Book Review, – Barracoon, Zora Neale Hurston

Foreword

 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.

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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 waterCapture d_écran 2018-07-21 à 9.45.06 PM.

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

Marriage 

‘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?

Religion

‘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.

 

Conclusion

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.

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  1. 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.

Moesha Boduong, the Ghanaian Reality or a Disgrace to the Image of the ‘Honest’ Working Class Ghanaian Woman?

When I saw Christiane Amanpour outdoor her new show Sex and Lovearound the world, I wondered what grand plan lay behind the production of this show…

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9:40 something pm, my phone is buzzing with messages. The girls are upset over Moesha’s comments about Ghanaian women and their having to live off transactional relationships often with older men. Moesha is a Ghanaian socialite whose real profession is unknown. We either think she lives off her men or is employed in a day job that can not technically pay for her lifestyle so the sugar daddy or better put, the sponsor, fills in the paycheck gap. Chimamanda Adichie in her novel Americanah paints a vivid depiction of the complex socio-economic landscape in Nigeria while specifying the ambiguousness surrounding the economic life of one of her lady characters. The other co-protagonist of the novel, the man who is in love with the main character ends up marrying into a family mainly for financial reasons. Right from the middle ages until the twenty-first century, financial gain has remained a motivator of unions and relationships, Moesha’s declarations seem no different thematically from the allusions this paragraph has developed from.

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Screen Shot of South African article on transactional relationships and the spread of HIV/AIDS

My friend just returned from Nigeria and literally remained without female ‘company’ while away because he was unwilling to go along with the transactional reality that relationships are in that part of the world. Another friend recently returned from Cameroon and while asking him how his trip was, his words were that basic prostitution is out of hand. What in the world is basic prostitution? Casual relationships that dwell on economic gain was his answer. Wow, I said. Weeks ago, my eyes widened as I read this article about the blesser syndrome in South Africa. (Blessers are older men that literally bless younger women with HIV AIDS and money and condomless sex) As I drew comparisons between the facts the article presented and Ghana, I arrived at the conclusion that while the article portrayed Southern Africans as being more overt about their search for blessees and blessers, (because adverts were/are made on social media in search of younger girls to bless and older men who bless) Ghanaians are a bit more discreet in their ways I daresay mostly because of our religious hypocrisy but moving on, songs such as Ebony’s Sponsor among a host of other products of popular culture such as this episode on An African City shows us that the dynamic of sexual-economic relationships aren’t a new thing under the Ghanaian sky.

While I am not interested in determining whether Moesha was wrong to have said what she said or not, my focus rests on what Ghanaians are doing to empower women and renew mindsets so that people do have the need to rely on sugar moms or dads out of economic need. Logically, there is no way to dictate the lifestyle of humans but the more important thing is to realize the urgency that needs to come from issues like this. Our society is morally decadent and sexual episodes such as these are not the only things that we should be alarmed about. Being a Ghanaian has taught me that we are people that easily forget and make fun of every possible thing on earth. In addition, Ghanaians literally live with crocodiles yet scream in fright when we see lizards outside.

In a country where a minor can flash her naked body on camera while flies dance around her vagina and receive acclaim through viral shares and much laughter, in a country where preachers go to bed with members of their churches, hold entire services to demand the body counts of their members with much focus on how much members are bringing to the church coffers rather than a focus on the salvation of members, in a country where female singers get shamed over their choice of dress, in a country where full grown parlimentarian women get shamed over wearing body jewelery such as anklets, in a country where women sometimes often fall prey to sexual requirements to secure or keep a job, ( well this happens in our schools too ) in such a country, a country where if you’re a woman in a top position, people wonder if you slept your way up, paying little heed to your credentials, a country where self-acclaimed relationship experts and mariage counsellors hide behind morality and push severe and unrestrained sexism and remain justified, this is our country where scandals blow over quickly just to be replaced by other ones while we laugh and laugh, maybe it is time to ask what exactly we are doing besides laughing or hurling angry words at people such as Moesha while the truth stares us in the face. Ghanaians love to circumvent and address everything else but the truth and possible solutions. Maybe it is high time we brainstorm real solutions.

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Comments like this are refreshing because it is very much like that community with the dusty, bumpy, eroded road. One of the community members decides to tar only the portion of the road that is in front of their house while the dust from the rest of the road blows up and touches the same house that sits in front of the little stretch of tarred road.

Watch Moesha’s full interview here.

 

Silver Patch II

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Wax Prints

But women can put men in a net too.

Yeah they can, I mean we all can put whoever in whatever net we please..

Yeah, so I wonder why the story is so gender biased then…

That’s how we’re wired. We’re taught to think that way, I guess. I wonder if there are any stories in our society that paint vulnerability or compromise or suffering masculine…they’re all conveniently painted feminine, and I think this also puts some kind of pressure on men because they aren’t themselves. I imagine they go through the worst situations cos all this pressure makes it hard to be a man, I mean they’re human first before their sex comes into the conversation,..but I digress…

Yeah, I get you. I need to go though, we’ll talk later.

I could sense the irritation in Bibi’s voice. Her unnecessarily dry tone and the way she asserted the thought that men alone didn’t have the exclusive right of placing women in nets. We all can do it. She emphasized. You know I can put him in a net too right?!  I can get complacent too! Her voice broke and I knew she was probably already teary. I was wide awake now. Maybe the awfully cold analogy had triggered a nerve. Maybe she hated the depiction of vulnerability that came with the story. I’d gone and said the wrong thing with my big mouth. I wondered if this analogy had been the right move. I doubt Bibi considered herself some old beaten down and conquered saltwater fish. Though tense, I really couldn’t shake off the mental picture of Bibi in a net; – well she did kind of look like some creature to be quiet honest with that big head of hers. I stifled what would have been a resounding laugh.

Are you upset?

No, I just have a lot of things on my mind.

Well, I hope you keep in mind that you have the power to change your situation.

Yep, thanks, sis, I agree, goodnight.

She had hung up even before I could say goodnight back to her. I lay there looking at the ceiling and its white nothingness. I concluded that our minds were like this exact same white ceiling of nothingness. Imagine the ceiling remained unpainted for years. The colors or cobwebs that would form over the whiteness can be compared to our minds. Our cobwebs and cluttered minds fill with years and years of the reception of information. Good or bad. The information eventually determines whatever comes out of our actions and maybe lives. In retrospect, I’d heard a bunch of stories similar to the net story while growing up.

There was another one that told of a shimmery piece of fabric that wore and tore after constant use. The shimmery fabric was a person or more appropriately, a woman who had slowly and gradually lost her sheen from an abusive relationship. In the tale of the wax prints, the logic followed that the wax print would withstand the lashes of time if its owner was gracious enough to take excellent care of it. On the other hand, the wax print was destined to fade and whither if its owner forgot or worst still stuffed it in a drawer and went off in pursuit of newer print fabrics.

***

Bibi needed something, anything, and everything to distract and take her mind off the net man. She’d changed her WhatsApp display photo to an image with text that read; Starve your distractions, feed your focus. It was all too funny to react to. After the abrupt end of our last conversation, I preferred to let her be the one to come to me. I had to make sure to give her enough room to deal with whatever she was feeling. I decided I’d be kinder to her this time round. I had better have good things to say this time. No morbid fishes, no net analogies, no stupid references. I had to say something more meaningful, something more uplifting, something maybe cliché like oh everything will be just fine or something less implicating like oh give it time. I googled up ways to comfort or help a person going through a breakup. My search returned; Take walks, take up a hobby, go running. Utterly useless recommendations. The suggestions weren’t good enough.

With love from East Africa

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Insert love eyed emoji

Crossing the Atlantic changes lives. I was less than two days in Rennes and partly stunned at my renewed sense of understanding of the word ‘overseas’. I was literally over the seas, I had traveled over the Mediterranean to this new place where 9pm still looked like 3pm and where everyone smoked and spat on the street corners. The dogs were more than the people and everyone automatically made a gurgly distinct sound in their throats when they had to pronounce the letter R.

I was in a completely different world and surrounded by very different people, ideas, food, and experiences. Everyone spoke so fast and public transport was unbelievably reliable. I stared at people on the metro and looked away when they looked back at me. Some people preferred to sit in a hunched bird-like position, huddled over their bags in a desperate bid to catch the last bits of sleep before they arrived at their destinations. Others stayed wide awake reading a paper or staring out the window. I’d come to know the tram line so well. Three more stops before we get to the University. I’d jump off energetically lest the door ram shut! On this vast college campus, I’d sometimes meet people that I felt not all that mentally in tune with. Small talk would develop into conversations, and these conversations would slowly plateau into dismal pleasantries. Later, I’d start avoiding people entirely in a frantic attempt to dissociate. Other times, I found myself in the company of people I thought were perfect! We had the same thoughts and impressions on a myriad of topics, we loved the same music, we agreed on what outfits looked good and which looked tacky. We would sit for hours on end enjoying the silence of our shared experiences.

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My class was full of Asians. I think I may have mastered the art of small talk at that point in my life. I ‘d ask the dumbest questions, like how did they make the chopstick not fall out of their grip and why they ate that many eggs. The White Americans in my class preferred to walk together in cliques. They drank wine with whatever little breaks we had in between class and maintained a close-knit group. They were here on a group travel sponsored by one of these organizations, AISEC or CIEE. My breaks were times where I had conversations with myself or someone from back home. I was lonely and mostly too cold to care for conversation or feel like I was missing out on the Asians out-of-the-world Tofu experience or the Americans’ wine drinking spree. I sat with my phone in hand on most days, close by the heater.

I had gloomy days for a while until I met Mandy. Mandy was American and she was in Université Rennes 2 through CIEE. She is originally from Kenya and full of life and laughter. She quickly became a representation of East Africa and opened my eyes to the possibilities of real life, real people, and experiences beyond the confines of Ghana. She had long black braids that came down to her waist. They were dyed scarlet at the edges and she was really tall;  about six feet and two inches and unapologetic about towering over our heads. She wore heels all the time! Heels and really short mini jupes. She wanted to get married thrice because she was unsure of the possibility of being stuck with one man for life! She was an outlier, funny and the perfect friend. Mandy reinforced the importance of travel and the acceptance and acknowledgment of different perspectives. I was Ghanaian after all and had known everything Ghanaian up until that point so meeting her was truly refreshing and very different. We went out at night in zero-degree weather and came back near morning, half asleep and holding our shoes in our hands. She lived with a host family and loved the family’s daughter Carla but hated their dog with all her might. She said the dog got hair on all her fine clothes.

Eight years after Rennes, I am still in touch with Mandy.Image-1 (4)

 

My Love and Hate Relationship with Portuguese

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.

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)

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My Homework sheet that I took a screenshot of and sent to my aunt; her response was, “Good luck with that”

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.

 

 

 

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.