Tag Archives: culture

So You Think you Can Gota

Ball, heel. Ball, heel, I tell myself. I glance at a woman shuffling around the circle of people in front of me. Then I glance behind me at my dance instructor. 

He’s a 28-year-old cyclone of arms and legs, and he’s coming right at me. I beg my body to follow the choreography while I try to keep up with the two drummers in a mirrored room at the University of Ghana’s School of Dance, lest I collide with my Ghanaian dance guru.

I think I have a pretty good sense of rhythm but this is my first African dance class and I’m not getting the movement as quickly as I would have hoped. Granted, I’m no professional, like the contestants on the recent slew of reality dance shows such as So You Think You Can Dance, Dancing with the Stars or America’s Best Dance Crew.

But I’m African. This should come naturally, right?

I’ve wanted to take a traditional dance class since my arrival in Ghana three months ago because music and dance are integral aspects of Ghanaian culture—in addition to being an amusing, drunken denouement to my family’s social gatherings.

Our instructor, Kofi Anthonio, summed up the importance of dance in Africa before teaching us our first series of movements. “In Africa,” said Anthonio, to the seven females sitting in a circle on the dance floor, “music and dance are like the ocean in which we swim.”

When an American friend told me about Anthonio’s weekly five cedi ($3.58 CAD) class, I was ready to dive in. I peeled myself out of bed, took some cough syrup to combat my impending cold and strapped on my dancing shoes.

That was my first mistake.

“We always say we are dancing in a pool,” said Anthonio. “Before we get in, we take off our sandals. We need to respect our ancestors.”

While African dance is often used at cultural celebrations, it can also be used for religious worship.

Standing barefoot in a circle, we start chanting our names to get into the dancing spirit as Mustafa, one of the two drummers, pounded on a traditional Ghanaian drum that is played with stick and hand. 

Minutes later, the tiny, mirrored dance studio filled with sound like a Sunday church service, punctuated with the pounding of Mustafa’s drum- the heart of any African dance rhythm. Lenny, the master drummer, gently chimed an African gankogui, a double bell made of iron that produces both a high pitched and low bass sound. I forgot about my cold as the hymn intensified and happily sang along as the bell and drum did their own melodic dance.

Our circle took on a whole new meaning once Anthonio explained its significance. “We normally dance in a clockwise direction in a circle. It signifies the life cycle and unity. I trust the person in front of me and the one at my back.”

Staring back at Anthonio as we performed the Gota, a partner’s dance hailing from Ghana’s Volta region, I tried to mimic his movement.

Mistake number two.

“Don’t worry if it’s not perfect,” said Anthonio. Of course, we need to stay true to movements, to respect our ancestors who gave them to us, but it takes time to get it,” laughed Anthonio, who has been studying African dance for seven years.

So as the dance gods and Anthonio intended it, I stopped thinking about the steps and crouched slightly to maintain the posture that many African dances demand. It was an intensely sweaty but fun two-hour workout that made me realize why African dance, a genre whose movements have inspired so many others, is strikingly beautiful.

Yes, the steps are important. But when it comes to African dance, it’s the minute you forget them and let the drum guide you that you are truly free.

Designer Brain Drain in Malawi

Khalidwe Wear is one of the few shops in Malawi selling modern, homegrown designs

“Are you packing any heels?” my friend asked me months ago as I filled my suitcase for Malawi. The question was intended to be a joke. Of course I wasn’t packing heels, I was coming to Africa after all.

Not that I was naïve enough to pack combat boots, but on my daily walk to work in my sensible black flats I watched with surprise as young girls struggled on the unpaved road in sky-high stilettos. I didn’t realize I would find a Western fashion scene in Malawi.

While it’s true that many elder Malawians proudly wear chitenje (traditional fabric), a lot of younger Malawians sport Western clothes, either from secondhand markets or purchased at inflated prices from a few select import shops.

Upon arriving, I quickly noticed that there is very little modern, uniquely Malawian fashion design available. The gaping market for Malawian fashion is waiting to be filled by desperate design hopefuls, but with no fashion schools here, there is little quality fashion being produced by homegrown designers. And those who are able to get their labels off the ground struggle to break into the market.

Clothing lines designed by local artists provide more than just a trendy alternative to market clothing, they offer a unique style coupled with a sense of pride in Malawi’s originality. It’s this originality that Sheena Chilimampunga, 25-year-old designer of Nzika Arts fashion line in Blantyre, has been channeling. “There’s a lot of creativity in Malawi but we’re not fully exposed to the international fashion industry,” she says, adding, “there are no fashion schools in Malawi.”

Chilimampunga insists that if young designers were exposed to the fashion world beyond Malawi’s borders, they could develop their design instincts to measure what’s trendy and marketable on an international level.

Sarah Rank, a social enterprise consultant from the UK who is launching her fashion line, Fabrikka, in Malawi agrees: “If you’re not exposed to what’s going on in the fashion world outside of Malawi, you’ll just continue producing what you know and what’s around you.”

But even Chilimampunga, who has travelled internationally and learned from foreign designers, has struggled. “I haven’t had any proper training in fashion and design,” she admits. “I rely on reading books and watching TV rather than having those learned skills.”

And without the networking opportunities offered through fashion school, many aspiring designers are “definitely going overseas to other countries that have fashion schools,” according to Wandumi Mwakisuou, chief designer of Khalidwe Wear in Blantyre. It’s a designer brain drain of sorts.

But in a country where most people live on less than $2 per day, the chance to leave Malawi for an education is rare, and getting a fashion business off the ground without the credibility of a degree isn’t easy.

“Start-up capital was quite a challenge,” Chilimampunga explains. “The banks didn’t trust us because we were young and didn’t have any experience.”

There’s also little opportunity to market designs. “We need a place where designers can have their own stalls and showcase their work, where we would have more exposure,” Chilimampunga insists. She’d like to see something like the Vakwetu Art and Fashion Market in Namibia, a gallery where designers showcase their work to local customers and tourists alike.

Yet the question remains, with the secondhand market a predominant source of clothing, is there a market for high quality Malawian fashion?

Rank insists there is. “The middle class don’t want to go to the market,” she explains, “it’s a status thing—they want nice shops to go to.”

In the meantime, I think I’ll stick to my sensible flats, but if I change my mind I’ll just have to splurge for an overpriced pair of imported heels to tide me over.

The Power of Proverbs in Ghana

In Ghana, proverbs are an education of sorts for young children like Enoch, left, and Erica

I got my wake-up call this morning right on schedule, at a quarter to six.

One of the twin girls living next door was wailing like a banshee as her mother bathed her with a bucket of cold water. As the crying girl, Akwele was being lathered up outside my window, her sister Akoko began bawling as well. Their mother tried to console them with some words in the local Ga language. When that failed, she raised a hand in the twin’s direction, but that only amplified the crying.

I went to the window as the twin’s father sauntered over to the bath basin.

He also said something in Ga and the tears stopped flowing. Still peeking out my window shutters, I saw an older boy in a school uniform join the scene as the dad spoke. Little did I know, class was already in session for the youngsters in my yard. I couldn’t understand what their father was saying, but a few English words greatly resonated with me:

“No condition is permanent.”

I may never know why the proud papa said what he said because his words of wisdom came wrapped in Ga packaging. However, I was familiar with the lesson behind them.

My Ghanaian friend, who was short on cash a few days before, also said them to me. “No condition is permanent,” he told me. “Business is slow right now, but things will change. They have to.” Even though I could only imagine the reality of the hardships that inspired his words, I understood their meaning having been raised by poetically proverbial parents.

That’s the thing about growing up Ghanaian. Proverbs play a pivotal role in our culture.

When I had to choose between two alternatives, my mom would listen to my situation and advise me that “the devil I knew was far better than the devil I didn’t.”

When I placed a dilemma at my dad’s feet, he would simply say: “Well, whatever you do, don’t test the depth of water with both your feet.” Upon careful reflection, which of course was his intention, I understood what I needed to do.

Africa is a continent known for its rich oral tradition. This is certainly the case in Ghana where one must talk little and listen much. Proverbs are life lessons. They’re morality and wisdom passed down in the form of poetic syntax. This is increasingly important in Ghana where the adult literacy rate is 65 per cent and 93 girls enter primary school for every 100 boys. Still too young to attend school, Akwele and Akoko were getting their education before sunrise.

I caught a cab to work. I was running late and Accra minibuses operate on rather loose schedules. I saw a vendor selling mobile phone credit along the way so I held out five cedi ($3.60 CAD) as the vendor jogged towards me at a red light. He gave me my phone card and my change just as the light changed. The cab took off- with the money I was supposed to hand over, still in my hand.

I looked back at the vendor who was yelling something at me as I sped off in the cab.

I felt awful. I asked the cabbie to drop me off and walked back to the point of sale. The vendor remembered me right away and smiled.

“Hey! You returned,” he said.

“Of course,” I replied, taking five cedis from my purse.

“I told you to drop it,” said the vendor, as he took his money.

“The car can’t stop on the roadway.”

“Oh,” I said, embarrassed. “I’m sorry.”

“You took the car back here?” asked the vendor.

“No, I walked.”

“Really?” he asked, smiling. “Thank you.”

“No, it was my mistake. Don’t mention it,” I yelled at the smiling vendor as I crossed the road to catch a minibus.

Someone once told me that you reap what you sow.

Love and Marriage in Modern Malawi

There’s a running joke in my newsroom that our resident arts reporter denies being married.

Like a lot of 28-year-olds, Sam Banda Jr. wasn’t ready to get married when his girlfriend moved in a year and a half ago. But she had lost both her parents, and it was only natural for him to take her in.

“The love was there but it was more to do with desperation,” he says.

Today, my colleagues at The Daily Times in Malawi say as far as they’re concerned, the two are married. No certificate, no ceremony, rather, a culturally recognized fact. Blantyre lawyer and chair of the Malawi Law Society, John Gift Makhwawa, says marriage by reputation is in place to “protect the middle class who are no longer tied to those traditional beliefs. “Society’s changing,” he adds. “Marriage now is more or less diluted.”

Malawi’s clash of old and new is everywhere: paved streets are found not far from fields of maize, long hemlines become miniskirts in night-time dens of iniquity. Cities are cast between traditional expectations and modern development. Relationships are very much caught in this pull, as Malawians’ views of marriage continue to evolve alongside the country’s national identity.

The urban population is the underwhelming minority here, with only 15 per cent of Malawians living in cities. And while courts must still factor in the intent of both parties should a dispute be brought before them, evolving views on relationships, divorce and cohabitation are still swayed by popular opinion, according to Makhwawa.

Views on divorce are evolving too. Malawi’s rates are high—in fact, it has one of the highest rates in Africa, according to the Population Studies Center. It estimates the rate at 40 to 65 per cent, a number comparable to developed world rates: 2003 Stats Canada numbers show that 40 per cent of couples in Canada will divorce before their 30th wedding anniversary.

And yet most Malawians still have close ties to traditional marriage customs. Banda says he withheld from telling his relatives about his live-in partner because he knew they did not approve of co-habitation before marriage. His surviving family, Christians from the Northern region, are used to wives being lined up for their sons, in line with the region’s patrilineal tradition.

Once he did tell them, pressure from Banda’s side of the family saw his girlfriend return to her relatives. A short while later, they brought her back.

“They thought I was chasing her away,” he says. “I was torn between two worlds…do I have to convince my relatives or hers?”

Makhwawa says “the illiterate in the village” would never be in these situations in the first place—parents or relatives would immediately be consulted when it comes to getting serious about a girl.

Both statutory (licensed) and customary (traditional) marriages are recognized under Malawi’s Marriage Act. Marriage by repute fits somewhere in between.

“You don’t have to examine a register of marriages to establish whether people are married, you allow basic assumptions from their conduct,” says Makhwawa.

Though Banda doesn’t consider himself a married man, it’s essentially been decided for him. Last month, Banda and his girlfriend had a baby, and as soon as he can afford it, they will be married under statutory law.

“To some effect I’ve been forced into marriage earlier than I thought,” he says.

“But I hope we’ll do the actual marriage thing, because that’s the right thing to do.”

Guitarist Agorosso in front of The Warehouse, a music hall in Blantyre where he often performs.

Breaking Taboos Through Music

Guitarist Agorosso in front of The Warehouse, a music hall in Blantyre where he often performs.

When Malawian musician Agorosso had no money for a guitar, he made one and taught himself how to play.

“I just used a small metallic pot with nylon strings,” he says. “I didn’t know how to play, I just tuned it to my wish.”

This kind of resourcefulness reflects the importance of music in Malawian society. In a country where literacy is stunted by lack of resources and where 85 per cent of the population lives in rural poverty, music is vital; it’s a way to reflect the thoughts and feelings of people with no other means of expression.

But music here is much more than just catharsis. As an outlet to convey the daily struggles of people facing food shortages and an HIV/AIDS epidemic, Malawian music is innately political, something Agorosso acknowledges in his own work.

“The role of the musician is to speak for the people, for those who suffer, to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves. And to speak to them. Because when you compose a song, it can be heard and felt by everyone, more than just words,” he says.

Agorosso, whose real name is Lloyd Phaundi, draws on the traditional melodies of his Sena heritage, a group with roots in Mozambique where Portuguese cultural influence is strong. His lyrics draw on daily life in his community.

“I compose songs based on what I have seen in the village or what I see in our day-to-day life,” he says. “My music is a way of expressing what I feel, what I hear, or what I have been told.”

In Kulowa Kufa, the Chichewa term for the practice of widows who are forced to marry their late husband’s brother, Agorosso sings about the angst of widows and how the practice helps spread diseases such as HIV/AIDS. His open criticism of cultural customs is rare in Malawi, particularly in rural villages where tradition is valued above all else.

If he is allowed room for social critique, it is because musicians in Malawi are often granted license as a kind of alangizi or “advisor.” Much like the court jesters of medieval Europe, alangizi express through art what is otherwise taboo. In his music, Agorosso sings about what is not talked about in everyday conversation.

“In song, I can be free to speak about such things,” he says. “And when there is truth in that song, it can become political, depending on how you interpret it.”

But beyond the village, musical censorship remains an issue on national radio and in the press. Even 15 years after the end of the eccentric dictatorship of the late Kamuzu Banda—who banned the Simon and Garfunkel song “Cecilia” because it reminded him of his mistress of the same name—there remains a lingering unwillingness to probe sensitive issues publicly.

While musicians are freer to challenge the status quo than the press, which relies heavily on revenue from government advertising, there are still consequences for criticizing power. The music of national icon Lucius Banda, for example, is banned on Malawi Broadcasting Corporation, the state-owned broadcaster, because of his politically-charged lyrics. In 2001, musician Evison Matafale died in prison, likely the result of police violence, after writing a series of letters condemning government action.

While Agorosso doesn’t censor what he sings about, he does shy away from openly lambasting government. But there remains a latent critique in his songs when documenting social injustice.

“If the government is doing something to the people, then I would sing a song not to criticize but maybe to say that things shouldn’t be this way,” says Agorosso. “The intention is maybe not to clash with government, but to advise one another about what things should be like.”

The importance of music is often overlooked in Malawi. But in offering emotional release while documenting the struggles of rural Malawians, Agorosso’s music draws attention to social injustice even while public speech on such issues remains restricted. For the people here whose voices have been muted by the constraints of poverty and censorship, his small metallic pot with nylon strings brings not just music but social change.

Listen to more music from Agorosso here:

Mafafaanga

Malongero

Nalira Mwananga

Smoke and Culture Shock on the Side of the Road

These are some definitions of culture shock:

Culture shock refers to the anxiety and feelings (of surprise, disorientation, uncertainty, confusing, etc.) felt when people have to operate within a different and unknown culture such as one may encounter in a foreign country.

Culture Shock is an American travel show hosted by Shenax Treasurywala on the Travel Channel.

Culture Shock was an anarcho-punk/ska punk band formed in Warminster, Wiltshire, England, in 1986 by Dick Lucas, previously of the Subhumans.

They tell you about it in training.

You will move to a foreign land. You will have a “honeymoon,” during which everything will seem shiny and exciting. You will be riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave through exotic, unknown lands, marvelling at the sights, the smells, the sounds, of your brave new world.

Then your surfboard will disintegrate, you’ll get dragged under a nasty wave and smashed to a million pieces against rocks coated in sharp, poisonous barnacles deep under the stinking, disease-infested sea, never to be seen or heard from again.

That may be an exaggeration. But at some stage, you’ll probably feel disoriented, anxious, depressed and frustrated, and maybe have anarcho/ska-punk song stuck in your head while you’re trying to sleep.

They tell you people deal with it in different ways. Some get mad, some get sad, some drink too much, some sleep too much, some stop talking. They tell you to stay positive. Remember, this too shall pass.

I arrived in Ghana on July 3 after a frantic month of quitting jobs, saying goodbyes, giving away most my belongings, sitting through a hectic eight days of training in Toronto whilst living in a stink-infested hostel on Spadina Avenue and spending two or three sleepless days traversing half the globe.

I should have been tired, but I wasn’t. I was drunk on Africa-love.

If you were to steal my journal and read entries from the first couple weeks of July, you would find embarrassingly corny passages like this:

“La Beach. Mist kind of floats over the wet sand jam-packed with shiny bodies doing acrobatics, riding horses dressed in Ghanaian flags, swimming, dancing. In the distance, the lines of fishermen pulling in their nets….Colours, smells, sounds, all foreign, all different, and so, so wonderful.”

“Everyone touches all the time. You sit cuddled up with strangers on the trotro and they sweat all over you and people hold your hand and it’s wonderful.”

“A playground for the senses, a T.V. blasting the World Cup game, three versions of “Waving Flag” playing at once, sewers and goats and garbage and tilapia grilling and fresh Star beer. It’s (you guessed it) wonderful.”

When I re-read this stuff a month later, I throw up, make a note to get a thesaurus and look up ‘wonderful,’ and then laugh. And laugh.

My first weeks in Accra were spent in a veritable orgasm of wonderment, revelling in all that was bright and new. A burble of languages, mysterious words in Twi and Ga singing out over the fruit stands and African clothing bursting with colour, the generosity and warmth of Ghanaians, who will invite you to eat and cook and drink with them, telling you as you walk down a strange street, “You are welcome.”

The landscape was breathtaking, the green hills dotted with palms and mango trees, the long white beaches with the surf crashing endlessly against them.

The inconveniences were charming — the 50-km tro-tro ride that takes four hours on a seat that collapses at every turn, falling into an open sewer, going five days with no running water, hours upon hours spent waiting for things that may or may not ever happen, getting violently ill seemingly every second time you eat, having throngs of children run over to touch your skin and hair. It’s all just so, so wonderful!

It is ridiculous to think, during this heady time of glee, that you might ever find anything bad about this place.

But if you flip a couple dozen pages through the stolen journal, the first line of every entry for days is this:

“I am tired.”

Suddenly, you find yourself irascibly irritated when you want to be somewhere and must sit for half an hour waiting for the tro-tro to fill up with people. You really wish you could just have a bloody shower instead of trying to bathe in a couple litres of water from a cracked bucket. You must practice meditation so as not to throttle someone who says they’re coming in a minute, and leaves you waiting for three hours. You can hardly choke out another “Hi!” when a group of men guzzling beer by the roadside start yelling “Obruni! Obruni!” at you and following you down the street.

It gets to you.

Over the course of about a week, I found myself getting more and more grouchy.

Then came a Wednesday when I spent hours in the office waiting for someone who was on the way, to be there in minutes. When the colleague showed up, he said he would be going for lunch. I smiled.

Then I went for a walk, to cool off in the 35-degree heat.

Despite efforts to refrain from smoking (which, unlike many African countries, is frowned upon in Ghana), I bought a package of Pall Malls and set about stomping down the road, chain-smoking, looking for some positive thoughts.

“Hey obruni!” came the usual call.

The man was striding toward me. I looked at him, unable to muster any sort of reaction.

“What is that in your hand? Don’t you know that smoking is illegal in Ghana? You should go to jail! A woman, smoking! You are an abomination.”

“It’s illegal?” I think I said.

“Go to jail!” he yelled, flapping his arms for emphasis.

It hit me like a wild tide of heartbreak, coming from my chest, funnelling into my throat, and straight out my eyeballs.

I started bawling.

The man looked frightened.

“I. Am. Having. A. Bad. Day. And. I. Just. Want. To. Smoke. One. Cigarette,” I think I said.

“I was joking, I was joking,” he said, patting my back nervously while I tried, unsuccessfully, to close the floodgates on my face. He ushered me to a concrete block and sat down beside me.

“Sit here, rest,” he said. “Are you hurt? I was joking, I was only joking, you will not go to jail. You can smoke anywhere in Ghana. This is a free country. Smoke all you want. Here, want more cigarettes? Smoke!”

Laughing at the ridiculousness of it all, while snot and tears continued to sketch in the layer of red dust coating my face, I kept telling him I was just having a bad day, and he kept apologizing for making me cry. Passersby looked on quizzically.

Eventually, I regained control of my eyeballs and he got most the snot off my face. As I stood to take my leave, he asked if we would ever see one another again. I shrugged.

“But I want to marry you,” he said.

“You’re crazy,” I told him. He raised his eyebrows at me.

“I’m crazy?”

We both began to laugh again, and I walked away.

The tide of unpleasantness came in and then, after some extra sleep, a few lengthy emails to old friends, and some snot left on the side of the road, it went out, leaving in its wake something in the middle of the two extremes experienced in the first weeks here.

I ran into my roadside friend again yesterday.

“Hey, crazy obruni, I see you’re still a chimney!” he called out, striding over to usher me to a concrete fence to sit.

We sat again for a short time on the side of the road and we laughed as I explained the reasons I was not a suitable candidate for marriage, but assured him there were others who would come along.

“You can just hassle obrunis about smoking. It’s a good way to meet them,” I told him.

He chortled.

“No, no, no. You people are crazy.”