Sunday, November 19, 2006

Tror Na Foe (troh-nah-fway) A phrase in
Ewe, the language of my father's ancestors from Togo and the south-
eastern corner of Ghana, meaning "to return and find again."

(Photo: earnest young students at cousin Lawrencia's school near Kumasi)

The Long Good-Bye
A couple of posts ago, I wrote about the profound experience since I arrived here almost three weeks ago, of finding that these long-missing relatives of mine and I have been able to so clearly recognize each other as family.

As I prepare to come back to my other home in the States a couple of days from now, I've got so much to say about all this that it's going to take me several weeks worth of feverish blogging to even begin to tell it all. For starters tonight, I sit here humbled and truly overwhelmed by the farewell party the family threw me this evening. I have so much, and many of them have so little - at least materially - so I couldn't help but be overwhelmed with gratefulness at the lavish send-off they'd prepared. There were mountains of great home-cooking (let me bear witness that my cousins can throw down in the kitchen!) - enough to feed about thirty relatives who'd gathered at the old family compound in Accra, as well as a large troupe of local drummers and dancers. And to top it all off, there was a table full of gifts for me, and for my wife back home.

(see photos below)

After an evening full of praying, singing, drumming and dancing and speeches, no doubt I should feel tired, but I don't. That's probably because so much has happened here these past three weeks that I'm experiencing "event horizon lag" - much more serious and harder to shake than jet lag. My mind just hasn't been able to adequately wrap itself around certain things that happened earlier in this journey until a few days afterwards. And new information keeps flooding my senses and my consciousness much faster than I can absorb it, every waking moment of every day. That's just how it is. So, my mind is constantly racing; running on adrenaline. And as I prepare to leave, I find myself missing these wonderful people already; missing my daily mound of fresh tropical fruit; my nearly daily "fix" of nkontomire and shitoh; the ocean breeze; the rain forests; the northern savannah; classic highlife, reggae and Ghanaian pop on the radio, even the bad Nigerian movies. But most of all, of course, it's the people I'll miss.

On How We Know What We Know
Cousin Gideon Agbemabiese and I are in the middle of preparing a proposal for both the government of Ghana and private sources to fund an organization whose purpose will be to promote and pay for Ghanaians to voluntarily take DNA tests, adding them to a database that will enable many other African American and African families to find each other as our family has done. In the process of talking to a couple of physicians here about it, Gideon met with some skepticism on their part. "This seems like such a one in a million shot to find each other like this. How can you be sure? What additional evidence do you have that you are related, other than a DNA "match" that's actually one marker removed from being exact?"

Well, first of all, a one marker variation on that twelve marker Y-chromosome test means that, in all probability, these Agbemabieses and I share a common male ancestor somewhere within the last seven to twelve generations. A small mutation in a single marker would be expected in a family separated by two to three hundred years. Think of this, just for a little perspective on the issue: only recently have most U.S. counties moved from the old nine marker paternity test to one using twelve markers. An exact match on that old nine marker test used to be considered strong enough evidence for the courts to establish biological paternity! In and of itself, that test result might mean little. But it means everything within the context of answering the question of whether or not a particular man who admits to a sexual relationship with a woman is the father of her child. It's corroborating and relevant facts that make a DNA match truly meaningful.

Well, I know this: that first African ancestor on my father's side arrived in Virginia during the window of time between 1660, when the English settlers who are also related to me by blood began buying slaves, and 1704, when their branch of the family emigrated to North Carolina. I've read the family documents, and these things are there in black and white. We know that significant numbers of the slaves shipped to the ports of Baltimore and Portsmouth during those years (including George Washington's slaves) were from modern day Ghana, Togo, and Benin, including all of Ewe country. And we know that from 1668 to 1704, there was a major social upheaval in Anlo (the specific sub-group of the Ewes to which the Agbemabieses belong) which resulted in large numbers of Ewes being sold away into slavery. These are among the historical bits of "evidence" we possess.

We've been searching for that perfect "smoking gun" bit of evidence ... that fragment of an Ewe story or song that will result in the "Kunte Kinte" moment for which we've been longing - a powerful and ironclad way to identify that first African ancestor of mine, and the circumstances of his entrapment and his fall into bondage. We're going to keep on searching.

Until then, some may choose to dismiss what we have found so far in each others' presence as unscientific and subjective. We don't care (please see post number 4 of this blog). My acceptance into this family here in Ghana has been profound, unambiguous and unconditional. A big part of the reason for this has been my strong and universally acclaimed resemblance to one prominent family member in particular: Chubi, the first son of now deceased family patriarch, John Kofi Agbemabiese, Sr. John Kofi had been his mother's only son. She admonished him to have many children to compensate for this. Seldom does a son fulfill a mother's wish more completely. John Kofi went on to have forty one children with seven wives.

Walking In Chubi's Shadow
After a while, this resemblance to Chubi started getting a little spooky for me. Everywhere my cousins took me, with no prompting, relatives and family friends would say, "Oh, my God, it's Chubi. He's his very image. If you darkened him up some, and put them next to each other, anybody would say they are twins." "Oh, see, he walks like Chubi... ahh, that sounds like Chubi talking." Chubi, Chubi, Chubi. And yet, ominously, it slowly dawned on me that nobody ever seemed to really want to talk about Chubi. Until Uncle Wakachie broke the ice when Gideon took me around to meet him. Ever notice how old folks, staring mortality in the face, just seem to stop caring about certain social conventions? They'll say things some people wish they wouldn't; spill the beans about family secrets - just because they see no point in them anymore. "Ah," he said, with obvious disgust, "Chubi is a destroyer." He explained how when John Kofi died, the family looked forward to enjoying the considerable legacy he had built - successful businesses and many real estate holdings all over the country. But Chubi and a couple of the other older brothers had held fast to their assertion that the managment of their father's wealth was their concern, not the family's as a whole. And they sold their father's considerable legacy away, piece by piece, leaving precious little to show for it.

Now, Chubi lives in virtual exile, somewhere deep in the Cote D'Ivoire. And he doesn't exactly go out of his way to stay in touch. So, you'll understand what I mean when I say it's difficult to walk around in this man's shadow. He's a character - charismatic, bright, creative... and apparently, still well-loved by many, despite everything. But all these attributes, although they can be real positives, are also, famously, the attributes of the Devil too. My relatives here understand that I'm not Chubi, and they are enjoying the process of sorting out just exactly who I am. But I can never feel completely free from the grim realization, even if the feeling is as subtle sometimes as a light evening breeze, that the person of whom I most remind them just happens to be the prince of darkness.

Like Language in A Dog's Ear
When I listen to my relatives converse in Ewe, my ear picks out the words I know, and it's like conversations in any language must sound to a dog. Yackety, yackety, yak... bad doggie... yackety, yak... go, yack, yack... your kennel, now! Except for me, in this place, my excellent ears (just ask my daughter-in-law, Erika, how good they are!) easily pick out the murmuring at the corners of a room - each little sideshow to the main conversation. And invariably, I hear, "Murmur, murmur, murmur, Chubi, murmur, Chubi, murmur, Chubi."

At my glorious going away party tonight, I thought, when I got up to dance, that the excited chatter, laughter and tittering that suddenly exploded around me was due to my embarrasing lack of fluidity on the dance floor. But, for once, my feet didn't fail me, and my ears, which have never failed me yet, quickly sorted out their collective reaction. It wasn't that I was dancing so badly. It's that... I dance like Chubi.

Enter, Uncle Emmanuel
Last week, at his carpentry workshop up in Kumasi, I met Uncle Emmanuel, and suddenly, it was my turn to be amazed. Here before me stood a man who could easily have been one of my grandfather's brothers. The physical resemblance was powerful and strong. But here's where another disturbingly dog-like part of my nature, a part I have always kept secret up until this very moment, comes strongly into play. I am possessed of an unusually strong sense of smell. I never mention this special gift of mine to people because it's just too damned wierd. But I'm sure it's part of the reason for the deep bond that exists between me and our family dog, Julie, who's half blood hound.

So, this wonderful man who feels so utterly familiar - like the experience of suddenly discovering a favorite old thing you thought had long been lost, at the bottom of a forgotten trunk somewhere - invites me to enter his shop and sit by his side. And I find myself exploding with emotion. It's because - unmistakeably - this man has my grandfather's smell. If you've ever loved somebody, you know that everyone has their own disticnt smell. And sitting with this old man, my nose was working in overdrive. The experience was so powerful because I realized at once how much I've missed that smell since he's been gone. And I hadn't smelled it since the last time I saw him in 1991. Well... that's not really true. The last time I saw him was in his bed at a nursing home in Oxford, North Carolina. I'd gone with my wife, Celeste, to see him for what I feared was the last time. It was. Dementia had robbed him of his ability to connect with us, and his stay in the nursing home had completely erased his smell.

(photo: Cousin David with Uncle Emmanuel at his shop)

So that means it's been since 1989, the last time I visited him at his home in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. It's a complex, layered smell. Fresh sweat, mixed with the smell of stale sweat, the dust and dirt on his shirt; the old cigar smoke mixed with some that's fairly new, floating on a mixed bouqet of cheap schnapps and some pretty decent whiskey. Not a lot of either. Just a hint. This is a rock solid and sober man; a good man, but very complicated. There is a smell carried on the sweat that is the result of one's physical labor; a much more subtle smell that results from each person's unique body chemistry. Mental and spiritual effort makes you sweat too. And in my grandfather's case, it occurs to me that the biggest daily psychic strain on his being came from from how hard it is to be a man who doesn't suffer fools gladly... in a world full of fools. Emmanuel must inhabit that same inner space, I thought. So maybe this unique smell shared by these two men who never met is, at least in part, the result of the constant effort it takes when you're a hard, fiery, and sometimes difficult man, to stay cool, and patient and kind.

"I Would Know You By Your Feet"
When Gideon and I visited Uncle Wakachie, he imparted a piece of information that filled in another huge piece of this identity puzzle for me. At some point in a long, rambling converstaion we were having, he stopped, glanced down at my feet and smiled. "Even if I had not yet seen your face," he said, "I would know you by your feet." This is a very important tidbit of information, because I have, arguably, the ugliest pair of feet I have ever seen on anybody, anywhere. All the years my kids, Malaika and Amahl, were growing up, anytime they had occasion to gaze upon these famously ugly feet, they'd let me know how deeply thankful they are that this was one particular feature they did not inherit from me. They both got their mother's beautiful, perfect feet.

But now, I have seen for myself that these feet have a long history. And I've let them free to be themselves here. I've got several pairs of unworn socks to take home. These feet have darkened up under the African sun almost as much as the rest of me because I've let them come out to play... in sandals or bare in the sand. They feel easy and free here because, for once, they are among their own kind.

When Malaika and Amahl have their own kids, everything about them will seem utterly perfect to me. But my heart will feel a special, secret joy if, when I first kiss those little newborn feet, at least one pair of them looks like the feet I looked down at when Wakashie and I walked the family farm together at the end of our first meeting.

More about that next time, when I bring you the installment called, "Turning African In Four Easy Steps."



1 comment:

Denise said...

I don't believe this color blue even exists in America! How deep, how exceptionally rich is this?