As we did not get to meet our ancestors, and since we pick up a lot from our parents, one way of answering the above question is to find out the memories we have of our grandparents. What leisure images do we have of our forerunners? There is no doubt that the memories we hold would include our old folks engrossed in vocations such as, farming, fishing, hunting and gathering. Other activities are weaving, sewing and all forms of craftsmanship. In terms of recreation, we also remember them story telling, drumming, dancing and singing.
But did grand papa ever stop to admire the sky? Did he smell a flower, enjoy a butterfly’s move or stop in his track to listen to bird song? How about grand mama? Did she ever say ‘oh, such a lovely day, let’s go wave watching’? Did our ancestor’s take time to visit the coast or mountainside for the sake of taking in the lovely scenes? How about a holiday? Were our forbears inclined to take a few days off to cool off?
Understanding how our ancestors related to nature could decode our attitude towards tourism and the environment. There must be a reason why one group of people is prone to a certain behaviour pattern while others act differently. It is said, rather derogatorily, that the sighting of a squirrel could incite two distinct reactions from a Ghanaian and a Caucasian. When a Whiteman sees a squirrel playing in a tree, he thinks of a camera, photograph and postcard. An average Ghanaman in the same scenario will also think of three things: game, kill and light soup.
That the Ghanaian or African, for that matter has a close relationship with nature cannot be doubted. In deed, we are thought to have a deeper and more complex relationship with nature than other people. Our link with nature extends to, and is inclusive of God and the gods. In relating to nature, our ancestors used different behavioural forms. But did this include getting out of the way to celebrate nature’s beauty for its own sake?
Here, too, our appreciation of beauty is in no way being questioned. In terms of handicraft, for example, there is no doubt that our ancestors bequeathed a high sense of aesthetics. Many symbols and designs have shown that our people are creative and artistic. The kentes and adinkras are there for all to see. Again, the designs of our working and domestic implements go beyond functionality towards what is eye-pleasing. But to what extent did this appreciation of beauty play out in their relations with nature?
Apart from taking cues from our living forbears, another way of knowing whether our ancestors admired the beauty in nature is to examine our folklore. Poor writing practices meant that our ancestral values and belief systems were passed on through oral tradition. Nature and the environment are thus interpreted to us through songs, proverbs, and legends.
The traditionally bred Ghanaian’s concept of the heavenly bodies begins very early at childhood. At story time, older folks tell about the sun, moon and stars and how close they all are to God’s Big House. Our parents even tried to explain the configurations on the surface of the moon. Invariably, what we are shown of the moon is a picture of an old woman preparing the evening meal with her hungry children sitting by the fireside.
At the beginning of creation, local myth says that the clouds, including God’s home, were so close to the earth. Over time, however, ‘The Great One’ and the clouds pushed further away from us. Because of mankind’s fufu pounding, the distant kept increasing till this day.
Still on the heavenly bodies, our belief systems show that they have considerable influence on several aspects of traditional life. We relate to the heavenly bodies in our day to day lives in more ways than we care to think of. Our relationship with the stars, moon and sun are encoded in customs, agricultural practices, festivals, folk tales and romance.
Since we do not have monopoly over the heavenly bodies we are not the only ones who hold them dear. In western culture, for instance, the sun is a big deal. Owing, perhaps to the temperate climate, sunshine means energy and vitality. Out there, everyone adores the big fiery ball. In fact, when they say it is a beautiful day it’s invariably because the sun is out.
In contrast, what excites us in much the same way is rainfall (not so much for the modern Ghanaian, though). The rain is a sign of good fortune. Among the Kassenas of Upper East Region, a girl is called Kaduwa, meaning rainfall. The name evokes same feeling such as the name ‘Sunny’ does in western culture. We say ‘‘today it will rain’’ to express that an unexpected good fortune has occurred. This phrase also shows that there is hope for more good things to follow.
Practically, rain means good harvest, good weather, coolness and sweet sleep. This goes to show that appreciation is based on the conditions of the environment. That is why rain, seen as a dampener elsewhere, is much welcome here.
This, however, does not mean that the sun in our context is less important. As the dominant celestial body, the sun is given due recognition by various traditions in Ghana. The sun is seen by many as the source of life. Among some groups, it is a god worthy of worship. In a number of communities, children are named after the sun. An example is among the Kassenas where a boy child named after the sun is ‘Awia’ while the female is ‘Kawiah’.
Perhaps, for many of us, the sun’s biggest worth is its time keeping function. Because we are located on the equator, the sun’s movement divides our day into two equal halves nearly all year round. When we wake up in the morning it rises with us and just as we prepare to wrap up our day, the sun also takes its bow. Our tradition also shows a strong relationship with the moon. We refer to a month directly as ‘one moon’. Our ancestors knew that the full moon always appears during the last half of the month while the new moon comes during the first half. Interestingly, they are also aware that during the full moon a woman’s fertility is most enhanced. The fact that in the Gurune (Frafra) language, for instance, there is a specific word for half moon shows advancement in native astronomy.
In traditional settings, a full moon is of social importance. Among others, it means certain community activities can be conducted at night. These include traditional wrestling, dancing, singing contests and story telling. In villages, the full moon is also the ‘cocoa season’ for romance and particularly girl chasing.
Some traditional communities have names for certain stars and use their appearance for specific activities. Ordinarily, our local folks know that when the stars are showing, rainfall can not be expected just yet.
Down south, fishermen read the movements of the moon as they embark on their expeditions. Because they usually work at night, hunters also take cues from the moon’s positions to plan out their operations.
Functionally, our ancestors related to the environment in ways that allow nature to regenerate and self-sustain. The practices of leaving large vegetations fallow was one way. Additionally, there is a day in each week, (dabone) that people are not allowed to work on the fields. The same goes for fishermen who go out to sea. For hunters the ban period is usually longer. A close look at our traditional festivals would show that they usually celebrate a successful period of self-restraint, usually in deference to nature and the environment.
With relation to wildlife, our ancestors adopted the totem system to protect and promote the importance of selected animals. It is believed that the animals selected are usually, those endangered. When a clan or a community adopts an animal as its totem, the animal is spared from being killed. Its meat is invariably, also forbidden. The whole society thus bears the responsibility of ensuring the survival of that particular species.
The extent to which our ancestors admired nature can also be considered by comparing their environment with that of other climates. Unlike in our side of the planet, the western world, for example boasts of four seasons namely, winter, spring, summer and autumn.
The difference is that with each season comes unique biodiversity and lifestyle. This provides richer and more varied opportunities for engagements with nature. A number of leisure activities are thus developed to suit each season.
In our part of the world there isn’t much of a change nearly all year round. We have the dry and wet seasons (these references aren’t tourism friendly either; who wants to be excited by dry or wet seasons?). One could also say we have the harmattan but hey…there isn’t much comfort there, is there?
To bring the point home, how many songs, proverbs or poems have our seasons inspired? Could it be possible to admire them that much and still refrain ourselves from celebrating their beauty? Compare that to the number of literary and artistic work dedicated to winter, spring, summer and autumn.
In a similar vein, the literary developments of a people can mirror as well as influence their admiration for nature. In the 18th and 19th centuries, there was the Romantic Movement which represented the glorification of nature. The main proponents were poets such as William Blake, Samuel Coleridge and John Keats. Their poems sought to reconcile man and nature. In passionate verses they glorified, and deified the fields, rivers, birds and anything natural.
Referring to a bird in a garden whose singing he has been enchanted with for hours, John Keats wrote in Ode to a Nightingale:
It is not in envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thine happiness,-
That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees,
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of Summer in full throated ease
In a poem entitled Tintern Abbey, William Wordsworth returns to his solace (a riverside), in his favourite countryside in the beautiful Lake District of England, Wordsworth and waxed:
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs
That on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky.
Again, Wordsworth in a tour of Brothers Water, another destination in England wrote the following verse.
‘The cock is crowing
The stream is flowing
The small birds twitter,
The lake doth glitter...
There's joy in the mountains;
There's life in the fountains;
Small clouds are sailing,
Blue sky prevailing'.
Such was the emotion that this and other Romantic's poems evoked that visitation to the areas described increased. To contain the growing number of tourists, new hotels had to be opened in Windermere, Rydal and Grasmere. By 1845, it was recorded that there were more tourists in the Lake District than sheep.
Did our ancestors too admire nature? Or they revered it so much that they would rather not be caught staring at her beauty? Is that a reason why, for instance, we build our coastal cities with the back to the sea? Whatever the answer, it behoves on us to find out. A thorough inventory of our history and folklore will be a good place to begin.