photo: members of the Tovie clan gather to meet the author under an ancient man-
go tree at the old Agbemabiese family compound in Tegbi, Ghana.
Woezor (welcome)! If this is your first visit, I invite you to scroll all the way back to the very beginning to see how this journey began and where it has led us thus far. This is the fourth of six installments of a chapter called, "I Would Know You by Your Feet." Please come back and visit again soon.
I had already forwarded one specific question to them in advance, through Lawrence, that I’d hoped someone might be able to answer, something which had emerged from the historical research I’d done about Anlo before coming. I’d learned that between 1688 and 1704 there had been a cultural upheaval in Anlo which, at its core, was about religion. The Ewes had for most of their history lived as a confederation of villages whose livelihood was farming and fishing. Ewes who lived in the population centers of West Africa’s great empires were known for their abilities as craftspeople and traders. The Ewes placed a high premium on peaceful relations with their neighbors, and over the centuries, when attacked, their response was to migrate to new territories where they felt safer.
But in the early 1680s, just as the slave trade was gathering momentum, they had arrived in Anlo with their backs to the sea. The marauding Ashanti, Ada, Akwapim and others pressed them on their west, while Oyo pressed them from the north and east. Tired of being relatively easy pickings for slave raiders, and with nowhere left to run, the loosely confederated Ewe military organized and centralized its command in order to more effectively defend themselves. By the mid-1680s, they had not only beaten their enemies back, but in the east, had begun to turn the table on their old Yoruba enemies, and were capturing and selling them as slaves. The generals in this new militaristic culture became the most powerful element of society, and with them, the God of war. For a time, forsaking the worship of the old agricultural Gods and joining the generals in worshipping the God of war was necessary for ambitious people who wanted to advance their family’s position and fortune. After a while, this switching of religious allegiances became mandatory. Some refused to buckle under. What happened to them? So far, I haven’t come across any accounts of the consequences they paid. Were some killed? Were some sold into slavery? Is that what happened to my ancestor? Was he one of those who resisted? Was being sold away his punishment? If so, I thought, then I might well be sitting now with the descen-dants of some of the kin who sold him away.
But no one among the people in the courtyard could shed any light on this for me either. They’d have to get back to me on this question as well.
In the meantime, the elders who’d gathered to meet me made it clear they would do their best to tell me as much as they knew. And so, everyone took their seats, Mr. Dzisam made introductions all around, and the formal part of our meeting began. There were twenty four of us in the courtyard now, including the children. Kwaku was sent out to the Groovy Spot to buy soft drinks. These would be refreshment for the women and children. Only the men would be passing around the schnapps after the opening libations.
As soon as Kwaku returned, Kwadzo, aided by Eric, performed a libation ceremony with one of the bottles of flavored shnapps Gideon and I had bought in Woe for the occasion, asking the ancestors to enjoy this auspicious moment with us and to bless it. Eric scooped a little dirt from the courtyard into a bowl and swirled some water into it. Kwadzo poured in some of the schnapps and swirled the mixture again. Whether they had planned it before-hand as a group, or it was a spontaneous expression from Kwadzo’s heart – or perhaps a whispered inspiration from the ancestors themselves – an attempt to begin to bring our differing narratives together began now with this libation. As Kwadzo chanted prayers, pausing periodically to pour some of the mixture upon the ground, Gideon leaned into me and whispered an interpretation of his words. He offered thanks that one who had been lost to them had returned, and asked the ancestors to bear joyful witness to this. But he also invited my ancestors to come and be with us, to bless and to be blessed on this occasion. In the distant past, my ancestors the ancestors of the people gathered here were one and the same, but tradition holds that the ancestors’ presence is strongest in the places where their lives were lived on earth. So mine, who were among the many ancestors torn from their midst long ago and made to live out their lives on foreign soil, were asked to come join us too. And then for the entire assembly, seen and unseen, Kwadzo asked that there be healing for those who had been hurt by slavery, and forgiveness for those who had been involved in the cycle of capturing and selling which fueled the trade.
As Eric and Kwadzo closed the ceremony and returned to the circle, the women and some of the other men spontaneously offered up additional prayers of thanksgiving. Then, while Kwaku handed out soft drinks to the women and children, the men passed the bottle of schnapps, each reverentially pouring a little onto the ground for the ancestors, then taking a sip before passing it on. Everyone gave me strong eye contact when my turn came. Everyone except Agibota. He didn’t seem hostile, just cool and reserved, still perhaps a little unsure about me; unsure about this whole enterprise. Who could blame him? My sudden appearance among them, and the way in which it had occurred was a big thing for people here to make peace with and fully comprehend.
In general, the history of African American outreach to Africa and Africans has a very checkered past, though not without its highlights: the good feelings, the sense of unity, the pride and optimism generated during the high water marks of Pan-Africanism; the way in which the American struggles for civil rights and the African struggles for independence inspired one another. Yet for a long time, the racist poison internalized during slavery and its lengthy afterlife had the effect of leading a great many African Americans to reject association with anything African. But once great numbers of black people throughout the entire African diaspora experienced, in the fifties and sixties, a new awakening of pride in African heritage – a longing to connect with the continent in meaningful ways – that pride awakened with a vengeance. The descendants of African slaves were driven by a deep longing to break through the historical fetters of the slave past and connect with an African identity before slavery. But most who tried to satisfy that longing by making the pilgrimage to Africa, found that the history they had come to seek was still bound by the shackles of slavery, even there. They’d found that once they had toured the slave forts of Ghana and Senegal, the heritage trail had hit a dead end. There were no signposts for pilgrims to point the way from there back to the ancestral village.
Now that DNA matching holds out to African Americans the tantalizing possibility of connecting with Africans who are at least our distant blood kin, that sense of longing has a very personal dimension. What would it mean – socially, culturally, politically – if hundreds and then thousands of us eventually make this journey and begin to reconnect in significant ways with members of the families our ancestors had been forced to leave behind? Even in this post Pan-African era, Africans clearly see the potential for the continent if African Americans were to “come home,” literally or figuratively, and put their shoulders to the wheel in order to help accelerate the pace of development. They understand full well how an energetic and focused African/African American collaboration in business, education, science, and the arts could prove a powerful dynamo for the uplift of our peoples on both sides of the Atlantic; a positive and hopeful development for the rest of the world as well.
But for now, Africans see us coming and cringe. Too many of us have come with heads full of romantic notions, expecting to feel instantly at home and unconditionally embraced. Others come with paternalistic ideas about what Africans want or need. Our assistance might be nice, but… will we be more trouble than we’re worth? Perhaps much more? What do we really want? What, specifically, do we want from them? Is there any evidence of an African longing for a connection to us? On what basis might we begin to construct a shared narrative which expresses an authentically mutual need for each other?