Category Archives: My Stories

How My Story Intersects with Africa

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I grew up with my grandmother who is such an entertaining old lady. She would not back down to an intimidating Christian song just because she did not know the lyrics. The solution was quite simple; either invent her own words or substitute words with sounds that she made . The problem though was that these sounds sounded more like the repetitive tooting of a klaxon and soon became my special indication that it was morning and time for school. Living with my grandmother was both intimate and educative. My identity as a Fante and a Ghanaian was molded and instilled in me right from infancy. I was taught the name of the moon and how to call God using a variation of Fante words such as Nana Nyame, Nyankopon, Ewuradze and Oky3so Nyame. I heard my grandmother pray loudly in the middle of the night and God’s Fante names were unavoidable and unmistakably present in our home. I learned them, it was impossible not to.

There were also those Sunday afternoons that met me sitting in the kitchen for hours on end making Palm nut soup with my grandmother. Making palm soup was annoying and one I do not miss in the least. It involved pounding the nut, removing the mixture of smashed fruit and kernel and chaff, squeezing them while separating the kernel all in water, passing everything through a colander, repeating, and doing all these cumbersome things until you obtained a thick orange liquid which we were going to spend another two or so hours boiling and observing…..and that was not it! No, no! After this ordeal, I still had all the dishes to deal with! Mind you, that was also no easy task since palm oil has abnormal adhesive qualities and will stick to every container! This meant that I needed to scrub the pot doggedly like my very life depended on it.  Guess what, my grandmother’s eyes can spot oil stains as minuscule as a grain of dirt. Squeaky clean quickly became an understatement. #Mylife. I doubt my grandmother could relate to my pain. She did not obviously because we came back to this soul draining work almost every other week.  Her simple and obstinate reason for sticking with this overrated delicacy was simple; that it was the best food for feeding the entire family over a long period of time. WHAT entire family? AND WHAT long period? Who wanted to spend an entire life time eating Palm nut soup?! I looked left and right, it was only her and me, there was no real huge family, it was just us, but unfortunately, she was right. The soup did feed us and for a long time! The thing about Palm soup is that the longer it ages, the better it gets; more like fine wine. So basically, a huge cauldron of soup could last us a whole week; lunch and dinner inclusive for seven days, sometimes more. Palm soup was not the only type of soup that lived up to its utilitarian claims; indeed, the palm tree itself is a three in one resource that can produce not only food but alcohol, brooms for cleaning the home, baskets and many more decorative and visually pleasing accents for the home. My childhood was loaded with cultural information that was either intentionally or unintentionally shared. In addition to knowing the home remedy for almost every kind of condition, I was seamlessly socialized to be the woman I am today. We grew spices and medicinal grass and plants we used ourselves. Knowing which one exactly to use to cure a slight malaise, which to eat for strength and which to use to achieve flavor in a steaming pot of stew. I grew up with a wealth of cultural information at my feet. I became the woman that did not imitate in an empty attempt to be Ghanaian, but the woman who knew the reason behind every reproduced cultural act. My children are going to inevitably learn from me too.

When it was time for me to go off to college, my grandmother convinced me to go to the University of Cape Coast. She wanted to see more of me and couldn’t stand the thought of my going away from her. I’d lived with her from birth till high school and now I was ready to move on. We parted with a promise of seeing each other whenever we could. I studied French at the University of Ghana and one of the most profound statements I came into contact with while learning this language is the fact that one cannot fully appreciate another ‘s language if they are oblivious of their very own. This thought stuck with me and after living in parts of Africa, Europe and now America, this thought has grown to become even more relevant in my life. In a society that is a melting pot of many different cultures, I realize more than ever that the oral traditions and folklore and pretty much all the cultural information my grandmother introduced me to help me understand that I am a product of a unique culture that forms the core of my being. I remain unfazed if someone utters some kind of vulgarity to me in English. A thousand Fuck you’s will meet an indifferent stare yet insult me in Fante and I will definitely be ready to fight back. My ex-boyfriend who was born in the United States speaks to me in Fante. Fante is the language of banter, familiarity, and intimate discussion. Casual conversations that begin in English make me fully aware of the possibility of a bad day that he’s had or that he’s in a state I prefer not to relate with. To this day, I pray in Fante to my God; Nana Nyame who I believe hears and understands me. I’d like to think that Nyame and Jesus are one and the same, and that Africans are not necessarily pagan but have an understanding and knowledge of God for themselves even though they may not necessarily express it the way the world deems fit.

My knowledge of my culture helps me appreciate and respect the unique differences and similarities that groups of people across the world have. I have over twenty international contacts in my phone and the only way I have been able to keep them that close is because I appreciate my culture and know better to respect theirs too. My grandmother’s telling and re-telling of stories to me forms who I am, a lover of the literary arts. For this reason, I grew up yearning for more stories and soon, my grandmother’s oral accounts led me to seek more in written accounts. I grew up reading Ama Ata Aidoo, Efua Sutherland and a lot of Ghanaian poetry by notable poets such as Kofi Awoonor. I also read some Nigerian literature and had a childhood surrounded by a line of books called the African Pacesetters series.

One of the ideas that drive me to contribute to the body of literature is; I believe that we all have stories to share. I recently read Yaa Gyasi’s novel, Homegoing and I was happy to find that this book which is written by a Ghanaian who lives in America reinforces most aspects of my culture and childhood. The book made me realize that I hadn’t eaten with my fingers in a very long time and for weeks I have been doing just that!

To conclude, I’d say that I believe we all have stories and I am driven to tell Ghanaian and African stories and let the world know more about my culture, pride, and world. No matter where I live, the strong sense of identity and self that was ingrained into me right from childhood is the point of departure and foundation I will use as an African in the world’s cultural basket to tell my own unique story.

Beach Road

The Gallery sat there, overlooking the ocean like a lone traveler taking in the night view of this small coastal suburb.

The gallery sat at the brink of the asphalt road and was pretty to look at

It had people on long drives by the beach road staring in its direction

The ramshackle Trotro buses rolled along and appeared small and bug like against the elegance of the gallery

I thought Trotro rides could range from painful, dehumanizing and risky to carefree, breezy and empowering

And in my unique experience, night rides along the beach road were everything but empowering.

Mosquitos that had the unique ability to permeate the thickest layer of repellant journeyed happily with travelers. They had a destination too I guess.

They’d paid their fare and duly earned their place onboard among legs.

Everything got even more irritating because the Trotro had absolutely no space to wiggle or convulse out of a bite.

This experience on the beach road at rush hour reminded us of a can of sardines.

All we needed was that shitor and gari to complete this delicious experience.

Humidity, spittle, sweat and other stale-I’ve-had-a-long-ass-day-smells transited with us.

The gallery and its unusual location gave that temporary respite that elevated us beyond the Trotro experience. The ocean too and its limitlessness gave that feeling of awe only nature gives.

Fall Nights

He knew I liked the dark. He called it the silhouette effect. Of seeing and not seeing entirely. Of inhaling sharply, touching and feeling taut smooth warmth.

We drove seeking the dark that night.

His signature cologne was held in a dark bottle and I thought it was such a rip-off using a product whose longevity one couldn’t determine. You would know you’d exhausted its contents when the puff no longer bore liquid

When the puff no longer bore liquid.

His puff no longer bore any liquid the third time and I knew he’d given me his all.

I was half amused at the thought of seeking the dark for what only we knew. I’d agreed with the zodiac character trait list that was attributed to his birth month. This was a person whose depth was not face value. He held furtive glances and a silent demeanor that opened with familiarity. Then there was that episode of an occasional admission that only surfaced with intense emotion.

‘This feels so good!’

He was highly guarded and immune to vulnerability. I smiled secretly each time I sensed that in a pile of words, there was a hidden message that needed my attention. I knew when he wanted something.  I learned that this was more about perception than overt expression.

More sensual than visual. Parallels with the idea of Dark Fall nights where everything was really more about perceiving than seeing or saying.

 

 

Factory Girls

4am. I am beyond late.

The idealistic part of me hated the job but the realistic part urged me and told me to go gather life experience and sauce for my writings. I’d read Emile Zola and how the repetitive imagery of darkness fills Germinal. A white horse trapped in the bowels of the mine remained untainted and my classmates and I took turns pontificating about why a horse could remain a solid pure white in a dark and dirty mine…Happens the horse symbolized hope. Hope of the common man’s resurgence after the ruling classes’ exploitation of them and blah blah

This morning though, darkness didn’t dominate my surroundings. The area was fairly lit and I stood in a sea of people, mostly women who were here to make croissants, brownies, cinnamon rolls and whatever else for the president. The task was simple. Perform the work of a human-robot picking and stacking containers with as much of what was rolling out on the carousel. And in an orderly fashion. These human robots had been at this task for years and their dexterity and pace was unmatched. How long? Twenty, thirty years? They were very protective of their work and reflected a collective sense of pride and confidence at being this excellent at their task. The task of stacking plastic boxes with cinnamon rolls for thirty years?! I shat on their ‘achievement’. I was not in awe of excellence at a career in stacking. The simplicity of the task rather exhausted me and I zoned off deep into my thoughts for life.

It was the era of the Octopus. He lay on the White House and puppeteered everything with his great long tentacles. I suppose he ate croissants too. Or did the Octopus eat croissants? Cos if he did like other normal people, he wouldn’t stir such trouble…then again, the idea of trouble is subjective so…. He probably ate croissants, that or at least some of the baked goods that this Bread company got its profits from. I wondered if the women would all pass E-verify checks. It was that or no work. You’d return home if you went hungry. Then again it was strikingly clear that this place was full of the Wall people. The people who were supposed to stay behind the Wall once it was built. They made no attempt at speaking some English and were very unapologetic about talking trash about other people just because they thought they had some kind of code language. I looked sideways at them. Another group of people here was the Dark people. The Wall people dominated though. Some of the Dark people had very dark lips, a slur and frankly needed the paycheck for the next pair of trendy sports shoes. What a life.

My guess was that the factory made more than five thousand pieces of baked goods each day. The ones that didn’t get sent off were frozen to be sent off later. A lot of the Wall people had a gold tooth or two. Was it a trademark like the Indians and Senegalese and their elaborate rings? Outside of this, I also noticed that some of the Wall people had backs that were tense and curved with years of repetitive work that no one wanted. I decided on day two that whatever this was wasn’t for me and with renewed thinking, I learned not to look down on the Factory Girls’ hustle.

They were right after all to be this protective of their work because no one else except they could do it this well.

The Octopus could have their work if he wanted to. After all, he had eight tentacles and near perfect business acumen.

Make America great again.

Letters to a YOUNG NOVELIST I Mario Vargas LLosa

Capture d_écran 2017-08-23 à 1.49.49 PMNote from the blurb ;- “he (the writer) lays bare the inner workings of fiction, all the while urging young novelists not to lose touch with the elemental urge to create.”

One of the truest reasons for my huge attraction to fiction is my recognition of the existence of inspiration all around us. There are stories all around! The story of your neighbor, your own life, the events that unfolded between you and the random man or woman you met! Or the dramatic break up of your friend who never listened to your words of wisdom on that waste relationship. Seriously, there are countless reasons to create! Having this in mind, I was happy to read about not losing the urge to create in the blurb of this book and discover a narration of how to grow the spark for writing.

The book is a collection of short stories, each crafted with a specific message to be delivered. I smiled as I read the parts of the book that addressed my fears/secret wishes and maybe uncertainties. How revealing it all felt! Without even going over my head with excitement and a stark fascination at how piercing its truths were, I had to remind myself that of course, this was more or less a manual of some sort created with aspiring writers in mind. One of these truths that pummeled through me addressed the aim of being a best-selling writer. Was my aim selfish or legitimate?

“I venture to suggest that you not expect quite so much and that you not count too much on success. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t be successful, of course, but if you persevere in writing and publishing, you’ll soon discover that prizes, public acclaim, book sales, the social standing of a writer all have a sui generis appeal;  they are extraordinarily arbitrary, sometimes stubbornly evading those who most deserve them while besieging and overwhelming those who merit them least. Which means that those who see success as their main goal will probably never realize their dreams; they are confusing literary ambition with a hunger for glory and for the financial gains that literature affords certain writers (very few of them ). There is a difference.” 

This right here is an answer to the thought that has long gnawed at me. I wondered constantly how best selling authors ‘did it’. Was there a special formula to becoming a best seller? Did it have anything to do with how the material was sold or marketed? Did it have anything to do with the title of the book in question? Who decided if a story was worth the hype or not? Did the story have to be overly intellectual and loaded with lofty allusions or was I going to be fine writing about mundane things? How about the countless writers already on the scene? How do I ’emerge’ from the lot? I actually told a boy manfriend about my dreams of being a writer and he replied asking me if I knew the number of books that had already been published and if I really thought I could stand out? Did this remark ruffle my feathers? I kept my composure on the outside but on the inside, I crumbled and hated him immediately.  However, this quotation just allayed the ‘fears’ I had created for myself. Reading this quotation though, I found the answer! Consistency and a focus on the desire to create versus a fixation on the thought of success whether in the shape of fame or monetary were not the more important question. What mattered was wanting to write and keeping at it regardless of all the odds.

And how do you know you are cut out for writing? Here you go; “deep inside, a writer feels that writing is the best thing that ever happened to him, or could ever happen to him because as far as he is concerned, writing is the best possible way of life,..” 

But of course, I more than agree that writing is “a mysterious business, of course, veiled in doubt and subjectivity” DOUBT! Doubt and subjectivity! How many times have I done and undone lines because I felt I didn’t sound smart enough?

How does it all start? “a man or a woman develops precociously in childhood or early in his or her teenage years a penchant for dreaming up people, situations, anecdotes, worlds different from the world in which he or she lives, and that inclination is the first sign of what may later be termed literary vocation”. These lines explained the constant pang in me to write. I do have a penchant for dreaming up people and situations. Whenever I meet a person, I try to get to know them as much as possible and listen to all of their stories. I also allow different perspectives to air and will only cut in if I feel what I am hearing is absolute nonsense I can not deal! Yet even with all of that, there really is a drop of truth in some kinds of trash talk. So I still listen just to be able to bring all these together in a rich melange for stories.

But why do I like literature though? Answer – Because my age old mantra has reminded me that literature mirrors life and that it is a way through which life’s events can be reflected.  Yet for some reason, an interesting truth about fiction that I know I knew subconsciously but never happened to consider forthrightly was the fact that we write to alter reality! We do! Well I do! ; ‘The secret raison d’etre of literature / what they (writers) were (are) obliged to fabricate because they weren’t (aren’t) able to live it in reality and, as a result, resigned themselves to live it only in the indirect and subjective way it could be lived: in dreams and in fiction. Fiction is a lie covering up a deep truth: it is life as it wasn’t, life as the men and women of a certain age wanted to live it and didn’t and thus had to invent.

Bam!

Childhood

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
Like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
Like a heavy load.

Or does it explode? – Langston Hughes

Years have a way of adding to the meaning of things.

One day you just wake up and you’re like “snap!, this is what this woman meant when she kept repeating this saying…”

Yeah so we sit in tiny school rooms and recite in oblivion, after all a letter grade is all we really need isn’t it?

And then there’s that part of the story where we fold little pieces of paper and throw them at our friends trying to get their attention. We grew too smart to allow carelessness to allow us get discovered.

-“psssst…look how big his butt is, why did he not chose pants that were a little less tight?!”

It was absolutely annoying to utter a string of words in all excitement and honesty only for your friend to stare blankly at you and say huh?

-“huh”?!

-“Oh boy”!

-“Are you telling me you DID NOT HEAR ALL I SAID”?!

-“Noooooooooo”….

-“Sigh”

-“Then write it on a piece of paper”.

-“Noooooooooo if it gets intercepted, we’ll be in big trouble”.

-“Oh well then wait till after class”

-“Sigh. The info will lose it’s relevance by then”

-“Tant pis”

-Mtchew.

“So what were you saying?” My friend now has the time to come back and ask useless questions. I give in anyway, just for the sake of conversation and a giggle or two. One of the things a teenage girl does is gossip. “So his pants were too tight and there was that bulge and he sat on my table and I had that mathematical instrument in between my fingers all the while! I really just wanted to pierce the skin beneath his zipper with it just to see what he would do”!

“Hehe”.

 

Let’s Make Palm Soup Tomorrow

The afternoon sun beat the back of our necks; by this time mama was frustrated and hurled angry words at the ever slow to react chameleon Gladys. I chose to call Gladys a chameleon because of her slowness in everything. Chameleons always look around and take calculated slow rythmic steps as if unsure of the very ground they tred on. I wondered if Gladys herself even knew what a chameleon is. Gladys was the kind of girl I felt a mixture of pity and slight admiration for. At the age of thirty five or so, she had four children; two from one and the other two with different men each. I wondered every time I saw her being slow how exactly such a slow person could engage fervently in acts that ended in procreation. Who even told me acts of procreation had to be fast? I wondered if she was forced or partook of these experiences willingly; or if they were consensual. How did she not know to protect herself against four unwanted pregnancies? How could one person make such a mistake four solid times?! What exactly was she told each time she set out on the same path and how did she not realise all the paths led in one direction? At the same time, another half of me felt like I needed to admire such a courageous woman who though impoverished, courageously had each of her four children and never for once thought of an abortion. She worked as hard as her slow body and attitude could let her and earned an honest living from mama out of which she sent these four children to school, fed and clothed them and ocassionally paid for their medical bills. Mama had had enough of Gladys, I could tell from the looks of disdain, the ice in her voice and the way she related to Gladys. To say mama was satisfied was a lie and on several occasions, she settled on sending Gladys home only to rescind her decision. Mama was a demanding hardworking perfectionist who would’ve sent types like Gladys home long ago if it weren’t for her four children. ”Maame!” I was jolted back to reality by the sudden and urgent mention of my name.

”Maame!” the call came a second time and I was forced to abandon my midday musings in direction of the voice that called, ”Yes!” I answered back with the same urgency as I stumbled to the front of the shop. Mama’s shop sat on a piece of land, comfortably and competively perched between a line of shops whose owners came by in the day to sell off their products admist general banter, constant comparision, conversations about life, the economy and gossip. Mama was in luck because unlike the other vendors, she was a vendor of food, the kind of eatery that could neither be classified as a restaurant nor a basic table top food business and was therefore classified as a bar for eating, or in a local sense, chop bar. I hurried to the front to find a dignified looking man, bespectacled, light skinned and tall. The type that could dress/speak or act as modestly as possible but still looked affluent or content due to unexplainable reasons, it sure had to be one or the other. I mean, one couldn’t go wrong with associating a lighter complexion with affluence, dignity and all that is beautiful. It was what we were unconsciously brought up to believe. So much for negritude and all the abstract ideologies Senghor and his friends pushed. Everywhere in Ghana, men made not too serious but serious comments about how a light skinned woman was an asset because one could make her out even in the dark due to her radiant skin tone. This led to the common metaphor that came about as a result of the repetition of these lines. Light skinned women were now referred to as ‘’Akosombo Kanai’’the reference that stemmed from the comparison between light skinned women and Ghana’s source of electricity; the Akosombo dam. What was it really about being light skinned? Right from slave farms where lighter skin was favored and given easier work or kept in the house for the master’s special use to contemporary instagram posts that projected a sense of pride for having light skin  with the hashtag #TeamLightSkin, it was clear that Ghanaians still associate a lighter complexion with affluence, class and all that is good. And now, this Akosombo kania of a man! I chuckled slightly at this thought because he was not only Akosombo Kania, he was mulato, a term that Ghanaians crudely reduced to ‘half caste’. Half caste people while not necessarily favored in the West due to the question of their true racial identity were ironically favored and well looked upon in the Ghanaian society. As a half caste child, l was seen as one that was priviledged and special. The high school I went to growing up gave half caste girls the special privilegde of not cutting their hair short though all other students had to cut theirs short. A drop of white blood gave us the privilege pure black students did not have. In retrospect, that made no sense yet at the time it seemed like the perfect thing to do. Why was purely african hair fit to be cut while half caste hair wasn’t? That was a debate for another day.

‘’Maame meet Tucker’’ mama’s firm voice broke into my thoughts,…okay, hi…my voice trailed off, confused as to what title exactly to give this lightskinned man..was I to call him uncle Tucker or Mr. Tucker?..I thought for a second and decided to simply call him by the name with which he was introduced..of course, that was his name wasn’t it? There was no need to exaggerate respect by adding a title to a name that already sounded gallant. I always wondered anyway, why titles mattered so much, and why the overdone cloaks of reverence were cast on people due to status or priviledge…as if titles could lenghthen one’s life or provide food..These titles were many; from ‘’bossu’’ an adulterated from of ‘’boss’’ for a grown man who seemed to be in a better financial situation than the giver of the title to ‘’senior’’ also used for the same purpose. Ghanaians are just an interesting group of people who like their Nigerian cousins understood and knew how to adorn people with accolades and titles..mostly to their advantage There is also the bit about respect which makes Nigerians and Ghanaians use titles incessantly.