Friday, September 12, 2008

Cape Coast Festival - Gods, Priests, and Blood

Walking back in an awestruck daze, Rebecca’s high-pitched voice sang from behind me, “You have dirt on your shirt”. I stopped in the middle of the street, my back still turned to her, thinking about what I had just witnessed. The brush of her hand on my back woke me from the solitude of my reflection. The street was crowded with people, but less congested than it had been only a few minutes ago. We walked in the opposite direction of the decapitated bull, which was now being paraded through the town of Cape Coast on a rusting wooden wagon. “It’s not dirt” she said both disgusted and intrigued. “It’s blood”.

We arrived in Cape Coast on Thursday evening. We stayed in the Savoy hotel. The agenda for the night: To watch the fetish priests dance. It was late and I was tiered, but the town was excited – alive. Part of me wanted to fall asleep to the whooshing sound of the ceiling fan, the other part of me craved adventure and experience.

We walked through the streets of cape coast, towards the sea, in the direction of the cape coast castle. A row of ducks following our student leader at a pace no quicker than a slow meander. The streets were lined with people and stands – popcorn. small shops – hair weaves. clothing. cloth. Drinks and biscuits. Music blared. The horns of taxi cabs filled the streets along with the sound children calling out, “Obruni. Obruni” – A greeting that I now answer to on a regular basis. A name that I have taken as part of my own. We finally arrived at the sacred site where the dancing was to take place. It was an alleyway, only slightly wider than the two parallel roads it connected. On the corner was a small enclosed area, 15 by 15 feet, surrounded by a brick wall between five and six feet tall. A single tree stood proudly in the enclosed area, adding a hint of greenery to an otherwise filthy, garbage littered road. As we moved closer, I noticed wooden benches had been set up creating a rectangular pin in the street. Men and women draped in beautiful fabric sat on the benches directly in front of the brick wall. A group of three younger men sat opposite them, tightening the heads of their drums.

A woman dressed in a dark, shiny robe, holding a small bowl moved toward the open area, formed by the benches. She reached into the bowl and began to sprinkle what looked like white sand on the ground in front of us. She moved quickly, with precision, drawing a large ring, which marked the space where the dancing would take place. She painted a second smaller circle directly in the center of the first, indicating the center of the second circle with an X. She sat back down. A tall, muscular man, who had a build more like a roman god than a mere human being, walked to the center holding a glass bottle. He held the bottle high above his head and poured the liquid onto the X drawn on the dirt.

I had just read about this in a book – he was offering alcohol to the ancestors, who are believed to be the intermediaries between the human world and the divine. In African culture, both the Gods and the ancestors are believed to be inside the earth. In the ground. The fetish priests are thought to be possessed by the Gods, presenting themselves in the form of dancing and movement. Once the offering had been made, the dancing begun. One after another, priests and priestesses, danced in a circle, accompanied by the sound of drums. Heel to toe. Heel to toe. The movements were quick and stilted, each person using a stick to direct their bodies. Although claustrophobia and exhaustion caused many of us to leave early, the dancing went on late into the night.

The following day a bull was to be sacrificed in honor of Tabir.

I learned that Ghana has 77 total deities and that each God is assigned to one particular region. Although the powers of the Gods are not limited to that particular geographical area, each region is responsible for celebrating a specific god once of year. The God of Cape Coast is Tabir, the God of protection and a sacrifice must be made for those who have passed away as well as those who will pass away that year.

The bull was tied to the railing of a white washed cement staircase in the courtyard of the castle next to a pile of cannon balls left over from the days of the slave trade. The bull was large but thin, not like the heartily feed bulls I saw in India. It was strange looking at this bull as a sacrifice instead of a holy being. Only two months ago I was in a country where this animal would have been treated with the utmost respect.

A small group of students were invited to go down to the altar, which was located in one of the old cells, previously used to hold prisoners during the slave trade. It was dark and damp – just as I remembered it from our last trip to Cape Coast although this time the smell of blood now filled the room. The altar comprised of four white cement stairs. On the top stair, sat the head of a small goat. Eyes open staring into the distance, past the cave-like entrance. In the corner, two men hunched over the body of the bloody kid. The sound of a machete echoed against the rock walls. I placed a cedi on the bottom step of the altar, along with other offerings. The priest, dressed in unremarkable clothing stood on the step of the alter, a small bowl raised up in the air. He began a series of libations. Unrecognizable words spewed from his lips as he spattered a blessed mixture of alcohol, water and the goat’s blood from his hands onto the altar. Once he had finished the prayers he offered to bless us. I stepped forward and reached out my hands. He poured the liquid into my palms – prayers slipping through my fingers.

The bull was then led from the Cape Coast Castle, to where the fetish priests danced the night before. We waited with the children at the castle entrance. The bull finally came through the gate, led by a young man with a rope around the bulls neck and another in back, controlling a rope tied to the hind legs. The bull was forced into the gated area with the tree and the group of priests and priestesses. Men and women in red and black robes – calm & beautiful. Hundreds of people gathered around, climbing on top of the wall, on top of each other, to catch a glimpse of the sacrifice. One swift downward motion with the machete and the bull was on the ground. I was in the middle of the crowd. Slowly, the mob pushed me to the front (because I’m white and foreign and a woman). The guard at the gate opened the rod iron bars slightly and pulled me through. Into the courtyard. Blood everywhere. A small river on the ground. A priest cleaning the bloody machete in front of me. Men and women dressed in black and red with green wreathes atop their heads. The same picture i painted only 5 years ago, hanging in our living room. I was seeing it come to life.

I don't think it really hit me - how real it all was - until we walked back. Away from the crowd and the bull and the blood. It didn't really hit me until I turned around to see the fibrous red clump of particles resting peacefully on Rebecca's index finger. The "dirt" she had removed from the back of my shirt.

Love from Accra.

Monday, September 1, 2008

First Week of School and an African Sunrise

No, I have not fallen off the face of the planet!! I’m still here. still healthy. still happy. In typical African fashion, so much and relatively very little has happened in the couple of weeks since my last post.

For one thing, school has officially begun! We are entering into our second week of class and I’m still slightly uncertain about which courses I am taking, where they are held, and who is teaching them. I have spent the last two weeks crawling through the web of organized chaos that defines registering for courses at the University of Ghana.

The process requires a map of the campus, 6 passport photographs, and a whole lot of patience. In order to take courses in a particular department (economics, political science, history, etc) you have to physically walk to the department, fill out a form, attach a passport photo and sign your name next to each course title you are interested in taking. Sounds fairly simple, until you realize that you will be taking 6 classes in 4 departments and the course schedules don’t come out in any particular order. It’s kind of like a big scavenger hunt except, you don’t know exactly what you are looking for and aren’t quite sure about the rules.

The first week, I managed to make it to eight classes (missing two others because I couldn’t figure out where the classes were to be held). However, only one of the eight professors showed up. Apparently some were on strike and others felt they needed a longer holiday. I guess it happens every year. I should have known something was up when I began to notice that the only people in my classes were Ghanaian freshman (who, just like at any university, are expected to know nothing about anything) and “Obrunis”, meaning white people in Twi (who know even less).

Slowly however, things are falling into place and my schedule is shaping up to include: Literature of the Black Diaspora, International Conflict & Conflict Resolution, Refugees & International Relations, Colonial Rule and African Response, Twi, and Intro to African Drumming.

In an instant of impulsive insanity, I also agreed to join the cross-country team which means 5:30am runs 5 days a week. Training has only just begun but I have a strong feeling that this time in the morning will be my saving grace. There was a moment this morning during the last quarter mile when I felt invincible, like nothing could touch me. Maybe it was the endorphins, or the realization that I am in Ghana, or the feeling that if I pushed a little further I would be able to go on forever. Whatever the reason, in that moment, I could not imagine being anywhere else in the world missing that beautiful African sunrise.

It was like all of the good energy and happiness from every corner of the earth was wrapped up into a glowing circle peeking from behind a horizon lined with trees.

To steal the words of Mr. Mayer:
You should have seen that sunrise
With your own eyes
It brought me back to life…

Love from Accra!!!