So I had a conversation with an Uber driver…

Before I begin, I just want to say…e be like say “chatterbox” be some Uber driver prerequisite or something. Also, I suspect several people daily have noteworthy conversations with Uber drivers, enough that there should probably be a website/blog dedicated just to recording drivers’ experiences. Maybe one already exists. If you find one, tell me. It might be interesting enough to hold my attention.

A few weeks ago, I needed to get to the mall pretty quickly, too fast to afford to take my bicycle. So, as much as I hate to spend money, I decided to take an Uber. For the first time ever, I got a Black woman as my Uber driver.

You know how it is when Uber drivers pick you up on college campuses. Nearly the first question they’re going to ask you is what your major is – and soon enough, this woman brought the troublesome question up. Now, I don’t know if I am incriminating myself by blogging my answer to it, but I told her the truth: that I was contemplating between English major and Africana Studies major. Now see, the latter option got her excited, as an African-American woman, although at that point, she hadn’t yet caught completely on to the fact that I am African ankasa.

She started going on and on about how she used to be a teacher and how her goal had been to start a Swahili class for Black people. In her opinion, it was a sad thing that all these Black people had lost their native tongue through slavery and being uprooted to America, and then forced to learn English, and even that, circumstances had not allowed many of them to learn it well. She broke off for a while to lament about her cousin or uncle or something who spoke only broken English and what a pity that was. You see, she told me believed that once all the Black people learned their true native language (Swahili), they would be able to communicate, unite and break out of oppressive dominance structures.

I could tell that she was sincere and incredibly passionate about everything she was saying, including her goal to bring in Swahili speakers to teach a group of Black people including herself their rightful language. She was probably in her forties, you know. And here I was, a teenage college student, casually about to shatter this idealistic bubble she must have lived in for decades. I didn’t yet fully realize the extent of her knowledge either. So, without thinking much, I casually pointed out that because I was from West Africa, I did not speak Swahili.

Yo. This woman nearly stopped the car. Her “what?!” reaction was so profound. Only then did I realize that she legit believed that all Africans spoke Swahili. I wonder if she had ever met another straight-off-the-continent West African before in her life.

So, now that she had attempted to register that different languages were spoken between West Africa and East Africa, her next question was, understandably, what language West Africans spoke. Language. Singular. And I honestly felt sad about what I was about to reveal to her: that there was no single language; there were multiple. Not just in West Africa, but throughout the continent, including the countries that did speak Swahili.

Imagine the most stereotypically indoctrinated child discovering for the first time that his/her parents, not Santa Claus, puts presents under the tree on Christmas. That’s what her dismay reminded me of. I couldn’t even count the number of shocked variations of “Are you being serious right now?” that escaped her lips.

She asked me where I was from and I said Ghana. She asked me what language was spoken in Ghana. I told her I didn’t know the exact number of languages because there were several, and I only spoke one. (And then she wanted to confirm that Swahili truly wasn’t one of them.) She marveled over this for a few minutes and tried to wrap her mind around this knowledge, then wrap the knowledge around her dream of teaching African-Americans how to speak African languages. She wasted no time in trying to incorporate all of it. She began to re-strategize out loud, going, well, fine, then. I’ll just have to make sure my class teaches all the African languages. She still wasn’t fully getting it. I had to tell her that as small as Ghana itself was, even I didn’t know how possible it was to become fluent in all its languages and I doubted the possibility. To become fluently conversational in the major languages, yes, I could envision that. But all the dialects of Ghana alone? Massa, forget. To try to teach all the languages of Africa? How big was this classroom she envisioned, and how many decades at the least could each student spare?

I can’t remember the last time I had ever seen anybody so profoundly sad. She nearly gave up on the idea completely there and then, because she said she couldn’t see the point of having a class in the first place if she couldn’t teach every language. And how could Black people unite, then, even if people from the northern part of one country could barely communicate with people from the south? There was clearly no point. I told her not to give up on the idea just yet, that she could go ahead and try to set it up, and if she wanted to do more than Swahili, she would just have to pick and choose between which other African languages to include.

She asked me at some point why everyone else she knew didn’t seem to know there were even African languages besides Swahili. I said, well, I couldn’t fully answer that question, I could only hypothesize – and my hypotheses were that Swahili itself is probably one of the most widely-spoken African languages, and that it has either infusions of Arabic or roots in it, and of course, it is the primary (frequently only) African language of whose existence Americans generally teach their students of.

I wouldn’t say that this incident was as dramatically revealing for me as it was for her, but I definitely can say that I was struck by it. You’re always struck when something you always assumed to be an obvious piece of knowledge – common sense, even – turns out not to be a part of someone else’s knowledge framework. Goodness knows, I’ve probably given several people throughout my life similar shocks as a result of my ignorance, but oh well. It was an interesting conversation nonetheless.

“And we were jealous you had a homeland, a native tongue and your parents spoke it

and we were just the offspring of the broken.

Hopeless, so we all learnt Swahili as if we knew we were from that region

Silly, we know,

but what you ‘posed to do when all you know,

Your closest cultural customs are similar to your captors’?”

-Propaganda, “Three Cord Bond

-Akotowaa

My Thoughts: Homegoing

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At this point I’ve seen people bash this book so much that I’m not even sure anyone wants to read any more “reviews” on it. That being said, here’s a review on it!

I did not hate the book. Several people said it was trash. Several others said that while the book wasn’t horrible, it left them unimpressed. I think I fall into the latter category, while also wanting to admit that I kind of enjoyed it, especially around the middle to the end, and I also think that this novel is immensely relevant for the culture, and I shall explain why soon. But before that, I too have some issues. Let me start with the least: the cover.

Aren’t we tired of the “African book” color scheme yet? The yellows and oranges are really starting to irritate me whenever I see them. (LOL, as I was writing this, I noticed Swing Time also has that color scheme. But at least that one doesn’t have a sun on it. Can’t we have a blue cover? With a moon? Is there one already? I don’t know.)

cover-art-african-titles

Now, let’s talk about the publicity. Yo – if this is the kind of hype Alfred A. Knopf would give to young writers of African descent, could they publish me too, pretty please? The hype was ridiculous! I have seen the most successful marketing for Homegoing than I have seen for any “African literature” (I may be using this term more broadly than it is conventionally used) book in like, forever. I feel like its publicity was even more successful than Swing Time’s! Also, I can’t remember what the publicity for Americanah was. But I could almost physically feel the anticipation for Homegoing and the consistent reiterations of people who wanted to read the book before and after it came out…only to be met when they finally got their hands on it with “Effia”, “Cobbe” and “Quey”.

My absolute biggest problem with the book was the characters – including but not limited to their names. Effia, Cobbe and Quey. I just can’t understand why their names are spelled like that. Author’s creative license? Taking liberty with the idea that Anglicized literacy culture wasn’t fully formed at the time these characters were in their prime? I mean, I don’t have a problem with people deciding to onomatopoeically transcribe their names. I like spelling my day name as “Ewuraefua”, which isn’t common (by which I mean I’ve never seen anyone else use it), I love Efya’s branding, and I have an uncle who more-or-less renamed himself Quesy when he was young. But what I want to know is, if someone who has little to no idea of what Ghanaian culture is actually like reads this book, would they walk out of the pages thinking, “Yes, Quey is a fairly common Ghanaian name”? I mean, Ghanaians might be able to figure out what Yaa Gyasi’s doing with the names (even if it takes a minute to click, like “Quey” did for me), but what about everyone else? And I know this is kind of a sketchy subject because of the idea of all the rest of the English-speaking world having to “explain” ourselves/our culture but when Americans/British people write about theirs, they do not explain, assuming that all readers already know. And when we don’t, we have to find out ourselves. And it is not like I am asking Yaa Gyasi to spoon-feed non-Ghanaian readers. But I can hardly imagine myself as a non-Ghanaian bothering to Google “Quey”, and either way, I don’t know what I’d find. [Note: I just Googled it, and got the definition “young cow”. Consider me deceased.]

But another issue about the characters is that there were too many of them. It seemed that the intention was for each to get their shine in their respective chapters, but this was not a very big book, and for a book this size, the number of “main” characters just might have been overambitious. Unfortunately, I don’t know if any other method of storytelling could have done what Yaa Gyasi intended for the story to do, but the narrative style was complicated. It was a 3rd-person that felt too much like a 1st person narrative sometimes, which was confusing because I could barely remember whose chapter I was reading from, and found myself occasionally wondering if it mattered at all. After reading the book, I still cannot tell you off-head who is related to whom or how. I just might have given up on the novel if not for the availability of the family tree in the front pages. But because of how quickly the chapters jumped, I felt that some of the characters didn’t form fully enough for me to feel their humanity. A few of the earliest characters felt like shadows. They were almost allegorical – which I think is a bad thing for a novel.

I will come back to the characters, but speaking of allegory, there was something about the narration that made me uncomfortable. There was a lot of proverbial talking that struck me as… amateurish (I think I said something similar about the use of parables or something in “Under the Udala Trees”). I know West Africans are famous for their proverbs and stuff but there was something about their placement or usage that didn’t sit right with me. (I am almost scared to write this because there’s a thing about proverbs that I’m trying to incorporate into a story I’m writing, and whenever it comes out, perhaps years from now if ever at all, I fear that someone may say something similar about my work. But in life, you say what you mean, take risks, and deal with the consequences when they arrive so…) I don’t even have examples of these proverbs to illustrate what I mean because whenever I saw them, I just kind of side-eyed them and kept going.

I have an interesting (kind-of-positive?) observation about the characters, though: As the story went on, from the middle to the end, I think the characters started to become more real – specifically the characters in America, closer to the year of today. My hypothesis about this is that it is easier to write naturally about characters you can relate to by the experience of your own reality. If Yaa Gyasi has never known by experience what it means to be a Fante woman in pre-colonial, pre-Ghana Ghana, it would take a lot of imagination – not just research, which I think several people agree she did a lot of – to bring these characters to life. But for a final character like Marjorie, who grew up in the US but had contact with Ghana and felt a conflict in identity, her personhood was far more credible than the earlier characters’. I suspect it’s because Gyasi could pour herself into a character like that. I don’t know. For sure though, the characters after the beginning made me begin to enjoy the book more.

Now, in a way, this book was refreshing. I haven’t read very widely or very much in my life, but I know I haven’t read a book like this before. It probably classifies as historical fiction, yet still stretches out into the modern day. And it’s not immigrant fiction, at least in the conventional sense. Judging by how many people resonated with Siyanda Mohitsuwa’s post about a year ago about being over African immigrant fiction, I suspect that many people were looking forward to a book that wasn’t that, even from a “diaspora” writer. And this wasn’t that (in my opinion)! I really appreciate what it’s doing as a novel.

For me, it was like the book was building a bridge that was easier to understand than, for example, a history book that explains what the routes of the slave trade were. For me, that part of history has been like passively knowing it, but not truly able to feel it or imagine it. The fact that there were individual characters in “Homegoing” with actual names, actual personalities and a family tree that could be easily represented on a page at the beginning of the novel was fantastic for me. I like knowing where things and people come from and being able to make connections. I like that things are reduced from a large, unimaginable scale of huge numbers and long years of slavery, to the almost-simple history of one or two families. In fact, I don’t think I like it when authors try to do some mass-representation. It makes human individuality invisible. This book was the first book that ever brought things full-circle for me, almost literally. I saw people from Ghana taken, selling and sold, gone abroad and returning to Ghana (or not at all), back where it all began. I was finally able to connect, through fiction, African-Americans to Africa, even if those characters themselves didn’t know where they came from; I did, and that was satisfying for me.

I’d recommend this book to an African-American who has trouble understanding his/her connection to an Africa with a tangible culture, and I would also recommend it to an African who has, like me, had trouble visualizing the root of the relationship of common heritage between African-Americans and Africans.

Favorite quote:

“We believe the one who has the power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history, you must always ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there, you begin to get a clearer, yet still imperfect picture.”

-Akotowaa

4 Sure-fire Ways to Know That You’re a Wizard/Witch/Bewitched in West Africa

Classically, in many civilizations, people attributed the things they didn’t understand to the gods, or to something supernatural. Thus, a lot of belief systems were born. Where does the sun come from? Oh, it’s actually a god. Thanks, Akhenaten.

Aten
Nah but forreal – Akhenaten just up and made this Aten guy up and said “Worship by force” and there you go. Sun god.

What are earthquakes? Oh, Titans are fighting, and Poseidon’s mad. My daughter is sick; her temperature is high. Now, I have no clue what a “fever” is, so it must be a fire demon inside her, heating her up. Stuff like that.

poseidon
Nah but forreal – Akhenaten just up and made this Aten guy up and said “Worship by force” and there you go. Sun god.

So, after about 17 years of existing in a Ghanaian society and being exposed to quite a few real and virtual people of other nationalities and cultural experiences, I believe I am entirely qualified (please note that I am being partially sarcastic) to state the four things which I am pretty sure will guarantee that you are either a wizard, witch or bewitched.

Let’s go!

  1. Introversion

For so long, we have lived in cultures rooted in social practices. What is a private study room? What is a quiet library? What kind of nonsensical time-waster is “people-watching” while sipping coffee? Oh no. We don’t know what privacy and solitude are o, please. Sometimes, even sex could be an outdoor public act. It’s not about your personal life; it’s about our culture. So now, when your relatives come to visit you and you get bored after two hours of pointless conversation where all the important topics have been exhausted, and retreat to your room, it’s antisocial blasphemy. Don’t do that ish, man. Come downstairs so aunty Something-or-the-other can tell you how your nufu has grown or so that uncle Whatsisface can ask you if you’ve found a girlfriend yet.

Okay, but on a more serious note, we don’t seem to be able to understand that introversion is a thing that exist, even – gasp! – among Africans! I’m tired of people looking at me strangely because I don’t enjoy loud parties or going clubbing for hours on end. I’m rather exhausted from the irony of how much people like to talk about how the youth don’t read enough, but I get blasted for being antisocial because I read a lot.

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My favourite activity, writing, is a solitary one. But people will take it upon themselves to worry about my mental health and social life on my behalf. Of course, it can’t possibly be natural to enjoy solitude. Man is a social-creature, and as such, he must be surrounded by other social creatures 25/7 (Yes, I added an extra hour!), n’est-ce pas? If at any point, you human, a social creature, would rather be alone than engulfed, there must be something spiritually wrong. It’s an evil spirit. We rebuke it!

 

  1. Mental Illness

This is a fun one. I wonder if people got depressed in Ancient Africa, and if they were oppressed due to others’ denial. The way the recorded history of Africa is, I doubt I will ever find my answer. But I find it hard to believe that every African was always mentally alright, never suffered from anxiety, or was never even born autistic.

However, for some reason, we believe it’s a myth on this side of the world. We, who have some of the most religious and superstitious countries in the world, can’t believe in something that we can’t see manifested on the body. I guess somehow, it makes sense. If we don’t like believing in what we can’t see, it makes sense that we worship(ped) so many physical idols and crafted statues to appease our senses.

“You’re depressed? What kind of disease is that? Get on your knees and pray to God to unbind you from that spell that your neighbours have cast on you, oh! I’m sure it was that woman down the road. Ever since her husband died, she has been trying to inflict her own sorrow on others. Tofiakwa!”

Sometimes, it sounds funny, but it’s really not when people start offing themselves not just because of their ailment, but because of a simple lack of understanding in their own communities. It really is nonsense. Despite all my religious joking, I’m actually a Christian, and time and time again, it amazes me at the “Christian” community’s lack of willingness to simply understand each other, so they can actually be useful. Talk about being exhausted of members of your own community. We’re unconsciously excommunicating people all the time.

  1. Imagination

I bet you didn’t expect this one. But it’s there! See, let’s do a simple survey. All you West Africans who were banned from reading Harry Potter or any book of the sort when you were younger, raise your hands! (My hand is up.) You’d be surprised at the number. My grandfather got the first three HP books for me on my seventh or so birthday. My mother seized them all and handed them to the semi-literate house-help to keep. Apparently, if I were to read Harry Potter, I would become a witch. Interestingly enough, I never had the Wizard of Oz seized, or even Sleeping Beauty. Some witches are more witchy than others eh? I don’t get it.

My favourite animals are horses. My favourite fictional animals are unicorns. But you, let me try mentioning the words “unicorn” or “dragon” in the house and see how all eyes except my little brother’s cloud in alarm. A close family member has called me “bewitched” behind my back before, in all seriousness, no jokes intended. I don’t know how to make you understand. Perfectly practical parents gave birth to a daydreamer daughter who’s always writing and can’t keep her head out of other worlds, and it ALARMS them to ridiculous extents.

unicorn
Damn, that sexiness, doe!

Incidentally, on an entirely unrelated note, I don’t know any Ghanaian fantasy and sci-fi authors. That is not to say that they don’t exist; I just don’t know them. If you do, though, be sure to holla at me in the comment section or tweet at me @_Akotowaa. (Anyway, shout-out to Nnedi Okorafor for being awesome!)

 

  1. Artistic Aspirations

The crown on the cake. This is the best one. Wahala don come if you, in your black skin, born to respectable parents who have toiled for years to put food on the table so that you can clear it and wash the dishes, as well as open the gate and pass them the remote, dare to come up and tell them that you want to be an artist. A de3n? All those school fees they paid, and still, no sense was knocked into your head? You want to waste this quality education? Tofiakwa. Please, we are paying in advance for law school. Gyae saa nkwasias3m.

Now although I’m not blind, and can see that Paulo Coelho is Brazilian, his story strikes so close to home. When his parents found out he wanted to write for a living, they sent him to a mental hospital. When he came out, they thought things were fine – not knowing, he had joined a theatre group. *hands on head emoji* They found out and sent him right back, where he underwent electroconvulsive therapy. That’s basically when they give you electric shocks until you pass out. The man’s biography is insane. I feel like if we could do some here, on this continent, we would. Our only remaining alternative, however, is to send us to the pastor so he can pray for God to cure us of our ambitious folly (which clearly comes from an inner demon who makes its host reject sense).

I imagine that there are parents who would love to perform an exorcism if their children were ever rebellious and bold enough to stick adamantly to their aspirations. After all, you must be possessed if you insist on following a career path that leaves you entirely broke. Right? Right? Sigh. Sometimes, I feel like I’m so done with this place.

 

So there you have it: 4 sure-fire ways to tell if you’re a wizard, witch or bewitched in West Africa. Do you pass any of the tests? I display all 4 symptoms on a daily basis! 😉

-Akotowaa

 

Breeding the International Black African

They will encourage you to be internationally-minded
As long as international means internal nation,
Because, apparently, the world is too big for our eyes.
We are not allowed to be more than we are –
As we were born,
Or else we’ll be looked at with scorn
And mercilessly devoured,
Like Oreos;
They have to compress us so that the white won’t show.
They will encourage imagination
And tell us to imagine nations…
No. Imagine a nation.
Because the only nation we can imagine is ours,
But actually, stop. Don’t imagine.
Imagination is so unrealistic.
Everything you need can be gleaned with observance,
So just…write what you see.
But don’t bother seeing anything foreign,
Even if it’s there, because they close their eyes,
And naturally, we should too.
And once you have effectively cultivated your selective perception and long-range enduring myopia,
Reproduce and train your child in the same way,
Because there is no way on earth we can improve
Without exposing ourselves internationally.
So, Black African,
From the sub-Saharan,
Conserve, reserve, limit and restrict,
So we may grow in our stagnant cesspit.

-Akotowaa