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Ghana: Fire and Water
People ask, "How was your trip to Africa?" This is a complicated question, closely related to "How are you?" I did not know until I had been in Ghana for over a week that I had not come to Africa, but Ghana, and only would see a tiny portion of that country, so could I really say I had been to the whole of Africa?
Now I have a confession to make. Traveling terrifies me. And I have done a lot of it including a nearly-year-long trip around the world on my own. Perverse as I am, I hunger for adventure, get frightened once I have decided to go, then don't want to come home once I am there. One coping strategy I have adopted is to have a "reason" for my traveling.
The reason for this trip was to participate in a two-week drumming and dancing workshop. The Nigerian master drummer, Babatunde Olatungi of New York City, organized our group from among his American students. The International Center of African Music and Dance planned our program using teachers from the Performing Arts College at the University of Ghana in Legon, a suburb of the capital city of Accra.
I am neither a drummer nor a dancer though I do some of both and love both and Baba himself is an inspiring human being, a "very developed soul" who came to the United States in 1951 on a college scholarship arranged by the Atlanta, Georgia Rotary Club. Several doctorates later, and about to launch himself into a diplomatic career, Baba chose another kind of diplomacy: Drumming. His Drums of Passion album, released in the early '60s, went gold. Baba teaches drumming because he passionately believes that drumming brings people together and that by teaching drumming he can help people appreciate each other and each other's cultures.
This was the first trip Baba put together but not the first program the International Center had hosted. They have hosted several groups and will help individuals as well who would like to study drumming and dancing.
Though I have been to Africa before, it was North Africa, Arabic Africa. I had no idea what to expect from Black Africa. It seemed so incredibly far away. Was it even Politically Correct for a white girl to learn traditional Ghanaian drum rhythms and dances? A long chat with a salsa partner from Ghana calmed me somewhat but still I felt cowed by my vast ignorance.
My fears began to dissipate at the airport in New York as our group gathered and I recognized one woman who had been in several of Baba's workshops with me. We would be best friends and roommates on this trip and thus have the comfort of sharing impressions and never feeling completely lost as long as the other was in sight. We flew Air Afrique and I do not think I have ever had a more comfortable or pleasant flight anywhere.
We landed early in the morning and breezed through customs to be greeted by a large group of men who hang out at the airport hoping to carry a bag and earn a tip or just to get a tip by asking often enough. They can get aggressive and one of our group nearly lost his passport and billfold. He had to retrieve them from the young man's hand. My travel-wise friends' advice to never, ever let down my guard came back to me.
Halfway through the trip, I would forget their advice and lose a disposable camera with only one exposure left on it. That is why there are no pictures here of goats. The goats are small, brown and white creatures with sweet voices and they wander absolutely freely through the towns and villages. They do not appear to wear any identifying tags or collars and I finally asked how anyone could keep track of what goat belonged to what person! "Oh," I was laughingly told, "the goats know where their home is and return every evening just the way you do when you come home from work!"
We stayed at Martin's Guest House (P. O. Box 6730, Accra-North, Ghana. Tel: 221792) in Tesano, a suburb of Accra and were met by Auntie Grace, the owner, who welcomed us as if we were her children. A guest house is more than a home and less than a hotel in cost as well as services. Though, as far as the latter goes, at Martin's you do not lack for services! Auntie Grace and her staff cooked all our meals for us and generally cared for us as if we were important visiting relatives.
Martin's (as do most large, private homes, guest houses, and hotels) sits within a walled enclosure and at night someone sits by the gate to make sure only those known to the household go in and out. Outside the walls was the red dirt road through the village.
People passed in an endless, graceful stream. Mostly barefoot with large loads on their heads. No matter their age or sex, all spoke English with soft, melodious tones and wore large, white, generous smiles when you greeted them. Though the village was an assortment of faded blue, one-room, wooden houses set on stilts a few feet off the ground without water or plumbing, the people emerged clean and crisp.
Many Ghanaians wear Western dress. And many more combine Western and traditional, for instance an African shirt over shorts or a waist wrap over a long Western skirt. It is odd that people seem to wear their Western dress with little sense of style. Yet, when you see women in their colorful traditional dress, you will just about want to rip their clothes off them to take home!
"Shops" were often a small, square table piled with a single item, perhaps eggs, oranges, or green coconuts, freshly peeled. Goats and chickens wandered freely in and out and the chickens seemed to particularly delight in the open gutters running on each side of the street. We would often see a hen, followed by several chicks, pecking her way along, knowing her business exactly.
Up a slight rise to the right of Martin's was a shop I called the 7-ll. It carried a wide assortment of goods and was open early and late. One night when the moon was a fat sliver in a blue-black sky (patterned with a scattering of puffy white clouds) we passed the shop. A color TV sat on the outside counter and a whole group of people were gathered in chairs to watch it.
After a week or so, I began to understand why so much of what I saw looked familiar. Africa looks -- and tastes -- like the Caribbean. The colors, the vegetation, the fruits and vegetables, the shacks, and markets are all familiar to me. Even the people (their colorful clothes, their carriage) all resembled Caribbean islands to me. Then, without conscious awareness, my perspective began to change. Quite suddenly, I looked around to discover that Africa does not look at all like the Caribbean. The Caribbean resembles Africa.
People call Africa the "source," but I had no concrete grasp of what that might mean to me. Because of my short stay in Ghana, I have come to understand myself as a person whose world perception began on the west side of the Atlantic. I was firmly rooted in my secure, Euro-centric perspective looking out from the United States. None of my trips before this had disturbed that perspective.
Now, on the opposite shore of the Atlantic, I heard the word "diaspora" in reference to the mass relocation of millions of Africans during slavery. The word shocked and surprised me. It reverberated throughout the trip coloring everything I saw and felt. It began to rattle and rearrange me.
For the first time I stood in a country where only the fact that I have some money made me "special." My skin color gave me no power. "I am Fanti. He is Ga. He is Ashanti and she is Dagomba." My unexamined view of our black population as homogenous shattered. Here in Ghana is where many of their ancestors lived.
Though we only spent two weeks in Ghana, we enjoyed a cultural crash course. What we missed in market-strolling and shopping time was more than made up for by our deep appreciation for West African culture (gained by experiencing traditional Ghanaian music and dance). Music plays a central role in the ordering of society and the social formation of each individual. Andrew, a boy of about eight, made friends with the son of one of our group. Andrew could play the drum far more naturally than any of us. He also had a composure about him that I wish American children shared! We met two little girls in the Tesano village whose ability to sing and dance made us envious. Not every Ghanaian is a singer or a musician, but everyone understands and responds to the language of drums.
And drums do have a language. The talking drum is a traditional Ghanaian drum and the sounds it makes mimic the ten sounds of the Ashanti language. Other drums, as well, use the same tones and, while it is not quite the same as gossiping with a neighbor, news travels from village to village by drum. Dancing, too, is language. The movements have meanings and the dances themselves usually have a function to play in community life, either social or ritual. And, too, drummers and dancers "converse." The dancer listens to the drum and changes his or her steps to match the drum. Or the drummer will become impassioned by a dancer and play what the dancer calls for.
You may not have ever touched a drum, yet its call is irresistible. I heard drums one night before dinner. My roommate and I followed their sound down the hill, through the empty market, up the street through houses, stumbled over the railroad tracks, crossed a foot bridge, then turned again into a broad dirt road, then stepped across a plank over the open gutter. We joined a group standing outside on the open side of an enclosure lit by a single light. They were watching a group of drummers and dancers practice.
Our white faces, even in the shadows, made us stand out, and we were ushered into the enclosure to the single seat -- a plank bench. We perched on it and watched five dancers do some of the most exciting and vigorous dancing I have ever seen. We sat, awestruck. The girls wore tights, short skirts and T-shirts and the men wore old khakis and T-shirts. The drumming went on without pause and the dancers danced without pause. One very tall, strong young woman danced the man's part of one dance as well as her own part. If you are in Tesano and hear the drums between about 6 and 7 PM, follow them. You will find Samuel's group practicing as they do every night if they are not out of town. You will return to dinner very full.
"I am Ewe," said Johnson Kemeh as he introduced himself to our group on our first day of class. Tall, slim and very handsome with high, angled cheekbones and a broad, generous smile, all Johnson's women students fall in love with him. We all did. His assistant teacher, Seth, shorter and more compact than Johnson, comes from the north and has a fierce look in his black eyes.
Water and fire: "Ah, here, like this," and Johnson would flow toward the lost student, bend down and play the drum part on our drum, or take the bell from our hand and demonstrate for the hundredth time. And suddenly, we were right again, and happy, and the rhythm alchemized into music from a string of fuzzy beats.
Seth led our group sitting on a piano bench in the front of the room. He led the rhythm, hitting the bell sharply, his right foot stamping the beat. He looked out the window -- until he heard a faltering. Then his head swiveled and his incendiary gaze fell on the student. He would shake his head vigorously and stamp his foot harder! Usually, this was enough to right the wrong and bring us back together again.
We played percussion instruments every morning, learning several traditional Ghanaian rhythms (Asaadua and Agbadza), each of which had a minimum of five parts -- bell, shekere, drum. Every afternoon, we danced the dances to the rhythms we studied in the morning. Oh, and it was hard!! Your rib cage goes one way, your hips don't move, your arms move to one beat, your feet to another, then you must move the head just so as well. Sometimes you dance to one drum rhythm, then to a second, and then you must hear the master drum change its pattern so you can change your steps. "It is graceful use of the neck that distinguishes a good dancer," we were told.
For the first week, I felt wooden, inept, and definitely beat-deaf! Patience (and she was, too) Quaqua, our dance teacher, would often come to dance beside me, taking my arm for emphasis, to show me the correct way to step with the beat. Later, she would comfort me, saying, "These are new rhythms for you. You have not heard them before. It takes awhile for them to sink into your body." I felt triumphant toward the close of the second week when one of the drummers began to play just for me!
Most late afternoons the Ghana Dance Ensemble performed for us. Each time, they included a "surprise," pulling us out of our seats to join their dance -- as best we could! Within five minutes, all of us were winded and puffing, but the dancers, who had practiced all day, went on with their performance for another thirty minutes. The Ensemble showed us traditional dances from all parts of Ghana representing many of the major tribes. The dances included social dances as well as special occasion dances. The dancers' bodies look nothing like dancers with Western training, and what they could do with those bodies! They jumped, leaped, and swayed, always in motion, always graceful, often humorous, never still.
In one social dance for young men and women, the men and women begin sitting across from each other. Then, in turn, each girl will pick a boy to dance with. There is much teasing and feinting before she makes her choice. The dance director described to us how the dance acts as a social control: If a boy is a bully, for instance, no one will pick him to dance with and it will be obvious to the whole village.
Eight women performed one of my favorite dances. Each woman carried a large, round bowl made from a dried gourd. As part of their dance, they knelt on the floor in two rows with the upended bowls in front of them and played a wonderfully catchy and syncopated rhythm.
On our last day at the University, for "graduation," we were to perform our two rhythms for the Ensemble who had performed so often for us. Then they would show us a full-dress performance. Johnson, when he first announced that we would perform, said he and Seth would be in the audience. The next day he said they would be close in front to give us our cue. The next day, he said they would play with us! We wanted to do a good job both to show our appreciation as well as to demonstrate what a good teacher Johnson is! But performing Ghanaian rhythms for professionals??!! Our performance was mercifully short, and from the genuinely enthusiastic and warm applause, we knew our audience approved our small effort.
Their performance began with a great procession and dancers representing many of the different tribes of Ghana in traditional dress. The Ashanti king, resplendent in Kente cloth and gold ornaments, walked leaning against another dancer. He never moved independently symbolizing that the king does not rule alone, but only with the support of the people.
We left Accra for the States early on a Sunday morning. By dinner time, I was devouring sushi at Hatsuhana in New York City. As I sat chatting with my neighbors at the counter, a happy group entered the restaurant and went upstairs to the main dining room. I was astounded by how much noise they made. Only then did I realize that for two weeks I had been bathed only in the soft, melodious voices of Ghanaians who always seem to say thank you even when you have done little.
At home, I turned on the radio, tuned always to a classical radio station. Where were the rhythms that spoke directly to my body? If only I had stayed longer so they would have penetrated more deeply, more permanently! How could I have known this Africa I experienced would be so much about femininity and strength? I cannot help but feel that when we lost the color of our skin, we also lost an essential connection to the earth.
I hope I don't sound preachy, but if you can, research! You will feel much more confident and far better prepared. I was so ignorant, I had no idea even how long the flight was (depending on direction, 4 1/2 to 7 hours from New York City to Dakar, Senegal and another 3 to Accra).
West Africa is not a popular tourist destination. When you look in the travel book department of your book store, you will find many books about East Africa and perhaps nothing for West Africa. Persevere until you find The Lonely Planet Guide to West Africa by Alex Newton (Lonely Planet; 1995; $21.95). It is fairly current and very, very complete. (I do not have to tell readers here to surf the 'Net!)
Now that I have been and returned, I have discovered the place to look for books about Ghana and West Africa is the children's book section of the library! I have found several that explained a good many things I did not understand. Perhaps they mean more to me now because I have some experience to hang the words on.
Also, read All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes by Maya Angelou (Random House, New York; 1986; 210 pages; $15.95). She writes beautifully about the sensitivities inherent in a society with Ghana's particular history. She is especially eloquent about the ambiguities of being an African American going "home" to Africa. Though written about a period in the mid '60s, the feelings she describes are timeless.
You do need a visa for Ghana and several vaccinations. I had tetanus/diphtheria, yellow fever, hepatitis A shots, typhoid capsules, and weekly malaria pills. None of them made me sick.
Amazingly, it was not nearly as hot, humid and sunny as I imagined it might be. We were there during the Ghanaian winter when prevailing winds blow across the ocean and onto the land. Away from the coast, it is more humid. Later in the year, they blow across the Sahara bringing far more heat and dust. Be prepared for temperatures in the high 80s F.
Packing/What to Take
I am lucky to have two friends who have both spent significant amounts of time in West Africa. They invited me to dinner in order to fill me with their very good advice and teach me how to tie a lapa -- the West African sarong. Herewith their list with a few additions:
Several years ago, I learned a great trick for packing for trips such as this: Take only clothes and personal items you can leave behind when it's time to go. This leaves your suitcase empty, ready to be filled with the many, many wonderful things you will buy while in Ghana. Your clothes and personal items also make very good gifts to all the people who will have done you small services.
Women -- do not take shorts. While West Africans do not care whether you bare your arms or shoulders or whether or not you wear a bra, they do care about your thighs. Do not show them. The Ghanaians are far too polite to say anything but you will find wearing lapas or long, light cotton skirts far more comfortable than shorts.
I went to several thrift shops and bought light, long-sleeved men's cotton shirts. These protected me somewhat from bugs and, worn loose over Indian cotton skirts, covered my money belt. They cost less than 50 cents to get washed and ironed.
Leave expensive jewelry at home. Instead, buy cowry necklaces and anklets and beaded bracelets.
The water sandals made popular by river guides are the perfect footgear. Whatever shoes you take, make sure they are thoroughly comfortable and completely washable. I often got in the shower with my sandals and scrubbed them as well as myself.
- A disinfectant such as alcohol/cotton pads
- Anti-diarrhea pills
- Gastro-intestinal specific antibiotic (take it at the first sign of stomach trouble)
- Sleeping pills (optional, not so much for on the airplane but once you get there so you can sleep through the night)
- Rash and bite-calming lotion (heat rash is a common occurrence)
- Individual packets of tissue (very useful as toilet paper substitute when in a pinch)
- Moist towelettes
- Detergent for hand washing (put some in a doubled zip-lock bag) plus a few clothespins
- Bar soap
- Scrub brush/nail brush (your feet will get very dirty)
- Sun screen
- Lip balm with sun screen
- Plenty of insect spray
(A note about bugs: I might not have been able to see the bugs but I could feel them biting me! They appeared to have no problem biting through clothes or were very efficient getting under them! After waking up one night to discover myself playing host to some bugs in the bed, I took to spraying the bedding every night.)
Take your favorite snacks as sometimes food that you trust is not easy to find. Planes, too, sometimes change schedule and meals can thus be delayed. Have snacks with you at all times! Here are some suggestions of things easy to pack that do not spoil easily.
- Peanut butter crackers or filled pretzels
- Tuna fish
- Crackers and biscuits
- Trail mix
- Meal-in-a-cup (these are terrific for snacks, and to round out meals if you are having trouble adjusting to the food)
- Miscellaneous Gear
- Money belt (You will need to carry your cash, credit cards, airline tickets, travelers' checks with you at all times.)
- Swiss Army knife
- Brimmed hat
- Cotton pillowcase
- Sheet or lapa/sarong to use as a sheet
- Washcloth or, even better because they dry so fast, Handiwipes
- Folding fan such as the ones from Chinatown
- Umbrella (if going in the rainy season)
Sturdy packing tape: (You may buy something that needs boxing up, and packing supplies are not easy to come by. We had to retape boxes when we went through an extra security check in Dakar.)
Cameras: bring small, lightweight ones and all the film you think you will need. You can buy batteries and film there but these are probably less expensive at home.
Polaroid and instant developing film: (Africans love to have their picture taken. Pictures of themselves make good gifts and tips and can also be used for trade. Make sure there is lots of light. The Africans' glossy, black skin takes lots of color saturation and you will not get enough definition without good light.)
Small cassette recorder: (You will probably hear some music you will want to record.)
Shoulder bag: (this goes for men and women both!) for gear carrying
Things for Trade
- Anything American
- Inexpensive sunglasses and watches
- High-quality cassette tapes
You have at least two choices in terms of what money to take with you: cash and/or travelers' checks. You will rarely be far from a Forex (Foreign Exchange bureau). These are typically small shops and are open from about 9 am to 5 or 6 PM. The rates may vary so you may want to shop around before you change money. The Forex at the Accra airport is open 24 hours.
Despite other advice I have read, I found banks to give very good rates on cash and travelers' checks. They may be slower, however, than a Forex. Beware: some Forexs charge a large fee for changing travelers' checks. It can amount to more than 10%! The strong preference is for cash currency. You must decide for yourself whether you want to carry that much cash. Small bills, ones and fives, will be greatly appreciated as tips and can be effectively used for bargaining.
The coin of the realm is the cedi. A U.S. dollar was worth about 1250 cedi in September 1995. It is easiest, however, to think of one dollar as 1000 cedi plus a little. When you change money, it is very likely that you will get a fat stack of 1000 cedi notes. These are often in terrible shape and are counted by machine. Count them before you leave the place of exchange. There are 2000 cedi and 5000 cedi notes but you will not see them often. The 1000-cedi notes mean you carry a lot of bulk and not a lot of value. One way to deal with how to carry it all is to put it in a large sturdy change purse or wallet in the bottom of your carryall. Or carry half that way and the rest in your money belt. The coins you will see most often are 10 cedi, 50 cedi, and 100 cedi.
We did not pass through a currency control when we entered the country.
When You Arrive and Travel in Ghana
Postcards and Mail
Postcards do exist in Ghana, but they are not so easily found! In Kumasi we found one vendor with a large selection. If our guest house had not been near it, I am not sure we would have found any! The University of Ghana bookstore also has postcards (and a wonderful collection including books on African music, plus novels and poetry by West African authors).
A post office is conveniently located close to the University book store (there is also a bank there that gives good rates for changing money). A postcard stamp to the Unites States costs 200 cedi. And the postcards arrived within two weeks, much faster than I expected.
Having read that for an extra fee, one could send mail "express." I asked about it at the post office stamp window. The clerk looked at me blankly. I completed my purchase, asked where to post the stamps and was directed outside the building and around the corner. As I backed away from the window, my elbow hit a blue wooden mail box. "United States" it read; and above it, on the wall, "Express." I laughed and posted my cards in the outside mailbox.
In the Kumasi market, I watched fou fou being made. A woman sat on her low stool next to a large metal basin set on the ground. Into it she tossed pieces of boiled yam as she peeled them. Two men, each with a stick, fatter at the bottom, and taller than themselves, stood on each side of the basin. As the woman added yam, they pounded -- in rhythm -- with their sticks, reducing the yams to a gluey mass. The woman had a second basin near her, this one of water, and as the men pounded, calling to each other, "A! B! A! B! A! B!" she scooped water from the basin and turned it into the yams. Timing her movements to the rhythm of the pounding, she folded the mass of yams over itself until it became a homogenous mass. She pinched off pieces occasionally to test its texture. Fou fou is eaten with the hands and a fat pillow of it will often be served in a bowl of soupy stew. It is worth the trip just to see it made. If you like -- or don't mind -- slightly gluey textures, you will also love the taste.
Much of the food of West Africa is familiar because so many of the fruits and vegetables native to the Caribbean have been carried back across the Atlantic and now thrive in the region. There are green coconuts, tomatoes, hot (very hot) peppers, avocados, pineapples, plantains, yams, rice, beans, dried corn and potatoes. And snails. But I never ate one, only saw them tied in bundles at the feet of street vendors. Peanuts are used for soup -- but I promise it is nothing like a soup made by diluting peanut butter with broth and/or cream!! --and for snacking. Oranges are a mottled green and sold by size, going from 50 to 80 to 100 cedi. Bananas are small and far more flavorful than our large ones. Papayas are incredibly sweet and pineapples can be tender all the way through the core. Mangoes, unfortunately, were not in season.
The primary cooking fat is palm oil, squeezed from the black/red palm nuts. The oil is orange and, I guess, is deadly if you are concerned about your health but certainly makes the food taste delicious!
In what I assume to be a remnant of English colonization, the bread is all refined white bread!! I kept my eyes open for what I thought would be more appropriate country breads, as I had loved in Morocco, but saw nothing. Only more and more white bread.
There are large, commercial bakeries. Ovens, outdoor and indoor, are rare. I noticed just one or two outdoor, beehive-shaped ovens.
If you admire a Ghanaian woman's dress, she will probably offer to come to you at your convenience and make one like it for you. If you ask for directions, you are likely to be led exactly where you want to go. Making friends in Ghana is easy. You may come home with a slew of pen pals: It is a favorite thing among young people to give you their address. One young man even asked me to call someone he had met previously who had stopped writing!
It is very helpful to have a friend to ask questions, such as whether a price is fair, what the social customs of a situation are, and how to get from here to there. I did ask my Ghanaian hostess to direct us to a restaurant where we would be able to get traditional Ghanaian food. She took us to a place serving less than mediocre Chinese and Continental cuisine. When we asked to go to a night club with live music, we were led to a thoroughly modern disco complete with DJ., black lights and air conditioning. These lapses in communication are caused, I am fairly certain, by the Ghanaians innate sense of politeness. They want you to be comfortable and cannot believe you would want to dance without air conditioning or eat their traditional dishes. And when I saw our group's reaction to fou fou (pounded yams), I understood that we give them a great deal of evidence to support their actions.
It might be a good idea to plan ahead and take some trinkets with you emblazoned with the logo of your town or company to give as gifts to the friends you will make -- T-shirts, key chains, baseball caps and pens will all be greatly appreciated.
This might be the best place to describe an odd phenomenon I noticed. One day, early in our trip, we went to the beach in Accra. We were deluged with roving vendors selling African bags, beads, bracelets, etc., etc. Later, in Kumasi, we invited some vendors to round up some goods from Bonwire and the Carving Village and to bring them to our hotel because we had not had enough time in either place.
In the morning as the young men arranged the things on the grass, one looked up and said "Look here, buy this. You did not buy anything from me at the beach." Now, how did he get here, I wondered? It had been a three-hour drive from Accra. Did a certain group attach themselves to each tourist group, acquire their itineraries somehow, and then follow them around the country? Did we "belong" to this young man and his relatives? Later, back in Accra, we would see him again. This was particularly lucky for one of our group who wanted to buy some drum covers. The young man and his brother made several overnight.
Buying and Bargaining
The best piece of advice my experienced friends gave me was, "Take pictures at first, buy before you leave." This is great advice if you have time because it allows your eye to get adjusted and to note variations in price. But you may not have time, so here are some things I learned that may help...
Bargaining is part of the African personality, so I was proudly told. And what I experienced in Ghana was similar to the souks of Morocco and the markets of Thailand. The prices of some items in Ghana are fixed by the government so there is no bargaining. One of these is printed fabric. It is also not customary to bargain for food. You can bargain for taxi fares; do this before you climb into the car.
When you enter a marketplace such as the Cultural Center in Accra, you will immediately be surrounded by many people talking at the same time and saying the same thing: "Please. Come in. Look. For you, special price." Always be polite, no matter how insistent the sellers become. They are doing their job and you are doing yours. You must, at times, be firm but, please, never be rude or act angry. Ghanaians are among the most friendly and polite people in the world. Simply say you will see them "next time."
I admit that it can be very difficult to "shop" as we might like to -- slowly browsing from one booth to another. There will be too much frenetic activity around you, too many people vying for your attention. They know that if you pass by, it is unlikely you will return and someone else will make the sale. Take a deep breath, smile, and relax. You may make what you consider a mistake -- perhaps paying too much for something -- but you can only learn by wading in and getting your feet wet.
Give yourself plenty of time when you go shopping. It takes time to bargain. If you are rushed, neither you nor the seller will enjoy the process half as much. Don't forget that there is a certain amount of pride taken in bargaining well. Since it is an art, it is not to be rushed and takes practice.
Take lots of money and an empty carryall. I went to the Cultural Center twice and still did not manage to cover more than half of it.
When I start bargaining, I ask the price. My completely arbitrary belief is that if I end up paying half the opening bid, I have done well. If I feel the price is very inflated (something you can only learn with experience), I might decide my final price should be less than half the seller's opening bid. This means my first offer is low. If the seller's face closes completely, then I know I have guessed wrong. If I really want the item, I will try again.
It is part of the game to walk away -- at least once, if not twice. Always translate the price into your own currency and then decide what amount you would feel happy to pay. Usually, you will feel guilty because the item is so underpriced, at least by U. S. standards.
Often, when you complete a successful purchase, the seller might ask "for a little something." You do not need to give them anything but if you happen to have a key chain or other small trinket and you want to give them something, go ahead. You will immediately make a friend.
The markets, including the Cultural Center, are roughly organized by type of goods. If you are interested in musical instruments, they will be grouped together. (Though the most lavishly carved and incredibly beautiful drums I saw were in a corner of the batik section.)
Walk around the markets and the business sections of the cities. It was on one such excursion that I found a tiny alley devoted to fabric sellers. Each woman, for it is mainly women who are the sellers in the markets, had a small booth, no deeper than two-feet, no wider than six-feet and probably less in height. Each morning she arranges the fabrics in stacks on the sides and over bars in the center back and stands in front to help her customers. Then each night, she packs up and removes everything she did not sell. You will find alleys such as this devoted to different types of goods.
The Makola Market is the main market of Accra. If you are short on time, it would probably be helpful to have a guide. Otherwise, plan on spending a half day and then returning for another half day. Our taxi dropped us off by an entrance -- an opening in the wall of shops. The walkways were no wider than a single body and you will meet a constant stream of people carrying large loads on their heads who know exactly where they are going (mostly, it seems, in the opposite direction you are trying to go).
All the activity and strange sights may be a bit overwhelming. Take your time to look, ask questions, and wander. We were on a fabric quest and did not have much time. We entered at what appeared to be the middle of the fish section and were surrounded by heaps of smoked prawns and dried fish, two common ingredients used for flavoring traditional dishes. Then we found ourselves being called, "We have fresh meat!" I responded by saying I was not cooking that day.
Eventually, I noticed a group of women sitting at an intersection of several alleys. Behind them were rolls of brightly colored fabric. I went to ask the women about the fabric and they burst out laughing. All I could gather was that these pieces had been purchased and this was a sort of depository of goods while shoppers completed their errands in other parts of the market.
Then I turned around to find I was in the fabric section of the market! The shops are shaped very like horse stalls but half as wide and sometimes there is only one wall. In fact, it would be more accurate to describe the different shops as stalls or booths. I wandered from stall to stall, wanting all the fabric at once, looking for material printed in Ghana only, not Nigeria or the Ivory Coast. Ghana specializes in batik prints on heavy cotton that have a wonderful rustic look and bold patterns.
How to Tie a Lapa
A lapa is another word for sarong. It is simply a length of fabric, sometimes with two finished edges where it was cut from the bolt, and sometimes four finished edges if the selvages have been turned under. Only women wear lapas. The native dress for men is a pair of trousers with a large, loose shirt worn over them. Women typically wear a long lapa and a blouse, often with stiff, puffy sleeves. Then she wears a second, shorter lapa tucked around her waist. She will often have her youngest child tied to her back with yet another piece of fabric. Her head will also be covered, tied up in a gailay. Women will complement each other on how their head scarves are tied.
To tie a lapa, stand with your feet hip width apart and the fabric stretched behind you. Bring the left hand corner around and grip it, waist high, in front of your right hip with your right hand. Then wrap yourself beginning from the right, around your left hip, and around the back until the corner meets with the corner on your right hip. Tie the ends in a knot and tuck the excess fabric in around the knot. The trick is to wrap the fabric around the widest part of your hips, not your waist. By wrapping your hips the fabric will lie flat and the hem will be even all around.
You would think such a garment would not be comfortable or flattering. Wrong, wrong! You will end up looking like a tall, narrow column and feel perhaps more feminine than you have in a long time. They look great with a T-shirt loose over them or with a man's shirt with the tails tied at the waist. You can wear a cowry belt or any belt or strings of beads around your waist.
Beads and waists brings me to another short topic about women's wear: It has been a tradition in Ghana to wear small, fine strands of waist beads as an undergarment. This is not as common a practice as it once was, much to the dismay of the men.
Lapas are usually about two-yards long. I need about 2 1/4-yards to tie one around me easily. You will find some lapas with ties very like apron strings. These take all the adjusting out of tying your lapa and make efficient use of the fabric.
Tips for Buying Fabric
1. Fabric is sold in 12-yard "pieces" or "half pieces" of six yards. You can usually also buy three- and four-yard pieces but vendors may be reluctant to cut smaller pieces.
2. Fabrics are cotton unless it is colorful kente cloth which is hand-woven of rayon yarns.
3. Check the whole length of fabric you intend to buy to make sure it is free of seams.
4. Three yards is plenty for a lapa and head scarf. Four yards will be enough for most African dresses. You will need six if you choose a dress with elaborate sleeves and perhaps ruffles around the neckline.
5. Prices are set by the government and not usually negotiated.
6. Batiks are a Ghanaian specialty and cost 2,500 cedi/yard (about two dollars U. S.). Prints might cost 3,000 to 6,000 cedi per yard. Nigerian fabrics have a luxurious look and feel and are more expensive than the Ghanaian fabrics.
7. Have outfits made right there. It will take a very short time and be very, very inexpensive. Take pictures of outfits with you that you want copied, or, tailors will usually have a well-thumbed magazine with pictures of traditional outfits for both men and women.
8. Fabric patterns are often traditional and have names and stories attached to them. Some colors are worn only at specific times. For instance, red and black patterns are associated with funerals. (That did not stop me from buying a length and having a dress made. The patterns are simply too stunning not to wear.)
Kente cloth is the fabric of kings, the Ashanti kings, to be specific. The Ashanti are a tribe in central Ghana who once ruled most of the country before colonization. Kumasi is the Ashanti capital and the Ashanti king still lives and has a palace there.
The center of kente cloth weaving is a small village outside Kumasi called Bonwire. However, many men of the region weave the cloth and as you walk and drive around you will often hear the clicking of the shuttles as they fly back and forth across the warp.
When you visit the village, you will see many of the weavers seated at their looms in front of their houses. Feel free to go up and watch and take pictures (as long as you give them one to keep or promise to send one later). Also ask what the various patterns mean and you will receive a short history lesson of the Ashanti tribe.
The cloth is woven on two-harness looms, amazing (to me who has only seen modern looms) for their ingenuity: The men raise and lower the harnesses by strings held between their toes. Instead of a backbeam for holding tension in the warp, the long warp threads are tied around a heavy rock placed many feet away from the loom. As the men work, they reel the rock closer to them.
At one time, kente was woven of silk. Today, the bright colors are rayon threads but the patterns are just as intricate and the weaving as expert. The fabric is woven in long, narrow strips which are then handsewn together. The Ashanti king would wear a length of this fabric wrapped around his body and over one shoulder leaving the other bare. Then his arms, neck, head, and feet would be covered in gold ornaments.
Because there is so much competition in the region, the prices for kente are very good in Bonwire and surrounding villages. Recently, I saw a small piece in a shop in Berkeley, California for $250.00 and nearly cried. Bonwire is a very poor village reached by a very rutted, dirt road. It has no tourist facilities whatsoever despite its national, and in some circles, international reputation. The same piece of kente in Bonwire, if you bargained well, could probably be purchased for $40.00 or less.
There is another traditional hand-woven fabric called Adrinka cloth. It, too, is woven in long, narrow strips but of heavy cotton and only in plain weave with, perhaps, a single stripe of color down the length of each strip. The strips are sewn together and then handprinted with traditional designs in a die made from bark. These were a favorite of mine because of their unsophisticated, rough-hewn character.
Bonwire, where Kente is woven, is what is known as a craft village. There is also a "carving village" outside Kumasi called Ahwaa. There are probably other villages in other parts of the country devoted to baskets and other crafts but I did not visit these.
Ahwaa is definitely worth a long visit. Again, try not to be rushed because while many of the carvings seem identical from stall to stall, you will occasionally turn up something quite original. I am still kicking myself for leaving behind an acrylic painting on wood. On the other hand, sometimes being in a hurry will force you to take risks and simply offer an amount and begin to walk away because you honestly do not have time. I have had vendors run after me to tell me they have accepted my offer!
You will find beautiful "Mother Africa" wooden wall plaques and traditional stools. Stools denote rank and royalty. The Ashanti worship a golden stool and it is the symbol of the heritage of their tribe. It is so holy that it is actually never sat upon. (When an English governor in colonial times demanded to sit upon it, the Ashanti were aghast and quickly hid the stool.) The Ashanti king will only bend his knees to act as if he is sitting, then sit on his wooden stool.
A good thing to buy is the game sold in United States toy shops as "makala." The game has several names in West Africa but it always looks the same. Whenever and wherever it is played, it draws a crowd. It is played by young and old alike; the rules get more complicated as one grows up. The game board is carved of tropical wood -- two rows of round cups which hold irregularly shaped, smooth, rounded beans or pebbles. The object of the game is to capture more beans than your opponent. You will find flat versions or ones that fold in half for carrying. The most elaborately carved sets cost about the same as the least expensive, smallest set I have seen in the U. S.
You will be able to buy traditional Ghanaian drums for less than $50.00. Even if you do not play a drum, they are wonderful things to have and to pat occasionally as you pass by them. Soon enough, someone will enter your house who will know what to do with the drum and will be overjoyed to find it. Traditional Ghanaian drums are not easy to find in this country, but if you could find them, they would probably cost about $200.00. Have the drum boxed before you leave and take it home with you as extra baggage.
Double bells and slit bells can be bargained for in the markets (you will find them at the Cultural Center in Accra as well as other markets) and can be purchased for about $4.00 each. The same goes for shekeres made from gourds and covered with netting set with seeds or beads.
Xylophones are very large in West Africa and have a unique and very beautiful sound. The instruments have 14 to 16 keys tuned each to a gourd tied underneath the keys with animal hide. We heard a master xylophone player whose hands flew over his instrument until they blurred and the sound was as if he had a reverb hooked to his native instrument. Later, someone discovered that spider webs in the gourds will create this particular and very exciting sound.
For Women Only (And men who have always wanted long hair)
Get your hair done! You can afford it here (about $16.00 or less US). Three of us had braids put in but only one of us had the courage to have her whole head done with tiny braids. I could not sit still that long so three girls did my fatter-than-normal braids in under two hours. I left a border of hair framing my face unbraided.
What is especially fun is having hair extensions woven in. Your hair can be as long as you could possibly want, and whatever color. I had black, blonde, and white extensions woven in because my hair is at least that many colors. My braids elicited a great deal of interest back home. Everyone wanted to know how -- and if -- I washed my hair. The best method I devised was to dilute the shampoo, squeeze it all over my scalp and rub in. There was no sense washing the braids themselves. Then I dispensed with creme rinse and rinsed with rosemary vinegar instead. Unless I was outdoors in the sun, the braids took a long time to dry and I wore a towel over my shoulders.
When it was time to take them out -- about seven weeks after they went in (they still looked fine but I was tired of them) -- they took nearly all day to undo. The braids unwove easily enough and the hair extensions lifted out readily. But all the hair that would have naturally fallen out during those weeks (and I have long hair) having nowhere to go, turned into rat's nests.
Warning: If you dance, especially partner dancing, braids may not be such a great idea. When you spin, if the braids are not tied securely close to your head, you could do serious damage to your partner!
Penni Wisner is a San Francisco Bay Area freelance writer and co-author of Flavored Oils & Flavored Vinegars.