Thursday, October 26, 2006

Tror Na Foe (troh-nah-fway): a phrase in Ewe, the language spoken by the people from which my family on my father's side descends, in southeastern Ghana. It means, roughly, "to go back and retrieve something that one has lost."

This image is an ancient version of the Sankofa Bird, a mythical being from the cultures of the Akan-speaking peoples of central Ghana, who moves forward while looking behind, mindful that confidently and creatively moving ahead into the future requires a keen knowledge of and respect for one's past.

From the Akan words San ko - (to go back) fa - (to get).

A note to readers: If you're new to this site, you might want to scroll all the way to the bottom and read these posts from there to the top, just to follow the story in the right sequence!

After A Two Hundred Forty Year Absence, A Family Begins to Re-Connect!
At the point in this story where I left off last week, Lawrence Agbemabiese and I had begun to correspond. We were excited to know that our DNA results showed us to be only a one-step variation away from an exact match with one another. But that result raises many more questions than it can begin to answer. It signifies that we probably share a common male ancestor somewhere within the last seven to twelve generations. It could mean that we share, for instance, the same eight or nine-times-great grandfather, and that the one-step variation in our DNA is the result of a small mutation that has crept in over time. It could mean that his eight or nine-times-great grandfather was brother to my corresponding direct ancestor... or cousin on the paternal side.

In most cases, there would be no likely way to ever answer these questions. We'd find ourselves stuck at yet more geneaological dead end... except for one potentially very important detail of family history revealed in Lawrence's first letter to me.

"Our Dad, John, was the son of George Agbemabiese, an Anlo Chief whose title was Haxormene II of Tegbi. This is a small coastal town on the southeastern coast of Ghana."

With that all-important nugget of information, our chances of finding the answers to these questions - and much, much more - suddenly increased a thousand percent. Why? Because the family's status as hereditary chiefs goes way back. Sadly, when a farmer or a fisherman out doing their work, or a soldier caught up on the losing side of a war went missing, their families mourned them, but no record remains about the details of how they became victims of the trade in slaves. But when a member of a royal family went missing, that was news. The west African tradition of court poet, clan historian and praise singer - widely known as the "griot" in the former French colonies - means that the details of how this particular African ancestor of mine became a victim just might known. The story of why and under what circumstances he was seized and sold away just might be part of the carefully preserved oral record of our people back home. Somebody may know his story. Somebody may know his name.

So, as I prepare to leave for Ghana next week, you'd best believe I am well-armed with a digital voice recorder and camera, ready to record as many hours of interviews with clan elders as it takes to see if enough precious nuggets of oral history survive to help us answer our questions.

Lawrence and I Get The Chance to Meet
As good fortune would have it, my wife and I already had plans to visit friends in Paris this past summer, and Lawrence, as I mentioned last week, is a Program Officer at the United Nations Environmental Programs offices there. Naturally, we seized the opportunity to meet. In the first installment of this blog, I published the photo my wife, Celeste, took when we stepped off the train into Paris and Lawrence stepped up to meet us for the first time. It was an electric and emotional moment I will never forget.

And it only got better. As soon as Lawrence dropped us at our hotel, he put plans into motion for us to spend some quality time with him and his family while we were there.

He and his wonderful wife Caroline told us later that she tried to cool down his excitement and enthusiasm a little. "Don't get your hopes up so high," she cautioned. "We can't be so sure about all this just yet." "Look; it's science," Lawrence had countered. "There's no doubt. The connection may be distant, but we're related." Still, Caroline had decided she'd wait until she could personally lay eyes on me; talk with me; be with me a while, before she'd be convinced. "I know your family well," she'd said. "I will know if he's really one of you or not."

So, the die was cast. If I felt like family when she met me, she'd willingly accept me as such. But if I didn't, she wasn't buying into this one bit.

When Lawrence and his sons, Marc and Carl, picked us up at the train station near their suburban Paris home, the boys and I couldn't stop stealing furtive glances at each other and smiling. Lawrence urged them to think of me as an uncle and to go ahead and refer to me as such. But I think they were waiting for their mother's unambiguous stamp of approval as much as I was to make this status official.

We needn't have worried. It only took a couple of minutes for Caroline to become convinced. Standing next to each other in person, no one would have trouble believing Lawrence and I are cousins. And Caroline was immediately and emotionally struck by how very much I resemble one of Lawrence's older brothers, one of the offspring of Lawrence's father by his first wife. But the "resemblance" goes much deeper than that. It's the way we walk; the way we talk; the sound of our voices; what we talk about; the way we talk about what we talk about. These are the things that convinced her. "Be prepared when that side of the family first sees you back home," she said. "It's going to be emotional. I'm telling you, they will cry."

She and Lawrence threw us a great party in their back yard with a few of Lawrence's colleagues from the U.N. and a couple of close family friends. We ate well and had big fun, and Caroline kept turning the music up until somebody said, "Hey, somebody's gonna call the police!" but Caroline just didn't care. A woman after my own heart. Besides, it wasn't that late. And it WAS Saturday night. And having felt the wonderful, lively vibe of the neighborhood, I've got to believe the neighbors were enjoying it as much as we did. I can't prove that, but nobody ever did call the police, and a good time was had by all.

I told Lawrence and family when we left that my goal was to make it to Ghana in November. And the ancestors MUST be urging us on and blessing this whole enterprise, because sure enough, on November 1st, I'm bound for Accra! Look for new posts from Ghana over the next several weeks as I push on with my quest to interview elders and see if we can parse out the story of our first ancestor to arrive in the "new world" from this line of the family. Cousin Gideon Agbemabiese is meeting me at the airport and helping me dive into this quest with both feet. Look for new photos and video too, as I visit Anloga for the annual Hogbetsotso Festival (more about that later), and walk about the family's ancestral town of Tegbi for the first time. Stay tuned!

And please don't forget, if you're so inclined, to help me collect and send school supplies to cousin Lawrencia's school near Kumasi.

The address:
Mrs. Lawrencia Agbenyefia
Deeper Christian Life Ministry
P.O. Box 539
Obuasi, Ashanti Region

1 comment:

Alice C. Linsley said...

What a wonderful story! May God bless the reunion of family members. You celebrated on Saturday in Paris. Saturday is Lawrence's name day. He is a very smart man. I read his blog on math, only he is too busy to keep it up to date.

I preached at the funeral of a 15 year old boy from Ghana. He was (is) very dear to my heart. His name was Nigel Gwira. He ws one of my students at a boys school in Pennsylvania.

You might enjoy reading my blog, here:

Best wishes to you.