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Monday, September 21, 2009

Kwame Nkrumah

Today is the centennial of the birth of Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana's independence leader and Time magazine's African Man of the Twentieth Century. The president declared today to be a national holiday, and held a celebration at the Nkrumah Mausoleum.

Kofi told me that it started at 9am, but not to be too anxious to get there on time. Not wanting to miss anything, I showed up at a bit after 9. Because today was a holiday, traffic was unusually light and I had no problem getting a tro-tro and making my way downtown. At the Mausoleum, they were playing Nkrumah's speeches over the loudspeakers. The place wasn't very crowded, mostly school kids and a scattering of curious gringos. Hawkers are selling books and flags and the like. I buy a booklet "A life story of Kwame Nkrumah" for one Ghana Cedis that lists "Wikipedia" as the publisher.

At 10:10 a 100-voice choral choir begins to sing, one person for each year of the centennial. After a couple songs, they stop, and people around me say that they are waiting for more delegations to arrive. An hour later, they begin to sing again. At 11:30 an "Africa Must Unite" march arrives, led by people from the African diaspora with banners of George Padmore, Eric Williams, Paul Robeson, CLR James, Walter Rodney, Bob Marley, MLK, and others with quotes in support of Nkrumah. They are followed by stilt walkers. The choral music has now been replaced by drumming. Then we shift from drumming to a brass band.

Up on the stage, there are skits and dancing. Groups of chiefs sit up front under parasols (I've always wondered how that word made it from Spanish into English). Some of the chiefs appear dressed rather uncomfortably in traditional dress (sorry, I don't know what the wrap-around cloth is called), which seems to indicate that they are not used to wearing it.

At 1:10, Important People come up to the stage and retreat. I strain to see and I identify them and what they are doing, but am unable to do so. I assume it is president Mills and other government leaders, but I don't see a wreath that I thought they would have left. Everyone stands for the national anthem, and then we have an appellation--by the same person who provided it at the book launch a couple days ago. This is followed by more dancing and skits and an opening by the Professor Chair.

Three people provided solidarity messages. The first was by Marcus Garvey's son in the name of the diaspora. He calls for African unity, to consider the diaspora the sixth province of Africa. He is followed by a worker's and women's representative. The woman points to the importance of women in the struggle, and that women need to be present for it to be complete. She points to the lack of women in government posts, and president Mill's promise to increase the percentage of women to 40 percent in decision-making posts. She argues that Nkrumah's dream was to empower women to participate.

While the women's representative is speaking, three men painted in the red, yellow, and green colors of the Ghana flag begin antics in front of us, including one person without a leg doing stunts on a bike. They have "Nkrumah showboy" written on their bodies. If I understand this political landscape, this indicates that they are opponents and probably were trying to distract attention from the solidarity speakers.

Two youth speakers pointed to the importance of pan-Africanism, and the dangers of not uniting. They called for organizing a pan-African committee in each country. International solidarity was important to Kwame Nkrumah, they say. They pointed to the crumbling of imperialist capitalism, and urged that people do not emulate a system based on the exploitation of resources and people.

Artists brought a unity flag, and had Mills sign the black star in the middle of the flag as a sign of his commitment to African unity. Mills then gives a short speech (nothing like I would expect from Fidel or Chavez). He emphasizes the theme of unity, and says that the best judges are posterity not contemporaries. Nkrumah faced a lot of opposition when he was overthrown in a military coup in 1966, but now he is regarded in an increasingly positive light.

After Mill's short speech, the National Dance Company of Ghana presents dances from the different regions of Ghana to celebrate cultural diversity.

The event closes with a recording of Nkrumah's speech at Ghana's independence, with him saying that thanks to chiefs, youth, farmers, women, and ex-servicemen Ghana now is free.

By now it is almost 3pm, and I've spent the entire day positioned under the same tree. I need to pee and I debate moving around to get better photos, but I don't want to lose my spot. The hot equatorial sun is giving me nasty heat migraines, and I need the shade. I wish I had brought more water, food, and excedrin. I didn't expect to be here all day.

I brought along my Zoom H2 to record some ambient sound. If this were Latin America, I would do a story and probably even a feature for WORT's Third World View and maybe something for FSRN. But I don't feel as if I have a strong enough understanding of the issues to pull something together quickly. I still would like to do something for WORT, though. In the meantime, you can always read the reports on the BBC.

Happy autumnal equinox, though I'm not really sure what it is properly called here on the equator in Africa.

Friday, September 18, 2009


Yesterday on my way to the history dept I saw a poster for symposium at the Institute of African Studies on "Has Ghana a Founder or Founders?" The poster said the symposium was at 4pm on Sept 17. I knew today was Thurs, but I had no idea when the 17th was (always put the day of the week on your event announcements! I learned that from Rhonda when organizing talks for LAS at KU years ago).

So, at 4pm I headed over to the conference room in the Kwame Nkrumah Complex at the IAS. Hardly anyone was in the room, and I thought that was logical since announcements for the event didn't go out until that morning. But at 4:30 the MC stood up and said that since the symposium was scheduled for 4, and now that it is 4:30 we need to start. Suddenly the room seemed full. As always, the MC continued, we need to start with a prayer. And he calls on a particularly Honorable Person from the audience to come forward to give the opening prayer.

The question for the day was whether Ghana should talk about founder's day or founders' day, whether Kwame Nkrumah was the founder of Ghana or whether the "Big Six" were the founders.

In addition to the MC, six (male) presenters, all Very Important People, were asked to come to the High Table. The MC then hands the symposium to a Most Reverend Doctor who will Chair the event. The Chairman then invites More Important People to come sit in the front of the conference room.

The symposium is sponsored by the Graduate Student Association of Ghana, and the president of GRASAG, the only women who talks at the event, gives a few very brief words. The co-sponsor is the Danquah Institute, a media, research and policy analysis center. The director introduces the DI as a liberal think tank founded in February 2008 to work on individual human rights, personal liberty, property rights, free enterprise, representative democracy. Oh, I see, he does mean that the DI is a liberal think tank, in the true, original sense of the word.

There are two speakers, the first is the youth leader of the CPP to represent a Nkrumahist perspective, and a second speaker will represent the "other" wing. The CPP speaker talks about looking to follow the model of the US founders of the declaration of independence, and whether to follow a federal or unitary state, and I'm left there trying to puzzle out the ideological landscape of the room given the little bit I know about Ghana's history.

But before I can figure too much out, I have to leave to go to my next event, a book launch at The Novotel Hotel. Laura had invited me to the event celebrating the publication of Two Views From Christiansborg Castle, two volumes of Danish writings on Ghana that Selena Axelrod Winsnes had translated into English. This event started only fifteen minutes late in a freezing cold conference room. Or maybe it started on time, since the first item on the agenda was "1. Arrival of Guests," and without times assigned perhaps that was to last fifteen minutes (arrival was alloted only 5 minutes at the Founder event). We decided that if the event dragged on beyond 8:30pm we would leave.

A Rev. Father gave the opening prayer and introduced the Chairman who was to give brief remarks, and everyone agreed that his remarks were not so brief. The managing director of Sub-Saharan Publishers then gave an opening address, and she thanked the members of East Legon Presbyterian for their support, one of whom was talking on her cell phone. It was then time for Winsnes, the translator, to speak, and the Chairman said he was not suited to introduce her so an Appellator was brought forward to do so, who gave a stirring introduction in an Akan language. The translator asked for a translator, as she did not speak a word of Akan.

Winsnes summarized the contents of the two books, the first by Johannes Rask, a Lutheran minister from Denmark-Norway who spent four years in the early eighteenth century in Ghana serving the Scandinavian staff just as the slave trade was taking off. He attempted to document cultural practices of the time on the Gold Coast. The second book by H.C. Monrad, also a Lutheran minister from Denmark-Norway, was written one hundred years later just after Denmark-Norway officially abolished the transatlantic slave trade. He was an ardent abolitionist, and like Rask attempted to document local customs. Winsnes situated these books in the context of six (I think) other historic Danish writings on Ghana, all of which she has translated. I want to read them all, but I run out of time to read everything I would like to read.

A Historian then provided us with a review of the books, pointing out that the first has 34 chapters and concluding that the second has a typo on line 3 of p. 102. The Chairman later points out that he was not feeling well, and that he had only been given 10 days to do the review.

We then had another Appellation for His Excellency Stig Barlyng, the Danish ambassador to Ghana, who once again did not understand a word of Akan. The Ambassador said that he had deliberately asked for Ghana as his last foreign service post before retiring because of the historic relations between Ghana and Denmark, and once again I realize just how little I know about the world and its history, and how much I'd still like to learn.

Two items are still left on the Program, "13. Sales" and "14. Refreshment." The Chairman says that it really should be Refreshment and Sales, but it is almost 8:30 and time for us to leave.

I've been to book launches like this in Latin America with all of the flourishes and formalities, but I don't think I've ever seen anything like this in the United States. I've been to readings for book launches, receptions and signings, and occasionally roundtable discussions at the AHA. I'm really just too much of a leveler for all this Formality and Show. At least the second event wasn't as male dominated at the first.

And I didn't think to bring my camera, so no photos, thought at both events a bunch of people were constantly working around with both still and video cameras with a big bright lamp, including videotaping us as we walked into the room.

Monday, September 14, 2009

In Obama's Tracks

Barrack Obama visited Ghana in July, and everywhere around us the traces of that visit still remain. Ghanians felt it highly significant that his first African visit was to Ghana, even outranking his ancestral Kenya. Beginning with the road on the way in from the airport, we were greeted with a series of billboards for the mobile phone provider MTN featuring the twin faces of Ghana's president Mills and Obama.

Seemingly the rest of the country is also covered with giant billboards with the twin mug shots of Mills and Obama accompanied by a variety of political slogans that change is on the way. Assumedly, the government put up these billboards in advance of his visit.

Across from the University of Ghana there is now an "Obama hotel." We also see signs for other businesses, including an Obama hair dresser.

The Obamas placed a plaque and a wreath at the Cape Coast castle where they helicoptered in for a visit. Allegedly, our tour guide was the same one that they had. Tucked behind some rocks in a dark corner in the women's dungeon was a sign asking Obama to take a stand on reparations. There must be a story on that one.

The chair of our history department Akosua Adoma Perbi also gave Obama a copy of her book, A History of Indigenous Slavery in Ghana From the 15th to the 19th Centuries (Accra, Ghana: Sub-Saharan Publishers, 2004).

Friday, September 11, 2009

Ghanaian funerals

Visitors to Ghana are often encouraged to attend a funeral for its unique social and cultural value. Today was my opportunity.

The younger brother of our incoming chair of the History Department at the University of Ghana died a month ago, just before we arrived here. He was younger than me. The history dept had a flyer for the funeral, and I read it as starting at 7am. That was mighty early, I thought. The department secretary said it was ok to show up later.

But I tried to be a good camper, and woke up early this morning. I went for breakfast at 7:10, and the staff asked if I could come back in 10 minutes as they did not open until 7am. When I showed up 15 minutes later, the waiter commented that I was early today (usually I come around 9). Creatures of habit. I'm not ever sure why they ask any more what I want, instead of just bringing me my standard scrambled eggs, toast, and milo.

It was just after 8am when I arrived at the Legon Interdenominational Church for the service. It appeared that "Part one: pre-burial service" was just getting started. I had misunderstood the flyer. This was not the funeral proper, but a 2-hr "file past" period where people could file past the open coffin at the front of the church to pay their last respects to the deceased. The choir sang songs, and various people started reading tributes out of a 44-page booklet that we were given as we entered the church.

Ghana has a subculture of unique coffins modeled after the interests of the deceased, for example a pilot buried in one shaped like a plane or a pianist in one shaped like a piano. This one, however, was a standard issue (though fancy and expensive) coffin.

The funeral proper ("Park two: funeral and remembrance service") started promptly at 9:30. If I had understood this system, I could have slept in, ate a leisurely breakfast, and showed up for the start of the funeral. The funeral had the standard elements of songs, prayers, memorials, and a sermon. Various people read the rest of the memorials in the booklet. The one by the father took 20 minutes.

During this entire time, one person walked around the church with a big video camera and a huge lamp with a long extension cord filming the entire event and the people in attendance. Another person took still photos. I have no pictures. Even though others were taking pictures, I don't see how it would have been appropriate for me to do.

At noon, the funeral moved onto part 3, at the gravesite. That involved a drive into Accra to the cemetery, and with the way traffic is I go out of my way to avoid leaving campus, I guess. My understanding is that a couple hours later the people would return to the church for refreshments.

This funeral turned into a whole-day event. Apparently funerals used to be longer, beginning with a wake the night before and extending into a memorial during the church service the following Sunday. Wakes are becoming more rare here, and the minister emphasized at the end of the funeral (part 2) that this was the end, that there would be no more memorials.

There were superficial elements at the funeral that were different from what I am accustomed to in South Dakota (the coffin at the front of the church rather than in the foyer, the length of the service, the funeral booklet, the time lapsed between the death and the funeral). I wonder if some of the variations were within the range that we would see in the United States (my family takes pictures of the corpse in the coffin; Cheryl's family flips out at the idea). The fundamental elements, though, seemed strongly parallel to that of which I am accustomed: the memorials, the songs (some of them the exact same songs), the flavor of the sermon, the graveside service, the reception at the end.

Apparently urban funerals are slowly evolving into that to which I am accustomed, and that rural, traditional funerals remain somewhat different. Maybe that will happen as well before I leave.

When I die, please don't waste money on funeral rites or moving my body.

After more than a week, yesterday technology services finally brought the internet back up in the history dept. It was reasonably fast, and I got a lot done. That was nice. This afternoon it was still up, but so slow as to be unusable. One of the graduate students said that it had the "Friday blues."

Monday, September 07, 2009

Christiansborg Castle

When we visited the Elmina and Cape Coast castles I started to read about the other castles that line the Ghanaian coast. The third most important structure is the Christiansborg Castle, also called the Osu Castle, I assume for its location in that neighborhood of Accra. I wondered why they had not taken us to the closest and seemingly most convenient of the castles. I started digging around in my guide book to see how I could visit it. What I found was that it was originally built by Denmark in 1661 before passing through the hands of the Portuguese to end up with the British in 1850. Since 1876 it has been the seat of government, first for the Gold Coast colony and subsequently for the country of Ghana. My guide book ends with the comment that the castle is off limits for visitors and "photography from any angle is absolutely forbidden." So there.

At the Ghana-Sudan game, we sat way up in the nose-bleed section. At one point, we heard a lot of cheering and horns outside the stadium, and thought this meant that the team had arrived. We turned around and tried to look through the fence on the top of the stadium to see what was happening. And there it was, right in front of me--probably the closest and best view I'll ever have of Christiansborg Castle.

Ghana 2, Sudan 0

Ghana beat Sudan 2-0 today to become the first African country to win a berth in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

I don't think I've been to a soccer game since I was in Bolivia in 1993. That year Bolivia similarly qualified for the World Cup, and it lit up the country. I think watching the country go wild every time they won a game is part of what gives me such fond memories of my time there. Bolivia, like Ghana, was very much the underdog. I forget, but it might have been Bolivia's first time to the cup? Ghana has only been there once before, in 2006.

I've never been that fond of games, partially because it seems like such an empty, mindless, meaningless waste of time (except, of course, if it is going to a Twins game with Wiren; I'll jump at the chance to do that anytime).

Similarly, I wanted to go to this game today because I saw it as a potentially interesting ethnographic experience. Soccer games incite incredible displays of nationalism, which really can cut two ways. As with Bolivia in 1993, it can be a force to unify a country. In Classes and Tribalism in Ghana, Ansa Asamoa points to the importance of nationalism to unify the ethnically diverse country and overcome the potentially destructive tribalist impulses. At the same time, it was a soccer game that led to a war between El Salvador and Honduras in 1969, and those tensions still linger along their shared border. Here in Africa, I wondered today how deeply these nationalist impulses ran against Kwame Nkrumah's pan-Africanist ideals. Wouldn't he want us to embrace Sudan, rather than ruthlessly beating them in a clearly uneven match?

Furthermore, nationalist impulses function to blind people to gross injustices. I was a student in Marion when our high school went to the State B basketball championship for the first time. I remember cheering the same jocks during the games at night who the next day would beat the living daylights out of me in school. Once I escaped that repressive environment, I promised myself never again to pledge my uncritical dedication to any institution. Nationalism is a force that leads people to support illegal, immoral, and unjustified wars of imperial aggression against Iraq.

In the United States, professional teams have been criticized for having African-American stars, but never allowing those same people become coaches when they reach the end of their careers. I was surprised to see those same racial divisions replicated here in Africa. Both teams were comprised entirely of Black players and the crowd almost entirely so, but both coaches were white. When I asked Nana about this, he said that a European coach inspired better work and a higher confidence among the players. A Serbian coach led the team to the last World Cup, so they decided to employ another one this time. Furthermore, the refs were white as were the photographers. Colonialism dies hard, I guess.

And speaking of the press, when I arrived at the stadium I regretted not bringing my WORT press card and attempting to enter the press booth. It would have added another interesting layer of ethnographic observation.

When the game was over, I was surprised that the fans around me who had been enthusiastically (BBC's term in their reports on the game) cheering during the entire game just quietly stood up and left. I expected the environment to be more like when I was a student at KU and the Jayhawks won a series of games on their way to the NCAA championship. As in Bolivia, we didn't have to watch the games to know if and when "our" team won. Like throwing a light switch, the noise went from off to on in a second, and stayed at that high pitch for hours afterwards. Here, we just quietly packed up and went home. Tomorrow is a work day.

I'll upload more photos of the game to Facebook later, when I have a better internet connection. My connection at home with Kasapa is being very flaky this weekend. I'll have to wait to see tomorrow if they've fixed the internet in the History Dept yet.

I stepped in an open gutter for the first time today. As we were leaving the stadium, I was in the middle of a mass of people and it was dark and I was just following the press of people around me and could not see where I was walking. Suddenly, my foot disappeared into the ground and up came the water splashing as high as my arm. They say that stepping in these gutters that line the roads is inevitable for gringos.

Yesterday we went to a festival in a town just outside Accra. It was quite an incredible experience. I wish I had brought my video camera to capture it. If you want to know more about the festival, maybe head over to Emily's blog; I think she'll eventually post something there.

Thursday, September 03, 2009


Sometimes I think I should always carry a camera, even though I can't get blogger to cooperate very well in uploading my pictures.

Yesterday workers were setting up tents on the lawn at the Guest Centre. I didn't think anything of it. The restaurant at the Centre hosts receptions and the like on a regular basis.

This morning there was a flurry of activity at the Centre. One of the workers was mowing the lawn, others were carrying tables out of the restaurant (with one surreptitiously swiping a drink from the cooler on the way through). The staff was so busy that they did not even have time to come and steal the towel from my flat before I was done using it. People were milling around in identical print shirts and dresses, but other than "University of Ghana" and the university's shield I couldn't read what it said--and I didn't want to stare.

When I walk over to the history department, I see a group of people marching up the street toward the Centre with a banner and a brass band playing, just as would happen in Latin America. The banner indicates that it is the university's pensioner association, and that they are on their way to celebrate their silver anniversary at the Guest Centre. Members, all dressed in the identical shirts and dresses, are marching in semi-disciplined rows 2 or 3 wide. A couple supporters are running around them taking pictures and video. The band is dressed very casually, obviously hired just for the occasion. Following the marchers is an ambulance (I don't think I've ever seen that before in a march!), and a bus for those who could not quite make it on foot. And there I stand without my camera.

It's the first semi-political expression I've seen in this very religious country, and it's led by senior citizens!

(They are putting new curtains in my office, so I was sent back home. Still no internet on campus.)

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Office hours

I finally have an office.

Last week the history department put me in a temporary space while they cleaned out the office where I would spend the semester. I still don't completely understand the story, but my new office was piled full of old books that needed to be move out before I could move in. Now the office smells like musty old books. But the semester is underway and I was ready to settle in to a more permanent space. Besides, yesterday I broke the key off in the lock to the temporary office (the key was poorly cut and it was just a matter of time before that happened).

But I have an office, and I feel as if I scored. It's bigger and nicer than my office at Truman!

Part of the reason why I wanted an office was so that I would have easy access to the Internet, and Internet for which I do not have to pay for through my nose. The Internet on campus, as I had heard, is painfully slow. It is so slow that at first I thought several ports were closed off, which would mean that I could not pop or send my email, pull bibliographic citations into Procite, or stream WORT off the web. But at least I can download the buzz, APA, IOBY, TWV, as well as FSRN and Democracy Now for my listening pleasure later.

I couldn't get the Internet to work today, and I'm still not sure if it was down or if my computer is configured wrong. Sometimes it is so hard to configure a Mac.

I also now have Internet in my flat as well. When I saw billboards for MTN Broadband, I started thinking about installing it. I told Stella, and she checked out cheaper alternatives. So now I have a Kasapa phone (0289554457, in case anyone is interested, though I often have it turned off unless I'm using the modem & I'm not sure what I would do if anyone actually called me on it). It looks like a regular phone but is hooked to my computer with a USB cable. I haven't successfully been able to test the speed yet, but it feels like an old dial-up connection. It is expensive, but much cheaper than MTN (which turned out to be prohibitively, absurdly expensive). And the convenience of having it in my living quarters so I can check email on the shoulders of my day is worth something as well. Plus it seems to be more reliable than the campus connection. I haven't tried to stream WORT, but at a couple dollars an hour I don't think that is going to happen.

My students came over for pancakes, and of course wanted to try out the new toy. At first I played it down because of the cost and low speed, and I was jealous of the wireless access they have in the International Student Hostel (ISH). But they told me that the speed there was so slow that it was almost worthless, and at 50 cedis for the semester it is not exactly free either. So, they think I'm living high on the hog, which maybe is the case.

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