[ 23:45 friday 13 october – jisonayili , tamale , northern ghana ]
the night air is hot , moist , sweet . i sit at my table typing by candlelight , accompanied by mingled sounds from nearby muslim and christian celebrations and the strident crickets .
today has been pretty overwhelming .
after a morning of meetings i was priviliged to join some new friends for the journey north to saveluga , a village some twenty miles to the north of tamale . the village’s chief died recently and since his heir is not yet of age a regent must be appointed in his stead . today was the ceremony in which this regent , previously a career diplomat , was formally installed by the tribe .
rains , the organisation with whom i am working here in tamale , was established by a remarkable man called dr sulemana abudulai , a son of seveluga’s royal family . it was one of his brothers , confusingly known as “doctor” , who was waiting for me in the indescribable chaos of accra airport (bearing , incidentally , a placard emblazoned with the name “louis armstrong”) . over supper i asked if he came from a large family , to which he replied that he did . i asked how many brothers and sisters he had . he paused then said “many” . i asked if this meant there were so many that he’d lost count . he smiled politely . the next day , for the day-long bus journey from accra to tamale , i was looked after by one of his sisters . on my arrival i was greeted by another brother (“mr ndo”) , one of rains’ directors .
i now know that the total number of siblings is somewhere in the region of 80 . yes , my friends , this is a different society .
but returning to seveluga … my friends and i made the journey in the rains 4×4 , passing a continuous stream of vibrantly-robed cyclists heading the same way . we arrived at the village , clusters of circular mud-brick huts with grass roofs , typical of northern ghana , spread over a fairly wide area . it is hard to estimate the size of its population , at a guess somewhere between 500 and 2000 .
we stopped and learned that the robing ceremony had already taken place but the peak of the ritual was yet to come . as usual i was armed with a full battery of documenting equipment : digital video camera , digital stills camera , film camera , minidisc recorder . i had no idea what to expect but i suspected from everyone’s excitement that it was going to be pretty spectacular .
mussah and abu kari stayed back whilst i made for the centre of the village with aziza , who played minder for me and handled one of the digital cameras . as we got nearer the noise was tremendous . before we reached the palace we found ourselves faced by two big trucks , with shotgun-brandishing men hanging off every inch of their tops and sides . seeing me they began to shout and wave their guns excitedly . my dogbani remains somewhat limited , so i confined myself to looking ever-so-friendly-and-relaxed whilst aziza handled communications . it turned out they were keen for me to film them , which i was very pleased to do . however their response to having a camera pointed at them was to point their guns straight back at the camera , which i found a trifle distracting . the combination of strong alcohol and guns is not one i find calming .
but eventually they seemed satisfied and with big smiles and waves we proceeded . or at least we would have done had we not in the meantime been surrounded by the first of a succession of bands of drummers and musicians . the quality of musicianship was such that i did not grudge the (non-optional) payment invited by each group . aziza dealt with these disbursements expertly on my behalf .
finally we proceeded into the heaving crowd surrounding the palace . this building was a cirular hut many times the size of the others with a shining tin roof topped by an ornamental cupola . there must have been a thousand excited people crowding around it , with armed warriors doing their best to maintain a clear space in the centre . i had been warned by my friends to make sure my equipment was securely strapped about me and at this point i appreciated their advice . independently-willed motion became difficult . due , perhaps , to a combination of my novel pigmentation and our serious-looking documenting equipment there was some kind of spontaneous decision that aziza and i should be admitted to the centre of the drama . without any particular choice in the matter we were propelled through the crowd until we popped out the front .
it is hard to pick out a specific sequence of events over the next half hour or so . various chiefs processed through the throng with their retinues , household drummers and obligatory spinning parasols . an old man appeared on an ornately-decorated horse which reared up again and again , shaking its hooves in the air before slamming them down to the ground , scattering surrounding people . the shouting and drumming intensified and aziza alerted me that the regent was about to come out from the palace . various courtiers emerged from the door in fantastic costumes . warriors raised their guns skyward and started firing freely , stripping leaves from the overhanging mango tree . then the regent appeared , hard to pick out in the chaos , with a tall square hat and a huge spinning umbrella held above him . he and his retinue proceeded through the centre of the crowd to the building opposite the palace . other groups whom i took to be wives and assorted auxilliaries followed at intervals . the gunshots grew more intense . circles of drummers and warrior dancers coelesced in the crowd . things generally got pretty wild .
i will confess that there were moments when my excitement verged on fear . generally i felt safe , but there were times when i was not quite certain .
events reached a peak as the regent processed back across to his palace and disappeared inside once more . revelries continued but aziza and i decided it was time to withdraw .
we located mussah and abu kari and sat with them and some other villagers . an old man shared a bowl of yam with me and some water was fetched . my shirt was entirely saturated and my eyes were stinging with salt from the sweat pouring down my face . my heart was still racing . i knew that i had truly arrived in africa . this was one of the most exciting events i have ever experienced .
over the following days i played the film i shot in saveluga to many people around tamale , a good introduction to these digital tools i am hoping to put at the community’s service .