A Dangerous Dance - Teaching Heritage in Ghana's Secondary Schools

By Coe, Cati | The World and I, March 2000 | Go to article overview

A Dangerous Dance - Teaching Heritage in Ghana's Secondary Schools


Coe, Cati, The World and I


It is 8:30 at night, and students are coming from study hall in the cafeteria. While others head for the dorms, members of the drama troupe cross the dark road toward the harsh white glow of the staff lounge. They trickle into the large room, chatting softly. Soon, it is filled by about sixty students, dressed in the school uniform: white shirts, brown bottoms--long pants for the boys and full, knee-length skirts for the girls--and sandals. Some wear sweaters or jerseys because of the cool night air. The whole campus feels quiet, but here they are, forgoing precious sleep and study time to rehearse. The student organizers move the table and chairs at the front of the room to the side; they bring up the drums and benches. The students are tired: Those who want to watch the rehearsal slump into the cushions of the chairs and doze. Others open textbooks and study their notes, glancing up occasionally. A short prayer is said. The drummers begin playing a particular northern beat, and four girls quickly take off their sandals, line up, and dance out onto the "stage." Bent over, swinging their arms from side to side, they watch one another to see that they are in sync.

These students are in a secondary school in southern Ghana, a country on the coast of West Africa. The three-year boarding school is attended by about a thousand girls and boys in the town of Akropong in Akuapem, a hilly region known for its cool weather and a long tradition of courtesy, Christianity, and education. Nineteenth-century missionaries started the schools in southern Ghana to convert indigenous people, a project at which they were very successful: About 60 percent of Ghanaians currently identify themselves as Christians. Schooling has long been associated with acquiring modern identities and accouterments--from Christian faith and English language and literacy to professional jobs and status items like handbags and stereos.

During the forty-some years of Ghana's independence, its successive governments have been concerned that students were being alienated from their cultural heritage. Schools, therefore, have begun teaching Ghanaian culture from primary to university level. This has taken the form of extracurricular entertainment such as drumming and dancing as well as lessons on life-cycle customs in Ghanaian-language classes. The government also organizes an annual cultural competition, alternating every other year between secondary schools and primary and junior secondary schools. Competition begins in the district, continuing on to the regional and, ultimately, national levels. The students recite poetry in a Ghanaian language, drum traditional phrases using two drums that imitate the tonal Ghanaian languages, sing choral music, exhibit arts and crafts, and perform dance drama, in which they tell a story without words through dance.

These students have to practice late at night for the competition, when all school activities have ended for the day. "Culture" is not appreciated by many at the school, including members of the administration, teaching staff, and student body. Ghanaian tradition conflicts with the school's tradition of studying for exams and acquiring Christian and educated, modern identities.

Defining, not doing

The boarding school campus is perched on top of a hill on the edge of town. Though it was not built by the missionaries, who were not in favor of secondary schooling, the school was established in the tradition of missionary education. When they came to Ghana, the missionaries set up separate quarters for the Christians to isolate them from the "heathen" practices of relatives and associates and prevent them from backsliding. One of the guidelines for accepting students into the Teachers' Seminary founded in 1850 in Akropong was "if possible the parents should hand them over completely to the missionaries, and should not interfere in their training in any way whatsoever." Boarding schools proved ideal for the purpose of isolating children from their families to give them a disciplined Christian education. …

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