This is Abena, the conference coordinator and my date for the evening!
Here are some of the TA’s at the institute. Eva, on the left is my TA.
This is Samia, Kwame Nkrumah’s eldest daughter!
My grad buddies, Rasta and Quinton, rocking our cloth.
Professor Fatou Sow.
Post dance Ngugi wa Thiong’o!
The Director of the Institute and I.
The event coordinators and TA’s who made it all possible.
I wake up Sunday morning and gloomily look into my closet. “What dos it matter what I wear today”, I tell myself. “The conference is over”.
I consider myself extremely fortunate that I am here for graduate school at the same time that this celebration took place for my institute. The past three days have been both fun and inspiring.
The theme of the entire conference was “Revisiting the First Congress of Pan Africanists”. These individuals met in Ghana over 50 years ago, laying the foundation for an Africa that is free, determined, and proud of the diverse histories, peoples, and cultures that cover the continent.
Over the past three days both African and international scholars, dignitaries, students and compassionate individuals have met in the spirit of African unity, pride, and progress.
I may have played a small role in all of this but I felt as if I was taking part in a particular point in history- a change of direction for Africa.
I have always had an appreciation for our ever-changing world. Like the ill fate of the dinosaurs, great human civilizations have also risen to their zenith only to fall to their demise. What is left behind, be it the fossils of the terrible lizards or a once golden city reduced to dust, I garner happiness from knowing that I have both grown out of and become heir to a collective past. My fascination with cultures and histories outside my own blossomed at the University of Vermont as I immersed myself in anthropology and political science; the former heightening my cultural sensitivity and the later developing my understanding of political systems and good governance.
Now a disciple of Africa I am driven by hope that an African Renaissance is on the horizon. Meanwhile, I am happy experiencing all that Ghana graciously shares with me. I love the pride I feel in bridging values and potential between Africa and the land that made me- America, my home.
After three days of everything African I was stoked for the “Invite Only” Farewell Banquet. I had procured an invite from the conference coordinators- several TA’s running all the behind the scene action. Some of the altruism in my volunteering to set up was lost with the reward.
I find myself back at the great hall for this final celebration admiring how the space has been transformed. The prospect of being spoiled with good music, food, and company makes me giddy.
As guests arrive I circulate the room trying to snap off candid shots. Sometimes I get puzzled looks.
To the left, Ngugi wa Thiong’o the famous Kenyan writer, on the right is Fatou Sow.
To the left, Dr. Luke Hodgkin the son of the Institute’s first director, Thomas Hodgkin. At center, Professor George P. Hagan, a past director of the Institute.
I am ecstatic to witness Ngugi wa Thiong’o take the podium. Ngugi (pronounced GOO-GEE) is a novelist, essayist, playwright, journalist, editor, academic and social activist from Kenya. He lived through the Mau Mau War of Independence and was later imprisoned without charge for a controversial play that criticized the inequalities and injustices of Kenyan society. After his release he was exiled until the Moi dictatorship fell in 2002. At 75 years old he continues to be a voice of and for Africa.
Even up on stage he is affable. His demeanor is of one standing for a toast at dinner rather than addressing the couple of hundred people filling the ballroom tonight. His fine-tuned words slip through his crooked teeth and the audience matches his frequent laughs without cue.
But his speech is also determined to instill urgency for change.
He raises the imperative that African hold on to the tongues of their ancestors and cherish their beauty. There are thousands of languages spoken on the African continent, each one preserving a culture that is truly unique. While people the world over will speak English, French or Spanish, nowhere in the world can native speakers of Ewe, Twi, Swahili Amharic or Gikuyu be found. Ngugi hints that you can know all of the languages of the world but are still enslaved if you do not own your mother tongue. Empowerment comes from knowing your mother tongue and then adding all of the languages of the world on top. Ngugi wa Thiong’o receives a standing ovation and an escort down from the stage.
Where he proceeds to absolutely boogie all over the dance floor.
I cannot possibly pass up the opportunity. I dance with Ngugi wa Thiong’o in Ghana’s Great Hall.
Also on the dance floor is Kwame Nkrumah’s eldest daughter, Samia and the Institute’s first African director J H Kwabena Nketia. He is 92 years old.
Here is Ngugi with the Director.
Earlier in the night I buy a copy of Ngugi’s most recent book, “Wizard of the Crow”. I bring it over to his table, introduce myself, and ask him to sign it. He says, “Oh, what’s this? It’s my book. I love signing my own books” and pens in this simple and awesome message.
The next morning I find myself in the presence of Professor Fatou Sow, a renowned Senegalese Sociologist and champion of Women and Gender in Africa.
She apologizes for her poor English but continues to deliver a riveting speech on Women’s Citizenship when culture, religion and politics clash. Living in Ghana makes it easy to forget that so much of Africa, especially West Africa, speaks French as she does.
Prof. Sow talks about the modern Pan-African woman and the importance of holding on to cultural originality. She stresses that African women cannot be empowered or effect change unless they demand to have their voices and opinions heard. Another point she beautifully illustrates is the necessity to take ownership over and pride in the black body and teaching African children to do the same.
Later that night I am back at the Institute for the first ever AFRIFEST Fashion show. I have never been to a fashion show but in the spirit of the conference I am more than excited to be here this night. Over the last couple of days the runway was built in the Institute’s parking lot. Consistent camera flashes reveal hundreds of spectators, both conference participants and interested locals, sitting on both sides of the open runway. I snag a chair from the back and make my own front row. Playing photographer is fun.
The theme of the show is “the stages of life in Ghana”. Each designer has tailored their creations to one level (Birth, Entering Adulthood, Marriage, and Death). Ghana’s national dance ensemble performs interpretive and theatrical dances leading into each run.
The Deputy Director of the Institute takes the stage in his pink, green and blue shirt. His swag and smile are telling of how excited he is to be on stage.
After the show some of us take to the stage for our own photos. Here I am (unfocused is the norm for Ghanaians using my camera) as well as the Directors, TA’s and some Graduate students.
Check out the photos of the dance performances and models in the following posts. See if you can figure out which ones correspond to the appropriate life stage.
I tuck the colorful money into the breast pocket of my shirt and I thank the driver with, “Me da wa se”. The taxi door slams shut behind me and I turn in the direction of the great tower. I am being watched. A small girl helping who I assume is her mother set up a food stand has stopped in her tracks. She smiles big and waves. I return the same before I embark up the stairwell.
Two Ghanaian police officers, arms crossed, clad in dark blue and anchored by shiny black military boots give me an up and down stare before turning back to their conversation. How do they know I am here for the opening ceremony of the International Conference on African Studies? Maybe my outfit gives it away.
This is my institute’s 50th anniversary celebration cloth. Six yards of fabric, a long walk to a local tailor, and a total of $40 lands me this awesome new outfit to sport at the three day conference / celebration held by my school. It all starts this day.
Up in the University’s Great Hall I find my course mate Quinton posted in a prime picture taking section of the seats. I snag a chair next to him and we commend each other’s cloth outfits. Ghana can change any guys fashion sense.
We sit waiting, a cool sweat on the back of my neck, and I comment on how small the security is. According to the itinerary in my hand the President of Ghana himself, his Excellency John Dramani Mahama is due to arrive shortly.
Quinton leans over and points to his watch. It reads 9:00 AM on the dot. He smiles and suggests we place bets on what time the President actually arrives.
Just then a commotion stirs behind us and a woman on the microphone asks the audience to please rise for the President of Ghana. A large posse briskly walks down the aisle, though I do not see the President until he is on stage. We are on schedule!
The Director of the Institute (and my professor), delivers the welcome address and my excitement grows. The spoken word performance is presented by Prof. Atukwei Okai, the Secretary General of the Pan African Writers Association. He has a deep bellowing voice and seems to sing as he speaks.
The keynote speaker is Dr. Carlos Lopes, UN under Secretary General and Executive Secretary of UN Economic Commission for Africa. He highlights the importance of this conference for the continent and the world community. As he notes, it is even more important than the UN convention taking place in Dakar at the same time that he is expected to attend.
I straighten up in my seat as the President takes the podium. An alumnus of the University of Ghana himself, President Mahama is only the second standing President to deliver a speech at the Great Hall. Before him was Ghana’s founding father, first president and proponent for the creation of the Institute of African studies, the late Dr. Kwame Nkrumah. The historical and symbolic significance of this speech has captured more than my attention.
These are a few of my favorite lines.
“History is nothing more than a story… an anecdote; it is a tale that is told over and over again until it is accepted as truth. What does it mean, then, for a continent to have no stories? What happens when a people are made to believe that the events and emotions of their lives are not worthy of narration?”
The President charges the audience with the task of preserving Africa’s past and leading future generations in a quest for an African centered narrative. I rise to contribute to the standing ovation.
From left to right: IAS Director, Vice Chancellor of the University, President Mahama, Dr. Carlos Lopes
Once the ceremony concludes the president is escorted out a side door, into a sea of military police and soldiers, and departs in a motorcade of black SUV’s, police trucks, and motorcycles.
Outside the Great Hall the departing audience hydrates and mingles. Several buses pull up ready to shuttle us back down the hill to the Institute of African Studies.
For the next three days I sit in on panels where scholars from across Africa and the rest of the world present their current research.
Here is my friend Quinton presenting his paper on Rebellion in the Slave Trade to Bermuda, his home.
The institute is buzzing with the cross-pollination of academics and students of African studies. I find myself in conversations with an array of interesting and inspiring individuals. Though I have little to say for my own part, I have two big ears with which to listen. In one ear I hear of success and in the other failure but everywhere around me I see only smiles.
On the walk back to my room that first night I stop by a drinking spot I had never noticed before. I order a Star beer draft and take the glass stein to an outside table. With the sun near down, the world around me is dimly lit. I sit, sip and stare out onto campus thinking about my life.
The feeling is concrete.
I am exactly where I am meant to be.
As soon as the judges move on our table is swamped with hungry spectators. The fruit salad disappears into a few quick hands and the plated chili vanishes into the mob. I spoon out the extra chili left in the pot and for once I get to say one of the most common expressions in Ghana, “IT’S FINISHED”.
And then everyone dances.
And so do I.
Whipping out Weekend at Bernies moves.
And not getting the Ghanaian Azonto moves.
Until finally the winners and prizes are announced…
We are not the worst. We are not the second worst. We are fourth place!
We are commended on a very nice desert presentation, creativity and bringing a new edge to the competition. We lose marks because our food is not plastic wrapped. I chuckle when I realize that of all the issues I had to consider it was sanitation that I fell short of.
I am totally down with the contents of the gift basket- vegetable oil, 1 kg of jasmine rice, a platter, GRASAG composition notebooks, and other cooking materials. And I get to keep the sweet shirt and red apron!
The music plays on, Ghanaians continue to dance, and the competitors clean up their dishes. The day finally catches up with me and I start thinking about a nice afternoon nap.
Cooking is fun but exhausting.