Friday, September 26, 2008

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?

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.”

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.”