This article is authored by Naomi Schalit and first appeared on the Conversation Blog. I reposted here because thematically, misrepresentation touches the African ( my area of interest ) as much as other minorities in their treatment under the Western lens as is portrayed by the author in this article. To read click here.
This post acknowledges other relationship types but stays within heterosexual relationships for the purpose of this post. Whether we've ever copulated, intertwined, fucked or quite colloquially rolled in the sack, no matter the number of times, the act and its frequency simply do not translate into an automatic go-ahead that whoever is welcome without my consent!
My screen lit up. It was a simple link leading to a story of a young Ghanaian. He’d been reported to the police. His feet had taken him into the bedroom of his white female acquaintance who he’d had sex with. The woman had been asleep (read: drunk) and had obviously not been fully aware of the events that took place in her bed. I shook my head in awe and disbelief but mostly in awe.
…..She’d taken his name to the police despite the number of times they’d been together. Interesting…
We sat in the auditorium waiting for the western experts to come talk to the local African students union about Consent. My temporary concerns were typically millennial; – I needed a source of power for my dying cell phone. I needed to post highlights of the conversation to my Instagram feed. I needed to note down key points. I finally found a power station and then turned my focus off the device to the humans around me.
My friend quickly analyzed the seating arrangements in the room and compared it to the African society only we had seen growing up, and which, only we, could quite conveniently dare to analyze…The men sat up front in their burly suits, wearing their overall sense of self-importance around their necks like their stifling neckties. They carried equally bulky briefcases and wore shiny leather shoes that only they, could see their bloated self-reflections in. A pair of spectacles or two sat on tired noses. They were exhausted but determined to bombard the foreign experts with questions. ‘How dare you spoil our women with messages that will make them rebel? We’re here to cross-examine your intentions, first, it was feminism, now its consent,…’
Behind them was the matriarchy, we sat expectant, speaking in loud tones and ready to jump on anyone who dared hush us up. This was our time, we had a voice, anyone who wasn’t with it didn’t understand women’s empowerment, we were here and our objective opinions were valid.
Behind us sat the newbies, a mixture of men and women who weren’t quite sure of their contribution or place in the group. Well, just yet…..Beside me, a male in his late twenties started to engage me in small talk surrounding the language of consent.
-Do our people really understand consent?
-I honestly don’t think some African guys understand the language of consent.
-I mean,….consent is always mostly left in that messy place between let me convince them a bit more or let me reason out with them on why they should probably be doing x or y with me…
-But sometimes the women mean yes when they say no…..or what do you think? Really why do you think consent is one big blurry area in our part of the world? Aren’t our women ours?
Its many things, I would say a part of it comes from sexism and the different reactions to what a person does based on their sex. First, of, the concept of sex with enthusiasm begs many questions. Is this sex pre-marital or marital sex because we are schooled differently on how to react to these two types of sex. Sex education which is taught as a topic under the Religious and Moral Education course is full of Bible quotations and a tirade of do’s and don’ts. To summarize what we learn in this class, it simply remains at three words, – ‘DON’T DO IT’. Then, suddenly a person marries and is suddenly supposed to know what to do, or women become wives, remain pure and true while husbands daydream of that nasty mistress who was so uninhibited and knew just the right thing to do. Needless to say, women are taught to cater to EVERY need of the husband IF we want happy homes. Also, pre-marital sex is usually about sinning and asking for forgiveness later. The persons in question go in under a thick web of shame and guilt that sits on their shoulder, undresses with them and lays on the bed of fornication with them. Images of hell replay over and over and the sweltering heat of Ghana serves as a visual reminder of how hellish Hell will be if they do not repent. What enthusiasm will there be to show in a situation like that? Most importantly is the fact that the religious message surrounding sex is more severe on women than it is on men (read: through the backings of religion, women’s sexuality and not that of men’s is controlled). Maybe hypersexuality, zeal or interest is whorish. Maybe certain sex positions are not honorable enough for wives. Girlfriends and hoes are the ones that are deserving of being turned over like pieces of furniture, not pure wedded wives….. All these combative reasons and more, push women to indirectly show interest in ways that can be misleading. The idea is that even if I am interested, I would not want to be won over easily…Let me show interest, but let me not be over the top interested otherwise, they may think I’m a hoe…..
-Yeah because I know about that myth that says that she may be saying no but she actually means yes….so what do we really do then?
-No means no. Take the word for what it is and do nothing unless you are absolutely sure the person wants whatever is being offered. Yes, that is said in fear, under the influence of alcohol, under direct cohesion do not equal consent. Also, no matter the number of times you’ve been together, consent is needed for EACH TIME, even if she is your wife or partner or if you think you own them because you paid for them.
-….What if I’m the one she relies on for everything? Do I not deserve some love?
-Do you deserve or do you feel entitled?
-Do you speak of male entitlement?
-Yep,…don’t you think some males are entitled? Deserving something and being entitled to something are very different concepts…
-I was at a party and this guy wanted to talk to me, I was standing with a group and he walked up and asked for me to speak privately with him. I refused, and then he came back later to ask if I was ready this time. To show his insistence, he grabbed my forearm, ….was he deserving of or entitled to my attention?…..my friend got catcalled in the streets on her way home. She loves to show off her legs and she stands at about six feet one. She wore her mini jupe and set about her life’s activities. The catcalls were ignored but then she realized she’d soon gained a literal follower who was upset that she had ignored him previously. He pursued her until she got really frightened and called her mom. Did he feel entitled to her attention or did he deserve her attention?….
-Yep. She always talks about it…..I think she may need to talk to someone after this episode…
-The experts are here…
-I see them.
Barracoon is an enclosure where Black slaves were held for a period until they were transported to the New World.
Barracoon derives from a Spanish word, Barraca/Barracoon which is the same as Barracks in English.
In my review of Barracoon, one theme that kept resurfacing is the complete or gradual loss of the African identity in the New World. I further consider the role of water in this partial or total death to the African identity and the rebirth of a new creature that is never quite ‘there‘. A creature that is not entirely African nor American, in tastes, in manner, in thinking, for example; a creature that is neither considered fully African nor American, a creature that believes itself one thing and is perceived as something else, a creature that never fully fits here nor there, that creature that constantly possesses memories from both places, and that creature that has strong relationships and bonds formed in both places; – a creature trapped in the third space.
I considered the Barracoon, a cavern that holds/held people that would eventually go over the water. By extension, the Barracoon or any cavern or space that holds people who are destined to go over the water ( overseas ), including planes and ships, permits the association of the Barracoon with the idea of death and rebirth. A place of temporal hibernation/wait leading to a rebirth and death that happen simultaneously as a result of going over the water.
Water as a symbol of Rebirth, Death and a Change in Identity
It is a common thing for a dead person to be sent off to the other world with a gift or two such as a handkerchief or fragrance. In addition to referring to the world of the dead as the world across the water, in Ghanaian culture, crossing this water is something we believe each person would do in order to get to the other side, the world of the ancestors and the dead. Water in this sense may bear certain connotations to death. Similarly, the baptism of a person which is literally total or partial immersion of the individual into the water is a physical and spiritual representation of a change or a death to one part of them ( the carnal parts ) and a rebirth of a new person in Christ. In the same manner, Lepers have been asked to take a dip in the water to receive a complete turn around in their situations. A death to the sickness and a rebirth of a life free of the plague of leprosy.
Kossola, the protagonist, and narrator of this biographical account written by Hurston is torn abruptly out of modern-day Nigeria. Before he gets into the boat ( the Clotilde ) that is about to transport him and the other captives to the New World, they are stripped of their old clothes and asked to mount the boat in the nude. The stripping away of their clothes is symbolic of a loss. Boarding the boat, which will travel across the water to the other world, is equally symbolic. The water becomes a vehicle that facilitates a breaking away of that which is familiar and known and cherished and a movement toward that which is uncertain and deeply puzzling. The captives’ loss of their clothes is a larger representation of a loss of identity. The slaves are informed that their destination has a lot more clothes and therefore this dumping of their old clothes is a necessary move. The Clotilde journeys for about seventy days and upon arrival, the slaves are given new clothes which go to support the claim of a loss/death and gain/rebirth of different parts of the individuals all with the help of the water and a boat. This thought seamlessly rejoins the claim that water is a larger connotation of a death, in this case, of Kossola and the other slaves’ identities and an attempt to immerse/ adapt/ be reborn in a totally unfamiliar terrain.
The Conflict of Duality, New Names, and the African Identity
‘In de Afficky we gottee one name, but in dis place dey tell us we needee two names.’ (so they give their children two names so that ) ‘one name because we not furgit our home; den another name for de Americky soil so it won’t be too crooked to call’ (the other name for the American soil so that people in America will not have a hard time pronouncing the name).
Kossola’s need to satisfy the African and American demands of a suitable enough name that sort of takes both geographical locations into account is a larger representation of the constant fluidity of identity that is shaped by presence, be it spiritual, mental or psychological in these two geographical places. This desire to be here and there or have a life comprising of elements from here and there is the ensemble of the identity of a person dwelling in this third space. Kossola is in America yet gets transported many times over to Africa as he tells Zora his story. Kossola’s sons who are born in America have African and American names, Kossola himself comes to be known as Cudjo Lewis because the Americans are unable to adequately pronounce the name/his name Kossola. Listen to this episode of Jesus and Jollof podcast for a better understanding of New names and the third space.
In addition, Kossola regards his family with love and pride, yet the society he finds himself in views him and his family as ‘ig’nant’ savages. Kossola and modern-day Black Americans constantly deal with the plague of being doubly conscious; that is, the belief in the worthiness of oneself and conversely living under the imposed and sometimes invisible obligation to perpetually prove this worth or deny all the perceived and imposed negatives of who you are.
‘All de time de chillun growin’ de American folks dey picks at dem and tell de Afficky people dey kill folks and eatee de meat. Dey callee my chillun ig’nant savage and make out dey kin to monkey.
Derefo’, you unnerstand me, my boys dey fight. Dey got to fight all de time.’
Different Spaces and the Difference in Values, Beliefs, and Practices
‘Derefo’, you unnerstand me, after me and my wife ‘gree ‘tween ourselves, we seekee religion and got converted. Den in de church dey tell us dat ain’ right. We got to marry by license. In de Afficky soil, you unnerstand me, we ain’t got no license. De man and de woman dey ‘gree ‘tween deyselves, den dey married and live together’
Kossola gets married after he gains his freedom from slavery. He lives with his wife for a bit and then converts to Christianity and is told in church that living with a woman without a license or without having gone to church to make the marriage ‘legitimate’ is wrong. Ghanaian marriages, once traditionally done are considered legitimate yet it is interesting that over time, church weddings or white weddings, aka western influenced weddings have become more popular than or more positively viewed than traditional marriages.
Hierarchy and Age
When Zora visits Kossola, she presses for information and is in a great hurry to hear all the details surrounding Kossola’s transition from the Bight of Benin to Alabama. She attempts to rush him through his narration concerning his past life and takes his story about his family lightly. When Zora tries again to rush him through the story of his fathers and to the juicy details surrounding Kossola’s own life as the last slave to have journeyed from Africa to America, he tells her that in Africa, we have a regard for older people and are unable to speak of ourselves without acknowledging our elders.
‘Where is de house where de mouse is de leader? In de Affica soil, I cain tellee you ’bout de son before I tellee you ’bout de father ; and derefore, you unnerstand me, I cain talk about de man who is father till I tellee you bout de man who he father to him, now, dass right ain’it?
‘Yeah in Afficky we always know dere was a God; // we doan know God got a son. We ain’t ig’nant – we jes doan know. Nobody doan tell us ’bout Adam eatee de apple, we didn’t know de seven seals was sealee ‘gainst us.’
Kossola’s mention of these lines is powerful and a constant reminder of the differences in perception of many things including the ever-delicate topic of religion.
Sense of Community
At many points in the narration, Kossola’s words illustrate the communal nature and the mentality of concern and brotherliness of the African. On two occassions, he mentions that the community comes together and builds a house for individuals. Also, the community converges and builds a school and church for its use.
Though I loved this book for the power of its addition of a detailed and human account to the whirlwind of blurry abstract and impersonal historical information there is, a few statements caught my attention that opened up questions for consideration.
- Why does Zora state that people who live outside the influence of machinery are primitive?
2. why is Christianity equal to civilization and paganism directly implied, also as primitive?
Credits for word definitions, Google.
When Taiye Selasie‘s Ted heralding the need to ask questions about where one is a local and not necessarily where one is from played over and over on my phone, one thing stuck with me; the fact that certain places scream positive connotations while other places project only negatives. Duh! We all know this, don’t we? Scarier still, is the effortless prejudice, deep seated and often indelible impressions that remain in our minds due to the aforementioned connotations. These specific thought processes have become as natural and as normalized as a white cloud in a blue sky. The fact that France for example, represents opulence and sophistication while an African country or the whole of Africa represents depravity is accepted with no challenge. The fact is, Africa represents depravity. The other fact is that, outside the continent’s poverty, it is also celebrated for its topography, its foliage, its resources, its animals, aka the wonders of Africa, which by the way are disporportionately emphasized over conversations surrounding the continent’s diverse peoples, its languages, its cultures and traditions, its amazing rich history, its food, its music and indeed all the positives of Africa’s humanity.
Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a colonial story set in Congo, portrays one of the many examples of why Westerners or non-Africans have a geographical rather than an anthropological interest in Africa. Marlow, the story’s protagonist is British and has a palpable obsession with the Congo river. He describes the Congo river as a sinuous snake that he could simply not take his mind off of.
“The snake had charmed me” – Marlow
The story essentially holds a plot that features silent Congolese characters. While the pervading atmosphere in the narrative (outside of course its pejorative title) remains solidly tied to darkness, barbarity, and chaos, this story is a representation of the colonial truth that the world is more interested in Africa’s non-human wonders than its human wonders. Animals and landscape are given a larger platform than its peoples. Marlow’s obsession with the river and the amount of time dedicated to the description of it versus the blatant silencing of the African characters in the novel speaks to this fact. Today, that overarching geographical rather than anthropological interest remains.
Spring was still in the air, yet the heat and its staleness made me hasten plans to a water park and resort in northern Ohio. The water park had the tagline; America’s Largest Indoor Water Park. It seemed exciting and very welcoming. The Kalahari water park in Sandusky Ohio bears the name of a desert in Africa that touches three Southern African countries, – Namibia, Botswana and South Africa. I wondered how many of the patrons of the water park knew that. I was not too sure if the water park was supposed to be a representation of the whole of Africa or if the entire park was actually representative of just Kalahari; the Southern African desert . Hopefully, the president, if he were to ever visit, would probably know that this water park shared the same name as a desert in Namibia and not Nambia. I decided to go to the company’s website to try to understand the real intent behind the questions I had. A cursory glance at the basic info about the park showed me these lines;
Kalahari Resort & Conventions are full service vacation destinations including meeting & convention facilities that combine America’s largest indoor Waterparks with the magic of Africa.
The whole of the entire African continent’s magic was small enough to fit into a building full of impressions of the animal kingdom. That was impressive. Wooden giraffes lined the hallway to the elevator, wooden elephant head masks covered lighting, the front desk people were dressed in game reserve guide outfits (tan/khaki shirts and pants), and my favorite, the gorilla and leopard paintings that hung right across from my bed and right on top of my head in our hotel room. The resort’s mantra was Authentically African. The resort was supposed to be the representation of Africa to the average American patron.
This post was tucked safely in my drafts because honestly, I imagined myself too busy or too full of many reasons why I could put it off until a better day. Sitting chin in hand staring at a million open tabs on my pc was a better deal. One of those open tabs was coincidentally on the New York Times website.
This article looked like a good read so I dug in, however, I’d gone ahead far too quickly. In the introduction was these two lines.
I read the article to the end and decided it was meaningful yet remained undecided over the weight of the double ‘m’ alliteration. I repeated the words ‘mystical mountains’ to myself. Was I being too critical or was there really nothing else that distinguishes Cape Town, its people or culture or anything else short of its ‘mystical mountains’? and later its ‘flimsy democracy’?
I sat through an undergraduate class and listened to their final presentations. They, (mostly Non-Africans ) had been in an overworked three-month long geography of Africa class ( which though hosted by the geography department did not typically treat geography per se, but topical issues such as Slum Tourism, Poverty Porn, Security, History and finally, Health and Development)
I was amazed that out of the wealth of subjects presented, not one of the presentations had an anthropological theme. They were all either about Animals or the topography of the continent.
Here are some of the topics presented –
Deforestation (in Africa)
Participatory Mapping ( Drawing of accurate maps for Africa)
African Elephant and Human Interaction
South African Cars
Conservation of Kenyan Wildlife Reserves
Ngugi Wa Thiong’o has advocated for writing in African languages because how relevant is African literature if we write not in our native tongues but in the language of the White man? While I have my own opinion on this line of thought, the other subjects of discussion that come up after the former are conversations surrounding which audience African writers cater to? Is immigrant literature African and how much of Africa is projected in these stories that are told predominantly from the West? Even bigger is how an African writer gets published and who decides what goes into their story so that if publishers wield so much influence and power, then it goes to say that if an African writer publishes in the West, then the Western publisher more or less owns and determines what or how certain parts of the African story gets put across,
that is if they do get put across in the very first place. As we all know, the West has written Africa’s story in multiple ways and continues to impose suggest ways they deem fit on Africa. By extension, I remain curious about how influential Africans push certain messages and how such messages, in turn, get interpreted by other African minds.
Chimamanda Adichie questions on her Twitter about why Hillary Clinton decides to place ‘Wife‘ before her other titles on her Twitter bio. I stare at this screenshot and I edit thought after thought after thought. First of all, why can’t she self-describe as a Wife? Wouldn’t that be her sole prerogative? Second, I want to know more about why Chimamanda is engaging with Hillary. Not that she can’t, but really, what is this about and if it is about what I suspect it is, then how many more African women are waiting or wanting to engage with Chimamanda who haven’t yet had the chance? (Refer to previous thought about who the new African writer’s target audience really is) What I believe though, from listening to Chimamanda speak countlessly is that she is suggesting that Hilary’s self-description as a Wife negates her other accomplishments. That, it is almost as if her other accomplishments come second to she being a Wife so that in a more overt sense, being a Wife is the main calling of a woman. In addition is Bill Clinton self-describing as husband above other things online?
Outside an African writer engaging with a non-African which I am in no way saying is wrong because of course everyone is entitled to their choices, I am more concerned about this concept of feminism and how individuals feel the deep-seated need to impose views on others. I keep maintaining that this concept is not a one size fits all and neither is it a term that Africans should embrace while thinking oh my God, I just discovered something surreal. Good news is that before precolonial times, while Europe’s women were still disenfranchised, African women were leaders in their communities, serving as heads of state, queen mothers, queen sisters, chiefs, female husbands, warriors, and contributing to their economies, through substantial work. Your mom is probably the best example of what feminism means to you. Yet, the West had to once again come tell us that hey, this tag is what you need to make all your outdated attempts official. It sounds almost as if someone would walk to my grandma and tell her ‘hey mama, this Vibranium in my hand is the key that will make you a better woman’.
By all means, Feminism is a great concept, however, let us not be quick to jump on it while implying that before it, we had no understanding of it in our societies. Doing this only reinforces the idea that the West civilized and saved us from our primitive ways and set us straight on the path of life after rescuing us from murky waters. In addition, if a human deems it fit to self-describe as Wife above other achievements, so be it, who said because I am feminist I can’t be a Wife? Or that being a Wife makes me any less a feminist? In any case, Wife, as defined in the African socio-cultural context, can either be a female who is married to the family of her husband, in that sense, she is a Wife,theirWife, and she can be called thus by either male or female member of her husband’s family without it being language that is in anyway derogatory or implicitly suggestive of possession or ownership, it may simply even in most cases be a term or endearment or a demonstration that the family accepts her totally as a member of their family. In the West though, where concepts are generally more legally than socially interpreted, a Wife is simply and more narrowly, the woman a man legally lives with as a lifelong partner. From these two definitions, we see that different spaces have different conceptions of ideas. Western feminists have different motivations that characterize their fight than African feminists. Even in a western society such as America, a white feminists motivations and concerns will hardly be the same as a a black or Hispanic feminist, why then do we simply assume that Western feminism with its highly nuanced points of concern will be the same antidote for African women’s issues?
While progressive movements are helpful, let us as Africans be critical of how and why we adapt concepts. After we do that, let us subjectively interpret it for ourselves according to our specific contexts. Then after that, let us endeavor not to impose what we believe is right on others.
If the issue is with Hillary placing Wife first, this can be looked at differently. From a position of strength, this fore mention of Wife can be interpreted to mean that as a woman, you can achieve it all without having to deal with the all-or-nothing mentality that society often drums in our heads. Women can be ambitious and career driven and still be Wives or succeed in their romantic ventures if they meet supportive humans (being that heterosexual relationships do not necessarily define our times) who share the same values as they do. Maybe listen to Alicia Keys’ SuperWoman again.
Barack placed dad on his bio above everything else. While his and Michelle’s has been a presidency that has humanized the White House the most largely by its depiction of the intimacy of its family set up, his use of dad, I believe has more to do with the contradiction of the usual perception of Black fathers’ absence in the lives of their children in America. Ultimately, there is always a reason, and our concepts aren’t the primus inter pares of what the world needs to do, a word to the West and influential Africans.
Placing this in context
My professor looked me squarely in the face and said, you speak French, yet that isn’t enough, really, I think it’s time for a new language and I believe Portuguese would be a good fit for you.
Among many emotions to choose from, I felt nothing. I agreed totally with him; I had French as a second language….. and I’d had this conversation with myself before and had stayed tentatively between admiration and envy of people who spoke a third or forth international language. Though I’d imagined and hoped I’d take on another language, somehow there was a disconnect between my wish to do so and what I actually did in real life. Even as I continued to engage in wishful thinking, I never for once considered Portuguese. Portuguese for what?! My considerations were Mandarin Chinese or Spanish but most likely Spanish. Portuguese seemed a bit too steep and irrelevant and mostly unattainable.
On the first day of class, I was completely lost! I was so lost it was so funny: luckily I made out my name in the target language and kept my ears open for more information. The class was entirely in the target language and the professor was talking so fast. So much for teacher talk! Teacher talk is a technique used by language instructors as a buffer against falling back on the native language all the time. The biggest attributes of teacher talk are a slow pace of speech and using very basic vocabulary or cognates. Introspectively I thought about my French language students and how frustrated they likely got when I rushed through a lesson expecting them to know what I was talking about.
6am. I’m doing homework while questioning myself over this lofty decision. I should be ready by 8am so I can get to work in one piece but the truth is, once I get to work, there’s no way I can do personal stuff. It’s either I finish this homework or go to class once again feeling low and upset over not having done homework. I hate the feeling of irresponsibility that comes with not doing what I need to get done. At the same time, the feeling of accomplishment and confidence that comes with completing tasks is the kind of sentiment I’d rather have all the time. ‘Do something your future self would thank you for’… this thought stayed in my mind so I completed the homework and went off. It’s been a sleepy week already but at least I can rattle off some Portuguese verbs;
Acordar – to wake up (my favorite because it sounds like ‘ak)daa’ in Akan which means child)
Comidar – to eat
Chegar – to arrive
Ficar – to stay
Falar – to speak
Fazer – to do
Viajar – to travel
And I know how to conjugate these and a few more in both the present and past tense…isn’t God wonderful? 🙂
The Grammar 😐
Most regular portuguese verbs end with the letters AR . ER or IR this means that these verbs will have different and specific endings when they’re conjugated. Though different, a previous second language helps me envisage these differences and the need for some kind of technique for keeping these verbs and their different conjugations in mind. It gets overwhelming though, but then our brains are capable of so much more than we can imagine. Any person who grew up in Ghana would tell you about a time in their lives when they did some mad random guessing on a multiple choice answer test or exam of some kind; normally, the student in question would sing a made-up song while gingerly pointing at the various answers available. Once the song ended, the particular multiple choice answer the song ended on would be decided as the best answer. It was more like musical chairs, same analogy as sitting on the chair closest to you when the music stops. I used to do that a lot! Oh, my! A whole lot, because I was mostly clueless or too afraid to pick an answer and go with it; I relied on chance to take me through. Did it work? Well, sometimes it did. Other times I’d say the Hail Mary prayer while doing this and leave my choice at the one that my finger rested on once the prayer was done. Mary wouldn’t fail me though, would she?In all of this though, I learned to trust my memory. Afterall, I wasn’t as blank as I thought I was. I noticed that outside the random crazy guessing game, the one thing that happened was that whenever I concluded on an answer and came back to change it, the previous answer was the better one. This taught me to trust my memory ( and maybe instinct ) and choose unwaveringly.
The Post Colonial Perspective and Personal Musings
Doctor Negash would quote me, Franz Fanon;
‘The colonized intellectual, at the very moment he undertakes a work of art, fails to realize he is using techniques and a language borrowed from the occupier. He is content to cloak these instruments in a style that is meant to be national but which is strangely reminiscent of exoticism’
Sitting through postcolonial theory classes have made me feel weird about my foreign language pursuits. Or maybe I’d probably have to read Fanon well to fully understand the way I really feel about this. However, does my speaking foreign languages have anything to do with my loyalty to my heritage as an African? How well do I speak my African languages? I think I am as fluent in Fante as I am in French or English or as I will eventually be in Portuguese…but then, Fanon says again that ‘no innocent, shame-free cultural production is possible after colonialism; not even after decolonization‘…and that reminds me of the glaring links between Fante and Portuguese and to a larger extent Akan! Voltar is a verb in Portuguese that means to come back…does it have any link with our Lake Volta and our Volta Region? Bread in Fante is ‘Paano’, bread in Portuguese is ‘Pao’, shoes in Portuguese are called ‘Sapatos’ shoes in Fante are called ‘Asopartsee’, the word bucket in Portuguese is ‘balde’. In Fante, the same word is ‘bokitse’ never mind that the letter ‘d’ when reproduced phonetically in Portuguese is ‘dji’ so there is a huge possibility that the word has been adulterated to sound like what it is today in Fante language…. ‘no innocent, shame-free cultural production is possible after colonialism’…maybe the quotation haunts me….no innocent shame-free cultural production is possible after colonialism... and I still have questions;…..how authentic will my work be? Will it ever be possible to write my story or live without a trace no matter how small of colonialism? Indeed, the traces are everywhere, not just physically, case in point the Cape Coast castle where I literally grew up but even in the most abstract sense….. and now they occupy my linguistic dreams.
It is such an enlightening experience learning Portuguese not only for linguistic and cultural gains but also as a key to personal rediscovery of history. There’s no way some vocabulary words in the target language will escape me when I grew up hearing my grandmother tell me those same words no matter how adulterated in Fante.
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.