In the summer of 1962, after the first wave of African counties became independent, I went to Ghana. In that long ago time, African-Americans were called Negroes, women were called girls, and students were more interested in serving others than in making money for themselves. The Peace Corps and other organizations were sending volunteers to all corners of the world. So, there was nothing extraordinary about a naïve young girl from Buffalo going to Africa.
Africa After Independence
By Marlene Nadle
The darkness of early evening curls around the sleek terminal as my plane arrives in Ghana. Not certain what comes next, I stumble into the building to retrieve the rucksack that is too big for my back and wait.
“Are you Marlene?” a short Ghanaian in his late fifties soon asks. An easy guess. There are not many young white girls among the arriving travelers.
“Yes,” I reply, relieved not to be lost in West Africa.
“My name is David. You are welcome to Ghana. You are very welcome,” he greets me, pumping my hand. This man, wearing conservative, western-style slacks and shirt, is a Quaker from the Friends Service Committee, and the organization’s official host for the few days I’ll be in Accra. He combines great dignity with enthusiasm, but tilts towards enthusiasm.
“How are you?” David asks, peering at me with his intelligent eyes. “How is your family? Your mother? Your father?” In this ritual of manners he inquires after everyone, practically to my eighth cousin twice removed, before we can move out of the terminal.
I push against a wall of humidity and heat as we walk to his car. I’m grateful for the wind that tickles my cheeks. Grateful, too, that the Friends Service Committee decided to send me to Ghana when I volunteered for one of their projects in Africa.
From the snatches of reading I did for the trip, I know Ghana was the first African country to win its freedom from the colonialists. So, being here feels like an extension of my days in the South with people demanding freedom from Jim Crow. As I follow my host to his parking spot, I wonder whether America’s civil rights movement was sparked by Africa’s struggle for independence, or the other way around. Either way, I think, while sliding into the blue car’s front seat and leaning back against the scratchy fabric that may mark me for life, it seems Negroes being wronged in both places began to say “enough” at almost the same time.
My host races his engine and begins to drive dangerously fast like everyone else in Accra. We speed through a pastel, low-rise city with a few demi-skyscrapers poking up, pass along broad avenues, and catch glimpses of unpaved, rutted lanes with open sewers.
Even the people walking are in quick, exuberant, gossipy motion. Women in brilliantly printed, peplumed, long dresses dash to cars at stop lights to sell peanuts.
Vibrant in their patterns, they are beautiful to me. Most men hurrying along are in cultural transition, wear shorts with knee-high white socks and other improvised western styles, but some have togas draped over their left shoulder in a splash of colorful design. I inhale the newness of it all with a stranger’s delight.
On one of the storefronts, hand-painted letters spelling “Chop Bar” are scrawled above a mural that looks much like the people outside the car.
“Are chop bars rough places? “ I ask, checking my assumption.
“ No! No! They serve good, inexpensive Ghanaian food. It would please me to take you to one if you choose.”
Other food is being sold on corners. Vendors grill over charcoal fires and raise a haze of smoke. It smells like the leaf bonfires of my Buffalo childhood. Only, I’ve happily willed myself out of those dull streets and into the wonder and magical turbulence of Accra.
Horns constantly blare as if people are still celebrating independence. Between David dodging accidents and my glancing back at Ghana’s past, I say, “I wish I was here
when you got your country back.”
He smiles as he tells me about the night the lights blazed late in the Legislative Assembly, the midnight moment when the British Union Jack was lowered and the Ghanaian flag with its red, gold, green stripes and black star of liberation was raised, the excitement that had people bouncing in place, the waving of celebratory white cotton
handkerchiefs, the tears, the dancing, the songs old and new.
He interrupts himself to sing one of the melodies from that night. “Ghana, we now have freedom.” And, acting as his own chorus, bellows, ”Freedom.” Then again, “Ghana land of freedom.”
My host can’t resist a gleeful boast. “Ghana was all by itself in 1957. We inspired all the Africans. Now there is independence in Nigeria, the Belgian Congo, Mali, Ivory Coast, Senegal…” He rattles on, naming nearly twenty countries, giving a little toot of his car horn after each one, and adding to the cacophony.
David makes it sound as though all the colonial empires came tumbling down. And yet. And yet. This Ghanaian Senior Civil Servant is still driving on the left side of the road as they do in Britain. He speaks the Queen’s English, which is the new country’s official language. His Quaker faith is part of the profound hold the colonialists and their missionaries still have. His decision to go to the London School of Economics is a piece of the unbroken bond.
I’m beginning to realize England didn’t leave when it officially left. Beyond the surface of things, I can’t tell how deep the psychological grip still goes in the man sitting
beside me in the car. I don’t know whether he has absorbed in his bones the colonialist’s belief that everything English is good and everything African is bad. I don’t know how much of his rich African essence he and other westernized Ghanaians abandoned to reshape themselves into imitation Englishmen.
Whether responding to me out of his acquired British tradition or his African one, my companion is considerate. With polite solicitude he asks, “Do you wish to see more of Accra tonight or do you prefer to rest at my home where another volunteer stays?”
Uncharacteristically, I choose rest. I am exhausted from the weeks of my many- legged journey which took me by bus from Buffalo to New York, onto an Italian ship with other volunteers for Friends’ work camps, to a train today from Paris to Barcelona, and, finally, the plane which brought me to Accra. I gratefully sink into a bed inside his modern, five-room house in a city neighborhood with a suburban feel.
I get up in the late morning and come into David’s living room which has the indifferent décor of a widower and shutters closed against the sun. In the kitchen, I find a spectacular display of diced papayas, mangoes, and pineapples. I also find the other American volunteer, blond ivy leaguer who is icy, condescending, and barely deigns to return my greeting. I dislike him instantly and am glad he doesn’t want to come along to explore Accra.
My host drives me through the dazzling light and past a bronze statue of Kwame Nkrumah, the leader of Ghana’s independence struggle and now President of the new country. The man made into a monument is wearing a metallic toga draped over one shoulder. His right arm is outstretched. Someone has stuck celebratory white cotton handkerchief in his hand. He looks attractive, fit, imposing, a person to be reckoned with. “Nkrumah is a great African. A visionary in his call for African independence and and unity,” David exclaims, with a flurry of hand gestures and a flow of sonorous tones. Then, he gives me and the civil rights movement another connection of to Ghana. “Nkrumah’s vision, you must know, was found in your country when he was a student there. From Marcus Garvey he took home a belief in Pan-Africanism. From W.E.B Dubois, the idea of equality for all colored people.”
“How do you like having a visionary for President?”
His face tenses. The only answer he gives is a shrug. I suspect leaders with visionary temperaments may not have the patience for ordinary politics For whatever reason, by this hot July day in 1962 some of the luster seems to have worn off the hero.
Not willing to discuss Nkrumah, my host switches the subject. He praises the outdoor Makola Market and takes me there. It is a land of women, independent traders who help make the economy go. Behind stalls piled with perfect pyramids of tomatoes, standing half buried in cassavas, yams, and bananas, serving up smoked fish, or tending live chickens, the women in traditional dress are a swirl of primary colors and elaborately tied head scarves. The hubbub stretches to the horizon.
After we return to his house and collapse for a time, David suggests we celebrate my last night in Accra. “Not in a little Chop Bar. No. We must go dancing,“ he bubbles, assuming the ballroom posture.
He picks a fancy hotel with an outside dance floor and a band playing brassy music. Couples are doing quick steps with a lot of sideway hip motion.
“We call this music and dance the highlife. Alas, the name, given in the 1920’s, reflects the style of the colonialists,” David says, as we settle at a table.
A waiter brings some Black Star beer. “Grazie,” I say, as he puts it down. I’ve automatically fallen back into my pattern with waiters on the Italian ship. When the other volunteers and I spoke at meals, our conversations were always punctuated with “grazie, Endlessly, it was “grazie.” Kennedy, “grazie,” Russian Revolution, “grazie.” ...
David interrupts my memories of the Italian ship. “You will try the highlife?” he asks, already standing.
“Of course!” I jump up. Dancing is almost the only time I can turn off my head. We keep going until late, my skirt swishing around me, my body caught in the joy of the music. I forget I have to travel to my work camp in the morning.
Early the next day, before the shutters are closed against the sun, I look out the back window and, for the first time, see David’s Ghanaian servant living in a shed barely bigger than a dog house. Watching the servant trying to wiggle his way in and out of the small opening my words explode.
“How can you do that to him?” I yell at David .”How can a Negro treat another Negro that way? The Brits. Maybe. A white man. Maybe. But you?” I rant on for many minutes, my hopes for a humane world feeling violated.
Impassively, he watches my distress, and finally says, “You are the most religious person I know.”
Being called religious is as big a shock to someone like me, who became an atheist at twelve, as discovering his servant is living in a dog house. Almost as surprising is his paying me a compliment instead of throwing me out. Maybe his mild response comes from attending all those Quaker services where individuals can stand to speak their truth without being judged.
His calling me religious confuses me about who I am. His treatment of his servant confuses me about who he is. All my instincts tell me he is a good man. Is there part of his character I’m not seeing? Is he following the custom of the country’s middle class? Is he just copying the colonialists’ behavior toward their servants, still caught in Britain’s legacy?
David offers no excuses. He doesn’t get defensive. That almost makes me respect him despite my anger. Makes me think he already knows and agrees with what I’m saying.
We tiptoe around each other’s feelings. He doesn’t retract his offer to drive me to the work camp, and I accept out of necessity.
We go west out of Accra along a hilly road and pass beneath royal palm trees in silence. He finally says, “If you wish, on the way, we can stop at one of the slave forts.”
He is giving me a strange peace offering, and, again, I accept. He detours on one of the feeder roads that runs to the edge of the Atlantic’s rough surf. “I will take you to Elmina. It is the oldest. You must know it,” he explains, as he drives past the other slave forts scarring the jagged coast.
I finally see Elmina Castle rising from a peninsula between the ocean and a lagoon. The heavy stones of the building form a moat, a bridge, and unequal levels going four stories high. Entering through its gate is like going into the Inferno. Shades and spirits of the long gone make their presence felt in the men’s dungeon where packed captives were held for months. Their presence is in the women’s dungeon beside the trap-door used to take the attractive to an officer’s quarters. Motes of terror are in the air of the dark corridor leading to the Door of No Return and the waiting ships.
Like Dante’s Virgil, my companion leads me through the building and the history of the Europeans who made this horror. In the steady voice of someone almost accustomed
to Elmina’s anguish, he tells me it was run by the Portuguese in the 15th century, the Dutch in the 17th , and the British in the 19th .
He doesn’t ignore the history of the Negro slave catchers who captured other Negroes and, for profit, turned them over to the Europeans. Nor justify their actions anymore than he justifies his treatment of his servant. Instead, educating my innocence, he says, “Race isn’t the only reason people act.” It doesn’t make me feel better about what Africans did and are doing to Africans.
We leave Elmina Castle, but the spirits come with us. Betrayed by their own and by history, chained beings seem to scream out to me as they are forced through the Door Of
No Return and into the long canoes carrying them to the Europeans’ sailing ships. Canoes like those being used by the Ghanaian fisherman plying the harbor as my guide and I drive away.
The car backtracks a few miles to a tarred road going north through the beginning of a forest. A woman with a basket of pineapples on her head and the posture of a queen is following a path into the trees. I’m still caught in the past, and see her as one of the lucky ones whose ancestors were not captured. The women selling bush meat from hunted antelope, the passengers cramming the wooden lorries, they are the lucky ones, too.
I don’t come fully back to the present until we arrive in Besease. The village, about 20 miles north of Accra, has whitewashed buildings, a church, a post office, and unknown corners to be discovered. In a field, on its far outskirts, is the compound of my student work camp. I say goodbye to David with lingering anger for the way he treats his servant and great sympathy for this man still so tangled in colonialism’s crippling legacy. I get out of the car, ready to join the people who will be my companions for the next four weeks.
Many of them are in front of the one-story building, looking for a breeze, lounging and leaning, their work-stained fingers leaving markings on the white wall. They look college age. Walking toward them, I wonder if I will find a comfortable place in this group of strangers. We make an attempt at introductions, but, with nearly 40 volunteers, I remember their countries better than their names: Ghana, of course, France, Nigeria, England, Gambia, West Germany, Sierra Leone, Bolivia, Togo…The geography rolls out. As we talk, I learn our project is to build a school, a lovely idea.
It seems less lovely the next day when I am woken up at 5:30. I am not a morning person and my body refuses to move. A cup of tea, to get me started, is brought to my bedside by Anne, the kind English volunteer who shares the room set aside for the six girls working in the camp. I fumble my way into the main room with its long tables. Only more tea and bread are on offer. I have to settle for that, but I’m famished. Someone points me in the direction of the construction site, and I get there.
Even through half-closed eyes on my first work day, I can see things are well organized. One group is digging the building’s foundation. Another is doing truck runs to collect sand to be mixed with other stuff. The third group, the one I’m in, is assigned to make the bricks. We shovel the sand mixture into wooden forms, press down on the mush, and dump the new-made bricks in the sun to dry.
Each shovel seems heavier as I lift and sweat, lift and sweat. I’m not sorry to be doing something good for Ghana. I just wish my task started later and came with fans.
I work beside a Bolivian who, from the shortness of his stature and the tint of his skin, looks as if he might be part Andean Indian. The proof is in his actions. No matter how hot the shoveling makes us, he continues to wear the ear-flapped wool hat of the indigenous people of the mountains. It seems, for him, identity is more important than comfort.
Our brick production continues for some hours until village women bring porridge for us. We sit to eat, our clothes getting stained by the sand mixture that has migrated to our breakfast spot. As we pass the bowls around, we see one another more as our countries than as individuals.
An elegant Nigerian, with a pencil-thin mustache, and a manner as smooth as a silk smoking jacket stares at me as if I have the stars and stripes stenciled to my face .”Your
country is not very nice to Negroes,“ he says with a smile that barely covers his bitterness. The rest of the volunteers glance at each other with a there-goes-our-happy- work-camp expression on their faces.
I’m OK with the challenge. I’ve been expecting it. There are all those newspaper stories going around the world about African diplomats being refused service in American restaurants. That doesn’t create much love for us. Neither does the reality the Nigerian seems familiar with of racism in the South.
Yet, that isn’t the whole story. For me, there is the exciting hope the country will get better because my handsome young President promises a new era, a New Frontier. He is sending Peace Corp Volunteers around the world to tell the other part of the American tale and “do for their country.”
I’ve come to Ghana with the same desire. So, in a calm, nonconfrontational voice, I take up the racial issue and tell the sardonic Nigerian, “Not all Americans agree with the way Negroes are treated. I don’t.”
He sneers and waves away my words. It doesn’t stop me and I say with pride, “There are many white and Negro people risking their lives to change things. “
Pulling out memories and my best arguments, I describe what civil rights workers are doing in New Orleans, Louisiana and Albany, Georgia. I even mention what I heard on the Italian ship about Northern students expanding an organization called SDS with the goal of making America the best of all its possible selves.
I can’t tell if I’m altering his opinion, but I’m out of time. Our conversation
is cut off when the volunteers are called back to shoveling for me and trucking for him. The crew continues at the construction site only until noon. So close to the equator, working in the even greater afternoon heat is impossible.
I spend much of the rest of the day in bed recovering from the physical labor I am not accustomed to doing and don’t relish. In the late afternoon, I crawl out of my cot and out of doors.
Near the house, the village women hired to cook for the camp are stirring a pot over a wood fire. I peer in and, with gestures, ask what is it? “Adualfrol,” one of the cooks answers, naming the stew of black-eyed peas, tomatoes, onions and fish. It is likely to be as good as the well-spiced groundnut soup I ate last night. Further off, a woman with a three-foot pestle is pounding cassavas into the makings of fufu, another dish I had yesterday.
The sticky round globes of fufu are on the table when we gather for dinner. To me, it tastes terrible and like raw dough. I nibble it so I don’t offend the Ghanaians whose basic food it is. I nibble until the sophisticated Nigerian who challenged me also challenges the food. In a playful, phony dialect he says, “Fufu good food, but me no like.” If the Nigerian can refuse to eat it, I can, too, without causing an anti-American incident.
Still getting acquainted, we linger from dinner until bedtime beside the table’s kerosene lamps or around the remains of the outdoor cooking fire that lights the dark. From the details the African volunteers toss out, most are finishing college and on the way to becoming their countries’ elites. Many personal things come up.
“I don’t have much family,” I tell them one night at the table. “No brothers. No sisters.”
“We are your family,” the three Ghanaians opposite me reply, almost in a chorus “If you are part of our family, you must have a Ghanaian name,” the tallest of them decides.
They bunch their heads and consult in their Twi language. Facing me again, they announce in unison, “You will beYaa.”
And so I am called by everyone in the camp. By the Ghanaians I don’t know very well because there are so many of them. By those volunteers I do know well like
Babou, a Gambian who is very smart and another would-be Englishman.
Every morning, with the ramrod posture of a handsome colonel of the empire,
he greets me at the construction site saying, “By Jove, Yaa, what shall we talk about today? The Congo, Cuba, the Common Market, Patrice Lamumba, African unity?”
Lumumba is someone I haven’t heard of before. I’ve only recently become interested in politics instead of only literature. Now, Babou makes the independent Congo’s first Prime Minister a recurring subject in my work day.
My starched friend often stops his shoveling to mop his face and declare, more in pain than in anger, “Lumumba was martyred by the West. Oh, Yaa, his killing was so brutal. They cut him up into pieces.”
All my senses are jolted by this ugly thing that happened in Africa. Babou, mourns the murder still, even after nearly two years.
Whenever he speaks about Lumumba, emotions overwhelm the required stiff upper lip. They are a confusion of his repulsion and attraction to things Western. Yet, this imitation Englishman quickly balances his feelings with his intellect.
Babou’s mind clicks off the reasons for the murder as efficiently as his lanky body makes the bricks. The Europeans, he tells me, were afraid Lumumba wouldn’t let them continue things much as they were before independence. America worried when Lumumba turned to the Soviets after the UN refused to stop the secession of part of the Congo.
With a wry smile he says, ”The gentlemen in Washington must have had ghastly nightmares about Lumumba becoming an African Fidel Castro.” He tries to convince me America supported the murder, or at least did little to stop it.
I don’t believe Babou. My country wouldn’t assassinate leaders.
Conversations, like this one, are the work camp’s real project. Every day I have spread before me pieces of Africa in all the convulsions of its new independence. At dinner, the Nigerians at the end of the table play verbal ping-pong with the words Yoruba, Hausa, and Igbo.
“What are you talking about?” I ask.
“The rivalry among these three tribes. Each is trying to dominate the government.”
The Nigerians are worried. Even Labinjoh is worried. Their chubby-cheeked countryman, who is the butt of ;many good-natured jokes, is more than he seems and is respected.
“Hey, Lagos man,“ they tease him because of his fondness for jewelry and his showboating style. “Tell us what you think about this tribal mess.”
“Yes, speak to us omo jaiyejail.” It sounds like a swear word. I’m told it means one who enjoys life.
Labinjoh peels back some of the flamboyance wrapped around his chunky frame to reveal a serious sociology student planning an academic career and desperately worried about the future of Nigeria. “We are tearing ourselves apart,” he declares, his head thrust forward as he hunches at the table, “I don’t think the country can stay together.”
He brings his anxieties with him the next evening when we take a twilight walk, trailed by mosquitoes. We have our flashlights. There is no lingering spectacle of nature so near the equator, only a sudden switching off of the sun.
“I think there will be civil war in Nigeria,“ Labinjoh says, as we turn on the beams that bounce ahead of us. In the light, we soon see the serious face of Agyeman, our Ghanaian camp leader who is 30, but acts as if he is 60. He has come to collect his strays for dinner. As we walk back under a canopy of stars, Labinjoh continues to talk about the disasters that might happen to his small Yoruba tribe.
Our camp leader is sympathetic. And a bit smug. ”We don’t have much tribal trouble in Ghana,” Agyeman says, as we enter the now familiar building. “Nkrumah believes African unity must start at home.”
At dinner the focus is on the Bolivian, even though he speaks no English and almost nobody speaks Spanish. One exception is Anne, the English girl with long brown hair, an angelic face, and a disposition to match. With her hands neatly folded on the table top, she translates his shy description of what he and the other college students in his country are doing to teach literacy to the Andean Indians. The Bolivian, who gives off sweetness, shares the desire to do something for other people that is in the very air of our work camp and of our times. That impulse ties him to the volunteers at the dinner table more strongly than language can.
At the end of the meal, Agyeman tells me I am to help the village women cook spaghetti tomorrow. It’s weird. I have been fighting to stay out of the limits of the kitchen all my life. I come all the way to Africa, and I have to cook just because I am a girl. As Agyeman stands, immovable will before me, I’m thinking, why doesn’t he ask Labinjoh or Babou to cook? I resist my impulse to battle him on girls-only cooking. I don’t want to be an obnoxious American.
Preparing spaghetti for 40 people over one outdoor fire is tricky. We have to do it in batches. The job turns out to be pleasanter than I expected because of the women who flutter about in their long, brilliantly-patterned dresses. One of the cooks, who speaks English, translates for the others. We talk about their children. The very pregnant one among them shows me the akuaba figure she carries like a cross to protect her unborn child. The wooden figure fits in my palm. Its simplified form and face have the beauty and serenity of the best African masks.
“ Can I buy an akuaba in the Besease market?” I ask.
“Yes,” responds a woman whose age and comforting manner is the template for everyone’s favorite grandmother. Speaking through the translator, she gives me a gift. “At the market, pick a cloth. We will sew you a dress like ours.”
I’m delighted to be let into her culture. My eagerness for new experiences unlike Buffalo rides under everything I do.
While we stir the spaghetti pot, I notice a Ghanaian girl of about nine with long limbs and fine silky hair. I’ve seen her hanging around the work camp before. I am curious about her curiosity, so like my own.
She tells me she is visiting her grandparents and staying in one of the ten tiny rooms
rooms in the women’s house. Then adds, “In the men’s house there is a god’s room. I wasn’t supposed to go in there, but I peeked.” She glints mischief. I would have done exactly the same thing and regard her with affection.
”The god’s room was dark. There was a clay human head. Crushed eggs. It was messy. Scary. I didn’t like it and shut the door.”
“Is your grandfather a priest?”
“No. He is head of our family clan. He has to have a god’s room in his house.
He is a Catholic, too.” As the girl explains it, her tribe’s religion has many gods. So, there is room for Jesus and the saints.
She chatters on about leaving soon for her grandparents’ farm .” I’ll have to walk four hours with a heavy load on my head.” She pouts, but it doesn’t last long .”Once I get there they let me play. I eat bush berries that make the oranges taste sweeter and swim in streams.”
Her days sound more idyllic than the work campers. We don’t get a chance to swim in streams. The only cooling water we are near comes from buckets of it we dump over our heads for showers in makeshift cubicles. Our main entertainment is still from talking, from small drums pounded on by the hands of volunteers, and from an occasional visitor. Each time a visitor comes to the camp, a laughing Labinjoh, tickled by the reverse stereotype of a white girl who has rhythm, always shouts out, “Dance for the people, Yaa.” And I do. Following the beat of the drum, I duplicate the stamping African movements I’ve picked up as quickly as I acquire accents. The ham in me loves performing for them.
The next morning I am always back at work lifting shovels and sweating. It’s getting
easier. I’m stronger after two weeks and pleased when I add my bricks to the growing
The volunteers are now getting help from villagers like Kojo, a cocoa farmer. One minute I am talking to him about the coming harvest festival with its joyful procession to the sacred tree of the god Natsedzi to make yam offering. Then I’m zooming through the centuries to Babou who is bounding around the work site lecturing on the need for Africa to start its own industries and break the dependence on its former colonizers.
I begin to experience the emotional vertigo Ghanaians must feel in this juggled time of transition. My disorientation gets worse. In the middle of discussing Ghana going into debt to build factories, Agyeman pulls me aside and plants his squat body in front of me.
“You are invited to visit the village Chief in the morning.”
“ I won’t know what to do,” I respond, surprised and a bit unnerved.
“You have to go, Yaa.” His tone permits no argument. “You can not insult him.”
One of the three Ghanaians who adopted me overhears and encourages me. “You need not be scared. You are of our family and the family of Yaa Asantewaa, the woman warrior who fought the British.”
The three Ghanaians sit me under a kola tree all afternoon and coach me for my meeting with the Chief. As the air grows hotter, they tell me I must not speak directly to the chief, but only to his interpreter. Hovering over me, they pour as many traditions as
time permits into my sizzling brain.
“Go and come, Yaa,” they say in the morning, wishing me luck.
I set out alone on the red dirt road that leads to the center of the village. I’m worrying so much about violating some taboo that I am late in greeting the women carrying water jugs on their heads and the men too ancient to be working their fields. Only after I’ve almost passed them, do I call out,”otsi dew,” the Twi words for how are you. Their response to me and their handshakes are warm.
In front of a shack of a store with empty shelves containing only tins of sardines and cigarettes, a toddler, frightened by the never-before-seen white apparition I am, begins to cry. The child reminds me how alien I am in Africa.
I arrive at the palace, which is really a forty-foot wide house surrounded by a half wall. Villagers are outside hoping the Chief will hear their petitions or settle their disputes I’m not sure whether I should wait to be called or go in because I have a command visit, commanded probably because I am an American.
Eager to have the tension over with, I enter through the narrow front door of the house and find myself on a verandah filled with elaborately carved stools. I stop. I don’t remember whether I am supposed to bow to the Chief who stands on a raised platform in the courtyard.
Gyan II is wrapped in the red, gold, and blue geometrics of hand-woven kente cloth. As I approach him in the courtyard, I see he is only a little older than the volunteers and relax some. Older men, most likely the Council of Elders, radiate on a diagonal on either side of him. I don’t know which one is the interpreter I am supposed to address. The Chief puts my comfort ahead of custom and, in educated English, speaks directly to me.
“Welcome to our village.” His voice is soft.
“Thank you, Nana,” I answer, as the proper title comes back to me.
“I’m sorry the Queen Mother is not well and cannot greet you.”
“I’m sorry, too.” I mean it. I wanted to meet the Queen Mother who is not his actual mother. The Ghanaians told me the Queen Mother is selected by the Elders and, like all Ghanaian Queen Mothers, has a lot of authority, attends Council meetings, and advises the Chief. I would have liked to watch her wield her influence.
The Chief invites me to return to the veranda with him and the Council of Elders. I’m seated on a stool immediately to the right of his fan-backed, rattan chair, again more courtesy than custom. He offers me palm wine in a made-for-one, hard-shelled calabash that is as big as a coconut. The drink smells like turpentine. I sip slowly. Two glasses of any kind of wine put me out. I don’t want to embarrass myself by falling asleep on his veranda..
I still feel awkward, but I can always fill with questions, probably came out of the womb with questions. “What did you do before you became Chief?” I ask, before realizing something personal might not be permitted. His kindness comes through again. In a very low voice, he tells me about his days at an agricultural college in the Eastern Region and his love of playing soccer. We are like two kids conspiring behind the backs of the grown-ups.
“Did you really want to come back to become Chief?” My empathy with anyone stuck in a small place is instant. “Or did you feel obligated after the Council and the Queen Mother picked you as the most qualified in the royal family?” He doesn’t answer, only smiles.
I’ve gone too far. I have brains enough not to ask what I really want to know: Are Chiefs like him less important now that Ghanaians have their own government?
I shut up, and he fields the questions. He inquires about progress on the school. He wants to know about our life at the work camp and asks, “How do you volunteers spend
the evenings? What kind of music do you have?” Gyan II seems almost to wish he was with us instead of being surrounded by old men.
“You and your friends might like to see the installation of a Chief in a nearby village,” he suggests, as he brings our meeting to a close. I don’t know whether I am supposed to back away from him the way they do with English royalty. I teeter in indecision. To be safe, and, seeing I am next to the veranda door, I scuttle, ass first, out of it.
We take the suggestion of Gyan II. The volunteers pile into the back of the truck and
head to the ceremony for the new Chief who is higher up the hierarchy of Chiefs. Dashing Babou, in a lighter mood, regales us with tales of his love life in his last work camp. ”Do not laugh, old man,” he scolds Labinjoh. “It was very tough when the matron and another lady loved me at the same time.” We never hear which female he chose. As we near the village, the sound of the drums drown out his words.
When we get out in the streets, we can see the giant talking drums carried on the shoulders of men. They vibrate my body and the dancer in me begins to move. The crowd filling the center of the streets is moving, too, feet, hands, heads, all keep time with the pounding rhythm.
A giant umbrella in the distance announces the nearing presence of the Chief. People begin to wave their celebratory white handkerchiefs in anticipation. Finally, his palanquin, its corner poles carried by four men, comes into view. The Chief sitting in it is an older man wearing the kente cloth of royalty, a gold crown bands his forehead, and gold bracelets reach his elbows. All that jewelry sends Labinjoh into ecstasy of envy.
Everybody else is just in ecstasy. They clap. They shout. Stocky Labinjoh grabs my hands and, facing each other, we bounce together as if over an imaginary jump rope. There is something universal in jumping for joy. I flash a memory of crowds bouncing in the same way during Kennedy’s presidential campaign, but quickly plunge back into the excitement of the moment.
The joy of the celebration stays with us for days. Then it stops. Africa’s old, pre-colonial soul is disrupted by the turmoil of Ghana’s independence. A villager with a battery radio tells us there has been an unsuccessful assassination attempt on Nkrumah. A grenade was thrown at him when he was returning in the afternoon from a meeting with the President of Upper Volta.
The volunteers immediately gather in the main room of the house. I’m nervous and fear I may get hurt in country-wide violence. I worry that the grenade and those that may come after are an attempt to overthrow the government.
Many of the others are more concerned about Nkrumah. Furious that their African heroes keep being turned into tragedies.
“Damn!” the first word of anger comes from a Ghanaian, but it ripples out. The Africans from other countries are equally dismayed. Nkrumah was their leader, too, sharing with them his vision of African independence and sheltering in his country many of their freedom fighters.
The volunteers huddle in bafflement. Guessing starts about who attempted the assassination.
“Maybe it was people in his own party. They don’t like Nkrumah opposing their corruption,” suggests a Ghanaian with massive shoulders and massive hair.
More speculation about who did it starts in low murmurs and is less flattering to the President. A critical voice insinuates that people in his party may have done it to protect themselves against Nkrumah’s tendency to jail people rather than negotiate with them.
There are moments of silence. I don’t follow my habit of asking questions. I don’t know enough about the situation to form any. I’m just a spectator at a local fight.
“Maybe,” Agyeman finally suggests, “it was done by the old guard in all the political parties who want continuity.”
“You mean who want neo-colonialism,” scoffs Labinjoh
Babou begins to pace, his eyes throwing sparks, his neck taut. He pulls me off my perch of remoteness and into the mess. “The West did this,” he declares, “All Nkrumah had to do was talk about bringing socialism to Ghana, and he was finished.”
Then turning to me he says, “Your country has a finger in this. It is certain.”
This time, I am not so quick to disbelieve him.
Later, sitting in a quiet corner of the compound, I want to escape the shame I feel over an accusation that might be true. I can’t. In the house of the man with the radio, I hear Nkrumah’s broadcast in which he says the would-be assassins might have been a few people in the country’s midst, using agents from abroad. At the work site, the sardonic Nigerian and others, convinced America was involved, treat me as if I am my country.
Their coldness sends more uncertainties spinning through my head. Maybe they are right to hang my country around my neck. Maybe I am responsible for what America might do in places farther away than Dixie.
The last week at the work site is difficult for me. The coldness continues and there is news of a few days of grenade throwing in Accra. Nevertheless, I and the other volunteers continue to be productive. We add to the pile of bricks and to the total number of nearly3,000 we made in the past four weeks. Two walls of the school are three feet up, and the building is waiting to be finished by the work camp following ours.
There are some pleasures. Babou and Labinjoh continue to see me as a friend. So does Kojo. The farmer brings me coco seeds on the last day. “You write me how they grow,” he instructs, as he hands me the packet.
I doubt if the seeds will do well on the sidewalks of New York. However, I carry them with me through the now calm streets of Accra and all the way back to the States. I also lug along new questions about America’s role in Africa’s assassinations.