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  • Writer's pictureThe Old Farmyard Forceleap Farm

Samne drums were beating!

Last weekend we went to a festival in the village of Samne, just outside Langbinsi. The festival happens across the Muslim North, originally a celebration of the birth of the Prophet Mohammed, it is now celebrated by all faiths and, as far as I can tell, has basically become an excuse for a good old knees up! Unusually, for the North, Samne has a female chief called the queen mother, and she is using this festival to promote community development. Many rural communities here suffer from a brain drain, as those who are educated often move to the cities, and then intentionally or not, lose contact with their family and hometown. Her aim is to give this diaspora a pride in the community they come from, and to remind them of their duty to it. She also wants to promote general community development, and so with all this in mind, local big wigs such as the MP, regional water company reps, the health insurance director, district assembly man etc would all be there, and James, as manager of the Agric station was expected to attend. So, we went with him.

We arrived and were escorted through a large crowd gathered around the Queen Mother’s palace. A clear piece of ground had been prepared for the occasion, with seating arranged in a square around it and awnings erected overhead for shade. It was packed! A small nervous hand, belonging to Mikey, slipped itself into mine and James took control of Toby, as we were passed through the press of bodies and into the open. It was quite intimidating as, being the only white people there; we could not exactly slip in unnoticed! We had to present ourselves to the Queen Mother, who sat impressively on a raised platform, clad in a beautiful sky blue cloth, and surrounded by all of her advisors, dressed in their colourful traditional smocks and gowns of the North, (complete with quite a lot of sunglasses and mobile phones to remind us what century we are in!). The boys had to crouch before the queen mother, and she smiled at them and invited us with a gesture to sit with the big wigs to her left, so we got to sit on a plastic chair (rather than a wooden bench or on the floor). I have to say, it was a full-on experience; perhaps a little too full on for Mikey, who nervously sat on my lap with his fingers stuffed into his ears. Troupes of dancers sometimes gently swaying, sometimes wildly spinning, with their traditional smocks billowing out around them, advanced and retreated like waves towards the main protagonists seated around the Queen Mother. As they advanced, they would pull a dignitary out of the crowd, and he or she would have a sort of “dance off” with one of the dancers. If the dignitary put on a good enough display (lots of panache required!), the lead dancer would admire their skills and then allow them back to their chair. If the dignitary was reluctant at all, or was rather too half-hearted in his efforts, he or she would be expected to pay the dancers to dance for him, by sticking notes to their sweaty foreheads. These are then collected by the dancer’s boy, as this is the traditional way that dancers are paid on these occasions.

Every kind of drum was on display, from the big bass drums impassively resting on large wooden stands on the edge of the stage, to the talking drums tucked under the arm of various small boys, as well as tom toms and even tiny finger drums, all beating different rhythms, but somehow all in time with each other, and being played without pause. Rattles joined the rhythm, made from cowrie shells either tied to the dancer’s ankles or being attached to a calabash. And all this, accompanied by the whining of a local stringed instrument a bit like a violin, called a “Gonji,” which (being modern day Ghana) was being amplified through an enormous speaker, at ear piercing levels.

There was a cacophony of noise, which ebbed and flowed, sometimes it almost withered away, but then it would build to a deafening crescendo, with several groups of musicians all playing with an intensity and insistence, that really is quite hypnotic. I always find it amazing that there is never a conductor or central figure directing the music at these events. It is much more like watching groups of musicians jamming, rather than a musical performance, they just spontaneously play, playing through any mistake, the beat never wavering. But it is so natural here, and goes on, and on, and on…without a pause. It had already been going since midday, when we arrived at 4pm, and James assured me it would carry on all night, probably finishing sometime in the late morning the next day… and there will be no interval! People will simply come, join in, and then go off and get food or rest, and others will replace them. It is made even more extraordinary when you consider there will have been no rehearsal, no cast list, no plan, as well as no director. Toby loved it as it was loud and full on, Mikey less so as it was too loud and too full on. Kobe (James’ son, who is the same age as Mikey) joined the Mikey camp, especially when the youth of the community started letting off their homemade guns (which make a heck of a bang, more like pipe bombs really!) They then presented these guns to the Queen Mother, and I noticed that several were made with rebar welded into the shape of a stock. Once the inspection was completed (probably for the umpteenth time), they retreated to carry on making bangs just outside the crowd.

It was great, and Toby (our demolition man in the making) was in 7th heaven with all the explosions and smoke. After about 20 minutes or so, we made our way out of the press and Mikey and Kobe immediately locked themselves in the back of the car, to prove a point that they had had enough. Toby, meanwhile, had made friends with a pissed bloke who insisted on giving him his telephone number as, apparently, he was his new best friend!

One afternoon last week, we went on another little excursion after school to Nalarigu. This is our regional capital and about 35km East of Langbinsi. As we arrived on the outskirts of town, we stopped at a local site, to look at the remnants of a rather broken-down wall. Built around 200 years ago by the then paramount chief, it was intended to make Nalarigu into a walled town, to protect it against attack, by both neighbouring tribes and slave raiders, but there is not much of it left now. Sections do still emerge out of the undergrowth and then melt away again. It was reputedly built by captured slaves, who used honey and milk to make the mortar. Grizzlier was the fact that any slave who died during construction, was simply added to the wall and mortared in. This means there are reports of human remains being washed out of the wall from time to time, and that really got the boys imagination going… resulting in some interesting artwork the next day!!

We then went on to visit BMC (Baptist Medical Centre) which is the main hospital locally. It was started in the 1950s, by American Baptist missionary doctors. A father (John) and then the son (Phil), alongside the Baptist Missions Society that supported them, set it up and ran it until just a few years ago. People often say that my work in Ghana is amazing, but when you come across people like them, it makes you feel like a fraud in comparison. It is truly remarkable to see what they have achieved over two generations. Apart from building the hospital from scratch, they were fantastic linguists, speaking Mampruli better than most locals and writing first the Mampruli dictionary and then translating the Bible into Mampruli! I must admit to being envious of that linguistic ability, NOT one I share, I am afraid. Although they have now retired, they are still involved, and I think visit from time to time, as well as sending specialists and a steady stream of medical students from the States. I often get asked if I am working at BMC, as that is where most white people in the area are to be found. A few years ago, one of the American medical students, driving through Mimima (a community near Langbinsi) hit and killed a child. He fled the scene, (understandably fearful of the local reaction) and he drove back to the hospital, where he hid. Soon there was a mob of angry locals at the hospital gate, demanding he was handed over to face local justice. Phil came out in the dark, climbed onto a pillar and faced the angry mob. That must have taken some balls! I was told that he spoke to them in perfect Mampruli, drawing on years of service in that community, he pulled out individuals who he had delivered, treated their parents or saved their children. He told them proverbs and stories from Mampruli culture that was relevant to the case, and spoke so eloquently, that he convinced the mob to calm down and go home, and they agreed to leave the case with him to handle. Now, that is truly knowing a language! At the hospital we visited various wards, ending at the children’s ward. There were about 30 sick children, all on drips of either blood or fluids, mostly suffering from anaemia or Malaria. I think it was quite a sobering experience for the boys and, understandably (but somewhat embarrassingly), their main concern was not for the kids in the ward, but for themselves as they asked, “If I am sick is this where you would take me?” The answer was, “Yes! ... if you forget to take your malaria pills!” I can report that I have had no issues getting the boys to take their malaria pills ever since!

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