Monday, August 06, 2007

Tror Na Foe

(Roughly, "to return and find again" in Ewe , the language spoken by my ancestors on my father's side).

This blog documents the story of how, through DNA-based genealogical research, we have found and connected with the original African family from whom my father's line had been separated by the trans-Atlantic slave trade. I invite you to scroll back through the earlier installments to pick up the story from the beginning. I've been working on a book about this whole adventure, but as I write this now, I'm switching gears a little and preparing to get the rest of my family on this side of the Atlantic in on the excitement too. On Friday of this week, nine of us are headed to Ghana together!

I don't have time now to share details of everything that has transpired with the continued development of ADFaR (African Diaspora Family Reunion) but I promise I will shortly after our return from Ghana at month's end. Meanwhile, I thought I'd share with you a story I wrote for the travel magazine trade shortly after my return from that first trip to Ghana in November. It's LONG... so I've broken it up into installments. May it help in some small way to build bridges to the Muslim community, in Africa and elsewhere.

I Hold High My Beautiful, Luminous Q’uran

How do kids in a rural, West African Muslim village manage to “get krunk” with each other on a Friday night in a culture that doesn’t allow dating, or even holding hands?

In mid-November, 2006, my cousin David Agbemabiese and I visited Ghana’s Mole National Park. My agenda for this first trip to Ghana had been unbelievably rich and deep, so this expedition up to a game preserve in the savannah of the far, Muslim north had been only tentatively penciled in… something I’d try to pull off if it didn’t interfere with my primary business. I was here in Ghana because, through DNA-based geneaolog-ical research, I had just recently found and connected with the African family from whom my father’s line had been separated since slavery – a very big deal, indeed. And I had just dived head first into the writing of both a weekly blog and a book about the experience.

I had found a large group of blood relatives here in Ghana, separated from my family in the U.S. by an ocean and about three hundred years of history. And they were anxious to meet me and see, if after all this time and distance, there was anything at all about us that might still make us identifiable to one another as family. We had discovered to our surprise, joy and delight, that yes, indeed, there was. Incredibly, strong physical resemblances had survived; shared interests; attitudes; a dozen different little recognizable traits of family character. Amazing. And there was so much family to meet. Patriarch John Kofi Agbemabiese had, over his long, successful and highly interesting time on earth, sired forty-one children with seven wives. I spent a couple of very intense weeks being escorted around the ancestral Volta region, Accra, and Kumasi, getting introduced by one group of relatives to another. In between, I stole time to write, and occasionally, to be a tourist too.

My cousin David, who squired me around Kumasi to meet relatives and to see the town, had recently lost his job. When another relative told him of my desire to visit Mole Park, he’d jumped at the chance to accompany me. I was paying, and he had the time. “We don’t do enough internal travel,” he said. “We have so much beauty here, but we Ghanaians, we hardly ever get the chance to see and enjoy our own country.” Travel in west Africa - even in a country like Ghana with much better than average infrastructure – is hard. And it’s not cheap, in a society where the economy just limps along and almost everyone is chronically underpaid.

Mole had held a special allure for me, ever since I first read about it in the process of preparing for this trip. I’d loved every minute of my time on the coast, the hill country; the rain forest. But so much of the long-imagined Africa I’d kept in my head and heart had always been about the savannah too - the land of baobab trees, mud houses and mud mosques; the sahel region at the edge of the great Sahara – the home of magical, mythical towns like Timbuktu and Djenne. And the other savannah; the home of big game and the safari. Mole has developed a reputation among travelers of being one of the only places in all of west Africa where visitors can have that quintessential east African experience of close encounters with some of the big, endangered animals with which Africa is forever linked in the popular imagination. And this is a place where you don’t need to rent a guide and an expensive four-wheel drive vehicle to see the park and its animal life. At Mole, you get to do your safari as part of a small group led by a ranger, on foot. You can also explore the park’s miles of trails by rented bike. A sure ‘nuff wild-animal-spotting safari, but free from the stereotypical, “great white hunter” echoes of the colonialist past? The prospect was much too good to resist.

The burly, charismatic driver hopped onto our bus at the Kumasi STC station like a performer taking the stage. “As Salaam aleikum,” he shouted. The two-thirds of the passengers who were northerners going home – and some of the rest of us too – shouted back “Wa aleikum, salaam,” as he launched into his good-natured apology on behalf of the STC that this vehicle on which we’d be spending the next nine hours or so was second class, not the first class bus we were supposed to have. But, no worries, said Wesley, after he introduced himself with a flourish. We should settle back and enjoy the trip, because, “That first-class bus was crap anyway. This bus, my bus, she’s the queen. I’m telling you, you don’t know how lucky you are to be on this bus. And me, I’m the best driver they got, too.” He flashed a huge grin. “Some of you know me well. They’ll tell you.” And sure enough, some of his regulars laughed and nodded at the rest of us. “You see; you see? It’s gonna be a good ride. Oh, yes! Schmoooo-ve, man, I’m telling you! No troubles; no worries. If you’re ready, I’m ready. Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!!” He cranked the engine and gunned it extra hard just for show. Well, at least, I thought, there should be no worries whatsoever about this guy falling asleep at the wheel. Not a single goat or chicken between here and Tamale was likely to end up as road kill on this man’s watch. And Wesley promised to be entertainment enough that we wouldn’t for one minute miss the bad Nigerian movies they show in first class.

So, David and I settled in for the ride. My only anxiety now was that cousin Lawrencia, who runs a school in Kumasi, had promised to see us off, and she wasn’t here yet. She is a woman of her word, and I hated the thought that, driven by this powerful sense of family duty she’s got, she was fighting the unbearable Kumasi traffic to get to us, knowing that by the time she arrived at the STC station, she almost certainly would miss us anyway. She’d have to turn right around and fight that traffic going the other direction, with only the slimmest chance of making it to school in time to unlock the doors. I never did see her… but just as the bus pulled out of the station, I heard David call my name from the back of the bus (our seats were supposed to be together, but the ticket agent had messed it up). Slowly, but surely, a plastic bag snaked its way from passenger to passenger until it reached my hand. “Lawrencia,” David shouted. It was a breakfast sandwich of scrambled egg and vegetables, one of two she’d lovingly made for us in the pre-dawn darkness while she fed her husband and kids and got ready for school. Then she’d made the mad dash to the bus station, spotted David in the window, and managed to hand them up to him as the bus pulled away. Miraculously, my sandwich was still warm. After being up since before dawn myself to catch this early bus, I was suddenly very hungry too. I don’t know when I’ve appreciated a meal more.
That's all for now. Watch for Part II in a couple of days!

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