In Ghana, everything tells a story. Sometimes quite literally – Africa’s history is oral, passed down through the centuries – the millennia – through griots, storytellers, singers and talking drums, while traditional sayings are printed on colourful fabrics. Shops, food stalls and barbers take these proverbs as their names; boats and buses, too, have names that tell stories.
Even when there are no words, the Ghanaians can interpret meanings. Tribal symbols are no tattoo parlour cliche; the age-old adinkra motifs are stamped elaborately across cloth, and represent anything from strength to wisdom, courage to freedom.
But in a small corner of Ghana’s Upper East Region, visited mainly by traders passing through from Burkina Faso and the Sahel, the buildings themselves tell stories. Faint patterns emerge on the adobe walls of the compounds and granaries and huts. Smudges of red ochre, ebony and ashy white flake from the baked mud, becoming richer and more visible the further north we travel. Finally, as diamonds and zigzags emerge boldly from the walls, we reach our destination: Sirigu, a village that could be straight out of an African storybook. Large circular huts have become canvases, mud walls wind around the compounds with epic frescoes.
Centuries – maybe even decades – ago, Sirigu was not unique. There would have been many villages decorated in the same way, using pigments pulled from the rich West African soil to display their stories on their homes and shrines. But life is hard in this parched region, particularly in dry season – who has time for art when there are crops to tend to? And when the rains do come, they can fall heavily; the walls crumble, the artworks washing back into the earth they came from. Why paint when it will be gone in a few years’ time?
Happily, a local resident, Melanie Kasise, saw things differently. Mama Melanie, as this charismatic 80-year-old is fondly known, spent three and a half decades as a teacher, and studied in Israel. On her return to Sirigu in 1995, she noticed the poor state of the village’s paintings as they faded and peeled from the walls. Not only was Mama Melanie artistic enough to understand the value of the paintings, but she was also entrepreneurial enough to understand that reviving the paintings could also revive the fortunes of the women of Sirigu, who at that time were suffering from the drought brought on by the creeping Sahel – or escaping it by fleeing to the cities in the wetter south.
Mama Melanie gathered together 54 women from the village into a cooperative now known as SWOPA: the Sirigu Women’s Organisation for Pottery and Art. Each woman was already skilled in painting, ceramics or basket weaving, but SWOPA gave them an identity, raised the standards of the crafts – and also increased the prices. Before, the women could try and sell their pieces in the local markets. If they failed to do so one week, they would drop their asking price again and again until the basket or the pot sold. And of course, the painters had no market at all. But SWOPA exported their artworks to the towns, and brought in tourists who were happy to pay good prices for beautifully crafted pieces of art. The village was once again covered in ochre and ash zigzags, which brought visitors from afar – around 900 per year at the last count. Over 300 women are now employed to produce the artworks – they no longer need to go to their husbands for everything they need.
That morning, I was given my own piece of primed canvas, three pots of paint and some brushes. Around me were paintings and postcards – each showing scenes of local life, animals and patterns. And each one had its own meaning. Snakes meant protection; lizards represented friendship. The ubiquitous zigzags showed respect, and when I added dots to my painting, I was told they meant blessings. A wavy line represented the path to success. Painting these repetitive forms was mesmerising, a very ancient form of meditation; no “mindfulness colouring books” were needed here. With just red, black and white to choose from, and set animals and patterns, there was enough of a restriction not to be overwhelming, but enough variation for everyone in the room to create their own entirely unique yet truly meaningful artwork. In the middle of the room, women sat on the floor shaping clay pots and bowls; patterns would be scratched into these, too, once they were dry. In an echo of the etched pots, one of the older ladies had lines zigzagging across her face, a form of scarification no longer permitted.
In this enchanting village where every house, every granary, tells a story, Mama Melanie is the editor who has compiled each of these unique tales into one fascinating compendium. The women get to paint and sculpt, their children get to go to school, and West African art is celebrated, something to be thoroughly proud of, rather than a flaking, fading relic of the past. This African folk tale certainly has a happy ending.