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

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