Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Eid-ul-Ahda, or Festival of the Sacrifice

An unexpected holiday—unexpected for me, anyways—occurred yesterday in Ghana: Eid-ul-Adha, or Festival of the Sacrifice. It’s the largest festival day in Islam and is celebrated on the 10th day of the 12th lunar month of the Islamic calendar, which means it shifts from year to year on the conventional calendar, much like Easter. The sacrifice in question is the one that Abraham was willing to make of his son until God told him to use a ram instead, a familiar story to most Christians. The date for the Ghana bank holiday doesn’t seem to have been fixed for the 16th until Friday of last week. I found out about it Monday morning when Akmed, my Muslim driver, said that he couldn’t drive me on Tuesday and no schools would be open “because of holiday”.

We live very close to a Muslim school and could see people gathering in the school field for the festival day prayers. Steffi’s husband, Markus, is a professional photographer and was very interested in seeing the ceremony. Since the power was off at the house and my laptop battery was running low, I decided to join him. I also asked Lisa, our caterer (cook), to go with us and help us ask—in Twi—if we were allowed to be there and to take pictures. I let Markus know that they would probably expect him to wear full-length pants. I chose to wear a skirt and covered my hair with a bandanna.

We entered the school grounds and could see the people praying in the field. We were unsure if we could take pictures, but we had seen someone else with a camera and went to find him and ask. We had Lisa help us ask him and another photographer about it and it seemed that it was okay for us to take pictures. We headed to the field just as the ceremony was breaking up, so we missed getting any pictures of the people praying. But we did get plenty of good shots of the people in their finest clothing visiting with their friends and loved ones. The two photographers offered to introduce us to the heads of the local community, including the imam. One of the two photographers—let’s call him George for simplicity—attached himself to us (for selfish reasons, as I now understand) and took our pictures with all sorts of important people. Having been through the experiences of people wanting loads of pictures with the blonde obruni, I was not at all surprised by this. We were introduced to a local homeopathic doctor and the head of the Ashanti Region Ahmadiyya Muslim Mission and Mualvi, Ashanti Regional Missionary, who invited us to their mission for refreshments after the ceremony.

Maulvi had assigned one of the schoolboys to us to lead us over to the mission after everyone left the schoolyard, but instead, the homeopathic doctor took Lisa, George, and Markus and me in his clinic’s van over to the mission. We met the doctor’s mother and sister during the trip over to the mission. A few minutes after arriving at the mission, the imam also showed up to let us into the visitor’s receiving room. Walking up the stairs, I said to Markus, “Welcome to Kumasi”. Since I’ve gotten here, I’ve been fortunate enough to experience this sort of warm welcome from many people, from the (now former) coach of the Asante Kotoko to the many head teachers and subject teachers at the schools I visit to random taxi drivers.

We had a very pleasant visit with the regional head and Maulvi, where Maulvi showed us video of the visit from the head of the Ahmadiyya mission in Germany—strangely enough to me, a very stereotypically white German man. (Steffi and Markus are German. Maulvi misunderstood and thought I was also German—hence the significant interest in showing us the German visitor.) The regional head told us all about the Ahmadiyya sect, which is very well-described on the official Ahmadiyya website. He and Maulvi both emphasized that this sect of Islam is extremely peace-loving, does not believe in the jihad being practiced against the West by other sects, and is very well-respected by the European community.

Towards the end of our visit, the first photographer we had met—we’ll call him Godwin—came into the room. We then experienced an extreme cultural misunderstanding. Godwin began explaining that George was a professional photographer and that we owed him some money for helping us out that day, as it kept him from taking pictures of the people at the service and selling them the photos. He then said (as I understood later) that the 20 pictures George took were worth 2 cedis each and we therefore owed him 40 cedi.

At the time, though, I hadn’t understood where the figure of 40 cedis came from and couldn’t figure out why I was supposed to pay him 40 cedis for 20 minutes of his time when that’s how much I pay Akmed for an entire day of driving. Godwin chose that moment to ask if we understood and I said, “No, I don’t understand at all” and looked to Maulvi and the regional head for some explanation and guidance. Our hosts took it upon themselves to sort this misunderstanding out for us. The regional head asked George if he had agreed a price with us before he took all those pictures, which of course he had not. After a bit more discussion, Maulvi took the two photographers out of the room. They were not to be seen by us again. I get the impression that he did end up giving them some money.

It turns out that the situation was even more confused than I first realized. Maulvi had seen Godwin at their events before and had bought pictures from him, but they did not know George. They thought that George was with us and that Lisa was with George. I thought George was taking pictures of us for the mission and that they were paying him. I don’t even know what Markus thought. The regional head and Maulvi were very apologetic and said that they did not wish for us to get the wrong idea of Ghanaians. It was clear that the regional head completely understood—and could recognize a decent camera when we saw one—when he said that he didn’t see why George would have thought we were hiring him to take pictures when we obviously had much nicer cameras than George.

Talking to Markus later, I realized that we had both independently come to the same conclusion: it wasn’t the concept of paying George that was the issue, it was the price. I think that his help in introducing us to the imam was worth something and had come to the sum of 5 cedis—about the time that Godwin was mentioning 40 cedis. Had Godwin and George suggested 5 cedis or maybe even 10 cedis, that whole conversation would have gone differently.

As we left the mission, Maulvi asked us if wished to see the mosque on our way home. We eagerly accepted the offer and a very nice young man took us on a tour. I was very interested in seeing the inside of the mosque. As I would have expected, the men’s and women’s ablution rooms and prayer sections are completely separate. What I did not realize is that men pray on the first floor where the imam is, while the women are up on the second floor. We then went up to the third floor meeting room—and followed it up with a trip up one of the two mosque towers.

Standing on the mosque tower, with a rickety railing as the only thing between me and death—or at least significant dismemberment—was a nerve-wracking and breathtaking experience. I got some of the shots of Kumasi that I’ve been dying for since I got here, pictures that allow the viewer to get a sense of how the tiny shacks and colorful buildings and nice houses are all mixed up together in a neighborhood. We were high enough up to be on level with the top of the stadium and to see the top of the Golden Tulip hotel rising above the trees. After the hair-raising experience of climbing the tower, we finished our tour with a view of the mission schools, kindly thanked our tour hosts, and walked home. They had invited us back to see the prayer sessions any Friday we wish. Markus might take them up on it this Friday, but I will be visiting one of the schools that day.

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