‘The Palgrave Handbook of Socio-Cultural Perspectives on Global Mental Health’ – Our Hands On Our Calabash

Book Cover - High Resolution

It was an honour to collaborate with Sumeet Jain, Ursula Read and David Orr in editing ‘The Palgrave Handbook of Socio-cultural Perspective on Global Mental Health’: http://link.springer.com/book/10.1057%2F978-1-137-39510-8

The handbook was 3 years in the making – from initial conception to final publication in February of 2017. It was a great privilege to work with the many contributors who graciously give their time and effort to writing chapters for the book.

In thinking about the cover image that we would use for the book I consulted with my friend Gameli Tordzro. Gameli is a talented versatile multiple arts practitioner and researcher. He has worked as Artistic Director of Pan African Arts Scotland since 2006 and is the founder and composer for Ha Orchestra (The first symphonic African Orchestra in Scotland). Well known on Ghana TV as a traditional African musician and storyteller, Film, TV/Theatre director/producer and actor, his passion for music has led him to develop special skills in playing a range of traditional African musical instruments including the Kora, Seprewa, the gyle xylpohone, a range of African drums, the Atenteben Flute (a Ghanaian Bamboo flute) and the Tre. Gameli is the 2015 winner of Critics Award for Theatre in Scotland for music through his work in Kai Fischer’s 2015 production of Last Dream (on Earth). He is the current Musician in Residence of University of Glasgow GRAMNet as well as a creative arts PhD researcher at the School of Education, University of Glasgow.

Gameli was excited about the focus of the handbook and the themes that it explores, which resonate strongly with his interest in interdisciplinary collaboration and intercultural communication. Fortunately for us, he was keen to contribute an image for the handbook which I have attached to this post. The image is entitled ‘Our Hands On Our Calabash’. Below you can read the narrative that Gameli wrote to accompany the image which reflects on his roots in Ghana and the practical and symbolic importance of the Calabash and its metaphorical relevance to Global Mental Health.

Our Hands On Our Calabash (My Calabash Story)

By Gameli Tordzro

The simple calabash gourd (or hollowed-out and dried fruit of the Lagenaria siceraria vine) represents so many things for me in my life. It provides a metaphor for life – a metaphor for my very existence. The calabash carries both material and spiritual significance for me and holds a special space in both my domestic and vocational duties. Lately it has become an object that I can use to symbolically represent acts of friendship, offering and sharing. Its form as a super light, strong (but at the same time fragile) shell draws comparisons with our spherical earth and the shape of a woman’s pregnancy at different stages. The calabash has endless uses as a container for liquids and solids; a musical instrument or components of musical instruments; furniture; fashion items; various forms of handicraft, as wall as hangings that can be adorned with various colours and designs.

My association with the calabash started as a child. It was a very important part of the preparation of food. The calabash, or ‘Trè’ as it is called in my native Ewegbe, was used to serve dzogbor (the maize meal porridge that was served for breakfast) that was a staple food for us growing up. The Trè was also used by mothers living in Keta (our hometown) to shape ‘akplé’ – the solid version of maize meal that the Ewe people eat wherever they might be: Ghana, Togo, Benin and the various other places where Ewes have migrated to. The Trè can also be used to serve water, palmwine, traditional beer like pito, and can be used to hold almost anything – the ubiquitous bowl for serving anything and everything. The Trè is also an important object for rites and rituals of passage – it is used to hold ‘Dzatsi’ a mixture of cornflour and rainwater that is used for ritual libation. The calabash therefore carries very important social value, and has considerable emotional significance.

Since moving from to Accra Ghana to Glasgow Scotland, I had become distanced and detached from the calabash and its value, until recent events jolted awake slumbering memories of my childhood. During a recent trip to Ghana, I was looking though some cooking utensils that belonged to my late mother, Vera Tamakloe, when I found the Trè that she used to prepare and serve ‘Aliha’ – a special maize drink. Memories swept of how my mother, ‘Dada’ (as her children and eventually everyone else called her), used to prepare and sell the Aliha locally. To this day in traditional markets in Ghana, women carry and sell Aliha in large Très. It transpired that the Trè I had stumbled upon was also the last one that my mother had used before she fell ill and passed on. I knew immediately the moment that I set my eyes on this calabash that I wanted to keep it for the priceless sentimental worth that it holds.

Dada’s Calabash in Glasgow

I picked up Dada’s Calabash and cleaned it nicely. The precise way in which I could use this object to honour my mother only became apparent when I started stroking it and tapping it. I had not realised all these years how a great percussive instrument Dada’s calabash was. The sound that came out of the calabash as I tapped on it sent waves of excitement through me, and before long I was creating new rhythms on it. In a matter of a few days, I was performing with the calabash in a show in Accra with my friend Dela Botri (Ghana’s Atenteben flute maestro) and his band Hewale Sounds.

When I returned to Glasgow, I was sure to bring Dada’s Trè with me. Its significance goes beyond the music I create with it today. It represents life; how I negotiate all the complexities of living as a migrant, and the range of emotions that I deal with. I channel and share the experience of those emotions through my music when I play the calabash. Thus today, my hands are on the calabash – the Trè of our mother Dada – and it helps me to negotiate the emotions of grief, joy, anger, sadness, anxiety, and love. The calabash, this calabash, gives me a much treasured opportunity to extend the memory of the woman who brought me forth, who raised me to see the fullness of the opportunities that the world can provide, and helped me to consider everyone who I meet to be family.

I have had the pleasure of sharing the calabash with young migrants from different cultural backgrounds who are attending a college programme in Glasgow. I also shares special friendship through the calabash with three special friends; my wife Naa Densua, Alison Phipps and Tawona Sithole (The Calabash People). This process of sharing the calabash and the music that it can produce, captures the way in which we can work together to collaboratively enrich each other’s experiences of the world. People are all connected in ways that are not always obvious, ways that can be discovered as we continue learning to respect, appreciate and celebrate diversity and complexity – but can also be discovered by recognising that despite our differences the earth, our shared ‘Trè’, sustains us all.

When my friend and colleague Ross White approached me to discuss ideas for the cover of ‘The Palgrave Handbook of Socio-cultural Perspectives on Global Mental Health’, the image of many hands on my Trè was the first to pop in my imagination and prompted me to reflect on the simple calabash, and the symbolic significance this has for the giving and receiving of care, and maintenance of connections I have established with people around the world in different countries. After all, we all exist on one big calabash, and we can put our hands on this calabash and feel responsible and connected to each other – key ingredients for Global Mental Health.


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