Curtis Andrews with friends in Ghana
When Curtis Andrews went to a small village in Ghana to learn music and drumming, he didn’t know that he would end up building a school and leaving behind a part of himself forever.
Andrews, 33, is a musician who has always had an appetite for world music and cultures.
“As a drummer I always wanted to visit Africa to learn drumming but it’s a huge place, so I wasn’t sure where exactly to go,” said Andrews.
His dream was brought closer to realisation after he attended a music festival in his native Newfoundland where he met a Canadian-Ghanaian artist, Frederick Kwasi Dunyo. Andrews told Dunyo about his wish to go to Africa. So, in 2002, on one of his visits to Ghana, Dunyo invited Andrews to come along.
A dance troupe at an event in Dzogadze
“While I was in Ghana, I was taken to the village of Dzogadze to watch a traditional dance performance,” said Andrews. “I knew that I wanted to learn that style of drumming. And the music -- it was spectacular.”
Living with a drummer teacher
Immediately upon his return to Canada, Andrews started working towards going back to Ghana. But it took another five years before he could start his training. Dunyo arranged for Andrews to stay with his relatives in Dzogadze so they could teach him a style of drumming and dance called Atsiagbekor (Achakbeko).
“It’s a war dance that was almost extinct and that village decided to revive it,” Andrews said.
Andrews was handed over to a teacher, Ledzi Agudzemegah. Andrews and Agudzemegah lived under same roof and shared everything.
“Curtis is such a kind man and he did everything we did: he ate our food, drank the same water and spoke our language; that was amazing,” said Agudzemegah.
Agudzemegah, who comes from a family of dancers, taught Andrews about drumming and the music of the Ewe people.
Curtis Andrews with Ledzi Agudzemegah and his son, Esinu.
Speaking on the phone from the Ghanaian capital Accra, Agudzemegah, 33, said he had been learning the war dance from the time he was a toddler. It is his family’s duty to ensure that the dance tradition is passed on from one generation to another in that village.
Agudzemegah said warriors would dance the Atsiagbekor as they went through the village to show they were victorious in battle.
“Even without speaking, the villagers would know that we won the war,” said Agudzemegah.
Atsiagagbekor is more than simply dancing. It’s accompanied by drumming as well as vocals that include proverbs, words of wisdom and even the names of victorious warriors from history. It’s characterized by lots of stomping of the feet.
Reviving a war dance
Agudzemegah said since there haven’t been any tribal wars for many years, the dance had almost been forgotten. There were no warriors to be taught the dance. However, his father was determined to teach the dance to young boys so it could stay alive in the culture.
“My father would have been the best person to teach Curtis all about Atsiagbekor, but it’s such a vigorous dance and he doesn’t have as much energy; instead they asked me to teach him,” said Agudzemegah.
Agudzemegah dancing at a funeral.
Andrews lived with Agudzemegah in Dzogadze for more than two months. Andrews said it wasn’t only about learning music , but also about taking part in everything that the people did, including their work. People of Dzogadze are subsistence farmers.
“They are not starving but they also cannot afford to take care of needs that arise outside their daily plans,” said Andrews.
Discovering a need
Sometimes Andrews and Agudzemegah took walks together. Their compound was close to a school. One day, they passed by the school expecting to see children, but the school was closed.
Agudzemegah explained to Andrews that because it had rained that morning, the children could not learn. The kindergarten pupils did not have classrooms. Their classes were usually held outside under the shade of a tree.
“The kids could not have classes in case of rain or uncomfortable weather,” said Agudzemegah. “But we were used to that because that is how we all started school and we had no books or pencils; we wrote on sand.”
Andrews with elders in Dzogadze.
Agudzemegah said Andrews decided to help, but he wanted to find out what the villagers needed most. He asked Agudzemegah to set up a meeting with the elders to see if they’d approve of the school project.
“Some people wanted to fix a dam, some wanted the clinic to be fixed,” said Andrews. “But, in the end, the biggest thing that they all seemed to agree on was that there wasn’t any room in the existing school structure to house children at kindergarten level and the primary class.”
Not knowing where the help would come from
Now, Andrews had to find money for the project but he had no idea who to turn to. After he got back from Ghana, he decided to share his trip experience with people of his hometown in Newfoundland.
Andrews gave music and drumming classes to kids at All Hallows Elementary in North River, Newfoundland. He showed the pictures and videos he had taken during his stay in Ghana and also talked about the school in Dzogadze.
Kevin Giles, the principal at All Hallows, was intrigued by Andrews’ experience and the way he shared it with the children. All Hallows Elementary has students aged five to 12, about the same range of ages as children at the school in Dzogadze.
Giles told Andrews that he would like to create a friendship between the two schools. He also wanted to know if there was anyway All Hallows Elementary could help the kids in Dzogadze.
A paper school in Canada pays for bricks in Ghana
Giles said when Andrews told him about the need for classrooms, he didn’t think twice about helping.
“We started a paper brick project in our front entrance and when a child brought in the money to support the school in Ghana, we wrote their name on a paper brick, and put it on the wall,” said Giles. “So we sort of built a school with paper bricks and we used some corrugated paper for the roof.”
Andrews (centre) with Kevin Giles (right) and a friend , Jake (left).
Giles said the kids enjoyed seeing the progress of the project. The school also held other fundraising events like concerts. Giles said he worked out a way where people donated the money under an education foundation and they could get income tax receipts for helping the project. That pulled in more people as well as some organisations. Andrews said Giles played a big role in making sure enough money was raised.
“It took a long time for the classrooms to be built because prices kept rising from the time we got the original quotation to the time we managed to fundraise that money,” said Andrews.
Construction begins in Ghana
Andrews asked Agudzemegah back in Ghana to coordinate the building of the classrooms.
“Without Ledzi, everything I have done in Ghana would be impossible or very difficult,” said Andrews who refers to Agudzemegah as his best friend.
Because Agudzemegah is also studying accounting in Accra, Andrews said his financial management skills came handy when it came to budgeting and getting the best deals for building materials.
Beginning of the classrooms project.
Andrews said his family was also supportive, taking part in fundraising activities and coordinating with the school and Agudzemegah whenever Andrews was touring or not available.
It took two years and $12,000 to build the classrooms in Dzogadze. All Hallows Elementary school also sent educational material and some people donated computers.
A village honours Andrews
Finally, in the spring of 2009, the classrooms were ready for the children to move in. Andrews travelled back to Ghana to see the finished product. There are three classrooms; each classroom is big enough to accommodate 35-40 children comfortably.
“My parents joined me and we attended the inauguration, said Andrews. “It was quite a celebration and I was deeply touched.”
Andrews said that when he went to the event, he didn’t expect to receive the honour that the people of Dzogadze gave him.
“They named the block of classrooms after me, and even included the name they had given me while I was living there, Kordzo,” said Andrews.
Agudzemegah told Andrews that this was the only way that people could express their gratitude.
“When Curtis finished building the classrooms, the village had nothing in kind to give him as an appreciation,” said Agudzemegah. “So they decided to give their prayers and to honour him by naming the classrooms ‘Curtis Kordzo Andrews’ block.”
Agudzemegah said that Andrews is now referred to as Efo (brother) Kordzo by everyone in the village. The two men have also continued with their brotherly relationship.
Andrews plans to take other Canadians interested in learning the Atsiagbekor dance back to Dzogadze. Andrews believes that he learned more than simply how to dance and drum in Ghana.
“I came back a changed man. I treasure relationships more now because of the way elders relate to young people and the way people had respect for each other; it was humbling and refreshing.”
Great article. Curtis is doing commendable work.Must be very gratifying.Sent by Bill Kennedy, Hr. Grace, Canada
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