Dispatches from Ghana III: You Are Welcome

Welcome
This sign greeted me in 2014. The new sign is better, but I didn't take its picture.

You are welcome.

The words greet me as, following a short walk from the plane, I enter the airport in Accra. They are implied in the friendly, helpful politeness of the many layers of customs and immigration officials who ask me to produce proof of vaccination against yellow fever, study and stamp my passport, glance over my immigration card. They are spoken by the bartender at the restaurant across the street that is the meeting point for our group. They are spoken again and again by our guide, interpreter, cultural ambassador, and surrogate father figure, Kofi Gbolonyo, as well as by the chief of each tribal unit we are presented to so we may have permission to stay in Dzodze, to work with school groups and village bands. It is spoken, too, by the professors and administrators who greet us in Accra at the University of Ghana, where we perform our final concert/workshop/collaboration with faculty and students of the College of Music. We hear it in full-throated four party harmony in every language of Ghana—including English--in a beautiful choral piece performed by the college’s African studies dance and drum ensemble. We hear it, as well, from the rangers who guide us through the Kakum Rain Forest National Park, and the tour guide who gently but bluntly reminds those of us who are white of our collective responsibility for what took place at the Elmina Slave Castle. And we hear it from the hotel staff as we wrap up the International Body Music Festival with a party at the MJ Grand Hotel.

You are welcome is Ghana’s unofficial motto, a summing up of the generous hospitality that is the hallmark of this small developing country. It is usually spoken to us in English, though we have come to learn the Ewe word—miyawezo—and see akwaaba, the Akaan word, in the airport. In whatever language they speak, whether it is one of the many tribal languages or the colonial languages of French and English, Ghanaians repeatedly express to strangers in their midst that they are welcome.

It's not a blind welcome, though. Part of the ritual performed with each chief we met was the question, “Why are you here?” This does not imply that the welcome will be withdrawn, but it is considered polite to share with one’s host the reason for one’s presence in his or her household. In fact, one section of the immigration card contains a set of likely reasons for visiting Ghana, with an instruction to check the relevant ones and write in any that aren’t included. The letter of introduction Kofi provided for each of us contained a more comprehensive description of why we were in Ghana, along the lines of a letter I remember having to produce when I first entered Great Britain thirty years ago next month. I remember being greeted politely by immigration officials, but it took time to feel warmth in the welcome of the community and church that were my home for two years.

Not so in Ghana. There is never any doubt that the welcome is sincere, that welcoming sojourners is as essential to Ghanaians’ identity as dancing and drumming—perhaps moreso, as it permeates every aspect of their lives, up to and including inviting guests to participate in every dance performance or celebration, even the traditional religious ceremony we attended. Of course you are welcome to dance with us. What could be more natural than inviting guests to dance?

As I write this, I am not sleeping on a flight to Dubai. From there, I’ll be sixteen hours in the hour to San Francisco. I don’t know what kind of welcome I’ll receive when I land there, but my experience last year with returning to the US from a Canadian vacation has me expecting it to be cold, interrogatory, even hostile. A year and a half ago, when Kofi came to Portland to lead a workshop, he passed through the San Francisco airport and experienced treatment one might expect of a citizen of a rogue state. It was a month after the inauguration of a president whose first act in the office was to order an arbitrary travel ban targeting residents of Muslim nations. Ghana was not on that initial list, which was soon set aside by court order, but it seems many border control officers took it as license to act on their most authoritarian and xenophobic impulses. I’m certain that, had Kofi been white, with a passport from a European country, he would’ve been treated very differently. Instead, he was subjected to repeated demands to know why he was entering the United States, demands repeated despite his polite but firm and consistent reply that he was here to lead a workshop. In Ghana, whether it was a chief or an immigration official, I was only asked once why I was there, and my answer—to learn—was accepted without question.

All of us at IBMF learned lessons about dancing and drumming. We learned from each other about building community through music. But most of all, we learned from Ghana the lesson of welcome—a lesson my country once knew, as the Statue of Liberty lifted her lamp in welcome to millions of immigrants and refugees; a lesson increasing numbers of Americans have been forgetting, or choosing to ignore, especially if the welcome is to be extended to a person of color; a lesson the Trump regime seeks to negate, one bigoted executive order after another, until all the world knows that only white Europeans are welcome in the United States.

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