I don’t know how the president of Ghana’s cohorts knew I didn’t know whose hand I was shaking. Maybe it was because I was not visibly uncomfortable and not appropriately scared.I was in Ghana this spring for four weeks with my boyfriend visiting his family and friends.
One of his friends is a former member of parliament and the chair of the country’s opposition party for the upper east region.
Her name is the Honourable Mrs. Agnes Chigabatia Asangalisa and she was giving us a ride north to visit family.
Madame Agnes, as her admirers call her, reminds me of Tina Turner. She is beautiful with chiseled cheekbones, deep, sparkling eyes and a wild crop of red hair. The woman has a calm power to her, like a lioness watching over her pride.
Madame Agnes was heading north to a town called Chiana, where a funeral was being held for a chief who died four years ago.
The chief, whose name is Pe Rowland Adiali Ayagitam II, was called Chiana-Pio and his funeral was a grand affair, drawing in people from across the country.
Crowds became even more intense once word spread the president of Ghana would be attending.
In the morning of the funeral, Madame Agnes collected me from the hotel and took me under her wing. She told me to stick close to her and I was treated like a foreign dignitary.
Her driver navigated the black SUV through throngs of people all heading towards the site of the funeral that seemed to be set under the umbrella of enormous trees.
I had no idea where we were, or what the plan was. I didn’t know how long we’d be there, but I didn’t ask any questions because my experience in Ghana was that questions were cumbersome and everything would become clear soon enough and I was in good hands.
Many of the people attending the funeral were wearing white T-shirts with a photo of Chiana-Pio on the front. Others were dressed in Ghanaian-style clothing featuring the stripes of the north or brightly patterned floor-length dresses.
There were musicians and dancers travelling in packs, fighting against the flow of the crowds.
The musicians had drums and flutes and the dancers undulating and shaking in a relentless fervor. They danced right up to Madame Agnes, who pulled out a wad of bills and placed the notes on the dancers’ heads. They stuck to the sweat on their foreheads or fluttering to the ground to be picked up by the troupe.
I could hear women ululating as a frightening looking group passed through the masses. Men in the lead wore the curved horns of some large animal on their helmet and warrior-style outfits just like what I had seen in the national museum, except the men in the museum had snakes in their mouths and were cutting their own tongues with huge knives.
Madame Agnes continued walking through the crowd and there were so many people who wanted to greet her I end up slipping further and further behind.
That was a frightful feeling as I lost my grip on my protector.
I could see the top of her red head peering around and I desperately hoped she was looking for me. I raised my hand into the air so she could see me, a single white arm in a sea of black people.
Moments later a teenager appeared and said, “You have to stick by Madame Agnes. Stay right close to her,” and he pushed his way back through the crowd, towing me along until I was tightly sandwiched between them.
I followed in her wake as she climbed the stairs to a stage where dignitaries were sitting on plastic chairs in a U-shape.
I followed, just like I’ve been told, and she begins greeting each of the seated dignitaries, one by one. I do the same.
Madame Agnes greets them in Twi and Buli, two of many Ghanaian languages.
I learned some of those words, but I’m so nervous all I can say is, “Hello, nice to meet you. Hello, nice to meet you.”
I have no idea who they are, but some of them are friendly and return my greeting. In fact, it seemed as though they got a kick out me coming through and saying hello.
In one corner, however, I get an icy vibe as I shake hands, as if they were thinking, “Who the are you and what are you doing here?”
I can understand they’d feel like that, because I felt like an imposter. The only reason I was there was because Madame Agnes took a shine to me and I wanted to follow her instructions.
After shaking 36 important people’s hands all the way around the U-shape, a spot opened up for Madame Agnes to sit down and I look around for a place for me. Nothing.
Now I really feel foolish.
Madame Agnes is engaged in conversation, so I’m on my own to deal with the situation.
I bolted off the stage.
A line of police and military lined the stairs. They formed a barrier protecting the dignitaries. Past them is a large open area where no one is allowed to walk, then another line of police and military contain the crowd.
I spot some of Madame Agnes’ followers right behind the wall of police and I hope they would provide me with some sanctuary.
I squeeze through some officers on the stairs, feeling a gun swing as I pass. I walk through the open area and squeeze through the next barricade of military officers to stand beside the people I recognize.
I relax for a moment, because that seems like the right place to be — with the regular folk.
Again, the teenager finds me, grabs me and pushes us past the police, explaining to them I’m a friend of Madame Agnes and I’m supposed to be with the dignitaries.
The police object, telling the teenager he can’t pass, but he says he’s just going to drop me off and return.
Miraculously, they allow us to pass.
He tugs me across the open area, in front of everyone, and tucks me up onto the stairs beside the other civilians who must be more important than the masses, but not as important as the dignitaries.
I feel like a dog keeping an eye on her master, because from that spot I can see Madame Agnes and I just stay put.
It was actually an excellent vantage point.
Facing the crowd, I could see to my left the military band sitting with their trumpets and horns. To my right were the dignitaries. In front of me were the 200-foot trees providing shade from the intense heat. All around me from the ground to the tops of buildings were armed military watching over the proceedings.
It was a privilege to be there. I had the opportunity to learn what a man had done in his life to earn the respect of thousands of people and to see how this culture celebrates such a life.
When the ceremony began several speakers painted a vivid picture of Chiana-Pio’s life.
He reigned from 1950, when Ghana gained independence from the British, until 2006 when he died. He was the first literate chief and with the leaders of the time he developed the country’s constitution.
Chiana-Pio was a farmer, he was generous with his harvest, his seeds and his knowledge and his peace-keeping approach to leadership earned him respect from his countrymen.
The fourth speaker to be introduced was the president of Ghana, John Atta Mills.
As he stood up I realized he was one of the dignitaries whose hand I had shaken.
He was in the corner where I got the less than hospitable welcome and now it was clear why. His cohorts knew I didn’t understand I had the privilege of shaking the president of Ghana’s hand.
Published in the Okotoks Western Wheel on August 18, 2010