Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Tror Na Foe (troh-nah-fway)
A phrase in Ewe, the language of my Ghanaian forbears, meaning, roughly, "to return and find again."
(Photo: Main entrance to the fabled mosque at Larabanga, reputed to be the oldest in west Africa)
If you come back here from time to time to see if I've added anything new, thanks very much for your loyalty and your interest. It's been hard to devote much time to the blog, since making a living at the kind of writing I do means spending an awful lot of time working on projects that help put bread on the table or hustling new work. I'm trying to step up my game and be much more regular again about posting. If you are brand new to this site, welcome! I invite you to scroll all the way back to the beginning and work your way forward.
My family and I have just returned from a glorious two weeks in Ghana together - nine of us! Look for details of this momentous trip in the coming weeks. The photo above was taken in Larabanga, at the legendary mosque for which the town is known. We all agreed it is one of the most beautiful buildings we have ever seen. And it's very relevant to the continuation of the taveler's tale I began sharing with you last time in part one of "I Hold High My Beautiful, Luminous Q'uran." Here now is part two. See you again soon.
"I Hold High My Beautiful, Luminous Q'uran" part two
Heading north from Kumasi, it didn’t take long before we saw the landscape begin to change from the lush green farm land and forest of the central region to semi-arid scrub brush and savannah. Small towns with modest houses of painted concrete gave way to tiny villages with conical houses of mud, wattle and thatch. A landscape liberally dotted with churches of every conceivable denomination; stores and produce stands named in the classic Ghanaian style: “Why Can’t I Just Thank My Jesus Grocery;” “God is Able Beauty Salon;” gave way now to mosques, and to stores and stands named, “Insh’Allah Blade Sharpening” and “Allahu Akbar Small Electronics Repair, Computer Training Institute and Internet Cafe.”

As we neared the center of dusty Tamale, I noticed that there was nowhere near as much new construction going on here as I’d seen in the rest of Ghana … but out of the three nearly-finished buildings I’d seen thus far, two were mosques. We neared the STC bus station and suddenly, the call to evening prayer erupted from a dozen minarets; some only steps away from our bus; some from distances too far to see. The same words, but sung/recited in different keys by a diverse set of voices, overlapping; slightly out of synch with one another: “Ashadu la illaha il’Allah.” And yet, far from dischordant, the rising crescendo of this chorus - “Wa Muhammadu Rasul il’llah” – created a compellingly beautiful music that seemed to rise, like the red dust lifted by the Harmattan wind all around us, from the earth itself. Some passersby outside our windows dutifully scurried along toward the nearest mosque; others went about their business, anxious like all of us passengers on the bus, to get to their destination before evening could finish painting the dark blue sky of dusk to velvet black.

As David and I alighted from the bus, we knew we didn’t have long to procure ourselves some reliable transport out to the park. We’d heard that Mole, even though only about 85 kilometers distant, was not an easy journey from here. The way there was all over very bad road, and it might take as long as four hours of rough travel to reach it. And we knew we’d already missed the only bus of the day that goes all the way. When we started asking cab drivers how much they’d charge to take us, some balked because of the condition of the road; others quoted us prices that were insane.

Frustrated, we went in search of a tourist bureau I’d read about in a guide book. But even if we found it, would it still be open at this late hour? Suddenly, a voice called David’s name from a nearby market stall. It was Mary, a distant relation from the old village. Up in this Dagomba and Gonja-speaking region, it was like music to David’s ears to hear someone warmly and familiarly address him in Ewe. After introducing me, and explaining our situation to Mary, she quickly made it clear we were in very good hands. Her husband, John, also an Ewe from the Volta region, is the accountant and de-facto station manager. She led us across the STC station to his office. After a brief strategy session, John and David decided it would be best to stash me out of sight behind the counter at Mary’s stall – too obviously a foreign tourist with my relatively nice luggage and my camera case – while they negotiated with a couple of drivers who owed John a favor or two. I chatted with Mary and her assistant, and bought bottled water for David and I while I waited.

After a couple of minutes, they returned with a surly driver who’d been talked into a price he wasn’t happy with. He had a very dubious looking cab, too. I couldn’t imagine this rust bucket, barely held together with spit, rubber bands and paper clips, had even one more 170 mile round trip in it, much less 170 hard miles. After only two weeks, I’d already traveled in far better looking cabs that broke down after just a few miles of challenging road. But I needn’t have worried. This driver and this car were true road warriors in the best west African tradition, and four hours later, we arrived. We’d been shaken as though tossed into a blender and whizzed for a while, and we were covered from head to toe in fine, red dust… and the hour was late. But we were there. I saluted and hugged both the car and the driver, and gave them the fattest tip I could manage, saving out just enough for the bus trip back to Tamale.

The hotel is nice; clean, sunny rooms, but no frills, and the water is only on for a few hours each day. But it’s safe to drink. And there’s a pool. And a decent restaurant with a bar. And just down from the pool, there’s an observation deck, perched in a perfect position for guests to sit and watch the action at the two watering holes on the wild, species-rich savannah below the escarpment on which the hotel sits.

That next morning, just after sunrise, David and I enjoyed a three hour hike with park ranger John, and a very pleasant retired German couple enjoying their second holiday of the year. Our “safari” didn’t disappoint. We saw herds of two different species of antelope; several species of birds; elephants and crocodiles. And later in the day, at very close quarters, we saw dozens of baboons, warthogs, and collubus monkeys. Great stuff. I shot a lot of photos and video.

But the most memorable part of our stay happened during the night hours, when all kinds of activity is going on in the park, invisible to all but those who have a great, hidden perch and night vision glasses. David and I lamented the fact that we didn’t have these. But fortunately for us, these are not necessary for night people watching.

Early that evening, a staff person made the announcement that at 6:30, there’d be a graduation ceremony just up the hill in the park rangers’ quarters for several new rangers, and that any guests who wanted to come were very welcome. As soon as we heard, David and I knew we were going. We wanted to support the new rangers, just out of principle. In a region where few good jobs are available, these are good jobs. And local guys like these new graduates are precisely the ones who have the best chance at convincing old friends, family and neighbors not to poach on park grounds; to participate in making this area safer for all the endangered animals and more tourist-friendly at the same time.

I had another reason for wanting to come. The music of this region has always spoken to me in a special way. My cd collection at home is full of the Islamic-flavored music of the sahel: Salif Keita, Thione Seck, Ba Cissoko, Oumou Sangare, Ali Farka Toure, Sekouba Bambino, and Issa Bagayoyo, among others. Wandering through the rangers’ quarters that afternoon, I’d heard intriguing bits and pieces of northern pop music in the air: the music kids were dancing to while they played, blaring from radios their mothers had placed in windows so they could listen while hanging laundry; wafting out from kitchen doorways while they began work on the evening meal. It was wonderful – melodic; complex; flute and voice driven, with rolling base lines and undulating percussion underneath, and I wanted to hear more. And since every African party is a dance party, I was pretty sure that tonight, at the graduation, I’d get my wish.
Next time, part three. See you again soon.

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!