Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Tror Na Foe (troh-na-fway) - a phrase in the Ewe Language spoken by my father's forbears from Anlo-Ewe state in south- eastern Ghana, which means, roughly, "to return and find again."


(photo: from left, Gideon Agbemabiese, Madam Desawu Agbemabiese, daughter Agnes Ablayo Agbemabiese, and two of Madam Desewu's grand-children, in the old family compound at Tegbi)

The American Cousin
[First, a note: Normally, I try to file each new installment of this blog on Friday. Last week, it was late due to difficulties with high speed internet access. But this week, it comes a couple of days early because the connection I've got at my wonderful hotel, The Mahogany (HIGHLY recommended) is so great. I don't know when I can count on another connection this strong, so I figured I'd better get this installment out there now, while the gettin's good!]

At the place where I last left you, I'd said I felt rather like a kid tossed into the deep end of a very deep pool. And I promised I'd explain what I meant.

It's been such a full, intense week that I feel like I've been here for a month. After one night in Accra, cousin Gideon, a banker, picked me up in the company car of choice for a trip like the one we were about to take - a rugged, double-cab, four wheel drive truck, emblazoned with the First Ghana Building Society logo, an asset which would help us pass more smoothly through the police check points on the way east to the old ancestral village.

He revealed that although he has visited the old village a few times over the years, it's always been a quick day visit; up in the morning and back to Accra or Kumasi by evening. People have been buzzing about the imminent arrival of "the American cousin" for weeks. And without anyone actually saying it out loud, there's been a strong feeling in people's hearts that this auspicious moment - this surprising visit from a long-missing part of their family - would be a perfect time to re-cement ties between the urban segment of the family and thr rural, who don't see each other all that often.

The trip there was my first glimpse of rural west Africa. I had been mentally prepared for the poverty I'd see, but the depth and the extent of that poverty was harsher up close than I had even expected. On the other hand, I've seen rural poverty in southern Mexico; in China; in Peru - and there's a difference in the "feel" of a poor community that is buoyed both by pride in its culture and a genuine hope for a better future, compared to one in which those spiritual elements are harder to find. Anlo-Ewe country is of that first type - poor, but energized by a hopefulness about the future and a profound spirituality; the ragged edge of their poverty softened by a culture that stresses and upholds ancient values of communal effort and sharing.

Just outside the old family compound in the heart of the village of Tegbi, there's a small, family-owned, tin-roofed convenience store/snack bar called, "The Groovy Spot." As soon as Gideon pulled the truck up next to it, several clan members suddenly appeared and crossed the road to greet us. Introductions were skillfully managed by Gideon in English and Ewe as we were ushered in through the gate into the compound.

"We have heard of you, cousin, and we are very glad to meet you," said Mr. Dzisam. "We welcome you home." The men spoke among themselves in Ewe for a moment, and then excused themselves, saying they'd be back in a few minutes. Kwaku, Agnes and a couple of others helped get white plastic chairs set up for everyone. Madam Desawu chatted with us and made us comfortable. She kept looking at me and smiling as she talked with Gideon in Ewe. "It's like a miracle," she kept saying. She came over and pressed my face between her hands. They were calloused country woman's hands, but somehow, as soft and comforting as a warm blanket on a cold night. There were tears in her eyes, and I'm sure there were tears in mine too.

She returned to her cooking in the outdoor kitchen where she'd been when we first entered, and Gideon and I waited with Kwaku under the giant, nearly century old mango trees by the west compound wall.
Soon, the men returned with other members of the clan. There were eighteen of us there now. Everyone took their seats and the meeting began. Mr. Dzisam made introductions all around, and Kwadzo, aided by Eric, performed a proper libation ceremony with some flavored shnapps Gideon and I had bought in Anloga for the occasion, asking the ancestors to enjoy this auspicious moment with us and to bless it. Kwaku ran out to The Groovy Spot for soft drinks while others spontaneously offered up prayers of thanksgiving. While Kwaku handed out soft drinks to the women and children, the men passed the bottle of schnapps, each reverentially pouring a little onto the ground for the ancestors and taking a sip before passing it on.

Then, for nearly an hour, Mr. Dzisam read from a notebook the entire known geneaology of our clan. Gideon and I haven't figured it out yet, but we're dedicated to searching the oral record of diverse clan elders for clues about known historical events that can help us date some of these "begats." What we've got looks like it probably gets us back to the late eighteenth century, but that's too late to identify an ancestor who was probably snatched from their midst no later than the early eighteenth century. Our later meeting with Wakashie filled in some gaps for us, but didn't provide "the smoking gun" we were looking for either. I'm still holding out hope for that "Kunta Kinte moment" someday.



Science
That moment may come, and it may not. If it never does, what am I left with here? If you've been with me since the start of this journey, you know the concerns I had before leaving home about paying due respect to the science involved in this kind of search. Before you can make any real sense of a DNA match or near-match, you've got to be able to construct a reliable record of "begats" to positively identify a missing ancestor and see where they fit into the family tree you're attempting to flesh out. Anlo-Ewe culture is known to have a rich oral record regarding the traumatic years of slavery. And as I've explained before, the branch of the family from which this ancestor of mine appears to have sprung is prominent now and was very prominent then. The chance that there may be some specific stories somewhere out there about him are reasonably good.

In the meantime, here I sat under these ancient mango trees, and on and off - for hours - all eyes were on me. It was the women most of all. Of course. In every culture on earth, they are the keepers of the family tree - the ones who do the begetting, and the ones who keep the records of all "the begats," whether they're written down in the family bible or not written at all except in memory, carefully kept and preserved.
In the rural south I remember, if a young man in the extended family was alleged to have gotten some young woman from the neighborhood pregnant, at some point, the women in his family needed to see this baby and pass judgement. Only five percent of the examination was about easily observable physical things. "Well, he's got our nose... and hands like Big John's... and our color." It's a thousand, subtle little things that go into that judgement, most of which the women who pass that baby around the parlor couldn't really explain to you if their lives depended on it. But somehow, they just know. If great-grandma snorts and says, with certitude, "Now, you know this child ain't none of ours," that's probably all she wrote. It's not a callous or casual rejection. Every little baby needs and deserves love. It's just that, if somebody who can't even hold up his own head yet is about to be given all your unconditional love, the keys to the family treasure, a whole lifetime of everyone's blood, sweat and tears, and a license to break everyone's heart the way only a family member can, they'd better damned well be right about this.
That's another kind of science. And I'm pleased to be able to tell you that having gone through something like this process in the courtyard of that compound under those towering mango trees, not as a helpless baby, but as a full grown man, I have been duly examined (as in having been thoroughly looked up and down) and cross-examined (as in prodded to see what's in my heart), and the extended family has unequivocally recognized me as one of their own.
And if that's good enough for them, it's good enough for me.
I'll be back with you from some corner of this wonderful country next week. Oh... and if you or a loved one happens to be coming soon, I've got two words for you. Mahogany Lodge - at #9 Kakramadu Link, East Cantonments, Accra. +233 21 761162.

Peace. Be well.

David




4 comments:

marcus said...

Brother,

I love this weblog and have been eagerly awaiting additional posts. I am a friend of Sam #5 and had heard good things about you in the past. You are doing a great thing and I am proud of your journey to the motherland. Your book will be very important for our people and I cannot wait to read it. Please update this blog soon.

Peace

Marcus Harcus

Denise said...

David, I love reading about your wonderful, blessed journey. I will indeed be sending school supplies to the school. I just feel compelled to assist, and if a few flashcards or notebooks will help in some small way, I will be honored. This is such a beautiful story that unfolds like a flower. Thank you for sharing!
Denise.

Bryce said...

This is a very interesting blog, I much enjoyed reading it.

Here's a great site in the Ewe language that you might enjoy:

Eʋegbe wiki browser

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