Kuukua and the Difficult Doors

Number Six!

(Update: individual OTC stories are no longer available, but you can download them all in a single PDF collection on my OTC site.)

Back of Kuukua and the Difficult Doors

Sneak peek?

Kuukua and the Difficult Doors

There were invisible threads on the ceiling now. My roommate Nana Konamah and I had gotten fed up. The architects of this hostel must have had some sort of sense impairment when they were designing, because this nonsense of the light switch being on one side of the room and the fan switch being on the opposite wall had been making our lives unnecessarily difficult. If the room was too hot or too cold during the night, NK would have to walk all the way to my side to regulate the fan speed. If she fell asleep with the light on, I would have to walk all the way to her side to turn it off. I’d never liked sitting down and doing nothing about problems that could so easily be solved with thread, so now our room had a very small-scale version of the complex thread system I had built in my room back home. It proved immensely helpful in instances just like this one…

“Felicia is coming!” NK whispered urgently. The next second, I pulled a string from my bed and the light went off. NK hadn’t even had to sit up.

“Don’t say anything,” I warned Princess, who was beside me in the dark now.

It was way past lights-out, and I was exhausted, but I’d promised Princess I’d help her with her physics homework when I had time. It turned out 11 p.m. was the earliest I’d been free enough to help anyone on a Monday night, and Princess wasn’t even the first person I was helping tonight. I was not, however, ready to get in trouble for it with Felicia, my hostel prefect. I already did enough weeding and gardening throughout the normal week; I wasn’t about to add gutter scrubbing to my schedule just because I’d decided to be a nice, helpful classmate.

I heard Felicia’s footsteps as she did a brief walk-through, passing in front of all the rooms in the building. If she didn’t see lights or hear voices, she just moved past each door after a few seconds. I listened keenly, made sure she was way out of sight and hearing before I pulled another string and the lights switched back on.

“Ahahn, so which question were we on?” I asked Princess, suppressing a yawn. But Princess’ mind was far from Newton’s laws of motion at that moment.

“How did you do that, with the light?” she asked with a mixture of curiosity and fear.

“Magic, anaa?” I replied, bored, irritable, and tired.

“Kuukua, be serious.”

“I thought everyone knew I’m a witch by now. See eh, let’s continue with the distin. It’s due tomorrow morning, and frankly, m’abrɛ.

“So you won’t explain?”

“Ei, Princess. Do you want to finish this homework or not?”

Her facial expression reflected the struggle she was going through, trying to rationalize what had just happened, but then she gave up, clearly also weary and looking forward to sleeping. “Fine. Let’s continue.”

“Great. So, we know that force is equal to mass times acceleration….”

I could have explained – at least about the spider-silk thread – but that would have led to even more questions. How did I know how to build this switch-flipping system? Why was the thread invisible? Where did one acquire spider-silk thread? Why did I have my very own pet spider?

I wasn’t ashamed of the strangeness that came with being the future Ananse, but truthful explanations were long. Claiming the rumor my cousin had started – that I was a witch – was much easier. So was evasion.

I turned the lights off again when Princess went back to her room. I hoped she wouldn’t get caught breaking curfew.

I thought NK was already asleep, so I was surprised when I heard her say, “Wo dwen sɛ wo yɛ Kwaku Ananse.”

When I heard that, I sat up briskly, my heart hammering loudly in my chest.

“What did you just say?”

“You think you’re Kwaku Ananse. It’s something my mother says a lot to me and my siblings whenever we try to get away with messing with someone. Because, you know, Kwaku Ananse was a trickster.”

“Interesting.” I let the silence breathe and tried to process.

“You remind me of him, though. Kwaku Ananse. Except you’re cleverer. From the stories Mummy told me, the way Kwaku is always getting outsmarted, he doesn’t seem particularly intelligent to me.”

“That’s what Ntikuma wants you to think,” I muttered, repeating my father’s words after the last time he’d told me an Ananse story.

“Pardon?”

“Erm. Nothing.”

NK didn’t know about me being the future Ananse – but she knew almost as much about my quirks as my grandpa, my father and my boyfriend. I’d only known her for about three months, but it was a consequence of living together. My room was the only place I could do some of the weirder assignments my father set for me.

The previous week, for example, I’d spent hours on end at my desk trying to master the process of extracting only the sticky kind of silk from my orb weaver spider, Charlotte, and turning it into spider glue. My grandfather, who used to be a chemist, would videocall me sometimes to teach me how to make varying kinds of spider glue, from mildly sticky to stuff stronger than wood glue. After she’d witnessed everything I’d messed around with at my desk, keeping the Ananse definition and its relation to my family from my roommate felt incredibly stupid.

 

NK had helped me construct the web. It would have been a struggle otherwise, because I didn’t have access to ladders, and the only movable furniture in the room were our desk chairs, and they simply weren’t tall enough. But I’d had to get on the ceiling somehow. As I’d struggled to think of how to manage it, NK had looked at me and said, “Kuukua, don’t you ever think of the body as a tool?”

“The body as a tool?” I’d repeated.

“Yeah. Same as a ladder or a hammer or something.”

“I use my hands and fingers a lot.”

“You use them to manipulate things you consider tools. But you’re always looking for things. Machines. Sometimes, the thing you need the most is a functional human body.”

“Sista, why are you speaking in parables?”

She’d laughed, then extracted her chair from under her desk. She’d knelt down in front of it, and at first, I was on edge because I thought she was bowing down to me or something, but then she instructed, “Get on my shoulders.”

I did. Then she got on the chair and stood upright, and when I raised my hands, I could reach the ceiling with ease.

Installation had taken more time than it would have if I’d had a ladder, because Nana Konamah needed to take breaks from holding me up. It was altogether a precarious situation, but I was used to precariousness. Yaw would have said, “A week that passes where Kuukua doesn’t put herself in danger of breaking her neck at least once, is that one too a week?”

 

And for the rest of the story, download via the link at the top of the post. Happy reading!

-Akotowaa

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Ah, so still aa, the series is not over?

Apparently not. Feels like it’s been going on for ages, doesn’t it?

Anyway, if you’re wondering how I’m managing to throw out seven thousand words each month like this, I just want you to know: same.

In the mean time, prepare your minds and iBooks libraries for On the Ceiling #6: Kuukua and the Difficult Doors on Monday! If you don’t have storage space, create some within the next couple of days. Please and thank you. And if you haven’t read the previous ones, please fix your fatal condition immediately. Thanks again.

Also, prepare yourself for Robin-Huws’ mixtape, HUES Vol. 1, because that’s also dropping on Monday and it’s going to be LIIIIIIIT.

Wishing you a purple weekend,

Akotz. 

College Libraries.

I often think of knowledge as Rapunzel,

of college as the impenetrable tower,

and of myself as the lovestruck outsider,

begging her to let down her spines.

Each time I meet the Board of Wizards

that keep her in captivity,

They tell me that she must be fiercely guarded

Then, that they believe strongly in everyone’s eligibility to access her.

So I ask them why they keep the manual on how to storm the castle inside the castle,

Why there is a menacing, money-drinking dragon at every structure that looks like an entrance,

and the Board of Wizards,

which claims to be her foster parents

has never managed to give me

a satisfactory answer.

-Akotowaa

I met Jamilla Okubo, and that was fun.

Yo, she’s so cool!

I met her the day after the Jon Bellion concert, so of course, I was already beat. By the end of this day, I knew I was going to be exhausted. But at least the exhaustion was voluntary. Sometimes, I feel like my soul is dying and art is the only thing that can revive it. So seeing Jon Bellion and Jamilla Okubo in the span of two days was so uplifting, I didn’t even mind the exhaustion much.

My Africana Studies professor brought her to the college. The former found the latter on AfroPunk years ago. (I’m just sayin’ y’all. Get yourselves on the internet. You too could be fresh out of college getting paid by colleges.)

Jamilla Okubo is an American, Kenyan, Trinidadian artist.

Because I’m a very sensible creep, I looked Jamilla Okubo up a little while before she was due to show up. Her Instagram story was full of videos about her arrival and first impressions of California, and a few words about herself and what her Californian mission was. In the midst of this stalking, I heard her say something that really shocked me: she’d just graduated only a few months back. Ah. I went to replay that section of the story. So, I reasoned, she must be only a few years older than me. And she was flying halfway across the USA to do an art workshop with and talk to college students. Hmm. (This is the part where I fiercely battle an inferiority complex.) A few hours later, I attended her more formal talk. There I got the confirmation I’d been waiting for: she was fresh out of college, and about five years older than me (due to circumstances, she’d had to do six years of tertiary education instead of four).

In the late morning, she held a workshop, which was when I first saw and interacted with her in person. Her air of complete casualness and comfort threw me off guard. I’d expected someone assertive and instructive. Instead, I got a super chill girl who was interested in sharing (as opposed to instructing) and conversation (as opposed to lecturing or monologuing.) Straight away, I knew I liked her as a human being. I want to be that kind of artist.

During the hour and a half workshop, Jamilla showed us some of the dope art she’d created, allowing us to pass the pieces around between ourselves. Then, she walked us through a simple method of creating new pictures from existing images, using tracing paper, markers and coloured/patterned paper. It was very simple, but loads of fun. It was great to set aside some time to just sit there, create and conversate, with nothing much banking on it. So I made a thing! In Akotz’ signature colors, too!

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Behold: my product.
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Behold: my process. And yeah, that’s Nina Simone.

Okubo has been gifted with a different kind of environments than many of the rest of us. her mother’s African-American, her maternal grandmother was literally a cotton-picker. Her dad, who’s Trinidadian and Kenyan, lives in Nairobi. Her mother had encouraged her throughout adolescence to be actively engaged in all sorts of arts, and it hadn’t even been a problem going off to study arts and design for tertiary education. I loved hearing and seeing how much her family influenced her art – and also the Kenyan culture that she was slightly estranged from. The way she would call her father and ask many questions about what the culture was like reminded me of the way I worry my grandfather to explain his childhood and various aspects of being Ewe to me.

I also especially like remixes – in several forms. the kind of remixing that Okubo specializes in is reinterpretation of Kenyan Kanga fabrics. First of all, before she gave her talk, I’d never even heard of Kanga, but now that I have, I think it’s incredible how beautiful and malleable a piece of tradition it is – case in point, how Okubo makes collages with cutouts and inserts inscriptions like the phrases her grandmother likes to say often.

Allow me to direct you to her Tumblr.

And she showed us this dope video that she helped make (she’s the creature without facial features zooming around like she just landed from space).

One thing that inspires me a lot is seeing black artists flourishing through the education that They (you know, The Man, the people in the Control Room) seem to require that we go through, living life in the present, as life demands to be lived, not “waiting” for anything first like graduation, certificates, approval, marriage, steady income engagement…Living one’s career presently. Which is what I want to do. Which is what I hope I’m doing.

So here she is, straight out of college, already having designed packaging for brands, illustrated a profound children’s book, and is currently doing lit stuff that those of us who now follow her are probably going to see very soon and marvel over. And seeing young, black, African-descended girls killin’ it and not being hella broke while killin’ it brings me such joy.

So yeah, anyway, I just thought I’d share about the experience of having some artistic African light penetrating my life for a while, especially because it left me with a fierce sense of hope that made me think, “Yes! It can be done! It is being done! I can do this life thing, and so can you!” Hope is great.

Stay creative,

Akotz the Spider Kid.

My Thoughts: Behold the Dreamers

I didn’t particularly want to read this book. I wouldn’t have gone looking for it myself, but my auntie gave it to me for free, and rarely will I refuse a free book. Before she’d given it to me, though, she’d warned me that it wasn’t as good as Americanah. I became apprehensive at that comment because I believe I (and the world in general) have no need of another Americanah – and it’s not because I think Americanah wasn’t good (quite the contrary), but because I think it was enough. In addition to that, I had read Siyanda Mohitsuwa’s article on OkayAfrica called “I’m Done With African Immigrant Literature” and agreed with the sentiment of it. So, honestly, I expected to hate Behold the Dreamers, or at least find it tiring. Surprisingly enough, I didn’t. I kept waiting for the moment when I would think, “Yeah bro, I’m done with this,” and it never came. In fact, I was quite engrossed.

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I suppose at the end of the day, as long as a story is well-written and feels genuine – as in, not pretentious – I’m going to be able to deal with what appears to be my lack of exposure to modern novels by African writers set geographically in Africa. I choose to apply this disposition towards my own present and future writings as well.

Especially lately, I’ve been exposed to several stories of ex-France colony Africans idolizing France. This story was the first I’d ever read about the main characters being from an ex-French colony and finding themselves in America. But also, I’ve never read a Cameroonian writer’s work before this one.

I think what this book did best for me was how much it highlighted – whether intentionally or otherwise – the irony and mental discord between the idolization of America (by Africans) and the simultaneous radical clinging to (what Africans assume to be) traditional African values. It’s kind of like an America is the best place in the world with the most successful people in the world, but we must all refrain from becoming Americanized because these people don’t have values thought.

Jende came to America to work. He brought his wife, Neni and their son, Liomi, with him. Jende was a dreamer – both politically and ideologically. He had an irrational reverence for the United States of America, where both he and his wife believed that everything was possible, for them to gain the best possible lives for themselves and their son. Jende became a chauffeur for a fascinatingly dysfunctional rich white family even while he was, unbeknownst to his employers, in a limbo state, surviving on a temporary work permit as he appealed for asylum with the assistance of a wasteman of a Nigerian immigrant lawyer and one of the wackest fabricated asylum stories ever to play into the tribal, primitive African stereotype surely destined to fail. His wife was trying to study to become a pharmacist, but her dreams, too, were frequently shot down. Their son, Liomi, remained in trouble as long as his parents were unstable – but Americanized as he’d already begun to grow up, they tried to keep him as oblivious as possible to their troubles.

In some conversation with Jende’s employer, Mr. Edwards, Jende said,

“I believe anything is possible for anyone who is American. Truly do, sir.”

It was an incredible statement, I thought, for someone who was forced to fit and feed his family in a very small living space in a ghetto, and one must have been willfully blind not to notice the poverty in New York, or even recognize that he was a chauffeur himself (was this what he had always had the ambition to become? A white man’s driver?). But he had very high hopes – or shall I say expectations, or both – for his son, Liomi:

“And my son will grow up to be somebody, whatever he wants to be.”

The unspoken irony there, of course, is that as it is with many African parents, “whatever (s)he wants to be” = “whatever I deem is an acceptable profession for my child.”

Jende even continued,

“And, in fact, sir, I hope that one day my son will grow up to be a great man like you.”

This great man of an employer he was talking to was a rich man so busy he didn’t have time to live life, with a depressed, suicidal wife, an older son who wanted to go off into self-exile (and I admit I would too, if I’d grown up like him), and a little son who just wasn’t too happy a kid. But Jende wasn’t thinking about any of that. He wanted his son to be a rich, busy, important guy with a secretary in New York City, who could afford a chauffeur, or something of the sort, n’est-ce pas? That’s how being a Dreamer works; you dream on behalf of your kids too.

I remember how both ridiculous and hilarious Neni and Jende thought it was when Liomi said he wanted to grow up and be a driver like his father. LOL. Also, I believe it was one of the peaks of the mental discord when Neni delivered the classic African parent lecture to Liomi as a result of a situation blown way out of proportion:

“Open your ears and listen to me, because I will say this once and then I’ll never say it again. You do not go to school to make friends. You go to sit quietly in class and open your ears like gongo leaf and listen to your teacher. Are you hearing me?”

All Liomi had done was laugh at jokes his classmate told. I was so amused.

Neni was a complex character with a lot of interesting surface thoughts that didn’t get very critical. Nevertheless, I thought the very fact that her thoughts didn’t get very critical was authentic. After all, she was still fresh off the boat of illusion, partly counter-cultural, but not quite “there” yet, although some circumstances of life might push her more strongly in that direction. In her questioning and assessment of inter-cultural (i.e. African and/vs. American) situations, she was either very shrewd, very archaically biased, or both. For example, on the topic of Jende’s Cameroonian cousin dating a white woman who seemed to expect that relationship to progress into marriage, Neni thought:

“He would marry his kind because a man like him needed a woman who understood his heart, shared his values and interests, knew how to give him the things he needed, accepted that his children must be raised in the same manner in which his parents had raised him, and only a woman from his homeland could do that.”

And then, there were her very intriguing sentiments about the behavior of black people among white people:

“Nothing shamed her more than black people embarrassing themselves in front of white people by behaving the way white people expect them to behave. That was the one reason why she had such a hard time understanding African-Americans – they embarrassed themselves in front of white people left and right and didn’t seem to care.”

I shall offer no judgment on this excerpt except to say that I think I laughed when I read it.

My favorite character, I think, might have been Vince, the son of Jende’s employers. It’s especially funny to me because I know that people like Vince in real life irritate me to my wit’s end. Any American boy who thinks the solution to his life is to run away to India to practice any kind of religion just because it’s not an American-adopted one is questionable to me. Maybe I liked him for his rebellious, anti-capitalist streak. He seemed very intelligent and very clueless about life at the same time…kind of like me. In many respects, he was smarter than both his parents and the Jongas (Jende’s family). I particularly liked it when he said,

“That’s exactly the problem! People don’t want to open their eyes and see the Truth because the illusion suits them. As long as they’re feed whatever lies they want to hear they’re happy, because the Truth means nothing to them.”

Now, praise for Mbue in general: I think it’s phenomenal, how this woman just got up and wrote a book. It’s not like she’d been formally trained, or had been writing for several years. I watched an interview of hers, and she said after reading some interesting books, she legit just had a story to write and wrote it. I would say “#goals” but it’s both too late and too early for that, and everyone’s path in life is different, you barb?

But I was rather astounded by the implicit complexity of being able to embody so many different, even contrasting characters in one book. It’s quite an achievement, to be able to write a Vince against a Jende or a Mrs. Edwards against a Neni, have them interacting with each other, and yet preserve the integrity of each character through subtle perspective changes within omniscient narration. Now that’s #goals.

Also, I really liked the ending. Especially how it was happy, sad and satisfactory at the same time. I want to know what happens after the book ends, how life goes on when dreamers finally wake up. Because, you know, the dream is and always has been a scam. =)

-Akotowaa

On Seeing the Love of My Life in Person

I saw Jonathan D. Bellion in person for the first, and what I hope will not be the last time. I wonder if he’ll get famous enough or I’ll get broke enough to be unable to afford his tickets anymore. Unfortunately, at the end of this wonderful concert of LA’s The Human Condition III tour, the love of my life failed to propose to me so I’m still single. It’s a tragedy.

I can honestly say that seeing Jon Bellion live was one of the most necessary things I’ve ever had to do with my life. I can also say that he’s my favorite – in my opinion, the best – performing musician I know of. Yes, yes, I’ll concede that Beyoncé has phenomenal breath control, vocal training, resilience and excellent dance moves. She may be the best performing singer alive. But Jonathan is my best performing musician. Watching him perform, I think, should be an almost life-changing experience, even if you don’t rock with his musical sound itself. I’d felt it in videos, but was something I was determined to see for myself.

 

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In 2016, when I got into Jon Bellion, the strange sounds he made, particularly in The Definition, caught my attention. I believe I started first listening to his tapes in chronological order. I started with the ancient mixtape, Scattered Thoughts Vol. I. (There have never been any subsequent volumes, which I think is very sad.) I remember thinking Jon’s music was okay – not mind-blowing, but nice – but the texture of his voice made me uncomfortable. It’s so strange, because only two hours later, I’d be in love with the very same voice on subsequent music projects.

I listened to Translations Through Speakers, and I was like okay, I like this content. I like what he’s doing with these beats… I moved on to The Separation and thought, this is stuff I’ll be coming back to again and again. But then The Definition. Hmm. “Munny Right,” the first track, slaughtered me in the post-hook by Beautiful Mind member, Mylon Haydes:

“Put the pause button on that weak shit

You sound like everybody else, muh’fucka”

Those lines became a mantra and I couldn’t do a thing about it. They energized me every time I felt low. Along with “All Time Low,” of course. The second track, “Carry Your Throne” made me so happy especially because of the drums and the vocals in the chorus. After that song, I was pretty sure I wanted to date Jon Bellion. But by the third track on the tape, “Pre-Occupied,” I was jumping up and down in my room around 2am thinking, “Who is this guy, and how can I get him to marry me?!” I am telling you, it was a spiritual experience! My goodness. I was nearly high for the rest of the time I used to finish The Definition.

And then I went to YouTube. I can only assume I was looking for corresponding music videos. I found something much better than music videos, though. I found “The Making Of…” videos. And they changed my life more than anything by any musician has ever changed my life before. And this is the story of how Jon Bellion became my favorite musician in one night.

To be honest, “The Making Of…” videos are the reasons I absolutely had to see him perform live. As much as I like the music of many other artistes, Jon Bellion is virtually the only non-poet I have ever wanted to see live so badly. Now that I have, I wonder if I’ll ever be interested in attending anybody else’s concerts, LOL.

Jon Bellion writes himself. And he’s a freaking lyricist. He’s the producer of all his songs. He can’t read music, apparently, but he’s a multi-instrumentalist. And I include beat pads and drum machines in the list of musical instruments in the world. He made his production and composition and recording process transparent in his “The Making Of…” videos in a way I’ve never seen been done before. He’s been intentionally mini-documentary-ing almost his whole creating process. So, I had to do everything I’d seen him do on video live. I was not disappointed. Except for the part where I had to stand, waiting at least 25 minutes after the end of Blaque Keyz’ opening act for Jon to come on.

Jon’s personality is contagious. It’s genuine, casual and bubbly. He’s almost always performing in just a white T-shirt and jeans. He doesn’t have a million-times-practiced choreography or team of 20 dancers in formation, yet his stagecraft is fantastic with just a themed slideshow behind him, his Beautiful Mind band, his loop station, and a lot of help from the ever-energetic Travis Mendes. The themed slideshow was such that, for example, there were clips of crashing waves as he performed “Overwhelming” and a collage of ’80s movies clips as he performed “80s Films.”

To see Jon practically effortlessly switch between the microphone, a piano, a physical drum set and a loop station or beat pad was one of the littest things I’ve ever experienced. And let’s not even talk about how amazing it is to have the whole crowd singing your lyrics even louder than you. And even the non-lyrics like “YEE!” and “Bambudeybambambudeybambudeybambambudey, Guillotine!” That crowd felt like community in unity.

I think my magical moment was when he walked us through a quasi-production process of the song “Luxury” from The Definition, whose trumpets, I think, are iconic. More iconic than the trumpets in Jason Derulo’s “Trumpets,” which, by the way, is a song Jon Bellion wrote and “donated” to Derulo because it was too pop for him. LOL.

By the encore, I had lost my mind, with a few minutes of silence to recover somewhat after the end of the official concert. Several times, Jon built up tension with the ascending backing vocals in the “Jim Morrison” chorus from The Separation (and yes, I LOVED it that only the Day Ones knew the lyrics form this 2013 song – so that by the time Jon yelled, “Rock the fuck out!” I was unapologetically screaming,

“Ask my father, getting money is hereditary,

Will Smith, bitch, I am feeling legendary!”

like I was the most turnt person in the room. I was intoxicated by nothing other than the drug of Jon Bellion’s physical presence and energy.

I was a baritone the next day. It was a wonder I hadn’t lost my voice completely saf.

So yes, not only has Jon Bellion redefined for me what it means to be a great musician, but he has also restored my faith and aspirations in the art of musical performance.  That was so, so refreshing. Take me again!

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-Akotowaa

I’m Probably Not Interested in Hearing How My Country Changed Your Life

I have begun to try doing everything I can to avoid the whole “Where are you from?” conversation, especially with old, white people. I’ll stuff food in my mouth. I’ll stay on the other side of the room long enough that you never get the chance to ask what my name is or what it means. (Do you ever ask a Sam or a Jane what their name means? I think not, because I taught a class of American kids where only one of them knew their name’s meaning. They’d probably have all known earlier if I hadn’t been the first person to ever ask them.) I will wear an American accent until my tongue gets tired. But please don’t… please don’t…

I sighed internally. The woman had just asked me where I lived. I’d thought I could avoid the conversation by telling her I was a college student in this very city, because I wasn’t really sure what she meant. I thought that answer should be satisfactory, but she posed the question again, and so I didn’t know what to do other than tell her. It didn’t occur to me quickly enough to answer flatly, “I live on campus.” After all, I’d have thought that went without saying.

Now see, by now, I’m used to the whole “I had a colleague who went to [insert African country that’s not mine here]” or “My friend gave me the most beautiful [insert artefact here] from [insert African country that’s not mine here]” and a whole plethora of responses that don’t have a damn thing to do with me. (I see the Africans abroad relating across the screen.) So, when this incredibly nice woman began with, “My daughter actually went to…” I tensed immediately.

She continued, “…Ghana, this past summer.”

Well. At least it was my country this time. I tried to replace my deadpan expression with one of polite interest, but politeness has never truly been a strength of mine.

“I see,” I replied.

“She was living around the…Gold Coast area…?” The woman looked at me for confirmation. I was, of course, initially confused by her mention of Ghana’s pre-independence, colonial name. I mean, wasn’t the whole country the “Gold Coast area”? But then it clicked that perhaps she meant:

“Cape Coast?” I suggested.

The woman’s expression remained uncertain. “The place with the slave castles and…”

“Cape Coast,” I confirmed correctively.

She then proceeded to tell me about what her daughter did, having lived with a foster family, learnt about Gold Coast/Ghana’s slave history, taught children English in the village schools and whatnot – the takeaways being that

  1. It was so good to be able to live in others’ shoes, be concerned with struggles other than your own. (Almost verbatim.)
  2. It was a life-changing experience. (Almost verbatim.)

I gave some polite equivalent of “Okay,” but I never smiled. I don’t think I had it in me to smile just then.

 

So far, every single time this has happened, only after the event do I manage to construct a coherent message of what I would like to have said back. It’s usually the very same thing, essentially: You didn’t need to go all the way to Ghana [/other African country/ other “third world” country] for your life to be changed.

It is a bit burdensome, for all my Ghana pride, to be from a country that remains so physically and geographically relevant to the history of the slave trade. It has consequences like making me upset that some of our greatest tourist attractions are fortresses in which events of one of the most gruesome periods in human history took place. Add the slave trade relevance to the fact that it’s a West African country the white world generally assumes to be destitute and very much in need of their contributions (or salvation), and you don’t get a lot of good stuff to work with.

I find myself asking so many questions about charities, missionaries and Study Abroads specifically targeted form the West towards Africa. There seems to be some sort of elevated perverse glory and nobility surrounding it. I feel like participation in these things is almost a fantasy for some people, something to check off their bucket-lists along with “visit the Eiffel tower” or “get on the scariest roller coaster at DisneyWorld.” Right there underneath them, “Teach illiterate African kids English (in a 2-hour lesson that will probably have no lasting consequence on the rest of their lives).” The parts in parentheses, by the way, are written in visible ink, so that the owners of these bucket-lists can’t read them and don’t even realize they’re there.

This would account for how pleased some people appear to be when they talk to anyone about their African gallivanting. I don’t think I ever see that much pride (I’m not saying no pride at all) when people tell you, for example, that they helped out in some schools in the suburbs of their own non-African city, or even that they gave a homeless man $5 on their way to work today.

Here’s my issue. If you really, really wanted to help out with and experience struggles outside of your own, you probably need not do anything greater than step onto your next-door neighbor’s lawn and helpfully engage yourself in their lives. If you think you must fly across the globe to make your existence impactful, you’re mistaken. Secondly, if it took seeing actual slave castles on the coast of West Africa to make you feel the depth of history’s significance, of your own history’s significance even, I fear you have either lived in a detrimental bubble your whole life, or your natural human empathy is a bit defective.

Thirdly, I think there may be elements of unconscious selfishness in this whole notion of travelling to an African country and being “humbled” and exposed to a “different reality” there. For one thing, I suspect some people try to use it as something like a method of atonement, to be absolved of the sins of one’s white ancestors. For another, it seems a bit sketch to me, that there usually appears to be more emphasis on what Africa has done for white people – “changed their lives” and whatnot – than whether anyone at all they came into contact with was positively impacted in a long-lasting way. I’m not saying impacted at all. Yes, you can go and install a water fountain or computer in a school or whatever…but when the thing breaks two months after you’ve returned home, then what? In other words, for all the serving they proudly recount that they engaged in, it seems they are the ones who appear to be coming out of their missions served. By the way, I’ve never even met a non-Ghanaian who can pronounce Sankɔfa correctly. I feel like if I hear “san-koe-fuh” one more time, I might fracture.

I mean, I see you travelling to West Africa to be helpful and experience a different reality, but have you ever been to Harlem? The parts of Chicago where there’s several shootings each night? Flint? the folks around the Dakota pipeline? I mean, seriously. You’re needed as soon as you step out of your backyard. (Also, in the weeks since I wrote this, the Orange One has done a lot more nonsense that needs your attention, if you’re really that interested in saving the world. If your country’s a superpower that just happens to be on fire, you can help the rest of the world by extinguishing it.) If you’re American, French, Belgian, whatever, try finding unfiltered documents about your own country’s history; not just what has been done to it, but what it has done to people. It’s all in your backyard. Plank dey your own eye wey you wan gyei speck for menners demma eyes.

As for missionaries, well… I come from one of the most religious countries in the world (reportedly) with a whole lot of churches and very little Gospel. I went to a Christian school with a whole lot of Religious and Moral Education and very little Jesus…and, might I add, very little sense. I can’t speak for the Muslim fraction because I’m not familiar with it. Either way, all in all, I am left a bit unimpressed when I’m told of non-Africans’ escapades in Africa. I would be far more impressed to meet a person who, after visiting Ghana, can properly pronounce the word Sankɔfa.

Rant over.

-Akotowaa

[featured image via myjoyonline.com]