rattles, bells, flutes, and xylophones; and getting our bodies in motion, stomping, thrusting, gyrating. He’s also spent plenty of time helping us reflect, explaining, interpreting, translating. Most importantly, he’s brought Ghana to us, and taken us out to it, in marvelous ways, bringing student and community groups to perform for us every night, and taking us out to observe and participate in events in the village.
That in itself would be enough to make this an exceptional experience. But there’s much more: the simple fact that this is happening in Ghana has amplified everything Kofi has been doing with us. Ghana is not a place that one can just see. In fact, it’s not a place one would come to see just for its sights. In terms of natural wonders, there are few, on they are lacking in spectacle. Historical sites are also few in number. There’s no grand architecture, the food is interesting but monotonous, there’s nothing one can purchase here that can’t be found somewhere else. What makes Ghana special is the Ghanaians.
I’ve traveled throughout the United States (Alaska being the one exception) and to Europe, and I’ve never met a people as sincerely welcoming as Ghanaians. Everywhere I go, they are happy to see me, smiling, waving, greeting me. Every group that has performed for us has been eager to draw us into their dancing, and to mingle with us both before and after the performance, playing games, teaching us dance moves (and delighting in our ineptitude). We’ve been feted again and again. And as we’ve met these people, we’ve begun experiencing some of the idiosyncrasies of this place. Fortunately, Kofi is always there to interpret, sometimes as a running commentary, sometimes giving program notes between events, and sometimes with a recap and question-and-answer session afterward. Lately we’ve been observing things that startle us, to which Kofi’s reply is sometimes “Welcome to Ghana.”
Such a moment came yesterday when we visited a village celebrating its last day of school. The school buildings were startlingly primitive, with facilities that make pioneer schools I’ve seen look luxurious:
What was most amazing, though, was the celebration taking place between the school buildings, under a grove of trees that were a quintessential ceremonial ground. There was drumming, singing, dancing, as the entire community rejoiced in the progress their children were making—and that is all of their children. At least three chiefs were present, and all the teachers were honored. After the celebration had gone on for awhile, Kofi was introduced, and now we became the focus of attention. Each teacher presented himself or herself to us, announcing name, position, and age level taught. We were then treated to a “drama” that, at first glance, struck me as a high school class skit.
A young man in ragged clothing came out, acting oddly, yelling to the sky, taking a dildo from his pocket, putting it in front of his crotch, and thrusting his hips. This happened repeatedly. Two other boys, wearing their school uniforms, came up to him and mocked him. One of these boys then went “home” where his mother, seeing the “madman,” angrily told her son not to associate with him. She then made a poisoned cake for the madman, which he took with him. The son again encountered the madman, who shared his cake with the son. The son had to be taken to the hospital, where he died.
What struck our western eyes most was the use of the dildo. When we finally had a chance to talk with Kofi about it, his first reply was “Welcome to Ghana.” He then went into detail: Ghanaian culture is much more open about sexuality than American culture. The focus of the play was not sex, but hospitality. In Ghana, mental illness is not something that is pushed away into institutions, or hidden under highway overpasses. Mentally ill people are accepted into village culture, with the entire community taking responsibility for their care. To reject a “madman” is inhospitable, and may subject one to the judgment of God.
The other aspect of this that led to another “welcome to Ghana” moment was how uproariously the audience responded to the madman’s clowning. In retrospect, I saw a connection to our experience Tuesday, when we were presented to the chief, and the gathering was disrupted by a man who was explosively angry, and was eventually ushered away. While he was carrying on, the crowd was laughing at him. They took his disruption in stride, and rather than become angry at the way he was affecting a solemn ceremony, they found it hilarious.
This is a cultural feature that is hard for me to understand. As Kofi put it, Ghanaians make fun of everyone. It’s equal opportunity ridicule: Christians make fun of Muslims make fun of traditional religionists who make fun of everyone else; men and women make fun of each other; the sane make fun of the insane; and the insane make fun of everyone. We’ve experienced some of this with school children stopping at a gate that opens to the courtyard where we practice dancing, laughing at our awkward attempts to get down Ghana style. Whenever we’re drawn into a dance, the dancers and (if it’s at a community site, rather than at the hotel) audience laugh loudly, but warmly. Welcome to Ghana: everyone is accepted, but acceptance comes with ribbing.
Other “welcome to Ghana” moments center on the rough housing children engage in, which is far more physical and, at times, violent than we western teachers feel comfortable with. There is also the aspect of disciplinarians roaming around performances with switches, snapping anyone who becomes distracted from the drumming (though so far I have not seen any of those switches applied—perhaps because they were used so effectively in the past). I expect Ghanaian children are spanked when they get out of line, though I don’t know this for a certainty. They are also soothed with lullabies whenever they start to cry, and the babies and toddlers I’ve seen at public events have all been as well-behaved as I’ve experienced anywhere—though they’ve also been permitted to wander through the performances.
Much of what seems like “welcome to Ghana” to me is, I think, more of a “welcome to the Third World”: the minivans crammed with people; the motorcycles carrying multiple passengers, including small children, none of them wearing helmets; the incredible loads people balance on their heads; the chaotic yet civil hullabaloo of the market; the proximity of extreme poverty to opulence; and all of this strikes me as exotic and, in a strange way, a sight worth traveling to see. But I could get that in so many other places: just driving across the border to Mexico, flying to southeast Asia, or to Rio, or anywhere that heat and humidity combine with generations of poverty. What I’m far less likely to experience is the welcome.
There is one other side of this that is far less attractive. There is one class of humans who are decidedly not welcome in Ghana, or really anywhere in Africa: sexual minorities. It is illegal to engage in same-gender sexual acts in Ghana. Other countries are getting more press about this, perhaps because the penalties are more severe, but homophobia is a prominent feature of African morality. It’s what’s holding American Methodism back from fully embracing gay ordination and gay marriage: our African members will soon outnumber Americans, and they are resolute in their opposition to opening their hearts and minds to gay people.
It’s a sad postscript to this love letter to Ghana. With their cradle-to-grave musical culture, their profound sense of hospitality, their openness to innovation, and their delightful sense of humor, this place could be a paradise for a musician—unless he or she is gay.