In the middle of one of those sweet childhood dreams where I was holding so much money I couldn’t count, my mother tapped me on my back and asked me to wake up. I lay awake for a few minutes. It was not yet daybreak so what was this early rising all about? I moved my feet gingerly and came to a sitting position. I was sleeping on a mat made from the stalks of elephant grass. When your bed is a mat made from stalks from elephant grass you do not make sudden movements of the feet otherwise a piece of the mat will stick into your leg and you will have to spend a few minutes extracting it leaving a wound that you put shea butter on to heal. Yes, shea butter. It was everything from skin moisturizer through medicine for all types of cuts to an addition to all types of foods as a seasoning. I took off my cover cloth that was actually old flour sacks cut into various pieces and restitched to form the cloth. The inscription “Takoradi Flour Mills” was still written somewhere on it but who cares? The cloth never came out of the bedroom anyway. I used this type of cloth until I was going to secondary school and I vowed that I would not take that to a boarding school. After sitting for a few minutes I remembered that that day was the day for communal support for my mother on her rice farm.
I jumped up went outside got a calabash of water to wash my face and a “chewing stick” to clean my teeth. A chewing stick is a small twig from a tree (in this case the Neem tree) that is chewed until one end becomes frayed. The frayed end is then used to clean the teeth. Sticks like this provide some medicinal value that guarantees good dental care. It is how you can still find some old people in villages with dental health. I got hold of my hoe (the reliable local farm tool) and headed for the rice farm. I had to be there before sunrise so that neighbours coming to the farm could identify where it was. By 7:00 a.m. we were all gathered at the farm. We were about thirteen in number. Working shoulder to shoulder in a straight line, we gently turned the soil over burying the grass and exposing the under soil. Gentle running water ran all over our feet just above the ankle level. This was clear water and it was running, therefore, minimising attacks by leeches.
A few minutes after 9:00 a.m. my sisters arrived with breakfast. This was in 1965 when I did not have a watch so how did I know it was a few minutes after 9:00? Simple. In the rural community, one had to learn how to approximate the time by looking at the position of the sun in the sky. In Manga, there was the added advantage from the Agricultural Station where a bell was rung at 9:00 am for the labourers to go for breakfast. The bell had just been rung. Talking about watches many people at the time put on wristwatches as part of their dressing. In fact, we were aware that the majority of these watches did not work. Asking somebody wearing a watch for the time was common so was the ability of the person to look at the sun in the sky and look at his watch and tell you the time. It was never clear whether the time he was telling you was from the wristwatch he was wearing or from the position of the sun.
So breakfast arrived and we broke up into three groups and sat around what was served to us. It was a simple snack called Nyaasi in the Bissa language. Basically made up of roughly ground millet kneaded with shea butter and pepper into balls the size of a clenched fist and water poured over it. Each person in the three groups took their turn to drink the flour-water(Nyaasi pi) from the same calabash. Of course, we were sitting but how could we sit in a wet rice farm? We simply moved to higher ground and turned our hoes into seats. This was a normal practice in the Manga of our time.
We finished breakfast and went back to work. The pace of work was slow enough for conversation between the workers. I learnt a lot of local history and acquired “home sense” during such communal working times. “Home sense” meaning how to conduct yourself correctly in the community. For example how to show respect to elders or how to treat visitors. By 11:30 a.m, a good guess from the position of the sun, we finished work then moved to attack my father’s millet farms around the house. The pace of work in the millet farms around the house was far faster than in the rice farm. By 1:00 p.m. all the farm work was over and lunch was ready. Lunch was Tuo Zaafi(TZ) and a rich sauce made up of a combination of vegetables and groundnut soup. The shea butter on the TZ and in the sauce was evidence of a rich meal. This was the end of the communal support in my mother’s rice farm that was concluded on the family farm around the house.
This kind of communal support is called Yawre in the Bissa language and Kpaarib in the Kusaal language. It is the way the community members in many parts of northern Ghana support each other The same communal spirit comes to life when a family decides to settle in a given community. The person chooses a plain area where there is no building and asks permission to build his new house in that location. The traditional owners of the land would normally come and pour libation asking the ancestors of the land to accept the newcomer and bless the family. After this, almost all members of the community come around and help the new settler to construct the whole of his house from foundation to roofing level. The women will fetch water as part of their support for moulding the mud for the construction while the men will mould the mud and do the construction of the walls. The men will weave the grass and then roof the rooms with it. The women will plaster the walls and bring in gravel to floor the compound and make it pleasant for sitting. It is here that young men learn how to build using mud for the walls of the house and how to weave grass for roofing as well as the roofing itself. I reflect on the series of activities in rural communities and proudly claim that there is a strong communal spirit in Manga in Ghana and all over Africa.
But Alas; I may be talking about the past and not the present. It seems this communal spirit has significantly reduced and indeed gradually disappearing.
Weedicides for maize and rice are gradually taking over manual farming. When the owner of a farm wants workers to carry out manual work on his or her farm the workers charge a fee and ask for payment upfront. This was only done by a few big farmers when I was a child. The Bissas make use of this communal peer support to thrash late millet, winnow it and store it in granaries before serving it out to women in the house from time to time throughout the year.
The evidence so far is that increased maize production coupled with chemically enhanced maize production technologies and monetization of labour could be the main cause for the decreasing trend in communal peer support in agricultural activities.
The vast tracts of land that existed in Manga and the surrounding villages that made it possible for families to move in and settle and benefit from communal support have significantly decreased. The land is now divided into plots which are sold at competitive market prices. New settler families now purchase plots and construct their houses using professional masons and carpenters. This is definitely a sustainable emerging alternative that will make the houses stronger and more durable.
Rapid urbanization and the availability of improved construction materials, as well as community understanding of spatial planning, seem to be the main reasons for the decline in communal support for house construction.
I believe that my generation who were born in the 1950s have lived to traverse the widest spectrum of technology evolution. We have lived through the times when telephones were not common. The second fastest means of communication was the telegram using Morse Code. I have asked several youths of today whether they know what Morse Code is and many of them have had to go quickly onto Google and find out what it is. Talking about telegrams the message is sent were costed based on the number of characters.
In my school days I remember messages such us “Father dead. Please proceed ” received by telegram. Then came the telex machine which enabled the sender to type their message on their telex machine and the same message will appear on the telex machine of the receiver. The telex machine gave way to the fax machine where we could send images of one document from the sender to the receiver. Currently, anybody with a smartphone can scan a document and send it by email or by WhatsApp. These are very powerful communication tools that have occupied the communication space in the last 40 to 50 years.
In the rural community, when I was a child, the common means of communicating messages was verbal transmission when children are sent to deliver important messages concerning funerals, weddings and the like. Now, all that one needs to do is make a phone call to communicate a message. While this is a significant improvement in communication methods it also means that young people who used to physically go around and communicate these messages do less exercise and therefore could become prone to lifestyle diseases. It must be said that many Ghanaians still consider the verbal delivery of certain kind of important messages as more acceptable than the use of telephones. For example, an important member of a family, like the family head, will normally receive important messages verbally and in-person.
Long-distance walking to the market and to other villages has also been replaced by the use of tricycles in almost every corner of northern Ghana. All that one needs to do is to work a few minutes and there will be a tricycle around to jump on at a very small fee and get to where one wants to go. Once again this has significantly reduced the energy used for walking long distances but also reduced physical exercises. With improved nutrition, obesity, high blood pressure and lifestyle diseases may begin to emerge in rural communities in the North where it never existed.
For students in boarding schools away from their home, the panic moments I experienced in the last two weeks before vacation when every student waited for a slip and Postal orders to collect money for transport fares that will take them home is over. Parents simply send money to their wards via “mobile money”. Mobile money allows people to send money to each other via their phones. The physical cash can be retrieved from a mobile money agent. This is a huge improvement with pleasant emotional benefits. Mobile money frauds are however lurking around to take advantage of the naive and innocent.
Libraries were places that I used extensively for research and general reading. A common practice during my years of study. This is being replaced by the use of the search engines on the internet where a lot of research material has been catalogued and made available. The internet has become one of the most powerful means of communication and knowledge gathering tool that has emerged in the latter part of the 20th century and has advanced to levels that could not have been imagined 40 years ago. One of the growing challenges of the internet is the ability of a user to differentiate between falsehood and truth.
One major disappearing practice is the ability of parents to name their children based on circumstances surrounding the birth of the child. The strong influence of Christianity and Islam has introduced a pattern where children are given names with middle Eastern roots without consideration for ethnicity. This is gradually making Ghanaian ethnic names disappear. We may have to learn from our neighbours in Burkina Faso who have a way of giving Christian and Muslim names and yet keeping their local ethnic names.
It is encouraging to note that the trend is reversing particularly in urban areas among the middle class where parents think through and give names to their children based on the circumstances surrounding the birth of the child.
In this 21st century, there has been an amalgamation of Northern and Southern Ghanaian cultures with a dash of religious influence. Funerals, weddings and naming of children provide the best examples. For example, originally Northerners do not wear dark clothes to funerals but this has become the norm across the country. Wedding customs especially within Northern communities in the South have taken Southern trends with some heavy religious underpinnings. The taking of cows as “Bride price” has seriously been reduced. It is now more common to use cloths.
In a continuously evolving world, development workers in Africa need to observe local community practices and identify those that are disappearing as well as alternatives that are emerging. They will therefore be in a position to decide when to help community members retain valuable practices or let obsolete ones go and embrace the emerging alternatives. Indeed some emerging alternatives could be a very significant indicator of development.
This narrative represents a sample of disappearing practices and emerging alternatives. Many more examples include tribal marks given to children at birth for identification with particular ethnic groups, grooves that protect groups of trees, initiation ceremonies, unwritten dress codes for funerals
I will particularly appreciate comments on this blog highlighting practices that could be included in further development of the subject.
The next blog will be subtitled “Growing through the Music Arena”.