Friday, August 29, 2008

photo: Old fishing boat on the beach at Tegbi, Ghana

This entry is Part 1 of a Four Part Series

Woezor (welcome)! If this is your fist visit to this blog, please consider scrolling all the way back through these posts so you can pick the story up at the beginning. If you're a return visitor, please look around. I've been active again after a long break, and there may well be many new posts since you were last here.

Visitors who've been around lately know that I am serializing the book I am writing, "In Search of My Father's House," on these pages. This week, I begin sharing sections of the chapter, "I Would Know You by Your Feet." Thanks for visiting. Enjoy.

I Would Know You by Your Feet”

It’s Like a Miracle
The highway east from Accra to the river crossing at Sagakofe had been the best stretch of main road that Gideon and I had traveled since I’d arrived in Ghana. Less than two hours after escaping the insane traffic of the capital, we were crossing the Volta River into the family’s ancestral home country of Anlo.

Not many years ago, there was a ferry at the place where the bridge now stands, and that was the only way across for many miles. This was true even back in the days when Keta, a few miles to the east near the border with Togo, was a major port. During the days of the slave trade, when this stretch of river was deeper, slave ships used to lie at anchor just south of here in the delta. On this particular afternoon, a few fishermen in dugout canoes were the only river traffic, but during the dark days of “the trade” slaving ships in the delta would be lying in wait for dugouts like these and larger war canoes to come downriver bearing cargoes of slaves from the interior. The Volta wasn’t the first African river to serve as a water highway for the transport of slaves, but it does have the dubious distinction of being the last. The very last ship known to have carried a cargo of slaves from Africa to the Americas, possibly within site of this bridge, weighed anchor for Brazil from here in 1866.

From Sagakofe to the Togolese border, the road narrows and its quality isn’t quite as high, but compared to the roads on our trip west during the week before, it was still easy going – much like traveling a typical two-lane blacktop “blue highway” in the U.S. We veered south to connect with the road that carries travelers east along the coast through Srogboe, and Anloga, the regional capital; then through Woe and Keta and finally, Denu and Aflao, the last two towns before the border. The big “Ghana National Investment Bank” logo on Gideon’s truck had the desired effect, and we were waved through every police check point with a nod or sometimes a salute and a smile, without even having to slow down. We were getting close now. The butterflies I had begun to feel when we crossed the Volta soon morphed into a whole torrent of butterflies. I’d never experienced exactly this kind of “nerves” before. This must be, I thought, like the butterflies the groom in an arranged marriage might feel before meeting his prospective bride and her family for the first time. There’s so much riding on that first impression… for all concerned. Will we feel like we fit hand in glove, or will we somehow feel just all wrong together? When we first look into one another’s eyes, will we see a glimmer of mutual recognition there – enough to recognize one another as family in any real way – or will we see… nothing? Or worse yet, will we feel repelled, or simply disappointed; sorry that we’d gone through all the trouble to arrange this meeting in the first place?

I knew Gideon was nervous too. Relations between the Agbemabieses, their close allies, and the rest of the Tovie clan had thawed some over the last couple of years. And there’d been a generally warm and positive reception to the news of my coming. But still, as Gideon had said on our journey here, even though he’d been back and forth between Accra and the village a few times, it had been twenty years since he had actually spent a night there. The process of fence-mending after a long time away is always awkward and complicated at best. Figuring out where and how my own agenda might comfortably fit into the mix could be like tip-toeing through a minefield, given the complexity of Ewe social etiquette – especially when my first introduction to the culture would come at the very same moment as my first introduction to the people who would be my hosts.

But neither Gideon nor I felt like talking about any of it now. In fact, this was the longest stretch of silence that there had been between us during the entire trip. The silence didn’t break until we arrived in Woe, the last town before Tegbi, a stop where we had to take care of a piece of business which turned out to be an important preliminary part of the social etiquette I needed to learn. Half-way through town, Gideon slowed to look carefully down every side road until he spied what he was searching for: a little liquor store at a dusty crossroads. Gideon explained that I should give him a little cash now so that he could buy two bottles of schnapps as gifts for the elders: one for the clan elders at the old family compound, and one for Uncle Wakachie. Because of the feud over the land, Wakachie wouldn’t be welcome at the compound, so we’d have to visit him separately. We’d meet with the clan elders today, Friday, and pay our respects to Wakachie on Sunday. In the old days before colonialism, libations to the ancestors would have been made with home-brewed palm wine, but during the time when this area had been part of German Togoland, it had become fashionable to use store-bought schnapps for this purpose instead, and the tradition stuck.

The liquor store was shabby and dark and felt a little dangerous. As we rolled through the crossroads and up to the door, I was surprised to feel the internal radar that most urban dwellers learn to develop suddenly swing into high alert. It was the first time since I’d been in Ghana that I’d felt the least bit unsafe. It was jarring. We were only a quarter of a mile off the main road at most, but now, suddenly this. One minute, we’d been in the middle of a bucolic, tropical countryside scene from a picture postcard, the next, right in the middle of a place that felt like the hardest, most hopeless corner of the hardest neighborhood into which I’ve ever stumbled.

The bank vehicle and Gideon’s obviously foreign passenger quickly drew a curious crowd. My inclination was just to get out, wade through them and go with Gideon into the liquor store, but he asked me to lock the doors and stay put. I did as I was asked and watched him disappear inside. A few more neighbors shuffled down the street and joined the people crowded around the truck. It’s hard to be the object of that much attention, especially when you are truly not looking for any. If people somewhere stare at you when you walk by, no matter how uncomfortable certain stares may make you feel, that’s a different thing because you know it’s soon over. All I could do was relax, make eye contact with a few folks and nod. A few people nodded back and waved or smiled. There was nothing malevolent in their stares; just curiosity. I understood. It was a slow afternoon in a slow, hard-bitten little town, and the two strangers in the official looking government truck were, quite simply, the only show in town just now.

Soon enough, Gideon emerged with the two bottles, wrapped in the ubiquitous black plastic bags which comprise half the litter in Ghana. When the wind blows hard in Ghana, because the flora is tropical, very few leaves, other than a few fronds of palm, will come flying at your face along with all that red dust. What you will get is shredded bits of black plastic bag on your clothes, in your face, in your mouth and in your eye if you’re not careful. I slipped the bottles into my backpack, and we were off.
Part 1 of 4 part series
Please join me again next week as I continue on with this account of what happened as Gideon and I made our way to the ancestral village, only a few miles to the east.

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