Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Rites of Passage

Since my last post, I have seen the Ghanaian national football team in action for a World Cup qualifier (they beat a very good Benin squad 1-0 as a result of a relatively lucky goal in the first 3 minutes, and managed to barely hold on to that lead through stellar defending as Benin attacked and counter-attacked with intensity), had my pocket picked (before said football match – and knowing I was going to the stadium – I wasn’t carrying anything irreplaceable and lost the equivalent of $20 and a notebook), got sick, got well, got sick again (street food in Africa – sometimes you have no other choice – and sometimes you are better off just not eating at all), went swimming in the largest natural lake in Ghana, and finally, met Muammar al-Gaddafi.

The last of these occurred just last Sunday. I attended a festival to commemorate the ten-year anniversary of Otumfuo Osei Tutu II ascendancy to the golden stool. The golden stool is an important part of Asante (the I now know, correct spelling of “Ashanti”) mythology. After the Asante people were united by Osei Tutu II’s ancestor Osei Tutu I, some 350 years ago, Komfo Anokye (the high priest of the Asante) was said to have called down the stool from the heavens, where it landed in Osei Tutu’s lap – conferring on to him and his lineage the divine right to rule. Despite the stool being, well, a stool, it is made of pure gold and is never allowed to touch the ground. Thus despite it being a seat, the Golden Stool is carried around in a second throne along with the king.

Osei Tutu II has been instrumental in trying to restore traditional culture to the Asante people and across Africa as a whole. It is said that under his predecessor; a sort of complacent, and vaguely plutocratic malaise set in, however under Osei Tutu II, the culture has been reinvigorated and with it, a reaffirmation of democracy. Osei Tutu II has made education his cardinal issue and his stressed education of traditional Asante culture along with Western education for his people. I like Osei Tutu II. As far as monarchs go, he’s one of the good ones. He has put much of his personal wealth into a large education endowment for all Ghanaians, and not simply for his subjects; and has done much to bolster democratic institutions in Ghana, and pan-Africanism abroad. He is also a very big deal – widely considered one of the most important of the traditional kings in Africa. The New African made the 10-year anniversary of his coronation their cover story and published a 20-page interview with him.

Osie Tutu II is always immaculately clad in traditional clothing, and has asserted that African leaders should wear traditional costume when conducting affairs of state at home, rather than Western business suits which he sees as vestiges of colonialism. While I think he takes this argument a little far, I can appreciate the point he is trying to make. In the Asante region, the traditional fabric is called kente. It is a very thick cotton derived cloth that is hand died and woven, strand by strand into complicated patterns. Kente is very thick, and because of how labor intensive to make, it is very expensive. The different patterns woven into a kente garment have different meanings, and thus, the king has certain patterns that are unique to him; and only the royal kente weavers are allowed to produce. What is most amazing about kente is that it reflects heat. Despite being a very heavy fabric, it breathes wonderfully well, and actually helps keep you cool. The accoutrements worn by the king and his court, along with the kente are, of course, gold. Ghana is an enormous gold producer and it is found in abundance in the king’s procession.

The ceremony consisted of Osei Tutu II honoring various African leaders for their commitment to Democracy; including the former president of Botswana, Festus Mogae (a great choice: Mogae really is an outstanding leader - and has a wonderful first name to boot) and Nigeria’s former president Olusegun Obasanjo (not such a good a choice in light of Obasanjo’s capitulation to corruption, his attempted constitutional maneuverings at the end of his reign to erase term limits, and his parties’ very obvious rigging of the election for Mr. Yar’Adua); and Ghana’s own John Jerry Rawlings (a necessary choice, this is Ghana after all – but Rawlings only restored Democracy after 8 years of autocratic rule). This was nice; the focus was less on the king and more on those he opted to honor. Following this, the king did a traditional meet and great – which involves him being paraded around with the golden stool, the traditional tribal chiefs that make up his “court”, several hundred drummers, and half the population of Kumasi. The ceremony was held in the centre of the football stadium, and following the speeches, the crowd was allowed down onto the pitch to try their luck at meeting Osei Tutu II. The visiting dignitaries milled about and shook hands with people, many looking deeply confused as to what they should be doing. Including several others who were surprised to find themselves not awarded. Among these was, Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi of Libya, who had gone all out for the occasion and had come with a freight air craft of gifts, including some 500 camels, the unloading of which had rendered Kumasi airport impassable for hours earlier in the morning. Gaddafi himself, traveled by land, all the way from Libya, as was his wont.

Colonel Q (as I like to call him, as the spelling of Gaddafi can also be translated Qaddafi, or 35 other ways from Arabic) is shorter in real life than you would think, or his legend would lead one to believe. He is also quieter and calmer, though of course, he remains larger than life. Flanking him was some 50 heavily armed bodyguards, whom he apparently always travels with. These bodyguards were all women – all crushingly beautiful, none under six feet tall, uniformly clad in sun-glasses and leopard print, form fitting fatigues and packing submachine guns. They are, without a doubt, the leggiest paramilitary force on the continent. It is confusing because you are not sure if you shoulf be turned on, or just terrified; which is how I suspect exactly how Gaddafi wants you to feel around him.

The Colonel is not very popular in Ghana, so there were few well-wishers anxious to talk to him, which gave me a good 10-15 minutes to talk to him. Gaddafi is a very nuanced speaker; he speaks more at you than with you, and in these long labyrinthine sentences. He takes special care to make sure that you understand everything that he is saying – and it is clear that as he has mellowed in the last decade, he is interested in winning Westerners over to him. There remains a hint of paranoia that whatever he says will be taken out of context and used against him, yet he seems to not be able to help but to talk; so he has become more careful in what he says. Despite strongly pushing his position, there is a great deal of nuance to his argument, and even when he is spouting vitriol against enemies (real or imagined) he can be, in a peculiar way, persuasive. We spoke in French with a few flourishes of Arabic. He thought the ceremony was very nice, had nothing but nice things to say about Osei Tutu II and Ghana as a whole.

He expounded on Palestinian nationalism, I pointed out that I enjoyed the nuance in the Colonel’s recent NY Times editorial on the subject of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He wondered how it had been taken in the states; I told him people were surprised by it, which brought a smile to his face. We also talked a little about what he thought Libya leadership roll in the African Union should be. He is strongly committed to making things better in Somalia, but sees piracy as part and parcel to the economic ruin that has afflicted the country; and blames, predictably, Western exploitation of Somalia’s resources for its problems. He wanted to stress that Libya was a friend of America, that he liked Mr. Obama – who was a son of Africa. I managed to broach the subject of those Bulgarian AIDS workers – to which he answered that he still viewed them as guilty, while hinting strongly that he probably had made an enormous mistake in holding them; but that his position prevented him from admitting to having made the mistake. This effectively ended the conversation, and the Colonel grinned under his sunglasses, shook my hand and wished the grace of Allah upon me. And then he was gone, surrounded by his brigade of heavily armed beauty queens – another “son of African soil” (to borrow his term) - and one of the world’s great iconoclasts; equal parts reasoned and mad.

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