Tag Archives: Fante Ethnic Group

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.

Book Review – Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi

 

Capture d_écran 2017-08-23 à 1.40.14 PMYaa Gyasi’s Homegoing assures me more than ever of the importance of storytelling! Outside being Fante and being more than able to relate to a lot of occurrences in the book including the refreshing use of Fante diction, I am happy that through this story a lot more people will be exposed to the immensely rich aspects of Ghanaian culture. The story is set in southern Ghana, Gold Coast in the narrative, and highlights not only the peculiarities of the group of people called Akan, (Fante and Asante encompassed) but also thoroughly educates readers on the dynamics of the slave trade and other equally important historical events that happened concurrently in the West and Africa, specifically the Gold Coast at the time of the slave trade. This post’s main aim is to highlight parts of the narrative that unravel the parts of Ghanaian culture that lie subtle yet remain pivotal aspects of who we are as a people and how these parts add to the wealth of cultural information this novel holds.

Proverbs

Each page in the book somehow reminds me of my childhood and events witnessed as a child such as eating with one’s fingers, lounging in the courtyard making small talk and listening to inconsequential neighborhood or family gossip or using terms of endearment such as ‘odo’. In the opening of the novel is a proverb that basically talks about the difference between the stark truth and impressions, facades or appearances. The fact that every family looks like a dense united front (forest) yet a close exploration of this ‘forest’ shows the reality of separation since each ‘tree’ (family member) is literally standing alone and apart from the other trees. So, in essence, each family has its own problems that divide them no matter how good or unified they look in the public eye. I dare say this reality of family differences gets more chaotic with extended families. What makes these family troubles more dramatic is the fact that the more traditional the setup, the more the fire is stoked since the partakers in the snags live literally next door to each other usually in a huge enclosed compound. Therefore, this pettiness continues until someone decides to begin thinking differently. I have witnessed my extended family go through these valleys and some of the occasions have been funny and others not so funny.

Anecdotes

In some Ghanaian homes, certain didactic anecdotes are told and passed on to children to serve as deterrents mostly with the general aim of preventing accidents or discouraging some actions. The moral of these stories help us understand why those actions need not be done hence these stories have a cause and effect structure which is meant to directly influence the listeners’ choices. In the novel, there is a brief story of a woman that carried hot oil around her home and ended up scalding her husband who lay in the woman’s path; the woman was banished as a result and later became known as a witch etc. Growing up, I heard stories of losing good luck if one swept at night. This anecdote and Yaa’s anecdote of the hot oil form part of the culture of telling didactic stories with the aim of keeping children safe. The truth behind the discouragement of carrying hot oil around over distances in your home is to avoid accidents. Sweeping at night, on the other hand, is also discouraged to avoid the sweeping away of precious possessions because the logic is that at night visibility is low as compared to the day.

Belief systems

I didn’t even know that the Fante and Twi languages and tribes are branches from one and the same Akan tree! It only made sense then to me in a huge eureka moment that this is the reason behind both languages sounding so similar with only vocabulary variations. How shameful that as Ghanaian, I thought I was very informed about my culture and pride. Happens there’s only so much I  know. I also liked the way a whole page of writing was dedicated to explaining the essence of matrilineal dominance in both Asante and Fante lines. A man is more interested in his sister’s children and considers them more his priority than his own children because his sister is born of his mother but his wife is not; so interest in nieces and nephews guarantee the maintenance of property in the ‘mother’s house’ versus wealth being lost to ‘outsiders’.

Adulterated expressions

Obroni is a term anyone who grew up Ghanaian would know otherwise you probably grew up under a rock . However, this word which originally read as ‘Abro ni’ has gone through stages that have finally brought it to the way we say it now. ‘Abro’ translates to wickedness or malice or the act of knowingly doing what is wrong. ‘Abro ni’ then goes directly to mean a wicked person. This two-word expression gradually becomes the one word we use today; ‘Obroni’.

In addition, I never really understood the full meaning of the pronounced gesticulations of the Adowa dance, I mean we definitely can’t understand everything right? sometimes you just gotta appreciate and leave everything at that but then Aunty Yaa Gyasi gives that insight into one of the meanings of the hand gestures in the Adowa dance. In the novel, a character did the Adowa and hands were brought up and over ‘as though ready to receive and give back to the earth.’ In that particular scenario in the story, the people had gone through a long phase of famine and the ground/Asaase Yaa had finally been able to bless them with abundant food and harvest, therefore, the little hand movement repeated severally in the dance became a direct symbol of appreciation or acknowledgment of everything they owned as a people having come from Asaase Yaa. In the Adowa dance, every dancer has a unique message they use their body to communicate,  one of which is this special hand movement which is a gesture of thanksgiving.

Reinforcement of traditional Practices

The story ends with two people who are attracted to each other. The interesting twist to this is that the two are related. Yaa ends the story with their returning to Ghana and taking a dip in the deep blue sea. Yet the reality of these two people being related hangs on the reader’s neck and we itch to see how this knot will be unwound. Like the proverbial two halves of one fruit, these two characters are from the same family, lost over years and decades and reunited by some random working of fate. Though Yaa leaves us in need of a sequel to satisfy our curiosity about what would happen between these two characters, the part of the book where we are left shows us the potential for love between these two characters.

The reinforcement of traditional practices is highlighted at this point and gives us food for thought because up until this point, Yaa’s character’s have married with no background checks whatsoever. One of the things that make Ghanaian marriages different is the exhaustive background checks done to ensure that incestuous relationships are not allowed to happen. The novel’s end forces a particular line of thought which encourages a renewed appreciation of some of our traditional practices.

Final thoughts

Yaa Gyasi’s book is a wealth of information about slavery and the aspects of history that are not too easy to talk about today. It is insightful material for anyone who wishes to learn more about slavery, Africa, Ghana and an intimate narrative that brings the reader into the story, allowing for active participation and not a dormant reception of information.  We are on a journey with the characters, feel their pain and relive moments from the slave trade.

Most importantly, the story removes readers from the impersonal and mostly detached and factitious way that our schools teach slavery. Slavery is reduced to a narration of facts and dates and fails to show the cultural-emotional extent to which this bit of history meant to many groups of people over long periods of time and even until today.

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As a lover of the literary arts, I keep piling up reasons that ground my deep interest in this art. Below are a number of reasons;

Literature becomes a vehicle through which many topics can be discussed in a not too rigid way helping for the flexible accumulation of knowledge outside technical material

Literature exposes a people, their thought processes/social consciousness/belief systems, and culture….. this thought aligns with the first point…

We learn about own selves through literature, some works can emphasize what we already know and enhance our understanding of self.

Also, check out the post on Willie Lynch’s How to make a Slave as it aligns with several aspects of Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing.

 

 

The Door

The house held its breath, the inhalation and exhalation ceased like a noisy TV set that had been muted abruptly. Abrupt, yes that’s the word ; and it hung in the air for what seemed like forever as I actually came to understand and fully appreciate its meaning.

Abrupt : definition-Sudden and Unexpected.

I was distraught and  visibly shaken. My friends had teased in the past about how I sounded like I was laughing whenever I cried ; how I wish this wail would actually transform into a cackle now.

He was gone. They returned from the hospital with the remnants of what he possessed; a cell phone, a book bag, a note pad with illegible writing which he kept as a contact book and other things I was too broken to take note of.

‘What happened?’ I asked in between sobs, ‘what happened to him?’ I asked again.

‘He fell’. ‘He fell’ was the inadequate response that returned my question.

The cell phone begun to ring and for a minute after the ring subsided, we all sat in silence leaving the phone to lie  lifeless as if hoping against hope that somehow its owner would suddenly appear and ask us to hand him his phone.

The Door II

Ghana is a vast country with more than a dozen ethnic groups which in turn have their unique idiosyncrasies and conventions. I am Fante, the year is 2014 and though I believe myself a true daughter of the land, I just found out that ours is a group that has an unwavering respect for the dead. Respect that is palpable enough to make questioning minds  uncomfortable and hence my predicament.

‘The door must be locked for a year’

‘What?!’, ‘Why?!’

‘That’s how it’s done. This is out of respect, it is only after a year that the door can be opened and mainly by an elderly person’

‘I see’. Was the curt answer that escaped my lips.

The door was subsequently locked and day in day out the mystery of the locked door occupied and assailed my thoughts. How could I avoid it when the door stared back at me no matter which entry or exit point I took in the house? By some twisted fate, it seemed as if the door had also begun to purposefully amplify my fears by looking darker and more imposing than ever.

On some days, I wondered if the occupant of the room came by to sleep in. This silly and unexplainable fear of what lay beyond the door was in part influenced by the help who claimed to have heard a distinct shuffling of feet; the same way my grandad used to walk. I dismissed her claims as ludicrous and still went on observing the door; more curious than ever; checking for tell tale signs of any life , activity or occupancy.

Over time, my relationship with the door moved from a mixture of curiosity and stale fear to resignation. A kind of resignation that made one throw their hands in the air and accept their unchangeable fate.

Whatever I did, the door was here to stay.

I couldn’t dismiss the fear and curiosity that gnawed at me. What was I even afraid of in the very first place?! A fear of ghosts? Ha! Who said they even existed? Or Had I read and watched and read too much Harry Potter to the extent that the dementors in the hooded masks seemed real?

I was a mess, I yearned to know yet was unable to ascertain my willingness to face whatever it was if it decided to face me.