#26. Dancing To Save Lives

I had arrived in New Zealand with two drummers; Premier Kumedzro, Kwasi Futukpor and four dancers; Joseph Mireku, Seth Asomanin, Ritna Otoo and Akweley.

If I thought that preparing to bring these six young people from Ghana to New Zealand was a great accomplishment I was wrong. After seeing what the organising team in New Zealand accomplished I realised that what I did was nowhere near their organisation of the programme.

The lady at the head of the organising team was Bronwyn McConchie. Throughout the nearly one year of preparation, she responded to all messages I sent to her within 12 hours. I now realised that she and her team were doing the same amount of communication with 21 other countries. Then the logistics of arrival in Auckland, New Zealand meant that she had to organise airport transfers for about 154 people from 22 countries. Beyond that was the question of hosting the participants.

It would have been quite easy if all the participants were sent to a hotel. The reality was that the participants were hosted with over 60 families across the city. Then there was a comprehensive program of rehearsals before the opening ceremony of the games with the host families responsible for transporting their guests to and from the rehearsal points. The organizers through careful planning turned what could have been a logistic nightmare into lessons on operational planning and execution.

The children and chaperones who participated in this program came from several countries including Scotland, Canada, the United States of America, Australia, New Zealand, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Western Samoa, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, India, Singapore, Hong Kong, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Zimbabwe etc.

The first event that impressed me the most was the bringing together of the children from 23 different countries to perform the choreographed dance moves they had learnt in their separate countries. Because they had rehearsed these dance moves several times and the choreography notes were the same for all the countries, when they came together it looked as if they had been rehearsing together for months.

The experience taught me one basic lesson. That there is a universal language for choreography that can be understood across the world independent of nationality. When communication is clear and understood across multiple languages and cultures, a lot of great cooperation and coordination can take place between people.

The next big event was the sequencing of traditional dances from 23 different countries with each country given only 3 minutes to come on stage to perform and get off the stage. This sequencing was rehearsed several times before the actual concert started. The Ghanaian group limited themselves to the performance of one of three Northern Ghanaian dances. The three dances were Bawa from the Upper East Region, Takai and Bamaya from the Northern region. The children argued that these were very fast dances that could be performed in less than 2 and 1/2 minutes and would have the necessary impact on the audience. Interestingly none of these children was from the Northern regions of Ghana.

The opening ceremony of the games on the 24th of January, 1990 was the biggest live spectacle I had ever witnessed in my life. This ceremony was held in the Mount Smart Stadium in Auckland with a capacity of 45000. The ceremony started with performances from a large number of actors from New Zealand backed by the New Zealand choir with about 160 members. The performers re-enacted what they believed to be the creation of the Pacific Ocean and the creation of the island of New Zealand. They then followed up with the arrival of the Maoris who came to the island using huge wooden canoes. Then they re-enacted the arrival of the Europeans from several countries in Europe and then the arrival of the Indians. This performance was definitely well choreographed with different colours of clothes used to depict the sky, the ocean and the arrival of the different people.

Then it was time to welcome Prince Edward who came to represent Queen Elizabeth II in the opening ceremony. The Prince proceeded to the arena and then Maori warriors came out to welcome him. It is difficult to interpret the performance of the Maori warriors as a welcoming party. The voice of their leader, which was basically a deep baritone, boomed over the loudspeaker system as the warriors sang Maori songs with menacing faces and warlike positions, holding spears that literally appeared to threaten the prince. Anybody who has seen the performance of “Taka” by New Zealand rugby players, the All Blacks, before rugby matches will understand what I am talking about. The warriors finally sent one of their members to place an object in front of the Prince. If the prince picked up the object it meant he was coming in peace if he did not it meant he was here for war. Representatives of the Prince picked up the object to signify a peaceful visit. The leader of the Maoris addressed the Prince still in the Maori language with interpretation. Finally, the Prince had the opportunity to address the opening ceremony. The message from the Queen for the opening ceremony was delivered to the prince and he read this to the audience.

Athletes from 55 commonwealth countries participated in the games. This was nine more than the previous highest number of countries participating in the games. The prince stood on the dais, waving at the athletes from all 55 countries who came to participate in the games. Most of the countries were led by a previous Olympic games medalist. The Ghanaian contingent was led by Whitney Otu. She proudly carried the Ghana flag in front of the Ghanaian athletes. She was dressed in traditional Ghanaian kente cloth which was part of our costume we brought from Accra.

The Commonwealth Games flame then arrived in the stadium carried by Sebastian Cole a former Commonwealth Games gold medalist. The flame had been carried from Buckingham palace through several countries to New Zealand and carried by a relay of runners through the North and South Islands and finally arrived on the games scene just at the right time. The photography of the events was very impressively done with cameramen on the rooftops of the stadium, some on the ground to catch close-ups of athletes and other performers and two spectacular photographers in two helicopters that hovered above the stadium to provide complete panoramic view of the stadium.

The arrangement of loudspeakers around the stadium was also very unique. The microphone systems must have been sophisticatedly placed on the bodies of the actors and every sound they made boomed through the speakers. From the stadium, it was sometimes better to watch on the giant screen installed in the stadium. The children who were brought by World Vision did a spectacular performance on the arena accompanied by the booming sound of the music that played in the background. I told myself that finally, this was the day I had been preparing for, for nearly one year.

Over 130 children from 23 different countries spread across the Central Arena of the Commonwealth Games stadium moved and performed choreographed dance movements as if they had been training together for months. This lasted for nearly 20 minutes and was a really captivating sight to behold. The message that ran across the screens was that while these games were going on the world should be aware that several children every day in the developing world died from childhood killer diseases that could have been prevented by simple immunizations. This message went across to reach millions of people who were watching the Commonwealth Games on television all around the world. The message had passed through and those who watched were challenged to do something to prevent the death of children from the childhood killer diseases.

At the end of the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games, the children who were brought to New Zealand by World Vision proceeded on a tour of the North and South islands of the country. I remember we held concerts in Hamilton, Rotorua, Willington, Dunedin, Christchurch etc.

In all these cities the children and their chaperones were hosted by families. This actually enabled us to see the reality of the lives of sponsors who contributed to World Vision programs around the world. The sponsors were basically ordinary people who were not necessarily wealthy. One of the sponsors I lived with during the tour was actually a single parent. It made me very aware that development work in developing countries was being carried out with contributions by people who were not necessarily wealthy. This was indeed a sobering experience.

During each concert, children from each country came on stage and performed a traditional dance from that country, and then left the stage within the timeframe of 3 minutes. In all the concerts every single seat was booked and the crowd applauded as different groups came on stage to perform. The team from Ghana performed one of three Northern dances throughout the concerts. It was amazing to see children from the Southern part of Ghana, play wonderfully on the xylophone, sing in Dagaare and Dagbani while dancing to the tunes like natives. This made me believe that tribal divisions may just be artificial divisions which can be overcome. My music experience came in handy as I played the flute sound of the keyboard from backstage to mimic the sound of Dagomba wind instruments and accompanied the Takai and Bamaya performances.

All the concerts were climaxed by a message about immunization in the developing world. I was one of the presenters who had two minutes to communicate a strong message to the audience to contribute to immunization in the developing world. I had a very simple message. My mother had 10 pregnancies and 9 live births. Of the nine births, only four of us survived beyond the age of 5 years. The rest of my siblings died from simple diseases that could have been prevented by immunization. My story is not unique in the developing world and some families have suffered far worse. At the time of our presentation, we needed about 5 US dollars to immunize a child against the six killer diseases. The situation at the time I was born had not changed significantly by 1990. My message, therefore, was very simple. World Vision had projects in developing countries and all that they needed was donations from the audience to be able to respond to and immunize children below the age of five so that they will have an opportunity to live beyond that age. Other members of the team made similar appeals during concerts. The response to our funding appeal was overwhelming and it enabled World Vision New Zealand to raise a significant amount of money for immunization in developing countries. For me, it was a huge accomplishment to be part of this fundraising innovation. The children from Ghana also held street performances of drumming and dancing that we were filmed and used as adverts on TV New Zealand.

Travelling through the North and South Islands of New Zealand provided an interesting tourism opportunity. Rotorua was the most interesting city to visit. Entering the city one noticed the foul smell that resembled the smell of rotten eggs. Indeed this was actually the smell of compounds of sulphur in the air. The city was full of hot water springs scattered everywhere. There was actually a hot water geyser that threw up hot water into the air every 55 minutes. It brought the theoretical geography I had learnt in Ghana College to life. Apart from the geographical features of Rotorua we were able to visit farmers in other cities where the rearing of sheep and cattle was common.

Nearly four weeks of travelling and performing dances together created a strong bond between the children in each country and between children from different countries. At the end of this magnificent programme, we had to return to Ghana through Los Angeles and London once again. The interesting part of the return journey is the fact that we flew out of Auckland, New Zealand on a Tuesday night, flew into Monday and arrived in Los Angeles on Tuesday morning. There was literally like having two Tuesdays. The one day we lost on our way into New Zealand was regained on my way back to the UK and to Ghana. Back in Ghana, it was evident that we had given these children a huge experience. I was sure that it would influence them for the rest of their lives.

In my next blog, I will present you with my experience of stepping out of World Vision International and lessons to be learnt from the operation of local Ghanaian NGOs.


One thought on “#26. Dancing To Save Lives

  1. My wish after reading is to be able to track the youngsters who had this wonderful opportunity early in life and figure out how it has impacted their lives thirty years on.
    As usual your vivid recall of events and memory of names is a marvel.


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