Market Madness in Kumase

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Overlooking the outdoor market from a balcony before we ventured into the maze. Photo Credit: Dr. Shaniece Criss

The world’s largest outdoor market is in the Ashanti region of Ghana. The market is in the busling capital, Kumase, where about 8 million people live. Many are grounded in the traditional roots of their Akan culture. This culture extends throughout Ghana. In fact, Clifford Campbell wrote that “about half of Ghana’s estimated 25 million people fall under the cultural-linguistic group known as Akan.”

Stuart Hall‘s “Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices” highlights two definitions of culture:

  1. The sum of great ideas, the traditional definition.
  2. Shared values, the anthropological definition.

What he wrote stood out to me because these cultural meanings “organize and regulate social practices, influence our conduct and consequently have real, practical effects.” On this trip, I was able to experience the difference in cultural meaning firsthand.

In the market, we stepped out of the bus and onto the streets of Kumase. We were dressed in similar outfits of which we had been wearing for the past two weeks in the urban city of Accra. I thought nothing of my clothing as we walked on the side of the road and into the allies of the markets. Our white skin automatically drew attention, but everyone’s eyes seemed to go straight to our legs. Murmurs filled the air as the women in the market spoke their native tongue to each other. I knew they were talking about us, but we were quick on our feet prancing from one section to another, so I could not gather enough information to figure out more. It was only when a lady passing me on the path grabbed my arm that I knew something was not right. She said, “please girls can I talk to you.” We said, “no medasse,” (which means no thank you) because we wanted to stay with our group.  With one missed second, we could have been lost in the maze of the market.

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You can see how packed it is within the market. The pathways are small, so keeping up with the group and our guide was tough, but also created a rush of excitement with the chaos going on all around us. Photo Credit: Dr. Shaniece Criss

When we finally stopped at a market shop to buy some beads, a lady approached my friend and used her hands to show that we needed to cover our butts. We were confused because our butts were covered. Our teacher, Dr. Kwami, then explained to us that the women in the market were not pleased with our short shorts. Then, it all clicked because I was wondering why I felt a tug on my shorts as I walked through the market earlier.

At first, I felt condemned by the reactions we received. Although, in truth, it made sense. Accra is the capital of Ghana, a diverse culture exists there. As we traveled further north, to the Asante region, there is a stronger emphasis on tradition. The older members of the community saw our attire as disrespectful. Mainly, in the sense that their young people are fascinated with western culture and we are impacting their tradition in a negative way. I learned a very important lesson. When I enter a new culture, I need to have intentional awareness of what is percieved as appropriate so that I can be respectful of the local traditions.

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An ariel shot of the market that Dr. Criss took. Colorful umbrellas light up the cloudy day!

Sources:

Campbell, Clifford (2016) “The Ghana Reader.”

Hall, Stuart (1997) “Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices.”

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