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04/01/2011

Meet the chief

Dance 1
A dance competition hosted by a Tamale chief  in Ghana's north. Photo by James Munson. 

By James Munson

Sitting on a bench inside the chief’s palace, daily life of Tamale’s first family looked pretty routine.

Women cooked on open fires and children chased a chicken around the yard.

But the details tell another story. Instead of thatched hay, most of the roofs are made of shiny tin. The paint job is clean and the entire compound is slightly elevated.

Slowly, the formality of meeting the chief began to dawn on me. I realized I had walked into the inner rings of what held this place together.

The seriousness of it all—which I admire—continued to seep in.

When the chief was ready, we were taken into a room where several men sat on the ground. They faced a television playing a European soccer game.

And on the opposite wall sat the chief, high upon a dark red chair, with his feet on a stool.

We began by speaking through an intermediary, his secretary.

“You have taken us by surprise, showing up like this,” said the secretary.

Oh god, I thought. I’ve offended the chief and now I’m going to be run out of town.

“There are formalities wherever you go in the world.” Now the chief was speaking directly to me. “You must respect them.”

I hadn’t followed the proper chain of command to gain entry and was told to use it from now on. That was fine – the point of all this was to learn.

Then, to my surprise, I was offered an invitation.

“This afternoon, the chief is hosting a dance competition that began during the Damba festival,” said the secretary. “The chief has invited you.”

Just before 3:30, I returned to the palace grounds. Before I had a chance to orient myself, one of the men who marched into the compound earlier that day grabbed my hand.

“Come with me,” he said.

He led me to the rows of seats huddled under a covered roof. Behind, there was an elevated platform, where the chief would sit.

As the dance drew near, many of the revered men of the community began taking seats around me. Most of the crowd sat outside in the sun. I began to feel like a foreign dignitary, representing some strange, white-skinned people from a freezing country far away from here.

A man told me to take pictures so I can share his culture. I confirmed with the secretary, who wore a flowing burgundy smock.

“You are the chief’s personal guest,” he said. “It is permitted.”

The chief’s procession then came out, lead by some of the more august men from the morning. He walked underneath a green and yellow umbrella, and wore dark sunglasses.

He sat on the platform behind me, which had been furnished with a black and gold chair, a green carpet and a stool.

Now all was in place, and the drums began and the dancers came out.

The competitors arrived on the scene in the bravest garb I’ve ever seen. This was the way men were meant to dress, I thought.

They wore giant smocks, puffy pants that look like pantaloons and cowboy boots. For the next several hours, they pleased the crowd with their mastery of the Dagomba people’s traditional dances.

It was dark by the time it was all over. The winning dancer was crowned and the crowd exploded into jubilation as he was given his prize, a brand-new motorcycle.

The day felt like a journey into the city’s soul.

Needless to say, Tamale’s many bars and drinking spots have lost their exotic glean.

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Africa Without Maps


  • There's so much more to Africa than predictable headlines about war, famine and AIDS. From Ghanaian beauty pageants to music in Malawi, Africa Without Maps provides a rare glimpse of life in Africa from Journalists for Human Rights interns on the ground.

    Funding for the jhr bloggers is provided by the Government of Canada's Youth International Internship Program.

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