On Going Home / "Kente cloth, conversations and kindness"

{All photos via Anyabwile Love; Above: Spirit-Lifters, Beautiful babies encountered on the road from the Elmina dungeons where enslaved Africans were held before being shipped to the west.}

It has been almost four weeks since I arrived in Ghana. Shortly before my departure, many would ask me if I was excited, or if I was getting excited to be going. My response ranged from "Surprisingly, no" to "Not yet!" I would attribute my lack of excitement to the stress of still being in the folds of writing a paper at the time, to handling last minute arrangements for my daughter’s own summer program at SMU in Dallas, to waiting for financial aid from school to kick in. However, what I did not let in on is that while this trip was something that I had looked forward to for both the cultural and academic immersion I would be privileged to experience, I never saw it as traveling or a vacation but more so as just going home. Albeit, home for the first time, but back to a place that I had grown accustomed to in my mind and imagination as home nonetheless. I think it important right now to state that for almost two decades I have rejected the utopia concept of Africa, the homogenized cultural/landmass concept of Africa; see Nas in Belly “...I just want to go to AFRICA.”, or the shallow ‘metaphysical-temporal-spatial life transforming powers of Africa,' that some have falsely admitted to receiving while here. (I say this last one with all of my years of training in both Sarcasm and B.S. Detection Studies). Needless to say I felt pretty level-headed as I prepared for my trip back home.

What I looked forward to most aside from being able to study, read and write about African music and its connection to music in America produced by Africans as an extension of conversations that have been interrupted by Western imperialism and not a reaction to harsh conditions, (shameless dissertation plug) was the chance to photograph real folk doing human things and to sit in spaces with folk and simply talk. The latter for me is such a part of my personality and I find conversation to be a very effective icebreaker when you intend to point a large camera at a complete stranger. I followed in a good friend's path and decided to only use a fixed manual lens (50MM) when shooting. For one it forces me to learn my camera more and also you have to get closer to your subjects-no sideline safe shooting. This forced proximity usually facilities my enjoyment of conversation with regular folk doing human things. During my visit here it has not been uncommon, and probably expected by now, for me to venture off alone from our normal tour and into a small adjacent town or market and just sit and watch folk; hoping that my presence alone would spark their interest and conversation could begin. The first of these many mini-journeys happened at the Dubois Center when I walked back to speak to our tour guide and our conversations led to him pulling out Dubois’s original topography drawings that he used in his field research for The Philadelphia Negro, or at Elmina Fort when I ventured out of that hellish structure for air and space and found a fishers/boat market filled with some of the most beautiful faces of African children.

However it was less of a venture and more of an intentional introduction with a stranger that has made this first trip home validating, humbling, amazing and dare I say exciting. One of the things that I hoped my conversations would include while here would be about the often-assumed perceptions of how we as Africans view one another on both sides of the Atlantic. I am staying in an almost gated student hostel community here on campus-so where better to engage in these conversations? Most students here are in exams, and study with such ferocity that they see little more than their books and laptops. My dissertation advisor Dr. Abu Abarry, a native Ghanaian, tells stories that there used to be ambulances on stand-by during exam weeks for students who would collapse under the pressure of the entire 3-week process. But armed with my little bit of Twi instructions I would greet anyone I saw of interest with maa chi or maa ha (good morning or good afternoon) in hopes of sparking dialogue. One late evening me and a brotha here were both going into the makeshift study lounge and I greeted him, maa ha! Jonathan, a Cape Coast born Ghanian, was here at Legon University to take his exams and prepare for grad school. Our conversation that night began with academic interests and quickly went into how Blacks in America are perceived by some of the intelligentsia of Ghana (this was sparked in part by his welcomed surprise that I was here working on the completion of my PhD). He pulled no punches when he said he always believed that we were lazy and criminals. He did not say it as though he was convinced of these things but it was all he saw from their media outlets here and from Europe. I expressed the ideas of the "savage African" and the "african-booty-scratcher" concepts that I was exposed to as a child and that many still believe back in the states. We talked and shared the widely held stereotypical notions of our respective cultures as well as their own agency and failures. As our talk ended that night, we agreed to continue with them when we saw each other again. Since then, these talks and many more have continued several times a week. I have learned that he is getting married in October (he made it a point to call his fiance in Elmina and ask her to meet me last week when we visited), that he is a grade school teacher and hopes Ghana will improve their education system for the benefit of its children, and also that he wants several children of his own and plans to major in criminal psychology.

Last Sunday when I got back from a weekend in Cape Coast Jonathan and I talked at length about the Coast, Elmina, other places that I should explore off the beaten tourist path, and his final week of exams. The last thing he shared with me that night after I told him that I would be visiting the kente cloth village in the next week was the idea of ‘expensive’, as Ghanaians understand it. It was after I told him that I was sure I wouldn’t be able to afford any of the authentic woven kente cloth because it was too expensive that he shared that Ghanaians use the term expensive to suggest something of value because it is not used/worn often. For instance he said if I was to buy even a cheap suit it would be ‘expensive’ if I only wore it on special occasions. I thanked him but walked away still knowing that that kente cloth was going to be expensive-in the USA kind of way-to me.

Last night while sipping on Ghanaian Club and talking smack at the outside lounge of the hostel, Jonathan approached and asked if I had a few minutes to talk. He said he had to go to his dorm and would be right back. We met outside my dorm room and he approached me while pulling from a huge bag another huge bag with deep blue and gold woven fabric inside. As he smiled he ripped the bag open and pulled out an 8x4 ft piece of kente cloth and begin to explain to me that he and his wife went to the kente cloth weaver's village the day before to get it for me. He further explained that he wanted me to take back home an ‘expensive’ piece of Africa. As he showed me how to drape myself in it he said that when I wear it back home, many will not get it but that those who are African and love Africa will. As I fought back my tears from his genuine generosity with all of my alpha-male energy, he ended by saying that he was thankful for our talks and that he sees my folk in America in such a different way and much more like him than he ever imagined. We exchanged contact info at which point he notified me that the next day was his last at Legon and he would be returning back to the Coast on Friday-exams complete. We hugged and gave each other pounds. I returned to my room and the alpha-male energy gave way to tears. I hope when I get back to the US that I can think of an appropriate gift to give Jonathan and his wife that expresses my gratitude for the kente cloth, conversations and kindness.

It was in this exchange and possibly our last conversation that my visit home to Ghana came full circle. I learned that at our core we wish to be seen as humans and would rather our humanity be our introductions to strangers-known or unknown-as opposed to preconceived notions. While my exchanges with Jonathan were the most pronounced they were not the only one that reinforced the kindness that has flowed onto me here. There is our driver Francis who walked me behind the Cape Coast Fort and found a private spot for me so that in his words ‘I could have the time and privacy that I needed to make my offerings’ and prayers to my Egun and Yemoja. From the older woman in Madina market who told me and another TU student how best to get to the stilted-river communities on bus; to the cleaning woman here who pried my clothes away from me yesterday as I attempted to bucket hand-wash them in the courtyard, and after laughing and pointing at my obvious inadequacy, washed and hung them for me; to Ali, a brother of extraordinary character, comedy and great story-teller who makes sure that all the meals he makes are vegan friendly for me before he adds his meat to them (incidentally having a Ghanaian brother as a roommate who can cook helps these broke pockets of mine); to the great young amazing visual artist here Frank Nortei Nortey who saw my love for his paintings and gave me one that I could pay for when ‘I get back to the states’; to our guest African History professor, Dr. Adjaye, who signed and gave me his personal copy of his edited text Language, Rhythm, and Sound; the AK47 toting, ice-grilled, extremely kind police officer who let me use his cell phone to call my bank when my ATM card wasn’t working; and the young brother at the Bush Canteen who gave me a geography and food history lesson of Ghana while we ate banku and okra stew and shared from the same rinse bowl. These exchanges and acts of kindness and so many more are what I plan to bring back with me as a reminder of the power of the spoken word and our humanity as Africans all over this planet wherever we find ourselves. I only hope that I gave the same in return to the folk that I met and spoke with here.

I will be returning state side in a little over two weeks. Before then I have much more writing to do for my dissertation, piles of books to read, a few more places to tour and much more exploring to do on my own. Tonight my self-guided explorations will begin with a tro-tro (more on tro-tros when I get back) ride to 37 Military stop, then connect with a taxi to the Brazil House in James Town, Accra for a celebration of the life of artist, poet, actor, pan-Africanist, Abdias Nascimento, as well as a search for more conversation while there. While my Twi does little more than confuse the non-English speakers I come in contact with, I am confident that our nods, smiles, greetings and silence will be enough for our humanity to be revealed yet again.

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by Anyabwile Love

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