c o n t i n e n t a l s h i f t

[ 22:19 wednesday 13 december – sandhurst , gloucestershire , uk ]

twenty-four hours ago i was walking across the tarmac at accra . twelve hours before that i was playing in the atlantic surf beneath tall palms . now i am sitting in my parents’ house on an island amidst cold grey floodwater .

very tired now . i’ll write more in a day or two . thanks for all your messages . the last couple of weeks have been fabulous .

: cH

e l e k t i o n

[ 17:18 friday 1 december – mandela development centre , tamale ,
northern ghana ]

today has been decreed a national holiday so that everyone can spend the day praying for peaceful elections next week .

some of my informants have been getting a bit nervous . there is a feeling that the ruling ndc has too many skeletons in the closet after twenty-something years in power to be able to afford to lose . the president , mr rawlings , apparantly has troops (the sixty-four batallion ?) which are loyal to him personally . this , i am told , has alienated the regular army which is increasingly inclined towards the main opposition party , npp . there is a growing stream of squabbles about who has the right to announce the results and it now looks as though several groups are likely to do so independently . there are already whispered allegations of vote-rigging , bribery and electoral corruption .

meanwhile , it is said , the economy is on the verge of collapse or may have collapsed already . inflation is out of control and fuel prices have been kept artificially low in the run-up to the election . it is suggested that the subsidy may be as great as 50% by now .

none of this is encouraging , yet my impression is that the ghanaians are peaceful people . i am sure there will be a few scuffles but i think it is unlikely there will be anything worse .

ironically the americans donated some computers to ensure a “accurate and smooth” election . ouch .

this’ll probably be my last mail from ghana . unless i can’t resist taking the wretched computer with me on my travels .

: cH

b e a s t i e s

[ 19:48 wednesday 29 november – mole national park , northern ghana ]

the amber sliver of moon seems held aloft by a cacophony of insects and nightbirds . from time to time the indignant screech of a monkey echoes through the trees .

this is my final night here at mole after five days of immersion in nature . i’ve been staying in the small government-run hotel perched on an escarpment above two waterholes on the southern side of this large (5000 square kilometre) reserve . the savannah stretches to the horizon in every direction . each morning i awaken in my cabin and open the door onto my balcony to see warthogs scampering about , herds of elephants playing in the water , antelopes grazing . i recommend this to anyone who wants to wind down a bit . there’s also a swimming pool which feels absurdly decadent .

yesterday i went on an eight hour foot safari with zak , one of the wardens . we set out at seven in the morning when the air was dewy and cool . it did not remain so for long . we covered a lot of ground literally and metaphorically . more learning for me . this was the first day of rammadam so zak blithely went the whole day sans water .

yesterday three students from the czeck republic arrived . one of them is an entymologist specialising in diving beetles . he spends most of his time crouched beside the swimming pool fishing things out and peering at them .

i didn’t intend to bring the computer with me … but i wanted to keep going with the circus constitutions i’m working on and this has proved to be a good place to do it . being away from email is retreat enough .

a couple of days ago i spent the afternoon in larabanga , famous for its mud and stick mosque which may or may not date from the fifteenth century . i spent a lot of the time talking to the salia brothers , who seem to have organised something of a revolution in the village . previously most income from visitors would go straight to the imam and a few “guides” . now the majority is directed to community funds which have been used to rebuild the school amongst other things . it’s caused some ripples though . an interesting visit .

i leave for tamale at five tomorrow morning .

: cH

t e r m i n a l

[ 01:40 friday 24 november – jisonayili , northern ghana ]

oh , the time has flown . tomorrow is the final day of my work here . in the afternoon i’m hitching a lift to the mole game reserve , where i’ll stay for a week or so amongst the plants , beasties and the delicious absence of mechanical noise . then a brief return to tamale to say goodbye to everyone before heading south for a couple of weeks’ adventuring .

on monday and tuesday last week adverts went out on the local radio offering to train someone in computer-based graphic design and interactive design . applications came in through the week , accompanied by a surreal selection of samples . musah and i ploughed through them on saturday and made a shortlist . seven people were interviewed on monday . the result was announced on monday night . i didn’t have the heart to restric it to one , so i made offers to two people . the training started on tuesday .

on monday neither of the learners (sumaila and moses) had ever touched a computer . as of thursday evening both of them are producing work in adobe photoshop and possess a basic facility with macromedia dreamweaver . i suspect this is some kind of record .

several of the other shortlisted candidates came and hung round whilst the training was going on and i didn’t see any reason to send them away .

i’ve finished editing the film i made with the girls . the combination of a decent laptop and a minidv camera is fantastic . this is my very first attempt and i am very eager to do more . i am quite pleased with the result .

i returned to zayuri last friday with my saxophone and spent the night playing dagomba songs with the two old trumpeters and a couple of drummers whilst the villagers danced and the orange moon rose . oh , it was a dream come true .

on sunday i went to two weddings , as a bit of a counterbalance to so many funerals . separate celebrations continue at the family compounds of bride and groom . once the necessary courage has been summoned a delegation from the groom’s family travels to the bride’s compound where they must negotiate the bride-price . on the bride’s side this is normally handled by a senior aunt (qualities like toughness and stony-facedness are clearly advantageous) . if a satisfactory agreement is not reached the bride will not be released , simple as that . expectations vary from region to region . up in the far north it can be as hefty as a couple of cows , and if the wife ever wishes to leave her husband her family will be expected to repay . in practice this effectively means the wife becomes the property of the husband , not a very liberal arrangement . here in tamale the bride-price is more tokenistic , just a few hundred thousand cedis . but it still seems to be quite a traumatic negotiation for the bride , whose value is being debated in front of her . the day after the wedding the bride moves into the groom’s family compound . there is a widely-believed superstition that she will drop down dead should she ever again pass through the threshold of her former home .

on tuesday night i had my first drumming lesson with hadi , a supremely talented young man who is the leader of a troupe of drummers in kanvali , a village famous for its drummers . i cycled with iddrisu and isaihia to hadi’s hut , from where we cycled on to a further village called tunayili . here there was no electricity . a couple of kerosene lamps set on the ground illuminated the celebration which was in progress . a lunga (drum) was strapped to my arm and i was shown my rhythm to play amongst the other five drummers whilst the dancers continued their routines . joy .

i returned to hadi last night and had my second lesson in his hut (again accompanied by iddrisu and isaihia , who interpreted for me) . he had me play a single rhythm for about twenty minutes , by which time it was sounding natural . then he moved on to something which i found completely unintelligible until i grasped that it was a quintuple grouping . it was not quite so simple as this even . whereas european music is essentially rational in its meter , african music is not . pulses are not placed in a regular fashion , they are placed in ways which seem to relate to the rhythms of movement of the human body . so although i could play this new rhythm once i understood its structure , it took another twenty minutes to begin to play it correctly . at this point hadi began to play some complex counter-rhythms against what i was playing and *bingo* , we were making music ! it was very exciting .

hadi is not only a tremendous drummer , he is a fine teacher . i feel suitably privileged to have these experiences .

every drummer makes his own instruments . hadi has made six throughout his career , all of which he still uses . he has agreed to make a seventh for me . the construction consists of a hollow wooden core , shaped like an hour-glass . cured goatskin is sown to each end to form the heads . more goatskin is cut into a long spiral of thin string , which is threaded back and forth between the heads . the instrument is held under the arm with a strap going over the shoulder . the thumb is hooked into the strings . it is struck by a hooked wooden mallet (whose name i forget) . squeezing with one’s elbow and pulling with the thumb results in the heads being stretched tighter and the pitch rising . a skilled drummer can make the drum “talk” with the inflexions and rhythms of spoken phrases . thus can such drummers communicate from one village to another . prior to my second lesson hadi played a complex sequence lasting several minutes explaining to others in the village that he was about to give a lesson to his white man friend and he was sorry if it was disturbing their sleep . he was particularly pleased with the sound of “anula salaminga” , meaning “good evening , mr whitey” .

this evening i had my third lesson . i was taken to his father’s hut (also a drummer , as were countless generations of forebears before him) who wanted to tell me that i had done well last night and would be able to achieve a high standard if i remained and worked at it for another year .

hadi took a bench out into a clearing between huts and our lesson began . we started with the rhythm with which we ended last night . people started drifting up to watch . someone started dancing . another drummer joined us with a big bass guanguan and added an appropriate rhythm. then hadi started playing an astonishing counter-rhythm which i concluded was based around a subdivided duple grouping set against the quintuple grouping i was playing . he indicated we should swap parts and i did my best but really it was far too difficult .

his father had been sitting there watching us , occasionally throwing in a comment which iddrisu or isaihia would translate for me . now he came over , took the guanguan from its owner and started playing a different bass rhythm , trying to help me . after half an hour i was beginning to feel more secure .

i shall have a final lesson when i return from mole .

how straight-laced , how mechanical , how self-conscious , seems our european music . i have book two of my bach 48 (in the verlag edition) on the offchance i should find a piano . i love and revere this music but the experiences i have had here in ghana have altered
my perspective .

gosh , it is far too late . i must end here and sleep .

ps – my digital camera vanished inexplicably on tuesday . irritating .

: cH

h o o t s

[ 01:26 wednesday 15 november – jisonayili , northern ghana ]

i’m just back from another funeral (that sounds terrible !) , this time the other side of jisonayili . more drumming and dancing . i first dropped in on this one on sunday evening but things were far more furious tonight . the lead drummer was quite exceptional , a young fellow by the name of hadi . he’s agreed to give a me a few lessons . i now know that the big bass drum is called the gunguan and the under-arm one with the flexible tone is called the lunga .

immediately prior to this i was in a village called zayuri a few miles north , where i tracked down a couple of trumpeters with the help of iddrisu . he and isiah cycled up there with me and acted as interpreters . we picked our way between the clusters of huts in the moonlight until we found the right one . a few minutes later a lamp had been lit and we were all sitting round on stools . the two trumpeters , of whose names i am uncertain , were clearly masters of the tradtitional dagomba song repertoire . i had my saxophone with me and asked them to teach me a few songs . they confered then played through a short tune twice over . i played it back , not perfectly but pretty close . there was laughter and nodding . the first test had been passed .

they proceeded to teach me a further three songs of varying length and complexity . it soon became clear that i was not going to be permitted to get away with the slightest error . several of the songs had notes which repeated four or five time at various points . these would be easy to get right if one had the words of the song in mind , but without them they were infernally difficult to remember . it’s a long time since i’ve had to concentrate so hard !

when we left i was invited to return on friday night when there will be a larger celebration with drummers and singers . i gave them money to buy some kerosene for it .

as i write i’m listening to minidisc recordings from this evening’s funeral , which have come out magnificently . i also got some great sound and photos at a political rally into which i got swept on sunday afternoon . that was for npp , the main opposition party . i spoke to one of their mps and have hopefully secured a grandstand position to film their president , mr kufuor , when he comes here for their regional uber-rally on the twenty-third of this month .

music and dancing seem to permeate so many areas of life here . in complete contrast to the traditional practices i’ve witnessed i joined in the monthly street-dance in the centre of tamale , where a sound system and a couple of thousand revellers displace traffic for most of the night . it was pretty damn wild , and i was glad to have iso and jonah there to take care of me , but i had a terrific night and the music was excellent . hiphop , highlife , hiplife , reggae , ragga and a bit of calypso . the crowd’s reactions made me suspect it had been a long time since a whitey had been seen there . the low expectations they have of us were revealed by the many amazed (but inaccurate) exclamations of “you can dance !” . i got some good photos .

: cH

f i l l u m

[ 18:20 tuesday 14 november – giddipass cafe , tamale , northern ghana ]

this afternoon i got all the girls at tamale girls’ secondary school together and started planning a short film with them . the school is something of a pioneer organisation , the only one in northern ghana focusing on girls’ education . it’s currently housed in fairly decrepit buildings with the main road on one side and a car repair yard on the other . there’s no guarantee that the landlord won’t evict them if a more profitable tenant comes along . the girls come from far and wide but there is not enough dormitory space for all those who must stay so some classrooms are seconded as sleeping-quarters at night . others become waterlogged in the rainy season .

feminist issues have never been of particular interest to me but i have been very much moved by my experiences with these girls . in a society where everything is stacked against them they have somehow found the confidence to demand a future on their own terms . i find them rather inspiring and i hope i can be of use to them .

the school was one of the first projects ann and camfed supported here in ghana , providing uniforms , books and food to girls who would otherwise not be able to enrol . but a plan is now afoot to build a completely new campus better fitted for its task and in a more suitable location . for this a considerable amount of money must be raised .

what i want to do is to help the girls (there are about sixty of them) to use digital video to send a direct message to funders in europe and america , communicating who they are , what the school means to them and why they need support . today’s discussion kicked off that process .

the girls will be in charge of the whole process and going by today’s discussion the result will be impressive .

in my view this is the real transformative potential of digital communication technologies : their ability to empower marginalised people and communities to speak for themselves . this belief underpins much of the work i am doing and is central to the digital workshop model .

: cH

s n a p s h o t s

[ 13:30 wednesday 8 november – jisonayili , northern ghana ]

new photos from italy , britain and ghana :


i reached the limit of my server space some time ago . indeed i shunted quite a lot of old material off the server onto my powerbook to make space , and lost the lot when it was nicked .

if i’m going to continue publishing photos i need more server space . each set is around 1mb in size . so this is a plea for anyone willing to donate 50-100mb to host http://www.charlesarmstrong.net for the next twelve months .

in the meantime i’m using a temporary folder on the sse server . hope that’s ok james !

: cH