the land of culture; africa

Culture is not very easily defined. Anthropologists give us a few attempts at definition and the real meaning must lie somewhere in there. In 1871, Tylor called culture, “That complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by a man as a member of society.” Keesing and Stathern stress the idea of culture in their definition, “systems of shared ideas, systems of concepts and rules and meanings that underlie and are expressed in the ways that human beings live.” We can at least gather that culture is a set of guidelines, whether written or unwritten, which are meant to direct a society. We think less about our cultures as being guidelines and can see culture as more of a means or way of seeing things from a perspective. In Culture, Health, and Illness, we can learn that there are different levels of culture: culture as a ‘facade to the world at large,’ culture as the assumptions known to a group, and culture where the rules are taken for granted and implicit, impossible for the average person to be aware.

Africa is often called the ‘land of culture.’ This I believe is an accurate title. From my studies and travels I have come to see that there is most definitely these three levels of culture and so it is easy to see why this title was given. There is the outside view, often ignorant view, of Africa as a vibrant land, etc. There is the level of culture within the people, depending on where you travel, which you can easily be a part. There is the level of culture where it is easy to see that there is no way that you as a traveler can ever hope to understand or take part. Culture exists at these three defined levels and so much more. Africa truly is a land of culture. But what more is there to culture that we miss when we travel or study a country, a group of people, or a society? Do we often miss the deep nature of culture?

Here is a glimpse of the culture of Ghana by way of drum and dance. I had the joy of seeing this display of culture in my travels of Ghana and in each region we visited.

An aspect of culture that I found very intersting to my work and studies is the idea of investing in death. On our travels of Ghana we visited a special business of coffin making. These were no ordinary coffins. They were in the shape of fish, cars, trucks, castles, coke bottles, artillery, and deer. The coffin is made to represent the life of the deceased person. However there is a greater issue in the coffin business. Often there is no money spent on healthcare or medicines, but when the person finally dies from that lack of healthcare they are given a funeral where expenses are relatively lavish and much is spent to celebrate the person’s life. No matter how easily they could have been saved from an investment in their life, instead of their funeral and death. For this reason funeral ceremonies and deaths constitute a large part of Ghanaian life. Yes, death is part of life, but in this case death is becoming life. The Medical Health Insurance Scheme being promoted and launched in Ghana, so there is hope that there will be a greater investment in health and life.

Index of blog post series on Ghana.

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and the beat goes on. . .

i am about to tell you a story
of lives forgotten and an absence of glory
for i have seen the faces
of people who will never live again

and this is a mark of indelible pain
coursing forever through my viens
so i continue to tell their story and ask for help
because there is a great lacking
for solutions to write a new ending
to the story pending

because there they lie,
broken and dying
on the doorstep of humanity they are lying
waiting for someone to hear their cries
before another so needlessly dies
starving and forgotten
they know not what will become of their fate
in this terrible world of power, corruption, money and hate

on that bright sunny day
somewhere in the month of may,
i came across a drum
and that has made this vision come
as the story i am about to tell
is percussed from that drum’s resounding yell

i learned the rhythms
i learned the beats
and as i learned my sorrows increased
how can people be left to die
without a care
without emotion lost
without a helping hand
and without a hope?

this conflict is one from which we cannot fly
the beat goes on
and so many can no longer try,
to gain that basic right
in this world, that is society’s eternal fight.

and there they lie,
broken and dying
on the doorstep of humanity they are lying
waiting for someone to hear their cries
before another so needlessly dies
starving and forgotten
they know not what will become of their fate
in this terrible world of power, corruption, money and hate

power to the people
this movement flows like treacle
rise up against the institution
increased are the privileges of the western popullution
empower the oppressed and marginalized
why can we not make this effort prioritized?

progress is gained by change
and this idea alone.
this encompasses issues of a vast range
and our actions need to hone.
the beat goes on
and so many can no longer feel the pulse
the beat goes on
and so many are consumed by apathy
the beat goes on
and so many are no longer here,
this is what i fear.

stop. and hope.
when we work together we will be able to cope
joining our efforts we can change the world.
combining our passions we can shape that world.
believeing our dreams we can grow this world.
and the beat goes on
do you really care?
the beat goes on
share your story,
the beat goes on
bring your drum
and the beat goes on. . .

Alex B. Hill
written down on 28 February 2007, composed over the past year

the nature of africa: rhythm and socialism

The nature of Africa is all about rhythm. Rhythm pervades everything. There is a great love of music that is almost unseen anywhere else. From the very birth of a child there is rhythm in that tiny life. The child enters the world with built in rhythm: crying, kicking, blinking. This child is then exposed to the natural rhythms of the world: frogs croaking, dogs barking, crickets chirping. We all move about our days in rhythm, we talk, chew, sneeze, laugh, go to the bathroom, speak, and walk in rhythm. A child develops this sense of rhythm in Africa as it swings wrapped on its mother’s back – she fetches water, walks, and dances and the child learns rhythm. Rhythm is present even on a less basic level. In many parts of Africa the ritual of greeting someone is very rhythmic – asking the health of the greeter, his family, and his work. This is all done in an almost sing-song rhythm.

This rhythm is transferred from the natural happenings of the world into the lives of the people through drumming and dance. Drums are a key part of life in Africa. Many communities still use drums for their traditional purpose of calling a community together and sending messages. The tradition of drum and dance is never lost in Africa, that is an aspect that I think will never be lost from the cultures. We have experienced a great deal of this drum and dance tradition as part of our escapades around Ghana and in our course on the art, music, and culture of Ghana. As soon as we arrived in Ghana the rhythm of drums surrounded us. I met the rastas on the second day and began learning from them right from the get go drumming in the market. In Cape Coast we had the performance by the traditional drum and dance group and interacted in the performance with our mostly unrhythmic attempts to dance. More recently we have been coordinating drum and music lessons with our professor and professional music teachers. We had a lesson from the University of Ghana,who is a master drummer, for one of our lectures. We used the traditional Ghanaian drums for this session, they hurt the hands a bit more.

We have also been receiving lessons from Kwasi, who has traveled extensively in the US performing and teaching drumming. He taught and did his dissertation at the University of Michigan. We took the bus to his home which was far from the center of Accra because there is a noise ban. The noise ban was in place from the government so as not to upset the gods before the harvest. Kwasi is an older, stylish and spunky man. He has a nice short afro, dark aviators, creased khakis, and an awesome tie. We start each session with creating random musical rhythms out of words that pop into Kwasi’s head and we often dance around his compound singing and stomping our feet to a rhythm. When we finally got to the drumming we were almost too tired from the dancing workout, you wonder why Africans are so fit – take up some type of African dance. Kwasi was amazing to learn from and was extremely excited to be involved with teaching students music again. He group is supposed to perform for us before we leave. we only have two more days of our course on art, music, and culture.

Along with rhythm consuming life in Africa, there is a certain natural socialism that seems to work quite well. The idea of socialism was attempted across the continent, but it failed – why – because the elites in power were too interested in keeping that power. In much of Africa, specifically in Ghana, people live in secluded hamlets (communes). These hamlets are often isolated, but they remain connected with one another through traditional festivals. In these housing groups there is an idea of communal labor. If your neighbor’s fence has a hole in it the community comes together to work and fix it. This concern for everyone in the community builds the connectivity and social care. This is also evidenced in the ritual greeting and concern for the well being of a fellow community member. Within the hamlet everyone learns how to do every job, everyone knows how to do everything – so everyone helps with everything. There is also a communal yard, court, open space for market, dance, festival, and meeting. I think that this natural socialism helps to build and grow the rhythm of the community.

Professor Dzokoto, lecturing us on the music of Ghana, told us that if you are not part of the community you will not know the rhythm of the community. If you are a stranger to the community you will not know the rhythm of the community. Rhythm pervades all. Kwasi told us that from a young age he began drumming, first on people’s heads. I like to think that I understand that rhythm. As far back as I can remember and as I am told, I was drumming on everything. From my leg, to my desk, to the church pew, to the dinner table – I loved rhythm, rhythm pervades all.

News from Africa:
If you may have missed the news President Bush has placed sanctions on Sudan over Darfur. This marks a great point in his botched presidency. Placing sanctions on companies that operate in Sudan or with Sudan will create a stronger push for a change and hopefully a peace in the Darfur region.

Today the government of Niger dissolved. Yes dissolved, their parliament voted no confidence in the Executive branch because of troubles and corruption in regards to money usage. What this means for Niger I cannot say, but this will definitely be something to keep watch.

Index of blog post series on Ghana.

the quest for the west

Day 11
Applied lots of Aloe today. The sunburn is getting better. The bus arrived as we sat down to eat. Kyle and I always seem to be two steps behind. Breakfast was a large, thin, pancake thing with chicken sausage and some eggs, it was so good. At the seminar room today we got to bond with Ted (Prof. Tims). We talked about ourselves, majors, passions, and future plans. We then discussed the novel, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born. The book was mostly about corruption, the attainment of wealth, poverty, the quest to be western, and one man’s journey to live and work honestly. In the end of the book all he is left with is an “aching emptiness” and that is all the rest of his life could offer him. Kind of a downer, but it is interesting since the day before we met a woman working with some anti-corruption group doing a study on Ghana’s judicial system.

It was then lunchtime and breaktime. We wandered campus and explored some. We ventured all over the campus. We saw the Library, the Center for African Studies, the dorms, and much more. The campus is much like any you would see anywhere in the world, obviously it has its differences, but nothing too out of the ordinary. The biggest difference, as on any college or university campus, was the dorms. These are huge structures of block squares where four people live. When school is in session you see the clotheslines of each student strung out with brightly colored clothing drying in the Ghanaian sun. Surprisingly on campus you see many people walking around with ipod or MP3 headphones in their ears. Higher education in Ghana is still very much a place for those with the money. It is interesting to see, since we have come to know Ghana as a place that favors and loves human interaction, instead of the secluded american, music in ears, head to the ground, walk right past you attitude. This happens to be few students however, and most will greet you cheerily. The West cannot taint the Ghanaian tradition of greeting.

We settled down at an small cafe called ‘Tyme Out,’ got some cokes and played pool. This is where my mind recalled the idea of a hip hop planet. The walls of Tyme Out were adorned with posters of former great and popular rap artists and the music on the radio was their past hits. Even here this glorification and fascination of the gangsterism and commercialized hip hop culture exists. It is not surprising since West Africa is where hip hop was born. The radio often plays Ghanaian hits from the hip hop artists who brought the american style to Ghana. Why is the american style born from West Africa mirrored in the place of hip hop’s birth?

After lunch we learned more about Ted and his love and life of music. He was a music major turned music therapist. He has helped countless people recover from illness with music. He was trained as a concert pianist and this lecture brought us a drumming exercise. We first learned the history of drumming. The Europeans could not grasp the complex rhythms and beats of African drumming because it was like nothing they had heard before. Drumming was used to induce trances and was often used for social events. African drumming has many complex rhythms and patterns, but in the end they all come together to make one song. You cannot stop and listen to everything at once without being confused, you have to concentrate and focus from one beat to another. In this lecture we also discussed the aspects of health. The West decided to cut health to focus just on body. Where other cultures and societies looked at health as comprehensive in mind, body, and spirit. Music is a huge aspect of bringing together those aspects.

In the evening we went to a nearby Chinese restaurant. We ventured down our extremely busy road in Shiashie Accra to reach the restaurant. It was much bigger and fancier than we had thought. Sadly the food was also worse than we thought it would be. The menu was 20 pages long and didn’t really have much traditional Chinese foods. A let down at the least. I had the spring rolls, which just had cabbage and some random chunks of beef. A poor end to the evening, but tomorrow is another day.

Index of blog post series on Ghana.