Hail to the Queen Mother – January 12, 2010

I am exhausted right now but I must write a bit about what happened today. This morning was our last day in Kpando. Our plan was to have the large bus pick us up at 7 am for an 8:30 arrival in the city of Ho which is the capital of the Volta Region. We are scheduled be the main speakers at the first National Nurses Conference that is sponsored by AFRICED. Of course as usual we experienced a transportation glitch and the bus did not show up until almost 8:30 which put us very far behind. We load all of our suitcases and remaining boxes of supplies on the bus and leave Kpando. It is a bit sad for me because I don’t know if I will ever see this town again. The bus ride is very bumpy and this large bus is not as nice as our first one. I am worried about getting motion sickness of which I am very prone but as luck would have it one of the students beat me on that matter.

Upon our arrival at the hotel where the conference was being held I was immediately met but our friend Nicolas who informed me that the Minister of Health was due to arrive at any moment with his entourage and the national press. We are told to suspend our lectures until he arrives. There is so much protocol that must be adhered to. I am a bit anxious because the nurses from Ghana have been waiting for our arrival and now we are being told to wait a bit longer. To make matters worse there appears to be some financial concerns as AFRICED has been unable to procure private or governmental sponsors for this program and they do not have the funds to pay all the expected expenses of the day. I am a bit upset when I realize that there is no financial support from the governmental sector. On one had I am very happy to have the UML students and myself give our lectures( free of charge) but I am concerned that other bills for this program will not be paid. I have already obtained some financial support from Eta Omega Chapter of Sigma Theta Tau for a small part of the expenses. After some deliberation Maura and I decide to give some of our personal funds to help support the expenses. We are told that to cut costs we must speed up the lectures to 10 minutes each so the nurses can leave early and we won’t be responsible for feeding them. I understand that this is the first type of program that has been offered in this region but I am also disturbed that the program is being funded and subsidized by us and not the Ghanaian government. It is hoped that the minister will be happy with this program and consider supporting a similar program next year. The students excel in their presentations and make me very proud, although it is very hard to do justice to some of our topics in 10 minutes. The Ghanaian nurses are attentive and ask appropriate questions. I am very heartened to see Sister Magdalene from Margret Marquart hospital. She is such a kind and friendly soul it makes me glad that she has traveled the distance to hear us speak.

There were speeches by the Minister and then I was told I needed to give a keynote address. Well I had about 10 minutes warning and put together a decent speech. The national press was there and I can only imagine what my hair looked like but at least no one at home will be seeing my on TV. At the completion of our program we were able to give to each of the participants either a blood pressure cuff or stethoscope. I have purchased about 50 of those items as my donation to the nurses of Ghana. It is my belief that the nurses here need access to better education and tools and that my little token is one way of helping them provide good nursing care.

We conclude our program and after official pictures are taken we jump on our bus for the ride to Peki. After an hour we arrive in village that sites in the valley between some pretty decent hills (I would not classify them as mountains). It is typical of many of the other villages we have passed but the children are so excited to the Yo-Vo’s (white women). We check into our guest house which is adequate but a VERY far leap from the worse Motel 6 you would see in the USA. This is true Ghanaian accommodations. The floors are somewhat dirty, there is one light bulb hanging from the ceiling, there is a noisy fan (no AC), a toilet that doesn’t flush and a shower that has a trickle of water and a huge spider on the wall. But is has 2 beds and screens on the windows so it is fine. We are told we need to leave for the ceremony and we are intrigued. After a very short drive we arrive at the main village where the chief lives. It is dark now but there are some scattered lights. We can see that there is a huge crowd. It is hard to estimate the number but we are told that the population is about 1000 and I think that there has to be as least 500-700 people there. It is a sea of people comes to welcome the white nurses to their village. The children rush the bus and as we start to take pictures they yell in delight every time a flash goes off. There is no pushing or shoving but rather an appreciative and curious swarming of our group. We are ushered to a place of honor in the center of the village under a roof of palm leaves. I am again amazed at the number of people who are here. All eyes are on us. The drumming and singing begin and are amazement is just beginning. We are told that it is the Paramount Chief who is sitting across the large open area from us. In front of his seat is his Linguist which I am assuming is a person who does some of his talking. On either side of him are the other lesser chiefs. They are all dressed in various colored garb. No western clothing on these dignitaries. Perpendicular to him is the place where the Queen Mother sites. I see a beautiful and brightly clothed woman sitting in her chair and it appears she has her own assistant or linguist that sits in front of her. Now begins the protocol.

There is much back and forth between our side of the circle and the chiefs’ side. One of the AFRICED volunteers is Mawuli who is the chief’s son and speaks to another man who then is permitted to speak to the chief. If I was home in the US it would be a simple matter of a man telling his father ‘hey Dad, I have some people for you to meet’ but here all the correct protocol must be followed. After a while we are then treated to about an hour of performing. There is much drumming and singing and first a dance by a group of young women and a few young boys. I am struck by the fact that had it not been for the large fluorescent bulb nailed to the nearby tree one could imagine they were in an African village 100-200 years ago. There is no evidence of any modern elements except for the occasional flash of the camera and our western attire. The performances keep coming. We are treated to some lovely singing by a women’s group. It is more than 4 part harmony. It sounds like an orchestra of instruments and accompanied only by drumming. It is beautiful and I have a moment thinking of my dear mother in law who loved this type of singing and would have been thrilled to be sitting next to me. Our next performance is a series of short war dances performed by young boys. It is meant to be somewhat frightening and they have their symbolic ‘knife’ which is a stick and they make angry gestures to members of the audience. The younger children on the sidelines scream in terror when the dancer comes to them. The dancer does some facial contorting and has a look to his eyes which is meant to be menacing. It is effective in creating a sense of danger and war.

We were exhausted earlier but now we are running on adrenaline. We realize that we are experiencing something that not too many people from the US will ever see. The dancing and singing subside and we are then presented to the chief. He welcomes us as daughters to his family and we are given our African names. My name is Valerie Ami Aboagyewaah King. A woman ties a beaded string on our wrist and we must great the Chief and Queen Mother and are accepted into their family. We are all standing there except Maura and I am trying to indicate to Mawuli that she has been forgotten. Before I get his attention they announce that they are making Maura a Queen Mother of the Village. She is invited up and a group of women descend upon her and wrap her in a large heavy robe make of Kente fabric, jeweled sandals and a headdress. She is made to sit on a stool with her feet resting on an animal skin. Her arms and hands are powdered and she is positioned to sit in a certain way. Important words are said, applause happens and we (the UML group) must go and give our respects to our new Queen Mother. I am told that Maura was chosen over me because she is a few years older and it must be given to the older woman. She is then placed next to the Queen Mother to reign over the rest of the proceedings. I return to my seat and now the big drumming and singing begins. The students leave me with their bags and cameras and I am the photographer for the next 30 minutes of frantic and loud dancing. The young kids swarm my seat to watch me with the camera and I can no longer see Maura in the crowd. At this point the Ghanaian people all come to dance and many of them take the opportunity to dance with all the young American nursing students. There is much touching and at times the girls have to fend off wandering male hands but even the Ghanaian women touch the students. Then it becomes evident to me that they touch each other as well. It is a surreal experience but the UML girls stick together and seem to manage ok. They return back to me very sweaty but exhilarated with the experience. A woman brings a large bowl of palm wine to our table and we are told to drink. We repeat the customary sipping of the wine from the coconut bowl and then the remainder is dumped on the ground. There is some significance to this dumping and I can’t recall the meaning but we did it last year in a previous ceremony. The wine tastes like soured orange/lemon juice. Most of us are taking tentative sips being more afraid of germs from sharing a common cup than actually drinking the wine. We are hoping that the alcohol will kill some of the germs.

We have been here for 3 hours and we are very tired. Our UML Queen mother is being disrobed somewhere so we walk back to our bus. The crowd has slowly dispersed and many of them have to walk miles back to their own smaller villages. There are no street lights. Small children are walking along the road mere inches from the open sewer trenches. Our bus takes us to one more stop. We are dropped off at the home of Mawuli’s uncle and he serves us more palm wine. This wine is slightly better tasting than the other batch but there are multiple coconut bowls circulating around the room. I wonder if they expect us to get drunk on the palm wine but we are drinking very little. We are on a small porch and the men have left to go drumming and the children of the village surround us. I try to converse with them but they do not seem to understand our questions. They are staring and seem enthralled with us. Eventually the men return and we go back to our bus. Back home in our room we shower in the dark (no bulb in the bathroom… but the spider scurries away when the water starts. I am refreshed by the water but emotionally and physically exhausted but I must write this all down so I can remember. Tomorrow we will have a busy day in our new home of Peki.