Wednesday, September 14, 2005

meeting the former vice president, then getting peed on.

Hey folks!
so, the Cape Coast trip basically went like this:
Three weeks ago Thursday, I had arranged to take a bus from Kumasi to meet the other UC students for the Fetu Afahye festival in Cape Coast. I arrived at the bus station a few hours early only to find that all buses leaving for Takoradi (and thus, Cape Coast) were booked for the day. Bewildered, I investigated a few other options and was left with the last resort: a tro tro, complete with airbrushed gold paintjob, a roofrack piled high with crates of smoked fish, red-tassled tennis balls suction cupped to the windshield, and plastic decals of Jesus Christ plastered to the sides and back of the bus . It was a big tro-tro, about 8 rows that squished five or six people across, by way of a little fold down seat that came down over the aisle, and I was in the very back row. Its about a 4.5 hour trip (costing about two dollars and fifty cents US), there was just about enough room for my pantleg between the back of the seat in front of me and my knee, and on the one bathroom stop the driver made, it was unreasonable to expect all forty people onboard to clear off, stand on the side of the road, and then file back on, so in the absence of an isle, those of us in back had to hold it, save for the little girl riding in her mothers lap beside me, who was passed out the window down to the driver, and then passed back when she was finished, then we hit the road again. On the last stop before Cape Coast, the girls mother bought me a tasty ball of fried dough from a hawker who came to the window as a thank you for letting her daughter sleep on my bag that rested on my lap.

Upon arrival, within ten minutes, I received two marriage proposals from people who think my skin color is a free ticket to America, one of which came from the cab driver that took me to the hotel, and then tried to charge me extra when I politely declined.. The hotel was charming, as is Cape Coast, and it was nice to be reunited with the other Americans I'd bonded with somewhat during orientation. That night we saw an opening ritual that involved priests and priestesses becoming possessed by spirits who would then communicate with the drummers what rhythms suited that particular god for dancing. it lasted all night long, but i certainly didnt. I retired to my hotel room at about midnight, when the dance rituals were still just heating up.

The next day, celebrations and rituals filled the town; I wandered down to the old slave forts again with a few friends, because we'd heard some of the most important rituals would be conducted there, in the old dungeons. There, we found a large and agitated bull tied by its horns to an old cannon. That was the bull to be sacrificed that afternoon in the largest most public religious ritual of the festival. In the main plaza of the forts, there was the top of a small ventilation hole that looked down into the dark cavernous male slave dungeons, where a shrine was. We watched and listened from there, rather voyeuristically from our aerial view of priests and priestesses saying prayers, pouring libation(gin, poured on the ground, over sacrifices, shrines and the like as an offering to the ancestors...sort of) and sacrificing two chickens to the shrine. Eventually, (and I won't get into how, because I'm not even sure) myself and two other Californians ended up being invited to get a closer look: to sit deep down in the dungeons on a bench in a row of priests and priestesses all dressed in black, with a goat sacrifice at our feet (that was later flung across the dungeon out of the way by one of the leaders who didn’t want to step over it to shake our hands) we heard a few more prayers, then a heated argument in Fante, with a few glares directed at us, which we took as our queue to leave.

As if that couldn't have been the climax of an afternoon, after seeing an impromptu parade with drumming, dancing, and singing, and then following the processional leading the bull from the castle to the ceremonial tree that housed the spirit that protected Cape Coast, to whom it was to be sacrificed; I, alone, "because I had a camera" (Ok, maybe because I'm American?) was escorted through the thick, thick crowed of would-be spectators, and into the small cinderblock compound with the tree, and the bull, and instructed to sit down between two priestesses.

Then came the stare down. There I was, there was the bull, and there was the machete.

I was defiantly not sure I could handle the idea of this, let alone being made to watch it at such close range, as the only person aloud in the compound who wasn't an animist priest. I could feel my heart in my mouth, and it was so hot. I had visions of me fainting, and then startling the bull into one last hurrah of goring the squeamish obruni before being put to death. Then another Californian stumbled in from the madness outside, and then another, and then another. Soon there were at least 10 foreigners with cameras besides myself, and for some reason, that made it easier. Then came the drumming from outside. Then the chiefs, linguists, and stools were carried in. Libation was poured, prayers were said, drums were beat frenetically, kids were climbing the walls outside trying to catch a glimpse and cheering wildly about the idea of what they imagined was happening on the other side of the concrete walls. But I actually saw it.

After the bull was beheaded, the blood was poured over the tree from out of brass bells, and trickled diagonally across the dirt in a thick stream of red, and the body dragged outside for the exuberant crowed to see. I went to drink some water and sit down. I guess I was awestruck.

I’d probably looked pretty peaked: A man who’d been in the compound with me grinningly, almost mockingly, asked if I was ok. Yes, I said It’s just… this kind of thing doesn’t happen where I’m from. That thought caused me to pause. That kind of thing does happen where I’m from. The difference is the publicity, the spectacle, the sacredness. In America, bulls are brutally slaughtered by the thousands daily. The fact that most people have never been made to see it doesn’t mean that their blood isn’t just as red, but by our first encounter with it, its already been ground and grilled into a disc and put between two patties. After learning that the bull’s meat was divided between several families in town that night, I realized that most animals we butcher in the U.S. have things much, much worse in terms of how they are made to live prior to being executed then the one I’d just seen sacredly killed --and to think some of my McDonalds born and bred peers had the gall to call the ritual in Cape Coast barbaric. The hard part is that, I was a vegetarian living in a vegan household in the years prior to this visit to Ghana. I made the sacrifice of that preference by coming here. I've slowly started eating meat again out of respect, I thought, for a culture that is not my own, that exists in a very different place then I am used to. Meat repulsed me in America, but I eat it here, which has admittedly become even more of a trying effort for me since witnessing the sacrifice. To make up for it, I suppose, Cape Coast has been the only place in Ghana to offer tofu kebabs, or any tofu what so ever so far, which I ate plenty of for the remainder of the weekend.

After a rest, I was roused by a friend with a keen interest in West African politics who had just scored a really great political t-shirt from President J. Kufour's Cape Coast headquarters. We decided to hit the town before evening fell and the shops closed up. While heading down one of the main roads, we spotted Kufour's opposition's headquarters (one Atta Mills, ‘the Al Gore of Ghana’ we were told: the former VP who’d run for president and lost in a “rigged” election.) His name was known, we’d seen his face on billboards, the sides of houses, and bumper stickers, and now we were after a sweet political t-shirt souvenir. Outside his headquarters a few older men were sitting in lawn chairs talking and watching the busy street. We approached them, explained our interest in the matter, and before we could enquire about scoring some shirts, we were deep in an enjoyable conversation about Ghanaian politics, American politicians, what the festival actually meant.
Mid chuckle, the man by the door who was halfway through explaining to me why he agreed that James Brown is truly a musical genious, raised is eyebrows and stood up, and hurriedly urged us to do the same. “Oh, today is lucky, today is a very lucky day for us all, his Excellency is coming, he is here, you will meet him now!” Out of a shiny black SUV stepped that face we’d come to know so well from the posters and billboards, and he was shaking our hands and inviting us into his office.
Atta Mills, vice president under Jerry John Rawlings, the part dictator, part democratic leader who’d stayed in power for many many years, through many coups, and had shaped much of the way Ghana is today, for better or for worse, was sitting with us in comfy chairs placed in a circle in a large room having a chat. The only thing that could snap us out of our dazed glee as we wondered aloud how we got ourselves into these serendipitous situations on our way down the hallway and out the door, was our laughter startling a small boy who was covertly peeing into the gutter in front of the headquarters into turning around, frightened of being caught, spraying us with the last projectile drops of urine and running away as an old man who’d seen the boy in action got up to chase him. I guess we had a knack for being in the right place at the right time all day.
But that wasn’t quite all there was to it— besides, perhaps, for getting peed on: From being allowed all-access pass to traditional rituals usually reserved for those intimately involved with the religion and culture, to being welcomed into the former vice president’s office for a casual chat, I started to get the feeling that this could not ever be the experience of an ordinary Ghanaian. My American accent and white skin made red carpets roll out before me everywhere I went. Why? I was never asked for money from any priestess or politician that day. I have no social or political influence. I am an American nobody. Just some girl. Why was I allowed entrance to the bull sacrifice while Fantes who’d spent their entire lives living in Cape Coast, practicing the customs, resisting the pressures to convert to Christianity and Islam and remaining faithful to this traditional religion had to fight crowds just to get close enough to crouch down low to pear through the shapes of the cinderblocks to get a glance of the backside of a gawking American who was watching the ritual, suppressing their gag reflex and writing about the cruelty of it later in their travel blog? Something isn’t right here. Why would a man who is seriously competing for the office of president pay more respect to some American tourists then to people who actually have the power to vote him into office? How do Ghanaians see themselves? Obviously there is no answer to this question, because the answers are as numerous as the population. Some clearly resented us, some paid no mind, some willingly surrendered their seats on the bench so that we could be more comfortable to watch their rituals, and some decided an American accent was all one needed in a life partner, and moved strait to proposing marriage.
That night, I went with a friend to a club on the beach, danced around a bit, but soon moved onto the sand and had a more somber swapping of stories from the day. we later found more friends and moved to the reportedly celebration downtown, only to find that by that hour, it was far too crowded and the crowed was far too drunk for anyone to be american there without a constant slew of hands grabbing for my non-exsistant pockets and then recoiling in dissapiontment (I'd learned long before that at a public gathering this massive, you hide your money in your bra or shoe. Thats what the Ghanaian girls do) Then, finally, sleep.

The next day was the major parade. I wont go into what that looked like until I can post some pictures. It was spectacular in every sense of the word.

The next day was time to go home, but there was a massive football game in Kumasi (in which Ghana kicked Ugandas butt, and people went CRAZY! people flooded out of the dorms carrying ghanaian flags above their head, singing, changing, and running through the corridors) so all of the buses were sold out, so instead i went back to accra with the americans, took a trip to the wonderful little art village of Shiashe right on the outskirts of the city, and travelled home the next day. what a trip.

Another week went by with classes happening here and there. The next weekend, some of the students from University of Washington allowed me to take one of the empty seats in their van (these kids have a van, free internet, and a neatly planned travel schedule, so I like to share in their good fortune when it suits me) that had been vacated by one of the u-dubbers with malaria (apparently, its really not so bad, theyve all recoverd by now and are good as new) and accompanied them on a trip to Ejisu and a nearby village to watch some more traditional religious rituals.
We were seated under the village cheif's big umbrella and ordered to take some libation (i.e. shots of gi-- at 9 am, after pouring a small amount on the ground then tipping back for the ancestors "one for the homies" )
Then some of the most intense possession and dance and drumming took place for a good 4 hours, culmanating in the river god, who had inhabited the body of a woman covered in white powder and a grass skirt coming into the circle with a live chicken in her mouth, its wings flapping about wildly until she ripped its head off with her teeth and spit the thing in our direction.
Later, we hiked through a small bit of jungle to another site, after a few more hours of ritual dance and incredible rhythm we were invited into the village's small round hut that housed the traditional shrine, where we were given more libation, (and so were the preistesses, who were pretty tossed by that time) and a chicken was sacrificed as an offering to ensure that each of us had safe journies back to America. Thanks U-dub, what a day.

Back at the ranch (kumasi) some of the christians heard I'd been to a shrine, and politely called me a heathen. The religion here, no matter which faith, is so extreme.
More on that later, and pictures soon. I promise.
love, maggie


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