A Cultural Dilemma

Nadjah ripped open her backpack last week and thrust a sheet of paper in my face. It was a permission slip from her school, requesting my signature to allow my student to participate/try out in the school’s first ever Cultural Talent show.

“Presentations must be no more than 5 minutes long and must represent a specific culture,” it read. “Students will be notified on September 23rd if they have been selected to perform in the talent show.”

I groaned inwardly. There are few things I dislike more than preparing for a show, despite the immense pride I generally feel when my baby is on stage knocking her lines out of the park.

“Can I do it, Mommy?” she pleaded.

“Yeah…I guess,” I conceded. But you don’t have a talent. I wanted to add.

She rattled off some ideas about what she would do; none of them good, and none of them representative of any CULTURE. Fortunately for her, her mom is a Ghanaian, so I would have a canned and ready solution to this performance dilemma.

Or at least I should have.

I sat staring blankly at my child for what appeared to be an eternity.

“Why are you starting at me, Mommy?” she asked, obviously puzzled by my confusion.

“Because I don’t know what you CAN do for this talent show!”

At that moment, a whole new world of realization flashed before me. I had brought up my children exclusively as Americans, and had in effect erased any working knowledge of my own culture. As a child of the Diaspora, I grew up in a household where Ghanaians congregated to eat jollof rice and drink beer, but that was truly the extent of my Ghanaian exposure. Even when we moved back to Accra, there was a prevailing thrust to raise all the children in my neighborhood (Labone) in a Western fashion. Kids my age didn’t do adowa for our talent contests; we mimed to Black Street or did the running man on stage.

So here I sit, twenty-something years later with my own brood in need of my cultural input, and I have none to provide. I sent my BFFFL, Nana Darkoa, a message over skype. She always has solutions.

“Sisi! What is your godchild going to do for her cultural talent show at school?” I typed frantically.

“Hmmm. Can she model?”

“Modeling is not cultural.”

“I’m trying to think back to my own school days. Maybe she can sign ‘kyekye kule’…Is that even a song kraa?”

“No! It’s a game!”

“Well, she could dance adowa,” Sisi offered.

“She could, except she can’t learn adowa in 5 days. Adowa has to be done properly, and I’ll need several percussionists.”

“What do we even do for culture as kids?” she asked.

“Ah. Adowa, agbadza, that’s it!”

After failing to come up with a song, a monologue or a dance for Nadjah to do, we came (or I came) to the conclusion that we sha. How can I explain ‘sha’ to my American Readers…Aha! We’re wack.

My sister lamely suggested that she play ampe.

“Really Adj? By herself? For five minutes? And what about our culture is that supposed to showcase?”

Again – wack.

I spent the next few days agonizing over what she could possibly do. I was so ashamed of myself. The closest I had brought my kids to my culture was FOKN Boyz, and I couldn’t very well have my 6 year old serenading the proverbial ‘good chef’s’ buttocks and breasts for her 6 and 7 year old classmates. On the other hand, you could grab any given 6 year old of Indian descent anywhere in the world, and he/she can probably bust out a few thought provoking lines from Gilgamesh or thrill an audience with some quick steps from Bollywood. I was certain of it. Of all cultures that have immigrated to the West, the Asians (including Southeast Asians) are those who are most inclined to hold on to and instruct their children in their cultural ways. Africans are the least likely. Is it because we are ashamed? Is it because we see little value in our culture, beyond eating  jollof rice, beer, and wearing the finest kente/kaba and slit to events centered around the eating of jollof and drinking beer?

I thought I alone in this assessment until two things happened: Nana promised to tweet her followers to ask for performance options suitable for a child. No one responded. I sent a message to a local Ghanaian women’s organization here in Atlanta with the same request. I got no response. This is evidence that either no one cares or no one KNOWS about suitable performances for and by children.

I guess I could take solace in the knowledge that Nadjah’s best friend – whose parents are from the Virgin Islands – will not be performing this year either.

“Girl, I can’t put K in the talent contest. They’ll kick her outta school!” her mom ranted.

“That’s true. Y’all do tend to go naked in your parades….”

She cut me off.

“And we’ve raised the kids American! All they know is America – so that they can fit in.”

It should make me feel better, but it doesn’t. Somehow, I feel like I’ve cheated my kids and future generations to come.  I suddenly feel a need to take a page out of Gilgamesh and do as my Indian counterparts have done for years: i.e. instill stronger pride in my God-given culture to my children and not handicap them by forcing them to discover it on their own from someone else when they’re older. Certainly it’s worth learning now.

  • Michelle

    ananse stories perhaps?

    • That’s a consideration. Thanks!

  • Nana Ama

    Oh, I feel you, wai!:)

    The only way my contemporaries (and older students) at Bishop’s Girls’ School, Accra and St Monica’s Secondary School (Ashanti Mampong, Ghana) got to learn about Ghanaian culture, (dance, folklore, songs etc) was because some enlightened nuns came all the way from Whitby in 1926 (North Yorkshire) included them as part of our curriculum in addition to English Literature and Culture! Today we bless them for all those extra-curricula activities in the afternoons which led to keenly contested competitions (by house or class) and a profoundly eclectic cultural knowledge.

    Today some of my classmates are making a great living teaching Ghanaian music and dance in the UK. Indeed, I know an Ashanti lady who is living very comfortably off the proceeds of teaching Kente weaving in deepest Devon and Cornwall!

    And you know what saddens me most about all this? It took the far-sightedness of some white women for us to know and value ‘our culture!’ Our parents ‘proved’ their culture by dressing and eating ‘Ghanaian’ but hardly taught or recorded anything in writing or other media. Drumming and
    Dancing in our schools in Ghana today, teach some bastardised forms of the originals, and are always accompanied by evangelical church music! Ewwww!

    • I mean it really is something to consider and take action on. It’s a pervasive problem! Our culture as we know it (or don’t know it in this case) is on the verge of becoming extinct, or at best held in the knowledge of a select few.

      Hip hop and hair weaves should not define Ghanaian culture.