The words in Claude McKay's famous sonnet, 'If we must die', has managed to disturb the seeming quietness that existed in my heart till now.
If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursèd lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we'll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!
Those last two lines keep ringing and ringing in my thoughts. I bow my head now in shame, because I feel I have not done enough, or said enough, or written enough. I have not made enough noise. Now I look back at the words of Malcolm X; "If you want something, you had better make some noise", and I feel even more ashamed that I got this far before seeing all I am seeing now. Our existence today as Africans cannot be detached from the existence of Black-Americans out there. I must admit, before recently, I never really felt a part of them as they mostly feel a part of us. In my eyes, they were Americans. Now something is happening to me, that I can only share. A sudden awareness of black history and how it has shaped African society today, as well as the African-American society. I thank the Lord I decided to major in English Literature. I now know I am not crazy. I was meant to get to this point where my eyes are being opened to heart-wrenching realities that existed and still exists, in the Black Diaspora and in Africa.
When I think back to the last two lines of Mckay's 'If we must die', I don't envision violence, no. Rather I itch to call out to young African writers like myself to fight, by channeling the voices of our people through the pen and unto paper. I call out to them to make noise, so much noise, the 'Jericho Walls' that have been put up after centuries of White hegemony and supremacy, will crumble! We can't stay silent. We just can't. The plague - our plight itself will come searching for the African/Black writer, whether he/she likes it or not, as it is in my case. So we have no choice. We cannot choose to stay silent.
Revolutions have been sparked off by heroes and heroines before us -
There are even more names than these. And in our times, we have those ahead of us; Kofi Anyidoho, Ama Atta- Aidoo, Kojo Laing, Kofi Awoonor, Mawuli Adzei, other great Ghanaians and Africans. They carry our voices, and it makes me proud, but they are not ageing backwards! I look at myself, then turn around to look at other writers my age, or close to my age, and I want to believe we can keep this going. I want to believe we can make the necessary noise to effect changes in our world. There is so much to say, with so much to learn from. An immense store of inspiration that lies in wait for those who will seek for it, or like me, those who will chance upon it. We have been given much, but I wonder, do our people even expect anything? I feel like we have moved into an era where oppression is silent, camouflaged. Slavery comes in different shades. The black man's mind still has a long way to go. Progress has been made, of course. But it is not a rose-garden scene yet. Not at all. Most lay black men, and I'm afraid to say, still feel inferior. They feel beneath the European or the American. It is an Oburoni fever that needs to break. Everything Western has got to be good and everything local is not or for the poor. The poor eat the Tugyimi rice, and the rich eat the perfumed, long grain, imported rice.
"Anytime you find someone more successful than you are, especially when you're both engaged in the same business - you know they're doing something you aren't" This was said by Malcolm X in his autobiography. The struggle now, I believe is, especially here in Africa, is not so much against the Western world, at least not directly. It is against some of our political leaders, who although tag themselves as the 'elite' of our societies, are modern day 'Uncle Toms' who are only concerned about their personal well-being and quest to keep a hold on power as long as possible. My little knowledge thus far in issues of conflict in Africa in the political science classes I have taken, plus the little I have read, has made me aware of the fact that, there are instances more often than not, when western hegemonic states will single-handedly fund a particular side in a conflict just for exploitative purposes. It boils down to the same thing. Now our leaders betray us and the sting of it leaves us too bitter for our own good. We feel so sick of it all, all the corruption wrapped in the coat of democracy, which in itself is a part of our still very colonized everyday living.
Malcolm X, though long gone, 48 years to be precise, has left a challenge to those of us here at the other side, we who were left as remnants of what was. We who are the very root, yet ones who have forgotten the story before it all begun. We, 'the root', have sadly misplaced ourselves, forgotten ourselves, betrayed ourselves, willingly given up ourselves. It's a shame. Why were they able to cause drastic changes, Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X Shabazz, our very own Kwame Nkrumah? It was because they did something we are clearly not doing. We are not making the noise!
I feel different. My mindset has been knocked over and thoroughly changed. It's a refreshing emergence from the smoky ignorance I was stuck in before. I realise now, I've found a voice that was not there before. I realise now, I have just experienced a rebirth that has motivated me to team up with others like me, to make some noise!! And surely, we will.
The road snaked up and around the mountains. I had taken that route too many times yet that very journey felt brand new. I was wide awake, taking in the awesomeness of nature that spread ahead in a wide expanse. An unusual wave of sadness flooded my heart and a sob threatened to escape from the base of my tight throat. I held it back just in time. On a bus full of white and African-American students my age, my presence felt loud and pronounced. I kept my eyes out of the bus, observing life whisk past me as we drove on. I knew I was going on a heavy journey. I felt it in my soul.
I looked back into the bus, allowed my gaze to fall on each blond, brunette, black, auburn head and smiled slightly. They are good people, all of them, I thought, and looked back out the window just in time to see them wave at us, a group of middle-aged men waved frantically at all of us, in the bus. I wanted to shrink away, or turn invisible. Why did they wave?, some voice in me asked and my heartbeat turned uncomfortably irregular. I closed my eyes. Why did they wave?, the voice got louder and the lump in my even tighter throat begun to swell. I closed my eyes and imagined myself anywhere but there. It all started coming to me then, not an answer, but more questions. They had always been out there - children, the young men and women, even the elderly. They had always been out there, waiting to see another of heaven's chariots pass, with the light it carried, so they could stand up and wave. It was as if that would bring them luck for the rest of the year or change their entire destinies. Why? The voice came back.
Stepping into the cocoa farm we had visited was a refreshing change from the air-conditioned bus we had stepped out from. The air was laced with earth, fallen leaves, trees, fresh plants. It was surreal and tasted like freedom on my lips.
"Ghana's cocoa is the best ever, in terms of quality"
The tour guide said, and a warm envelope of subtle pride settled over me. The sweetness of the pulp around the seeds I sucked on reminded me of french-kissing. An immediate eruption of bile filled my mouth and I spat out the seeds. I felt angry and guilty. Why had something African reminded me of something so foreign? Something so...so European. I averted my eyes from the heap of pods and away from the pale, tanned, bronze, milk-chocolate bodies. I walked off back to the entrance and allowed the air to vacuum-clean my mind. I wanted to forget all those times I borrowed what was not mine. All those times I enjoyed not being who I ought to be. I was ashamed.
Who are you, anyway? The voice asked again as the bus backed out from the entrance of the farm and I shuddered. I looked back sharply, wanting to scream out to the bus driver to stop so I go fetch myself back from the heart of the cocoa pods we split. I kept my mouth shut and looked ahead. It was too painful to look back. Besides, they were out there still, all of them, waving at heaven pass by. I was in heaven too. I definitely wasn't me.
What would have happened if ships had never been invented? Africa would have been a different story, don't you think? We had got to the botanical gardens and the air had brought the questions back. Well, they would have invented the airplane eventually, another part of me responded. It was meant to happen. I kicked at the leaves and sighed. Was it? I didn't want to believe it. I tried to imagine another Africa. I struggled to think up a different story and I failed. I begun to tremble physically. It wasn't from the hunger I felt. I needed more air. I needed to sit. A sob finally escaped and the trembling ceased. What would our story have been minus the arrival of the ships? My colonized existence had no answer. I felt like an 'Uncle Tom'.
Who are you, anyway? I was still hungry, but I had no appetite. Lunch was ready, plates were being emptied into stomachs around me. I had lost appetite somewhere in the middle of trying to figure out who I actually was. It was a desperate search that burned in my eyes, making them water.
Three women held up the whole continent, Africa. It was a beautiful carving. We were in the wood-carving village. I stood still, watching a young man, carve series of lines into red wood with precise hand movements. Who are they doing all this for? It was so much work making those beautiful carvings to portray Africa, but they all stood there in wait of the passing mini-heavens. The angels were the market. I passed my hand over the divisions in Africa and tried to imagine one big village without the boundaries. In my village, there are no boundaries. One child belongs to the whole village and so it was not uncommon to find a child being spanked by any elder at all in the village. Child discipline was everyone's responsibility. There were no boundaries. The divisions carved intricately into the outline of the continent felt alien. I wanted to cry again.
"How much is this?" I asked the owner of the goods and regretted immediately that I hadn't asked him in twi. He responded in an accent that I couldn't place. It sounded forced and it made my skin crawl. I feared my heart will stop. I couldn't take it anymore. I walked back towards the bus, all the way knowing that they were wondering in their heads whether I was one of them or not. Stepping back into heaven made it all clear to them. She must be one of the lucky ones, I could see them think.
You know, if another of those slave ships docks at Tema right now, people will kill each other just to get on? They will give themselves up willingly. I wanted to scream at the voice in my head but I knew it would be baseless. It was true. It hit me hard and the prehistoric American Negro Spiritual my Literature Professor talked about in class came to mind. 'Swing low, Sweet Chariot' The melody soothed me as the bus snaked back down the mountains, and again, they stood and waved. They waved at us all. At them and at me. Their eyes said they wished they were in my place. My eyes held nothing. I didn't know if I wanted to be in there in heaven with them or not. All I knew was, they waved at us, me included. And it made me realize as my throat slowly closed up completely and choked me into darkness, that I am me...and I am them.
Kukua tied the scarf tight around her head and knelt down next to the bed. Shame washed over her as she tried to find the right words to say in the prayer. It was a whole new ritual but one she welcomed. The shame threatened to consume her as she stammered through 'The Lord's Prayer'. She had nothing more to say. She wished she knew how to pray. Feeling sorry and worthless, she stretched herself up from her knees and sat on the edge of the bed silently, not wanting to wake her husband who had been far gone, snoring away. She turned to look at his harmless-looking frame, watched his chest heave up then down and smiled. It was a wonder he still loved her, after all that had happened. Her hand went up to rub her sore eyes. It was heavy with sleep yet it was the eve of her birthday and so she waited.
Obiom had come as a miracle. His marriage proposal, a shock. He knew she was not fully human, as some of the elders back in the village put it. She did not come through the most high God. According to them, she was an abomination - a water child. Kukua's mother had been desperate to prove her fertility. She had suffered in the hands of her husband's younger wives who bore him sons. She had wanted a child badly, she couldn't wait on Odomankoma anymore. That night she had laid there on the riverbank, stark naked, weeping and pleading for the spirit to deliver her from her distress. Her prayer that night had found its way into the ears of the water-god. She fell in a trance, a very strange one. A half-man had appeared to her, his torso shone like polished gold and his lower half, was a glittering pearl-studded tail. He was magnificent. He gave her the fish that ended up in her soup bowl the next morning. A month later, she found out she was pregnant.
Kukua had slipped out of her mother's womb around the same hour her mother had the encounter with the merman. She was born that night, along with a plague - a deep misfortune that formed her very flesh. That night, her mother breathed her last.
She had been made to keep her hair in dreadlocks. The whole village knew she was not like them. Her complexion; almost white, had left the birth attendants dumb-stricken. No wonder she killed her mother, they had whispered among themselves. Grief for the death of his favorite wife had caused Kukua's father to turn bitter too. None of his younger wives was willing to raise the water-child. Her mother's mother, angered by their cowardly actions, had taken her up, moved to the outskirts and raised her. She still held memories of days when the old lady will shine her locks with Shea butter till they glowed, a shocking ebony black, against her pale skin.
As she grew into womanhood, girls her age in the village hated her. She is too beautiful to be real, they gossiped. In school, she was called Mami water behind her back. The boys gawked at her frame and beauty. It mesmerized them yet they were all scared. No one wanted to die. They knew she was misfortune, and no one wanted that.
The village almost demonstrated against her being included in the puberty rites but the queen-mother had insisted every young woman who qualified was to be a part of the ritual. The other girls had stayed far away from her throughout their confinement days. Their hatred for her was mingled with fear and a touch of their own insecurities. Her grandmother had been her pillar through it all.
The day of their final dance to usher them into full womanhood was the day Obiom had visited the village and the day a section of hell broke loose. Of all the young women, why choose her? Murmurs had rippled through the crowd that had converged to witness the occasion. In their eyes, Obiom was a fool. The young women raised concerns, that her family be disallowed from handing Kukua over to Obiom. The truth had to told to the man and his family first. In the end, the whole village sat as witness to what was to be a revelation of the truth and hence a dissolution of the whole idea of marriage. They were wrong. Obiom knew what he wanted, and made that clear to the entire gathering, that their myths were not going to dissuade him. His mother had hurled her huge self on the dirt floor and wept, and his dad, upon realising Obiom had made up his mind, washed his hands off the whole matter and as insult to an injured Obiom, disowned him.
The actual marriage ceremony was a sorry sight. Kukua's grandmother stood in as her family and Obiom came with a like-minded uncle of his. On her wedding night, as her husband, for the first time, saw how her dark coral waist-beads glistened against her fair skin, her grandmother rolled over to her left side, and crossed on to the other world. She was found the next morning, stone cold, with a satisfied look on her face; a slight smile that indicated she had moved on peacefully.
So she sat there, at the edge of the bed she had shared with the God-sent man for ten years. She just sat there and waited for the very hour. That very hour she was born, some 3 decades ago. She waited. Every single year, after she got married and her grandmother passed, on her birthday, at that hour, she fell in a trance that sent her back to that same river. She would sit rocking a baby in her arms and the half-man will appear, take the helpless infant, and cuddling him rather gently, will walk back into the river with it. It happened every year. Every year up till that very one when she had succumbed to Obiom's constant plea to get rid of her locks and go to church with him.
He had found God that year and he wanted to share his joy with her. She had agreed and had followed him. Yet she missed her locks, she felt it had been a part of her. Then he got her to get rid of the beads too. That had happened three days ago. Still she waited for the spirits to take over her body and claim their annual payment for her life. She didn't notice the hour slip by, and she almost didn't see sleep take her. The messenger clad in white, with a sad and knowing smile on his face, looked down at her, and then her husband, sighed and placed the sleeping baby securely between man and wife.
Kukua woke up to an unusual sensation in her stomach and soon, she was hunched over the toilet bowl, heaving out the contents of her stomach.
"This is like your fifth morning in this condition Kukua"
She stared up at him, wanting to believe yet too scared to accept it just yet. It had been ten years of childlessness. But the signs were obvious and so she smiled. He smiled. And then they both burst into laughter that brought tears to their eyes. Finally, they were going to have a baby, directly from Odomankoma.
The thought hit Kukua and her tears turned bitter. She felt the emptiness overcome her. Her womb had been occupied for the very first time. She felt alien, knowing she couldn't be that vessel. She couldn't carry Odomankoma's gift. She was not going to allow it, her very soul knew that. The tears flowed freely as Obiom's thanksgiving prayer resonated from their bedroom. She had to find a way to let him know how she lost the baby. But first, she needed to have the abortion.