Jessica Berg, Part Two: Studying the African Novel and Dance in Ghana

Last week, literature major Jessica Berg began her discussion about studying abroad in Ghana (to read Part One of her post, click here). This week, she writes about how her educational experiences in Ghana have so far challenged her perceptions of such topics as African literature, West African culture, racism, and slavery among many others. Continue reading below to see Part Two of Jessica’s ongoing experience in Ghana.

-Makola market in
Accra, Ghana, a great place to get a taste of daily Ghanaian life.
*Photo provided by Jessica Berg

One of the things that set African novels apart is their usage of African oral storytelling conventions.  As I’m extremely interested in folklore, mythology, and oral storytelling, I find this so unbelievably fascinating that I could go on for pages about it.  I’ll try to keep it reasonable.  Oral storytelling is a huge part of almost every African culture’s creative background, so it’s no wonder most major African authors have found ways to work it into their novels.  They often draw their inspiration straight from traditionally oral stories.  Tadjo’s Queen Pokou, for instance, explores a story told by the Ivory Coast’s Baoule people about an Asante princess who fled with her loyal subjects from her power-hungry uncle.  The story is an old one, passed down for generations, and its importance to the culture cannot be underestimated.  It’s even been used by Baoule politicians to enhance their own reputations during the Ivorian civil war that’s been happening the past several years.

Another example is the inclusion of the Ghanaian trickster figure Ananse in many Ghanaian stories.  Ananse is a figure that recurs in Ghanaian oral storytelling so often it is said that he represents the Ghanaian psyche.  It has also been noted that Ananse traveled to the New World with Ghanaian slaves, who adapted him to their new environment, giving him new forms and new names like Aunt Nancy.  And look, suddenly I’ve learned something about people with African ancestry outside of Africa, people of the African Diaspora, as I’ve learned it’s called.  Nothing I’ve read has been confined to the classroom; even these little details about traditional stories transcend the boundaries of Africa and teach me something about people across the world.  This is, of course, true of all literature, if read in the right light, but I feel it more acutely here because I can see it almost literally with my own eyes.

The discussions these readings encourage in the classroom bring the content of the readings to life for me and put it in the context of reality, where I can see it work.  I usually don’t have much to contribute to these classroom discussions, especially in my Ghanaian Literature class, where most of the talk focuses on Ghanaian social problems that I don’t understand, but there is never a better time to sit and listen than when an entire lecture hall of people are tearing apart a cultural phenomena that you as an outsider would not have otherwise known existed.  We’ve discussed the subjects of love and marriage, gender inequality, ancestral influence, poverty, religion, and racism, all from a point of view that is different from the American point of view.  Racism was an especially interesting and uncomfortable subject for the international students in the class, who were almost entirely excluded from the conversation even as the Ghanaian students insisted that white people are treated like gods in Ghana.  I had my objections to that comment, knowing how I get conned out of money every time I so much as want to take a taxi, but I was hesitant to throw myself  into the conversation in order to present my objection.  The subject of slavery has also come up, being as big a blot on the annals of Ghanaian history as it is in the states, but the comments often focus more on the guilt of the local chiefs for selling West Africans than on the white slave-owners for buying them.  I found this point of view interesting, because my exposure to the subject has been limited to Phyllis Whitley, Fredrick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, and other authors of American slave narratives, who understandably pitted white slave-owners against black slaves.  Our cultural background does not encourage us to think about the West African men selling their neighbors to slavery, but Ghanaian cultural background does.  And the fact that slavery still exists in Ghana and across the globe, even in America, is called to attention here because of it.

Here, I am constantly exposed to a worldview that is different from my own.  I am always finding new things to think about or new ways to think about old things.  I count this as a good thing, not only because what I am learning is making me a better, more rounded individual, which sounds like a cliché but is an actual fact, but also because it inspires me creatively.  I have been writing more consistently now than I have in years, in fact since the last time I studied abroad.  I believe there is a reason so many expatriates have historically produced excellent literature.  Nothing is as good a catalyst for creative inspiration as absolute change.  Everything becomes interesting and wonderful, or in some cases horrid and uncomfortable, but in all cases thought-provoking.  The mind is forced to work over things that it would not even consider while stuck in a familiar routine, and the constant input requires output as well.  In Ghana, the drums, the singing, the dancing, and the folklore can inspire almost anyone to creative expression.  I especially love the dancing; I’ve enrolled in a traditional African dance class, and it is by far my favorite class.  We learn to dance social dances, where they come from, and what they mean, and it’s all brought together to the beat of an African drum.  Drums are important to most African cultures, which is a fact I kept hearing before I came but didn’t understand until I got here.  I always thought of the movie Jumanji, and what sort of reference is that for a significant cultural art form?  In my dance class, we are forced to listen to the drummers “speaking” to us, telling us when to change our moves, and we are told what the music means.  I now believe that all music in clubs and raves across the world should be replaced with African drum music, because I’ve never felt anything fill me with excitement and energy like the drums in my dance class do.

These are only the impressions I’ve gotten from two months of study.  I haven’t travelled extensively yet, nor have I been to a traditional Ghanaian household.  I still have a lot more to learn, of course, but I think I’ve got a good start on it.  And I have many more stories to tell.  I could go on about my daily routine, my friends, public transportation, shopping, and the stupid little inconveniences and annoyances that plague our daily lives.  Even as I write this, the water is down in my hostel and has been since early last night, so all the bathrooms smell like portapotties and I have not showered.  But there will be more chances to talk about the little stuff like that, and what’s most important is that I impress upon you the potential Ghana has for self-development and creative inspiration.  I have the chance to teach someone about something awesome, so I hope I’m off to a good start!

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