We were at the Folkspace of the National Art Theatre, Accra, for a film show that was part of the Chale Wote Street Art Festival. The Folkspace is an amphitheater and people are crouched or seated in lotus poses on the rising tiers of seats to witness the performance below. On the circular space below the seats, raffia mats, Kente and Ankara materials have been spread to make a sitting area.
Today’s film is about the northern experience. The film maker and a bearded guy are holding court. The self-taught film maker talks about his process, this is his first film actually. The bearded guy with the-fancy-walking-stick-with-a-carved-snake-handle, it’s from Burkina Faso by the way, is talking about Northern culture: their names, practices, and gods. I look around the area. There’s a pretty lady in a doctor’s overcoat. Slung around her shoulder is a camera with camouflage, rubber casing. She wears her natural hair packed upwards.
There’s another white lady with blonde dreadlocks that go past her neck. Standing beside her is her daughter? A younger replica in matching dreadlocks. They look so cute together. I do this thing sometimes where I look at a stranger and imagine life with them. I do it this time, and imagine we are a family: me, the dreadlocked lady, and our cute, dreadlocked daughter. Just then, she leans in, and laughs at something a dark guy beside her says. There he is, dark, muscular, probably her husband.
So much for imagination. But I don’t stop looking. Now, her daughter is holding a large camera, crouching, and talking to a dark-skinned lady who is wearing a colourful turban. I bother about the camera falling. The daughter fiddles with the camera and takes a picture of bright turbaned lady with the shiny skin. From my perch, I can see into the viewfinder of the camera and the bright turban is visible. I am impressed that she knows how to operate the camera.
The next day is a film screening at Kukun, Osu.
The first time I visited Ghana, I stayed at the Movenpick Hotel in Accra, moved around in cabs, and bought an MTN Ghana SIM so I could stay in touch with happenings at home. This trip is different. I planned this as a backpacking trip where I get to interact with the locals so I have no internet, do not take cabs, and find my way around by asking people for directions. I board a trotro from Darkuman Junction to Kaneshie, another trotro from Kaneshie to Osu. In Osu, I walk to Planet Kebab, a fancy eatery which sells kebabs and fries for a princely sum of GHC38. No, I don’t wanna buy kebabs!
The first day we arrived Accra, my roommate had dinner here, and they were gracious enough to connect both of us to the restaurant’s WiFi so whenever I am in the area, I stand at the Total filling station opposite the restaurant to download my messages. This time, I don’t want to download messages, I just want to get the Google Map directions to Kukun. As I type in the coordinates, I notice dreadlocked white lady and her friend with the shiny skin and colourful turban some metres away. I walk up to them.
‘Hi. Please do you know where Kukun is?’
‘We are just trying to find the place too. Are you here for the festival?’
‘Yes, I saw you two yesterday at the National Theatre’. I angle towards the white lady, ‘How about your daughter?’
‘Oh, you noticed my daughter. She’s at home’
‘Yeah. I noticed her taking pictures of you’ I angle back towards the dark lady with the shiny skin and colourful turban.
‘Why didn’t you say hi to us?!’ the dark lady with the shiny skin and colourful turban shrieks.
‘How could he have?’ the lady with the dreadlock counters.
‘He noticed your daughter, and saw her taking pictures. He should have said hi’.
I wondered how you walk up to people and say ‘Hi, you have a beautiful daughter. I was imagining us as a family’, so I asked them instead, ‘Do you know how we can get to Kukun? We can open it on the Map and walk there.’
Maja, the lady with the dreadlocks, gets the coordinates from her phone and soon we are hiking to the venue. We talk on the way. Maja is an Austrian, who once lived in Ghana for 3 years, and has now returned to live and work here with her family. Gayle, the dark lady with the shiny skin and colourful turban, is from the Volta region, she grew up in Ghana, and doesn’t go out much.
Kukun is an upscale restaurant in the commercial centre of Osu. The film show is holding in the outdoor area. A canopy made of stylishly ripped, elastic cotton material, covers the area, and an assortment of raffia mats and adire materials are on the floor. The film, Super Modo, is about a kid who is filming a superhero movie, so we have a child in a cape running around, flying, to rescue kidnapped children and fight bad guys while cameramen chase him around. Gayle can’t understand it and in between laughs, I keep repeating ‘it’s a film within a film’. Maja joins us later and they invite me for a music performance of a friend of theirs at Carbon Night Club in Accra Mall.
‘What’s the gate fee? Is there a gate fee?’
‘We don’t know. I will cover transport though’. Maja says.
‘Let me know please. That will determine if I come. If it’s less than GHC 20, I can make it’
The next performance is by a group from Sheffield in the United Kingdom. It’s a mixture of spoken word and dance. At the end of the performance, I applaud the performers for their enthusiasm and the distance they have travelled.
The next set of performers are two girls, twins most likely, who walk around with a calabash of paint while some ambient music plays. They paint themselves, paint some people in the front row, and perform some gymnastics which involve stretches and a cartwheel. They walk around with a damp towel, cleaning the paint off each other, and off the people they had painted earlier. Some people decline.
Gayle walks up to me, ‘Yay! The event is free entry’. We walk out for a smoke, while we await our Uber.
Carbon night club has walls made of alternating rows of bricks and open spaces. Ferns, ivies, and creepers have been planted in the open spaces. This ensures a steady inflow of fresh air, greenery and leaves all around. The tables all have a Reserved sign on them even though people haven’t arrived yet. I notice some ushers walk up to attendees, ask what they would like to drink, and usher them to a table. Gayle and Maja excuse themselves to go greet their friend, the star performer for the night.
‘Hello, but people have not arrived, why can’t we sit?’ I ask an usher.
‘Sorry sir, you need to have booked before.’
On the stage, a Ghanaian star musician is playing a cover of a Western R & B song, and after that, he moves to a 2face Idibia song. I wonder if their star musicians who keep performing Nigerian artiste songs ask permission before.
I am tired of standing but Gayle and Maja have to watch their friend’s performance so we wait. In the meantime, we talk about One Love, a Ghanaian artist who walks around barefoot and does not wear underwear.
‘How do you know he doesn’t wear underwear, Gayle?’
‘A presenter asked him on live TV, ‘‘is it true you don’t wear underwear?’’ and on live TV, chale, he just packed the thing up to show her. The whole Ghana was shocked’
My laughter is drowned by applause as the star performer takes the stage. She is dressed in a sheer pink gown, and her white shorts are visible underneath. She proceeds to thank everyone for coming. She looks in my direction and says ‘Thanks for coming Maya all the way from Austria’.
I wonder why she did not also thank the dark lady with the shiny skin and colourful turban. I also wonder why she has to emphasize where Maja came from, and I wonder if she knew she was mispronouncing her name.
The first time I visited Ghana, I asked the porter at the hotel why most Ghanaians respond with their English name when you ask, and only give up their beautiful Ghanaian name if you probe. This is a trend I saw repeated in Chale Wote: the aping of Western models, playing of foreign hip hops songs to a packed John Evans Atta Mills High Street on the festival day in Jamestown, the clowns who dressed as the Grim Reaper and other Western characters, the foreign sports on display like skating and kickboxing, and the performances which were hardly authentic or Ghanaian. Everything Ghanaian is beautiful but Ghanaians, and the Chale Wote festival, will not attain a certain level of greatness till Ghanaians start to believe in, and push their own.
Osisiye Tafa writes creative non-fiction, and his debut novel, Sixty Percent of a True Story, was published in 2015