By Gracia Clark (Indiana University)
I was fortunate in 2011 to participate in two group research projects, which enabled me to spend nine months in Kumasi. In the fall I wrapped up work on an NEH grant originating with Michigan State historian David Robinson preparing materials for a series of web galleries on West African Islam.A preliminary version of the first web gallery is online at www.westafricanislam.matrix.msu.edu/kumasi .
During this three months I recorded several local Islamic festivals on video with still photos and interviewed community elders and Islamic teachers and students about past events and controversies. Working with a part-time videographer and relying on Hausa translators made for a very different fieldwork experience. Fortunately most Muslims living outside the Zongo and many Zongo residents speak Twi, but they are often most comfortable discussing religious subjects in Hausa. The Mossi chief and his household remember Enid Schildkrout very fondly for her long residence with them and her excellent command of Hausa.
I was also glad to bring copies of my 2010 book of life stories African Market Women to the narrators and their surviving families. The original Twi audio tapes from all the 1994-5 interviews have now been digitized, along with their handwritten transcripts and translations, and posted as a collection within the African Online Digital Library section on African Oral Narratives. They are freely available for scholarly use and analysis at http://www.aodl.org/oralnarratives/kumasilifestories/ .
For the next six months I turned my main attention to the secondhand clothes trade, as part of an interdisciplinary group project “Gender and Globalization” with colleagues from the University of Bergen, Norway (funded by the Norway Foundation). Once brought from Europe to Kumasi via Lome by Igbo traders in the 1930s, the bales now arrive at Tema Harbour in huge containers ordered by importers based in Accra and Kumasi, where they may be sorted and rebaled. Wholesalers in both cities densely occupy certain streets a block or two from the central markets. I interviewed large and small wholesalers and attended their group meetings in that Kumasi neighborhood. Although they prefer the term “force” to the more perjorative “wawu”, they still open meetings with their chant of “wawu, wawu, asi oman.” There still remains some public controversy over whether these imports do “build the nation” or harm local clothing production, but deepening inequality makes wearing the clothes accepted as necessary. New clothing is not an option for many.
Retailers flood the market, street vendors swarm the downtown streets, and neighborhood retail venues range from upscale boutiques to rickety roadside sheds. The overall volume, while still enormous, was beginning to reach the limits of the buying capacity of the poor. Curiously, traders dismissed the idea of competition from cheap Chinese new clothes; they were considered too flimsy to be a threat. Bales of secondhand clothes sourced from China or South Korea were better quality and widely traded. Traders did complain that average quality of goods from Europe and North America had fallen sharply, because the economic crisis forced people to wear clothes out before discarding them. Clothes from the US also came in sizes too large to sell well. Torn or dirty items could only be sold very cheaply to peddlers from the rural areas, and were sometimes sold for rags.
The retailers’ organization, based in the Central Market, was virtually defunct, but I was able to interview elders about changes in the ethnic organization and geographical reach of their supplier and customer networks over the decades. Quite a few had turned to second-hand clothes after losing everything in the demolitions of 1979, from goods needing more capital, such as cloth, provisions or LP records. Younger people, especially street vendors, bought their supplies from day to day, occasionally on credit. They usually remarked that because they had no capital, secondhand clothes vending was their only available option, especially if they had no family connections within the market.
I was again impressed by the ubiquitous cell phone, and the amount of money going into phone cards. People call each other very often. because numbers often change, and they use various tricks to avoid charges. It is certainly now possible to get four things done in a day as a researcher by calling ahead. Local people also face a speeded up life, and have less time to talk. Prices of local as well as imported foodstuffs are near levels I see in Bloomington IN, a smallish town. Wages remain low, so average living conditions are difficult. People are no longer quite as free with food as before. Conversely¸ the building boom in office and upscale apartment buildings has reached Kumasi, creating more jobs, while the economic crisis in the US and Europe has reduced the obsession with emigration. The upscale market is well populated with Ghanaians as well as foreigners; the double economy is very evident. The pressure to keep children in school remains high, but parents are beginning to question the benefit of diplomas without corresponding job connections.
Comfortable Western-style apartments could be had at around $500 a month, with water tanks but no generator. The power still goes out rather frequently, especially during the summer rainy season. Cheap accommodation is crowded, marginally sanitary, very hard to find and usually occupied well in advance. You will be offered many unfinished houses and apartments for rent. Generally the whole year’s rent must be paid in advance so beware of the “finished in two weeks” promise. The Wesley Guest House and Presbyterian guest house are still in operation downtown, but the traffic in Adum now makes many taxi drivers refuse to pick up or drop you there during the day. The Catering Rest House is reasonable for short stays, and conveniently just at the fringe of the gridlocked area.
The ubiquity of Christianity is taken for granted now, so the intensity of proselytizing actually seems less. On the other hand, I was working with Muslims and they certainly do proselytize, though more gently. Conservative versions of Christianity dominate, and their new rhetoric against homosexuality comes straight from the States. It has penetrated general awareness enough that living in Kumasi with a partner generated more unspoken tension than I have encountered before. Muslims also preached against it, but seem more preoccupied with the growing confrontation between the mainly Khadriyya community leadership and more orthodox Sunna leaders, some educated in Saudi Arabia on scholarship.