Monday, November 27, 2006

Tror Na Foe (troh-nah-fway) is a phrase in Ewe, the language spoken by my father's forbears, who lived in Togo and the southeastern tip of Ghana. It means, roughly, to return and retrieve something which one has lost.

photo:A little girl and her mother take center stage among a group of Ewe traditional dancers at this year's Hogbetsotso Festival in Anloga.

(excerpt from Countee Cullen's poem)

What is Africa to me:

Copper sun or scarlet sea,

Jungle star or jungle track,

Strong bronzed men, or regal black

Women from whose loins I sprang

When the birds of Eden sang?

One three centuries removed

From the scenes his fathers loved,
Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,
What is Africa to me?

Note: We've had many new readers join us these last few days. If you are one of these, welcome! I invite you to scroll down to the bottom of these posts (seven of them now) and read from the beginning, just to understand where we are now in this journey of self-discovery, sparked by the DNA-based geneaological detective work which has made the journey possible.

I sat at my cousin Happy's house, sipping a tall glass of cool water in her very pleasant, middle-class home, chatting with her husband, Victor, about African American perspectives on Africa. "So, honestly, what do you think of Ghana so far?" he asked. I said nice things, but their little sideways glances at each other made it clear they thought I was being too nice; too easily glossing over the every day issues - some little; some not so little - that wear Ghana's citizens down: an economy improving just enough to inspire frustrated expectations; power blackouts; mile after mile of streetlights that don't work; a national rail system that no longer works. Lots and lots of things that don't work, or which work poorly, at best. "I've been to America twice," he said, "And I must say, although I know you have your problems, it seemed like God's own country to me over there. Your climate makes people energetic; everything works... at least as far as I could see. And you see how things are with us over here. So, I'm always a little bemused about it when I see African Americans here in Africa with stars in their eyes, you know, looking to move 'back home'. I suppose, really, at bottom, it's an emotional thing, isn't it?"

"Yes," I said. "That's exactly it. Something extremely precious and important was taken from us, and many of us have a real sense of mission about taking it back, you know... a specific ethnic and national identity. You're Ghanaian, and you're Ewe. Your language; your culture; your sense of shared history with each other is rich and deep. You've lived it and breathed it all your life. You've been able to just take it for granted. And even though this is an impossible question for you to really answer, I'm going to ask it anyway: can you imagine what your life might be like if you'd never had any of that self-knowledge?" He looked me soberly in the eye and shook his head. "Listen," I said, "I get it when Africans here tell me, 'Man, you'd better appreciate what you have back there in the States. People never understand how precious political and social stability are until they lose them'. "And there are all kinds of material blessings many of us enjoy that the rest of the world envies. I know that too," I told him. But there are many human wants and needs that material things can never satisfy.

Later that night, another Ghanaian asked me about this issue of identity, and I told him of a newspaper story I once read about a young man from Atlanta whose father was African American and whose mother was native Hawaiian. He was raised by his dad in an all-black, east side Atlanta housing project. He'd always been accepted by his community as black, but many outsiders looked at his reddish-brown skin; his wavy hair; his nose; his eyes; and thought he must be Latino... or maybe partly Asian. He never worried much about what others thought, and he never had much curiosity about the Polynesian/Hawaiian half of his heritage... until the summer he turned eighteen. All of a sudden, now it mattered. His mother, newly in recovery from years of drug addiction, was suddenly fully available to him for the first time in his life. And he found himself eagerly drinking her in - needing to know her. This led very organically and naturally to a deep desire to know her people, and to meaningfully connect with that side of his heritage.

With his father's full blessing, and his mother's advance work on his behalf, the extended family back in Hawaii prepared a huge welcome for him. Over a hundred people, mostly blood relatives, met him at the airport. Even though he spent only two weeks there among them, he had been so immersed in their love and attention that when he returned to Atlanta, he came back feeling very Hawaiian. It's not that he no longer felt black. There was no "either/or" about his situation. His life had changed in a fundamental way, and now his identity was a case of "both/and". If others couldn't understand that and accept it, he figured that was their problem, not his. He understood now that to know the people from whom you come is to know yourself.

That's how I feel today. In this mysterious, wonderful universe of ours - a world in which light is both wave and particle - I claim the right to proclaim myself African American. There's something ambiguous and "squishy" about the definition for many, I know, but not for me. I know exactly what I mean by it. I mean both fully American and fully African. Out of simple respect, I make a point of never, ever arguing with people's choices about how to define themselves. Your life circumstances and the perspectives which flow from that are your own, so if being an "American of African descent", a "black American", a "Negro" or "colored" or "American" or simply "human" is what suits you best at any given moment, then be that. And know, too, that you have the right to change how you choose to define yourself according to how you feel in any given circumstance, and that when you choose to do so you are being neither weak nor disloyal.

Many different bloodlines meet in me, making me deeply rooted in this American soil. My Cherokee and Creek ancestors had loved and cherished this land for twelve thousand years before my first English forbears turned up here to make their own kind of claim on it. And my African ancestors, whose toil built so much of this country's early wealth; who sacrificed for a brighter future they knew they would never live to see; who willingly shed their blood in every one of this country's major battles, from the struggle for independence from England right up to the present - they paid several times over for my right to this land. This country and every good thing in it, from sea to shining sea, belongs to me. Bought and paid for.

But I've always felt I owed my African ancestors another kind of debt too. They are the ancestors with whom I feel the closest bond, because when I look in the mirror, theirs are the faces I most clearly see. It's the part of my ancestry most clearly visible to others, too, of course, and it's an ancestry that ties me to the land from which they came. So, I have always craved a deep and fluid relationship with that land - as a way to better know both them and myself. When they were wrenched away from their homes, their past was deliberately and cruelly erased. The sacred circle of family and cultural tradition was broken. I had always hoped, from an early age, that one day, I would be able to identify from what parts of Africa they had been torn - to go there, as their living representative, and get to know the places they'd had to leave behind; to look for some meaningful ways to make life a little better for the descendants of the kinfolk from whom they'd gone missing. Those who have been following this blog know that DNA-based geneaology data has made it possible for our family to go further than this - to identify some people in a very specific place who are blood kin on my father's line.

And so, on November 2nd, I went to Ghana to seek them out. And in a parallel experience to the young man from Atlanta whose story I told that night in Ghana, I came back to my home in Minnesota feeling very African.

The book I'm writing will have much more detail on this phenomenon, but for now, just to document and demystify it a little, here's my thumbnail version of what it's like to find yourself...

Turning African in Four Easy Steps

Geneaology - Going to Africa for the first time, not as a tourist, but as a member of a family who are eagerly awaiting you, is all about immersion. I brought a camera and a tape recorder, but hundreds of photos went untaken; hours of video and voice recordings went unmade, because I kept having to put these tools down or give them to someone else's keeping. I could never be the observer for more than a minute or two. I had to BE there - a full participant - in everything. So that was step number one - getting comfortable with finding myself thrown into the deep, deep end of a very deep pool. And if this happens to you, as your level of comfort and familiarity rise, you'll find yourself turning African... because on some deep level, that's exactly who and what you are. Had I been a tourist, I would have stood out like a sore thumb everywhere I went. But seventy-five percent of my waking hours, I was with at least one family member; often with several. It didn't matter whether or not passers -by thought I looked Ghanaian;"blended in" with my surroundings. The fierce love of my new-found family radiated an attitude clearly tangible to anybody who came our way - and it said, "He's one of us... and that's all you need to know."

Climatology - I had always known my body felt more comfortable in the tropics than in a cold climate, but when I moved to Minnesota, my wife, who is a native said, "Quit whining. Just learn to dress for it." I did. And until now, I'd always bought the logic that, by comparison, there's little you can do to make relentless sun and heat more bearable, beyond light-weight clothing and a good hat, maybe. In Africa, with the time to be a traveler, not just a vacationer, I quickly learned that this isn't true at all. Here's what you do:

  • Drink lots more water. Seems obvious, I know, but good, potable water is available everywhere you turn in Ghana, even if only from the ubiquitous little plastic bags that every other street vendor sells. Stop frequently, buy some, and drink up.
  • Relax, and listen to the more subtle things your body's trying to tell you. Your body knows, long before your brain, that it's time to... 1) slow down all movement and conserve energy; 2) seek shade without consciously thinking about it - like a sunflower just naturally seeks the sun; 3) eat fewer meals, eat less at each meal, and take your cues from what the locals eat - hot and spicy food keeps better, and, paradoxically, it cools you when you eat it... as do all those huge mounds of fresh, luscious, local fruit.
  • Start "seeing" the coconut man. His wholesome offering will give you both the liquid refreshment you need and boost your blood sugar too. And here he comes, right on time. Pay him a good price, and then let him chop the coconut fresh for you. Let him lopp off the top, so you can drink the cooling juice released by the blows of his machete. It's a healthy snack and a show, for one cheap price. Stop and have this pleasure often.

Funkology - Defining "funk" can be such an arcane and esoteric thing that I almost don't want to go there. The readers of this blog are a very multi-national, multi-cultural bunch, so not all of you are familiar with the term. If you are, cool - you know what it means to you. If you're not, just think of it as another way of saying "soul." By this I mean...

  • The joy of discovering all the many little things you know without knowing how you know... like somehow knowing how to play your proper part in a ceremony offering libations to the ancestors without having been coached beforehand... like learning to move fluidly and without fear, as do the Africans around you, across eight lanes of insane traffic... like knowing how to move on the dance floor, even if this particular dance is not familiar... like knowing which mango off the tree is the very one, perfect and ripe, that was meant just for you... like quickly developing an ear for languages you've never studied, such that you move from being the butt of a joke within your earshot (a joke about awkward foreigners) to being in on the joke - even if everybody knows you didn't really get it all.
  • "Snap"ology. Ghanaians finish a handshake with "the snap." You let your middle finger hook onto your friend's and linger there for a beat as your hands withdraw, and then, hands separate now, but close enough to still touch, a loud finger pop puts the exclamation point on a proper greeting. For the first two weeks, most Ghanaians I met assumed from my body language as I offered my hand that I wouldn't know "the snap", so it wasn't offered. Just a western-style shake. But by my third week, my body language must have thoroughly changed, because I got "the snap" without hesitation, everywhere I went. Something subtle in the way I move through the world had changed. I met some women at a cafe who had whiled away a little time by guessing, among themselves, where I was from. "We were sure you were diasporan," one said, "But no one thought, 'U.S.' The bet here was Jamaican."

Geography - (sorry; no clean way to add an "ology" to this one) But this one's big. I keep talking about the land because somehow every subject - identity, history, ethnicity, geneaology, politics, economics, and even spirituality - keeps leading back to it. When I was a boy, one of my peak experiences in terms of the development of my idea about who I am came when my grandmother took me out in the North Carolina countryside to meet some cousins who still owned and farmed a major chunk of land on which that part of our family had once been slaves. A cousin about her age took me out with him and we walked that land in silence. That walk was a graduate-level course in African American History and an intense lecture on our family history and identity all rolled into one, sublime hour. Yet during that hour, neither of us said more than five words to the other. There was no need. Our silent, walking meditation imparted a deeper, richer knowledge than language can carry. The day's lesson was, and is, deeply inscribed on my very heart and soul.

So, imagine the depth of my emotion when, forty years later and five thousand miles away, I find myself reliving this powerful, life-altering experience with yet another relative - another man who had been a total stranger up until today; up until... this very moment when we rise from his porch, and he bids me keep pace by his side as we walk his land in silence. This is land worked by his father before him, and by his grandfather's father before him, and Uncle Wakachie says, "You say you think you may buy land around here. Why? You already have this. Build your house here, or over there. Whatever you like."

And we walk the land in silence, in this powerful meditation sacred to fathers and sons; to uncles and nephews everywhere in the world. And I know in my heart that even though I am deeply rooted in the soil of the land where I was born, I have deep roots here as well. And all of it belongs to me - both there and here. And there is no contradiction between these two things. None. We walk this land in silence, but each footfall speaks whole volumes of rich meaning. With each footstep we say, "This... this is mine."

Enough said, for now. See you next week! Be well.

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."



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.

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.


Monday, November 06, 2006

Tror Na Foe (troh-nah-fway) A phrase in Ewe, the language spoken by our father's ancestors, who lived in southeastern Ghana, which means, roughly, "to return and find again."

"It's Like A Miracle,"
... exclaims cousin Madam Desewu (center) at a meeting of the Tovie (toh-vee-uh) clan on Saturday, November 4, in the ancestral village at Tegbi. With her are Gideon Agbemabiese and her daughter, Agnes Ablayo Agbemabiese.

The American Cousin
Before heading out to the airport with my son, Amahl, I had the usual pre-trip butterflies I always seem to get before I leave for somewhere. It's about anticipating whatever lies ahead; it's about fretting over what I might have forgotten or left undone in the last minute rushing around. Organization is not my strong suit, so there's always last minute rushing around, no matter how carefully I try to plan. But these butterflies were of a whole other order. I was about to fulfill a dream I'd harbored since I was a kid - the dream of finding and meeting our long-missing kinfolk in Africa.

The older and riper a dream becomes, the higher are the stakes if the reality can never quite live up to all the hope and emotion you've invested in it. How would I be received? How should they receive someone whose ancestor went missing from their fold between two hundred ten and two hundred forty years ago? That's a very long time. And much, much water, as they say, has gone over the dam since then... on my side of the Atlantic, as well as theirs. So given that, how are they supposed to feel about me? And for my part, I've always harbored a big romance about how I would feel if I ever found them. But in a few hours time, there we'd be, face to face for the first time, for real. Would the gulf created by time and culture turn out to be too wide and too deep to breach? Or would that sense of connection I have so deeply desired rise up and become a tangible thing? Would I feel, in their presence, like I was home?

The trip to Amsterdam, my stopover destination, was not an auspicious beginning. It wasn't a disaster... just kind of drag, like a long flight can be when there's not much conversation to be had, despite all of us back there in coach jammed together like sardines. A sourness hung in all that dead coach cabin air that was so oppressive, I couldn't wait to get off that plane.

But once in line for the flight to Ghana, things got much better. Ghanaians happy to be going home were talking animatedly, and allowed me to float in and out of a half-dozen different conversations as the line slowly snaked its way through security. I talked to ex-pat African Americans on their way home, missionaries; African Americans, like me, on their first trip to Africa. Once on the plane the lively hub-bub of the airport gate became more like a party. Tired of the usual airline swill, I'd ordered the "Hindu Vegetarian" meal this time, and it was great.

Two and a half hours out of Amsterdam, our plane cleared the coast of southern France, and all of a sudden, the butterflies returned. I knew that the next major land mass I'd see below would be Africa.

But as we approached the African coast, our arrival was anti-climatic. Algeria was covered in dense clouds... and the moon was rising; dusk already rolling in. Then, just in time to enjoy the view for a while before darkness fell, the clouds parted and, from 35,000 feet we could finally gape at the almost unimaginable vastness of the Sahara. That first clear view was the only moment of silence during the entire trip. A Ghanaian stretching himself in the aisle leaned over to look out the window just ahead of mine. "Mama Africa," he said with a smile. I smiled too, grateful that this most pleasant flight had given me what I felt must be a little taste of being in Ghana already... like the experience of dangling your feet in the pool for a beat before slipping fully into the water.

Shortly after the plane landed to the sound of loud applause from the passengers in coach, that pool analogy turned out to be profoundly apt. Because within just a few hours, I'd find myself feeling like a kid tossed into the deep end of a pool - the deep, deep end of a very deep pool.
Come back and visit me at this blog in a few days and I promise, I'll explain.