Living and working in West Africa many years ago, we learned to Greet the Elders
When Ene and I worked in West Africa as US Peace Corps Volunteers, we developed some habits that still inform our community-based projects. Principal among these is a kind of public ritual we call Greet the Elders. In remote villages, before introducing a new idea like a fuel efficient woodstove or method of filtering water, let alone seeing it adopted and integrated, it’s key to follow a certain protocol, at once formal and convivial. It always begins by meeting with the village’s key decision makers- the tribal chief and other elders, market women, the village shaman and sometimes a government official. These greetings could easily last all day and into the night, taking place either in French or Konkomba, a regional language we struggled to use for the basics. The most relevant information would be exchanged through a ritual call-and-response series of questions about the ‘news’ of the day, ranging from one’s health to the crops, the animals, the children and the neighbors, all without making eye contact while loosely shaking hands, nodding and bowing,
“Ajoko-poya?”, “Alafia”, “Amonko-poya?”, “Alafia!”, “Ditunde-poya?”, “Alafia-weh”, “eh-HENHH!”
After the exchange of news, the bonds of trust would be sealed by spending the remaining day together, eating fufu and drinking chukatuh, then dancing together into the night to the ‘mento’ beat of Ashanti drums.
Our latest Wowhaus public art project, designing a system of ‘watershed markers’ for the City of Oakland, is a good example of how the final product relates to the process of engaging with the community. Although Ene and I have strong ideas about the importance of maintaining a healthy ‘watershed’ in an urban environment, we approached the project with very open minds, not knowing if the general population of any city necessarily knows what ‘watershed’ means. In a kind of sponge mode, we randomly surveyed people in diverse neighborhoods about what images and symbols connote water and stream ecology. We shared our findings with Oakland residents invited to public meetings, and learned more about how regular people think of the idea of a ‘watershed’. We were surprised to hear similar stories across cultural and economic spectra, boiling down to childhood memories about playing in urban creeks, turning over rocks to discover life teeming beneath, and finding ways to cross the stream.
in-process detail of one of four relief sculptures in clay and stone, to be cast in bronze
We decided to make a series of ‘stepping stones’ to capture this spirit, to be cast in bronze and embedded in concrete paving over culverts where creeks have been diverted. Ene has made great progress sculpting these ‘stepping stones’ in clay. We have a sequence of four, which can be arranged in any order, and will be sited at Oakland’s busiest pedestrian thoroughfares, drawing attention to the hidden creeks and waterways draining to the Bay.
To read more about the wowhaus ‘watershed markers’ for the City of Oakland, please click here and scroll down.