This summer, I spent almost a month studying and researching in Ghana as part of a Fund for Teachers grant that I was awarded back in May. The goal of the trip was to research and explore the monumental slave forts along the Ghanaian coast to better understand the Atlantic Slave Trade from the African perspective in order to improve the US History curriculum. I have been remarkably blessed by all of the incredible opportunities that have been afforded to me since I began teaching – whether it has been testifying in front of Congress on behalf of BTR, attending a conference in New Orleans on developing human capital in education, or participating in the many excellent history seminars from organizations like Facing History or Gilder Lehrman. This trip has already had a tremendous impact on my thinking as a person and a teacher, and I’m excited to use some of my new knowledge in the classroom this year. Below is one of my journal entries from my visit to the Ashanti Region of Ghana.
August 28, 2011
Our last tour of Ghana (before heading back to Accra) included visits to the various surrounding villages of Kumasi. The villages chosen were Ahwiaa, Ntonso, Adanwomase, and Bonwire. Each village is presently and has traditionally been linked to a handicraft to which it specializes – wood carving in Ahwiaa, adinkra cloth making in Ntonso, and kente weaving in Adanwomase and Bonwire. We were met by Fred and Benson our guides for the day and we headed out first to Ahwiaa. Our first stop was Ahwiaa to see how handmade wood carvings are still traditionally made, including the stools for the royal family of the Ashanti. We were introduced to the leader of the village’s main workshop, who welcomed us to see how all different kinds of objects are handmade. There are no sophisticated tools in the shop, just talented men with chisels of various sizes carving away at hunks of unformed white and red cedar to make their creations. I will post a video once I’m back home so everyone can see just how busy this workshop was. Just from looking in the shops in the village, the workshop does incredible work (and of course we had to buy some carvings to take home)!
Our next stop was Ntonso, a place I was excited to visit in order to learn more about the adinkra cloth that was made there. Adinkra are the symbols that carry significant meaning in Ashanti and Ghanaian culture. The act of stamping these symbols on to cloth represents the communication of the messages embedded in these symbols to those that have passed into the afterlife. While these cloths were often worn at funerals (and still are), the craft also has lighter themes and colors too! Ntonso has a lovely visitor’s center where were shown the production process of making adinkra. We saw the process of pounding bark to make the dye (quite a laborious effort!), where the pounded bark is then sifted and boiled and stirred to create the distinctive blackish dye used in stamping. The last step of course is the stamping, using hand carved stamps made of calabash, and we got to try this out for ourselves, choosing our own cloth, stamps, and pattern! The symbols I chose were the crocodile (symbolizing versatility because a crocodile lives on land and in water), the zig zag (that represents changing with the times), the symbol called “ese ne tekrema” (representing friendship), and the crane with its neck pointed backwards to itself (called “sankofa” this represents the importance of remembering your past). You can see the (almost) finished product in the picture. I also thought my Fund for Teachers bag could use some andikra too!
We bid farewell to Ntonso and headed next to Adanwomase, the village most famous for weaving the kente cloth of the Ashanti royal family. The town also has a pleasant visitor’s center from where we led on a tour of the kente weaving production process, the town and its local shrine, and the nearby cocoa farm. Our guide led us on an informative and interactive tour of all aspects of making kente, from spinning the thread, to “warping” the thread (this picks the colors and organizes the design), to finally weaving the cloth itself. The production was the most fascinating to me. The all-male weavers worked in an outdoor workshop (it’s actually the old market, abandoned by the women for its bad location, but soon-to-be-again market once the indoor kente workshop is complete). All were no more than 22 years old, and one boy looked much younger than that, and all worked at an incredible space. The designs were well memorized because any mistake in just one level of weaving would ruin the whole cloth. The atmosphere seemed positive and light, not what you would imagine a textile factory/workshop to look or sound like. I’m sure that the weavers of Adanwomase would stack up with any weavers in the world for their speed and accuracy in completing cloths! We finished with a tour of the village and cocoa farm. We visited the town’s sacred tree (where it takes its name from) and the local shrine, although the local priest was absent. At the cocoa farm we received an explanation of how the country’s second largest source of economic wealth is harvested and produced, and then we tried some of the seeds of a cocoa pod – very sweet and tasty!
We said goodbye to Adanwomase, but unfortunately were unable to visit Bonwire because of time. However, Fred and Benson did insist on taking us to what Fred considered the “best fufu” spot in all of Kumasi (and I assume for Fred, all of Ghana). We agreed, and Fred ordered up for us a piping hot bowl of fufu (a pulverized blend of plantain and cassava that is smashed until it becomes this gooey ball) with goat’s meat and fish in light soup. Fred made sure to show us the proper technique – use your right hand, only the fingers, pick out a piece of fufu, dip in sauce, and eat without swallowing. The soup was a whole lot of spicy goodness, and the goat was tender. Fufu sure seems like it would take a lot of getting used to, but I’m glad that we tried it in the end. We finally said goodbye to our now friends Fred and Benson, exchanged email addresses and phone numbers, and promised to stay in touch.
I found that today was especially meaningful because it gave me such an important peek into the rich cultural history and traditions of the Ghanaian people. Much of this trip has been devoted to documenting the disturbing history of the Atlantic slave trade, and the visual reminders that remain today on the Ghanaian coast, but of course there is so much more to this country than its sordid past in that “peculiar institution” – it is a proud nation with an incredibly resilient people that can claim to becoming the first independent African nation (in 1957), but also still struggles with many of the same poverty, health, and environmental issues that developing nations all over the world today face. They are so clearly a nation that has dealt with European contact for over 500 years, but also one that has steadfastly maintained it’s strong customs and traditions. It is a place that is at once so familiar to me, but also a place that requires more time and examination to fully understand it (perhaps an impossible task for one lifetime). I have very much enjoyed my experiences here in Ghana because it has opened up so much more to me about how people can teach and learn in different parts of the world, and that by no means does the Western world have all of the answers. I think that if I can incorporate a fraction of what I have learned here, my students will be so much better for it.