The African Beat

By Tara Dear, Yale-NUS College ’17 – See bio

About halfway through my first placement in Africa, my housemate and volunteer partner posed the following question: “If you had to describe Ghana in just one word, what would it be?” It’s taken me some four months to come up with an answer that seems satisfactory, but at last I’ve settled on this one: Ghana is rhythmic.

Sophie’s choice, however, was “intense,” and I can see where she’s coming from; Ghana is a country that overwhelms the unprepared senses with its heat, noise, colour, smell, and warm-hearted people. As a white girl of child-bearing age, it’s an off day when I don’t receive at least one marriage proposal from the perhaps over-welcoming male population. Then there are the women plying their wares in the market places or squatting by the side of the road, informing me that I ought to buy one of their gutted fish, wilting in the glaring sun; there are the children who run after me shrieking “solminga solminga, how are you?” without understanding my reply. The flies are more inquisitive than Australian ones (at least the comparatively tame Canberran variety), the public transport is shared by goats, chickens, and wailing children alike, and the huge boom-boxes crouching on street corners splattering passers-by with a virulent rendition of God’s word harmonise nicely with the ubiquitous honking of car-horns. For the unsuspecting volunteer dropped into the midst of this bustle of everyday life, “intense” can be a euphemism for the bewildering experience that awaits. But while I certainly sympathise with Sophie’s opinion, after having settled in a little to the Ghanaian routine I’ve come to believe that a crowded marketplace is just as overwhelming to me as the average Australian family’s possession of two cars, a fridge, a TV, and several computers, not to mention lights that reliably turn on and stay on whenever you flick the switch, would be to them. It’s all a matter of perspective.

Beneath the seemingly unintelligible busyness of Ghana, there’s a rhythm to the way people live their lives. At its most literal level, “rhythmic” could represent the drumbeats of African music that seem to pound within every Ghanaian heart. Church isn’t a somber, predictable affair, but an enthusiastic worship session where devotion to God is expressed through wild dancing in the aisles and vigorous clapping, in whatever rhythmic pattern you choose, to the live music played next to the altar. Nobody cries at a funeral; instead all the neighbours, no matter how distantly connected, put on their brightest clothes and dance from dusk ‘til dawn to celebrate the deceased one’s life in his or her own courtyard. Ghana’s rhythm is easily felt every Sunday and is undeniably present at every festival.

But below the tangible beating of the drums, Ghana has its own rhythm for life that seems omnipresent, despite the diversity between the concrete-and-iron highways of the capital city Accra to the meandering dirt roads of my humble mud-hut village, Wulugu. On the surface, Australia with its legible street-signs and air-conditioned supermarkets seems calmer, but Ghana’s claim to tranquility derives from its lifestyle, where there’s a noticeable lack of the constant pressure of the West to succeed, improve, increase, expand, accelerate. There’s no feeling of lost purpose or lack of ambition if one gets up to do exactly the same thing today as yesterday and the day before; there’s no competition between shop-owners to sell more than their neighbour, as long as everyone has enough to live on. I used to look at people wandering along the roadsides selling credit or water or soap from baskets on their head, day after weary day, and wonder how they could stand it without going mad. I had to rationalise it to myself with the theory that such drudgery must be the result of poverty. If the only income available to you requires you to stand in the dust earning less than ten cents per transaction, it’s better than nothing, isn’t it? And in some cases, perhaps my justification is accurate: there’s simply no other option. Over the past few months, though, rather than pity Ghanaians, I’ve begun to question myself. Having grown up on challenges and variety, I’ve been trained to no more catch one shooting star than begin to look for the next, always on the move to grab the latest opportunity. Such an outlook seems, to me, to contradict the world view at the heart of most Ghanaians’ lifestyle and their much more relaxed rhythmic beat.

One evening, my younger host-brother was teaching me a game – on the count of three, we’d each hold out an unspecified number of fingers. Then, saying a rhyme, we’d put one finger away at a time. If the rhyme ended with one of my fingers still out, he’d tap my arm; if the reverse were true, I’d tap his. As we played round after round, I wondered what on earth the point of the whole affair was, until it slowly dawned on me that the game, in itself, had no point; we were simply doing it to spend time with each other and share a few laughs. There wasn’t a winner or a loser. The rhythm of Ghana is such that when you take away the drive to always be ‘doing something’, you’re left not with emptiness, but peace. A chance to seek somebody out not to impart or receive information and then go back to whatever it was you were doing, but simply to spend part of your day in his or her company. When you know what to expect from your livelihood, whether it’s growing maize or hawking newspapers, you’re left with more time in your day and more space in your mind for your friends, family, neighbours, and community. Ghana’s steady heartbeat, though a little more irregular in some places than others, reflects the true beauty of the country as I’ve come to see it; a rhythm which reminds me that, if roses were to grow in Africa, I should stop to smell them.

6 comments

  1. Yeoh Lam Keong

    Hi Spunky, amazing article!! u write super well and its got oomph and depth too!…go gurll!!!
    Nunks

  2. Dear Tara
    What a wonderfully evocative description of Ghana! And what insightful conclusions you have come to! I look forward to talking with you when you come home – which is when? We have another 10 weeks of our tour (which is going very well).
    love
    Judy.

  3. Alison Heath

    Hi Tara, Thanks for giving us an insight into your world -and for reminding us what an asset you were to CGGS! Alison Heath

  4. Barbara Devlin

    Tara, I do believe you rival Alexandra Fuller in your memoirs! Keep up the beautiful reflections; there is something vital in them for us all…
    Ms D

  5. DoWon

    Hi tara, i know this sounds random, but i am quite very interested in volunteering to africa as well. However, due to the lack of information(Seems like most of organisations are based in uk and us ) and lack of fund, i am facing some difficulties.
    If you do not mind, can you please drop me an email at leedw94@hotmail.com and just share with me how you got it planned, and how much it was please? 🙂 thank you in advance

  6. Chua Yao Hui

    Hey Tara!

    I’m one of the students from the inaugural YNC batch. Just wanted to tell you – Keep those posts coming! I stayed at Kimuka village near Nairobi (Kenya) once. I can relate to what you mentioned — I can’t fathom how kids spend hours walking to school on foot — but like you said, it’s just their way of life. Their sense of contentment is something enviable. Oh and the flies, oh my, I hated them with a burning passion. I love Kenyan Charpati too, I wonder if they eat something similar in Ghana?

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