Homowo – it’s not what you think

Street performer at Homowo

Street performer at Homowo

If you’ve been following this blog for a while you may have noticed the theme emerging that I’m aiming to do things in Ghana that I haven’t done before, like going to Bolga, and getting cornrows. My most recently fulfilled goal was to go to a cultural festival.

I checked my tourist pamphlet guide to Ghana, consulted with a friend back home, and organised to go to the Ga festival of Homowo. This festival (means Hooting at Hunger, and celebrates the harvest), takes place throughout August at different Ga communities around Accra. Conveniently, the Jamestown Gas were celebrating on the weekend after the OurMedia conference, so I stayed on for the weekend and we arranged for my friend’s stepson, Nii, to take me around.

ActionMan didn’t want to go, saying he didn’t like the noise and confusion at festivals even in Australia, and that if he didn’t like it here, he wouldn’t have been able to get home without disrupting my enjoyment of the event. He spent our whole week in Accra reading online Manga comics, hanging out with the kids and arguing about religion with the adults at Naomi and Gifty’s place (in-laws of DadaK’s, where we stayed when we first arrived in Ghana). I think he would have enjoyed the first part of Homowo that I attended, but he has no regrets about missing it.

The first event Nii and I went to was the Twin’s festival on Friday evening. Still without a travel guide to Ghana, I hadn’t done much research on this, but what little I’d done did not prepare me for the mayhem, misrule and madness of this most enjoyable festival. The soporific Guide to Ghana Festivals said things like “.. the twins and their families proceed through the streets carrying offerings to the shrine”, which really doesn’t prepare you for it.

We found a viewing spot near a street corner, and waited in the fading day and growing crowd. Nii explained the bit about “proceeding through the streets”, only in more casual and friendly language, and I munched on peanuts offered by a very small, cheerful and feisty elderly lady (Letitia) who’d insisted we sit with her family on benches outside her house.

At last the first family approached and I realised this was not going to be the dry and formal occasion the festival guide had promised. There was, as AM predicted, lots of noise and confusion, but I think he would have enjoyed the craziness. What really happens is this: young women, men and sometimes children run or stagger through the streets carrying basins filled with water, leaves and other stuff (I’ll find out what it was and get back to you). They are surrounded by family members and friends who are holding them up, steering them in the right direction, pouring gin over them or in their basins, adjusting their clothes that have gone awry. In more sedate parties they are just running along beside them in matching outfits.

In this case it is th twins who are carrying the offerings through the streets.

In this case it is th twins who are carrying the offerings through the streets.

There’s usually just one person per group with a basin and they are not necessarily the twins. Apparently the basins are carried by people in the family who have this special role and who are possessed by spirits. Most of them – shaking, grim-faced and staggering – did look like they were possessed or else they were having a great time pretending to be. The crowd with them was usually riotous and happy: playing music, chanting, turning somersaults, sweeping dirt onto bystanders’ feet, careering into the crowd, jumping onto any cars unwise enough to stray onto the route. You get to see every group twice because they return the way they’ve come. On the way back big groups of young men dashed backwards and forwards yelling and chanting and drumming. That bit reminded me of football fans.

We couldn’t always spot the twins because the groups were moving so fast, except if they were children dressed identically in festive clothes and carried on adult’s shoulders, or babies – also dressed identically, on backs or in arms. However it’s clear that there are a lot of twins amongst the Gas. I don’t think a similar sized area in Sydney could come up with that many. But then, in Australia we don’t make that much of a fuss about them either. In Ghana you even have a special name if you’re a twin. Amongst Akans it’s Ataa, I don’t know about other tribes.

And what festival would be complete without the street performers? I’m not sure if they were connected with families or were independent buskers; perhaps a bit of both, as only one held out his cap for dash when I took a photo. He was the guy who parodied the police, in short white shorts with padded bum, military shirt and hat, colourful epaulettes and a painted wooden rifle. Another guy wore stylish shades, carried a small pot on his head, and was panted white from head to toe, except presumably for the bit that was covered by a red & black G-string. Sorry everyone, that was the only cheeky bottom I captured on film. There were others but the crowd was moving so fast it was hard to get pix. (What pix I have will be posted when I have better badnwidth).

When it was finally, sadly evident that no more parties would be dashing up the street, we farewelled our hostesses, promised to come back the next day, and moved on through happy crowds to catch a taxi to Oxford St for a burger and chips. Well, where else would you go, in a night on the town? It’s surprisingly similar to Sydney’s Oxford St, except a lot less gay, with fast food joints, restaurants, nightclubs and bars and according to Nii, “anything that happens at night is here”.

Over dinner we talked politics, world affairs, upcoming Ghana elections, corruption, economics. Nii’s a smart, sensitive, aware young man who sells clothes on the street for a living. I will never look at another hawker through the same eyes. It’s the kind of knowledge that makes me nearly explode with rage at the unfairness, at the waste, at the lost opportunities both for him and for his country.

After dinner we went to a nightclub. It was not on Oxford Street, but closer to home, so we caught trotros back towards Dansoman, where I was staying, and I got a brief glimpse of the market that has grown up around Kwame Nkrumah Circle. Circle, as it’s known, is a roundabout and interchange so vast and congested that – especially at night – you can hardly see the other side. There’s a market spreading along the foothpaths surrounding it that even consumes the pedestrian overpass on one side. Displays of shoes, dimly lit by kerosene lamps and torches, spiral up the ramp. On the other side you wind through a tarpaulin-covered warren of stalls selling as usual everything from deodorant to peeled oranges, before coming out at the taxi park.

caught a trotro straight away, but missed out on the good seats and Nii, who is very tall, had to sit hunched in one of the fold down seats, his knees almost up to his chin. I can’t help wondering if the short stature of most Ghanaians is a result of natural section by trotro seating. My brother, who is also tall, used to pay for two seats every time he caught a long distance trotro in Ghana, so that he could travel in relative comfort.
My Oz friend had already filled Nii in on my taste in music, so we went to hear a band that played more old fashioned Hi Life style of music. I say old fashioned, but the crowd was still young and groovy. I’m just trying to distinguish between older style music and the new Hip Life, which is Ghana / hip hop fusion. Some of it’s pretty good, but I’m more interested in Hi Life.

band was dressed all in white, with the men wearing weird fluffy, feathery caps that looked like a twenties cloche gone horribly wrong. But if you could get your mind off that, the music was good and we had fun. And an early night, I can’t shake it like I used to.

We missed the Homowo activities the next day because neither of us was well informed enough to realise that all the cultural stuff – dancing, performances etc – was happening early in the day. I admit, I’d seen a banner for a Maggi Homowo cooking competition, but I hadn’t paid attention to the details. Pity. (Stay tuned for my post on Ghana TV’s Great Maggi Moments).

However I also had an appointment with some Ghanaian re-evaluation counsellors (RCers) in the afternoon, and I didn’t want to miss that. RC is a kind of peer counselling in which you take turns to listen to each other in pairs or groups, and I find my life goes much better if I have regular counselling sessions. They help me let off steam, plan and make decisions and keep a positive perspective. Before I left Australia I’d made contact with an RCer in Kumasi and after arriving had met up with him a couple of times (and gone to his graduation) before he came back down to Accra to stay with family. We kept in touch and he invited me both to a group on Saturday and a workshop later this month.

So off I headed, braving Accra transport on my own for the first time, and safely arrived in Osu for the group. Here I shall draw a veil over the proceedings because it being counselling, I must of course respect confidentiality, but I can reveal that it was lovely to be so welcomed by a bunch of smart, young, committed counsellors, feel like I was in familiar territory, have some fun, shed some tears and make new and different connections with Ghanaians. Oh, and I spotted an Irish pub in the suburb. (Colleen and Mick, I have photographic evidence).

Me sampling the special Homowo food.

Me sampling the special Homowo food.

For perhaps the first time in my trip, the meeting was running on African time, and didn’t kick off till quite late. This was mostly due to Homowo disrupting traffic but starting late meant finishing late. I had to leave early to meet Nii back in Jamestown before dark. We rendezvoused at the same place we’d watched the twins festival, and quickly realised that all the action at this time of day was in private homes or nightclubs, so before heading off in search of a club (they open really early), we visited our companions of the night before. They were delighted and sat me down to a meal of special Homowo food: palm nut soup with fish and a special dish of corn meal mixed with palm oil.

There’s always a risk with this kind of impromptu meal that the food will be alien to western taste and full of something I don’t want to eat, like offal or smoked fish, but I was lucky and the meal was delicious. Our hostesses were a family of sisters – Letitia, Augustina, Elizabeth, Dora – and their mother and brother and presumably a whole lot of children and grandchildren who were mostly out partying. They had a Kumasi connection (mother came from there) and an Australian connection (a sister’s living there but they’ve lost touch). I took pictures and an address so I can send them the photos – of them, of homowo, and of me savouring palm nut soup.

there we headed to another nightclub. This one was on a cliff overlooking the sea, and at night it was a good location because you just see the dark waves breaking and don’t see how dirty and polluted they are. Unless you take a closer look, and then you can see, where the waves wash onto the beach, whole schools of black polythene. Uuurgh.

The music, again, was old style. A different old style. To my untrained ears it sounded my like palm wine music, with rolling, flowing melodies and twangy guitar. I liked it a lot, but by this time, after two late nights, a conference, a festival, and an awful lot of time going backwards and forwards in trotros, I was a bit tired. My spirit was willing but my flesh was very, very weak, especially when songs went for about half an hour each. But the dance floor wasn’t crowded, so we could sit back with our drinks (me: pineapple juice, Nii: Malt) and watch the performance.

Once again, the band had white clothes and fluffy caps – people I’ve spoken to reckon it could be a Homowo thing, because these outfits are normally worn by Ga priests, or chiefs, depending who I talked to. The band was fronted by a group of women who danced as well as sang. So even though I may have missed it in the morning, I still got my dose of Ghanaian dancing, and went home satisfied.

Homowo is continuing at other Ga communities around Accra throughout August and even, apparently, in the US. Although it’s over for me, at least for this year, it ain’t over yet. So in the words of the banners strung over the Jamestown streets: Happy Homowo.

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