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.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Tror Na Foe (troh-nah-fway)
A phrase in Ewe, the ancestral language of my father's ancestors in the southeastern corner of Ghana, meaning roughly "to return and find again."
(photo: children in the park rangers' quarters at Larabanga, Nov. 2007)
I Hold High My Beautiful, Luminous Q'uran, Part III
Here's the third part of my four part story about a graduation party to which I was invited in Ghana's Muslim north. See you next time with the fourth and final installment. Enjoy. And if you are new to the site, I invite you to scroll all the way back to the beginning, so that you can read all about the adventure our family on this side of the Atlantic has been enjoying since finding and making contact last year with the original African family from whom we had been separated by slavery for some two hundred fifty years!
Watching [the kids dance] made me think of other kids in other places on earth on this Friday night, eagerly looking, even within the mannered confines of a well-chaperoned dance, for the hot, electric thrill only a little proximity with the opposite sex can give.

From time immemorial, when men and women have partnered up to dance, dance has been a metaphor – a meditation in motion – encompassing every aspect of our relationship with one another: communication, both spoken and unspoken; nurture; longing and desire; sex. The European tradition is full of slow, courtly dances which leave a lot to the imagination. Subtlety is the point. Boys and girls taught to dance in this tradition learn, literally, to turn slow, cautious circles around each other as they take their first baby steps toward deciphering the deeper mysteries of intimacy between men and women. Generations of youth have taken some of their most important and memorable steps toward adulthood as they promenaded awkwardly onto the floor with a partner at a middle school dance, watchful adults in the wings making sure that all major body parts remained a respectable distance apart.

But Africa, the original Land of A Thousand Dances, is the home of the beat that created rhythm and blues, rock and roll, and jazz, and funk. The dances people do to this music are more primal and leave a lot less to the imagination. Some are an exuberant and unapologetic celebration of sex and desire. Just as changing beliefs and understandings about sex in western culture gradually freed love-making from the insanely limiting confines of “the missionary position,” dances eagerly adopted in the West from the Afro-Caribbean-Latin tradition have profoundly energized and underscored a liberated consciousness that there are, indeed, many, many wonderful ways to make whoopee.

Yet even with their evolution into styles which are, at base, a celebration of all things carnal, the dances which have sprung from this tradition have still left at least something to the imagina-tion. But lately, as any adult who’s recently chaperoned a dance will tell you, one popular style, even with the middle school set, is nothing more and nothing less than just raw, simulated sex. No matter where parents find themselves between the extreme right and the extreme left of the culture wars continuum, there is, generally, a feeling that this trend away from at least a thin veneer of subtlety has drifted too far.

So, I was intensely curious about how this concern over what is widely perceived as a coarsening of world youth culture might play out in a rural village where fundamentalist Islam holds sway. How much would these kids care to mimic the styles they see in American and European hip-hop videos? How far would their adult chaperones let them go in a culture which forbids both close dancing and dating as we know it?

It dawned on me, as I strained to hear and understand the lyrics of the music being played that a big part of what made this dancing halal (like saying “kosher”, or theologically acceptable) was the lyrical content of these songs. I speak very little Hausa, and no Gonja, the languages of many of these lyrics, but as I listened, the chorus of my favorite song of the evening so far seemed to be saying, “Whatever I do in this life, I know I’m alright as long as stick to my glorious Q’uran.” I checked this out with one of the new ranger graduates when he passed my way to grab himself another cup of punch.

“Yes, yes, exactly so,” he said. “It says, ‘I know I can never stray too far in life as long as I hold high my beautiful, luminous Q’uran.’” As I surveyed the enthusiastic dancers, many of them were singing, some shouting this chorus. So, that was it. As long as the sentiments being expressed by the music were not only innocent, but positively righteous, and the boys and girls were not dancing together, the dancing could be whatever the kids wanted and needed for it to be. And the style they were into was furious and intense.

As the kids with whom I was sitting and I watched, the competition on the floor between the boys was heating up. The dynamic that revealed itself was that one boy or man would make a move toward the center of the pack and then, all eyes on him, he’d bust his best moves, holding the floor for half a minute before fading on back into the pack.

Some of the boys who’d been holding it down on the floor in this manner began to look at Osama expectantly. He and Latif gave each other a look, and then rose in unison, heading straight for the center of the action.

They were both really, really good… fluid; athletic; artful. But Osama’s odd body type gave him whole other set of tools, and he used them well. What he was doing out there is hard to describe, simply because I’ve never seen a human being move like that. It was urgent; crazy… like what "krunk" strives to be, but isn’t quite. His moves were like a rapid-fire ritual in which his purpose was to remove his own skin, not out of some tragic and bizarre self-loathing, but out of sheer joy – as if he wanted to say, “Hey, y’all ain’t gonna believe what I got inside of here! Now, watch; I’m’a show you. Stand back!” Like that.

As he danced on into the next song, neither he nor Latif faded back into the group to let someone else step up into the center. It didn’t feel like a selfish choice on their part.
It was as if the collective mindset of the entire male group was, “Hey, the competition’s over, and we all know who won; let’s just dance.” And dance on, they did, letting these two bring the energy of the whole group up to a fever pitch while the chorus of the current tune raved on, “Allahu akbar! Allahu akbar!” (God is great), their arms flailing; fists pumping skyward to accentuate the words.

I glanced at the time on my cell phone and frowned. The evening was young yet, but I had to pack and try to get some sleep before rising at 3:00 a.m. to catch that 4 o’clock bus to Tamale. I waded onto the dance floor, gamely shaking my rump, shouting to my new friends that I had to leave.

Night falls early and hard in this part of the world. I stumbled and twisted each ankle more than once as I made my way back down the pitch dark gravel road to my room. I washed; I packed, and then I fell heavily onto my bed. It had been a very good day, and the party had provided a perfect ending. Now, there was a knock on my door. It was my cousin David, saying he’d come wake me at 3:15 if he didn’t see my light on. We wished each other a good night, and I settled in to catch some sleep.

Some other time, in some other place, the insistent thump, thump, thump from up on the hill would probably have felt like a real irritant right about then. In fact, I’m sure I would have been lying there feeling more and more pissed off by the minute. But not tonight. Despite the fact that I desperately needed to catch some sleep, the music just made me smile. I pictured the kids I’d met still at it up there; the DJ expertly plying his trade under that glorious velvet black African sky full of stars.

But instead of lulling me to sleep, those thoughts kept me awake… kept urging me up out of bed and back outside. That jet-black African sky, for instance. “When, ever again,” I was thinking, “Am I going to have a chance to gaze at stars in a sky like this?” I’d noticed on the way back down to the hotel that there was an area by the side of the road almost completely free of the little bit of light pollution thrown up by the hotel and the rangers’ living quarters. In fact, gazing up at the glory of it as I walked back down was at least half the reason for my twisted ankles. That thought alone got me half way out of bed. But the clincher came only moments later, when, faintly, behind the sound of the music from up on the hill, I could hear the muezzin’s call for evening prayers from the mosques of Larabanga. Soon, the music came to a dead halt; there were a few announce-ments over the p.a. system… then silence, except for the final chorus of the call to prayer.

O.K., that’s it, I thought. Party over. And now, the call to prayer will be my lullaby, and I’ll get some sleep. Perfect. But within what seemed a span of just a few minutes, I heard the party music start back up again. And this time, it was different. Faster; harder. An Afrobeat/
Techno/Rave thing going on. “Now, this is interesting,” I thought. If most of the adults and some of the youth had all gone down to the mosque to pray, leaving only the die-hard dancers and the DJ up there, what were they into now? Had some of the dynamics on the dance floor changed now that things might be a little looser? Would boys and girls dare to dance together with their chaperones gone? I had to know. If it meant getting through the next hard day’s journey on even less sleep now, or perhaps no sleep at all, I was curious enough to risk it.
I'll have the conclusion of this story for you next time. See you then.