Monday, March 23, 2009

Three Vignettes


Kejetia is a part of Kumasi that regularly draws national interest. Often referred to as “Little Lagos” in debates about its legality, Kejetia is part of the city in which laws and regulation have proven to unenforceable. It is effectively a miniature squatter city within Kumasi proper. The police do not go there, and society rearranges in accordance of different rules. To use a trite and perhaps culturally insensitive expression, it is a venue by which the “laws of the jungle” take precedence.

Kejetia presents as a densely packed commercial zone in which people sell everything from coconuts to bootleg DVDs, often in the middle of the street. Pedestrian casualties are remarkably high and traffic is often a nightmare. While the zone only stretches some five blocks, this stretch, by car, can take well over half an hour to traverse. While Kumasi by and large is not as congested as Accra, Kejetia is notorious as a miniature slum-village far worse than anything within Accra. Piles of plastic waste indicate the outliners of Kejetia, miniature urban landfills that Kumasi lacks the resources to move. Regions such as this are growing increasingly common in developing-world cities that have achieved a certain population density.

Stewart Brand, the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog and a business strategist based in Marin County, California, has written extensively on regions on Kejetia. “Squatter cities are vibrant. Each narrow street is one long bustling market.” Brand goes on to calls these regions “aspirational shantytowns” and declares them a potential cure for Third World poverty and an extraordinary profit-making opportunity. “How does all this relate to businesspeople in the developed world?” Brand asks. “One-fourth of humanity trying new things in new cities is a lot of potential customers, collaborators, and competitors.”

Despite this claim of vibrancy; and indeed commerce is brisk throughout Kejetia; it is the human misery and filth of the area that is most striking. One cannot traverse the region without being assailed by both vendors and beggars. Sick and dying people lie on the sidewalks behind stalls and conditions are dangerous. Pickpockets are omnipresent, and the difficulties of passing through the region mean that in the event of frequent accidents, the injured are inaccessible to ambulances. Thinking such as Brand’s fails to account for the human cost of this “economic vibrancy” and as regions such as Kejetia become more common (large swaths of Lagos resemble it) municipalities are hard pressed to either regulate, or more importantly, enforce exiting regulation in these areas.

Ashanti Occultism

When people from outside of the Ashanti region of Ghana talk about Ashanti culture they do so with something of a nod and a wink. Ashanti’s are seen as different from the rest. It is a warrior culture that remains deeply steeped in mysticism. Many traditional Ashant practices of old are said to persist in modified, and often clandestinely in unmodified, forms. The more occult, and we would say vulgar, of these traditions have come into conflict with modernity and have had to be altered according to certain perverse logics. A recent example involves the return to Ghana of the severed head of former Ashanti King Badu Bonsu II. ( Said king, was executed in 1830 by the Dutch, the head was preserved in formaldehyde and has been on display in a small Dutch natural history museum. The recent discovery of the presence of this head by Ghanaian government has resulted in public outrage and the return of the head to Ghana for proper burial. This has elicited fears in some circles as to what the result of the heads return will be. Traditionally, heads of state are not buried alone. Human sacrifices are made to give the spirits of the deceased company. The longer a dignitary remains unburied, the more people need to be sacrificed with them. In the case of a 179-year gap between death and proper burial, there is no existing traditional rubric and so certain improvised macabre mathematics come into play.

While the practice of human sacrifice is said to have been discontinued by the Ashanti king and other ranking tribal chieftains; many will tell you, in hushed tones, that these practices still go on, but a conspiracy of silence prevails that prevents national discussion and investigation into these practices. Evidence for these claims is largely anecdotal, but the varying accounts seem to carry certain unifying features. A coworker of mine, whose father was a traditional chief, says that she had to flee her village, as it was feared for her life. This was because Ashanti chiefs traditionally are required to sacrifice their last-born child. This can be paid off in a blood ransom, in which large sums of money can be paid to protect the child, however, this does not mean that a human sacrifice does not still happen, with a poor vagabond often being abducted and sacrificed in their stead. The fear for my co-worker, as the last-born daughter, was that the refusal of her father to adhere to this practice would be met with reprisals by those that would. Only one case infanticide of this type has been reported nationally, several decades ago, but the investigation never materialized, disappearing into the maelstrom of folklore. Newspapers within the Ashanti region report the occasional disappearance, but these disappearances are rarely explained and the government has neither the budget, nor seemingly the will, to investigate.

Notably, many of these practices are said to take place in the evenings and in woods surrounding villages, where police authority remains external. What is most surprising is that many of the traditional tribal leaders are educated people who have traveled the world. I am told that often they take certain traditional drugs many of which may have psychoactive properties. People are then driven into spiritual frenzies in which they are willing to partake in many of these activities that they world otherwise condemn. One can see similar frenzies of spirituality occur at weekly church services here in Ghana, drawing an eerie parallels. Speaking in tongues, etc is not uncommon, and many of the adapted traditional religious practices that are now begin services, such as the cacophonous chanting by 3 or four “reverend ministers” at once (often resembling the “phase music” composed by Steve Reich) generate an otherworldly feeling in the listener. Many Ashanti’s will also speak of various supernatural occurrences experienced in youth, and performed by Ashanti priests and rulers. These include the summoning of animals, making the ceiling disappear, the relocation of starts, and possession. What is culturally striking is that many Ghanaians see these claims as being legitimate, but depending on their current religious allegiances, can see these occurrences as demonic acts that should be combated by the Church. What outrage that exists about these murders, in some circles, has more to do with the idea that these actions are taken to placate demons further deepening the existing outrage that human lives are being taken.

This again casts light on the striking religiosity of Ghanaians as a whole. People here seem hold to a very real sense of the supernatural. Again, it is notable that well educated and intelligent people will tell you that yes, these acts of “black magic” are real rather than simply discounting them as mythology. Many people also believe in wider-conspiracies such as the Illuminati, and will explain certain international policies and events by pointing to these beliefs. There is something then, something that is culturally embedded, that makes these ideas very real to many Ghanains. As far as Ashanti tribal practice, it is difficult then to ascertain how much of is fabricated and how much is legitimate, but what remains consistent is a widespread notion that things are not always as they seem. My visit to the Ashanti kings’ house and museum presented me with some anthropological details of traditional practices but many of these were brief and geared towards tourists. As is often the case, the official version of events varies from the private, and cultures have a tendency to guard certain things. Ashanti, and more widely, Ghanain culture’s particularity is a strong sense of the supernatural existing alongside the worldly and this manifests itself in ways that come to bear in how people view and interact with their world.

Catnapping Through

One of the first things one notices about Africans is that they never seem to sleep. People stay up late into the night, and arise very early in the morning, often seeming immune to fatigue. This mystery, or how and when people in Africa sleep had long puzzled me, until I began to realize that Africans sleep constantly throughout the day, but only for a minute or two at a time. I first noticed this while deeply involved in conversation. I was explaining something, when suddenly; my co-conversationalist seemed to drop off, only to rouse himself moments later. Deeply worried that my words had a soporific quality, I pressed for an explanation. My counterpart was unaware that he had slept at all. This did not reassure, however, as I continued to observe people here in Ghana, I began to see the trend. Sleep during the night may last only two to three hours, but this is compensated for by hundreds of stolen moments over the course of the day, multitudes of miniature catnaps often taken so quickly that they are nearly unnoticeable. The brain is given the opportunity to rest for brief periods, rather than all at once. How this is achieved, I still have no idea. My belief is that it has much to do with long-term cultural and environmental conditioning, and possibly biology. My attempts to replicate the same sleep schedule have only resulted in severe exhaustion. What remains most startling is the speed by which someone can move from consciousness to unconsciousness and back, often without realizing the shift. How this plays out in African psychology is no less elliptical. Perhaps Anatole France, Michael Leiris, and Colleridge would have drawn different conclusions on the nature of the dream world had they been born African.