Saturday March 10th is the day we have arranged to go to Jana,the village where Mike lived for 8 months, a couple of km outside Tamale. This is a really big deal. His Muslim family have been awaiting our arrival, calling him to ask how we are doing and to send greetings almost daily. Of course we are elders in this world and Mike is very special to them.They have been praying for our safe arrival. Mike and Hannah are both very excited about this visit. Jay and I look forward to meeting everyone, but honestly we are a little nervous too. Few of them speak English and we fear we may make some social blunder.
Fortunately the day is overcast. It has been so hot (45+ degrees) we have had trouble venturing outside for any length of time – and we know there will be no AC in Jana and the visit will last 2-3 hours. Mike briefs us a little on how to behave, teaching us a few phrases in Dagbani. “Naa” means “fine” and is a multi-purpose response. “Ami” means Amen and is the right response when they are wishing us well, praying for us. “Gom bieni”is the response to “Have you slept well?” and means “rest is here.”
We take a taxi out of town, past the point where electrical lines and water pipes run, to one of the many mud hut compounds we have seen in rural Ghana. We have brought a gift bag of presents for them: a jigsaw puzzle, big bag of candy, dice, palm oil, 2 swiss army knives, a set of 8×10 laminated photographs of Mike and his siblings/nephew, us and the people in Jana hemselves, a few other small things.
We alight. It’s strange to look around the mud huts and imagine Mike living here for so long, with no running water or electricity, among strangers, biking half an hour each way into Tamale to work every day in this heat.
People emerge to greet us, mostly women and children (lots of children) With each person, we shake hands while bowing and say “Naa”. They do the same. It’s not clear whether they are prompting us to say Naa by saying Naa, but in short order it starts to feel like a comedy skit as we bow, nearly bopping heads and Naa like goats at each other. They all beam at us warmly, laugh and talk excitedly to Mike in Dagbani – he seems completely at ease chatting to them in Dagbani.
The patriarch, Hussein, appears. He is Mike’s very good friend, an assembleyman in the village and elder at the mosque. In his 50s, he has three wives (one of whom was banished for biting through another wife’s cheek!) and any number of children. His sister (one of hundreds of siblings – his father had 14 wives and each had many children) and several cousins also live in the compound. Hussein greets us warmly in English. He and several of the older children speak English. The women do not.
It’s like going back in time. The lifestyle here has probably not changed much in several hundred years. True they have cell phones and cars/motos pass from time to time, but they live in the huts, cook on open fires in the area in the middle of the huts, fetch and carry water and firewood. Chicken and goats wander about freely. Mud streaks one child’s face; several have runny noses and their various garments are worn and filthy. The children wear mostly Western-style clothes – T-shits, skirts, shorts. Most are barefoot, a few wear flipflops. The women wrap lengths of unfinished fabric around their bodies as skirts; many wear headscarves. Hussein wears a long white shirt – full-length like a robe.
They are all very excited and delighted to see us, their faces wreathed in smiles. Hussein invites us into the “hall”- the largest hut, where grain is stored. He suggests we sit on one of three benches. Then the women crowd in, filling up the other benches, and the children follow.In the end there are probably close to 20 people in the hall, which isn’t large at all. Mike says he has never seen that many people there: it’s a huge event. Hussein, who sits on the only chair, welcomes us at some length, praising Mike, reiterating that we are now all one family. There is more naaing and laughing and clapping. Hussein is thoughtful, articulate and generous. He’s also the only person we can understand.
He opens the presents, passing them around. The photos are a big hit and evoke lots of laughter. One tiny girl – maybe 18 months old – is fascinated by them. Everyone enjoys the candy too. The boys put together and fly a balsamwood airplane. It grows hotter and more airless. Hussein tells us we are very lucky that it is overcast because our skin is too fresh for the hot sun (I assume he means pale – we aren’t feeling very fresh!)
Mike takes us outside (whew!) to see the room he stayed in. Hussein sends a “small boy” to get the key. The “small” boy or girl is a child of a certain age appointed at that moment to be the errandperson. This small boy must run to the football field where his brother is playing football to find out from him where the key is.
Mike lived in a concrete shed, with a door and one window, an old plastic table & overturned pail as a seat, an old chair, a narrow mat on the floor. Nothing else. We gaze in astonishment. For 8 months in blazing heat, he lived here? Ate T-zed & thin soup, once a feast of field rats? I just can’t imagine where he found the gumption. But he is obviously at home here and very fond of the people. He also seems to have a pretty good idea who they all are, who he should kneel to in greeting. I am all admiration.
Hussein also takes us to look at the massive 6’+ anthills that we’ve seen all over Ghana and explains that the female ants do the building and males protect the hill – they are larger and sting.
After two hours we start to glaze over. We sit and talk to Hussein (mostly he talks to us, explaining customs, how Ghanains respect their elders which is why the little girl who has just arrived kneels and takes my hand but says nothing. She’s come with her mother, Hussein’s 2ndwife, whom Mike and Hannah greet joyfully. She is, we learn, the workhorse – and carries a staggering quantity of firewood on her head.) Hussein is upset that we won’t stay to eat. The women have been preparing a feast and it is part of their custom to always feed guests. But we want to get back to town before dark – driving after dark is a perillous undertaking in Ghana. And I am nervous about eating here (where the food is extremely unfamiliar and the conditions less than hygienic.)
Hussein wishes us good luck and says a prayer for us. I respond with “ami” even though he spoke in English – this seems appropriate. Everyone comes out to the taxi to wish us well; apparently this too is unusual. We leave waving and pondering.
It was truly a pleasure to be so warmly welcomed by these open, big-hearted people (they never let Mike pay them a penny for room or board over the 8 months he lived there) but it was also disturbing to see them living in such primitive, harsh conditions. Or is that just my uptight western sensibility? Mike doesn’t seem to notice, he seems perfectly at home. But then he is part of the family. And now, by extension, so are we.
I am so grateful to Hussein and his family for the kindness they have shown Mike. I’m so proud of Mike, for finding ways to connect A visit todeeply with people who are so different. An eye-opening day…