Playing and Learning through Rhythm and Song in Ghana

All students from Class 1 to Junior Secondary School (JSS) 3 (9th grade) had lined up in arrow-straight rows by grade in my new school’s large courtyard: boys on the left, girls on the right; the shortest students lead each line, and the tallest punctuated them at the back. I was in line with the rest of my classmates in Class 5. My schooling days in the US were far behind me.

After school announcements were read and the National Pledge of Ghana was recited, three boys from the JSS approached the front of the assembly with their drums and accompanying drumsticks to end the morning’s gathering with a motivational song. The drums bellowed: Boom! Boom! Boom-Boom-Boom! The song commenced, interspersed with the drumming that resonated with me at my core:

“Arise Ghana youth for your country

The nation demands your devotion

Let us all unite to uphold her

And make her great and strong

Refrain:

We are all involved (3x)

In building our motherland.”

And with that, each line of students marched, in succession, to their respective classrooms. Emulating my classmates, I tried to keep up with this new rhythm. The sound of the drums lingered behind as the boys concluded the song. School had begun with a bang!

These morning assemblies are some of my fondest memories of primary school. Moving from the US to Ghana at nine years old enhanced my life in many ways. Among the highlights of my formative years was the infusion of new rhythms and melodies, and the words that often accompanied them, in my learning and way of life.

Ghana means Warrior King and, despite or because of its audacious name, is a peaceful West African country found along the Gulf of Guinea and is known for being the first country in Sub-Saharan Africa to gain its independence from colonial rule. While Ghana is experiencing some challenges about how to educate its youth, it should be celebrated for its cultural richness and vibrancy of life. Policymakers should encourage schools to implement these aspects in the education of its children.

Visit almost anywhere in the country, and you are bound to hear the sound of drums, squealing children playing rhythmic games, and the latest music either in the distance or playing (too) loudly throughout the day. Music, dance, and play are part of Ghana’s very fabric: from the beginning of one’s life – babies absorb their mother’s every rhythm with mothers singing and dancing to and with their children and going about daily routines with their babies strapped to their backs with colorful, traditional clothes – to the very end, when the departed are ushered to their final resting place with drums, flutes, dirges, and dancing.

So also in play and schooling are children’s days imbued with rhythm, song and cultural richness. Take, for example, two common forms of play in Ghana: the unique game of Ampe, and Jama, a common mode of celebration and call and response.

Ampe

Ubiquitous in the country and played mostly by girls, Ampe is a game of jumping, clapping, and probability, played by two individuals or more, or two teams of an equal number of players. The game is said to have been around for at least two centuries, but its exact history is obscure. The basics of the game are as follows:

  • Two individuals decide to either represent the ‘same leg’ team or the ‘opposing leg’ team
  • The two players face each other and clap in unison twice.
  • Upon the second clap, both players simultaneously jump up twice. Keeping with the rhythm is essential.
  • On the second landing of the second jump, each player is required to ‘play a leg’, that is, select and put forward either their left or right leg.
  • If the legs put forward align together (for example, player A’s right foot to player B’s left), the ‘same leg team scores a point; if the legs do not align (for example, player A’s right foot to player B’s right), the ‘opposing leg’ team scores a point).

This process goes on for as long as agreed from the rules set at the outset of the game by all parties. The winner or winning team then celebrate in style – often with a special combination of song, dance and sometimes friendly taunting of the losers! Ampe can be more complex, extensive, and stylistically played based on the number and personalities of the players involved. In Ampe, every player must contribute to the game. It requires teamwork and good rhythm and serves as a great form of exercise for the young and young at heart.

Jama

Another popular method of play and celebration in Ghana is Jama. Jama can be described as a creative form of call and response and energizing music (with the use of drums or pseudo drums such as a table) and clever words used to support a team (often a sports team), to hype up an individual or environment (for instance, a bus ride to mathematics and science quiz tournament or early morning jogs for students involved in the cadet corps). Sung in various combinations of local languages and Ghana’s lingua franca, English, Jama can be used to create brilliant and witty wordplay. It is also a great way to get rid of nerves before a high stakes performance, or merely a fun game to play at break time. Jama encourages creativity, presentation skills, camaraderie and an ability to think quickly on one’s feet.

Below is an example of a form of Jama sung and played out mostly among primary students. This is sung in a group. Each member takes a turn to create, sing and enact their own second verse.

1st verse –  For the whole group:

“Green, green grasses (response: grasses)

Kwaku Ananse stories (response: stories)

First story (response: story)

Second story(response: story)

2nd verse – An example of a response conceptualized, sung and acted out by an individual impromptu:

Ɛyɛ  fufu, yɛ  wɔ no sei (It is fufu, and this is how it’s pounded)

Fufu!

Yɛ  wɔ no sei, sei, sei and sei!” (It’s pounded in these various ways)

Everywhere in the world, play has long been considered a fundamental part of a child’s essence and development. In his book, The Play Way – An Essay in Educational Method (1917), H. Gladwell Cook writes, “Let us remember that without interest there is no learning, and since the child’s interest is all in play it is necessary, whatever the matter in hand, that the method be a play method.” Many indigenous games in Ghana preserve and promote great aspects of Ghanaian culture and help children to learn and grow through helping to discover and engage their interests. They present multiple opportunities for learning with peers, parents, and teachers. More of these games must be encouraged in and out of the classroom and enhanced and updated where possible. For instance, Ampe can be used as a practical case study when learning probability in Mathematics. For example, what is the probability that Ama will play her left leg twice in a five-round game of Ampe?

The call and response of Jama offer teachers and students a fun way of remembering facts. For instance, divided into groups, students can be tasked with creating their own songs which they can recall as needed in an exam. I remember being ‘forced’ to memorize my times table up to 13. 1 – 12 was a breeze to remember, but somehow my 13 times table never stuck. Working with a group to create a song may have helped. Young children, in particular, serve to benefit from the use of local song and dance in their everyday learning.

Jama can also come in handy in the classroom when studying foreign or dense works in English literature. To ensure understanding or to re-enact a classic body of work with local influence, students will have the opportunity to creatively add a Ghanaian twist to their lessons. For instance, in groups, students can capture the essence of Shakespeare’s Macbeth in a localized, rhythm-infused reading or student-created adaptation.

Over the years, in good and challenging times, I have been lifted by the strong rhythms and coordinated play of both children and adults. I remain grateful that the soulful Ghana way of life became mine. Many of the lessons I remember from school, including Ghanaian history lessons, and memories I have from my childhood are those that were practical and infused with local rhythms and games. Ghanaian games have so much potential to morph into exciting lessons for students. There really should be no dull lessons in Ghanaian classrooms.

Cook says “A child following his natural bent will play. His whole power is in play.” By play, he means “doing anything with one’s heart in it.” Knowing this, and having the right resources at their disposal, parents, and teachers can help unearth the desires of their children’s hearts and engage their interests in fun, creative ways. We all have a role to play in preserving, evolving, promoting and enjoying the best aspects of our culture and forms of play.

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