After we have grown too tired of jumping

The Ghanaian game, Ampe, is an education in Blackness and womanhood.

Image credit Julius Tornyi © 2021.

The short film, Ampe: Leap into the Sky, Black Girl, is filled with the spirit of cultural remembrance. In 17 minutes woven with sounds of joy and intimacy, we travel between Accra, Ghana, and Columbus, Ohio, to experience the impact of Ampe on Ghanaian women on the continent and in the African Diaspora. As young African women narrate their memories of the game, it is difficult for them to not feel the joys of playing in the dirt, of supporting each other with chants—“Mother, mother do something before you die,” “mother gyiga nobody,”—that charged us on. The filmmakers, Claudia Owusu and Ife Oluwamuyide,  have written and directed an emotional rendition of a childhood Ghanaian game that brings chills to the memories.

The film took me back to the sandy playground of my childhood. The game, Ampe, requires a bank of two teams facing off against each other, player to player. Each player, and their opponent jump at the same time, clap, and put a foot forward before landing. One team chooses to win the individual duels when the feet of opposing players align: the left foot on one side meeting the right on the other or the right meeting the left. The opposing team wins when the feet don’t align across the divide. The winner keeps going down the line until all players on one side are knocked out. The winning team earns a “bomb” to eject one player from the opposing team, before the next round.

Image credit Julius Tornyi © 2021.

Ampe was a game I played while waiting for my father to pick me up after school. In class 6, my friends discovered a younger student who had a powerful streak of defeating all her opponents. It was impossible that a novice would be crowned as the person to fear during Ampe. In my effort to defeat her, I succumbed to the lessons that in Ampe you are born and reborn to bring joy and life to others. Ampe can be considered an equivalent of double dutch. In the Bronx, where I first settled after moving from Accra, I watched as girls my age eased into the double ropes without missing the beat. I looked intensely to memorize their bobbing bodies as they readied to enter, or the distance between their feet and the rope, or the songs that invited them into the hops. But, unlike Ampe, my body was not tuned to this game. Double Dutch quickly reminded me of where I was from and the beautiful ways in which young girls translate rhythm.

The women presented in the film—whether at a school in Accra or a square in Columbus—are the heritage of the soil. And in the ambience of the amber light of Accra’s night or the brightly lit sun in Columbus, we see the motif of warmth, home, and place. In one of my favorite scenes, the young women discuss the chants used to praise, and insults used to deter the opponent from gathering a “bomb” to kill. The camera follows their mouths, their joy sprayed in the air like a contagious fragrance, and gleans over one woman whose hair is being braided. This scene shows Ampe as a rare kind of hair-salon-like gathering for Black women: while it leaves no time for conversation, there is plenty of room to hash out potential differences, using the game as a means of conflict resolution.

The sense of play that Ampe introduces is also in its West African sounds and rhythms. The four-beat clapping interspersed with high leaps and leg kicking are a dance in itself:  a battle made with the body. The fierceness of the opponent is readily seen with the concentration on the feet and not simply in confrontation. Through Ampe, a young Black girl breaks into her instincts: we see this intensity in a night scene where a young woman jumps dramatically into the sky, gathering wind with her arms, undeterred by where her locks land or where her scarf falls. She lands safely on the ground with a face ready to fire. This is how she practices trusting her feet.

In the film, the young women are right to say that Ampe is a game for us, for women, and a sacred place to imagine what it feels like to play without being burdened with chores. In Ampe, there are roles: mother, child, and even student. They come with power, and the ability to be reincarnated, but they are also shorn of the submissive, gendered expectations that come with the roles. Of cooking, cleaning, serving. It gave us the joys of preservation that came with what a mother could do for her children: “bring them back to life.” In its very transcendent lens, Ampe made us superheroes, African women without capes, flying in the air with our skirts, fleeing to each other in the name of solidarity, even before the bell rang for break time and we could call ourselves mothers and children of the land.

Image credit Julius Tornyi © 2021.

As a young girl, I had never thought of the violent implications of the game: of shooting, bombing, or killing the children who angered you with their incessant winning streaks. How you killed your opponent mattered. One could go out and fast like being hit by a sniper or, slow and dramatic, with song. In my time, “bombs” could be transferred and death could be blown like a powder in the faces of the opponent as a Judas lover blowing a kiss of betrayal to Jesus. Although it may sound a little heinous, the documentary clarifies that this is far from the reality: Ampe is aggressively soothing. Ampe does not incite animosity or violence beyond the parameters of the game. We learn that death in Ampe isn’t a surprise but hurt most when it came from a friend who, out of poor planning, couldn’t be on the same team with you.

Ampe is a game of patience which means everyone wins at a certain point. But it is also a game that taught us, young Ghanaian women, that what was at stake for us was preserving each other, scheming behind closed doors before the game day arrived, and then telling each other whom we wanted in our team, whom we wanted to be eliminated, who we felt was weak, whom we need to keep alive, or whom we would elect as a mother first. Ampe taught us too that eventually everyone must die and after we had grown too tired of jumping, we needed another game in life that showed us how to preserve Blackness, womanhood, and how to play.

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