Crossing Personal Space: Amazing Moments of Intimacy in Ghana


By Wendy Perron

Accra, Ghana, August 1 – 8, 2016

Talk about borders. The borders of personal space are penetrated in ways that can be either deeply touching or alarming. Here are some moments I will never forget:

• The first evening at the Afia Beach Hotel, Cari Ann and I went for a short walk to buy bottled water. Along the dirt road were a couple of tiny makeshift stores. At the second one, we spied bottled water on sale. As Cari Ann was figuring how many cedis to pay, two little girls grasped the bottom of my tunic-type shirt and twirled around with it. We three jounced around and hummed together. If a child did that in the U.S., a parent would reprimand her. For me, it was delicious.

Photo by Cari ann shim sham

Photo by Cari ann shim sham

• We were in a car, driving in Accra traffic. Most peddlers carry their wares on their heads—a basket of groundnuts (similar to peanuts), shampoo, soda, whatever. One peddler instead held a large, laminated map of Ghana toward us; he saw that we were interested. As we picked up speed, he was running alongside our car while Valerie bargained with him. He was selling it for 44 cedis (each cedi is worth about 25¢), but she talked him down to 30—even though she did not produce the money. Trusting her completely, he packed the map into a long tube shape, thrust it into my passenger window and ran off to get the “balance” (the change). As we rolled along in traffic, Valerie assured me the map guy knew what he was doing, but we were now quite far from him. I felt bad because the peddler was now missing his map and the money. Suddenly, as traffic slowed, he appeared at my window with the balance. Valerie quickly gave him the two 20s and he gave her a ten. The car never actually stopped. Now we have this big laminated map and Valerie can tell me about all the regions of Ghana.

• We visited Della Hayes and the Women of Color Band. (I described most of our visit in my previous essay "Sharing Burdens Through Dance and Music") Their music was infectious. The young women crossed a certain border by speaking openly with us about their hardships. At the end of our session, we were all jamming together on the porch.

From left: Abigail, Eunice, Ruth, Eva Photo by Cari Ann Shim Sham

From left: Abigail, Eunice, Ruth, Eva
Photo by Cari Ann Shim Sham

After the high of connecting through rhythm, we all stood together for a photo. I picked up one of the band’s kente-themed costumes that were laid out on the ground, maybe drying in the sun. I decided to wrap the kente around me like a cummerbund. I felt something nick the back of my right foot but was too busy fidgeting with the kente cloth to notice it. After a few seconds I looked down and saw blood spurting out of my shoe and onto the ground. The something turned out to be a big signboard that had blown over in the wind and cracked against my right foot. When people realized the blood was coming from me, they rallied round me. Cari Ann advised me to raise my foot above my heart; one of the women fetched a bucket of water from their rehearsal shed; another brought an Ace bandage. Although people were rushing around, I wasn’t too alarmed because I could feel that no bones were broken. After they bound my foot to stem the tide of the blood, I lay down on the pile of costumes so I could raise my leg. Ruth, the trumpet player, sort of massaged the unhurt sole of my foot as Cari Ann applied a little pressure to the wrapping around my ankle.

From left: Ruth, Cari Ann, Eva, Eunice, Abigail, Valerie, Andy, Della, Wendy on ground Photo by Sulley Imoro

From left: Ruth, Cari Ann, Eva, Eunice, Abigail, Valerie, Andy, Della, Wendy on ground
Photo by Sulley Imoro

• Another welcome transgression: Without asking, Sulley Imoro, the master dancer/musician who also served as our guide, scooped me up and carried me to the car. Della came along and was in tears. (She called the next day, very concerned.) We bumped along that bumpy road. Out on the paved road, we drove to 37 Military Hospital. After several of the medical staff took a look at my foot (I note here that the head of the medical staff was a woman), Dr. Noah Abanekolgo led me into the Trauma Theater—actually just a tiny hallway. Noah—he introduced himself by his first name—gave me three shots of a local anesthetic, which hurt like hell. I was lying on my stomach sort of howling/grunting/chanting, though I was trying to be restrained. He brought his face very close to mine on the cot, looked me in the eyes, and asked, “Are you OK?” I said, “Yes, I’m OK.” It was the most intimate, caring thing a doctor has ever done with me.

Wendy with Dr. Abanekolgo Photo by Andy Teirstein

Wendy with Dr. Abanekolgo
Photo by Andy Teirstein

• We were invited to the local TV station because the National Dance Company was performing in “Ghana’s Most Beautiful, Season 10.” The dancers were representing the dances of each of the 10 regions of Ghana. Before the pageant began, there was yelling and cheering and drumming and an ear-splitting whistle. The most outrageous, in-your-face crosser of personal space was an androgynous joker figure in white who cavorted and cajoled incessantly. Part of the “fun” was that he grabbed Andy, sitting to my left, and pulled him over to greet other sections of the audience, violating both Andy’s space and theirs. (Luckily he saw the bandage on my foot so he left me alone.)

• The TV studio had a decent public rest room, with clean stalls and plenty of toilet paper. When I was leaving the ladies room, three women in traditional (though not elaborate) West African garb were entering with some urgency. One of them was in such a rush that she did not wait till she got into a private stall. She squatted in the corner of the entranceway and peed right there on the floor. I got out just in time. When I told my colleagues about this, Cari Ann informed me that many women, especially in the villages, are not used to toilets and may even distrust them.

• On one of the last days, Sulley Imoro and his Mbagba Cultural Troupe (about 14 drummers and dancers) gave us a spirited performance out on the grounds of the Afia Beach Hotel. The audience was the four of us—Andy, Valerie, Cari Ann (behind her tripod) and me. At a certain point, drums still going strong, Sulley broke the fourth wall, running over to where we were gathered, about 15 yards away from their performance area, and pulled Cari Ann out from behind the video camera to dance with him. She’d spent a year in Accra and, although that was long ago, she still has the idiom of West African dance in her body. Then, one at a time, they pulled in Andy and Valerie too, The Mbaga performers were respectful of my injury, but I was itching to dance.

When Andy jumped in a second time, instead of doing Ghanaian dance, he showed some classical mime, like pulling on an invisible rope. Since he veered so far from their traditions, that was an opening for me. I twisted my way in, on just my left leg, improvising in my own style. It felt good to dance to that infectious beat and to be part of the proceedings. (Andy has a very funny take on this at the end of his essay, "You Can't Eat an Elephant All at Once") Later Sulley called me his “wounded sister,” a label that I cherish. My wound has healed but I still feel like he’s my brother.

Wendy and Sulley Imoro Photo by Cari Ann Shim Sham

Wendy and Sulley Imoro
Photo by Cari Ann Shim Sham

Why do the Ghanaians have such a different, more intimate sense of space than Westerners? It may be a number of factors. Valerie Naranjo points out in her essay that many people in Ghana live in small, tight communities.  “Friendships are strong, and families and communities are unified in purpose.” To imagine these tight communities in a specific place, I turn to a recent interview in The New York Times "In Burkina Faso, Rebuilding with a Local Touch" with West African architect Francis Kéré. Speaking about the country bordering Ghana to the north, he said, “The main meeting structure in Burkina Faso is the tree. Even in the city, that is where people meet, sitting under the shade, to discuss things.” Less formality, more closeness to nature. Somehow they are able to cut through the etiquette of Western culture, to let go of the public “persona” that we adopt in our country. When Noah brought his face close to mine, he really wanted to know if I was OK; he wasn’t impeded by the Western decorum of keeping your distance.

It may also have to do with the African custom of treating the visitor with warmth and respect. This was mentioned to us by several people. Time and again we benefited from people extending a hand to us. I was so touched by the way Della and her young women cared for me when my foot was gashed. It’s part of what makes me want to go back to Accra.

Photo by UNknown

Photo by UNknown