Thursday, July 5, 2018

Knock on Any Door

In our Orff-Afrique closing circle, one of the folks told a moving story about his conversation with a 9-year old boy. He was explaining to him how his 9-year old son couldn’t walk alone the two blocks to his school because it was too dangerous. And the boy looked so puzzled and replied: “Here I can knock on any door and play.”

It was another feather in the cap for Ghanaian culture and another reminder for us Americans about how far we have fallen from grace. And yet. Without taking away an ounce of praise for the Ghanaian village life, a closer reflection reveals a slightly different story.

I remember visiting an old college friend at her home on Peaks Island, just across the water from Portland, Maine. I was astounded by how everyone kept their doors unlocked and could ride their bike anywhere and leave it without a lock. These places have existed, do exist and hopefully will continue to exist in the United States. But what makes them possible?

In this case, it was a bit extreme. This was an island. Anyone who stole a bike would get discovered pretty fast! But more to the point, it was a homogenous community in rural America where everyone knew everybody else. That changes everything. I imagine rural places throughout the world—villages, towns, communities with small populations—are in general much safer and friendlier than just about any urban setting. That’s important to consider.

Then there’s the homogenous aspect. As much as I celebrate diversity and a multicultural mix of people, it seems to go against the grain of humanity’s long, long practice of identifying with a certain group you’re born into and being suspicious of strangers. Put in other terms, the black kids have been sitting together in the cafeteria from time immemorial because we feel more comfortable with our own, even when the definition of “our own” can—and should—mean markedly different things. I see it when boys sit on one side of the circle and girls on the other, when I went to high school parent gatherings and immediately gravitated to the families I knew from middle school, feel it as a strong part of Finland’s current status, creating such a “user-friendly” society because of 99% homogeneity. When immigrants or refugees come in to any community, many exciting possibilities can open up, but let’s face it—it’s difficult.

So the Ewe boy knockin’ on any door in Dzodze makes sense, but might be more of a challenge in Accra when the people opening the door might not only be strangers, but Muslim or Lobi or a European immigrant. Food for thought.

This is mostly a good reminder that all my praise of the small slice of Ghanaian culture I’m seeing from the outside is not to make them feel that “They’re Number One!!!” or make us feel that we should copy them and be wannabe Ghanaians. It’s to remind us what a healthy community can look and feel like and what the criteria and practices are that help create that. Though we can learn much from how often and how long Ghanaians play music and how the very style of musical interaction adds to its power, Ghanaians are far from the only group of people who experience the pleasure of community bonding through music. In fact, every single culture does. Likewise, the practice of forming neighborhood music clubs in which the paid dues form a kind of insurance agency when members are in need is to my mind far superior than paying too much money to corporate insurance companies who don’t know you and only want to earn as much money from you as possible and pay you the least possible when you’re in need. But that idea of neighbors pooling their resources to help a friend is what can make you feel “it’s a wonderful life,” as George Bailey discovered in the movie of the same title. Though we have strayed so far away from the idea of the Common Good and suffer from the purposefully perpetrated privileged notion of one team winning at all costs, it’s there in our culture, no matter how deeply buried.

So let’s hope that in a future trip to Ghana, a boy can tell us that he can knock on any door and play with a friend and we can answer, “So can we!!”

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