By: Ryan L. Gruenewald
Kwadwo Okrah began his presentation on the cultural traditions of Africa and Ghana with a pair of songs.
The associate professor struck percussive rhythms with two short wooden dowels and sang the English alphabet first and then another in his native language.
“I represent Africa but the things I say are mostly about Ghana,“ Okrah said with a smile. “And when I talk about Ghana I know that I can say whatever I want to say without fear of any future contradiction because I know what I’m saying. And fortunately there is a Ghanaian here so I cannot lie to you,” he said, motioning to someone in the audience.
On Tuesday, Feb. 18, in the Wiekamp Education Resource Commons, Okrah shared stories and poetry from Ghana meant to illustrate culturally significant symbols, customs and kinships. Okrah is director of the Center for Global Education of IU South Bend.
To one corner of the stage beside two large drums, Okrah had filled a table with an assortment of evocative items. As he held up two small wooden birds, he explained the symbolism.
“When you see these two birds it’s like they are moving forward and their beaks are backwards,” he said.
The birds signify the philosophy of cultural retention and learning from the past.
Okrah draped a kente cloth around his shoulders and noted that they are traditional accessories and the narrow bands of bright fabric are woven with designs to have different meanings. A black and white pattern decorated his traditional tunic and matching hat.
“If you see a Ghanaian wearing a ring it has nothing to do with that person’s marital status,” Okrah said.
Traditionally, to the people of Ghana, the finger on which one wears a ring has significance. For instance, if the ring is on the thumb it means “don’t mess with me.”
“As far as Okrah is concerned, the face of my ring always goes with the face my watch. I know people say, ‘Then you are vain,’” Okrah said slyly. “Yes, I know. I know. I try to be.”
By appointment, Okrah held the position of state linguist for Ghana, acting as the mouthpiece for the king, an oral historian, ancestral voice and poet. The poetry was often prepared spontaneously.
The Republic of Ghana won independence from British colonizers in 1957.
“When Ghana gained independence, one of the things we tried to do was to incorporate the traditional system of governance into the modern system of governance,“ Okrah explained. “The king does not speak directly to the people because, by our custom, the king does not make mistakes.”
Okrah said if an ordinary person wants to talk to the king they must talk through the linguist, and before any dignitary from another country can see the king, the linguist must perform with a libation ceremony with them.
The position also affords the appointed with many privileges.
“When I was in Ghana sometimes when I am driving and I have the sticker of the office of the president a policeman would stop me,” Okrah said. “When they see that it’s me they have to salute me and apologize. And I’d say, ‘Don’t worry, you’re doing your job.’”