Dancing, Climate Change, and Human Perseverence

Posted by Douglas Joseph La Rose at the EANTH list. 23/07/2011 12:20

“This Wednesday, I had one of the most powerful experiences of my life. I went to a small village in the Upper West Region of Ghana named Bakbamba to help conduct research on climate change and social-cultural adaptations to a changing environment. I have been doing this work for a few weeks now, beginning in coastal eastern Ghana and moving north. But what I experienced today was a life-changing experience. I will do my best to convey my feelings here, but no words would ever be ample to describe the emotion, compassion, and appreciation I felt in this community.

The Upper West Region of Ghana is the poorest region in the country. Outside of the regional capital, Wa, there is really nothing else but vast savanna covered with Shea and baobab trees. The people are primarily subsistence farmers and fishers. The farmers plant guinea corn, maize, yams, beans, bambara beans, millet, groundnuts, and some other crops. Fishers set traps and mobilize nets in the black Volta river that separates Ghana from Burkina Faso. Women also gather Shea nuts and sell them to foreign buyers who process them into cosmetics and edibles. Over the past ten years, rainfall has become sporadic, inconsistent, unpredictable, and unreliable. In these Wala, Fulani, and Lobi communities that have been surviving for centuries, people are beginning to give up and move out. They are suffering from observable climate change and often becoming climate change refugees.

In the course of doing interviews with rural farmers, fishers, and gatherers I heard many stories about failed crops, declining catches in fish, and even lack of fruits from Shea trees, which have been a productive alternative economic resource for decades. Their story is a bleak one. Most crops fail and the only foods Wala and Lobi people can depend on are fish and maize, which takes three months to grow and can be opportunistically planted. Though they plant other crops, many of them are failing because rains are becoming increasingly unpredictable and deluges and floods more common. There is no source of potable water, so people in the village drink from stagnant, muddy ponds. Guinea worm is still a widespread problem. There is no other option. Most of the people we were able to interview were only in their 30s and 40s – because that is about as old as they live. In this village of 300 people, 20 have already died this year. One particular woman I interviewed was 30 years old, but she looked like she was 60. Poor nutrition, hard work, and no access to clean water are taking their toll.

At the end of the day, the women in the town gathered in a circle and began a traditional dance. The women around the circle were clapping poly-rhythmically and singing with beautifully sculpted, angelic voices. I watched as, one by one, the women would enter the circle and do an energetic, stomping dance. At the end of the dance they would throw themselves into the surrounding circle and be caught by the other women. This went on for almost 45 minutes. I asked one of our local research assistants what they were singing and he explained that the dance was about a fighting couple, and they were saying that if the husband no longer loved the wife he should leave her. The women who were catching each other represented the community. “We should support each other,” a woman told me. I sat down and watched the dance, how the women were moving around in passionate whirls, heaving themselves into the boundaries of the circle to be caught by other community members. In this poor village of hunger, desperation, and confusion about a changing environment they were finding the energy to remember and celebrate the perseverance of the human spirit. It was an overwhelming experience to watch frustration and unity translated into cultural performance.

Throughout our interviews and participation in the community, I felt both alarmed and reassured. Alarmed that the situation in this part of upper Ghana is much worse than I expected, and reassured that people are forging ways to adapt.”

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