Two boys in southeastern Ghana are sent to fetch water from the well. When they start to goof around, moving in circles, swinging buckets at their sides, their mother scolds them for walking lugulugu—as if they are drunk.
Not only do Anlo-Ewe speaking people have an elaborate lexicon for walking and bodily comportment, but they believe that how one moves influences who one is, observes Dr. Kathryn Linn Geurts G’91 Gr’98, an anthropologist who lived among the people of a small coastal village.
In her recent book, Culture and the Senses: Bodily Ways of Knowing in an African Community, she argues that balance is a key sense and an essential component of what it means to be human in Anlo Society, defying Western notions of the “naturalness” of sight, touch, taste, hearing, and smell.
Though balance is clearly an important biological function, Geurts says, the West is very focused on this five-senses model, which incorporates a definition of sensing as “the ability to apprehend external objects. So we’ve chosen bodily organs and bodily functions that serve the role of processing stimulation from outside our bodies, and we’ve separated that from anything going on from inside our bodies.” Other cultures, in contrast, are more interested in looking at relations between the two systems.
Geurts originally came to Ghana to research how traditional medical practitioners use senses to diagnose and treat patients. She found Anlo medicine to be more secretive than she had expected, so she worked with midwives and found her interactions with them raising questions about “how we know what we know.”
Balancing is an integral part of daily life among Anlo-Ewe speakers. For example, rather than keep desks in the schools, where they might be stolen, school children carry them home on their heads each day. Children learn to balance objects at a very early age and adults pay much attention to babies learning to sit up and starting to walk.
Geurts, who is assistant professor of anthropology at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, recalls how much she stuck out her first summer in the village. “I walked too fast. They would laugh at me and imitate my way of walking and my inability to balance. They talked about how out of line my body was, because I would try to carry buckets of water like a briefcase.” With practice she learned to balance baskets on her head.
In Anlo speaking culture, after a woman carries a baby in her womb for nine months, she is expected to strap it to her back to balance out her body. Back-tying is also supposed to benefit infants, promoting proper balance, growth and a seselelame, or “feeling in the body,” of their mothers in front, “securing the way.”
Seselelame can also be translated as “‘hearing in the body’—in part because Anlo language is tonal and requires the discrimination between different pitches to understand what someone is saying, Geurts explains. “Knowing is hearing a little more than seeing in their culture.”
With this blurring of the lines between senses, one wonders how Anlo society treats those who have lost what Westerners would consider a key sensory mode. Geurts is embarking on a related research project in Ghana about perceptions of mental and physical disabilities. Though she was startled by the blind pharmacist in the village where she lived, for example, the people she met didn’t seem to carry the same notion of handicap that Westerners do. “Where they really worry is when one begins to lose multiple senses.” Geurts also came across a woman without legs. “She traveled all over. People would pick her up and put her on the bus.” Far from stigmatized, “She was so much a part of her community.”
Having a disability in the capital city of Accra, however, might be a different issue, Geurts says. “It’s outside one ethno-linguistic network and is a more mixed area where you have a tremendous western influence. I don’t know what I’ll find there.”