Wednesday, October 8, 2014

So Are You African Now?

No, but I do love this shirt.
And I'm also fond of this one.

It's true: I wear that orange shirt a lot. I don't wear the green one quite as often, mostly because it doesn't have a pocket for my phone. But since landing in Portland July 1, I've probably worn one or the other of these shirts at least twice a week, probably more. At this rate, they'll be threadbare by the time I have to start wearing long sleeves, which is a shame, because they're the first garments I've had custom-made for my measurements since probably about 1988.

I love the shirts because they fit better than anything else I own, they're incredibly comfortable in the warm weather that's just about to let up this week, they get me plenty of compliments and, most of all, because they remind me of where I was not quite four months ago. I wear them so often that Amy asked me two days ago, as I put the orange one on yet again, "So are you African now?"

Hardly. I was only there for two weeks, and I only saw a small part of one small country on that enormous continent. I experienced one ethnic group, one style of cooking, and just a handful of places. But the richness of that experience will be with me for the rest of my life.

I wrote thousands of words about the experience as it was happening and in the days after my return, almost all of which appeared in this blog. At Orff 101, my POSA chapter's annual introductory workshop, I took participants through a crash course in boboobo, the drumming/dancing style we struggled to learn through a week of sultry afternoons. I also shared slides of the trip, as I've done with my family. None of this did even a modicum of justice to what I actually experienced. There's no way it could: you had to be there.

When Ewe story tellers begin spinning a tale, it's common for someone in the audience to comment, "I remember. I was there." This is not, of course, literally true, but it captures something about how deeply the story is felt by its teller, and how important it is to the hearers. If the teller's passion really comes through, if the content strikes a nerve with the audience, if it feels to both that, no matter how far-fetched or mythic the story may be, it is fundamentally true, sheds light on some common experience that everyone has had, makes sense of one of life's fundamental mysteries; if, in short, the story, however fictional, rings true; then of course one can say, on hearing it, "Ah, yes. I remember. I was there." This is true whether it's an Anansi story about the spider-trickster-Promethean scoundrel or a recounting of the birth of a baby.

I have not managed to tell my Ghana story that effectively, in large part because I'm still integrating the experience. At times, I fine myself startled by a memory of a feeling. Amy and I shot pool Monday night at our neighborhood sports bar, and as we left the establishment, stepping out into the unseasonably warm October evening, I felt a rush of sensations carrying me back to an evening performance in Dzodze: the children in their traditional costumes, the drummers, the garish florescent that rendered everything a ghoulish green in our photos and videos, and most of all, the nervous delight of being pulled out into the courtyard to dance with these young performers. I remember; I really was there.

What has evaded me is managing to share that sensation with others well enough that they, too, remember it with me, that they feel that they were, in some small part, there with me that night. And not just there: I want them to feel the organized chaos of the marketplace, the smell of the equatorial countryside, the humid heft of the air, the wonder at how intimately rhythm and dance permeates every aspect of that society. I want them to know the warmth and humor of Ghanaian children, hawkers, tradespeople, and even panhandlers who hang around to converse long after it's become clear there will be no money for them. I want them to experience the surprise of being tutored in bargaining by a stranger who couldn't abide seeing me be taken for a tube of toothpaste, or by a merchant selling me a drum who really doesn't want to sell me a shaker for the price he originally quoted, and won't feel like he's cut me a fair deal until I talk him down.

I rattle off these experiences and feelings, and maybe you can experience some small part of what I'm saying just by reading them. As time passes and Ghana fades in my memory, I hope that more of what I came to know there will be integrated into my way of interacting with others, whether they are family, friends, colleagues, or students. And that's when I will become at least a little African; not from wearing a shirt, not by dancing with my shoulder blades, not by breaking down a complex drumming pattern into microrhythms; but when I can patiently, lovingly welcome someone else, whether a child or a peer, into a new way of thinking, turning their world on its ear. That's when they'll be able to say, "Oh! Now I remember. I was there." 

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