Friday, July 14, 2006

2,500 students

That's how many students there are in the Performing Arts Department at the University of Ghana. 2,500 full time undergraduates. Plus a few graduates. It blows my mind. Awo Asiedu, my contact at the Legon campus, tells me that when she graduated (not that long ago) there were only about twenty in the year. Something strange has happened.... "We're just kidding ourselves" she says: "we can't teach so many".

It's a great campus, though - with the open air theatre in which Dilemma was first done, a bookshop which sends any Afrophile into a frenzy, and tutors' offices in little whitewashed quadrangles. Plus a Barclays that (guess what?) doesn't cash travellers' cheques - precipitating another mad dash to the head office before it closes for the weekend, exiting with a wad of cedis the size of a big dictionary.

At Legon, I meet John Collins - the legendary Professor of Music, whose conversation is an entrancing journey into incredible facts about African culture. In less than forty minutes I discover:
  1. that West Indian musical influences made their return to West Africa as early as October 1800 (I love his precision on the month), and that this form - called Gumbe - became pan-African and pan-Caribbean.
  2. that folk-rumour in Ghana decided that the Europeans must be taking the enslaved people to eat them, because they never came back. Ironic given that the Europeans were also erroneously accusing the Africans of cannibalism.
  3. that Kwame Nkrumah kept a court jester, whose name was Ajax Bukana. Ajax was encouraged to leap in to Cabinet meetings and express the comic view on any issue. He always wore black-face, which amongst African and black American performers was never considered racist - it's simply the make-up of the Ghanaian clown, just as white-face is worn by the European.

John puts me in touch with a few more artists and musicians, and as I take the taxi across town I phone them all, arranging yet more meetings.

Meetings, meetings.... Awo's head of department, John K. Djisenu, who lets us use their premises to audition former students from the 2,500 a year who might be useful talent. I keep mentioning that the cast shouldn't really be lots of young people - and gradually I start to get some contacts for older actors.

Akofa Adjeani-Asiedu, who has several times received Best Actress awards for her film work, sends a car to bring me to her (side-line) restaurant, where she sits in what feels like a fortune-teller's tent, covered in jewellry, draped in a red kaftan and sporting a spiky vertical hair-do. Her whole appearance is an amazing re-invention of what it means to be African in the 21st century. The conversation is full of laughter, as happens with extrovert personalities, but there's also a sense of a very serious artist here, and somebody very conscious of her nation's image in the wider world. When I ask her what sort of projects she prefers, she says that she like to do work which shows what is positive in Africa. That she's fed up with images of violence in Rwanda and famine in Sudan governing the world's perception of a deep and living culture. Now THAT I can work with.

She drives me back into town herself. Very fast. I'd phoned the Arts Consultant I was due to meet next to say I'd be late.... and arrived early. His name is Akunu Dake - and he's co-ordinating the British Council's creative response to the big anniversaries next year. Again, the conversation seems fruitful - when he shakes my hand at the end he calls me a "fellow conspirator", which often feels right. And he names a male actor who John also suggested, and an older woman who'd also been mentioned by Akofa. I tend to believe in the double recommendation. Back to the phone, I go. What would I have done without Kofi's phone?

No comments: