Akotz’ Volta Trip Jan ’18 (Part 4 of 4: Vakpo, Family Business, & the Return)

[Here are Parts ɖeka, eve & etɔ.]

Right after our sanctuary tour, my grandfather drew my attention once again to the sheer number of languages and dialects spoken in the Volta Region. He’d done it before, while we were still on the road, after he spoke with people from the car window. He did it again now, as we enjoyed fresh coconuts bought from a Tafi seller woman and her children outside the sanctuary. The woman and her family were speaking a language (Tafi) that my Grandpa couldn’t make head or tail of. He assured me that I could take a very short walk into the next closest village, and the next, and the next, distances comparable to the difference between Labone and Osu, and I would keep finding different languages being spoken.

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After the coconuts, we finally went straight “home”, to Vakpo.

Vakpo itself was an exciting and spiritual experience. For the first time, I got to visit the reputable Ofori house, literally the first house to belong to my clan of Oforis – because before my great-grandfather, who established the house, there had been no one of my ancestry with this name. My great-grandfather, Kwasi Foli (you may recognize Foli as a legitimately identifiable Ewe name, as opposed to the Akan-sounding Ofori) was the first in my Ayigbe side to be baptized and Christened, and the wypipo renamed him William Kwasi Ofori. How did Foli get transformed to Ofori? Ask the wypipo, because me saf, I am not hannastending. I can’t tell whether it was their tongues or their ears that were defective, or if they were just so used to Akan names that they took the lazier option of Akanifying an Ayigbe one. Either way, neither Great-Grandpa Kwasi nor anybody else seems to have bothered to change it back, so here we are, Ewe people with a Twi last name. Anyway.

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The Ofori Memorial House was built in 1935. My grandpa wasn’t born in it, but his next closest younger brother was. It was an 83-year-old house. That kind of blew my mind. It’s also one of the most reputable houses in Vakpo, because apparently, my great-grandparents important. In fact, they have a special altar-like construction in the Vakpo cemetery (which is right outside the house, isn’t that creepy?), set apart from all the other ordinary tombstones. The only other altar-like section belongs to the former Queen Mother of Vakpo – another thing which confuses me, since I know Ewe people to be patriarchal.

My great-grandma, Irene Ofori – originally Yawa Soamesi Kɔku – was originally from a neighboring village, Anfoega, which we passed through on the way out. We eventually passed through the village on our way out.

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Kindly ignore the pesky white Jesus photo. Focus on the cute Ofori reunion!

It was phenomenal to be in Vakpo, in a house specifically built for and belonging to my own family. The room I slept in that night had first belonged to my great-grandfather, and eventually to one of his sons, my grand-uncle. My own grandfather certainly didn’t neglect to point out how privileged I was to get to sleep in my great-grandfather’s bed, because, honestly, how many people get to say that they did that?

Lunch/dinner the day we arrived was definitely one of the highlights of the trip. Aunty Kate had pounded some of the softest fufu I had ever eaten in my life, and some of the most delicious fish light soup (I see you cringing but me and my pescatarian self like it like that). Most of the rest of the afternoon was really just chilling, talking with family, exploring the house, and looking at some of the oldest family photographs in existence.

The weather is really nice in Vakpo. I didn’t get bothered by any mosquitoes, the night air was cool, the village atmosphere is much cleaner and more peaceful than the city. I keep getting more and more convinced that I don’t want to live in a city.

The next morning, after some great ampesi, we made a few rounds through Vakpo, greeting some of my Ewe relatives that I personally had never met before. My inability to speak and understand more than five Ewe words has never been more awkward. Grandpa practically took on the role of interpreter for several hours.

Finally, before the long journey back to Accra, we went northward, to the Kpando fishing market. This part is funny because I had an event to be at in Accra that evening, and my family was already several hours behind “schedule,” so I was genuinely worried I wasn’t going to make it, but my grandfather seemed so set on me meeting Kpando fishermen that I could only shut up and roll with it. Now, look at God oo – we drove all the way to Kpando, only to find mostly empty river-banks. There was a boat being loaded with passengers wanting to cross the river, but that was basically it. Someone local explained to us that the fishers were still enjoying their Christmas/New Years with their families, and work was yet to resume. So, no time wasted, we sent ourselves back to Accra, and I was able to make it on time(-ish) to DecafLive! Won’t he do it!

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So. That’s the summary of my Volta trip. It was lit.

-Akotowaa

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Akotz’ Volta Trip Jan ’18 (Part 3 of 4: Tafi Atome, Sacred Ewe Monkeys, & Our Government’s Apparent Indifference)

[Links to Part 1 and Part 2, even though you don’t have to have read them before this.]

After Agortime-Kpetoe, we made our way to Tafi Atome to frolic with some protected monkeys.

It doesn’t appear to be common knowledge, but there is a Monkey Sanctuary in Tafi Atome. Seven different monkey clans live and move around in this protected, U-shaped forest, which curves around the human-inhabited village.

Before coming to the monkeys themselves, there was one intriguing stop we made during our trek deeper into the forest. We came upon a two-in-one tree. I’ve forgotten what type of tree the legit tree was, because it wasn’t my point of interest. I was more concerned with the tree covering it.
 

This was my first time seeing a Ficus aurea tree. It’s a kind of life-sucking, parasitical plant that grows around another tree. The Ficus itself is incapable of self-sustenance, so it only grows and survives by feeding on a different tree’s life force: the one it’s wrapped around. But the Ficus, in doing this, kills the original tree, and when that’s dead, since the Ficus has no more life to suck, it dies too. Isn’t this a morbid story? The teenage tour guide told us it was a metaphor for life, about how you can help your neighbor to survive and that same neighbor can eventually turn around and hurt, betray or kill you. It’s supposed to be one of those proverbial, philosophical distins the elders tell you about life, validated through nature.

I love forests, but two things get in my way of enjoying them. One is the fact that I wear glasses. The other is that I am deathly afraid of snakes. So it really doesn’t help when you’re walking through a thick forest, and the people in front of you start screaming, and then you’re hearing rustling sounds in the leaves and trees but can’t see where they’re coming from and you suddenly start remembering all the stories your grandfather told you about his primary school struggles, walking miles and miles barefoot and always having to be on guard since the most common afflictions in his community were snakebites on the heel and… I’m sure you get the picture.

We eventually got to a clan of monkeys, and the tour guide finally put my mind at ease by informing our party of how the snakes in the forest never bothered anyone when the monkeys were present. (Now I know that if I ever decide to live in the Volta Region, best believe I’mma have a couple pet monkeys with me.)

The monkey specie is known as Mona. Apparently, it’s the only specie in the Tafi Atome forest.

The little rascals were playful and greedy. Our tour guide showed us the proper way to feed them bananas and make the feeding game drag out for as long as possible. You peeled a tiny fraction off the top of the banana, then squatted and held it out firmly. The monkeys would cautiously come over, break off the exposed piece of banana, then run away to eat it. They were strong, with firm grips, so you slack noor, they’ve snatched the entire banana from you and run beyond reach, leaving you befuddled.

I don’t quite know how to describe the sounds the monkeys made. The most accurate I can get is calling it a three-way intersection between a human clearing their throat, a high-pitched cat mewl, and the caw of a crow. I do know, however, that when I heard a louder, deeper version of the same sound, I actually got scared. It turned out that it was being made by the Alpha Male, who had come out to join the fun. The Alpha Male was the only male in the clan – and I learnt this was the same in all the other clans – and it was much larger and more serious than all the other monkeys.

The Alpha Male’s dominance and aggression was fascinating to me; whenever he was eating, he wouldn’t allow any of the females to eat, until he was done. Nevertheless, some of the females just didn’t respect, and tried to grab some bananas from us anyway.  The pissed Alpha Male with the bruised ego always fought them until they gave it up.

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Here’s a peculiarity about the Tafi Atome monkey: Nobody has ever found a dead monkey’s carcass in the forest. The only time a dead monkey has been found in the history of the village (at least since the sanctuary’s inception) is once, when an Alpha Male was trying to cross the street and a car hit and killed it. Aside that, nada. This, apparently, is not a normal monkey thing. In other sanctuaries in other parts of the country, the human employees and caretakers construct special cemeteries in which to bury dead monkeys. I’m sure Tafi Atome could have had one if they needed to, but it seems they don’t. Either the monkeys are immortal gods (which is a strange conclusion, since several of the females were pregnant and reproducing, yet the forest was never over-populated), or they have secret burial rituals that they understandably never want humans to be privy to. Super cool!

Our tour guide told us that presently, about 95% (or did he say 98%?) of the Tafi Atome population was made up of “Christians”, and that the remaining 5% (or 2%) were still “traditionalists”. Although I don’t know who exactly these traditionalists are, I imagine them to be old folks who are going to die soon. This makes me sad, particularly because in the Ewe context, one of the main reasons these monkeys are being protected is that they are considered to be messengers of the gods. It’s all connected to Tafian origin migration history, which, as is the case with much African history, is at least partly magical. The spiritual aspect is immensely important, especially considering why the sanctuary exists in the first place. Here’s the story, paraphrased from how our guide gave it to us:

When the European missionaries first came to Tafi Atome, they brought with them – as all the stories of “civilizing missions” seem to go – lots of violence. It seemed there was a rather specific violence directed towards the Mona monkeys. (I presume it was because the Europeans’ aim was to spread Christianity, and these sacred “messengers of the gods” were getting in their way because of how tied they were to local belief systems.) So, they apparently had to go. The monkeys were killed and their habitat was shrunk to accommodate for all the things the Europeans wanted to use the land to build. Understandably, this caused an ultimate monkey-human rivalry. In a community where, apparently, the humans and the monkeys used to live in perfect harmony – aside from the occasional theft from humans’ farms, which still happens – now the monkeys grew fearful and hateful of the humans and began reciprocating the violence. So, that’s the part about the role European missionaries played, which is my least favorite part of the story.

Next comes my second least-favorite part: the Americans. It appears, somewhere very late in the twentieth century, maybe eighties or nineties (my memory is shot, and I don’t seem to have enough sense to write important details down as soon as I hear them), some Americans from Peace Corps showed up in Eweland, and they were environmentalists, conservationists, all the -ists, and they were completely appalled by what was happening to the forest and the monkeys. It was these American activists that put a restriction on the Christian monkey massacre and established the sanctuary and made the protective laws currently being enforced. And get this: to this day, the government still has no part in the maintenance and governance of the sanctuary. Annually, some more Americans come to Tafi Atome to do maintenance and administrative stuff. For some unknown reason, however, none of them showed up in 2017.

Related: Things as simple as the provision of benches in the forest for tourists to just take a break from standing and trekking, are all left up to the Americans as well. The benches closest to us, when we got the farthest we would go, were ridden with termites, and my octogenarian grandfather could not sit down. Best believe he wasn’t one to blow off a chance to vocally highlight this problem. Granted, our teenage guide was not to blame for the termites. In fact, on his part, he was even trying. It turns out that the appointed Face of Tourism for the Volta Region had no clue the Tafi Atome monkey sanctuary existed, and our guide himself had to call her up and inform her. The government has apparently been actively ignoring the sanctuary’s existence, and refusing to claim any worthwhile responsibility – monetarily, legislatively, everything-ly – and thus contributing to the sanctuary’s continued dependency on abrokyirefoɔ. Headache.

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-Akotowaa

Akotz’ Volta Trip Jan ’18 (Part 2 of 4: Agortime-Kpetoe & Ewe Kente Origin Lore)

[Here’s the link to Part 1, although you don’t need to have read that before this.]

After our visit to this small kente shop, we went running around Agortime-Kpetoe, which is basically Weavers’ Central. Weavers work either individually – whether outside or in their homes – or in large, communal spaces furnished with looms and really long stretches of thread held down by heavy stones. I’ve never been to Bonwire or any other weaving center, so I’ve never even seen Asante kente being woven. I found myself glad my first witnessing of live-weaving was in the Volta Region. (It has a lot to do with my position on Twi-ification.)

One of the places we passed through in Agortime-Kpetoe was a “kete” training center, one of those large rooms with several looms. The signboard was right in front of the building, and naturally caught my eye because on it, I saw what I had been expecting for some time but hadn’t yet come across: the omission of the “n” from the word kente, in what I believe is more exclusively Ewe style.

We didn’t meet many weavers, because most people were on break from Bronya season, but we did meet the young man whose family business this particular institution was. For the purposes of this public post, let’s call him Mawuli. Mawuli and a bunch of kids (which could have been his own, but I didn’t ask), sat casually weaving even though they didn’t quite have to work during the holiday. I estimate the kids’ ages between 4 and 9. They were already pretty great artisans, skillfully navigating that complex loom, to the surprise of my mother in particular. Recognizing how impressed she was, they became so eager to show off their skills that they almost started fighting over the already-threaded loom they had previously been taking turns on.

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The patterns Mawuli and the kids were weaving were incredibly vibrant and colorful, and apparently very different from what my Kumasi-raised mother had been expecting.

“Ah, is this also Ewe kente?” she asked.

“You are thinking of the style that is closer to the batakari…” Mawuli realized.

She acknowledged that that is what she’d always assumed to be real Ayigbe kente.

I think several people imagine it as more boring, less resplendent and eye-catching, than Bonwire kente. The vibrancy of what we were seeing produced now, as well as the burst of color we’d seen at the Ho retailer, did not compute with those erroneous notions. And even though I knew for sure I’d already gone on a rant about this during one family Sunday lunch, I began another one that moment. (Let me confess: I did a lot of research before I felt comfortable enough to write “Kuukua and the Killjoy Kente”. But it should be common knowledge that 98% of research done for a story ends up being irrelevant for that particular tale. The knowledge in a writer’s head thus starts eagerly pulsating, on the lookout for any opportunity to make itself relevant. This was one such opportunity.) I started talking plenty about how Ewe kente is actually far less constrained to fixed patterns than Asante kente.

Mawuli listened to our conversation with interest for about a minute, then said, “Let me ask you something. Do you believe that story about some spider who taught people how to weave kente?” He said it with what I think was thinly-disguised disdain. I don’t think he was a fan of Akan kente folklore.

I told him, “I know that story, but I also know the Ewe one is different. I’ve heard that what actually happened is that the Asante kidnapped some master Ewe weavers, took them to their land, and made them teach the Akans how to weave kente.”

At this he nodded, evidently pleased with my answer, and then launched into the more detailed explanation of the Ewe origin lore:

Very early on, some Ewe men discovered that the logobo tree (I don’t know what plant this is, or if it has another name, or what it looks like) had bark very suitable for clothing. They then began experimenting with it. This idea of being modelled after tree patterns is meant to account, in a sense, for the initial, straight-lined patterns of what many people, like my mother, assumed to be the signature style of Ayigbe kente.

Over time, the creativity, exploration and ingenuity of the Ayigbe peoples eventually led to the art form in its much more colorful, imaginative and flexible state, and yes, some experts were at some point kidnapped and transported to Asanteland. This cultural exchange, perhaps more accurately described as an interaction, gave rise to the issue of the conflicting language attached to the craft.

The final product, the wearable, woven cloth produced by the art, is meant to be referred to as “agbamevɔ”. The word ke(n)te is a word merely referring to the technique. Although Akans will tell you something different, the kete name comes from the Ewe language itself. The art of weaving is primarily composed of two motions: “ke” meaning “to spread”/”to pull apart,” and “te,” meaning “to tighten”. Because of the language barrier, the Ewes could only teach the Asantes to weave by verbally communicating through the language they had brought with them. The weavers explained that in weaving, you first “ke” then “te” then “ke” and then “te” – but the Asantes, not quite comprehending the nuance, started to call the cloth itself “kente,” some sort of adulteration of the two originally Ewe words.

Or maybe they did it intentionally because “agbamevɔ” was too hard or too foreign. Who knows?

Another thing that seemed to be a very deep matter for Mawuli was the issue of fixed patterns and names. You may know already that Asante kente motifs are quite easily recognizable, and that if you know their names (and meanings), you will find it easy to identify what kind of kente motif a piece of cloth is when you see it. Not so with (at least a lot of) Ayigbe kente. Mawuli passionately reiterated again and again that many of the unfixed, unidentifiable patterns we were seeing were just “new, innovative designs,” (quoted verbatim) and should be respected as such, to honor the ingenuity of its legitimate creators. He was an unbeliever in what seemed to him to be stubborn, haphazard and baseless methods of naming new kete designs – especially naming after people he believed shouldn’t have any right to them. I forget his specific example, but it involved some European man arriving in Ghana, being presented with one of the Ewe’s “new, innovative designs,” and consequently having the motif named after him.

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I have to admit, had I been a master weaver whose original Ayigbe sweat and tears ended up being called something like Jessica Eleanor Wattford-Longhorn, I would probably hex someone. (No offense if your name is Jessica Eleanor Wattford-Longhorn or similar.)

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-Akotowaa

Akotz’ Volta Trip Jan ’18 (Part 1 of 4: Departure & Right to Dream)

First of all, I’m Ewe. [Cue the exclamations of, “What?! I didn’t know!” Well, now you know. But if you’ve known kyɛɛ that I have a brother called Delali and have never connected the dots, that’s your own wahala.] I suppose part of the problem is that all the parts of my lineage that aren’t Ewe are Akan, and Twi-ification works as potently on the individual/familial level as it does on the country-wide/diaspora-wide level. The unfortunate dynamics allow Akan-ness to dominate. Being conscious of it is good, so that you can join me in the resistance.

I love the Volta Region. It feels like home, it brings me an irrational sense of calm, the Ewe that I can’t even speak is my favorite family of languages. Unfortunately, as of 2017, I hadn’t been to Volta for a while. I had also, thanks to several schedule conflicts and cancelled plans, never been to my family’s home village. Thinking about this some time in the last quarter of last year, I texted my father, and he and my grandfather coordinated this trip.

I was told we would depart at 6 am. I was up at 5. By 7:15, I was sitting outside with my eternally punctual grandfather, waiting for the rest of my family to finally be ready. Typical.

Our road trip party consisted of my grandfather, my parents, my brother, myself and our driver – a family friend from the very same village we were travelling to.

We could have just gone straight to Vakpo (which is where my family comes from) and back, but where’s the fun in that? Some of the juiciest parts of journeys don’t have much to do with the destination.

Our first proper stop was for the sake of my brother.

I think Delali, as of now, has dreams of becoming a professional footballer. When he heard of the Right to Dream Academy, he was highly intrigued and wanted to see it. We pitched it to our parents, and that’s how we ended up there. Even now, I’m not sure whether the academy is technically in the Volta Region or the Eastern Region. All I know is that it’s close to the Volta River, and it was on our way.

It turns out that Right to Dream looks a lot sexier on the website and in the pictures. (Doesn’t everything?) It was mildly impressive, nonetheless. The fields looked good, well maintained and functional. That last comment is a guess, since I know very little about football beyond the fact that Marcus Rashford is a gorgeous human being – but my brother seemed pleased with the training grounds.

The campus was devoid of students; school was out of session for the Christmas/New Year break, but if I had to guess, I’d say the school probably functions as every other Ghanaian school with a good/special reputation: the feces dey there, but you no really go see am unless you naa you dey the system inside. Outsiders get fed with the marketing schemes, the deceptive website pictures, and the pitches the faculty give to visitors on tour.

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Our next important stop was Ho. It was my first time being in the capital of the Volta Region. We really only stopped for gas, snacks and paper plates, but I got unnecessarily excited because, hello, Ho! Honestly, the extent of my exploration of the city consisted of walking up and down Independence Avenue, looking for a shop that sold paper plates (we didn’t find one. The best we got was take-away bowls), but I did learn how to say a new phrase from one loud STC mate: “Kabakaba midzo!” It means “Hurry up, let’s go!” I may not have spelt that right, but I can say it as I heard it.

Side-note: the Harmattan was so much deeper there than it was in Accra.

Back in the car, my mother said she wanted to see if she could find some Ewe kente. To this, my grandfather responded something like, “Well, if you are this keen on sending yourself into debt…” and I laughed out loud.

The “joke” stopped being quite so funny when we got to a kente retail shop in Ho and the cheapest cloth I saw was GHC650.

The kente itself, however, was absolutely gorgeous. In the next part, I’m going to go deeper into the distinctiveness of Ewe kente and origin folklore, but for now, here’s a summary of thoughts I had: With the expensiveness of Ghana-made kente, is it not obvious that the only people who will be able to afford it are the highly affluent Ghanaians in high contact with Westernization, as well as Westerners themselves? The average Ghanaian doesn’t seem to me to have 650+ cedis to spend on a few yards of the same cloth they have the highest level of cultural rights to. Will these facts directly translate to the eventual owners of these garments of highly commercialized Ghanaian culture being the people for whom the cultural, spiritual and intellectual significance is least? Are weavers themselves wealthy? Is the business of producing these expensive products lucrative enough to make the participants of its production system affluent? Who’s benefiting (the most) from the kente industry? Why are my questions so winding, formal and academic-sounding? I’m so full of questions…

-Akotowaa

My Thoughts: Tail of the Blue Bird

Author: Nii Ayikwei Parkes.

Overview of my thoughts: I think this book was downright brilliant.

Synopsis: Some minister’s girlfriend comes to a village called Sonokrom, where she’s freaked out by some inexplicable remains of what appears to have once been a living creature. (There’s a blue bird feather in the same room.) An egotistical maniac of a police Inspector recruits a Ga forensic pathologist who calls himself “Kayo” to investigate and solve the case. The rest of the story is about what Kayo did and discovered.

The plot is beautifully strange.

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Tail of the Blue Bird is the first/only novel of its kind I have ever read. If there are several detective/crime/mystery novels on the Ghanaian literature market, it would seem my eyes have been circumstantially closed – because I’ve not been intentionally avoiding them. But this novel isn’t unique simply because of its genre in cultural context: it’s the way the mystery genre is executed that I think makes it so distinctively Ghanaian. (I say Ghanaian for the smallest unit of specificity I am willing to narrow down to, but I could have said West African, African, or even Black). Two defining features I think make it a success in this regard are (folk)lore and magic. Those were the things that excited me the most.

“It was my grandfather, Opoku, the one whose hands were never empty, who told me that the tale the English man calls history is mostly lies written in fine dye.” – Opanyin Poku

There is no good reason why there shouldn’t be magic and absurdity in a Ghanaian mystery novel. In fact, I see every reason why there should be. Speaking as someone who, in 2016, entered a committed relationship with African history both as a personal and academic interest, I can honestly say there’s a good amount of our history that is mildly to heavily magical. I consider it a large contributing factor to why wypipo have treated accounts of African histories – especially oral ones – as illegitimate. In a European paradigm, there is history, and there is folklore/mythology, and they are kept in two different places. In a (West) African paradigm, history and folklore/mythology can be and are often legitimately considered the same thing. I’m not sure any Ghanaian who has done JSS Social Studies would need convincing of this, when we’ve been taught in our schools about golden stools dropping from the sky and about entire ethnic groups emerging from underground or being led to their claimed lands by elephants. Et cetera. Tail of the Blue Bird is exactly the kind of mystical Ghanaian (hi)story that excites me, in novel form! (Can you see me transforming into the heart-eyes emoji right now?)

Let’s talk about the story’s style. It’s one thing to have a brilliant idea (the plot). It’s another to have the genius to determine the right style for it, and even multiple styles, if that’s appropriate – as it is in this case.

I think Ghana in its modern state (the book is set in 2004, and I’m a teenager who considers every year I have memory of as “modern”) exists in a kind of duality. I admit it’s probably more spectral than binary. One end of the duality includes metropolitan cities – the Accras, Temas, Kumasis etc. – and the other end includes what we casually refer to as “the villages,” the places we continue to connect to our ancestral traditions, and the places where “the witches in [my] village” try and fail to accomplish our downfalls.

Tail of the Blue Bird was a reflection of that duality, both in setting and in style. On the metropolitan side, we had the modern Accra settings, with the scientific labs and offices, the places police have influence, the kind of setting in which an England-educated forensic scientist can almost comfortably exist, and the novel’s plot being interpreted as a mostly logical and systematic attempt to solve a real-world crime case. But we are frequently removed from the metropolis and transported into the other side of the duality, where we’re in the Sonokrom village, reading first-person narration from Opanyin Poku, a septuagenarian hunter-storyteller who has spent his whole life in said village, thinks in parables, and speaks truth through Anansesɛm, revealing the very same plot through a lens that processes a world where magic and curses aren’t merely fun, made-up fables. Reading this novel was like having a superpower of double-vision: reading the exact same story through two wildly different filters. Crazy.

Perhaps the most interesting character to me was Opankyin Poku. I thought his slightly verbose tendencies were very appropriate. He would sometimes drop proverbs and deep memories in the middle of his narrations that I thought were rather irrelevant to the plot itself, but extremely relevant to our understanding of his character. He was authentic in that I know people like him in real life, who really do be droppin’ proverbs left-right-center at the slightest opportunity. Opanyin Poku’s narration made the reading experience so much richer and more enjoyable for me, for its denseness, its unabashedly Ghanaian rhetoric, and its musicality. It’s the kind of musical narration that you get when you translate Twi (which is what Opanyin Poku actually thought and spoke in) to English but leave the semantics as untouched as possible.

“It is no mystery that when something leaves your hand grief can take its place; it is the same way that rain takes the place of clouds. What we cannot understand is how heavy the rain can be.” – Opanyin Poku

Beautiful.

But perhaps the one thing I think this novel did exceptionally well was to marry the Ghanaian oral storytelling art with the art of the genre novel. The truth only comes out in folkloric story form, and it is only spoken. The spoken truth is never written anywhere but in the mind of the ones it is spoken to. Tail of the Blue Bird is a testament to what I think is fact: that African history and (folk)lore are intricately tied and are probably not going to get divorced for a while yet, if ever.

-Akotowaa

We Will Not Pray For Ourselves.

People who are dying of thirst know that they need water to survive. That if they raise their voices to ask, someone may just bring it. We always assume those dying of thirst would like their thirst quenched. Sometimes, they would not.
It is a curious thing, the mind of a person who does not want to stay. I am talking about the kind whose eyes are open and can see the truth clearly. The kind within arm’s reach of the cure, whose hands remain demurely folded in laps, as disease ravages rapidly.
It is one thing to be exhausted of your own life. It is another thing entirely to be exhausted of life itself. To know that even if your personal, greatest problems were suddenly, magically solved, you still would not want to stay.
Whether or not we are impervious to burning does not change the fact that we hate fire and have found ourselves imprisoned in a furnace. (Burning might just be preferable.)
We do not ask for what we do not want, nor for what we do not even want to want. After all, what adequate excuse has a perfectly healthy body to spontaneously drop dead?
We can, but will not, pray for ourselves. So you, who apparently insist that you want us here – what are you going to do about it?
-Akotowaa

An Overdue Update on “Excellent, 2017”

I know people usually post their reflections upon the year like a month earlier than I’m doing mine, but you are reading the words of a someone who might as well be a professional procrastinator.

A year ago, I published a blog post about how my theme for 2017 was excellence, and how tied my perspective was to the lyrics of Sho Baraka’s “Excellent, 2017.” And then I went silent on the updates, as people who make yearly resolutions tend to do.

By mid-year, I felt like the intended strife for excellence had completely failed and was without hope of salvation. By November, though, that sentiment had changed yet again.

Surprisingly enough, I would consider 2017 a success. I have both “flown” excellently and “fallen” excellently. All things considered, including the crippling depression right after the first third of the year, 2017 was good, in the grand scheme of things. Unfortunately, “good” is not always quite equal to “pleasant.” I suspect I have learnt a lot, in everything from the maturity of my physical (re)presentation, to increasing discipline in my actions and character.

The latter half, particularly the last quarter of the year, made me develop scales on my skin. There are so many things I no longer feel as deeply as I did at the beginning of the year. Things like the sting of illegitimate criticism, the lack of inclusion in groups, and the dysfunctionality of my interpersonal relationships, to name a few.  In general, I would say a lot of my (positive) character development was tied to the embodiment of the persona of “Akotz the Spider Kid.” There is something about having an overarching theme that makes all the aspects of my life coherent, that improves my quality of life. There’s a certain thrill when I walk into my room and see an illustration of Kuukua Annan on the wall, or when I hold my journal, notebook and planner at once and see the different colored stickers of the Ananse Ntontan adinkra symbol on their convers, or when I leave my room for the day adorned with my spider necklace and spiderweb earrings. There is power in personal, creative identity.

The process of being lifted from incapacitating depression (for the millionth time, and almost certainly not even the last) has involved locating and generating creativity again. I don’t know about you, but depression is bad – no, awful, destructive, an ultimate enemy – for my art. It does this thing to me where I barely have desire to create, and every time I do create, the subject matter is nearly always the same thing: depression itself. Old news. All it does is make me tired of myself as an existing entity, and of my art in particular. That’s not healthy for a person who wants to spend her life being able to call herself an artist.

For two-thirds of the year, the Spider Kid did something incredibly fun, in spite of how difficult it was to keep it up: she started a lighthearted, spidery short-story series called On the Ceiling. And she actually finished it. Saw it through from beginning to end. I can’t think of anything more excellent that I have done this year. That series was such a ride, in terms of developing consistency, creativity, work ethic et cetera – but I don’t think I am exaggerating when I say it kept me sane, especially in the midst of school’s BS and having to deal with the longest separation from Accra I have ever experienced (11 months). But I started and finished this one, long-ish-term thing. And even if I look back in a few months and think, “Man, my plot/writing was so wack here,” it won’t change the fact that I did the damn thing, so hallelujah.

At some point, I felt like I had temporarily fallen out of love with poetry. It became very difficult for it to move me emotionally – both my own poetry, and a lot of work from other people. There were a few exceptions: Rhetoric 2017, the PIA Tour 2017, and Propaganda’s Crooked album, for instance. But for so long, I couldn’t feel the fire that comes with making or consuming poetry, the fire that I so frequently felt in 2015 and 2016. This is something I still don’t think I have recovered from. (Pay close attention, and it might be obvious.) Nevertheless, even this crazy complicated relationship with poetry is part of and producing excellence, although I don’t quite yet have the words to explain why I think so.

The deepening of my expression, reception and understanding of love in 2017 has been excellent. It has involved and continues to involve a lot of pain. Details of this too are complicated, but a lot of it is inextricably tied to my relationship with my best friend. This story is terrifying, deep, and nowhere close to finished.

There is a lot about being let down by human beings close to you that makes you learn by force how to grasp your own reins and make sure the things you want to happen, happen. I have learnt not to waste too much time putting my creative life on hold, waiting for responses from people who aren’t sufficiently invested. I already sabotage myself too much, to be able to afford suffering sabotage at the hands of another. I am still a believer in the magical power of artistic collaboration, so what I am absolutely not saying is that I’ve adopted the mentality of “nobody’s there for me, I have to do everything myself and exclude the whole world from my creative endeavors.” That’s idiotic. But what’s even more idiotic is insisting on keeping around enemies of progress whose interference with your psycho-emotional wellbeing is counter-productive. That’s far from excellent.

Several of my lessons have been centered around what it means to be a writer. In particular, I have been forced to face the issue of what is in my control and what I must leave alone. Things that are in my control are of such a nature as the decision of who gets to do my cover art (or that I want cover art at all) and what my creative rollout looks like. Things I cannot control are of such a nature as people who say they love you (as a writer) never actually finishing your stories, and the pre-release hype often surpassing the post-release reception (that is, in terms of magnitude, not quality). The excellent thing is that the Spider Kid is very aware that the world turns how it does, so how she deals with that is to shoot a spider web, call it mad lit, and move on like a G.

To be frank, I have spent most of December (and a significant amount of January) burning with emotions threatening to be ridiculously destructive. However, more and more, I have been coming to realize that all things – even the things that get me burning with negative, potentially destructive emotion – work together for the good of those who love Him. It’s bloody unpleasant, but the “all things work together” phrase is nearly constantly at the back of my mind. So much so that I think it accidentally became my 2018 theme: #ATWT.

-Akotowaa

About last sem’s academic stuff.

This past semester (Fall 2017), I enjoyed school for the first time in like six years. It’s quite surprising, and/but it doesn’t change the fact that I would drop out if given enough freedom (and given about 10 million dollars in addition so I know it’s real).

First of all, I had all professors of color, which in itself was phenomenal. But that’s only a side note.

I like knowledge. But I like knowledge to be useful for me. My goals, you see, have not changed. I still want to be one of Ghana’s littest novelists, and I still want to spend my life writing African-centered stories. If you will remember from my blog posts about a year ago, my aspirations are the reason I decided to be an Africana Studies major. The current way I assess whether the knowledge I am acquiring is useful for me is asking whether or how well I can use it to write the kind of stories I want to write. Since I am particularly in love with African histories, the whole Africana Studies distin makes sense. Thus, it pleased me how much it seemed all the classes I took in Fall 2017 were specifically designed to work towards my interests. Let me break it down.

1 of 4: I took an Introduction to Africana Studies course. My favorite read of the class was the book Reversing Sail by Michael A. Gomez. I thought it was a fantastic overview of African-related history, and I believe it gave me adequate tools to start finding out what I want to find out more about. Of course, most of the things I found most interesting were things the class didn’t discuss at length, because, of course, the class wasn’t full of story-loving West African kids. (But how for do?) I genuinely feel like I learnt in that class. Even though it demanded a lot from me, and the readings were long. (BTW, I actually did the readings, OMG?!) Also, my professor was incredibly compassionate and invested not only in the class’ subject matter, but also in her students’ wellbeing. Phenomenal.

2 of 4: I took a religious studies class that explored how African-Americans relate to “the problem of evil,” and their interactions with “the problem of evil” in Western thought. Here, too, I learnt a lot and read a lot of things I didn’t even know I wanted to know. I will admit that most of the time, in the class, I couldn’t figure out how the discussion related to the designated topic. Sometimes I didn’t have a bloody clue what the hell we were even talking about, but whatever, man. Perhaps my favorite read for that class – or shall I say, favorite discovery? – was the slave narrative of the Nigerian Olaudah Equiano, but I’m sure the opportunity will present itself in time for some many other, random things I learnt to prove useful within my life.

One interesting thing to observe about this class, just by the way, is just how rocked some people were by some of the topics we discussed, like theodicy, the question of whether God is a white racist, and a bunch of other fun stuff. Particularly a Christian friend. I feel like I kept expecting to be rocked too, but legit every single time there was even a hint of theological obstacle, whatever I already understood about Jesus and Christianity made everything make satisfactory sense to me. I did not struggle with my faith this semester. Jesus is still bae. I suspect a lot of the sense I found and continue to find in Jesus as well as the theology I hold has been contributed to by all the Christian literature I’ve read this year. Especially notable is CS Lewis’ Signature Classics collection, which I purchased mid-year. I’ve almost finished working my way through all the books, but I’m not that smart and Lewis is a genius, so best believe I’ll keep returning to them as and when I see fit. I also, like, read the Bible, go to a Church that makes far more sense than any church I’ve ever been to, and engage with much art by Christians who have sense. But that’s just by the way.

3 of 4: I took a film class about exile. This, technically, is unrelated to my major – but only in terms of formal requirements. You see, the films treated in that class came in three strands: the African continent, Latin America, and the Asian diaspora. We spent, I believe, the longest amount of time on the African continent. So, I was really enjoying myself, dealing with stuff from Ousmane Sembène, Patrice Lumumba, Djibril Diop Mambéty and the like. I think my favorite read of that class was the short story “Tribal Scars” by Sembène. It was so lit, and the kind of story I’d genuinely love to tell, even remix. Ah, and because it was a film class, I’ll throw in my favorite movie of the class: “Hyènes” by Djibril Diop Mambéty. It’s like a Senegalese remix of an European writer’s work: the play “The Visit” by Friedrich Durrenmatt. But it’s also so much more than just a Senegalese remix. I think Mambéty’s work is generally brilliant.

All in all, I was excited to engage with African art and stories and history and even politics in this class. And found myself being extremely grateful that it was so un-Americentric. Loved it. I didn’t love the fact that it was at 8 am, and far from me, and an uphill bike ride. ☹

4 of 4: An intermediate French class. Let me be real: I only took this class because of language requirements. Believe me, I had been planning to stay about three planets away from this torturous language after high school ended – but then I decided I have way too much I plan to do between now and graduation, to be spending my time learning a new language. Besides, nearly all the Mandarin Chinese I spent four years acquiring has left my head, and the horrible experience of boarding school is to thank for that. So, French, the language I had spent averagely fifteen years studying and still flopping at, had to do.

My professor, first of all, was Haitian, so praise be to God for that. And in all honesty, I feel I learned more proper French in this one semester than all the fifteen years prior combined. That’s tragic, when you think about it, and when you think about what it implies about the way French is taught in Ghana, but that’s a topic for a different day.

My favorite part of that class was how not France-centric it was. I believe the designated textbook was written by a francophone Black man. So, for instance, a lot of the assigned texts for comprehension or composition assignments were about, like, Caribbean, African or Indochina territories that had serious French influence on them. I don’t think I read any text by a white French person for that class. There was much Blackness involved, though. So, although it was unintentional, the African-centered content of that class fit perfectly into my agenda.

My favorite read for this class was the small novel, “Un Papillon dans la Cité” by Guadeloupean-French author, Gisèle Pineau. =)

***

So yeah, those were my four classes of the semester. But a post about school isn’t complete unless I’m ranting about something, and I have so much to rant about all the time, when it comes to academia!

For one thing, I will never, ever be comfortable with how an African would have to leave her continent to go somewhere and learn about her continent (because the one college she could even conceive being able to study at without going insane from the non-functionality of the institution is rather unequipped for people whose main academic focus lies out of STEM or business. I ain’t name-dropped no one). If colonialism were a person, I’d have been regularly delivering some sexy bitch-slaps since like, 2012, which is when I think I started waking up. What nonsense! Anyway, this isn’t even my main problem.

My real issue isn’t that I had to leave my continent to go to an unnecessarily expensive school to acquire the knowledge I desire; it is that I have to go to (an expensive) school in the first place. I genuinely felt that a lot of the things I learn in school, especially about history and stories, should have been common knowledge in the places I came from, or in countries closer to me. I’ve gotten so frustrated with this issue that it forced the poem “College Libraries.” out of me. I believe it’s a conscious plot of the Enemy to lock some things particularly important for the African’s knowledge up within academia so that we have to give them money to get it back. I want to respect Africans in humanities that fight to get into academia so they can change the nature of the voices within it, but then again, I don’t believe they should have to fight for a damn thing, and I don’t believe the voices are so easily changed. And just look at how much it costs to study here! I. Cannot. Deal.

So no, I refuse to be grateful to the Enemy for all the knowledge I’m acquiring, because they stole it, and I’m just about bleeding through my nose to get it back. Foolishness.

Anyway, always at the back of my mind is the fear that I’m taking “irrelevant” courses or doing an “irrelevant” major, even though I myself know for sure that this is the best academic trajectory that can properly feed into the stories I want to write. Despite this, there’s still fear, though. And the fear is only exacerbated by all the people who keep asking me if I’m going to use my Africana Studies degree to become a lecturer. I’m so tired of that question. Plus, it makes me feel like an idiot who is making awful decisions with her life. But how for do. If I am forced to do this thing I don’t want (school), let me at least use it as a tool to acquire something I can use (African-centered knowledge). It’s not like I didn’t already know poverty is part of my destiny.

-Akotowaa

Breakfast

You go to sleep each night and wake up every morning looking forward to breakfast. It is your favorite meal of the day. On some days, it is the only proper meal you even have.

Breakfast is really nothing special. It’s nearly the same thing every time: eggs are assured, whether scrambled or fried – but they always need to be sufficiently salty. You usually add potatoes, and your favorites are tater tots – which surprises you because the idea of potatoes at breakfast used to baffle you strongly when you first arrived. You add on an almost impressive variety of fruits: pineapples, watermelons, grapes, bananas, peaches, orange slices – and you like to top the ‘fruit salad’ off with some Greek yogurt. You’ll often throw in something doughy: either a slice of bread or some sort of baked pastry.

Coffee is a constant. But you only drink specific brands at breakfast, and when you don’t get those, you aren’t happy.

You are a person of consistency. When it comes to what you expect out of each day, you want everything to be pɛpɛɛpɛ. When something small changes – like getting home fries when you expected tater tots – it has the potential to throw you off and upset you.

During breakfast, you often sit alone, because you nearly always walked in alone. Sometimes, one or two friends join you, sometimes they don’t. You always have breakfast in the dining hall, though. It’s the one meal you don’t abhor going there for. After all, you’re a morning person, and most people aren’t. In fact, it’s so cozy, you feel you could stay there for hours, and sometimes do.

From time to time, you remember how deeply it struck you, during your first few weeks here, how gorgeous the dining hall was. You’d never seen anything like it. It didn’t feel like a place you ate in. It looked like a slightly medieval movie set, but you liked it a lot. Those were the times when you were only just beginning to realize how much you enjoy the first meal of the day. Now, you almost take the it for granted, but not enough yet so that you don’t quite realize you are beginning to take it for granted. It is always at the back of your mind. Sometimes, it ventures to move to the front, and when it does, you feel the onset of breath-snatching anxiety.

Even outside of breakfast, you are so in love with coffee. You think about how enamored you are with iced lattes, and it terrifies and embarrasses you. There isn’t quite enough logic to it. In fact, it’s so absurd that it makes you want to burst out into deranged, hysterical laughter. What business at all does a not-rich, metropolitan Accra kid who has previously known only Nescafé, Milo, bread and Blue Band have, falling in love with – of all things – iced lattes?

Whenever you think of breakfast and coffee, and how much you are beginning to get too used to them, you desperately want to slap yourself out of your comfort. How long will you continue to have access to breakfast? Not long. Don’t get used to it. This is not your money.

Don’t you know you will graduate? Are you prepared to be stripped of your borrowed privilege? Stop getting used to it.

One, two forkfuls of food. Remember that you are reaping the benefits of a hell of a lot of financial aid. Chew. This is not your money. Swallow. All this is luxury. Another forkful incoming. Growing entitlement to something you will never be able to afford. Chew. Life after this will see you too poor for breakfast, and you simply won’t be ready for the hustle. Swallow. You are like a steward who forgot she owns none of the property she watches. Drink. When you are homeless, you are going to miss breakfast a lot. Chew. Breakfast does not belong to you. Swallow. Your brain won’t quit thinking. Your heart won’t quit racing. You start to sweat in the air-conditioned room. An air-conditioned room. You get to have breakfast in an air-conditioned room. Heartbeat. Loud breaths. Breakfast. Luxury. Not mine. Sweat. Heartbeat. Breakfast. Solitude. Beauty. Cozy. Private. Morning. Eggs. Bread. Coffee. Never mine. Heartbeat. Loud breaths. Sweat.

Brain blanks.

You are done eating. You put your plates away.  As you walk out the dining hall door, you think: When my destined poverty finally catches up to me, I will remember scrambled eggs and coffee.

-Akotowaa

“Do You Want To Talk About It?”

“Do you want to talk about it?”

No, person number five hundred and sixty-four, we do not. You know why? Because we are oversharers already. It feels like we have spent all our lives ranting and ranting and ranting to people physically and virtually, in private and in public, spilling all our thoughts and emotions into cyberspace and air particles…and all for what?

What can we tell you that we haven’t told the whole world already? What can you tell us back that the five hundred and sixty-three people before you have not? I tell you, we have spent ridiculous amounts of time “talking about it,” and guess what: we are the same. Why? First of all, because all talking does is burn our already rapidly-dissipating energy, and secondly, because we have remained in the same state ever since about person number ten. Stupid us, that it’s taken over five hundred people after that to realize that our speech is only draining us of everything we are made of, and that if we keep it up, we may not survive. So no, we do not “want to talk about it.”

For all the energy we lose, what do you gain? The opportunity to rant back to us about your own struggles? Did you only ask us to release because you wanted to? Do you gain the comfort of knowing that someone’s life or mind is in a worse state than yours? Is there pride, do you feel special because someone opened up to you? After we unlock our soul’s doors and give you a tour of our most intimate parts, will you walk away with a souvenir that says, “I was here, I expended your energy, and I went”? And what do we walk away with? Another signature in our mental guest book, and the parting thought, “Thanks for visiting. I remain a mess.”

We know some of you love us. We know some of you care about us. But do you know, for instance, that some of you care about us in the wrong ways, and that some of you can’t care about us enough? Understand. We have had five hundred and sixty-three visitors into our damage already, and we got over the “Wow, someone is actually here to listen” type of gratitude ages ago, yet it seems no one quite understands how far gone we are, how exhausted we are, how replying messages feels more tiring than a decathlon, how we are absolutely done with people taking and taking and taking from us while we ourselves have neither capacity nor strength to take a damn thing back from the world or even from you.

May no soul ask why our responses to “How are you?” are blasé and impersonal statements like “I’m alive.”

May no soul ask us for further expansion when we answer their questions with a smiley face emoji.

May each soul disabuse itself of entitlement to be opened up to about any intimate matter.

Our energy is not anyone else’s to decide how it should be managed. We will protect our energy and we will shut down if that is the only way we can stop ourselves from dying. So no, dear person number five hundred and sixty-four, we do not “want to talk about it.”

-Akotowaa

P.S. I struggled a lot to decide to post it, because I keep fighting the urge to apologize for my emotion. But apologizing or toning down more than I already have feels like dishonesty. I still feel bad though. That’s why I dey explain kraa.