Saturday, June 30, 2012

An American in Ghana

My curiosity was piqued when my colleague told me about his daughter, Emily Silver, who just returned to the United States from a semester abroad in Ghana, Africa. She is 21 years old, and a double major in Dance and Arts for Children, studying at The College at Brockport (NY State). She studied dance for most of her life, and now hopes to channel her childhood passion into a fulfilling adult career. 
After meeting her (and after hearing about her from her proud father!), I asked to interview her for this blog, as she demonstrates much passion, not only for life and dance, but also about her time in Africa.

Emily, what brought you to Africa? 
During this pivotal time in my life, I have done a lot of self reflection and come to recognize that my friends are my world, I am interested in the less glamorous walks of life, I enjoy finding hidden treasures and that I am a self proclaimed extremist and wouldn't have it any other way. I thrive off of challenge and I enjoy seeing, learning and exploring the path less traveled... I suppose that's how I ended up in Ghana.

Ever since I entered college I have planned on doing a semester abroad. However, I started thinking about going the less conventional route, once I joined the Sankofa African dance ensemble at The College at Brockport. While having my first taste of African dance, I also closely befriended a Ghanaian going to The College at Brockport, pursuing his MFA in dance. After years of being fascinated about his heritage,  enthralled by the electrifying spirit of West African dance and overcome by the traditional drumming rhythms, it
eventually seemed like a natural exploration for me to embark upon--even if it was a bit of a stretch, and certainly not the typical European trip most college students opt for.

Where did you stay?
For most of the semester, I stayed at the prestigious University of Ghana, in the International student hostel amongst international students from all around the world, as well as some Ghanaians. However, I spent most weekends exploring all of the surrounding
regions in and near Ghana, sleeping in the most remote rural villages literally straight out of National Geographic, and even eventually at my friend's house from my home college in Brockport, New York.

What were your activities while there?
Emily trying her hand at fufu!
For most of my time in Ghana, I was a full time performing arts student. This meant in addition to the brutal hike in the blazing heat to the dance studio (a converted barn), I was also dancing between 3-6 hours a day learning some of the many traditional, ritualistic dances West Africa has preserved and still uses in a very spiritual context. In addition to my dance studies, I spent a lot of time traveling, making foreign and Ghanaian friends, patronizing Ghana's remarkable beaches, braving the chaotic marketplaces and adjusting my palate to Ghanaian food. Most of my experiences were uncomfortable to say the
least, but once I was able to get past that, a whole new world of possibilities, friendships, culture, food and recreation was opened up to me.

Bracelets Emily brought back from Africa

What appealed to you the most?
Initially before coming to Ghana, I was most intrigued by the prospect of experiencing dance in a natural, ritualistic context. However, I very soon came to realize that almost all of the aspects of the Ghanaian lifestyle are quite different, and especially interesting when coming from a mecca like New York City. The kindness of the people, the deeply ingrained sense of community, the structured chaos, the lack of time orientation and appreciation of the simplest of things are all concepts that are a bit foreign to a New Yorker, but I was lucky enough to both observe and experience them. I found the resourcefulness of the people inspiring, the lack of materialism astounding and their contentment with so little thought-provoking. What appealed to me most in Ghana was the happiness that was apparent in places that many Americans would consider to be impoverished and in need of support and development. They may be in need of basic
resources, but there is no shortage of spirit.

What appealed to you less?
After spending about 5 months in Ghana I started to realize about midway through my experience that luxury and Western influence and comfort could actually be found-- although at a steep price. Every so often my friends and I would go out for foreign food of Thai, American, Indian and Italian influence, and on the weekends we would sometimes frequent European style night clubs. Although it was interesting to see cultural diffusion apparent all the way in Ghana, I felt like my time was best spent living like the Ghanaians who were certainly not experiencing luxuries like these. I think there is something to be said about acknowledging that Ghana is a lot more than the rugged huts and naked babies. However, at the same time, I was here to live and experience life in a way I cannot back at home, which made me believe my most impressionable experiences would be more
authentically Ghanaian.

Any regrets?
When first coming to Ghana I first interpreted the characteristic friendliness and helpfulness of the natives as aggression and forwardness. One of the major problems I experienced as a naive traveler was using individual experiences as my marker for generalized impressions. I would have one negative interaction that would then close me off to the more plentiful heartwarming experiences. Too many times, I believe I was rude and short with the natives because I was fearful of being taken advantage of, when their attempt at conversation and offers for assistance were completely genuine as Ghanaians generally are. My only regret is not softening my New Yorker hard shell earlier in the experience.

Any "Africa" plans going forward?
As of now my main goal is to successfully complete my last year of college. This being said, I think about my time in Ghana--maybe too often... And I still have too many unanswered questions; my adventurous spirit is still untamed. I sometimes think about visiting
Ghana in a few years, seeing the friends I thought I'd never see again and hopefully seeing the development that Ghana can desperately benefit from. Nothing would bring me more happiness than reuniting myself with the piece of my heart that I definitely left there.

While in Ghana, I also became really fascinated with the drastic differences in lifestyle, race, development and natural inhabitants between Ghana and South Africa. I am fearful that the seeds have been planted for my newest worldly curiosity; I doubt I'll be content until this curiosity is satisfied as well.

Message to Americans about Africa?
Back in NYC!
Let me be clear and say that my message to Americans does not come from a condescending place. I speak from my own experiences and observations and admit to being quite ignorant myself, before venturing into Africa. I would say that to acknowledge the side of the story that's less explored - be careful not to make generalizations - do not see the HUGE continent of Africa as one entity - be open to alternative styles of life... They work for many. And be wary about looking down upon developing countries, for we have lost a sense of the very fundamentals that bring them eternal happiness and contentment. Try saying hi to a stranger, walk them to their destination if they are lost, don't be so short with people, ask them about themselves, walk slow sometimes--just because you can, talk to your friends for hours, turn all the power out... What are you left with? Share everything you have with everyone. Ask yourself if you are richer or poorer. Realize that as Americans we have options- but have we always chosen the better

I appreciated Emily's thoughtfulness and the fact that spending this time in Ghana probably did not turn her assumptions upside down, as she already had an open mind and heart, but at least modified them. My hope is that many more Americans will visit Africa and realize that it is not as foreign as they thought.

In the NY Times Magazine, another take on Africa, by a Maine native of a different generation, Monica Wood.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Julius Essoka, Musician from Douala

Julius Essoka
After a couple of years on Twitter, I started following--or did he follow me? I don't remember!--@JuliusEssoka, who seemed to be living in Douala, Cameroon, and who was up at all hours, as he'd answer my tweets when it was late evening in New York, but in the wee hours of the night in Cameroon!
When I returned to Cameroon in January, I hoped to meet him. He braved the ridiculous traffic jams that are now a mainstay in Douala, to come visit us in our Deido neighborhood.
Julius Essoka works for MTN, in communications, by day. By night he is a talented musician. I brought back his CDs and mailed them to another African Twitter friend, Akenaata Hammagaadji, who has a weekly African music program: First World Music on .
Of course, first I listened to the CDs, and really liked some of the songs. I can't label them--some are Makossa-style, some reminiscent of African-jazzy House Music: it's quite a mix of styles.
I interviewed him via email to find out more about him.
Julius claims he has loved music since he was a baby. As per his bio, his dad would leave a Grundig tape recorder on when he was a kid, and he'd change the tapes to whatever caught his fancy. Later, he'd hang out at local "cabarets" and after a few years started playing in a band (one of the people he played with was Richard Bona, who now lives in the United States and got his U. S. start playing with Harry Belafonte, where my spouse and I first discovered him on a TV show). Between 1982 and 1994 he played with a variety of musicians, and went to Europe for the first time in 1994.  Since 1998, he produced two CDs: Jokin’at home (1998) and Epass'i n’Epassi (2008). The next one is anticipated for 2013.
At this point, he does not have musical influences per se, anymore, but he is inspired by those who remain wise and humble, despite having great career success. His collaborations are with old friends, who have become like family: the late Tom Yom's (in duet in Silane, he also wrote 2 songs for him; Lo dumea and Ebudu), Gino Sitson (also based in the U.S.) Fred Doumbe (who works with Les Nubians, amongst others), Xavier Mesa, and more.
Julius' musical style: African in general. His philosophy is to enjoy life and to make others happy; to lend a helping hand to those in need. His other passions in life are writing (he wrote novels, poems and children's tales) and... sleep: he doesn't go out much, so sleeping is his pleasure!
To hear some of Julius Essoka's music: (from Epass'i n’Epassi, my personal favorite).
Videos (you can see scenes of the city of Douala)
Meet him on Twitter @JuliusEssoka and on Facebook at Julius Essoka.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Le Pagne and African-made fashion

Display at R.W. King, Douala
One of the first stops I made while in Douala was to buy pagne, African fabric, at R.W. King.
Since a couple of years, women's clothing made with pagne is popping up in Saks Fifth Avenue and other upscale retailers' ads, at corresponding prices, in the many hundreds of dollars: Suno and Edun; in France, Toubab Paris.* In Edun's case, it certainly helps that a celebrity (Bono) and his spouse, Ali Hewson--are behind it.
These trademarks have one thing in common: non-African founders, which is sad, as the same thing happens in all design fields, and often not only for Africans, but all "developing" countries: if the designer is African (or Indian, or even Chinese), she/he is ignored by major Western media or trade representatives (retailers, galleries). On the other hand, when finally Africa joins the rest of the economically wealthy world, and I am convinced the day will come, this will become be a moot point.
I often wore dresses made in pagne when I was living in Cameroon, and all the seamstresses in Douala are accustomed to making them. When I showed my spouse's cousin, who not only sews clothes, but also creates complete wedding environments (decor and dresses), the ads torn from the New York Times for Suno and Edun, she was flabbergasted at the prices!
Of course I had to have at least one dress made, although I wasn't ready to pay for Dutch "wax" at a much higher price point than Cameroon-made fabric. The "wax" holds out better to the strains of time, but not only is it expensive, the designs are better-suited to a specific African wardrobe than for a Western-style dress.
R.W. King was one of the outposts of the European "comptoirs coloniaux," trading outposts that have their roots all the way to the Phoenicians with Carthage, in North Africa. They were used to import fabrics and more to Sub-Saharan African countries, and exporting raw materials to Europe. It's such an old-fashioned business that I couldn't even find an R.W. King website.

My new dress by Schekina
I returned from Cameroon with my own dress, as yet unworn because of the cool rainy season we've had in the Northeastern United States. Below are a few more photos of the Douala traditional kabas and mini-kabas, easier to wear for daily life.

Links to explore

Earlier posts in Away From Africa written about clothing in Sub-Saharan Africa:

For more information about the history of Comptoirs, trade posts, pagne, and wax, in English and in French:

French Wikipedia: which includes a reference to the slave trade.

English Wikipedia: with a focus on Northern America.

Fah-Schyon blogs about  fashion in Africa topics.

About Wax and Bazin on the Toubab Paris blog:

* Toubab (or Toubob) is the word used in West Africa to name people of European descent. The first time I ever saw this word was in Alex Haley's Roots (the book)--my first introduction to Africa south of the Sahara, so long ago!