Saturday, October 13, 2007

Different in Chuchuliga

Anonymity has been hard to come by in Ghana. Whether it's the neighbours laughing when I try to wash my clothes, being stared at on the street, or having children yell "fella, fella, good morning! [white man, white man, good morning!]" whenever I bike by, it's hard to blend into the background. Novel at first, it can get tiring after a while; there are times when I just want to be ignored.

Two weekends ago, a fact-finding mission took me outside of Navrongo. I've been having trouble with the numbers in my report on crop profitability, and a friend suggested I visit a commercial farmer named Janet in Chuchuliga, to ask about her crop budgets.

Chuchuliga is maybe only 10 km from Navrongo, so it wasn't hard to find a shared cab in the taxi run lot waiting for passengers to the village. The cab driver seemed to think I'd just rolled into town (it didn't help when I admitted that I'd never been to Chuchuliga), and offered to take me there on my own for 20,000 cedis (according to him, the cost was really 40,000, but he was doing me a favour). The deal turned to 10,000 cedis for the front seat to myself (normally, on this particular run, two people would cram into the front). I said that I was fine with the usual set up and sat down to wait for passengers to arrive; unfortunately, when it came time to get in, the cab driver was under the impression that I'd taken the "10,000 for the front seat" deal.

I can't say for sure, but I think it was the combination of 'being treated differently' and 'being ripped off' that annoyed me. I started into a yelling match with the cab driver, before realizing that there were 4 people crammed into the back of the cab that would probably rather that I just let it go. So I got in.

When we got to Chuchuliga, the driver seemed happy to help out. After paying the fare, he launched into an explanation of how to get to Janet's bar (as a bar proprietor, commercial farmer, and community leader, Janet was fairly well known by anyone who had ever been to Chuchuliga). I didn't hear much of the cab driver's explanation before I got out and slammed the door.

Deciding to figure out the way myself, I greeted a nearby woman and asked her how to get to Janet's bar. She led me farther down the path away from the road, pointed at a maize field, and walked away. I briefly considered the possibility that Janet had built her bar in the middle of the field (maybe she heard voices saying "if you build it, they will come"), before returning to ask the woman for clarification. I asked for Janet several times, attempting to perfect my pronunciation, before she replied "oh, Madam Janet! I thought you were asking for a place to urinate!"

The woman explained that I was standing right beside Janet’s bar, which is probably what the cab driver was trying to tell me when I slammed the door. I walked in, greeted the patrons and asked about Janet’s whereabouts; luckily, a man decided to lead me to her (when I ask how to get somewhere, people are often determined to lead me right there, so I try not to ask anyone who looks too busy).

He led me back towards the center of town, where a giant circle of hundreds of women had gathered. In the middle was a drum crew, and the more outgoing women were dancing to the beat and wiping the sweat off the drummers’ foreheads with their shawls.

I was an hour early for our meeting, and based on what I knew about Janet, I had a feeling that she was probably busy here. I told my guide that I would sit down and try to find Janet later; unfortunately, my English didn’t seem to count for much in Chuchuliga, and he went into the circle to find the woman in the middle of it all and point her in my direction.

It was easy to see why Janet was so highly respected; she greeted me as though we’d been friends for years, and it felt like we had. We talked for a few seconds before she decided to grab me a chair to sit down and watch what was going on. I felt a twinge of guilt here; an older woman went to the back of the circle to supply me with a chair, but I didn’t want reject their hospitality.

For some reason, Janet picked up the chair and set it down in another part of the circle. I sat down. Before long, the drummers had moved across the circle and were drumming right in front of me. Some women occasionally pulled out coins and bills and stuck them to the drummers’ and dancers’ foreheads; I wondered if they were looking for a tip from me, but I felt a little too disoriented to start sticking currency to anybody’s forehead.

Janet found a few minutes to come over, sit down and explain what was going on. The MP of the area, who was also the Deputy Regional Minister of the Upper East, was coming to the town to hand out cloth (I'm guessing it was a form of aid after the floods). The cloth was for all the women of the village, but would only be handed to the leaders. Janet explained that she had organized the event so that the hand-over could be done in full view of all the women in the village.

As Janet got up to leave, I noticed a line of empty chairs to her left, beside my own. It slowly dawned on me that I had just become the newest member of the government’s delegation.

My fears were confirmed when the MP arrived in an escorted SUV a few minutes later, along with her bodyguard and several female staff members. I shook hands with the MP and her staff as they sat down, wondering what I was doing there. I was aware of the fact that I hadn’t shaved in a few days and was wearing the some clothes as the day before, although I tried to flatten my hair down.

The MP started her address, speaking in Buli (the language of Chuchuliga and the Builsa District). After a few minutes, she began gesturing to the members of her staff, while the crowd clapped intermittently (introductions, apparently). As she progressed down the line, I tried to move my chair farther away, unsuccessfully attempting to blend in with the hundreds of middle-aged Ghanaian women forming the circle.

The MP reached me and began speaking. I was uncertain of how best to react to an introduction by a person I’d just met in a language I’d just heard for the first time. A few words in, I heard the word "fella" ("white man" in Buli as well as Kasem, apparently). Realizing that she was making a joke, I grinned as sheepishly as possible and waved to the crowd, who laughed.

She finished handing out the cloth and left for another engagement as quickly as she arrived. When Janet came over to sit down again, I asked her what the MP had said.

"Wherever she goes, she makes a new son. She said, ‘this is my son, the white man, although I do not yet know his name’."

I might feel different here sometimes, but it’s good to be reminded of just how quickly I’ve been accepted as well.