DAY 19. SATURDAY MAY 2nd 2015. TAMALE, GHANA – WEDDING DAY
Hearing and later watching the hectic activity that began around four this morning I am more than grateful that my position has accorded me a room to myself in this house in which so many dossed down on mats on the floors. I had a bed and fan to myself for the hot sweat-tossing night.
By the time I emerged, somewhat worn already, at 6.30 the yard was busy with the Christian Mothers again at their catering, more than a factory. It occurred to me that if global warming and cutting down all the trees doesn’t get Africa, plastic will. Every portion has been packaged within two plastic bags and a styrofoam container. Thousands of plastic bags will be used during this wedding. Many of them will end up decorating the landscape somewhere or other. Maybe we should just adjust our aesthetic judgements to accept all the shreds on the trees and fields as scenic? In Africa, you certainly have to accept them as part of the scene…
Women were making ‘tea’ like a canteen. Tea is often either weak Lipton Yellow Label or the evil Nestle Corporation’s Milo, a sweetened chocolatey drink. Served with doorsteps of soggy white bread, the worst manifestation of the British Empire in Africa – over the borders in French West Africa one gets delicious, fresh French bread sticks every morning – here we get sweet glue worse even than Mother’s Pride (one of the most mis-named products on the market!). This constituted breakfast for most people. I forewent the bread… It’s ironic, after my initially succumbing to the brief dose of the runs that for the rest of my time here I get – as always – completely constipated by the constant diet of white bread, white rice, eggs, plantain and generally gluey foods, plus dehydration, no roughage, no green vegetables and no fruit. I have been trying boxes of fruit juice to provide some fruit and vegetable but in the end I always resort to laxatives. This in a land where most white people are so wary of the food! I even tried drinking warm pito, notorious as a natural laxative in Navrongo, the home brewed, sour millet beer. But in the end it takes chemicals! This may be why my shits pills had an expiry date of 2005…
Later this morning (it’s 8.40 now) I shall have to endure an endless catholic mass – none of which I shall meet very easily. Probably a couple of hours, I am informed, ritualistic stuff and nonsense that will make me irritated at every announcement, I expect. I guess I shall just have to pretend I am on a tro-tro and detach myself into a meditative state and let it all run by. It’s not easy being the only atheist in so many millions! Every announcement is suffixed with “God is WONderful!”; every exclamation by “by his grace”. Still, one lone voice isn’t going to change much or encourage much rationality in this land gripped by religious fervour. Churches, even the huge ones, are now pronounced too small. Pity we can’t export a few from Europe. I was pleased to hear that I now live in the most secular country in Europe where 53% admit to no religion and 13% actually embrace atheism. In Ghana I have met one professed atheist, an elderly doctor friend of Perry’s (who is said to be planning to build a church on one of the bits of land left on the family compound in Navrongo) who ranted volubly about the damage done by religious narrowness and the power of the churches in Ghana. And there are churches in every corner and of every inventive and crazed ideology. It’s very big business; and I mean business.
I just had a very funny ‘conversation’ with Kadua. Kadua is Perry, Wechiga and Gladys’s half sister by another father, Akay’s first husband. Kadua is the only surviving child of that marriage and nine pregnancies. The humour of our conversations is that neither of us speaks a word of the other’s tongue! She is married to a Moslem and lives in the southern forests, where we have been to visit on two or three very memorable occasions, all of them involving a wonderful walk through the remaining rain forest along the old railway tracks. I remember arriving for the first time, long before we could send any warning by phone. Wechiga and I walked out of the forest, about an eight mile walk that is one of my best memories of all my visits in Ghana, to the incredulous welcome of Kadua and family, for whom a walk of eight miles was an unimaginable feat for a white man and honour for the family. We stayed in a rather mosquito-ridden thatched hut that night to the amazement of Buabin, Kadua’s village, having paid our respects to her chief. On another occasion we took Dennis along too, for I have shown him quite a bit of his own country during my visits: his first view of the ocean, first ships, Akasombo Dam, the coastal castles and a lot more besides. But the walks to Buabin stand out.
Later… THE WEDDING
Well, where to start! What a day! A lot of fun and a grand wedding day. I was proud of my son. It’s been colourful, noisy, tuneful, interesting, amusing and rather impressive. It can’t be said to have been the ‘modest’ affair that I was advising – but then, I am not of this culture.
Just before ten we all decamped to the church, many in a decrepit tro-tro, rented to make a couple of runs, some of we ‘executives’ in Perry’s Merc. Already hundreds were gathering, dressed in their finest and most colourful, elaborate bright, frilled costumes full of furbelows for the women; many of the men in traditional smocks, since this was a wedding between two northern tribes. I was happy to be in my smock, not that the only white skin in the gathering would in any way disappear in the crowd. Holy Cross is a big church, well attended. It’s an ugly triangular structure of steel beams and perforated block, a squared semi-circular sort of shape with seating for several hundred. Fans whirled and the music was beginning to set the cheerful African tone. I must say, if I have to be trapped in a church for two hours and twenty six minutes for a catholic mass, I’d much rather it be in Ghana than Italy (the last time was with my young girlfriend Elena in Rome and I descended into a terrible bad temper at all the pompous theatricals!). Today the music was wonderful! Rich African beats and those exhilarating high-pitched vocal tones so characteristic of African voices. Frequently throughout the service we had interludes of happy music: a drum set, African drums, harmonium and many various rattles and shakers. The choir danced as they sang, music running right through their bodies. It’s impossible to stay still. Your feet begin to tap and before you know it you are swaying with the rest of them – a little more restrained maybe, but still on the move with the fast, rhythmic, excitingly cheerful music.
The wedding proceedings took place first. Emmanuella was brought forward by her brother, representing the family, for her mother is a widow. Beneath an arch of balloons, she looked pretty in her slim white dress and veil, white gloves and sparkly jewellery. She was attended by her maid of honour in bright lime green, the colour chosen for the wedding: groom and best man’s neckties, dresses and table decorations. An elder of her family clan introduced her to the congregation while the groom waited in front of us all before the altar steps.
I suppose the marriage service took roughly traditional lines but it was a noisy affair. We all shuffled forward to the offertory boxes in each side of the altar and greeted bride and groom amidst some terrific, throat-lumping music. As I passed Dennis, he leapt up to embrace me enthusiastically, happily enjoying the big day in his neat black suit and lime green tie and extreme winkle-pickers, the rage this year.
The priest kept his – (looong!) – sermon surprisingly light-hearted and then came the vows and finally Dennis, showman that he is, made a drama of lifting the veil to kiss his wife to ecstatic cheers and ululations from the crowd.
So far so good. I was enjoying it all. Then came the mass of course, with all its ritual and symbolism and theatricality that I find so difficult to take. Thank goodness for the music from the happy band and choirs. Later we were encouraged to give again, a collection this time for the bride and groom, called ‘Wedding Solidarity’. I’d put a token in the first collection for the catholic church (richest organisation in the world – with generally poorest adherents), now I put in a tenner!
There was, at least, an attractive informality about the proceedings. People were trotting forward with ubiquitous phone cameras all through the service and many of the congregation swung along with the music.
Finally, wedding documents signed, last homilies delivered, announcements made, it was over and we were dismissed. The reception was taking place in the yard outside, fortunately with trees to add shade to the canopies we erected yesterday. It was a chaotic next half hour as everyone tried to get photos, greeted old friends and generally ignored the MC’s attempts to get us all to the next part of the proceedings – getting seated for the speeches and other formalities. I was on the top table near the bride and groom and the other close families and special guests. Half a dozen bottles of fizzy wine were uncorked in a lively fashion, food was served – rice, beans, bits of cow, a dash of coleslaw and a sprinkling of cold baked beans (always popularly added to make meals in West Africa more exotic). Speeches were made; a toast offered; a lively Kassena/ Nankani tribal dance took place; prayers were said and both the families made symbolic traditional gifts to the bride and groom – hoes for farming, bowls for cooking, utensils for carrying water, cloths for dresses – all such that the wife could look after the husband and vice versa.
The photography continued chaotically. It was much easier before almost every member of the wedding party – who must have numbered about 300 or 400 – had camera phones! But at last all the gods of all the cameras were pacified and we were able to begin to get home. It was three o’clock, with sun beating down…
Back at the house closer friends and tribesmen could be entertained less expensively, for the reception sensibly involved only soft drinks. Giving alcohol to all those people would have been impossible. Even the fruit juices cost well over £100. The comings and goings of the party in the yard has continued long into the evening. Well, it feels long, but looking at the top of my iPad as I am thinking strongly about bed, I see that it is all of 8.35!
I am exhausted, quite exhausted. Poor Gladys is dead on her feet, driven right and left, up and down the whole day. Despite her obvious condition, Frank sits and calls her to fetch and carry for the guests. I don’t mean to be particularly critical of him, he is an African man, typical of them all. I sincerely hope the new generation behaves differently. Women in Africa do ninety per cent of the work. No men would accept the conditions they wish upon their wives – the majority of whom still accept the situation… As I was about to slip away to bed I heard the call go up from a plastic chair that ‘we need water in case of lights off in the morning’, so Gladys, almost hobbling from tiredness, is expected to walk with her women friends (who have been working since four a.m) several hundred yards to a kiosk down the street and carry back 20 kilos of water in bags – while seven men lounge deep in their chairs. I went with them and shouldered back a bag, to the astonishment and slightly scandalised horror of the kiosk owner. “I am angry!” I said. “African men are SO damned lazy! They do nothing but sit and command! You have to change this! Look, my sister works all day like her husband. They are equal wage earners now. They should begin to share the work too.” Actually, Frank is retired now, so even that’s not true.
On the day of a marriage it is interesting that I end up concentrating on one of the most shameful aspects of African life: men’s treatment of women. I just hope Dennis has taken note of some of my lectures on the subject!
Well, it’s been fun to be part of my African son’s big day. He has treated me with much fondness and respect. My fascination for Ghanaian life may be waning but this relationship comes closer year by year. I am happy for this odd direction in my life!