Thursday, September 18, 2008

Ruins of Haxormene's palace at the old family compound in Tegbi, Ghana

"I Would Know You By Your Feet" - Part 3 of a six part series (expanded from 4 to 6 parts)

Woezor (welcome)! If this is your first visit to this site, I invite you to scroll all the way back to the beginning to see how I arrived at the moment I've been describing with this particular series of posts.

At the point where I left off last time, Cousin Gideon and me had just arrived at the family's ancestral village of Tegbi, just west of Keta, near the border with Togo. Madame Desawu, caretaker of the old family compound, had just given me a warm greeting.


Her words moved me deeply. When she saw that my eyes had welled up as full of tears as her own, she walked over and pressed my face between her hands. They were rough, calloused, country woman's hands, but somehow, as soft and comforting as a warm blanket on a cold night. Then, she abruptly wheeled about and returned to her cooking in the outdoor kitchen where we'd found her when we first entered. Gideon, Kwaku and I sat nearby under the courtyard’s nearly two hundred year old mango trees to await the arrival of the full delegation from the Tovie clan.

While we waited, Kwaku peppered me with questions about my life and family in the States. The smell of Madame Desawu’s food on the fire, redolent with just enough vaguely recognizable notes to summon memories of long ago summers in the country with my southern relatives, the squeals of the children at play, the casual wandering of the odd farm animal across the courtyard here or there, and the warm conversation, all worked to make this entire scene very comfortable and familiar. All my earlier apprehensions about the day had melted away. In fact, I found myself feeling more relaxed and content than I had in many months. I had expected my first meeting with these long-missing relatives to be complicated with at least a few jarring notes of culture shock. But so far, this had felt like the afternoons I used to spend on summer vacation in North Carolina, out “pop calling” with my father or my grandmother, visiting far-flung relatives we hadn’t seen for a while. We’d turn up some long driveway and one of them would say, “Well, this is Althea and Robert’s place, David. You remember Althea and her children, don’t you?” There’d be a pretty good chance that no, I didn’t remember any of them at all. But that never mattered. They were family, something that always interested me, so I’d usually end up enjoying myself. And the food was always good.

Narratives of Longing

As these newfound kin and I sat with each other in the compound courtyard that day, I began to realize that some of them had found a similar way in which to think about their relationship with me too. It felt as if most of them found it hard to wrap their minds around the idea that the relative of one of their ancestors had been taken long ago as a slave to America, and that one of his descendants had found them through a DNA match, and had now come to seek them out. It was far easier to think of me this way: as the son of some long-lost branch of the family who’d been away in America his whole life, but who had miraculously returned to them. In West Africa, extended families are large, and with relatives often spread out over substantial distances these days, it’s practically impossible to keep close tabs on everybody. People emigrate to neighboring countries for work, and seldom get back home as often as they’d planned. People emigrate to Europe, Canada or the U.S., and many of them get back home only rarely. Some of them never come home again at all. So, the narrative of an almost entirely unknown but long-missing relative suddenly come home seemed to be a familiar and comfortable fit in this situation. It’s a narrative that’s simple and benign. All that it would require of them is their hospitality, and then our mutual commitment to a happy family reunion.

As the men who had greeted us at the gate returned with their wives and the other clan members who’d been asked to come, it was pretty easy to guess who among them were thinking of our relationship on the basis of this narrative, and who among them might be steeling themselves to deal with me from another, less comfortable one. Unlike the people who were beaming at me, or simply trying to get a good look at me without seeming to stare, the clan members preparing themselves to deal with me from this other narrative looked sober and grim, because they knew this second narrative requires confronting slavery – always a difficult subject for Africans and African Americans. Our ancestors’ lives were viciously savaged by the same prolonged, almost incomprehensively brutal holocaust, but in the midst of that evil time, our stories diverged. My ancestors were among the twelve million souls who were its victims, murdered or carried away as slaves. Their ancestors were among the millions who found a way to ride out the storm and survive. One of the strategies the Ewes used to survive that time was to become major players in the slave trade themselves. Like the Yoruba-speaking Oyo Empire to the east of them and the Ashantis to the west, they raided other communities in order to capture slaves whom they could trade for guns and powder, which were then put to use to capture more slaves, and to prevent their own people from being captured by others. The ancestors of the people gathered around me now had been successfully protected by this Ewe community from capture. Mine hadn’t. Why?

The subtle tension rising between us around that circle in the courtyard was due to the fact that both I and these clan elders knew that I would have some questions about this that they couldn’t answer… or would rather not. One reason for the inability or reluctance to do so is the history of the malevolent and dehumanizing ways in which the slave trade lured Africans to victimize their own. The most familiar image of “the trade” is of slavery on the wholesale level, where kings and generals and strongmen devastated whole communities, afterwards selling the farmers and soldiers of the losing side with their wives and children to the Europeans, perhaps keeping some slaves for themselves. Much less familiar is the gut-wrenching reality of slavery on the retail level – the cold-blooded and tragic choices made by ordinary commoners to sell away their own kith and kin. Poor families who became desperate enough might sell off a child or two so that they could better manage to feed the ones who remained. A man might lose a son or daughter, seized to settle a debt he couldn’t pay. Chiefs sentenced some criminals to captivity as punishment. And so it went, decade after decade for hundreds of years. If the reason for my Ewe ancestor’s captivity had a story like this behind it, it was easy to understand how this was the kind that might survive as a dirty little family secret for a couple of generations, eventually to be lost completely. These aren’t the kinds of stories that people tend to cherish and commit to passing down for posterity.

But I also knew there was another over-arching reason the elders might not be able to answer many questions about my ancestor. For generations, not just in this village but throughout the continent, the transatlantic slave trade and the people who went missing because of it simply haven’t been very much on African minds. This is because the African narrative about slavery is so different from the African American narrative. Their narrative is about survival, resistance and triumph, first over slavery and then over colonialism. It’s also a celebration of deep cultural roots and continuity. The narrative I inherited about slavery celebrates survival too – and the courage and faith required to achieve it. But mine is also a narrative about the loss of deep cultural roots and continuity, about feeling, “like a motherless child, a long way from home.” These Ewes have a heritage of songs and stories which celebrate the history of their resistance and its heroes that are widely known and frequently sung. I was told that there are also songs which tell of and mourn some of those who went missing during slavery, but no one gathered that day knew any of these, nor could they think, at that moment, of anyone who did. Elders in far-flung villages who might be able to sing us these songs or tell us these stories are being lost to us, one by one and two by two with every passing year. I was promised that they will ask around until they find someone. Essentially, they were saying, “We’ll get back to you on that.”

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