Saturday, September 06, 2008

photo: The "Groovy Spot", Tegbi

Part 2 of a Four Part Series, "I Would Know You by Your Feet"

Woezor (welcome)! If this is your first visit to this blog, I invite you to scroll all the way back to the beginning in order to pick the story up where it begins. At the point where I left off last time, Cousin Gideon Agebemabiese and me had stopped on the way to the ancestral village at Tegbi to purchase two bottles of schnapps as gifts for the elders. These would be used to perform ablutions meant to honor the ancestors and ask their blessings on the occasion of our reunion.


Every once in a while, there’d be just enough of an opening through the trees and the underbrush to allow us a glimpse of the vast Keta Lagoon, which is the great, defining natural feature of Anlo-Ewe country. Many of Anlo’s most important towns are sandwiched in between the lagoon and the sea, spread across a long spit of land that grows narrower and narrower as you travel east until, near Keta, both the lagoon on the one side and the sea on the other, are each only a stone’s throw away. Its shallow, brackish water was too hard for heavy war canoes to navigate, so it became a safe haven to which people fled during the slave trade. Its islands became densely packed homes for many thousands. We could see dozens of their descendants fishing its waters from small boats or working their fishing nets as they waded the sandy shallows. Residents know the pathways from island to island through the shallows very well. At low tide, you can see them trudging home with the day’s catch or with sundries from the market balanced on their heads, giving the impression, from a distance, that this is a place where the people have mastered the secret of walking on water.

Just outside the gate of the old family compound in the heart of the village of Tegbi, there's a small, family-owned liquor 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. We alighted from the truck and Gideon swung into high gear, working the group like a politician, managing the introductions in both English and Ewe as we walked together to the compound gate. There to greet us were the chief’s secretary, Agibota, in his black leather cowboy hat, and a small delegation of respected elders, led by Mr. Dzisam. Youngsters Kofi and Kwaku opened the gate for us and we were ushered through it into the compound. "We have heard of you, Cousin, and we are very glad to meet you," said Mr. Dzisam. "We welcome you home." Madame Desawu, a distant cousin who has been caretaker of the place for many years, rose from her cooking in the big outdoor kitchen and approached so that we could be introduced to her as well. Following shyly in her wake came her daughter, Agnes, and Agnes’ young children.

Photo: Cousin Gideon with Madame Desawu and her daughter, Agnes at the old
family compound

"It's Like a Miracle"
Our escorts spoke with one another in Ewe for a moment, and then excused themselves, saying they'd be back in a few minutes. Agnes’ children peered at me from behind their mother’s long skirt and giggled. Madame Desawu spoke animatedly with Gideon in Ewe while I had a look around. I’d been warned that the old family palace built by Gideon and Lawrence’s grandfather George (Haxormene I), was in a complete state of ruin, but I wasn’t prepared for the degree of ruin in which I found it. It looked almost as if it had barely survived wartime damage from bombs or shelling. But it was only time and neglect which had done the damage – time as measured by the relentless pace of ruin in the tropics. The neglect was due to the fact that once George’s son, family patriarch John Kofi Agbemabiese, moved his large family away to Kumasi and Accra in order to be close to his growing business interests, there were no more direct descendants of that line left in Tegbi to occupy either the palace compound or the stool of chieftancy.

photo: Ruins of Haxormene's palace

A building made of unadorned stone might last here, but there was little native stone to be had. A building made after the European style – with materials and a design originally meant for a temperate climate – simply won’t survive a tropical seacoast locale for long without constant up keep. The cycle of dry and wet seasons, each of them hot, conspires every hour of every day, year in and year out, to rot everything beneath the sun away, most especially anything built by human hands. The salt air makes it hard to keep even a coat of paint looking fresh for more than a year or two. Still, the old palace’s advanced state of decay made it hard to believe it was built only a little more than a hundred years ago.

It took a lot of imagining, but I began to see, as I poked around the place, how truly grand it once had been. It had eight bedrooms and two indoor baths at a time when these were rare anywhere on the continent. Its historical significance is that when it was built in about 1902, it was the first “story” building – simply meaning a building more than one story in height – ever built in this whole region of West Africa by a black man for himself. During the entire first half of the twentieth century, any other building of this size would have been built as a colonial administrative office of some sort, or as the headquarters for a European owned business concern. They say that for years after it was built, the sheer audaciousness of the project drew people from a hundred miles around just to see it.

While I explored and took photos, Kwaku, Agnes and a couple of others helped get white plastic chairs set up in the center of the compound courtyard for everyone who was expected. Madame Desawu chatted excitedly with Gideon as they traded family news and passed along greetings from people spread far and wide who’d passed along their regrets that they couldn’t be with us this day, but who wanted to say they were with us in spirit. Many times, she paused in the middle of her rapid fire conversation with Gideon in Ewe, looked over at me and smiled. Every time she did, I heard the same refrain. “She keeps saying, ‘It's like a miracle,’ said Gideon. ‘She says she took one look at you, and she was sure it’s true you are one of us. ‘Oh, it’s like a miracle’, she says.”

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