I was unaware of what was happening. John and I were walking into what we thought was the market, but instead we found ourselves in a situation where a man was politely asking John to remove his shoes. A quick look around and we realized that all the people around us were shoeless and dressed in traditional wear, but what stood out was how all the men were topless and wrapped at the waist with a single piece of flamboyant fabric. I watched as John politely removed his shoes and then his hat as well per request of the random stranger. I noticed also that we were near an entrance way to a court yard; a fence was built around the yard and made completely out of palm reeds, with a large wooden opening. People were bottlenecking their way through the entrance with an intense sense of excitement across each of their faces. I looked back at John as he was now removing his shirt, and three women from behind a merchant counter started wrapping his waist with a similar brightly-colored fabric. I then caught John’s eyes and his expression was beaming with excitement, for he was now in the realization that he was being invited to the ceremony at hand. The women behind the merchant counter then gestured towards me to come partake as well. I thought for only a second about the situation’s potential at being a high-risk one, but that thought was washed away by the sea of stretched smiles as people made their way toward their communal and religious ceremony. At the same time, I noticed that John was now one of these expressively-happy people making his way into the courtyard. I then felt a gentle grip wrap the outside of my hand; it was one of the elder merchant women with an ever-so polite smile. We linked eye contact for only a second before she softly pulled me toward the counter. I had my shoes, hat and shirt off quicker than I could type this sentence, and I was then wrapped in a fabric with what appeared to be prints of pineapple on it. I was then gently walked into the gateway by one of the women.
When I got inside I could physically see the energy. The men were on the left, by a round building on an external porch. The women were on the left by a hut with straw roofing. The middle was a two-lane highway of people filing in and out. I was pointed in the direction of the men, and quickly saw John. I feel like I could have spotted his pale body from space. As I was walking towards him I noticed he was in the front row of a group of men on their knees, head bowed, and palms grounded. They were all pointing with their bodies in the direction of three men who sat on short wooden stools. These men were dressed more elaborately. The two on either side were dressed in white and wore little hats that I couldn’t describe if I tried (I guess they were a hat with an extended door-knob shaped figure on top). The man in the middle had a stern look. He was dressed in much more fabulous colors and had a bright blue piece of fabric wrapped around his head in a way that it made it look like he almost had two large blue ears. This man, I would find out, was the community’s High Priest. As I got closer to John he lifted the corner of his head, acknowledged me, and then gestured with his eyes to kneel down next to him. That’s what I did. I wasn’t kneeling long. After a few moments, the High Priest rose, and every man in the crowd rushed to his feet. The priest didn’t say anything to the crowd, but instead turned his attention to a piece of cloth hanging on the rounded-wall. The cloth was white with blue patterning; above it was a rectangular wooden figure with dried palm reeds sticking out of the top. The priest then start muttering, what I believe was a prayer, to the fabric. I took advantage of the standing and looked around the courtyard. John and I were seemingly a sideshow of attention. Men and women looked at us out of the corners of their eyes and would grin, smile, wave or chuckle a little. I now also noticed the women were all carrying similar clay bowls, with what appeared to be a grey thick liquid inside.
My attention was turned back towards the priest when I noticed he had removed the fabric, and behind it laid a small, wooden door. The priest had then removed a handful of dried palm reeds from the shrine above the door, and dropped them on the floor directly in front of it. Then both of the other priests followed with the same actions, removing dried reeds, dropping them to the floor. The High Priest then stood tall to remove the bare shrine, and tapped it several times over the doorway while chanting a prayer. He then handed the wooden shrine to one of the priests dressed in white, and casually opened the door and walked in. He was in there for only a few seconds before he made his way back out and gestured his right palm up and pulled his fingers collectively towards the doorway a short number of times. In an instant the men rushed their way into the small doorway. The man who had brought John in had signaled for us NOT to enter as he pushed his way into the mysterious opening. Some of the men were even carrying machetes.
This got John and my curiosity, but we did as we were instructed, not wanting to step on any toes. We stood there for a minute, smiling, wondering what was in that door. A couple of the other men, who weren’t going in on their own will, then started to come towards us with big smiling faces and talked politely to us in a mix of English and Ewe. Everyone in the court yard, was extremely friendly, happily waving and trying to hold conversation. While talking to some of the ceremony-goers, I noticed people were starting to come out of the door, and they were carrying branches. They all were emerging with fresh cut branches. Branch after branch came out of the small door, and the branches started coming out larger and larger. They would carry the branches out and bring them to the corner of the courtyard and stack them upright. When I looked back at the door I saw three men carrying a full tree. The men were the ones holding the machetes while carrying their fresh cut. About 3 more trees squeezed their ways through the opening. After the trees were stacked, a few more people came out carrying bundles of random sized branches, and the door was then closed. The men then carried out each piece of timber out of the courtyard entirely, that’s when we saw John’s inviter for the last time. After the last of the branches left the yard, the High Priest then turned and left from the doorway entrance and walked towards the women side. There I noticed they were now smearing the grey thick paste in the bowls onto a wall of the clay building.
A man near us explained that the women were saying their prayers into the bowls of thin clay and sticking them onto the shrine that was the building. The man then explained that the festival we were at was a once a year ceremony to celebrate African Unity and Harvest, It was called Balili. As he was saying this the High Priest had returned holding a new wooden shrine. Everybody was silent as replaced it back over the doorway, said a prayer and then fit a handful of lively green palm reeds into it. The man next to us said the new shire and reeds were from the cut wood pulled from the doorway. Each of the other priests then walked up to the shrine, said a prayer and slide their handfuls of reeds into the shrine. After the last reads were placed all the men ran up to put whatever bit of their hand would fit on it, and everybody who wasn’t directly touching the shrine was touching the shoulder of the man in front of him, creating a web of human connection based out of the shrine. The man next to us explained, while we were incorporated in the web, that touching the shrine, or connection to the shrine, gave the ability to have ones miracles come true. He explained to us the realness of it and gave an example, saying his wife was unable to bear children, so he prayed to the shrine, and then she twins. I heard the other men all muttering their wishes, I think I asked for safety and good health for my family and friends. After people presented their wanted miracles to the divinity, the High Priest lead a prayer while the priests on the side started unfolding the fabric from in front of the doorway. Meanwhile the man asked us to the center of the courtyard, so that he could explain the significance of the date on a calendar that was hanging from a tree.
Once in the center, I felt an overwhelming sensation of welcomed and eased. That quickly changed, for a man in a full toga styled fabric was talking to our “guide through Balili” while pointing unhappy towards John and I. He started to talk to us in Ewe and we gestured that we only understand a very little Ewe at all. He then simple stated, “Leave immediately.” Our guide and us tried to quickly explain how we were came to be there, but the man said, “No, Leave Immediately. Go”, putting his arm up pointing towards the entrance we had come through. John and I apologized and thanked the man and our guide and walked casually to the exit. Upon exiting, we went back to the merchant where we had gotten our fabrics and where we left our shoes. The women smiled and laughed as she received the cloth and gave us our bags and shirts. We then thanked the women and headed out of the area. A few other people asked to go back in, but we explained that we couldn’t. We had experienced enough to understand what wonders can be found when you get lost.
by Ben Novello