My town sold its soul. Literally. Well, as literally as is possible.
I've only lived in Guaman for about six months now, but I have seen the town undergo some radical changes in that time. Recently installed halogen street lamps have drowned all but the most resilient visible vestiges of the Milky Way Galaxy from Guaman's night sky. The last month of 2010 marked the 115th anniversary of the Presbyterian church in Guaman, and the event was celebrated with the grand opening of the new Presbyterian mega-church. Perhaps mega- is an inappropriate prefix for a church that can only hold 800 people, but in a town that only has 600 residents, an 800-seater feels pretty mega.
Wednesday is taboo day in my town. Now, don't fall into the same trap I did: taboo day in no way involves the madcap party game of buzzers and circumlocution. I know... I was disappointed too. Back to the topic at hand. On taboo day, no one is to go into the bush, because the gods — who reside there – need the privacy to discuss critical, godly matters. With the bush occupied by the gods, taboo days are a chance for the community to come together, discuss important issues, tackle large tasks, and trade wares. The specific task at hand on 19 January 2011 was cutting down the tree that held the town's soul.
Now, let me briefly describe this tree. Most towns in Ghana have one just like it. The tree was planted when the town was settled more than a century ago. Since the planting of the tree marked the settling of the town, it is said to contain the town's soul. This belief is found throughout the nation. The tree itself is probably only about 30 feet tall, but its thick foliage is home to dozens of nests, probably close to 100. During daylight hours, the tree is abuzz with the sound of hundreds of neon yellow birds chirping, feeding, and rustling. It's actually quite amazing. However, on the morning of the nineteenth, the avian din to which I had quickly grown accustomed was completely silent. The only sound in the center of town was a small chorus of women, singing to the percussion of falling axes.
I saw my supervisor, Kofi, among the spectators of the felling, and asked him why this was happening, given the significance of the tree. He told me, “...with civilization and Christianity, we feel that this tree is no more necessary.” Not that his answer rang false, but I felt that there was certainly more to the story than this. I pressed him, asking why they had chosen today, and not a day 2010, 2000, or 1935. He told me, “it was a revelation from a Christian ministry that came through. They said that if this tree is not removed, the progress of the town will be retarded.” He was referring to one of the “crusades” that occurs periodically, where a minister from the city rolls in to town, speaks in tongues, asks for money, screams a lot, performs a few healings, screams some more, and asks for more money. They are incredibly creepy. All creepiness aside, they were the real culprits here.
Not every person in town was on board with the removal of the tree that contained the town's soul. Several people at the event were shouting the whole time, asking the event to be canceled. Their pleas were well intended, but ultimately fruitless. At 11:41 AM, after almost six hours of chopping, the soul of the town came crashing down onto the dirt road that it had been planted in in the 1800s. Some of the onlookers yelled with joy. Others screamed.
Over the succeeding week, freely roaming goats stripped the tree of all of its foliage, preparing it for its final purpose: firewood. The tree was chopped up and sold to anyone who was willing to burn the town's soul to heat a bowl of soup.
A week later, I asked the man who would profit from the firewood what he intended to do with the money. He didn't answer right away, but when he did, his answer flawlessly reflected the western influence that had motivated this whole event from the beginning. “Perhaps some new clothing. No... a mobile phone!”