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

f o r t u n a

[ 21:33 monday 6 november – bafana bayana cafe , jisonayili , northern ghana ]

fate touches me once more …

having finished up in the rains office and dropped the keys back with the watchman (i disturbed his prayers collecting them earlier) i stood by the side of the main road hoping that a taxi might come by . my bicycle lies abandoned at the mandela centre , its front tyre crippled . i intended to get a new tube this afternoon but the impromptu tuition session put paid to such plans .

after a few minutes i saw an unusual constellation of lights approaching from tamale . when it passed it turned out to be a flat-bed van . still no taxi . then i noticed that the van was turning a little way down the road and coming back towards me . it neared me and pulled in . the driver hailed me and asked where i was going . bafana bayana , just down the road , i replied . so he gave me a lift and here i am , waiting for my supper to arrive .

the fellow’s name is iddrisu and he was on his way to his aunt’s funeral in the next village . the lady was over eighty , a very remarkable age round here . in fact i heard the drumming and celebration all the way from jisonayili last night and wondered what was going on . he invited me to join him and i was sorely tempted , but on this occasion my hunger prevailed . i am still not sure if i made the right decision .

but iddrisu turned out to be a master of drumming as well as a delightful fellow and i have arranged to meet him tomorrow evening armed with my ancient saxophone . i came to ghana hoping i might have an opportunity to learn something of the music . it seems that opportunity has now arisen .

[ 02:10 tuesday 7 november – jisonayili , northern ghana ]

hehe ! i am regularly accused of wanting to have my cake and eat it . personally i see nothing wrong with this so long as there is plenty of cake to go round .

after supper i hitched a lift back to the house , ate a couple of bananas , read a bit , but kept thinking about the funeral . i stuck my head out of the door and could make out the faint pulse of drumming . it was too much to bear . i stuck my cameras and a minidisc recorder in my bag , nicked a bike and set off in the direction of the drumming .

several dirt tracks later i wound up by a hut on the outskirts of a neighbouring village called kanvali (my own spelling) . a couple of women were pounding maize and half a dozen drummers were warming up under a tree . i introduced myself and things unfolded from there .

i have only just returned , having had the most enchanting night . i was swiftly taken under the wings of a couple of the daughters of the chief of gushiegu (a town several hours’ drive away along dust roads , which i visited the week before last with tony flower) who made me very welcome as well as flirting outrageously .

the funeral ritual here makes the english one seem positively … er … deathly . for a couple of days huge numbers of family and friends gather , dressed to the nines , with the best drummers they can lay their hands on . benches are laid outside forming two sides of a square perhaps twenty feet wide , on which the most prestigious guests sit . the closest family seem to be an exception , sitting on the ground on one of the open sides , which i suspect is also the side facing the home of the deceased .

in this instance there were seven drummers . two playing deep-voiced instruments slung round their necks , five playing long higher-voiced ones held under the arm . there was also a younger boy with a small drum who kept in the background and was presumably an apprentice . one of the drummers had the role of a chanter .

it happened that the drummers i had found warming up were preparing to play at the old lady’s funeral . i think they said her name was aiya . so i followed them as they processed through the village to the space where everyone was waiting . there was an introductory period as the chanter paid the respects dictated by custom . first the senior male in the bereaved’s family , then any representatives of royal families (like my friends) in order of seniority and so on .

once this was done the pace progressively picked up . the pattern was for the drummers to fix on one person after another from those on the benches and try to lure them to dance through the virtuosity of their playing . once somebody got to their feet it became a kind of theatre between the drummers and the dancer . sometimes the dancer would dart towards the drummers , driving them back . sometimes the dancer would be pursued to the corner of the space before turning and pushing back again . sometimes the dancer would feign boredom and make as if to sit down , only to spur the drummers to greater feats . the drummers would constantly try to inspire the dancer to greater passions , feeding them new rhythms and building the intensity when the dancer responded . the drummers leapt around quite as much as the dancer .

dancers who entertained the crowd were rewarded by people approaching them from the benches and placing coins in their hands or pressing them onto the dancer’s forehead . a young boy was engaged picking up those which fell to the ground . all this money was destined for the drummers , which if you think about it is an excellent form of performance-related remuneration .

i was called upon to dance a couple of times . i was shy about accepting the call , but when i did the crowd was delighted and i loved it .

in fact there were four funerals going on in the village and my friends led me to a second one where i was also required to dance , to be rewarded by a cheer from the crowd and handfuls of coins .

in addition to having had a glorious night i also have about two hours of digital audio which i shall treasure , plus a number of photos .

but now i really must sleep . the celebrations continue but reluctantly i made my excuses and left them to it .

: cH

r e m e m b e r / r e m e m b e r

[ 20:57 monday 6 november – rains office , tamale , northern ghana ]

it was peculiar suddenly to realise yesterday evening that it was guy fawkes’ night . all over britain people will have been trudging half-heartedly across muddy fields to watch fireworks before huddling round a bonfire and complaining about the freakishly bad weather . like they do every year .

: cH

t u t e

[ 18:42 monday 6 november – rains office , tamale , northern ghana ]

it’s almost four weeks since i arrived in ghana , though within a few days of getting here such measurements ceased to have much meaning . my return flights were originally booked for tomorrow but i have decided to remain here a further five weeks . i hope to complete my activity in the digital workshop within three weeks and spend two weeks travelling . the general election is on 7 december so it should be an interesting time to be around .

for the remaining weeks most of my focus will be on tutor recruitment , tutor training and course architecture . since the best tutors will not necessarily be those few people who already possess computer skills i’m using a cascade approach which assumes zero competence to start with . we started putting this into practice last thursday .

the first priority was to get a module up and running providing an introduction to using a computer . this will be one of the most important courses the workshop offers , but by focusing on that at the beginning we can also use it as an induction tool for prospective tutors who have no computer experience .

i designed the module on the principles of action learning and collaborative learning . everything is structured around performing practical tasks and learners work in groups of three to each computer system . this last aspect might seem perverse , surely people will learn better if they have a system to themselves ? but my experience is otherwise . beginners learn more quickly if they are working in groups . three brains are available to grapple with each problem and the process of discussing why something hasn’t worked and suggesting remedies brings thought processes into the open . working this way also helps strengthen collaboration and sharing skills . one tutor is provided for each group of three learners , though it may prove possible to reduce this to one tutor for every two groups .

the module has three sections . for the first of these the whole group of learners is addressed by a single tutor , who welcomes them , explains what they will learn before they leave , gets everyone’s ideas about what a computer can be used for , introduces the hardware and gives everyone the opportunity to ask questions .

the second section begins with the learners moving to the computers in groups of three , with tutors , and starting them up . the rest of it consists of a series of cumulative tasks , each of which is performed by the three learners in turn . along the way they master use of the mouse (pointing , clicking , double-clicking and dragging) and about the basic metaphors (desktop , icon , cursor , folder , window) .

in the third section learners start to use menus . they launch a program , create a new document and learn basic text editing skills . they then have some time to type whatever they want (this is the part people enjoy most , the pay-off for all their hard work) which they save before exiting the program and shutting down the system .

we currently have eleven functioning systems in the workshop . in a period of ninety minutes or so it is therefore possible to introduce a group of 33 learners to all the basic skills and concepts required to use a computer . every one of those learners will leave with the confidence that they are perfectly capable of using a computer , and there is somewhere they can go if they want to learn more .

last thursday i got together with three prospective tutors and took them through the first draft of the module . they took the role of learners and i of the tutor . this is a good approach , as it means every tutor learns to use the computer the same way they teach others . having made some revisions to the module based on their comments , those tutors and i worked with a group of ten more prospective tutors on friday . this is the cascade approach i described .

it was arranged that we would take our first group of “real” learners , 18 girls from tamale girls secondary school , tomorrow afternoon at three . so four of the tutors came into the centre this afternoon to practice on the systems .

however , demonstrating typical ghanaian planning , 25 girls from the school turned up at four this afternoon having been told they were expected . i was a bit horrified but they had walked all the way from the school , a distance of several miles , and i did not have the heart to turn them away . so my fellow tutors and i gritted out teeth and got stuck in , with me shouting guidance to the others as we went along . i was leaping back and forth across the room , responding to the girls’ insistent cries of “mr charles , mr charles” as they mangled their desktop or got locked into some backwater of the atrocious windows operating system .

i finish the day exhausted but confident that the module is going to work .

: cH