Monday, September 17, 2007

(Troh-na-fway) in the Ewe language spoken by my father's ancestors in Ghana, Togo and Benin, means "to return and find again."

(photo: The chief Imam of the ancient mosque at Larabanga)

Here, folks, is part 3 of a story about a party I got to attend in a village in Ghana's Muslim north while exploring the country with one of my new-found African cousins this past November. If you follow this blog, you know that nine family members from this side of the Atlantic made the trip together just last month. Look for video and photos from that trip soon. Meanwhile, please enjoy this installment of the continuing story...

I Hold High My Beautiful, Luminous Q'uran

When the announced start time of 6:30 rolled around, David and I were the first guests to arrive… the only guests for a while. We watched as a couple of local women turned up, matronly, but like butterflies in their brightly colored, party best. As they got the punch bowl and some refreshments arranged on a side table, the DJ set up his turntables and his soundboard, fiddling endlessly with the mix on the microphones that would soon be used for speeches. He started messing around with the speaker mix for the music, and the four nervous ranger graduates got up to shake off their growing anxiety about having to speak and be the center of attention by dancing with one another – tentatively at first, but then with more energy. Soon, a few kids from the rangers’ quarters turned up and began to dance too, around the edges of the outdoor employees’ canteen where the festivities were being held. Before long, they were joined by a growing number of kids who came by bike, on foot and by motorbike from the nearby town of Larabanga, and other smaller villages a little farther up the road.

But still, things were a little disorganized, and it became clear to us that nothing was really going to happen for a while. Quite hungry now, David and I decided to take advantage of this lull in the action to wander back down to the hotel for some dinner.

When we sauntered back up, our bellies full after a pretty good meal, the party was finally in full swing. A couple of young European back packers had wandered up there, but, even after repeated entreaties over the p.a. system that were easily heard downhill at the hotel, David and I were the only other guests who came.

The four graduates received their diplomas, to much applause, and then the music, which had otherwise been blaring constantly, was cranked back up. But this time, it was serious. The obligatory speeches and ceremony were done, and now, it was time to dance.

David excused himself, reminding me not to stay too long because we had to get up well before the sun to catch a 4 a.m. bus into Tamale the next morning. I said I’d be along soon, but I’d been anxious to hear some more of this music, and now, here it was.

The dancing, which had until this moment been confined, except for the graduates, to the outside perimeter of the open-air canteen area, now slowly took over the entire space.
Anyone who’s ever been to Africa will tell you, there’s no such thing as a wallflower at a party. Even non-dancers with their amateur anthropologist hats on like me will eventually have to get up and dance. In my case, it was young Latif who called me out. He’d seen me smiling at him and some of the other youth as they warmed up to take the floor, and they’d been curious about where I was from. After I gave them a good laugh with my spirited but Cosby-esque gyrations on the floor, we talked – shouted at each other – over the booming, compelling sounds of the pop music of their native land.

It was a big deal to them that I was from the U.S. Huge. When they asked me about my work and I told them I’m a writer, mostly a screenwriter and playwright, they got really pumped. Now, the excited, rapid-fire inquiries were all about who I know. “Damn,” they were thinking, “Brotherman must know all kinds of incredible people we’ve heard of.” I hemmed and hawed… and it hurt me to watch creeping disappointment suddenly dull the bright, expectant sparkle that had lit up all their faces just moments before. I was losing major cool points by the millisecond. I rattled off a few people they might know, before the well ran pretty dry, and I had to dig deep for stories from friends and associates who have at least been in the same room with some of the people they’ve heard of. This did the trick. Very quickly, joy returned because, just like that, the huge space between them and the epicenter of all things cool had shrunk considerably, and they were basking in the glow of how it suddenly felt to be a mere two degrees of separation from Tupac, Snoop, Jay-Z, J-Lo and Oprah.

As my official host, my new friend Latif had just scored major cool points too, and I could see it in his eyes as he drank in their admiration – especially the awed expressions of the girls on the periphery of the action here. An already pretty good party was suddenly much more full of intriguing possibilities for him. He spoke mostly in rapid fire Gonja, but the sense of it was easy enough to understand. “See, I told you he was cool,” he was saying.

And as I scanned their beautiful, sparkling faces, it hit me like a ton of bricks – about a third or more of the people gathered there were female, but so far… between the graduates; the emcee, the DJ; the dancers – it had been an all-male show. The grown women had been in the background applauding the speeches, serving food; watching the kids. But in the dark fringes of this outdoor cafĂ© turned party room, they had literally become invisible now. And the girls – all in hijab; all in colorful party clothes – they’d hung together in a pack, in their own space out on the edge of things, their eyes on the boys they knew, watching their moves; tittering back and forth with each other about them like birds on a wire.

Suddenly, my eye caught something else that turned my attention entirely away from them. Into the party walked a lanky youth whose t-shirt sported a very familiar face.

Back in Accra, I’d seen several sidewalk stalls that press images onto plain white “Ts” for you. It seemed to be the same basic choices everywhere. You could get white Jesus, brown Jesus, Nelson Mandela, Bob Marley or, interestingly, Osama Bin Laden. I’d been thinking, if I had a spur of the moment opportunity, that I’d buy that brown Jesus. No lame, schlocky t-shirt Jesus, he, with his deep, beautiful eyes. And he wasn’t merely the white Jesus, but tinted brown, either. He had his own face; his own impressively deep persona. So… brown Jesus, Nelson Mandela and Bob Marley, I was thinking. One of them for me, and the others for gifts. I’d had yet to actually see anybody sporting one of these shirts, so ubiquitous at the street stalls. But now here came Osama, big as life, rippling like a limp flag on the chest of this gangly, dust-covered kid from the village.

Before he could advance even a few steps from the entryway, Latif shot like a bolt to his side and pushed him up against the fence. I was alarmed. I stood up to see what was going on back there where almost no light managed to seep over from the dance floor and the area around the refreshment table. But it didn’t feel like a fight. Nobody back there seemed to feel it was necessary to separate them. All I knew for sure was that Latif was speaking to him very urgently about something, then gesturing back towards me. And then I watched Osama remove his shirt, turn it inside out, and put it back on. Latif seemed satisfied and returned to the area near where I’d been sitting. Now I understood. Latif was looking out for me. He hadn’t wanted me to feel offended by the sight of a local kid sporting a Bin Laden t-shirt.

I caught Osama’s eye and called him over. Now, in the light, I could see something that I’d only caught a tiny glimmer of when I’d first spotted him in the near darkness of the entryway. It was the way he moved. It wasn’t just the awkward gangliness of an adolescent who hasn’t quite grown into his suddenly larger frame yet. He seemed to me now an oddity of nature – someone whose every joint is not merely double, but entirely elastic – a rubber man. As he approached, I smiled broadly at him. “Hey, kid, your t-shirt’s on inside out. That the new style or something?” He grinned sheepishly and looked down at his feet. “I saw you have Osama on your shirt.” He looked confused. “Osama… Bin Laden. I saw you have his picture on your shirt.” Latif spit some terse words at him in Gonja. “Oh,” said Osama. “The shirt. You saw.”

“Yeah. I saw. You a big Bin Laden fan?”

Osama shrugged. “He fight for Islam.”

“Hmmm. Well, there’s all kinds of ways to stand up for your faith without killing folks, don’t you think?”

He nodded slowly, his eyes never rising to meet mine.

“You like to dance, huh?”

Suddenly, for the first time, he gave me his eyes, and they sparkled. “That’s why I’m here.”

“Well, don’t you know, if Bin Laden ran this town, y’all wouldn’t be holding this party tonight? Would’ve been some speeches, and a lot more praying. But no music… and no dancing.”

He looked a little sheepish and shrugged. I got it. I wasn’t going to break this kid’s balls over his damned t-shirt. It occurred to me that for kids in this part of the world, wearing a portrait of Bin Laden on your chest might mean you want the world to know he’s your personal hero, but I’d bet my last dollar that for most, it’s probably much more about wearing a big “F.U.” on your chest… a way, like anywhere else on earth, for a kid to wave the flag of rebel youth in the face of every adult who crosses his path, the point being to offend or piss off as many people as possible. Osama was no heavily-politicized young jihadi. He was just a kid who likes to dance, looking for a little action on a Friday night in a place where there’s generally little action to be found.

“Let’s see your moves then,” I said. “Let’s see what you’re all about.”

He cracked a wry grin. “Let’s see yours first.”

“I already did mine,” I said. “You missed it.”

Latif backed me up. “He was funny.”

The DJ was into a furious mix now; wonderful stuff; and the crowd was eating it up, girls in their corner and the guys in theirs - parallel universes – a guys’ party and a girls’ party, sharing the same space, but, at least on the surface, only tentatively connected to and aware of each other. Yet all were dancing, on fire, to the same relentless, throbbing beat.

1 comment:

jon jon said...

this image captured the essence of the village. what a life-changing expirence.