Thursday, June 19, 2008

Photo: Detail of skull and crossbones above doorway to death chamber for resistant slaves at El Mina, Ghana

Woezor (welcome). This blog is all about the adventure on which my family in the U.S. was launched, when, through DNA-based genealogical research, we found and connected with an African family from whom my father's line was separated by the transAtlantic slave trade!

If this is your first visit, I invite you to scroll all the way back to the 2006 entries and pick up the story from the beginning. Those of you who have been with us for a while know that I am in the middle of writing a book about what I discovered on my first journey to Ghana to meet these long-lost kin, and and all that has transpired since then. This week's posting is the next installment of the chapter, "Into the North."


We were only a few hours north of Kumasi, but the landscape had begun to change from the lush green farm land and forested hills of the central region to semi-arid scrub brush and savannah. Banana, mango, cashew and avocado trees gave way to stately baobab, shea nut and fig. 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,” or “God is Able Beauty Salon,” now gave way to mosques, and to stores and stands named, “Insh’Allah Blade Sharpening” and “Allahu Akbar Small Electronics Repair, Computer Training Institute and Internet Cafe.”

Not long after we’d crossed the bridge over the White Volta, the landscape changed again… as if the river itself were a barrier keeping the wetter air of the verdant, more prosperous south out, and the drier, sub-Saharan air of the dusty, more impoverished north in. If, before the river, we had been in the border lands of this “other” country, now it felt like we had entered its heartland.

In much of the Ghanaian south, the rural poverty was reminiscent of the American south of my youth. I mean by this the kind of poverty that might be symbolized by the shotgun shack that needs repair and a fresh coat of paint, whose front windows may have cracked panes and torn screens, whose backyards, busy with rusty-kneed children, dogs and chickens, might be full of old tires and other discarded things meant for possible reuse someday, but whose hardscrabble front yards were always clean and well-raked, and whose windows sported miraculously white curtains fluttering in the breeze.

Relatives and friends of mine who were once the rusty-kneed country children of houses like these now mostly sing the same refrain about the experience, and I believe them when they say, “Oh, man, we never thought of ourselves as poor. We knew we didn’t have much, but we never went without something to eat. And we were clean.” But even if you did think of your family as poor, everybody knew some other folks somewhere farther on up the road who were truly po’ – the joke being that if you were the latter, you were from people too poor to afford the “r” and the other “o.”

The houses of po’ folk might feature only pieces of fabric hung over the openings where the doors and windows should be, and no difference between the front yard and the back. And the rusty-kneed children of these houses sometimes do have to go without something to eat. And the junk in the yard is just junk. The forlorn look of these places always seems to say that perhaps the folk who live in them lack the dogged optimism of their slightly more affluent neighbors – people who are working and praying for a better day they truly believe will someday come. For people at the very bottom of a poor country’s socio-economic ladder, it’s hard to find the energy and the focus to nourish a dream – any dream at all – when all of each day’s energy and focus must be devoted to the tasks of basic daily survival.

The north has many pockets of relative prosperity, but in comparison to the Ghanaian south, much of the northern region feels po’ like that. This north/south axis is not unique to Ghana. In fact, this is the fault line along which much of west Africa’s fractious internal politics is organized. Even conflicts whose foundations seem to the outside world to be primarily ethnic or religious often feature a strong element of this basic bit of geography underneath it all.

The social geography in this region of the world is the opposite of how we think of the North/South axis of the wider world. In that model of real politic, the North is the developed world and the South is the developing world. In the U.S., the cultural divide between “the north” and “Dixie” is complicated and has many layers to it, but reduced to its simplest, most stereo-typical absolutes, the divide is similar: haves vs. have nots; urban vs. rural; sophisticated, cultured and worldly vs. unsophisticated, uncultured, country bumpkins. In much of west Africa, you flip that geographic axis upside down. Northerners have to fight both for respect from their countrymen and for attention from their government. Southerners look down their noses at them and consider them the great unwashed.

Much of the reason for this north/south split is the legacy of slavery. Just as some areas of persistent poverty in the rural American south, equally persistent pockets of poverty in urban black America, and the grossly disproportionate numbers of African Americans who are incarcerated stand as evidence that slavery is having a vigorous afterlife in the United States, the persistent poverty and second-class status of west Africa’s “north” stands as evidence that slavery is having a vigorous afterlife there as well. The legacy of slavery is only one of the complex and interconnected reasons for the region’s poverty. But it is one central reason.

And this is something about which there should be no surprise.

Read more about why this is so when we continue this story next week at Tror na Foe.

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