It started with my colleague pounding on my door at 5 am. “Get up!! We’re going to the hospital!!” One of the students had severe vomiting and diarrhea and her temperature rose last night to 104 and dropped to 95 at 4:30am. Not a good sign.
We arrived at the hospital, which is mostly for children with polio. Both sobering and inspiring to see them crutching or hopping down the hall with one leg in a cast, smiling as if the world was rosy and sunny. Our student indeed was far from well, but after some intense advocacy with the doctor in charge, things got straightened out and there was hope for improvement. And a lesson for us to remember— advocate for yourself, for your loved one, in these situations. Don’t assume the doctor has it all together— they’re busy with lots of patients and here’s a case where squeaky wheels will indeed get the grease.
However, there were too many advocates in the small room, so my colleagues stayed while I went back to the group to go on with the original plan. Which was to go to a Christian service at a Ghanaian Evangelical Church. The building was essentially a large cement slab with cinder block walls and a tin roof, no windows, but open air and chickens strutting around inside. Unlike European cathedrals, the focus was not beautifying the space with visual splendor, but through aural and kinesthetic beauty—ie, music and dance. Which was everywhere in the long, long service.
The choir entered singing a hymn of sorts, but accompanied by drums bells and rattles.
The next song sounded more like traditional Ewe to my ears and everyone was up and dancing. Some music felt like American Gospel, with a keyboard, drum set and horns tucked up in the corner and lead singer backed up by other singers. This was all through microphones, amped up to 10 out of 10 on blasting speakers.
The minister would say things in English and another would translate and then they switched roles. I sat up front with the various officials as representative of our group and was invited up to address the congregation. People have often commented on my preaching style in my workshops and here was my chance to do it for real! And so I said:
Mieawezo. Thank you for your warm welcome. We are 35 teachers here from 11 different countries. We all worship in different ways, sing different songs in different languages, and use different names for God, but we all brothers and sisters in Spirit. Amen!
Short and sweet and well-received. But then came the guest minister and the next hour was a fire-and-brimstone sermon complete with warnings about roasting in Hell-fire for all of eternity. Not exactly my cup of tea. We finally left after three and a half hours and were told that they would go on for another hour or two. As one of members said yesterday, the one word he would use to describe Ghanaians— “stamina.”
Back on the bus and the hotel lunch and then off to a small village to witness a traditional religious ceremony. We had to dress in the equivalent of Ghanaian sarongs and enter the courtyard of a small compound barefoot while the drums were already wailing and a small circle singing and dancing. Here the intention was to invite the various gods and spiritual forces to visit the community through the bodies of the initiates in trance. And indeed, some four different dancers went into trance at different times, eyes rolled back and clear shift as the spirit entered their body. They shook hands with each of us and their grip was strong beyond expectation. This was another two hours of non-stop song, drumming and dance and when we left, they probably continued for another several hours. Stamina.
Trance-dance is universal, stretching from Siberia to Indonesia to the Amazon jungle to throughout sub-Saharan Africa to the Italian tarantella to the Holy Rollers to Tony Robbins seminars. It’s probably the most difficult thing for modern Westerners to understand, upsetting to our sense of human civility and composed behavior. But it clear serves a purpose in the experientially religious practices, opening a doorway between the other world and this world. More and more I talk about that relationship, the way the departed ones and gods and spirits need a way to stay in the human community without bodies and voices. In my thinking, it can be us simply remembering them and speaking on their behalf, but trance is a more intense and concrete way for them to have their say by borrowing our bodies briefly. After the trance, the person inhabited remembers nothing, but the initiated community has heard what has been said and responds accordingly.
Two surprising things. From the beginning, they invited some to drum with them, showing the part by patting on our knee or back. This feels like the equivalent of handing the music to a random tourist in a Western church service and inviting them on the spot to come sing with the choir. Likewise, we were welcomed to dance in the small circle. This constant invitation to participate is stunning.
And then the picture that got away! During the drumming, one of the drummers was checking his messages on his cell phone! I whipped out my camera, but too late— he had put it away. Darn!
Back on the bus, pack up our things at the hotel and off to Ho. My ankle was swollen with a weird after-effect of my sprained muscle from two weeks ago, some insect bit my right foot, my stomach was beginning to churn, but still I was happy, sitting on the bus listening to the murmur of conversation like a piece of sweet music. Chickens in the church, eternal damnation, trance dancers at a local shrine— just a typical Sunday.