Ed note: When we last left my sister, she was waiting 3 days in Accra for her passport to be returned, allowing her to proceed to the town where the drumming school is located. We will fast forward to the trip to Kopeyia.
“But wait! What about the chicken?” you say.
OK, here’s the chicken story. Then on to drumming school….
After breakfast, I wandered out to the beach. The surf was too wild for swimming and the beach was steep. A hundred yards away was a man with dread locks singing towards the ocean. As I approached him, he greeted me with a “Bonjour.” Relying on my high school French, I learned that he was from neighboring Cote d’Ivoire. He told me that before he could become a master musician, he had to sing to the ocean. This sounded like a much better plan than music school.
“How long?” I asked.
He said something I couldn’t quite make out, but it sounded something like, “Til it sings back.”
As I continued walking another shorter Ghanaian man joined me, and I suddenly felt very popular. We talked until we came upon piles of wet fabric scraps that littered the beach. There were hundreds of them– three-foot mounds of tangled soggy cotton. Perhaps they were factory remnants that had washed ashore. A few yards ahead, I spotted a black bundle of cloth tied in knots that seemed to be moving. From one end the head of a skinny wet chicken protruded. One of its legs was out and it pushed itself in a jerky circle. I made a move to free it.
“Wait,” said my companion.
Maybe he wanted to protect me, I imagined. Or, maybe he wanted to free it as some act of chivalry.
“I think it is some kind of ju-ju.”
He furrowed his brow.
“It might be bad to disturb it.”
The musician joined us to confer in French. Both men speculated that this was no doubt a curse on someone, and that if we got in the way, the curse might bounce back onto us. While they talked, I poked at the bird with a stick when, suddenly, it got loose and staggered up the beach. Luckily the men weren’t upset at my interference and determined that God had intervened. Everyone was happy.
Now on to Kopeyia town:
The next day, by 9:30 am, I was downstairs in the lobby and back in the truck. Rob handed me an envelope with my passport. I let Cathy ride in the cab, while I sat in the open truck bed on the bags to get a better view. We headed east along the main highway and I wrapped a scarf around my head to keep my hair from blowing around. After about two hours, we pulled over at a roadside stand. There were two picnic tables inside a makeshift shelter of plywood. We sat under a bright blue canopy of slotted wood. He ordered me a Coke and a groundnut stew. Cathy showed me how to wash my right hand in a bowl of sudsy water in the middle of the table. The left hand is considered “unclean,” the subtext being that it is used for wiping one’s bottom. Rinsing my one “clean” hand was difficult without using my left especially, since my fingers were still swollen and sore. The stew was spicy and stung my nail beds as I shoveled the stew into my mouth with my fingers. I had to practically sit on my left hand to keep from using it. I hoped that the spicy food would enable me to finally begin sweating.
Arriving in Kopeyia four hours later, we were greeted like celebrities. Children ran alongside the dusty truck as we pulled up alongside of Godwin’s compound. Godwin, due to his ability to earn money in the US as a music teacher, was the wealthiest man in town. That was a twist. He had not only built western style housing for visitors like us, but was building a roofed cultural center. He owned the truck that we had been using, and had about twelve carpenters on retainer–all this in a village with no electricity or running water. Rob pointed out the school across the street. A dusty sign read The Kopeyia/Bloomfield, New Jersey Primary School. This one story building was the crowning result of Rob and Cathy’s fundraising and ongoing commitment to the village. No wonder they were celebrities. I was shown to my western style room with a bed and mosquito netting. There was a communal dining room for visitors and a giant jug of water that supposedly had been boiled for our western intestinal tracts. I helped load in the medical supplies and Cathy and I set up shop as provisional nurses. We also had a case of iodized salt to distribute to the households. It seems that even though Kopeyia is only 5 kilometers from the sea, they eat very little fish, and many health problems resulted from too little iodine.
I busied myself setting up what was to be my room for the next few weeks. I had a travel alarm to orient myself and a Walkman to listen to tunes. I unwrapped my new digital DAT recorder I had bought to record any music I might encounter. I even soaked my alto reed thinking I might want to play my horn before supper. Cathy and I took a tour of the little village. There were approximately twenty huts with attached outdoor kitchens, a communal shower, an outhouse, and an informal market facing the street with about 5 vendors selling tiny piles of tomatoes, cassava, groundnuts, and the ever-present spongy white bread. Next to the cultural center which was almost finished was a circular meeting place with a thatched roof. When people greeted Cathy, they said things like: “oh, you have gained weight,” or, “you are so fat now.” Cathy blushed, but these were declarations of fact rather than insults. I imagined what the reaction would be if I said this to friends back home in New York. At each house, we would be invited to sit down in an outside area, to visit for a while. After a few minutes, I would find myself becoming impatient, and itching to get up and move on, but the truth was, I didn’t have any place to go and neither did they.
The rhythm of the place was completely different. The children seemed to look after each other, children of 5 or 6 watching out for two and three-year olds. They were not encouraged to ask questions, but learned by watching the adults as they went about their work. At the next house, Kwame asked if we wanted to try a coconut. He proceeded to pick up his machete, place it between his teeth, and climb up a steep palm tree to the top to lop off a green coconut. Jumping down, he held the thing in his palm and made three quick cuts, whup, whup, whup. A final cut to the top and he handed the rubbery flesh to me. It was sweet and delicious. Other kids played barefoot soccer in the center of the village with a homemade ball. I wondered why a lot of the kids had protruding belly buttons. Cathy said that it was because of the distance from the belly that the midwives tied babies’ umbilical cords at birth. By tying the umbilical cord several inches away, it was allowed to shrivel on its own and fall off. Tying it too close and the umbilicus became enlarged and ugly. Apparently it was a matter of style or ability among midwives. Finally, we returned to Godwin’s place where we would eat our lunch.
We had each paid a small fee to Baba, the third wife of Godwin’s who was to be our chef, in order to cover the cost of more “Western style” food. I felt only slightly ashamed by this, since the staple of most Kopeyians’ diets is fufu, a paste made from pounded cassava root, which I found inedible. Instead we would get white rice–a delicacy–and meat every couple of days. In the dining room, I met Robin, an African-American woman who had just graduated from Yale. She was implementing a tutoring program at the school and had been there for 4 months already. We immediately hit it off. She dipped her water glass into the jug on the floor.
“I think there’s something swimming in here.” She squinted into her cup. “Kenji, are you sure that Baba boiled the water for ten minutes?” She addressed the boy setting the table.
“Oh yes, Robin, I saw her do it three days ago.” He looked bit nervous. She fished whatever it was out of her glass. After he left, she said to the table,
“Well whatever this is, I guess it’s only three days old.”
I looked to Robin to help me figure out my routine here in the village. Robin would get up at 5:30 or 6:00, go running before the temperature got above 95 degrees, and shower before breakfast. I wasn’t so interested in exercise, but I needed a project. Since there weren’t any drumming classes per se, I decided to attend the after school drumming practice. The kids were getting ready for the graduation celebration that was coming at the end of the month, and I thought I could help. I soon realized that the average 7-year-old was better at playing drums than I was. Even so, their teacher, Akembe, was giving them a stern lecture in how they shouldn’t humiliate themselves and the village with their poor drumming. A fly buzzed lazily around a boy’s head as he waited for the teacher to finish talking. One of the pieces, “Gahun,” I had learned back in New York. The students played it well, but sped up gradually until it was at a crazy speed by the end. The teacher became apoplectic as he described how their tempo would affect the dancers. One of the students giggled at that, and the teacher spun around and left in a huff, declaring he would have nothing more to do with them. The students seemed to take this in stride and kept rehearsing.
That night, in my mosquito net at about 3:00 am, the wind shifted and I woke up to drumming. I wondered whether this was just a wild party or some sort of call to war. I fell back asleep until morning and I heard the drumming was still happening. I asked Baba what it was, and she told me that they were having a celebration in the neighboring village.
“And, it starts at 3 am?” I asked. She answered that it usually lasts for three days, and she asked me if I wanted to go. Robin and I got ready together that afternoon. The rules were that we couldn’t wear shoes, nor could we wear any western-style clothes, and nothing covering the shoulders. I lent Robin a “woman’s cloth” a rectangle of cloth to wrap around the torso. We were readying ourselves like girls going to a party, trying to make the most attractive knot. Kwaami, A local man, said he would take us. He was wearing a “man’s cloth” around his waist wrapped like a bath towel. We wore flip-flops as we humped the ½ mile through the tall grass. Kwaami led us along sandy paths that looked like they had been there forever. The drumming got louder. We stashed our shoes behind some weeds and inched closer. As people saw us they became curious. Some of them touched my blond hair, maybe because it was so strange. In the center of the village were a group of very young and very old dancers. Moving in straight lines in rows of five, each dancer took a turn down the line. Behind them were a row of drummers, and behind the drummers was a man in a tall mask and headdress. Occasionally, the man in the mask would lunge at people as they went by. I steered clear of him.
“This is amazing.” Robin shouted to me.
“Hey, I’m finally sweating!” I shouted back.