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Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Sights and Sounds of Christmas in Ghana

Christmas in Ghana is a fascinating beast. I can tell that today, the day after Ghana's official celebration of Eid, Christmas began. It isn't because silver bells ring out from every street corner, and it sure isn't because of the snow. And although it is unfamiliar to me, Christmas in Ghana has its own sort of magic. There is something in the air here too, there are quite moments of family, there is some gift giving with all the excitement but none of the pressure. And, at least in Cape Coast, there is a sort of trick-or-treating mixed with a play on colonialism.

I can tell Christmas is upon us because each and every one of the main roads was horrifically choked with traffic. I don't know where the cars come from exactly, whether they drive in from afar to shop or visit family or just magically appear like some evil reverse-rapture. Tomorrow I have my last interview for my dissertation project before government workers break for the holiday. I will very likely have to walk the entire 3-4 miles between my house and the Ministries just to make it on time.

I can tell because it grows daily hotter, climbing up into the 90s. And we begin to feel the dusty hotness of the annual Harmattan winds that blow down from the Sahara.

I can tell because restaurants and stores are decked out. Christmas decoration, if not improved in quality, has certainly multiplied in quantity since I last spend the holidays here in 2003. I am convinced that part of this is the fortuitous coincidence that Ghana's national colors are red, yellow and green. Because Ghana just hosted its 50 year independence celebration last March, there are lots of red and green banners available in storage. More delightful still, while sitting in the internet cafe, I am currently being assaulted to some godforsaken electric Christmas music, the sound of so many tortured kazoos. And I think it is being produced by a quasi sentient strand of lights. Uh oh. I think the lights just winked at me. They know!

A friend who visited me here described Ghana as "100 percent market" because each and every available square foot of public space is formally and informally devoted to retail. This time of year, the ubiquitous street hawkers press their wares with extra eagerness. Each wood carving, painting, necklace or craft is wrapped in a smile and then tied with the ribbon of friendliness. Everyone has a story of why you should buy from them.

Gift giving in Ghana is an art I have yet to master, but one that I truly admire. Lately I have been disenchanted with gift-giving in the US. Too often we exchange lists of things we would like that our loved ones can mechanically check off. Or worse still, the pre-ordained exchange of gift cards. My sister loves gift cards, so often I am asked to buy her a specific gift card for Christmas and told she will give me one. While I can appreciate the convenience, it takes some of the magic out of it for me. This year we aren't sending gifts home and our families aren't sending us gifts here either. The postage (and potentially corrupt postal workers) just isn't worth it. But my husband and I will give gifts to several Ghanaian families.

This is always somewhat awkward for me, because I never know how a Ghanaian is going to react. I mentioned earlier on this blog that I gave my friend a few nice pots and pans that I brought her from the US, because good quality cookware is difficult to obtain and very expensive here. But apparently that is the kind of gift a mother gives a daughter for her wedding. On my second major trip to Ghana I gave my host mother a beautiful wind chime with angels on it. Folks here are very religious, and I was pretty sure she would like it. After I handed off the package, I dully followed her from room to room, eagerly waiting for her to unwrap it (like a typical American). She dutifully walked from room to room seeking the privacy to open the present in private (like a typical Ghanaian). I unwittingly had her cornered before she explained the custom to me.

Christmas with most Ghanaian Christian families is sort of what you would expect. Home decorations are uncommon but increasingly popular with the wealthy, including fake Christmas trees and bright sparkly garlands. Mothers and grandmothers gather in the kitchen and prepare a spread of traditional Ghanaian foods, which might include the spicy Jollof rice with fish, rich peanut soup with goat meat, boiled west African "yams" with a spicy spinach sauce, or even fried rice and chicken.

And then there is Cape Coast at Christmas. Cape Coast was the capital during colonial times. It was the city I lived in when I first came to Ghana as a student in 2000. I went back in 2003 for Christmas. I remember, the drums start fairly early in the morning. They seem distant, but they are coming from everywhere. Bit by bit the sound gets closer. I go to our front door, and find a group of children and youth, all decked out in brightly colored home-sewn costumes. The oldest boys drum while the others dance energetically. It is thrilling and fun and fabulous. I am laughing with delight and clapping my hands and soon I am trying to join in. My Ghanaian host mother explains that they go from house to house performing, and each little costumed performer carries his own little box, much like the slot-topped boxes of school children on Valentines. They will drum and dance until you put coins into their box. Sometimes they come around in small groups, lead by an older boy in his young teens. Other times one or two will small children will come around escorted by an adult. Sometimes they come around shyly, sometimes they are quite bold. During Cape Coast's traditional parade of chiefs, held annually in August, these troops perform all together, and the children are joined by similarly costumed adults who do acrobatics. But at Christmas this little traveling performance is just for the children.


Megan said...

Thank you for sharing your stories and giving a glimpse into another culture. Happy xmas and New Year's.

Erin said...

Thanks megan. As someone who has spent a lot of time living in West Africa I really enjoy introducing other people into a more rounded view of living there. Too often we only get one-sided views of life in Africa from mainstream media.

Happy holidays to you too!

Anonymous said...

This is absolute brilliant, makes me miss Ghana so much, childhood memories is all I have left. I will return back somewhere next year and experience the awesome feeling of Africa once again. Arise Ghana here I come. Well done writer. Loved reading.

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