Monday, November 26, 2007

(Troh na- fway) a phrase in Ewe, the language of my father's ancestors from Togo and southeastern Ghana, meaning, roughly, "to return and find again."

photo: a "calendar wall" in Larabanga, Ghana

Part 4: I Hold High My Beautiful, Luminous Q'uran

This is the fourth and final installment of a series about a graduation party of some new park Rangers I attended while at Mole Park in Ghana's Muslim north last year.

If you're new to the site, I encourage you to scroll all the way back to the beginning and read about the adventure of finding, through DNA-based genealogical research, the African family from whom my father's side was separated by the slave trade. Next posting, I'll share some photos, and hopefully, video of last year's Hogbetsotso festival (Ho-bay-jo-jo), which, every November, commemorates the 16th century exodus of the Anlo-Ewe people from bondage in the town of Notsie. See you back here again soon.

I threw on a few clothes and headed back up the hill. The first thing I saw was all the hands waving in the air, in unison. The dancing had more heat; more sensuality. And then, as the DJ skillfully mixed the next song into the foreground, I noticed the big difference between what he had played earlier in the evening and now. This was an all-instrumental set. I got it. If you’re a DJ up in this country, this is how you get around social stricture when you run out of the music with the pious lyrics. You create a hot mix that has no lyrics at all.

I took a seat on the far perimeter of the action. Only the colored party lights were on now, and as far as I could see, no one had noticed my return. This suited me fine since all I wanted was just to perch here for a little while and satisfy my curiosity.

The boys and the girls were still very much apart, but the dynamic between them had, indeed, changed. It was subtle, but there it was. What had seemed before like almost completely separate parties had become one. The boys and the girls were still dancing in separate packs, but they seemed to be dancing for each other now – showing off for each other; flirting across the space that divided them. I couldn’t help but be struck by the sweetness and the innocence of it all.

There’s a strong tendency in the West, especially with regards to the cultural traditions of the Islamic world, to look with a jaundiced eye at such anciently cherished social conven-tions – an easy readiness to judge them pathologically backward and old-fashioned. But as I watched the big fun these kids were having, I had to wonder, “Is it a bad thing to pre-serve a little mystery and innocence about male/female relationships and sexuality for young people making their first tentative steps toward adulthood?” If a culture’s dance traditions reflect in some larger way on the dynamics of relationships between men and women, is it a bad thing to dance in a manner which affirms the fact that men and women live most of their lives in intimately connected, but parallel universes? At the end of the day, is this really so very different from how things are between the genders in the West?

The dancers and the DJ took a break and headed for either the bathrooms or the punch bowl. Latif spotted me and excitedly made his way over to where I sat.

“Ah, Daddy, you camed back. You camed back to us!”

“Yeah; I couldn’t sleep. And you know I love the music.

“Yeah, it’s good, yes?”

“Very good.”

I nodded toward the girls. “Who have you got your eye on over there?” He looked at me blankly.

“I mean, of the girls over there, is there one who’s special?” His eyes lit up.

“Ah, yes… my love, my wife, Aisha.”

“Your wife? Get outta here, man, you ain’t married yet. Does she know? Does she know
that’s how you think of her?”


“And does she approve?”


I was dying of curiosity, of course, so I asked him to point her out. She was a real beauty, with a magnificent smile and bright eyes that could light up any room. I grinned at Latif and slapped hands with him.

“My man. She’s the most beautiful girl here, no doubt.”

“Smartest too.”

She spotted us, obviously talking about her, and headed our way with another girl in tow.

“How long have you known you were made for each other?”

“All our life. Since we are five years old. Our families approve.”

As Aisha and her cousin Maryamu approached, he introduced us. We sat down on a bench, the girls on my left, and Latif on my right. I was surprised at how close Aisha sat by my side. It was like being treated as a favorite uncle might be, even though we had just met. I guessed that Latif’s obvious affection for me and the fact that he’d taken to calling me Daddy was good enough credentials of my trustworthiness for her.

“Latif is real proud of how smart you are,” I told her. “So, you’re a really good student
I’ll bet. What’s your best subject in school?”


Maryamu shook her head. “Maths.”

“Science and math, yes, I like them both.”

“And what do you plan to do with your education?”

“I’ll be a doctor, insh’allah. The kind that works with children”

“I’m going to study for electrician,” said Latif. “We’ll get married, and then I’ll
support us while she goes to school.”

“No children ‘til I’m done with school.”

“Just one,” said Latif. She shot him a look.

“After school.”

She nodded, satisfied. “Then, I will support us while he takes his second degree.”

“I go for electrical engineer. Then, we have one more child, but just one. With
only two, we can give them the best of everything and see well to their education.”

It was like talking to two grown folks. I’ve never met a sixteen year old couple with such a clearly thought out game plan for their lives. Nor such complete faith in it.

Before long, the music started up again and it was hard to hear ourselves talk over it. I bid the kids farewell, and watched as they took the floor once more.

I made up my mind to linger only another minute or two. I had to try and get some sleep. As I surveyed the dance floor one last time, I suddenly had a stunning revelation – something my outsider’s eyes had missed when I first returned to the party. Yet, it was so clear to me now. These boys and girls weren’t dancing for each other, they were dancing with each other. Just as water will find its way down a hill, young love will find a way around whatever social conventions may restrict its path. With respect for tradition, but with great creativity and force of will, I saw that these kids have figured out how to use intense eye contact and body language to shrink that twenty feet of space between them down to what must feel more like two inches. Or less.

It was crystal clear when I watched Latif and Aisha. I thought I’d test the premise with Maryamu. She hadn’t mentioned a boyfriend, but did she have one here? I did my best to
trace the eye contact she was making straight into the crowd of male dancers… and sure enough, there he was. Young Muhammad, a friend of Latif and Osama’s whom I had met
earlier in the evening, was making strong eye contact back at her, his movements synchronized with hers in every way.

I searched the crowd now for Osama. Did he have a mate here somewhere? This would be interesting. I didn’t see him. Maybe he’d already left. But just as I turned to leave, there he was, alone, still dancing like a madman; like someone who’d caught the Holy Ghost. His body jerked rhythmically to and fro, his eyes rolled back up into his head as if he were dancing at a party in yet another parallel universe… located someplace where the rest of us couldn’t follow.

I finally turned to go in earnest. As I made my way back down the hill, I noticed that a gorgeous crescent moon sat low on the horizon over Larabanga, painted pink from the red dust raised by the early-arriving Harmattan wind. And in the darkest part of the road, my eyes drank their fill of starlight too. The music was still playing up on the hill, but as I walked on, I was suddenly startled to realize how razor-sharp all my senses felt, especially my sense of hearing. I knew that, as busy as the savannah is during the day, when all of us diurnal critters are out and about, it’s actually much busier at night. I couldn’t see any of this activity that takes place in the deep and dark, but I could hear and feel it all around me… I smiled to myself, relishing the thought that I must surely somehow have caught a little bit of Osama’s Holy Ghost, because all of this sounded like music to me now – the rhythmic throbbing of the insects; the shriek of a small animal only yards away who’d just become someone else’s late night meal; the frantic, urgent beating of bats’ wings; the breeze, like someone’s soft breathing, in the long grass.

And even though I was only walking, it felt like dancing, because I was dancing in my head. And I stopped worrying about launching into a long, hard day’s travel on only two hours sleep. I felt good. The day would be fine. I walked down the hill to my room, fully surrendering into the embrace of this good, velvet-black African night.

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