Whatever the meaning or purpose may be, I’m not sure, but we can figure that out later…
The necessary exposition: First of all, there’s me: Cynthia—a firm believer that when you’re heading in the right direction, all things being relative, the universe has a way of aligning for you. So five years ago, when I was practically burying myself alive with library books in search of the perfect subject for my undergraduate “capstone” (a thesis of sorts), accruing hundreds of dollars in overdue fees, and ultimately resorting to a random google image search to conclude upon the theatre’s role in development and the forming/ fathoming of a national identity in postcolonial Africa as my topic, it came as no surprise to me when I found myself nominated for the U.S. Peace Corps in West Africa a month later. But to say I was not surprised is not to say I was not bursting with excitement and anticipation. I don’t think I had ever been so giddy. I was heading in the right direction, and a little less than a year later, with a completed capstone under my belt and a mandate barring me from the Pittsburgh Public Library (Oh yes, I’m from Pittsburgh. Go Steelers!), I was on a plane to Accra. A few weeks later I would find out that, completely unbeknownst to me, I had been assigned to co-direct an educational drama troupe in a small, rural community in Ghana’s Northern Volta Region. During my entrance interview my director told me, “Even before I met you, I intended to give you this assignment. Now that I’ve met you, there’s no doubt in my mind.” I topped my former giddiness. For the time being, I had arrived.
My capstone, using Zambia as a case study, was comprised of a litany of complications, double standards, and impossibilities, which are inherently part and parcel of an already complicated state of affairs. In writing it, I came off as somewhat of a mediator, piecing each piece together in an attempt to do what, I’m not exactly sure. It’s still a work in progress. Anyway, a reoccurring theme in my research was these drama competitions between national dramatic troupes comprised of ex-pats and Zambians alike, sometimes exclusive, sometimes not. Some were geared towards urban audiences, and others, rural communities. Judges were often brought in from Britain, for whatever reason you might like to derive, to preside over the affairs, and an overarching complaint was that these judges were never able to maintain an unbiased opinion. Traditional Zambian troupes complained that western conceptions of drama were different from their own, and the judges were unable to part from their preconceived notions of how drama should operate on the stage. This point was most poignantly articulated to me when one Zambian troupe member described in an article that the pinnacle of his drama brought the Zambian audience to their knees in fits of laughter, while the British judges sat back, tears brimming in their eyes. I say most poignantly, because I never really understand how. What exactly happened on stage to produce such disparate reactions? I perused the manuscripts for clues and remained in the dark, lingering there through finals and long after I handed in my capstone, received a grade, and graduated—a difference in humor, I probably explained it in my most scholarly and knowing façade. Four months later, I boarded the plane for Accra.
Now, obviously, we can’t talk of Africa in any sort of blanket statement, but I found, through my research, that many parallels could be drawn throughout Africa in regards to this particular topic, which is why I’m going to make the conclusion I’m going to make in about one paragraph. Sorry if I ruined the ending.
So, about a year ago now, I was working at a secondary school here in Ghana with some students who were competing in a drama competition. There were four separate groups, and all of the dramas were to be about family planning—in NGO/ politically correct/ government friendly lingo, that’s all the different modes of contraceptives available in Ghana at this time. The students were thrilled, as any sixteen, seventeen, eighteen year old would be, to talk about sex. In all of the dramas some handsome, youthful couple engaged in a sexual innuendo that resulted in pregnancy, however, only in one, did the young girl decide to have an abortion. She ate charcoal—an all too common method of abortion among the youth in rural communities and probably urban too. After finding out she was pregnant, she (we’re speaking of the actress) runs home and ingests the charcoal, sending her into spastic fits, full-heartedly performed, and leaving her on the ground dead. The actress’s audience of peers jumped up from their seats laughing, shouting, clapping, and high-fiving one and other. I sat uneasily in my seat, not wanting to be held responsible by the headmaster for this seemingly tasteless outburst. I searched for his concerned face in the crowd, unable to find it, because such a concerned face didn’t exist. Rather, I found him laughing and clapping alongside of the students. I turned to the Ghanaian judges, male and female I should specify to eliminate any elements of misogyny, and they also followed suit. I too began laughing, possibly out of relief, but, I think, even more so because I finally knew what that he had meant.