April 21, 2007


I think I’m finally getting back to as normal a routine as possible now that the wake keepings are over. Since I last wrote I have been in Ada and Dzogadze again, but the last 9 days have been spent in the village of Dagbamatey, sleeping irregularly and sweating profusely during the annual festival for the patron God of the village named Apetorku. Essentially, for those 9 days, all the members of the vodu (the God) come home (if possible), whether they are in Ghana or any other country. What that means is that a village of a population of around 500 swells to more than 2000. Besides the immensely spiritual nature of the festival, it is extremely social with people coming back who may not have been there since last year (and in my case 5 years ago). The feeling is very jovial and warm and all the people are smiling for the whole time. Kids mingle with far away cousins and old friends and family reunite each day and night at home and in agbodzi (the shrine/temple). Due to the influx of people, of course comes with it more opportunities for business and the number of drink, mangoe, fried fish, fried yam, koko, kokli, rice, wakye, cloth, sandals and whatever other product people need or don’t need is being sold every 15 feet or so. The grounds outside agbodzi are usually covered with woven mats which you’ll find people sleeping on and if you go there at night when there is no activity at the shrine, you have an job not to step on someone’s sleeping head. An added bonus was meeting an old friend, the healer Larry Trott from Bermuda, who has enlightened me to the power of chi…..but that is a different story.

The whole festival began on a Saturday. Bus loads of people from different towns and villages descended on Dagbamatey and most in time for the grand procession of the vodu and the priests from the sacred grove. First the drums are set up just outside the grove and they play what will be the soundtrack for the next 9 days….a slow but intense rhythm shared between all and the hair-raising songs of the devotees. I can’t count the people. At least 1000 or more are swarming closer, all dressed in some sort of white cloth and waiting for the priests and the vodu to be carried back to the shrine from the grove. They appear from a gate, majestically moving forward and the crowd moves in. The drums get moved to the heads of some women while the men move behind them and play them behind the priest and the different vodu. The songs become louder as more people join in. The movement of the crowd is more like a slow dance than walking and they need to be kept back from the priests who are carefully carrying the vodu and its accompanying items. The sun is sweltering and shining its brightest but no ones cares and we all bask in it as we make our way to the entrance of the shrine. The devotion (and sweat) is thick in the air, much in the same way as the procession of the deities in India gives a similar feeling. In the shrine, everything becomes amplified by the iron roof and concrete floor. The atmosphere is like a sauna and you only need stand for 5 minutes and your shirt is wet. The drums become thunderous and the voices seem to be coming from every angle now…..and the dancing. Once inside, nearly everyone, in different places and different times, dance with each other to…..worship?? Celebrate?? There is something more than a social grace at work. Each morning until afternoon, groups of members offered their yearly sacrifice to the God in the form of one chicken and 20, 000 cedis(under $3). This lasts for a number of hours. Then just after 6pm the drums start in the shrine to call everyone back for another 3 hours of music and dance and the singing of the songs related to the vodu and other sprits and/or spiritual matters. Then at around 2am it starts again and goes until sunrise….the cycle starts again for the next day. It is this spell under which the village has been until this morning when most visitors started to leave with heavy eyes but full hearts and renewed spirit.

I guess I should explain a little about traditional religion here. It permeates every facet of existence and no circumstance cannot be thought of outside the influence of God, spirits (good or bad) and the influence of ancestor spirits. The name fetish has been attached to much of it because of the use of objects/idols as veneration as the representation of the God. But this differs in no way from that of Catholicism and its figurines of saints/Virgin Mary or from that of Hindusim with its thousands of different deities and their images/idols. Anyhow, the idea of God is here is that different vodus have an influence over different aspects of life and should be appeased to as such. Worship nearly always includes some sort of exchange/sacrifice whether it be blood of animals, palm oil, alcohol, money or any combination of the above. You can say that in life, anything you receive is the result of some sort of exchange of energies on some level, whether physically or metaphysically. It is on this principle that spirituality operates here. You must give to receive. And for this particular vodu, the key principle is to love all human beings and hate nobody or have any negative feelings/actions. So I don’t know why traditional religion gets such a bad rap. It is not the religion that is bad but the way people misuse it.

Now I am in the north. After a nice AC bus from Accra to Kumasi for 6 hours and then a not so nice non-AC local bus from Kumasi to Tamale for 8 hours we have arrived. Though that journey was long, hot and dusty, the scenery and landscape of central Ghana is some of the lushest and most beautiful I have seen in the country. Many rolling hills with forests or plantations of banana or palm. Many places have been reserved or are simply not very inhabited so the plants and trees have freely taken over. Red, red earth, dense forest with mammoth trees and some hidden rivers finally give way to a drier landscape as we reach the north. We have come to learn some of the Dagomba people’s music and also to visit a family that I lived with last time I came here 5 years back. The Atindaana family is one of the nicest families anywhere and truly exemplify African hospitality and I am lucky to know them….they consider me one of their sons so I cannot forget them. After meeting my friend Suale for some lessons, he takes us to funeral for a Dagomba chief. This is the first time I will have experienced this music in its true setting as last time I was here there was a ban on drumming due to a dispute surrounding the murder of a traditional ruler. It lasted for several years.

As we near the house of the dead chief, the rumble of the drums reaches the ears first. Once there, about 20 dancers, both young and old, all dressed in flowing and spinning smocks with tube-like hats are shifting and turning to the rhythm of about 12 drummers. 3 play the circular gungon­ bass drum with frenzied and focused intensity while the others play the lunga, a talking drum, speaking phrases here and there and praising the dancers and urging them on. Last is a small 4 holed flute, curious sounding flute(a small bamboo stick is placed inside it to give a buzzing timbre) ornaments it all. The music is slippery to say the least. Strangely, unlike the majority of music I have encountered in Ghana, there is no song for this style of music. The dance itself is called Takai and is characterized by the rhythmic hitting of iron rods held by the dancers. Those dancers, with an iron rod in the right hand, baggy pants and cowboy-type boots, and the spacious tunics of differing colours, some a deep indigo blue, others white or multicoloured. Their dressed flow up like umbrellas when they spin in time. The rhythm changes at once with all musicians moving like a flock of birds en masse inside the circle of dancers, who then inside a larger circle of people watching. When the Takai is over, the dancers all sit but the music isn’t over. 2 lunga players come to the front of one of the dancers, one fellow singing praises with the drum and the others with his voice. That voice, a throaty and strained series of melodies which makes it seem as if the fellow’s throat will burst at any moment. When they finish the dancer stands, rising to the invitation to dance. He collects a ceremonial horsetail from the leader and receives small coins from the elders present. During this time the drummers are still playing, but the music is sparse. It is when the dancer is ready they really begin. It can be a slow regal rhythm or a stronger and faster type. Each dancer will have his own style, usually with little upper body movement but lots of action in his feet, shuffling and shifting, kind of like James Brown in fact. The drummers are as one unit acting upon and reacting to the dancer. They all move together as the dancer dances toward them and then turns around and it is as if the drummers are chasing the dancer now. It is quite a spectacle. People will move forward to dash the dancer with small denominations of money while some of the very stylish dancers will be showered with bills, which I am told will all be given to the musicians as they do not get paid for this, only given a kola nuts.

That is about all for now. The heat up here is a little more suffocating than down south, no ocean breezes and such. I had a touch of a fever a couple of days ago but with the help of Anu’s newfound acu-pressure knowledge, my own positivie visualizations and the help of a little pill, I’m better now. Not sure if it was malaria or not.

To my mother, I repeat, I AM FINE. Don’t freak out. Call me if you want. Will travel today to a place called Bolgatanga and maybe visit some crocodiles in a place called Paga.

Until next time.


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