Shaded from the rays of the sun, yet situated where I can still enjoy the sunshine, I sit on a rocking chair. The bright rays of the sun play on the leaves of the green tress that not so long ago were bare. I have finally made good on my promise to drop by and hang out on Michael’ Porch. I feel slightly guilty because I came to pick up Michael so we could go see Leenie play volleyball, but Michael is nowhere to be found. I presume he is still running errands. In any case, I decide to lounge here while I wait on him. My loyalty is torn at this moment because I am taking in the peace and calm that is present here on this shaded porch when I should be cheering for my girlfriend in her volleyball tournament. The chimes are soothing to listen to—those long tubular metal ones that deliver these awesome sounds like far off church bells. I am anxious for Michael to return so that I can have a reason to leave and go where I am supposed to be.
Later on in the day, after watching Leenie win her volleyball tournament, I return to Michael’s Porch. The atmosphere out here is still gorgeous, but it has gotten progressively noisier; it seems as if everyone is home now. There is a neighbor watering his plants, who lifts his arm in a friendly hello, numerous birds flitting about and chattering to one another, the rustling of the leaves as the wind touches them ever so lightly, and the intermittent sounds of an electrical gadget of some sort providing the whirring accompaniment to this musical symphony. The chimes on the adjacent neighbor’s porch tinkle ever so quietly, as if to remind me to include their unique sound in my descriptions. The wind is strong, yet gentle, and adds the final piece to this arrangement with a swooshing and aaahing that could almost be missed if one were not paying close attention, or if one did not have a trained ear.
A few weeks ago I began reading parts of Joyce Rupp’s “The Cosmic Dance” and being out here reminds me of what I read. Something about being in complete unison with everything in the universe, in such unison that we were part of this cosmic dance that is forever occurring around us. Of course, it is difficult to think of dancing this cosmic dance when you are in a funk, but I believe it is imperative that we remain, at the very least, cognizant of it at all times. Sure, we may feel disconnected at times, but just like the longing and seeking that we experience in looking for love, or the Supreme One, we must attempt to pursue this oneness and unity with the entire universe in a similar fashion.
The barking of dogs draws me out of my reverie. The barks do not continue incessantly, as is usually the case, but rather these barks seem to be on a timer as though triggered by an invisible alarm. For now, everything around me seems to be taking advantage of this opportunity to join in this symphony, this cosmic dance.
The weather is beginning to cool down gradually yet all the sounds are still just as pronounced as they were when I first got out here. The first place I return to every time I visit Ohio is Michael’s Porch. For seven years, it has not failed to deliver. The beauty, the sounds, the cosmic dance, the friendly faces, all there…time after time.
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This piece was published on Africa Speaks 4 Africa this weekend:
Please click the link to read it. After you read, browse the site!
Thanks for visiting, following, and commenting. You all are the reason I write.
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It’s FREE!!! It’s happening in 3 WEEKS!
I’m registered! And…I’m moderating the panel on “Writing Sexuality”…go figure!
SEVEN NIGERIANS FEATURED IN MAJOR CONFERENCE ON WOMEN WRITERS OF
AFRICAN DESCENT, MAY 2013 IN ACCRA, GHANA
The Organization of Women Writers of Africa (OWWA) and New York
University (NYU), in collaboration with the Ghanaian Mbaasem Foundation and the Spanish
Fundación Mujeres por África (Women for Africa Foundation), will present Yari Yari Ntoaso:
Continuing the Dialogue – An International Conference on Literature by Women of
African Ancestry. This major conference will put writers, critics, and readers from across
Africa, the USA, Europe, and the Caribbean in dialogue with each other in Accra, Ghana, May
Seven talented Nigerians, including celebrated playwright and scholar Tess Onwueme,
journalist and blogger Wana Udobang, novelist Lola Shoneyin, performance artist
Wura-Natasha Ogunji, editor and publisher Bibi Bakare, children’s author Akachi
Ezeigbo, and young adult novelist Nnedi Okorafor will speak about their work on topics
ranging from identity, to the craft of writing, to literary activism. These authors will be joined by
other well-known writers such as: Angela Davis (USA), Ama Ata Aidoo (Ghana), Natalia
Molebatsi (South Africa), Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro (Puerto Rico), Sapphire (USA),
Veronique Tadjo (Côte d’Ivoire), Evelyne Trouillot (Haiti), and many others
Yari Yari Ntoaso will consist of panels, readings, performances, and workshops, and will be
devoted to the study, evaluation, and celebration of the creativity and diversity of women
writers of African descent. Yari means the future in the Kuranko language of Sierra Leone;
Ntoaso means understanding and agreement in the Akan language of Ghana. Fifteen years
after OWWA’s first major conference, Yari Yari Ntoaso continues the dialogue of previous Yari
Yari gatherings, connecting writers, scholars, and readers.
In addition to the exciting panels, the conference program includes a Saturday morning
“storytime” for children, workshops for adult and youth, and the opportunity to meet writers and
purchase their books. All events are free and open to the public, and Nigerians interested
in literature – whether as readers or as writers, both youth and adults – are encouraged
Register at http://owwainc.org/gettingthere.html Most events will be held at the
lovely facilities of the Ghana College of Physicians and Surgeons (No. 54 Independence
Avenue, near the Ridge Roundabout) in Accra.
Participants have received national and international awards from Nigeria, Sierra Leone,
Trinidad and Tobago, England, Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, the USA, and other countries. They
have been poet laureates and are provocative bloggers. They teach at – and have received
degrees from – universities in Nigeria and around the world, and they have also created and
work with grassroots community organizations.
So far, the 21st century has witnessed the creation or reestablishment of women’s and writers’
organizations throughout Africa and its diaspora. Often these organizations both support and
are staffed by emerging writers or those whose writing has yet to receive international
recognition. Yari Yari Ntoaso marks this moment and provides an opportunity for these
organizations, as well as individual writers and scholars, to share information and to build
About The Organizers
Founded in 1991 by African-American poet, performing artist, and activist Jayne Cortez and
Ghanaian playwright and scholar Ama Ata Aidoo, the Organization of Women Writers of Africa,
Inc. (OWWA) establishes connections between professional African women writers around the
world. OWWA is a nonprofit literary organization concerned with the development and
advancement of the literature of women writers from Africa and its Diaspora. OWWA is also a
non-governmental organization associated with the United Nations Department of Public
The Institute of African American Affairs (IAAA) at New York University was founded in 1969 to
research, document, and celebrate the cultural and intellectual production of Africa and its
diaspora in the Atlantic world and beyond. IAAA is committed to the study of Blacks in
modernity through concentrations in Pan-Africanism and Black Urban Studies.
Mbaasem (“women’s words, women’s affairs” in Akan) is a foundation created by Ghanaian
author Ama Ata Aidoo to specifically support African women writers and their works through
addressing problems that all Ghanaian and African – but especially women – writers have to
struggle with, including the absence of appreciation of the essential role creative writing and
other arts play in national development, and women writers’ diffidence in showcasing the
results of their creative efforts.
The Fundación Mujeres por África is a private organization. It was founded with the intention
of becoming an exemplary body in Spain and internationally with its commitment to
sustainable economic and social development, human rights, peace, justice and dignity for
people and especially for women and girls in Africa.
Jayne Cortez was the driving force behind the first two Yari Yari conferences. Yari Yari: Black
Women Writers and the Future (1997) and Yari Yari Pamberi: Black Women Writers &
Globalization (2004) were the largest events of their kind, putting hundreds of women writers
and scholars of African descent in dialogue with thousands of people, and resulting in two
In late December 2012, amidst organizing this third conference, Cortez passed away. The
conference organizers are presenting Yari Yari Ntoaso in her honor. Described by The New
York Times as “one of the central figures of the Black Arts Movement,” Cortez often performed
with her band The Firespitters, was identified as a jazz poet, and was honored with the
American Book Award and many other accolades.
Yari Yari Ntoaso Participants as of March 2013
(list in progress):
Bibi Bakare-Yusuf (Nigeria – Publisher)
Akachi Ezeigbo (Nigeria – Children’s author)
Wura-Natasha Ogunji (Nigeria/USA – Performance artist)
Nnedi Okorafor (Nigeria/USA – Young adult novelist)
Tess Onwueme (Nigeria- Playwright)
Lola Shoneyin (Nigeria – Novelist, poet)
Wana Udobang (Nigeria – Journalist, blogger, radio host)
Ama Ata Aidoo (Ghana – Fiction writer, OWWA Co-Founder)
Monica Arac de Nyeko (Uganda/Ghana – Fiction author)
Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro (Puerto Rico – Fiction author)
Ayo Ayoola (Ghana – Children’s author)
Laylah Amatullah Barrayn (USA – Photographer)
Samiya Bashir (Somalia/USA – Poet)
Faith Ben-Daniels (Ghana – Scholar of Ghanaian literature & folklore)
Tara Betts (USA – Poet)
Carole Boyce Davies (Trinidad & Tobago/USA– Scholar of African diaspora literatures &
Joanne Braxton (USA – Scholar of African-American poetry)
Margaret Busby (Ghana/UK – Editor, publisher)
Gabrielle Civil (Haiti/USA – Performance artist, poet)
Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah (Ghana – Blogger, writer)
Angela Davis (USA – Scholar of prison abolition)
Latasha N. Diggs (USA – Performer, poet)
Camille Dungy (USA – Poet)
Alison Duke (Canada – Filmmaker)
Ira Dworkin (US/Egypt – Scholar of African-American literature)
Zetta Elliott (Canada/USA – Fiction writer, scholar of literature & publishing)
María Teresa Fernández de la Vega (Spain – Fundación Mujeres por África)
Donette Francis (Jamaica/USA – Scholar of Caribbean literature)
Gladys M. Francis (Guadeloupe/USA – Scholar of African & Caribbean literature)
Kadija George (UK/Sierra Leone – Publisher, poet)
Ruby Goka (Ghana – Children’s author)
Wangui wa Goro (Kenya – Translator, poet)
Philo Ikonya (Kenya – Author, journalist)
Rashidah Ismaili (Benin/USA) – Poet
Tayari Jones (USA – Novelist)
Mamle Kabu (Ghana – Novelist)
Madhu Kaza (India/USA – Fiction writer)
Jason King (USA – Scholar of music & popular culture)
Rosamond S. King (Poet, Performance Artist, Yari Yari Ntoaso Conference Director)
Kinna Likimani (Ghana – Blogger)
Fungai Machirori (Zimbabwe – Blogger, poet)
Michelle Martin (USA – Scholar of children’s literature)
Molebatsi (South Africa – Poet)
Roshnie Moonsammy (South Africa- Arts administrator)
Angelique Nixon (Bahamas – Scholar of literature & tourism, poet)
Famia Nkansa (Ghana – Poet)
Naana Opoku-Agyemang (Ghana – Scholar)
Virginia Phiri (Zimbabwe – Novelist)
Hermine Pinson (USA – Poet, scholar of African-American literature)
Sapphire (USA – Novelist)
Eintou Springer (Trinidad & Tobago – Poet, playwright)
Cheryl Sterling (Jamaica/USA – Scholar of African & diaspora literature)
Esi Sutherland-Addy (Ghana – Scholar of African education & culture)
Veronique Tadjo (Cote d’Ivoire/South Africa – Novelist)
Coumba Touré (Mali – Children’s author)
Évelyne Trouillot (Haiti – Novelist)
Dzodzi Tsikata (Ghana – Scholar of land reform)
Dorothy Randall Tsuruta (USA – Scholar of African-American women’s literature)
Gina Athena Ulysse (Haiti/USA – Performance artist, scholar of Caribbean anthropology &
Rachelle Washington (USA – Literacy scholar)
Crystal Williams (USA – Poet)
Helen Yitah (Ghana – Scholar of African literature)
Kuukua Dzigbordi Yomekpe (Ghana – Memoirist)
Yari Yari Ntoaso is FREE and open to the public; attendees should register online at
“Like” the Organization of Women Writers on Facebook!
“Follow” OWWA’s tweets at http://www.twitter.com/owwainc !
For more information on Yari Yari Ntoaso or to interview conference participants, please
contact OWWA at OWWAYariYari@gmail.com .
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“Nyame mpa ngu na Jesu moga impipa!”
She utters these words as if she had been asked to exorcise a demon spontaneously.
“God forbid! And Jesus’ blood wash away!” She prays again.
She was visiting. A distant cousin by marriage; her words really shouldn’t have made such an impact. But because they were indicative of quite a broad cross-section of the Ghanaian population, they hit home. She was convinced mine was a scenario that required exorcism and she was the right woman for the job.
The scenario: I was sitting in between my cousin’s legs getting my hair oiled and twisted (let’s deal with the connotations of this later) when she asked which boy I was dating now. I was famous for having quite a slew usually to divert attention from the real issue. We were all a little tipsy from my cousin’s bachelorette party.
“I’m just not into boys as much,” I said before I realized it. I was exhausted from making up fairytales for my favorite cousin.
“Her you dis gel! Are you letting girls stick their fingers into you? Or are you sucking on vaginas?” These two questions sounded worse because they were said in the crudest way using specific words in our Ghanaian language that were usually reserved for potty mouths, or so we were taught. My cousin, whom I had revered and idolized since boarding school, was far from a potty mouth.
I winced, and instead of responding, said: “Sshhh, the kids will hear you.”
I blushed deeply as I pointed towards my niece and twin-nephews. Thankfully my skin only warmed to my touch; it didn’t change color (here’s to chocolate skin!) I smiled at my niece and her brothers as they instinctively looked my way.
The conversation was halted for now.
Later in the evening when my cousin caught me by myself she said: “Who is it? Who has done this to you? Tell me!”
“Nobody. People don’t just turn gay or lesbian, you know!” I mustered a tight smile as I began the arduous journey of justifying my orientation. As if coming out was not torture enough, everyone felt it their duty to interrogate you to make sure you hadn’t made a mistake.
“Are having fingers inside of me somehow worse than having a penis inside? I was emboldened by the wistful look on her face. “If it’s promiscuity you are worried about let’s talk about that.”
“California turned you gay! I knew it! That’s what people do over there in San Francisco.”
In the last four years of living in the Bay area, I had learned not to respond to this one.
The reality is that those in denial need something to hang their hats on. Who caused this? Who did something wrong along the way? They seem to need an explanation that will make it all better. The first, and my favorite, is the excuse of my abuse. The second, my absentee father, God rest his poor soul! The third, my independent streak. The fourth, too much education.
When my rebuttals to these four fail to appease them, they ask the quintessential question: “Does your Mama know?” Then they go down the list of elders who should be informed. I nod with each one. Yes, they all know already. Then they get mad that they are the last one to be informed.
“Well, how did your Mama react when you told her?” Favorite cousin asks me.
“Oh Ma, she was very supportive of me and has been ever since.”
The incredulous look on her face says it all. She doesn’t think this is possible.
“Ok. How long have you known?” As if the number of years I’ve been out makes me more valid as queer. If it’s too short a time, then it’s a phase. If it’s a long time, then they want a list of people to go blame for this.
“You’ll find the right man, soon. I’m sure of it!” She gives me a squeeze.
I smile tightly knowing I’ve lost another one. I have become invisible yet again.
I entangle myself from her squeeze and climb the stairs to my guestroom.
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Sometimes I think I didn’t cry enough/I should have put my arms around you/covered myself in your draining life-blood/screamed for help/caused a ruckus/told the world you were/mine/you were hurt
I think I didn’t do/what a proper girlfriend/would have done/I should have held/your body one more time/cradled your head in my lap/like the last night we were together/blissfully chatting
I was stoic/without meaning to be/standing there transfixed/the shock and confusion/too much to comprehend/my physical body/rendered incapable/of much else
I set about arranging/your long lean legs/which kept the car door/from shutting/removing your satchel/a quick scan of it/I-pad gone; touch-phone gone; side pockets devoid of cash/an indictment on the onlookers
ER personnel stating/yours was a hopeless case/sick of their incompetence/the ineffectiveness of the system/my stoic voice/told them off/demanded they the attending physician/he confirmed my suspicion/you couldn’t be saved
Afraid to look at the face/I often held between my hands/I braced myself/a stolen glance/confirmed/it wasn’t a pleasant sight/to linger on/in case it left an imprint
Paparazzi gathered around/took cell phone pics/attending physician shooed them away/I wanted to punch someone/I stole another glance/to ascertain it was you/that glance left that imprint/I was worried about
I set about removing/that checkered scarf you never left home without/soaked red/the shoes you loved/clinging to your feet/but those argyle socks you wouldn’t go without/(even in 90 degree weather)/peeled right off
I took your things/ER personnel wanted me to dispose of your scarf/I squeezed it tight/they wheeled you away/still I didn’t scream/or throw myself on your body/still stood transfixed/wishing it was a bad dream
I made the first call to mom/she was hysterical/I gave calm instructions/how to reach your family/the reality of an unknown relationship/finally setting in/who to contact/what to say
Out of my hands/Third persons inform me/plans to move you/memorial planned/fundraising started/your body moved/me left with no lifeline/previous tenuous lines of communication/snipped cold/pain and confusion/anger and sadness/at lack of acknowledgment/thanks were due to a line of first responders/I make excuses for your family/I thank first responders on their behalf
I wake sometimes/calling to thank/the good Samaritans/who cradled you/drove you in search of an ER/who probably needed a new backseat/to remove the reminder/of your life-blood
I wake often/verbally thanking/my cousin/who accompanied me/prepared you in the morgue/because my third glance at your face/told me/I wouldn’t be much help
I wake these days/Wondering if grief/has a timeline/is different/when you’ve only known someone/for a short time/if grief runs on schedule/if you try to forget
Today two months later/this bad dream/is still real/the imprint finally fading/the reality that text messages have stopped/forever/some nights I lie/relishing the old ones/wondering where you were buried/if the live streaming was archived/if closure comes/how and when it comes/when society says to move on/what to do to move on/show I’ve moved on
I lie knowing you are real/now as then/always will be/mine/theirs/ours/now a guardian/of us all
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We are not broken up/you are not dead/yet my tears just refuse to/stop flowing
Every little thing/reminds me of you/I can’t play Meshell today/didn’t want to hear Lauren or Tracy yesterday
I make rice and notice/I only have to make one serving/I wrangle up a new batch of tears/while measuring/I see the last bowl you used for cereal before you left/you are not here to fight with over whose turn it is to do dishes or sweep the floor or fold laundry or….
I guess I wasn’t ready/for this day/never thought it would be quite this way/it bothers me/that I am crying this hard given/how fiercely we fought
A part of me feels silly/for crying this much knowing it’s not over/or is it
I’ve resisted going online/stalking your page/waiting for tweets/I’m left with status updates
I must say that at 35/this is one thing I thought I’d figured out/Meet ‘em. Love ‘em. Bang ‘em. Thank ‘em. Leave ‘em/but somehow you made me go somewhere new/now I can’t go back
Today Gospel is the only music/I can listen to/that’s the one genre we didn’t share/but even they/keep telling me I’ll make it through/I already know this/I don’t want to hear it today
Your frame/plopped on the couch/hunched over your laptop/is now just an image in my head/the back of your head/no longer bobs/to music/as you sit at your desk
All I keep thinking is/I gotta move soon/I can’t sit here/crying all day/but for now…I do
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I lie on my bed/legs up in the air/bent at the knees/feet moving in syncopated rhythm/toes wiggling/waiting for your text/wondering if the silence means/sleep has claimed you early
I am a school girl/all over again/I giggle often/laugh uncontrollably/blush at the slightest mention/of our relationship/I am/full of life
I smile with every text that comes through knowing I am on your mind/I speak my mind/you speak yours/somehow we can stand each other/for now at least
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It’s been 5 weeks to the hour
Most Mondays I feel
Lethargic all day
Headaches and body aches
I can’t explain
I can’t sleep most Mondays
Because I don’t want to
Wake to that fateful call
I don’t want to come collect your
Limp body from the third hospital
That did not have a bed
To begin the emergency care
That you so desperately needed
I don’t want to wrest shoes
Then socks then…
From your body
I still stalk your page
To see who else has just
Discovered your death
Who else is full of grief
And needs to share
Or say what a wonderful
Man you were
Your name used to stare
At me from my chat list
Every day for weeks
One day I signed in and you
You had been idle too long
I freaked out because
I thought it meant family
Had deleted your page
You were still there
I want to download
You put up
I want to keep you close
On Saturday, I went to
A Ghanaian funeral
I thought of you throughout
Wondered how your service had been
How sad I was to find out that
Your family had streamed it
Wondered where you have been buried
And if I can come visit you
When next I come to New York
I thought of you at the graveside
Wondering how your mother felt
As the soil was thrown on your casket
As I stood watching the soil thrown
On my uncle’s casket
I wished I had been present for your funeral
I missed you so deeply
I had to walk out of sight of the grave
As the burial concluded and we walked away
I looked for a sign that
You knew I was thinking of you
And wouldn’t you know it
There was an empty packet of
That Monday when we had dinner
You had confessed that you were stressed
And that you had started the morning
with a Striker or two or…
I didn’t want to hear the rest of the count
So in the graveyard as I was walking
Towards the gate
I looked down and saw you
Smiling at me
I knew that you knew that
I was missing you
I’ve not written much lately
Well not much I want to share that is
Choosing instead to
Focus on my job search
My upcoming readings
Yet my journal pages overflow with my pain
Anger and frustration at a system
That does not work
For the average Ghanaian
Which is what you and I were
This f*cked up system that
Allowed you to die
In the back seat of a good Samaritan’s car
Today 5 weeks to the hour
Two weeks after
Your dust hit God’s dust
I sit tapping away
With a renewed vigor
Similar to that which you
Often gave me
You must write love
I am writing love
I miss you
The ache goes and comes
Seeking refuge in my body
When it wills
I think of all everyone has said
It will be a long time
Before you don’t breathe with him
Sometimes I hope this long time
Sometimes I am scared
I’ll forget before it’s
The end of that long time
I worry that I’ll forget
That once I breathed
In unison with a person
Who made me feel
So alive and open
To all the world’s possibilities
I pray that I have the
Support I need to trek this
Mountain of grief
And to live out loud as you did
And love boldly again
With arms open wider than possible
Uninhibited as you taught me
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You ask me to sit awhile with you. Instead I open your windows; talk about the rustling plantain tree leaves; about doing your laundry; ask what you would like to eat for dinner. All the while, still standing.
I don’t know how to sit with you. I sat rubbing your legs that one evening when you had that severe gas bubble that wouldn’t let go. But before that and after that our skins have not greeted each other. I don’t know how to interact when you are not angry at me, gossiping about me to strangers and neighbors, or complaining bitterly about my ashawo lifestyle. Do I have amnesia or is it true that you didn’t care for me tenderly so I don’t know how to do so for you?
I’ve been given bear hugs by my American family and friends and wicked hugs and squeezes by my aunts that leave me playfully squirming and squealing for rescue. But from you…nothing!
You hold out both arms the minute I come near you. Not to embrace me, mind you. Even on that very first day when I arrive after living abroad. It could be 5 years since you saw me and you would still hold me at arm’s length, sideways, so any attempt at hugging would result in a shoulder pat at best. You didn’t teach me how to hug or embrace, to forgive mistakes, to encourage and cheer on, to celebrate and acknowledge success, to be tender. I’m my own biggest critic and stumbling block because you made me think it was the only way to exist.
A-s and B+s were met with a “Good-Keep-it-up!” or a “Good-Do-better-next-time!” Not squeezes and squealing that I had survived yet another rigorous semester. Not a “let’s-go-celebrate-right-now!” Perhaps the latter was due to the tight reigns you had to keep on the finances, but I’m sure if you wanted, you could have finagled something. New discoveries were not met with an equal sense of awe and delight when I shared them.
My physical memory fails me at times so I have no proof that you didn’tD care tenderly for me. What I have is my body memory over the years which, like silt, has become like sediment; this is all I have to go by.
You give hugs, make room for bisous on the cheek, administer kisses on the back of white hands, give warm and enthusiastic ‘good mornings’ to the friends I have brought to visit Ghana. You ask fondly about high school friends you “approved” of. You tell those I bring home, “I love and Bless you!” To me, you say “ayeekoo” when it suits you. You don’t apologize for disliking some of my friends even as you embrace others. You don’t ask after my painful moments; you just assume life goes on so I should too, and fast.
The disdain for the me I have become/the me I am becoming, is palpable. You suck your teeth, roll your eyes and say, “tso! What would you go and do that for?” when I ask you gently to please stop referring to me as Melody Ann. You say in sadness, “Such a beautiful name…and the Ann, I added it so you would have a saint name…now why would you go and change that?” I leave the room unable to assert my choice to return to my Ghanaian name.
You demand I excise the locs that have “attached” themselves to my head. You protest, “ you’ve ruined your hair! They are unsightly. Only mentally insane people, those Rastafarian ruffians, and wee smokers keep dreadlocks.” They are a disgrace to you. The family. I cut them with the scissors you angrily hand to me. You watch satisfied that you can whip me into shape once again. I save the locs for years. I cry so hard I get hiccups.
I start locs again in defiance. I cut them again after visiting you. I cut them myself this time because I can’t love them into complete existence. Somehow at 3o I still seek your approval.
I wonder is this how you were raised. Was your mother anything like you? Are you just living up to her expectations of you? Is this the only way you know how to be in relation? I wonder why? What happened to you to make you turn out this way?
Are you able to be different? How can you be tender to a foreigner and not to your own blood?
I guess you practice tenderness with them because that’s only for a short time and me, well me…im forever yours. Kinky and nappy-haired, black in all the places that matter, defiant, and strong-headed. Me? Yes, Me…I am yours forever because sadly, we are blood.
Do you have it in you to do forever? This kinky-hair-loving, bright-colored-African-dress-wearing, bold-assertive-chocolate-skinned-woman is here to stay. Claim me or not, this new me is forever.
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Read Part I here
Read Part II here
Read Part III below:
“Since the movie is not until 7pm, I propose we get dinner first, she suggested.
“Sure, what would you like to eat?”
After about fifteen minutes of roaming the main strip of shops and restaurants in the center of town, we settled on an Indian place. Over dinner we talked some more. My jokes about the cute waiter took our conversation in a different direction.
“So what’s your type?” I asked after she disagreed about the cuteness of the waiter.
She smiled, and very soon, we were sharing our dating history with each other. What we liked, our pet peeves, our non-negotiables as I like to call the absolutes. I felt so comfortable with her that I shared what most of my friends didn’t know.
“I’ve always wanted to kiss a woman,” she volunteered a few sentences into the conversation on fantasies.
“Oh?” I was slightly shocked. Did she say this because I had told her I dated a woman?
“Well why haven’t you? I challenged.
“The situation just hasn’t presented itself and I’m not usually an initiator.” She added.
“Hmmm…” I wondered if that was an invitation.
Over dinner, I learned that her uncle’s house where she was residing was infested with rats and so she’d been having a rather tough time falling asleep in the house. I offered her my couch for that night knowing that she was being picked up the next morning.
“Are you sure?” she asked for the third time.
“No, I’ve changed my mind since the last time you asked, I joked.
She playfully smacked my arm.
“Let’s go before we miss the beginning of our movie,” I said, glancing at my watch.
“Goodnight.” I said to Amakka. She had finally accepted my offer to stay on my couch for the night.
“Goodnight.” She responded.
“Are you warm enough?” I asked.
“Yeah for now. I’ll crawl in bed with you if I get cold,” she added.
“Well, Ok! Just make sure to crawl in on the other side. I’m pretty stuck in my ways about how and where I sleep on my bed.” I said.
“Are you attracted to me?” I just had to know.
“Wasn’t that obvious?” Amakka retorted.
“Well…I wasn’t too sure,” I said.
“So do you just want to crawl into bed with me now?” I asked laughing.
“Yes.” Amakka said.
As I scooted over for her to climb into my bed, I realized that I had given up my favorite place on the bed and had done so willingly.
“Are you sure?” She asked pointing to where she was laying now.
“Uh huh,” I said nodding.
“Are you comfortable? Do you feel seduced? Are you telling me the truth?” my own insecurities took control of me. Was this right? What if it interfered with her transferring to the school?
“Yes. I’m fine. No, I don’t feel seduced; I’m an adult, you know?” she said smiling. “And yes, I am telling you the truth,” she added.
“May I kiss you?” I asked, the sound of my voice drowning in the deafening sounds from the drum circle playing in my heart.
She nodded and smiled at me. She was beautiful. I prayed neither of us would regret it in the morning.
We kissed for a greater percentage of the night, stopping to lick and suck on breasts, and grind on each other’s thighs.
Had I had other virgins, she asked. I think I said a couple. Later I checked. Yes. Three. But none were like this. This comfort and lack of awkwardness was surreal. It was as if we had known each other for a long time. It felt as though she knew exactly how to touch me. Kiss me. It didn’t seem that a first timer could know this much, yet here she was, two hours later still awake, kissing me, switching briefly to pull her long hair out of our faces. She was gorgeous. Even though we both stayed fully clothed the whole time, the very skin on my body tingled all night long. Her long lithe body moved effortlessly next to mine as if it was meant to be there.
“Goodnight.” I said as I nibbled on her ear.
“Mmmm…Goodnight.” She responded curling further into the spoon I had created for her. I fell asleep holding her. We woke up exhausted but without regret. It was beautiful. We were beautiful together.
I wondered if I could ever share this with Chinukwe and Ranni. Would they feel betrayed? Would Amakka feel betrayed?
I kissed her inside before I opened the door for her to walk down to the waiting car.
“I hope you get in and we get to hang out,” I said, feeling shy for the first time. “Please don’t feel obliged to call me.” I didn’t know what else to say. I wasn’t looking for a relationship, not now at least. I had an amazing time being with her those twenty-four hours but I didn’t want her to feel any pressure. After all, she had just wanted to kiss a woman, not marry one. I kissed her one last time and made her promise to alert me when she arrived back at Nyamara.
“You can check it off your list,” I joked with her as she left.
“It’s not easy like that,” she winked.
“Safe travels,” I said prolonging our goodbye.
“Thank you. I hope you don’t fall asleep at work.” she smiled.
I resisted the urge to look out the window after I heard the front door slam shut.
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Today, my worst nightmare came true!
We begun a romance quite unlike any we had known in our individual pasts. Sure, we each shared one that was somewhat similar, but there was something different about what we had this time around. Perhaps it was because we were older and wiser this time around. Perhaps it was because of the circumstances under which we met. Perhaps it was because of the environment in which we lived and interacted. Perhaps we were just destined to change each other’s lives.
“Hello my name is David. I thought I heard an American accent…” he said with a broad smile that I would later come to identify as his signature confident look. He leaned his long frame over the back of the seat and extended his hand. My friend and I received his gesture of friendship. What ensued after this handshake will remain forever etched on my memory walls. Conversation starters flew here and there as we attempted to capture this other American on the bus. My friend and I had both missed home; we craved any contact, especially with like-minded individuals. From what we were discovering he too wanted to make a difference in Ghana. Make his mark. Make some money while doing so. He was a farmer. We were writers. We labeled him an activist. We would dream big together. We exchanged our virtual identities. We’d stay in touch! Halfway through the four-hour journey back to Accra, my friend and I resumed our individual comfortable silences and left David to his I-pad and headphones. I glanced over a few times; he looked content. My friend asked if I thought him cute. I responded in the affirmative, but added that he was much too young to be worth the chase. End of discussion.
We stayed in touch. Friended each other. Emailed. Stored phone numbers. Followed tweets. Commented on blogs. We each had a network the other could benefit from. For two weeks, it was just a friendly interaction.
Another U.S. friend came to town. She insisted on visiting his farm. I connected with David through texts and we made our way to the farm.
He hugged me. I hugged him back. Even though I didn’t expect a hug, I responded as I usually do with all hugs: I squeeze tight. I hate lukewarm, back-patting hugs. Apparently he did too. Later, he’d tell me that no matter how gorgeous a woman looked, if she gave him a back-patting hug, he’d lose all interest immediately. So I squeezed away and something happened. My heart rate quickened. I turned shy almost instantly. I giggled. I couldn’t concentrate as he showed us around the farm, pointing out equipment. I followed half-listening, attempting to catch a whiff of that musky smell…Axe? Sniff… Whenever we would lock eyes, he’d grin widely. Somehow I knew that transformation was taking place in him as well. We left the farm. I got a text almost immediately: “you give good hugs.” I sent one back: “I love to receive good hugs.” In the next hour, what could easily have numbered fifty texts went flying across the ether. Somehow we both knew our fates were sealed and our stars had been aligned. What we weren’t sure of was whether we ought to follow the new path laid out. 25 texts a day until our next meeting. The tension built until our skins crackled with the fire and desire that was burning inside. We met up. Suspended kissing until we were both sure we wanted to follow this path. When we finally decided, we spent a glorious, blissful holiday with each other.
I was fast latching on to the idea that this was someone who loved whole-heartedly and with arms open wider than was possible. To say David paid attention and took note was to tell a half-truth. He was present. Available. Willing to love me into existence. Always there when my own fears and doubts chased me into hiding. Always there when I returned. Always there when I played peek-a-boo with my emotions. David made me write poems I didn’t think I had in me. Made me strut like he strutted, confident that I looked good if I felt good. Made me feel like the hottest woman alive. He saw all of me and loved her into being. He refused to take my shyness as an excuse. Knew when to be speechless and when to be articulate and convincing. He encouraged me to live life fully day after day.
We lived at least forty-five minutes apart. Was this sustainable? “Is he worth it?” Mom asked. I was due to leave Ghana in a couple of weeks. Was it worth the eventual break-up pain? I didn’t have the capacity to do long distance especially with something this new.
We sent such massive numbers of texts in the weeks that followed, we gave MTN and Vodafone a reason to stay in business. We were online daily, sometimes for hours at a time, when we ran out of phone credit. I read his work. He provided input on mine. We met up at all times. We have our flexible schedules to thank for this. We were so open with our PDA. More open than I had ever dared to be with anyone, especially here on the continent. We defied the odds of a short-lived romance. I changed my ticket un-coerced but with him as a catalyst. I wanted to try this new thing on for size. Day after day, text after text, one bliss-filled night after another, the ticket date kept moving backwards until I had found a reason to consider really living in Ghana. Conversations about ideal lovers, equal partnerships, babies (anyone who knows me probably has their mouth in a big ‘O’), dreams that were bigger than both of us combined, we had them barely a week ago.
Reality stole the scene for a couple of days. My aunt was fast losing her battle with stomach cancer. My mother had a bad case of malaria that had us all scared. First text: “Baby, let me know what you need from me.” Second text: “Babe, I’ll be in town for a meeting later, can I come give you a hug then?” Skins tingling, eyes glowed bigger than our cheeks, we hugged and squeezed soon as he hopped off the bike. Same intensity as that first day on the farm. Not much had changed. Two hours later, reluctant to leave for the meeting, more squeezes and French kisses outside, next to the bike, I chastised: “Babe, you really ought to try stopping this smoking again.” Helmet on, he pulled away. I blew him a kiss. He caught it, winked and sped off. An hour later, Me: “Babe how is your meeting going?” David: “Great! Still working away!” Another hour later, Me: “Babe, you make me smile.” David: “*smiley face* I’m glad.” Ninety minutes later:
“Madam, do you know the man who owns this phone? He has been hurt very badly. Only God can revive him.” Caller ID stated: David. More hurried words later. I was on my way to 37 military hospital. Change your course the voice said. Another hospital. No bed at the first one. Three incompetent ER gate-keepers later, and ninety minutes from the time of the crash, my David left this world. I was catatonic by his side whispering to Yemaya to bring him back. “Let there be a flicker somewhere,” I muttered as I rubbed his lean legs. “I love you,” spilling out of every pore. “Forgive me for not saying it early on,” countering those “I Love Yous”. I took some of the items of clothing moving like a zombie. Lips trembling, yet silent. Hands unstable as I removed shoe laces then shoes then argyle socks. I smiled. Ever my flamboyant man. The lean-structured, high-cheek-boned face, now unrecognizable. I watched them wheel him into the ER. Now I want to scrub that sight out from behind my eyelids. I heard Yemaya say, “I’m sorry my child, this one’s mine.” Unable to speak I nod. “I mutter, “please don’t leave me.” I hope you both hear me.
My biggest regret? Not saying I love you until the end. Toying around with the idea that it was not time to say it yet. I fell for you so calmly, I forgot to say something. My second biggest regret waiting to go public with the beautiful thing we shared. Discussing a perfect time to tell family. Not naming what we had. Not claiming our good fortune.
Few know of the details of what we shared. Few can pick you out in a lineup: “yep! That’s Kuukua’s lover!” Few will smile at me or squeeze my hands. Few will hold me tight imagining my grief, my pain. Few will know we dreamed big together everywhere we went.
Today, I silently give thanks for having you in my life.
Today, I grieve you and quietly praise Yemaya for you being intimately mine for a time.
Today, I became the invisible widow.
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I turned 36 today
I spent the day in the ocean
When I came in to rinse off the sand
I paused in front of the mirror
I looked in the mirror and saw myself as you see me
Really saw myself
A head that once went Sakora
Now sports baby locs
Black hair with a hint of burgundy color
Attempting to defy my rasta-hating folks
Forehead sprinkled with heat rashes
It’s been unbearably hot lately
Bushy eyebrows that frame
Piercing brown eyes doing the looking
I ought to go thread ‘em
I check myself
That’s not why I am in the mirror
Eyelashes that puts most mascara-enhanced And fake ones to shame
High cheekbones creating the contours for the cheeks
That have now filled out nicely since I’ve put on some weight.
Nose that hints of my Euro heritage
Long and a bit pointed
That’s how they know I’m mixed
At least that’s what the family elders say
They say I didn’t pick the color or the hair
But the nose, they say they can claim me
Lips that are full and un-doctored
Shyly cover teeth ridiculed for life
Lips that are succulent to kiss…or so I’ve been told
Neck, long and regal
Holding up my head
Rings tenderly encircling it
Nefertiti hangs down to my chest
My collar bones
They used to protrude more
They’ve filled in a bit since I put on weight
Today when I looked in the mirror
I saw myself as you see me
Perky size B (left side) and A (right side) breasts that usually nestle in C cups
Because I can’t be honest with the world
Shoulders broad and set slightly curved
Arms that Still look stick-like to me
No matter how much I eat
I’ve always wanted to be fat
Maybe thick is a better word
They used to tease me mercilessly
Bag of bones
I can never please this society
One day I’m 80lbs and they say I’m sick
Years later I’m 130lbs and they say I’m fat
What’s the “just-right” mark
I look up from washing my face
And for the first time I smile
Really smile at the woman in the mirror
Who turned 36 today
She looks nothing like her age
People say she’s kidding
My eyes travel again
I see a hip-waist proportion
I’m doubtful of
I wish my belly was flatter
I have a fear of becoming disproportional
Having a big stomach
But I know I am well fed
Plus there’s nothing a bit of toning won’t do
I turn and admire the big booty
I often hear others mention
Some smack or squeeze
Some enviously make comments
The capital “S” back that accentuates the booty even more
My hips too have gotten wider with the weight gain
I set my hands on them
I’m pleased they’ve gotten wider
I like them this way
You like them this way
I remember the last time I was at your place
You asked me to walk back over to the bathroom
And repeat that walk a few times
I remember that after that I grew bold
Modeled for you in the nude
I did a full bend forward touching my ankles and looking at you through my legs
The smile of appreciation on your face
Coupled with your exclamations and whistles
Brought a smile to my face
That made me want to see myself as you see me
My thighs have finally reached
My version of adult proportions
I’ve always wanted to be bigger, heavier
Made novenas for more breast tissue at 16
More hips at 22
More weight at 35 and a half
Weight, something most people I know despise
I ate it all
I ate it late
I worked out twice a month
Yet none of it showed
Mother universe didn’t think I needed to be
My knees are too dark
My knees and my elbows are in cahoots
To get me kicked out of this mixed family
Maybe I ought to keep them covered more
But my legs
Yeah my legs
I like them just fine
I’ve got calves that rival most
They say I got that from my mama
Ankles that narrow just right to support
All 138lbs that I am now
My feet are ok
They are very dark too
They and my hands have been models for catalogues
So I Know they look great
Especially when they have some red nail polish on them
I look at her
Stare her deep in the eyes
I step away from the mirror
I turned 36 today and I finally
See me the way you see me
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For four months they had been close like brother and sister, almost inseparable. For the last month after she announced that she would be transferring to another branch, Jojo had taken the opportunity to profess his love for her, adding the disclaimer that this meant no pressure whatsoever. Afia reciprocated his profession but never mentioned that she loved him in a different way. That, she could never truly love a man the way he needed to be loved. The entire time they had been friends, she had failed to share that although she identified as bi, women were what really rocked her boat.
Afia was chatting with her colleague and best friend, Ama, when she asked if she had come out to Jojo yet.
“How could I boldly make such a confession in a homophobic culture where the phrase ‘live and let live’ is just that—a phrase!” Afia said softly, rocking herself.
“Ei! Four months and you are still dragging the man along…aba…put him out of his misery already!” Ama said sucking air through her teeth.
“I long to share all of who I am with him. This closeting and quarantining parts of myself is too hectic, trust me.” Afia said as Ama rolled her eyes at her and planted both hands on her hips.
“He told me he loved me last week, asked me not to feel pressure to say or do anything differently. I told him I loved him but I didn’t add that he didn’t make my skin tingle like she did.”
“Yoo b3 me I have told you. Tell the man and let him move on o!” Ama had a flair for dramatics.
“What if he never speaks to me again?” Afia said, bursting into tears then laughter when she realized her transfer would be complete in a week. They’d never have to speak again if he didn’t want to.
“Somebody else makes my heart do triple time, and this someone else is a woman,” Afia said to Jojo watching his reaction closely. Was it hurt or betrayal she saw? Or was that sadness or anger lurking in the shadows of his wry smile? Would he walk away without sharing his thoughts with her? Say something, she wanted to yell, but she knew she had to give him time to process. She had had four months to think through her confession.
She watched as the admiration he’d nurtured for her over the four months slowly drained from his face. She had agonized over what his first words would be after hearing her confession, now she couldn’t wait to hear him speak them.
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I found you while searching for books by other Black women, other immigrant women, other writing women, other queer women. I didn’t know of you before then. Perhaps I wasn’t supposed to know because I wasn’t ready. back then, I was scared of queerness, skittish about writing, deathly afraid of Blackness, ashamed of claiming my otherness.
I found you because I went looking and asking when the time was right; you have never let go since. If I had found you before I was ready, I might have lost you.
I found you then because you were ready for another protégé and I was ready for a mother. I often wish that you were still alive like Mama Alice or Mama Toni, or Mama Maya. I wish that you had been spared to become a grandmother, and mother more of us Black sistas.
I always wanted to tell you how brave I thought you were for your time. How going to Mexico to live was such a bold act for those times. How being among people you didn’t know and a language you didn’t speak had to have been scary, albeit perhaps liberating.
I always wanted to tell you how sorry I was for not having met you. Sorry that you lost the battle with Cancer. How I wish you had more exposure while you were alive. This posthumous shit is for the birds!
I always wanted to tell you that I thought you were beautiful no matter what anyone said. That, I loved how you wore your Afro and Dashikis so regally. How you were so proud of your African heritage and Black skin.
When we meet, I will tell you about my own struggles of being a queer, immigrant woman. I’ll share how my dark skin tones were a disgrace to my family. How I was never able to pass like everyone else.
When we meet, I’ll sit at your feet and ask you to tell me stories all night long.
When we meet, I’ll give you a kiss, and ask you about Afrekete and rubbing avocado on women’s bodies.
Until then, rest easy Mama Audre.
“I find I am constantly being encouraged to pluck out some one aspect of myself and present this as the meaningful whole, eclipsing or denying the other parts of self.”
― Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches
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There is a profound sadness that overtakes me as I watch my lover watch me/unravel/threatening to check myself in finally/feeling defeated by this imbalance
The depth of her despair as she listens/trapped in the cycle of chemical imbalance/unable to fix me/yet unwilling to leave
Run/Run fast and far/I said to her last night/as I began the slow, spiraling descent/that often signifies a cycle change
She laughed/then she smiled sweetly/I am not going anywhere/I’ll be right here when you come back
It’s better that way I say/ignoring her statement/I thought I’d be better by the time you moved in/that’s why being single is better/I talk non-stop/to shut out the thoughts/as they ravage my brain
Run/I repeat/she reaches for my hand and squeezes it/tears silently rolling down her face/I wish I knew how she felt/deep down
The silence/I want to fill the silence with processing/I want to know how she is feeling/what she is thinking as she squeezes my hand/but I am not sure I can take another person’s processing/not right now
I calm down and forget to chase the processing/I settle for sitting beside her hand-in-hand/knowing this is not easy for either of us/I reach to hug her with the other hand/knowing the weight of my illness/is on her heart/knowing she herself is seeking support for her own demons/seeking support from a sinking ship
Today I wake up begrudgingly/a new day/further down the spiral/sunshine that I cannot see/even as I draw the curtains open/I smell the funk rolling in/I crawl back into bed and say/I love you/the funk has rolled in/you should run/she smiles back/ she says I know/ I love you/I’m not going anywhere
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Sometimes I wake up thinking of you/brings gut-wrenching pain/then irritation/
that you are still/on my mind
It’s been five months/since we parted company/these days I try to forget/my summer happened/
that you and I tried to build a home/based on our ideologies about radical love
When I shrug you off/I remember/we had plans for you/to come to Ghana/at Christmas/plans for us to evaluate/
at the halfway mark/to see how grad school was treating you/us
I shake out of my head/your innocent pleas/to have a baby/shake out our childish abandon/which made us promise/
to return to the motherland/to build and sustain/a commune of like-minded women
I want to scream/when I wake up/thinking of you/I want to ask why/you had to go and ruin it/why you couldn’t/rise to the challenge
When I wake with you on my mind/still nursing the hurt/9 months/after meeting you/I write you/out of my head/instead of calling to cause you pain
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The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 4,900 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 8 years to get that many views.
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The Latest Love of My life
I stare at her, a warm feeling moving through my body. Her tiny fingers curled around my big ring finger. She has fallen asleep while poking various parts of my face and hand to check if I was really playing peek-a-boo or if I had truly fallen asleep. Earlier, she had refused her bedtime bottle, and I hadn’t had the heart to make her stop squirming out of my lap so I could give her the bottle.
I watch her fuss a bit making sounds only she and her creator can understand. Every attempt to make her lie down has been thwarted thus far. It is way past her bedtime and if I don’t take action it will only get worse. I pretend to huff and puff for a few seconds in the same way she does when she can’t get her adults’ attention. I pique her interest. I lie down, cover my entire body, including my head, with my comforter. I lie very still waiting to see her next move.
I feel her crawl over and slowly start pushing the comforter away from my face. Discovering my shut eyes and limp arms she proceeds to poke at first my eyes, then my nose, and finally my fingers. She settles on my ring finger and grabs it firmly. She finally lowers her body next to my pillow still holding on to my ring finger. I watch her clementine-sized hand clasp my finger for dear life. She begins to make soft chewing sounds until her breathing evens out and her body goes completely still.
Afraid to wake her, I lie for a good fifteen minutes before I move.
When I move I discover the most beautiful scene: her perfectly-shaped round head crowned with ten round balls of hair that her mother has so meticulously carved out; her tiny lips which pursed together can’t be more than a half-inch wide; her flat nose that earlier had made me question my mother about using hot water to “shape” it. (People who think all is lost because I am “so dark,” comment that “at least you have the white nose.” Hey! I want my niece to have a chance.)
I stare. She is stunning, exquisite, even as I worry about her flat nose.
I watch her and feel the glow take over my body. It’s intense. This is what they mean when they say, “it’s different when it’s your own.” The love is instant, exact, overwhelming and exciting all at once. There is nothing she needs to do to win my love. Although she is not from my womb I feel that bond between aunt and niece and I realize that it is possible to have this amazing feeling change my mind about these little presents from the gods and ancestors. (Mind you, not to have one of my own, but rather to protect her fiercely and vow to inflict harm on anyone who dares hurt her.) I’ve never felt this way before.
I tell her mom, I want her to sleep with me. She warns that she doesn’t sleep through the night. I laugh. I’m ready for this I say confidently to not betray my inner doubts. Since it’s my first time meeting her and her last night visiting at my mom’s, I know I need to seize the opportunity. I want to seal the bond even more. I, the cynic, decide to share a bed with a baby not quite a newborn, but also not quite my preferred kindergarten-aged children with whom I can carry on conversations. A baby in the in-between stage of developing her identity. But this one is different because she is mine.
I watch as she stirs every so often and mumbles in her sleep. I want to arrange her head more comfortably on the pillow but I am scared to wake her. I just pray she is comfortable and sleeping well.
She is beautiful. She is mine. I am fiercely attached to her and it’s only been six hours since meeting her.
(PS. She did wake up screaming for her mother around 2 am. I was petrified thinking it was something I’d done. Her mother came to claim her. I tried to go back to sleep, but thoughts of what had just transpired got me out to bed to write. What you have read is the product of my 2am epiphany.)
(PSS. I chose to make this my first post of the New Year because I hope to spend more time with Kuku (she is my namesake too!) as soon as I have the chance. To love her is my New Year’s Resolution. To be a better lover and protector to those I am in relationship with, but especially to those who have no way of immediately reciprocating this gesture, is my NYR.)
Afehyia Pa o! Afe si sei d3m na wo p3 nyina ay3 hƆ
Afi o Afi. Afi be n3 nƆ f33 nƆ ni ka otwi nƆ eba min
Hapy New Year. A year from today, may all your wishes have come true (loosely translated)
Basically you say Happy New Year then you say, “a year from now ________(fill in the blank with whatever you wish to personalize it)
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I had argued with my friends. They said I was too trusting, allowing a total stranger to let herself into my apartment, use my laptop, and have free reign of all my possessions while I was attending a conference in Chicago. I couldn’t be dissuaded. She was safe, I was convinced. She was good people, I told my classmate who was to hand her my house keys.
Several hours after she had let herself in, the cab dropped me off. I grabbed my hand luggage and headed up my 13 steps, heart beating a tad bit faster with each step. What if she had changed the password on my computer, found out the document that held all my passwords and transferred my measly dollars into her foreign account. I was actively trusting the universe that I was right about this woman.
I put the key in the door. All these thoughts vanished as I quietly pushed open the door. She lay curled up on the 3-cushion, well-loved, black leather couch I had inherited from Craigslist. Her spindle-curled locs lay scattered around her head, slightly concealing her face and caressing her cheeks. Both arms were folded at the elbow in a prayer pose, supporting her sleeping head. I had only seen pictures and images from our Skype conversations. I wished she would stir so I could see her beautiful face. Two suitcases stood guard over her sleeping body. Despite all admonitions to pack light, here she was with luggage to last her for a couple months instead of the one-week trial we had agreed upon.
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She sat smiling consciously at her mates from primary school trying to hide her panic. She hadn’t seen some of them in almost twenty years, since junior high graduation. Yet it felt like nothing had changed. She still felt they were better than her.
She was still the odd ball, only this time it wasn’t her dorky, oversized eyeglasses and ill-fitting jeans suspended under the oversized Hawaiian shirt mom had sent by DHL. “I guarantee you’ll love it mom had practically squealed over the phone. It’s all the rage with teens over here,” she had added. She wanted to be cool so badly and she knew she’d be cooler if her clothes were exactly what were being worn abroad. When the clothes finally arrived, her 80-pound body barely filled out the size six clothing, creating a scarecrow figure complete with glasses.
This time she was the odd ball because she wore her natural hair in a combination of cornrows and twists, held up with a head tie that matched her dress. Everyone else sported their newly-relaxed perms and calculatingly implanted weaves. They all wore jeans with flimsy silky tops meant to be sexy, or store-bought Western dresses that were a tad bit too tight. She wore a Batik-cloth flowing dress, complete with the usual puffy sleeves and elastic waist, handmade by her favorite seamstress.
Of the eight of them who were gathered at Oheneba’s party, only three were married. Yet it didn’t stop the conversation from being centered on marriage, men and babies. Whose wedding would they gather at next? Who needed to have another baby. The four other single ladies seemed to be waiting for something, someone to come rescue them from their holding pattern. A man, some babies, and running a household would do! Honestly, if people didn’t have enough to do, they could volunteer, she thought. Anyway, who was she to tell them what to expect from life? She felt a little out of place…ok a lot. They were all driving comfortable cars, working respectable jobs, and living at home, according to conventions. She still took local transport, hadn’t found her calling as far as careers went, and wouldn’t touch the subject of living at home with a ten-foot pole.
She wondered if she had turned out like they expected. She should have interviewed each of them.
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The smell of clothing reeks with stale smoke and urine/it wafts towards me on the breath of early morning liquor/it’s wearer plops down in the seat next to mine
We eye each other/both of us aware/I don’t belong/I am neatly dressed/no hints of foreign smells/on my feet are skele-toes/all the rage in Berkeley/but I am not in Berkeley/I’m deep in the heart of where my people live
They all eye my feet soon as they board/I look up/I smile/I am met with a scowl/a blank stare/almost saying/bitch watchya smiling at
My seat mates/come and go/similar smells/too much urine on one/too much liquor on the other/too much perfume/displacing the oxygen molecules/too much smoke that makes me/reach for my inhaler/and incur more scowls
They arrive at the fare box/sometimes barking questions/sometimes drawling their words/indecision about which bus to get on/which stop to ring the bell/they don’t want to walk far/when they arrive at their stop
A woman boards/jeans too tight/showing her neon-orange thong/later, straightening from her slumped posture/she boasts of 3 children/when an old lady asks her age/she proclaims 26/proud/I have an 11, 8, and 6 year old/I calculate/she became a mother at 15/I cringe/why is that something to be proud of/perhaps there isn’t much else
She glances my way/I smile a sad hesitant smile/blank stare back/she knows/I couldn’t/wouldn’t/understand/the generations of systemic muck that has bequeathed her 3 children at 26/I stare at my feet/not sure where else to focus
Skele-toes/today was the wrong day to wear these/they speak a language/all their own/they say privilege/they say access/I think/dude they were on sale at Ross/these silly shoes are the most comfortable things for my inherited bunions/honestly I have worn nothing else over the last two weeks/wanna try them
I stop staring at my feet/I refuse to let them intimidate me/I am clearly out of my element/this far down the 52 on AC Transit/I stash my inhaler/switch seats/await my stop with some anxiety/dreading the return trip/wishing cabs were not so expensive in the U.S./hoping the return trip will be less jarring on my bougie self/acknowledging/Black can never equate one experience
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Dear Blog Followers:
My major apologies for the long silence. As many of you know, I have been busy living in Ghana since September 26. You have been on my mind at least once a week, and more than that in the last two weeks. I had such great plans of writing daily, posting weekly, and even reorganizing my blog when I left the U.S. Thank you for continuing to support me through the dry periods. As I mentioned in my first post from the continent, it’s not for want of material. It has more to do with overwhelm, and at times with the monotony and fatigue that comes with elder-care. I have been the sole care-giver for my 88 year-old Grandmother since November. I have also hosted two U.S. friends, both for two weeks at a time. In all honesty, I have not had a night by myself in 91 days. I do write at various times when my muse sets up shop (I am feverishly typing them up so I can begin sharing), but it’s been challenging finding that protected space to just disappear into my head.
As I sit on my yoga mat in my childhood bedroom listening to repeated plays of “I’ll be home for Christmas, you can count on me, please have snow and mistletoe…” I can’t help but miss the snow (just a tad bit, mind you) and the mistletoe and the family I have left in the U.S. For seventeen years I have wished to spend Christmas in Ghana and now I am here and frankly, it feels so anti climatic. People I know fly home (Ghana) just for Christmas. Last year, I flew home (back to the U.S) for Christmas. This year, my mother and uncle asked me to stay until my mother could arrive to take over care of Grandmother. I acquiesced thinking, there’s nothing really tying me to the U.S at the moment, so why not?! What I didn’t anticipate was that I’d truly miss my other home. Miss the way the season unfolds over there. Miss the stillness when the snow is falling. Miss the excitement of my family of choice creating new holiday traditions. Miss delivering or serving meals at a shelter. Miss some alone time to reflect and write. Miss my sisters, mom and aunt and our own special traditions that have developed over the years of living in the U.S. I’ve been almost in tears at various points in the last week.
As a transcontinental woman I have been faced with leaving family behind at various times in the last 30 months since I began trying to live on the continent after fifteen years away. Each departure in each direction has been fraught with some anxiety, some sadness, and some excitement. My hope is that eventually it will get better or Ill choose one location (the Bay or Ghana) as my home base (most of my Ghana-based family are placing their bets on the latter). Moving back and forth so much requires that I not have any expensive possessions. I have now lost track of who has which item of clothing, piece of art, or my numerous collections of books. At any given moment I am of split mind: thinking the food culture in the Bay is where I ought to be with my gourmet cooking skills, or Ghana is where I ought to be starting my own writing coach business improving the writing skills of people. I continue to wait for a sign to show me the way. So far, I have had not received any definitive answers about my location. Or perhaps I have but I am not ready to accept them…
In the meantime I would like to share with you the highlights of the three months I’ve spent in Ghana:
You first heard from me after a month of being in Ghana when my college best friend came to visit Ghana. I stayed up all night like a kid on 24th night waiting for Santa and completed that poem I dedicated to our friendship. We had a glorious time, literally running around from dawn to dusk. I introduced her to a bunch of my Ghanaian friends, showed her my preparatory and secondary schools, tried every food Ghana had to offer (except kokonte and oto), and reconnected her with the family members that she had known in the US. It was lovely to have this relationship come full circle. I am still thankful for that protected amount of time we had. We had never been together in the same room, same bed, for more than 2 days at a time. We made it through the two weeks although towards Day 11 we needed a break away from each other. We made memories that I’m sure will last our lifetimes.
After she returned to the US, I was faced with a series of challenges key among them, the departure of the woman who had cared for Grandmother for almost seven years. I didn’t realize how much we had grown to depend on her over the years. Her smooth-running of the house made it seem effortless. After she had packed her bags I was at a loss for how to operate a home in a country I had never been an adult in. My panic had to quickly give way for a new adult to develop. Grandmother needed me, and I had a home to take charge of. Almost immediately, I discovered that there were various tasks that Grandmother had been putting off doing. The house needed a new septic tank, soak-away (I don’t think we have these in the U.S.), several electrical repairs, and a massive overhaul of the house including masonry work and painting. Grandmother had been resisting any form of modernization of her house so it was an uphill battle every day a new workman showed up. I was doing all this and taking care of her as well. Needless to say I grew several grey hairs within that first week. Towards the end of week three I cracked, told her I’d change my flight and leave immediately if she didn’t permit me to get her new care-giver. Somehow taking charge in this manner gained me the respect I’d been begging for the last ten years. Thankfully all repairs have been completed and I now have a new care-giver who Grandmother can tolerate. Although her presence gives me some wiggle room, she also needs daily direction so I have mostly become a full-time housewife with one child and a house-help, stealing pockets of writing time every so often. The 35 year-old who arrived 3 months ago is most certainly not the one who currently exists.
Another friend arrived just in time to save me from myself around the first week of December. MB was a Bay area friend I had known for only a few months. When she heard I was headed to Ghana, she asked if she could visit. Although her trip was a more subdued one because the country was under the stress of the democratic elections, we managed to make some memories as well; visiting Kumasi which KT and I were unable to do. Her visit made me wish I was returning to the Bay for the holidays.
By the end of her trip, my mother had booked her flight and informed me she would be arriving on New Year’s day, throwing the house into another frenzy with cleaning and re-organizing. See, I clean, but my mother is Mr. Bean’s character in that TV series (help! I can’t recall it for the life of me and IMdb is not helping); you can almost eat off her kitchen floor!
Throughout the three months I have cooked more than I cooked when I was in Ghana last year, however my true success came a couple days ago when I cooked my first Ghanaian four-course meal for Christmas day. I topped that with a Boxing Day brunch for 10 people. I just might have a career in cooking! In addition to cooking, I have tried to do more touristy stuff (when I can sneak out) and have met some amazing new people in the process. All is not lost! Cooking, writing, and these new friends have kept me going the last three months. (well that and Skype and text conversations with Bay Area family)
I have re-booked my ticket for late January with no real sense of whether I will return to the U.S. then or not. In the meantime I’d like to leave you with promises of posting more in the next few weeks as I settle into having reprieve from care-giver work.
“Climb Every Mountain…” is the instrumental playing as I end this update. Perhaps this is appropriate given my dilemma about permanence and location. I hope that your Christmases and other Holy Days were everything you set out for them to be.
Thank you for a wonderful year of support and love as you have read and commented on and offline. I pray I can be more faithful in the coming year. Keep me in prayer as I climb all my mountains to discover my dream. And may you do the same with the advent of this new year.
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I walk down the street in my flowing Ghanaian print dress. I am on my way to my favourite Eritrean café to journal about my swearing-in ceremony. I am sentimental. I want to shout out, and then grin broadly while I tell everyone I meet, “I am a US citizen now.” I smile broadly at some folks. Most of them, white men, stare some place above my eyebrows and don’t acknowledge me. I want to say I am one of you now, but somewhere deep inside I know this can never be true. I have lived in this country long enough to know this isn’t the whole narrative. I continue to walk and smile anyway. A Black woman and her daughter stop me to comment on the African fabric; they make small talk. I contemplate sharing my good news. All of a sudden I’m shy.
Earlier as I sat listening to the many levels of ceremonial rites, I penned a few words on the blank portions of my program. Some are mine, others are what some speakers said, yet others are reflections from what my fellow citizens said:
The theater is packed full with family members and well-wishers seated up above in the mezzanine and the new citizens down in orchestra. I feel I am standing on the edge of making history. Goosebumps take residence on my skin and refuse to move on.
Pictures of the White House, Mt. Rushmore, the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, and the Washington Monument flash across the screen suspended from the ceiling. In the historic Paramount Theatre in downtown Oakland, California, about 2000 people are gathered to celebrate.
These flashing pictures are interspersed with black and white and sepia shots of the millions of immigrants who have rolled through Ellis Island over the centuries. The pictures show them waving mini Star Spangled Banners. Tears fill my eyes despite my resolve not to ruin my rarely made-up-but made-up-for-the-occasion face. That mascara was applied after ten minutes of fretting.
The steady scroll of pictures begins to switch to our own locale. I see the Golden Gate flash across, followed by the Bay Bridge, then the Redwoods and numerous mountainscapes, lush with greenery or red desert dirt. I live here! My heart skips a beat. I dab my tears quickly as they roll down my cheek. I imagine the trail of salt it leaves.
Names of countries flash across the screen. Flags follow. I try to test my knowledge by matching country to flag. Countries whose former citizens are being sworn in. I smile sadly as Ghana and then much later, my red-green-yellow dotted with the black star, appear on the screen. Another tear rolls down. Would this be termed a betrayal? I wonder how many other Ghanaians are in the room. Are they and other citizens feeling pangs of guilt?
As my guilt slinks into the corner, country names are called out and former citizens stand. I discover that of the 111 countries amassing the 1206 immigrants represented in the room, I am the only one standing in for Ghana. Contrary to popular belief Africans aren’t dying to give up their allegiance to their countries. More tears. This time I give up trying to wipe them. I try to smile through my tears satisfied that we have proved them wrong, at least for this event. China, Mexico, and a handful of European countries actually have the highest number of immigrants present. Go figure!
The MC thinks he’s funny, making jokes that get a stilted-clapping response at best.
“No more waiting in lines at ports of entry. Your blue book waves you through and buys you a smile.” Yeah right! I will test this theory when I return from Ghana in the fall.
“Your passport is a valuable document, use it in good faith and protect it. It gives you the freedom to choose your path.” This, I myself know to be true. I couldn’t be an “aimlessly” wandering academic back in my home country; the pressure would have had me conforming by now.
“America is better for all 1206 of you deciding to become citizens.” Really? Do you mean that?
A past immigrant of Asian descent gives the formal address. Ironic that they would pick one of the model minority. She is proud as she says:
“Value family because that is the foundation of this country.” Oh Lord here we go!
“One of the first and most important things to do is to learn English.” I wonder if anyone is chuckling in their heads. This from someone who has obviously mastered the language enough to be given a speaking part. I roll my eyes. I wonder how much of her speech is doctored.
“You are not foreign anymore!” This pronouncement makes me almost guffaw forgetting where I am. We, all of us with our blended accents and difficult-to-pronounce names, will always be foreign.
The ideals we espouse in this here ‘land of the brave’ are tantalizing alright. The packaged U.S we sell to immigrants is attractive. Having lived in this country for 17 years I know living up to these ideals is where the real work is. It’s where we as a people very often fall short.
Later, I wave my mini banner and sing, “O Say Can You See…” The harmony is touching. I reflect on all the journeys that culminate in this theatre. More tears. I think on my own journey and my reticence to make this particular commitment. Have I failed in choosing access? Much later, I walk the streets bordering Piedmont and Emeryville wanting to shout “I do!” to anyone who cares to know. I have bought this package with all its flaws. Now what can I do about it?
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The moments immediately following a violation of any sort are the most crucial. The survivor goes through a series of emotions rather rapidly. Time feels arrested. Shock and disbelief turn into re-winding and analyzing which lead to anger, which is then served to self and to anyone who dares present a lecture on ways to be safe. All these emotions come careening into a hangar called paranoia. Paranoia has the ability to seep into core places in the survivor’s life and set up shop for long-term operations; if not checked quickly, it has the potential to consume the whole fleet.
On Tuesday my phone was stolen. Swiped from right under my nose. A man pretending to have HIV claimed he needed money for his drugs and went round the bar asking for an endorsement on a very crumpled-looking piece of paper. When he arrived at our table, he repeated his spiel four times and by the time I had finished counting, he had a smirk on his face which quickly turned into a smile as he folded up the paper and said goodbye. Sadly, he used this piece of paper to cover up my Samsung touch-screen phone that happened to be lying next to my drink on the table. In the brief, barely four-minute encounter, he managed to chip away at my confidence. See, I was playing tour guide and had been talking my friend’s ear off regarding street smarts. Now here I was missing a relatively new and slightly-expensive smart phone. He had my confidence alright.
The minutes immediately following kept to the basic pattern. Rationally I knew they would, but I was not prepared for the physical reactions that came with it. As the realization of loss hit me over and over again, my hands balled up into fists, my throat seized up with anger, and I found myself unable to stay seated, choosing instead to pace between the bar and the patio. Although my exterior remained calm throughout, the emotional pattern occurring threatened to hold me captive if I didn’t do something differently. So I started muttering to myself: “breathe child, breathe,” and then mindfully I asked the universe to help me channel the energy somewhere else. Even as I searched for a cab to take me home a half hour later, I could feel the negative energy sitting lopsidedly on my head attempting to hold on. I had been stolen from; I couldn’t trust myself to pick a safe cab driver. I was paranoid that perhaps this was my night for bad things to happen and that the cab might carry me off to some greater harm. That perhaps the phone was a sign of worse things to come. It took me a good ten minutes to decide on a cab driver. Having done so, I felt uneasy that I was wrong as I had been about the poor HIV guy so I let this cab driver go. A total of four cab drivers and half an hour later, I had walked several blocks away from the scene and hopped on a Trotro (local bus) which would only take me half-way home. Once I boarded, I noticed I was one of two females in the 18-passenger van and I was seated in the middle surrounded on all sides. An active imagination coupled with paranoia’s new place in my life caused a mini panic attack. I finally made it home that night in a bit of a daze clutching my bag tightly and trying to stave off the ideas that were fast sprouting shoots in my mind. I dressed in darkness that night because somehow I felt the house was now more susceptible to burglars, like somehow the phone had put my location on the map. I decided to take hold of the situation by writing and getting it all out. Words helped halt the wheels of Paranoia.
Over the past four days, I have been replaying the scene over and over in my head, mourning the loss of my pictures, new contacts, and music, and saying what most survivors probably say in hindsight: “had I known…” I must say though that the “why me?” hasn’t been as strong as the “how stupid could I have been?” and this makes the process of healing even more difficult. In any case, all survivors must move on because life does move on. I have returned to the use of an old phone from my last trip to Ghana and I’m in the process of blocking that sim and recovering that number which apparently should be “easy” though that’s not been the experience thus far. The rate at which I have had to move on has colored the event so that it feels like it happened a while ago. However, in my mind’s eye I relive it at least ten times a day. I can picture the perpetrator mesmerizing me, him walking away, me frantically searching for the phone and knowing it was gone forever, and me feeling I had not been a watchful tourist. I try to intercept the scenes as they are playing and replace them with better choices (like putting my phone in my purse immediately after finishing that call) but this is often a useless task.
When it happened, I questioned if I should be praying for the miraculous return of the phone (highly unlikely), for the perpetrator’s demise (only universe will know if this prayer works), or uttering incantations to ward off any other evils that were coming my way. In the meantime, I am exploring the existential idea that everything happens for a reason, and working channelling my paranoia into more positive places.
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Earlier on today
My usual attempt
To order my world
Make sense of chaos
As I wrote I thought
This relationship of ours has
From the days
We just said “Hello”
And went on campus ministry trips
To spending time at
that “Dominican Connection” retreat with mutual friend, KR
Laughing so hard,
Letting go of all defences
Sometimes I wish you had come with
On that other “Dominican Connection” weekend in New York
Or to Ministry in the Mountains
In Colorado Springs
where we could have gotten to know each other better
I’m sure there’s a blueprint for our Relationship lying somewhere in
God’s house and at those times
We were not destined to be
Not yet at least
I remember the time when Yaye Marie and I were teaching you steps to
Your first African interfaith dance;
How did you get coaxed into that?
And later pigging out in the Colonial Room during the international day festival
And continental fashion show
I remember you coming to my numerous African family
celebrations, my graduation, my 25th birthday
You were slowly building up your
Tolerance for spicy African food
An incident of a bright, red face
comes to mind
That night mom
You had had your first taste a month before
But this time the pepper was too much
Plus it had pigfeet
Which from the look on your face
You had never tried before
I gotta give it to you
You are one brave Diva!
Never hesitating to try something new
I remember losing touch after my graduation
Then seeing you at your graduation in
The summer I went back to Ghana for the first time
Don’t recall what you did that summer
Or how we got back in touch again
I recall my first semester of grad school
I don’t know how much of the difficulty of my first year struggle with theology you knew about
Looking back now…
It probably wasn’t so much the theology
Although I’m sure it played a part
But rather my depression that made it such a difficult time for me
I signed up to lead that trip to Haiti
Returned a changed woman
You helped me move that summer
In between Haiti and Morocco
Me driving 50 miles on the freeway
Getting stuck behind semis and all the while
You patiently driving ahead
I left for Morocco with contact only through email that summer
Upon my return from Morocco it was an even greater transformation!
The beginnings of the woman I am today
An amazing adventure
That July 4th weekend
The infamous and dramatic phone call to my boyfriend
That ended a 5-year co-dependency
I remember you being there for me
Encouraging me to come out dancing with the ladies that night, me refusing
Choosing instead to
Wallow in self-pity for
Not being a true black woman
Not making that man love me enough
To marry me
Determined for me to get my license that summer you lent me
Your time with an ample supply of patience
In July of 2002,
6 years after moving to the US I finally did it!
I tried to finish up teaching and grading
You finished up too
Both of us anxious to be done with grad school
You looked at jobs
I looked for tickets to visit Ghana
You got the job
I confirmed the tickets
I was leaving for home
Second trip in seven years
Excitement built up as I turned in my final
Thesis and drove home
The phone call came
Relayed the news
Tragedy had hit; Disappointment took root
Disappointment led to grief
I had lost a parent
I got ready for my trip back to Ghana
To bury my father
We met at Panera’s that morning
It was a sad parting
You were moving two hours north to
Start a career
I was returning home to bury a
Father I had barely known
Yet knew I would miss We wrote email
You called twice and each time
I felt hope
After talking to you
This too shall pass Promised I’d survive
Blending, bonding, spending time together
Time spent watching “Kissing Jessica Stein”
Or “The Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood”
Or falling asleep during “Runaway Jury”
Or reading Iyanla Vanzant in bed together
Or journaling side by side
Us loving and caring for each other
Us sharing our deepest fears:
Mine, my inability to remove race from the conversation
Mine, worrying about fitting in with your white peeps
Yours, your constant struggle with
Feeling the need to sound smart all the time around me
Yours, your lack of knowledge about your
Valuable time spent with each other
Time spent with each other’s families
Each moment building on the next
Grafting us slowly into each other’s lives
Once separate and individual
No longer so
We–you and I have come a long way
And I guess that’s what makes us so close
Makes us friends beloveds
Through most of it we have been there for each other
A relationship that is still Growing Progressing
This is for you
For what we have that is beyond words
For what we have that defies societal restraints
For what we profess
That society denies
For what we have been
For what we are
For what we will become because
Of each other
I appreciate you
I love you
Thank you for
Being my friend
Kashka & Kuukua
A Celebration of Friendship & Love
Kuukua Dzigbordi Yomekpe
Jan 12 2004
October 26 2012
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I have been tasking myself with writing “that” blog entry almost everyday since I arrived in Ghana.
It’s not that there isn’t a lot to write about. As you know a writer always finds ways to make even the mundane, exotic and appealing to her readers. The problem is three-fold: first, it is having too much to write about and using the idea of this overload as an excuse to just absorb and not produce; second, I feel I’m reliving the same experiences of being back in Ghana so why bother telling this story to my readers; finally, my own dilemma about attempting to live on the continent for the third time in two years is preventing me from sharing my thoughts. Today I have overcome the confounding issues that have left me tongue-tied because there is something new and exciting happening in my life that demands to be written about.
My first few years in the US were fraught with change and confusion not unlike what I have experienced in returning to Ghana. Only back then I was thinking life moved too fast, white people multiplied by the day, and everyone was too uptight about being on time. “Open-sesame” doors (motion-sensors) and moving staircases only belonged to the world of the books I had read back home. (You can imagine our indignation when after a couple stores with open-sesames, the doors at Pep Boys refused to open to Sheela and I.) People always asked me to repeat myself which I found odd; that had never happened to me before. People asked stupid questions like “did you ride an elephant to America?” Imagine that! Some people back home had never seen a live elephant, let alone ride one. Yet others wanted to know if my family had ever been photographed by National Geographic. Did I mention confusion?
Living in the contradictions as I am always want to do, I tried unsuccessfully to befriend the Black American students on my two campuses where I began my college career despite the stereotypes my immigrant family relayed about “the Blacks.” True to some of my family’s stories, some said I talked “funny” and wasn’t really black. Others accused me of only hanging with white folks and being an “Oreo.” For others, I was the Africa they didn’t want to be associated with. On the contrary, White Americans found me fascinating and exotic, someone to invite over to showcase to equally clueless family members. I spent many an evening sitting around fireplaces giving ‘Africa re-discovered” talks after eating Lasagna or Chili. (Although some of my friends were genuinely clueless and curious, I cringe when I look back on those days.) Nevertheless these experiences were made smoother and less jarring by the friends I made those first two years of college who were willing to learn and teach. Some of these genuinely clueless and curious friends and those who called me an “Oreo” have lasted through the seventeen years and become some of my closest friends.
Enter KT. We met our sophomore year at a campus ministry retreat held in New Jersey. We were both raised in very traditional Catholic homes, volunteered as Eucharistic ministers and altar servers, loved going on retreats, and accumulated service hours like they were frequent flier miles. We had our differences. She was from a large catholic family of nine people; my family of four paled in comparison. She was an athlete and participated in various sporting activities; I couldn’t catch anything thrown my way. She didn’t know any black people; ironically, I knew scores of black people and even some white ones as well. Later on, she would meet everyone in my small family and eat fufu and habenero-infused light-soup; I would meet her large family and share a thanksgiving meal with them. I would teach her how to dance to African rhythms and she would teach me the hokey pokey. Later, she would inspire me to explore the Buddhist tradition, learn yoga, and pray in alternative ways. Much later, I would demand that she unpack her “invisible knapsack” of privilege, and she would sometimes drag me along for the ride. The ebb and flow of our relationship is at times beautiful and at times intensely emotional, but I dare say that all of the fifteen plus years have been powerful and very instrumental in shaping us into the women we have become, and the unique friendship we share today.
I am not sure how many black people she knows now or better yet, how many have made it into her regular circle of friends, but now she can thrown down fufu and pepper soup like nobody’s business, knows when she doesn’t “get” racial issues and when to shut it, and is one of the handful of white friends I know whom I’d claim on any dance floor. Let’s just say she’s come a long way from “Hi my name is KT and I’m from Parma, Ohio,” as have I from “Hello, my name is Melody-Ann and I am from Ghana, West Africa.
So I write this blog entry for KT who is making her first trip to Ghana and to the continent of Africa, fifteen years from that first hello and handshake. I want to say Akwaaba and re-introduce myself: Akwaaba, wo fr3m Kuukua Dzigbordi Yomekpe. Mi y3 Ghana nyi. These are my people; these are where my roots lie. If you are ready, we can wander the back-roads of Melody-Ann and the new tracks of Kuukua. This is for you my friend.
[The prose poem post that follows was written about 10 years ago and edited today as a tribute to our many years together]
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AWP: Writing and Remembering in Washington, D.C.
This post was written as an assignment for Professor Cindy Shearer’s Aesthetics of Value course. In Aesthetics of Value, students explore their arts heritage and inquire into the values that guide their creative work.
I didn’t expect the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference (AWP), held in February, to have such a great impact on my life, but it did.
I had been almost 10 years since I was last in Washington, D.C., so I was excited to be back. I was delighted to have the Capitol steps all to myself as I strolled various parts of the Mall that Sunday and Monday after AWP was over. “I used to live here!” I kept thinking. It’s kind of like when the reality of the gifts you have finally sink in. I think people there take it for granted to be in the nation’s capital everyday, much as I take it for granted that I have a 360-degree view from my workplace that encompasses three major bridges, including the world-famous Golden Gate.
I had a Voices of Our Nation Foundation (VONA) reunion with my dear friend Willona Sloan. We were a pair of silly girls who came alive with laughter at the slightest provocation. I was also lucky to see my Writing and Consciousness MFA cohort friend and fellow writer Wendy Sterndale at the conference. When Wendy joined Willona and me, we were truly “ac’in a fool” and had a great time together. I didn’t know I could laugh so hard!
We enjoyed the company of VONA elders Elmaz Abinader, Faith Adiele, Ruth Foreman, Suheir Hammad, Evelina Galang, and Junot Diaz (from afar), and fellow VONAites Crystal, Chelsea, and Daisy. We were lucky to get “stage” seats at Busboys and Poets restaurant to the reading by Ruth Foreman,Carolyn Forche, and Suheir Hammad, hosted by Hedgebrook’s Amy Wheeler. Events like the off-site University of Miami MFA reception, and the on-site Macondo Foundation reception were more engaging than the sessions. Of course, I loved Junot Diaz’ plenary in which he challenged all of us writers to be real. I enjoyed listening to Jhumpa Lahiri’s plenary; it was amazing that the lead keynotes be writers of color, but more importantly, that the first keynote be a woman. That made for a great inspiration.
I volunteered my time on Friday afternoon as a registration desk clerk and had quite a ball. I was stationed at the booth marked “E-H” between two guys who were hilarious. One of whom, Steven Cleaver, wrote “Saving Erasmus.” I bantered with them for most of my four-hour shift so the time went by quickly. I found out how common it was for writers to have a degree in theology as well as a MFA. I think altogether, I have now met about 10 folks with that combination. I don’t feel so odd anymore. (Yeah right! I wish that was all it took!)
Overall, AWP reminded me that I wanted to be a writer, was a writer and author already, and that I needed to keep writing. A part of me felt depressed after the third session on publishers and agents, because it seemed like they were saying a lot of it depended on luck. I wasn’t encouraged by this idea. Of course, it is only my perception, you know? I’ve been writing with renewed vigor since I returned. Since I have yet to develop a steady habit of time and place, I am doing the best I can by carrying three notebooks of varying sizes around with me, just in case. Of course, it helps that my MFA Project Proposal was due this spring, and in order to do this I had to have written something substantial. For my final project, I’ll be working on a culinary memoir that chronicles my story of growing up in Ghana with my mulatto, maternal grandmother. The memoir, told in vignettes paired with recipes, tackles issues of identity, class, race, and skin color, using food.
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Blacked out with a Sharpie
Cut out of photos
Entire albums shredded
For the sake of eliminating one
Faces and heads shriveled as they
Danced in the flames
Phone numbers deleted
In case of a misdial
Lest they dial those memorized digits
“Stinker” letters written
That might one day cause regret
Words uttered that cause pain on purpose
Lashing out, a favorite pastime
Wordsmiths with sharp tongues
Crafting partial truths
Telling their version of the Story
To themselves and to those
Who asked about that missing head
Or that Sharpied-out face
Secrets thrown back in their owners’ faces
Ammunition in this declared war
Armor built and re-built
Reinforced with each cut-out head, blacked-out face
Perfected with frequent dramatization
Voices dripping with irritation
That belies the truth of the REAL anguish
This…this is the fine tradition from which I descend
This…this is the fine lineage from which I descend
The lineage I was raised in
That which I inherited
That which was passed on to me
Whenever people would “cross” her
A jitteriness that she was not prone to
“Mi Kweku!” Grandmother would say
Proudly pounding her chest
“M3 y3 hon adze!”
Flushed mulatto face
Promising a revenge like none before
Limbs shaking feverishly
Declaring the inevitable
A moratorium on love
Any she previously had for this person
Poof and it would disappear
To somewhere deep inside where her pride stood guard
The pride that rode in on the anger
Begot from shame
Begot from reprimand (or calling out)
From a person less than
From someone according to her
Erased the entire history of a relationship
A “Mi Kweku!” meant death
This unfortunate head, face, better hide
Grudge that defied imagination
Say, not speaking to an only sister
Leaving them guessing the next move
Buckets of tears
Unleashing the victim narrative
Repetition created a believable narrative
Demons arose from former loves
Meant a lifetime of “stuff”
Passed on for generations to come
This…this is the fine lineage from which I descend
The lineage I was raised in
That which I inherited
That which was passed on to me
Tonight, I beg not forgiveness for my auto pilot but rather a consideration that such a situation is possible
That one could live all of an adult life this way
Knowing I‘m on auto pilot is half the battle but
Someone else knowing I‘m on autopilot, calling me out on it
And me not pounding my chest and walking away is
The rest of the battle
Left to be fought
Tonight I beg not for a do-over, but just for a consideration
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My Blog turned two on July 11th this year. This year I was aware of the anniversary before it occurred. I wanted to commemorate this auspicious day in some way. A year ago, I was preoccupied with navigating the waters of the Atlantic as I journeyed to, and settled into, my new landscape in Tema, Ghana. In the midst of such transition I forgot to acknowledge my Blog’s first anniversary.
I decided to mark this year’s anniversary by reflecting on VONA; a very fitting tribute, since VONA 2010 was the impetus for beginning this blog. VONA, which stands for Voices of Our Nation, is an annual writers of color retreat that has been in session since 1999. I was fortunate to get picked to attend VONA my first go around. I had heard about it right before the submission deadline so I figured I didn’t have much of a chance. It seemed apropos that I would return to VONA this year, two years after beginning the process of claiming writer-hood.
The first time around, VONA shook me up. My instructor, Evelina Galang, challenged me to go deeper and stop skirting the surface with what I thought were witty, sarcastic, and humorous essays about growing up chocolate in a tan home. Ms. Galang tried to get me to go into scenes that I had been avoiding since I began writing the vignettes that would later become parts of my memoir. I stomped my feet and threw temper tantrums throughout the week, refusing to change the prized vignettes.
On day 4 of the week-long workshop, I cracked, balled and began doing the difficult and painful work necessary. Crying and sobbing my way through new scenes made me see my witty, sarcastic, and humorous vignettes for what they were—a facade for the pain of growing up a dark skin child in a highly prejudiced household. Putting me on the page and entering those vignettes was necessary for the real work to begin. The early result: a better structured, engaging, and empathetic manuscript that has kept my workshop colleagues asking for more. The midterm result: the 150+ paged manuscript I turned in for my MFA thesis. The end result is in the making. VONA 2010 also made it apparent that I should have gotten a BFA instead of my other three degrees. No matter, I was encouraged to begin right where I was. VONA 2010 gave me the permission to claim my space as a writer, but more importantly as a writer of color. It helped affirm my story as valid. My WOCfesto was written that week: My Ethnic Story
VONA 2012, started out differently. I had signed up for a Memoir Workshop with Minal Hajratwala. In hindsight, I know that I couldn’t have appreciated her without Ms. Galang’s efforts in 2010. It was a booster shot to reinforce what I already knew—my story was important and only I could tell it. I wasn’t coddling my manuscript any longer because I had learned that if I wanted my book to eventually leave my clutches, I needed an audience to tell me what they thought of it. I was at a stage to begin laying out my chapters. It felt good to be moving along. I gently encouraged others to “let their babies go,” handing out tissues and extending my arms wide to give hugs. As I waltzed through the week playing midwife to the newbies, I ignored my own labor and birthing that needed to happen. It was now or never, the universe seemed to be urging. On Day 5 I received the push, albeit a gentle one, to go where I’d been resisting, dragging my feet about going. I cracked and began the sobbing, similar to what had occurred two years prior. I cried as I wrote and had to leave campus after the last workshop session. This leaving was quite reminiscent of the one on Day 4 in 2010. It seems it takes a lot to crack the armor of resilience that they hammer into us Black women.
This time the scenes that needed birthing were not mere entering of prior written vignettes; they were brand new ones about the silence surrounding my rape at age 7. I had debated for a long time about including my sexual molestation in my memoir. I had my answer. The story decided it had to be written whether I was ready or not. My body convulsed in sobs most of the day as I tried to “keep it together.” The result: the retching has ceased and the dirty little secret has been thrown on the page. I now see the story of the abuse in a similar way as I see all the other coming-outs: as one of breaking the silence around yet another taboo topic. In acknowledging it, I have lain bare what I remember of the facts and begun the journey towards healing.
It’s not that VONA is the only place I get writing done; it’s just that it’s the place where I am supported enough to go deep, real deep. Every year I come across writers of color that I encourage to attend VONA. Only one has taken me up on the suggestion. I will keep trying. I believe strongly that it is an experience every writer of color should have. Although there is little funding available, founders, faculty, and administrators do the best they can to get as many writers in as possible by spreading the funds around and working out payment plans.
In gratitude and in celebration for what I have experienced, I have decided to commemorate this 2-year anniversary by opening up my blog to other female writers of color who don’t already have a blog (and maybe some who do as well). I want to offer them a platform to express themselves. I want to encourage them to use my blog as a launching pad to test the waters as they decide on their own public personas as writers. I am not sure what this will look like but for now, I begin with an open invitation (send me a message if you are interested). My first guest blog should appear by the end of next week once I obtain her approval of the edits. In addition, I will be migrating this Blog over to my new webpage. I’m sure it’ll re-direct once it’s completed.
I want to express ndaase kese naa, shidaa babaoo, akpe lolo to my sister Sheela who has been supportive of my writing from the scribbles-on-the-margins-of-my-daily-planner days to this present day published author, and who willingly critiques herself as a character. And also to my mother, aunt, and Grammie (may she rest in peace) as well as other family members in the U.S. and on the continent, those who have recently discovered my writing and those who knew all along, to past and current lovers who have read, received, engaged in dialogue with me through my lengthy letters, poems, emails, and epistles. To Kashka. Akpe! for indulging me.
I want to extend similar gratitude to the muses who have inspired me, the godmothers who have helped me find my voice, and the midwives who have helped birth various parts of this memoir-in-progress: beginning with my Class Two teacher, my great aunt, Mrs. Nelly Sam, Imali Abala,Vickie LeFevre, Ann Hall, Joanne Vickers, and other ODC faculty, Faiza Shereen, Betty Youngkin and other UD faculty, Gabriella Lettini, Christine Fry, Margaret McManus, Jay Johnson and Dorsey Blake (two great men) and other GTU faculty, Evelina Galang, Minal Hajratwala, and other VONA faculty & staff, Sarah Stone, Kris Brandenburger, Judy Grahn, and other CIIS faculty, and to my thesis directors Carolyn Cooke and Faith Adiele. Mea culpa to anyone I have not mentioned specifically ( the list is way longer).
I want to express gratitude for all my colleagues of various kinds over my entire 10-year academic career (yeah, I’ve been in school too long). Thank you for engaging and challenging me to keep honing my various skills. For those with whom I share the contents page and for those with whom I am working on anthologies, thank you for believing in me. For my CTA buddies with whom I drafted my first Strategic Plan, for whom I did my first journalistic piece. To my beloved VONAites (Bay and others), much love. To my Boss Ladies from Women’s Initiative, keep GRIT alive.
Finally, I want to profusely thank you who have been reading and commenting or silently following my blog for the last two years. This is for you! You make me accountable to keep writing. You inspire me. Thank you for the feedback, poems, likes and FB shares. I hope I am inspiring you in some way.
To Ancestors, the Universe, and Higher beings who give me the gift of all these words and more to come.
To WordPress and Bluehost who make it all possible.
Here’s to the next year! To art and creating art. To paying homage to life and it’s many complexities and intricacies. To living in the interstices and refusing to be defined as one-dimensional.
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Memories scatter around me
Pictures and picture frames that carry moments of joy
Moments with a lover, a dear friend
My new family of choice
Reminding me of the life I’ve built
In this here land of the free and brave
Cards that wish me well
Give hope in times of some heavy situation
Tell me how wonderful I am
Remind me turning 30 is not the end of the world
I smile; the tears roll down unprovoked
Memories scatter around me
As I decide which of these are worth holding on to
Which are worth paying the extra-pounds fee for
Which ones I will cry over if I never see again
My collection of journals since I was 16
My collection of art pieces from around the world
My collection of tea sets
My academician turned writer impressive library
Memories scatter around me
Tears streaming down my face
4 days straight
They start; They stop; They start again
It’s not like this trip is sudden
But this trip feels real and more of a sure stay
Like Ghana will stick to my bones this time
Unlike my mother and her brother I will not
Let “over the hill” catch me on this side
But is that what I really want
Me, my people’s hope
Me, the immigrant child abandoning
What they have worked hard for
Memories scatter around me
I try to decipher which articles
Women and gender
Sex and sexuality
Theology and activism
Character and first person narrative
Are important to mail to myself
Will I ever use these articles again
That which these professors
Have bequeathed me
In this tradition of academia
Ten years of schooling that has made
Me into the woman I am today
Articles they thought important and necessary to impart to me
Articles and readings and excerpts they thought I should
Assimilate into my life
Regurgitate in arguments
Defend in intellectual musings
Espouse in high brow academic company
Will I really be using them later
Will there be need for them in my new life
Do I want to impart these Western ideals to eager students
Do these ideals stretch across continents
Memories scatter around me
I read old papers
Past professors’ encouraging comments
Past professors’ obvious discomfort with some of the subject matter
I chose to discuss in final papers
Past professors’ questioning some of the arguments
I thought I had carefully crafted
Past professors’ challenging me to “tell-the-real-story”
I read old papers that assure me that I used to be
That I am and will continue to be
That the magnas and summas cum laudes were not just to placate
The minority in the class
That somewhere inside I have all this knowledge
Now a part of my DNA
Now what to do with it
Is the million dollar question
Memories scatter around me
Seems I’ve lived a thousand lives
Well really just 4,
Each of my degrees
Seemed to take me in a different direction each time
But in reality; in hindsight
They were all/ are all
Just my hybridities coming together
My interstitiality laid bare
That which makes me a complex human
Who cannot be placed in a box
Who cannot be labeled
Perhaps if there was a place for each our many selves
To be all of who we are
Some might not feel so freakish
Some might feel empowered
Memories scatter around me
As I sit in the middle of the piles of old essays
And intelligently crafted articles
Having a conversation with an ex
Who has watched this all happen
Almost right from the beginning
Albeit at times from the shadows
In part of the conversation I heard:
But you didn’t really get any practical degrees
I jumped to defend my degrees
But then it felt futile
She was right
They were mere pleasure for pleasure sake
I loved learning/love learning
Why wasn’t that enough of career
Everyone thinks when you get degrees like mine
You automatically want to teach
I don’t want to teach
There are callings for each of us
Teaching is not one of mine
But then when pushed against the rock and asked to pick
Take the MBTI or the Enneagram
To “figure” out where I fit
I pick one
One that I think sums up everything I’ve enjoyed so far
I pick Pastoral Care of Students and Fostering Community Life
What does that mean
Memories scatter around me
I find dreams for that women’s retreat center I wanted to build
I find plans for that wholeness center for women dealing with trauma
I find applications to UN and Fulbright and Rhodes
I even find plans for that orphanage I was going to run in Ayiti
After I made my first mind-blowing trip there ten years ago
I find ideas I used to dream big about
Tears roll down rapidly again
I find that I have let lack of money block the way
I let feeding myself, living on my own, being an independent woman
Surviving racism and homophobia and other isms
Block my way to
To accessing my dreams
Those things I once held high and didn’t regard as lofty
Now are just that
I hit the reality-check wall and let the bump that formed on my forehead
Cloud that spirit that fearlessly boarded that flight to Columbus, Ohio
In the middle of the worst winter they had had in ten years
Getting off that plane that 10th day of January in the brand new year of 1996
America held so much promise
It gave me what I desired most
An education in which women were encouraged
To see themselves as equal to men
A sense of self-worth not defined by a man
A label to hang my hat on
To explain the complexities of who I was/becoming
The freedom to be different
To choose a path like none before me
What it didn’t do was caution me
That carving this road less traveled
I would sometimes get lost in the woods
Lose my cutlass and walking stick
That no one would be able to rescue me
Because only I knew where I was going
That even I would sometimes not know where I was going
What it didn’t give me was an intense desire to
Return to where I came from
To make a difference there
It didn’t give me a renewed appreciation for where I came from
It left me frustrated at my people
At the place I was first named
It left me wanting a mini America in Ghana
Scared to return there because I couldn’t possibly
Navigate a place I hadn’t been an adult in
I watched my friends
Some White people
Love it there
Marry my men
Have clear skinned babies
All the while wishing I was them
Wishing I could do what they had done
In reality I had done what they had done
Just in reverse
I had moved here
Called it my home
Almost married their men
Discovered I loved their women
So if I had done it before
Why couldn’t I do it again
Only this time in reverse
Memories scatter around me
My envy showing through my poetry
I was angry
How dare they move to my country
With my new found lenses
I critiqued their motives
I tore down their reasons for moving to a developing country
I saw the privilege they enjoyed there
Knew most of them didn’t enjoy that in their own country
Knew I’d never enjoy that in their country
So why did I stay
To get more degrees
To go back to prove to them
That I too could survive another country
That I too was smart enough
Pretty enough for their men and women to want me
To prove to my own people that
The past seventeen years hasn’t been wasted
They still think it is wasted because I have no
Husband and three kids and one-on-the-way, to show for it
I have no career that could be labeled
Dentist, Lawyer, Doctor, Banker…Teacher
Just a bunch of papers, unframed
A lot of ideas and fragments of dreams deferred
They want to know
How will you pay your bills
Who will hold you when you are lonely
Who will take care of you when you are dying
I have no answers
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Nana smiled as her aesthetician, Ranni, looked at her, eyes wide, eyebrows reaching for her hairline as if the act she was about to commit would ruin their friendship for good. Next to Nana’s Seminary friends and her therapist, this woman was the only other person who had known Nana the entire time she had been in the Bay. Ranni had been there for celebrations and successful conference presentations. She had been there for anniversaries and family gatherings. She had also been there when threading those eyebrows seemed to be the right dose of life she needed to get through yet another depressive bout.
So today as Nana lay on the table wincing with each snap of the white thread adeptly moving across her forehead, she told Ranni that she’d been pondering shaving all her hair off. She asked if Ranni could do it.
Ranni shook her head at Nana. “No! I can’t. I’ve never received training on how to style Black hair!”
“Well I can be your guinea pig today!” Nana announced to Ranni smiling. Ranni smiled back nervous but agreeing that there was no time like the present to try her hands at something new. When Ranni observed the determination in Nana’s eyes she said, “Sure, I’ll do it! Come.”
Eyebrows done and looking perfect as usual, Nana lifted her body off the reclining table and followed Ranni out to the hair area of the salon. Once seated in a chair Nana was seized by a momentary panic: what if she hated it? What if the shape of her head was hideous? That’s what wigs are for silly, she chuckled to herself.
Ranni wrapped the black cape around Nana tightly as if hugging her. She patted Nana on the shoulder and asked one last time, “Are you sure? All off?”
Nana nodded. “Yes, all off!”
Ranni nodded. Nana watched as the cutest pair of clippers, white, disentangled itself from the river of cords belonging to all the other clippers.
With the first buzz, Nana prayed she’d have an even head. Not one landscaped with dents and craters. The air rushed in as Ranni moved the clippers around her head. With the air came the questions. What if it didn’t grow back the same? How did one handle the spiky stage of growth? How should she take care of the hair? Scalp? Did she really want to have a shaved head for a while or was this a passing fancy, encouraged by her lover?
Ranni touched Nana’s shoulder gently to make sure she was ok. Nana smiled back at her, reassuringly. Ranni continued to buzz away until she raised a pancake of hair from Nana’s head and held it out. Ranni felt so proud of herself. Nana remarked about the effort it took for Ranni to keep all the hair on her head connected until the last bit was shaved. Ranni asked one of the salon hands to bring Nana a bag to store the pancake of curls.
“It looks like a wig, well…more like judge’s wig,” Nana said smiling at the curious faces of the salon hands who had gathered around her head.
“You look stunning!” Ranni declared.
Nana rose slowly from the chair to look at herself in the 360 mirror. Ranni was right. She smiled at Ranni in appreciation. Her step was lighter as she spun around. The breeze that embraced her was energizing. A sudden burst of confidence rode in on the breeze as it was gently kissing her scalp. She stepped out of the salon with purpose. She was ready to show off her new do. She was not ready for what the world saw when they looked at her.
Her first gawkers, two young boys, stared for more than the “approved” polite time. Next to the corner Starbucks, three women averted their eyes as they took in her shaved head. Later one older woman smiled and asked how her day was, redeeming Nana’s faith in humanity. The few Black men who saw her instantly looked above her refusing to acknowledge her as though her shaved head was a challenge to them.
Outside a grocery store, a young boy, probably no more than 12, was selling candy bars. Here we go again Nana thought expecting another stare-down.
“Not today,” she said as he asked if she could support his school campaign.
“Ok. Have a good day, beautiful!” the young’un replied.
Nana did a double-take. When she recovered from her shock she replied, “You do the same, hon,” making sure to stress the last word. He grinned at her.
He grinned broader still when ten minutes later she emerged from the grocery store with her purchase.
She smiled at him as she walked by, still aware of his attention.
“Do you have a boyfriend?” He asked boldly as he threw all caution to the wind.
Nana laughed heartily. What was the world coming to? Well, at least this one wasn’t just staring.
“Aren’t you just a little too young to be asking this question?”
She chuckled as he said, “Age aint nothing but a number!’
“Have a great weekend, hon!” She turned and smiled at him not wanting to deflate his self-confidence.
“You do the same beautiful!”
Nana shook her head as she walked away marveling at his boldness.
A few feet away, a woman held her son’s hands closer as he stared at Nana’s head doe-eyed. The woman averted her eyes and tried to chastise her son.
Nana wondered what sort of statement her shaved head was making as she strutted around enjoying the kisses of the breeze. People were certainly reading her Black body differently. Perhaps people were confused about her health or her sexuality. Nana wondered if the place she occupied in the world had changed. Perhaps a woman with a shaved head occupied a different place in society. Perhaps she was performing gender from a far more non-conforming place and that shifted her place in society. It troubled her that even though she saw bald men everywhere, no one paused to stare at them. People’s reactions mostly centered around avoidance, blatant staring, or a confused smile. Those who stopped her to tell her she was stunning were mostly non-Black women. What did that say about who valued what in this society?
The other troubling factor was that some of her African friends and family (not all) had a negative reaction to her shaved head. One wrote, “What happened?” Another, “Yikes! What did you do to your hair?” Another, “tsk, tsk…grow your hair back pretty.” Yet another, “You crazy Kuuk, but I love your ummm…”
This was troubling to Nana because it said a lot about the standards of beauty as well as what her people valued. The ironic fact was that, women in some cultures on the continent wore their heads shaved and adorned and they looked amazing. Nana wished there was time in the day to school people on their history lessons, but alas, she had a new do to take care of. All she needed to communicate in the meantime was that she was healthy. It wasn’t a drastic-spur-of-the-moment act. It certainly marked a transition in her life but it was nothing to write home about. A transition to commit to trying new ways of being herself in this world. It definitely helped that she had a cheerleader in her corner.
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Jay, her partner, walked into the bathroom and grabbed her toothbrush. In the glow of the candle light Nana thought she looked liked an angel, ethereal almost. Like she was dreaming her. Nana watched as this figure looked over at the tub trying to locate her under all those bubbles. She lay still.
Tonight Nana had decided to do it. She was tired of living and hustling and was ready to meet her Maker or the Grim Reaper or St. Peter or whoever would be on the other side. Come to think of it, perhaps there would be no one waiting for her on the other side because “cause of death” would be determined as not worthy of celebration. She would be arriving in the end as a failed attempt at life. She imagined she’d say, “Yeah you gave me a body, lots of friends who cared, talents, and loving partners at different times in my life but I still killed myself; I know I failed, but can you just left me in? I don’t like standing out here in this liminal space. I did plenty of that in life.”
“Babe?” Jay’s voice interrupted her conversation with the guards of the afterlife. She sunk lower into the tub, the bubbles now caressing the tip of her nose, just waiting for her command.
Jay returned to brushing her teeth. Nana continued her slow exit into the world she had only heard legends about. She thought her stone or urn would say: “failed to stand up to the vicissitudes of life.” There’d be “daughter” but no “wife” or “mother” after that. Shit! There’d be ellipsis where those other titles “should” be. Well, it could say “perpetual student, loyal friend, avid writer, and fierce lover.” But would people believe that? Were those real accomplishments?
Babe? Jay’s voice interrupted her thoughts again. Nana lay still, suddenly afraid to let the bubbles invade her orifices. She hoped Jay would just rinse and leave the bathroom. Jay knew she was talking a solo tub bath and needed some quiet. Earlier, Nana had declined Jay’s suggestive offer to join her in this bubble ride. “Just rinse and go away!” She mouthed beneath the water.
Babe? Jay said again, his time her voice a tad bit louder, almost bordering on shrill. Nana sank deeper, causing the soap bubbles to move. Still she held her breath, mouth tightly closed, eyes squeezed shut.
“Whew!” Jay exhaled. “For a second, I thought something had happened to you in there! Why don’t you come out? I’ll rinse you off, towel you dry, and coat your body in shea butter. Would you like that?” Jay’s words entered the water as muffled sounds above her.
Nana had held her breath long enough. She sighed and let go of controlling her orifices. Soapy water and massive bubbles flooded her nose, mouth, and ears. She wondered how long it would take for her to actually drown. She lay there willing it to be a painless and brief journey of crossing over. She refused to struggle.
“Oh my god!” Jay’s now shrill voice floated above the water. Nana closed her eyes and willed the process to speed up. She felt a tug on her arms, then Jay’s strong arms scooping her up out of the water. Jay dragged Nana’s almost lifeless body onto the bathroom floor. Nana felt the plush rug welcome her body. Somewhere in what was left of her spirit she saw a feebly flickering wish to live, to remain a part of the living world. To perhaps give herself the chance to earn those other titles if she wanted. Jay began crying softly as she tried to pump Nana’s upper stomach. Cradling Nana’s head in her lap, Jay knew it was too late. That Nana had finally succeeded. Her attempts to save Nana from the grasp of the illness had proved futile.
“I wish I had tried harder, made sure you took all your meds every day.” Jay spoke softly to the body of her lover, rocking her.
“I wish we hadn’t fought as much about the petty things. I wish I had known how long I had you for. Maybe I would have tried harder. I love you; I’m sorry I failed you!” The last one came out sounding like a plea.
“You haven’t failed me!” Nana said weakly through the cough that tickled her throat at that very moment and rescued her. She threw up, continuing to cough as the bubbles gathered around them.
Jay smiled through her tears whispering prayers to the gods who had given her a second chance with her lover.
Meanwhile Nana cursed in her head, “Another botched job!”
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These three definitive words have been haunting me for a few months. When you break up, you know if you stay in touch with exes, you’ll eventually hear them or utter them yourself. These words, and other variations of them, have graced my ears almost as often as I have uttered them.
This time it wasn’t even “I think I’ve Met the One”; it was a generic “I Met Someone.” Perhaps it was because I had just turned 35 and felt that I was not getting any younger; somehow these three little words impacted me differently this time.
In the past, these words signified the end of fooling around, if this was happening. It meant that our relationship going forward had to be re-negotiated. It meant that our interactions had to be monitored closely so as not to offend the newcomer or cause any insecurities to flare up in them. It meant that the new arrival’s feelings had to be part of the equation. I hated having to be generous!
In any case, these three little words bothered me when they were uttered this time around, so I had to sit with them and my demons and write through it.
Was I sad that they were finally moving on? Did I want them to stay? Would I rather be miserable and partnered than alone and happy most of the time, or at least knowing I was the only one responsible for my unhappiness? Was I mad someone else was going to be answering to Babe or Hon or whatever the term of endearment had been? Was I mad that someone else was willing to put up with their mess, their bad temper, their cheating, their lying, or their inability to make a commitment? Was it because I was having a blast stringing them along and now they had broken that spell?
Why did these three little words bother me so when they finally came this time?
I have never thought any of my exes as ready for marriage yet someone has inevitably always married them. So was it because they weren’t ready to marry me or they got better at being a partner after me? I try not to feel that I’m the one with that one fatal flaw. It is sad however to note that these ex partners are willing to make concessions that there were unwilling to make with/for me. Like take out the trash right when I was getting to cook a multiple-course meal, or take a romantic walk in spitting rain, or just try something new, like lychees.
I have yet to figure out exactly what was behind my reaction to these three words this time around, but I speculate that it had something to do with thinking of the future and settling down and starting to prioritize what was worth fighting for and what was more important: my fierce independence or the potential of ultimate happiness in partnership. Being the woman I am I keep hoping that there was a way to have both.
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I am in uncharted territory. I feel it even as I claw my way through the haze of anger, passive-aggressiveness, pain, and pettiness. These emotions live in my body. My body has held these for years. They say body memory is the most difficult to re-train. I have to say I agree.
I am in uncharted territory. I am dating a woman. I am not only dating a woman, I am dating a Black woman, my second Black woman in my fifteen years of dating life. That is not all. She is from the same country as I am and we share a common tribe.
I am in uncharted territory. I kick and scream and drag my feet and refuse to acknowledge her presence and help often. This does not feel good when she reflects back what she experiences as I do this. Then I feel shame. Then body memory kicks in and I get defensive and mean. Then pride kicks in and I shut down. I get to stepping. Then I walk.
I am in uncharted territory. She is bold. She is much younger than me. She challenges me to be my better self. She is beautiful and chocolate skinned just like me. She is curvy in the places I am not. I am jealous sometimes. I fall for her anyway. She speaks my politics. She analyzes more than any of the others I’ve known. She says she’s good for me. I know she is; I don’t acknowledge it right away.
I am in uncharted territory. I hate when she ignores me, yet I can’t stand it that I am unwilling to rise to her challenge. I know I have got to rise above my body memory. I go to sleep on the other side of the bed with a gulf between us because we are arguing about yet another issue. She likes to pick the logs out of my eye. I don’t always appreciate it. I curl up in a ball. My heart has never beat this fast and my breathing has never been this stalled. Full of emotion that won’t let go until I acknowledge them. I don’t acknowledge them. They build up. I burst. We argue about everything but the reason behind the bursting.
I am in uncharted territory. We go days without touching. Me avoiding eye contact or giving her the evil eye. Wanting so badly to say, “You have to go now; I’m going to play ball by myself. You are not invited.” Yet something about her eyes stop me. She always returns to talk to my body memory causing shock and confusion and then gratitude. Shaming me into seeing the auto response of the body memory as it gets in the way of this radical love we are creating.
I am in uncharted territory. Before her and before the one before her, they were all mostly white. I’d play the race card in a heartbeat and watch them walk away. I, triumphant that I could play by myself again would watch them walk. Yet somehow this time I don’t want to play by myself, no matter how much and how often my body memory goes into auto pilot and I have to ask for a “do-over.” No matter how much my body memory denies her existence, I keep processing and fighting my demons.
I am in uncharted territory. Although we have lots of similarities, we also have some differences. Like our tastes in music or how she knows popular culture and the lyrics to most songs. And I just can’t be bothered. Or hhow she is confident in her body. Or our levels of cleanliness; her “We can make a cleaning chart;” my “No chica, you clean as you go, so there is no chart.” My rigidity and rule making that threatens to swallow me but rules and rigidity have kept me sane all these years through the chaos that surrounded me.
I am in uncharted territory. I am no longer allowed to cop out and say it’s how I was raised. Or it’s the fault of oppression. I am called to live out my ideals beyond how I was raised. Beyond the body memory. I am called to live this radical love that I claim to want to create. Called to this new way of loving and healing, and being loved and being healed. Called to re-learning respect for my sojourner. Relaxing my rules because I don’t need them for survival any longer. Forgetting my elitist upbringing and living in true equanimity with all peoples. I am called to be authentic.
I am in uncharted territory. Some days this uncharted territory sucks big time and I freak out and create demon stories about her in my mind to make it easy to despise her. Hurt her. Ignore her. Refuse to offer her the whole truth. Yet, she rarely leaves the field with her ball.
I am in uncharted territory. I know this because the growth pains are definitely making me groan. Because I often want to buy her, or me, a one-way ticket out of this relationship. Forget being radical. Forget doing it differently this time. Forget growth.
I am in uncharted territory because I keep trying to come back, and bring my ball with me, and keep the coupon for that one-way ticket because I know I don’t really want to give it to either of us yet.
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“Amoo, Boodie, Enam fo fo fo, Panoo fresh o!” Vendors peddling their wares; tomatoes to plantains to fish to bread. Most average Ghanaians I know rarely went to the market daily. Street vendors were a life saver even on those days when you had made that market trip. Buying cooked meals, sweets, or snacks was forbidden, especially after Mass when we were socializing in the church courtyard.
People, she said, were always observing us and making assumptions about our social status. Purchasing and consuming street food in public places was what the locals did. This became increasingly difficult to avoid as we began spending inordinate amounts of time at the rectory planning Bible competitions, retreats, and founding the local Catholic Youth Organization (CYO). Grandmother claimed that in addition to ruining her reputation we would also open ourselves up to contract diseases because our constitution was such that it would be unable to withstand these germs. We thwarted these concerns however because no matter what kind of street food we bought, they all tasted better than what we were fed at home. Peer pressure for me, at a time when some of my friends were giving in to other riskier behaviors like sex and drugs, came in the form of sneakily buying street food.
The irony of this issue was that Grandmother allowed street vendors who brought things to our door, as if to say, those were approved because it occurred in the privacy of our house gates. Some of the numerous men and women who roamed the streets advertizing their wares were sometimes permitted entry into our compound. There was always a system to who qualified to enter the compound to exhibit their wares. Grandmother usually approved of them because they were well behaved and spoke very eloquently. This was a difficult criterion for the average street vendor because a large number of street vendors were not educated. First impressions were very important for Grandmother to approve or disapprove. The other deciding factor was our need at any given time. Our house-help might have forgotten something on the grocery list, or wanted to cook something fresh (usually seafood) for dinner but did not have the time to make that trip to the market. Sometimes Grandmother had a craving for something in particular. However, if my sister and I had a craving, we had to have been on our best behavior that day, and we had to convince her that we needed it, had the pocket money for it, or deserved it. Whatever the reason was for beckoning a street vendor, Grandmother made that call, and Sheela and I gathered around to observe the interaction. I recall having a smattering of regular approved street vendors; the ones who peddled fresh baked bread, fresh fish, and fresh vegetables were regulars. Our household usually consumed three distinct types of bread: butter bread, sugar bread, and tea bread. Ironically, these names actually corresponded to the texture and ingredients of the bread. Our bread vendor, from as early as I can remember to about age fifteen, had been the baker next door. When she got too old to work, Grandmother gave in and approved a vendor who fit her criteria, and whose wares seemed to hold up to Grandmother’s scrutiny. I recall the presence of other approved vendors: the one selling smoked fish, or freshly made porridge in the morning, the ‘manicure-on-foot lady,’ the knife sharpener, the mortar and pestle mender, and the hair lady. As if these itinerant vendors were not enough of a disturbance to my Grandmother’s “proper” house rules, the neighbors living catty corner to our house decided to rent to a family that owned a storefront grocery kiosk. At first, my Grandmother worried about the depreciating value of our house once the appraisers came around. Then, she became obsessed with the people she called ‘riff-raff’ who were patronizing the store. She eventually made peace with them when one night they came through when she needed to get me some cold clay to soothe the habanero burn I had inflicted on myself while I was leaning to grind pepper on the traditional beba (stone) for the first time. The only other acceptable situation in which street vendors were approved of was at snack and meal times during recess at school. In this case, it did not seem to matter to her that others might observe us buying from the street. Perhaps it was because our school was an elite one yet everyone equally purchased from the street vendors. Sometimes it was because we did not have time to pack lunch. Whatever the reason for this one other permission, Sheela and I did not question it because we were all too happy to not eat yesterday’s leftovers.
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Dear Blog Family,
I apologize for the silence. I panicked after I hit ‘publish’ on my last post, realizing for the first time that I didn’t even know who all was reading my blog and what the true repercussions would be. I was silenced by this and couldn’t write for days. Of course, there are other reasons why I’ve been missing from the Blogosphere, like dating someone new and having to move homes yet again, but mainly it has been this general sense of shock that followed the catharsis, that has left me stunned.
I panicked because I wondered what future potential employers might think. I worried if any of my past students were reading the blog and what their reactions would be. I thought of old classmates who were now following me on FB and their words. Above all, I kept thinking about my U.S.-based family (as well as some Ghana-based ones) and what their reactions would be. Would they stop talking to me? Would my mother get the flack for her daughter?
In my panic, I forgot to fully acknowledge those family members and friends who have either commented or written to me offline to express their relief and encouragement around my coming out process. Most of them have brought tears to my eyes because they have comprehended the stress of holding on to such a secret as mine. They have understood what their “setting me up with various men” has done. One even said, “now go do what you were put on earth to do” (I’m paraphrasing) I thank you all for writing or commenting, on and offline. I am happy to call you friends and family. Although I know that for every one of yo,u there will be more who drop me from their blogroll, “de-friend” me, or write to inform me that they are praying for my devilish soul. I am grateful for your openness and willingness to voice words of care and love. I intend to fully respond to all questions and thoughts in time.
In all fairness, I have come out in more ways than one over the last three weeks, and I’m sure this has been overwhleming for everyone who loves and cares for me. I named my rape and subsequent abuse at the hands of my caregiver at age seven, I challenged the inherent idea that I was completely heterosexual, and I professed my loyalty to a country with sketchy race politics, which to some of my Ghanaian acquaintances felt like the ultimate betrayal.
On the day of the latter coming out, I felt energized and ready to take on the world. It felt like that little blue book had all the power in the world. I could change unfair policies and laws by voting. I could run for any office except Obama’s. On the flip side I could be called to jury duty to rule against my own brown folk. And I could be called to bear arms. Needless to say despite the side effects, I am happy not to have to deal with immigration every time I leave US soil. I m happy to know that if I choose to marry I can pass on this privilege to my partner. This little blue book means I no longer need visas to go to certain countries. Ironically, I will need one to go to my country of origin, but I guess that is the price one pays, n’est pas? This little blue book means that all U.S. embassies around the world are mandated to protect me if I show up on their doorstep. (Whether this will be a reality or not remains to be seen.) The privileges that come with this Certificate of Naturalization that I was handed rather unceremoniously, (since there were 1208 of us, they split us into 10 groups and the workers just went up and down the aisles calling out names) also brings me into conflict with my ideals. If there were ever to be an evacuation in a foreign country, I would be evacuated. Would I choose to evacuate or stay with the people? (Hotel Rwanda comes to mind vividly.) This certificate is again a cause for worry as I consider what my true goals in life are and what I hold to be true and non-negotiable. When asked how the new citizen feels, I responded, “it’s a double-edged sword.” And indeed it is, and I suspect will continue to be as I grow and continue to define for myself what I value and hold dear. Stay tuned…
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“Are you queer yourself or are you an ally?”
Any other place, this question might have made me nervous and perhaps defensive. But coming from a fellow African who had been thrown in jail, tortured, and molested for being gay on the continent, I felt I didn’t have the right to be nervous or defensive. Plus it came at the end of such a pleasant evening during which I was surrounded by close to thirty queer, black men who were all very loving and supportive. It ushered me into my coming out quite smoothly.
“Yes, I am queer myself,” I had answered him.
But this morning, the question still lingers. Would I a fellow queer African still answer the question the same way if asked again. Would it depend on who was asking? Would it depend on if I was on the continent and where on the continent? Or had I reached the point of coming out no matter what, who, when, or why? Of course, I know coming out is a gradual process but it is also a continual process. You gotta keep claiming that visibility especially if you pass.
For years I have been billed as an ally, and I have just settled for that. Sometimes with some of my more precarious careers, I felt this was the best I could aspire to. It wasn’t that staying in the closet was fun. Or that I didn’t fully comprehend the benefits of being out. Or that I didn’t want to serve as a role model and help cut down on the bullying by being out and proud. It was just too risky, and even foolish on some occasions.
But on the real, how many people live and die in the closet? And I’m using the proverbial closet as a blanket for all levels of the spectrum of sexuality be it queer, trans, kinky, polyamorous, you name it. Even if you can’t name it, I am tossing it under the umbrella of the sexual desire spectrum for now. How many people never ask for what they need sexually because they are deathly afraid of scorn or rejection, have been told to remain silent, and in some cases, receive punitive action, including death? How many take their partners’ innocent lives because they live in the closet about a part of their sexuality and the side effect is a disease they knowingly or unknowingly pass on, or abuse, or…?
As a survivor of child sexual molestation, most people dismiss my queerness as a reaction to my past wounds. My best friend said, “but Mel you’ve always had issues with men!” Going on to say she didn’t comprehend the importance of my coming out. What was different now? She then proceeded to say she would pray for my soul, but that’s another story altogether. As a survivor most people immediately discount my story blaming my sexual fluidity on my history of abuse. But what if my story is just as valid as my good friend who grew up knowing that although he was in a girl’s body, he really was meant to be a boy? What if my story is just as valid as the girl child who was attracted to women’s skirts and legs from as early as age two and knew deep down it was more than fascination but couldn’t come out as a lesbian until age forty?
A month ago a friend invited me to join him and his partner to speak to a group about being gay in Africa. I didn’t feel confident about this mission. In fact, I felt like a traitor. I wasn’t queer on the continent. While I was there for those six months, family members and friends were setting me up on dates every day in sheer desperation and I stayed in the closet about the kind of person I was looking to date. How could I possibly speak on such a topic, I thought. Whatever would I say? In any case I went and ended up not formally speaking but just networking with folks to increase awareness of the issue of queerness on the continent. It turns out being immersed in a community of gay black men was just the medicine I needed. It did wonders for my spirit.
Varying shades of brown, varying presentations of gender performance, varying ways of speaking but everyone sharing the commonality of a sexual identity that was loudly and proudly proclaimed and lived out in the space. I don’t know what their individual stories were nor how they lived or performed when they were with the rest of the world but I have to say no matter all this, being in that room for three-plus hours was euphoric. We do exist! We are real despite what the rest of the world might try to do to silence or erase us. It is not that queer people in Africa are copying western cultural values and norms as the anti-gay/fundamentalist movements will have you believe, but the reality (part of it at least) is that queer folk on the continent are empowered by the strength of the movement everywhere and are finding the voice to demand their right to live a visible life. This act of transgression is what is causing folks to literally turn cartwheels. How dare they demand rights?
So is it a wonder then that I’d come out of the closet (all the way out and stop being the honorary ally) in such a space? I hear the questions. I hear the assumptions. Or perhaps it is all in my head. I get ready with my retorts feeling defensive. No this isn’t why I don’t believe in marriage. No this isn’t the reason I don’t want children. I am aware of several happily married/partnered non-hetero normative couples with kids. I just don’t know if I buy into the institution itself and what it stands for as well as how it excludes some people.
When I first came out of being a “fulltime” ally, I identified as Bi for a long time before shifting to Queer. Queer now holds the space for me to stay single, date, or not date men, women, trans and all the other representations of human in between, marry or not marry, produce or not produce…in essence, be all of my true self. Queer creates space for me to be thirty-five, a blend of African and American, oldest daughter of a mother who has yet to marry any of her three daughters off, unmarried and not looking to fulfill anyone’s dreams of the perfect life. Claiming Queer is political for me because it crosses boundaries and attempts to live at the intersections of things. It is reclaiming the use of the word in its various forms including negative ones. At this point I don’t know the ultimate partner I will end up with but in the meantime, I just need to say, I’m Queer. I’m from the Motherland. I’m Black. I am Proud! I am a Feminist. I am striving to be my truest self each day.
I know it’s risky to put this out there. I admit it’s been a while coming. This manifesto has been sitting in the closet but Whitney Houston’s death made me dust it off. Her death did something to me that words cannot explain yet. It hurt so bad that we watched her destroy herself. In society, we matter to only a select few. Those select few have the responsibility to help us reach our creator-given potential and answer our creator-given call. We failed her. Maybe not me in particular but those to whom she mattered, and who could make a difference in her life, failed her.
Why do I say all this? Addictions often begin as mini coping mechanisms when we are unable to be our truest selves. Some people create alter egos and live in virtual worlds just so they can be all of who they are. Some people write fan fiction under pseudonyms so their favorite characters can make love. Some people imbibe a whole range of substances. Some people take more wives, some take mistresses. Some molest children. I hope this doesn’t come of as a negation the universal issue/conversation around TSQIQTLBG[PKA] identity/orientation. All I’m advocating for is that people allow everyone to be their truest selves all of the time.
What would this world be like if people could be all of themselves with the people who matter the most to them? I’ve noticed that my Bipolar symptoms are generally more active when I am denying a part of myself. Not dancing when there is a beat. Not writing when my brain is on fire and my fingers itch. Not cooking that gourmet meal because I feel there is no one to serve it to (discounting myself). Remaining a silent ally when I know claiming my identity could save a student’s life. Whenever there is dissonance in my life, there are BPII symptoms manifested. In order to stay “clean” or “sober” I must remain honest and truthful about every part of who I am.
So this manifesto is for you too. I encourage you to start over today and give someone the gift of being their true selves. Or better yet, go ahead and give yourself that gift. I dare you to publish your own manifesto about how you want to be in this world!
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“You are invited” I almost say to the queer Eritrean youth who plops in the chair across from mine, forgetting a phrase like that is only specific to my Ghanaian culture. At home, if anyone sees you eating, you invite them and then you pray they have the decency not to grab a piece of cutlery or ask for a bowl of water to cleanse their hands in preparation to join you.
Ghanaian culture is unique like that. It’s as if our politeness and hospitality as far as sharing our bowl of food is concerned, is mere formality. On the surface we are very polite, but underneath it all, we really are human. I sometimes wonder where we acquired this attitude from.
So even though it is on my tongue to invite this young man, I don’t because I remember that we are not in Ghana and I am not obliged to share my tray of Alecha. People actually thought me rude while I was back in Ghana when I resisted uttering these perfunctory words, but here I am across the waters dying to utter it.
This is similar to the taboo around using our left hands to perform any functions outside of the bathroom. I let them think me rude as I told them I was an equal opportunity employer and believed in giving both hands a shot. People’s unamused looks when I defended the use of both hands spoke volumes. They were attached to cultural norms and nothing would make them question these norms. I often allowed the use of either hand in my class to allow my left-handed students the opportunity to be able to stay true to themselves in my space.
I know I promised to debrief my six months in Ghana thematically but sometimes certain things just jump out and want to be written and other times there is so much life happening that I don’t get to do much reflection, especially on time that far back.
I’ve been back now for almost five months and I’m just now getting used to handing people things with my left hand. The irony is that as much as I bucked some parts of the system that I felt didn’t make sense, the system still got deeply re-ingrained in me, leaving me giving my students the space but conforming to norms personally and not always pushing my Americanized boundaries on folks. Somehow I felt like making sure my students knew there was a whole world out there who didn’t believe in some of the norms that controlled our lives so much, yet I myself slowly succumbed to following some of these same norms.
(Channeling Kofi Akpabli)
The steady pound of my sneaker-clad feet on the underground train station steps suddenly take me back to the soft thuds and steady pounding rhythm associated with fufu pounding in Ghana. It’s amazing how certain unrelated things have the ability to draw you somewhere. I struggle to stay there even as my foot hits the last step and I emerge into sunlight.
I am pounding fufu with my fufu partner. She’s seated on a small kitchen stool and turning the mound of pounded starch while I stand pounding, twisting my pestle ever so slightly with every landing. I pound carefully so I don’t add her fingers to the mound of starch in the mortar.
Fufu pounding is a unique art form that takes two people who listen carefully to each other as they engage in this act. It is often best not to be chatting while this activity is going on. The seated partner must be quite agile and adept at avoiding the bottom of the pestle as it lands in the mound of boiled cassava, yam, cocoyam, and/plantain. The standing partner must equally be agile to anticipate the intervals between when her partner is not turning when she can bring the pestle down and begin to turn the fluffy ingredients in the mortar into the elastic-like entity that will be served with any one of the soups that are part of the Ghanaian cuisine.
I am partial to fufu with groundnut soup loaded with aponkye nam (goat meat) served with a box of tissues, but I have to say I will almost always say yes to fufu with light soup any day, anytime. There is something about the light yellow, dark yellow, lavender (or “purple fufu” as my sister used to call it), or snow-white mound floating beneath a bed of aponkye, prako nkywer (cured pig feet), nwaba (snails), and enam totoi (smoked fish) that just makes my mouth water thinking about it even on a day when I’m full to the heavens with some other good food. I’m a self-proclaimed foodie, but there is just something about Ghanaian fufu and soup that cannot replace anything else for me.
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I got in a covered wagon and we left at the crack of dawn. When I woke, I was in pain all over like someone had beaten me while we were traveling. When I woke, I also didn’t believe I was strong and beautiful, smart and sexy, nor did I believe I had it in me to do all the things I had done and was doing to make my life happen. My heart beat was five times faster and when I moved I did so with the agility of someone twice my age yet when I checked I was still 35.
When I woke I walked into the kitchen and stared into my fridge for several minutes before remembering that I was supposed to be looking for food. “What food?” then became the next million dollar question that I pondered for a while. Two hours later, fed and trying to do some work—working on the memoir, working on my business plan, looking for more permanent sources of income—it didn’t matter what work, I realized I somehow had been rendered incompetent to accomplish any of these regular tasks while riding in this wagon.
The phone rang increasing my heart beat by a few more beats. I couldn’t possibly answer that. She would know! They would know! What would they want with me anyway after this? I was no good to anyone. Thank goodness I pay for unlimited texts I thought as I began entire conversations via texts. Somehow it was easier to text “I’m a bit under the weather” than say that out loud because if I did say it out loud then other questions might come as a way to clarify. Then they would know I fell into the black hole that is the covered wagon. I texted, trying to be as honest as possible. Concern poured in. Love poured in. One even just drove to my house and even though I told her to go away, she stayed. In the covered wagon I had become highly irritable and paranoid. I had zero tolerance for unplanned activity and I often found myself unable to take a joke or to laugh. I also had feelings of anger and rudeness, and moments of wanting to just shout. Commitments were a monster I was afraid of.
“How are you doing?” became a loaded question I often craftily ignored. I was convinced they would hate me if only they knew the truth about me.
Then the thoughts came. Not voices. Just thoughts, about being better off dead. About how I was a fake and soon everyone would find out I couldn’t cook or write worth anything. Then the distinct thought: “Girl, you better not go near water cos she’ll drown herself!” “Who’ll drown herself?” I asked back. No answer. I think I already knew the answer. I had plotted my escape route for years.
One night five days into riding in the wagon, I did a 360. My girl even said I scared her. I picked up the phone. She couldn’t recognize the person on the phone. I was chatty. I had plans beyond dying. I had just fixed myself a three course dinner in under thirty minutes, and I fixed a batch of hot sauce for my cohort. I was productive. I had worked on moving my blog over to my new website. I figured the covered wagon had gone over a pot hole and I had managed to be dropped on my head right back into my original reality. I was hopeful as I flipped the light switch and crawled into bed that night. Hopeful that sleep would bring me rest and more mending. I was excited I could talk on the phone again.
The next morning when I woke I realized it was not my destiny. I was right back to being in the covered wagon. This time I was I was convinced I would die before the day was over. I didn’t really want to die but if this is what life was going to be like, then I really didn’t want to live anyway. This time the tears flowed. They hadn’t flowed freely before. Well except for the second day when I dared myself to listen to Whitney and found myself mad at her. I hadn’t dared since February. Mad, but also sad that life could cause one to resort to such a dangerous coping mechanism. Then I envied her for not being around to deal with it any longer. The strong emotion of envy told me something was wrong. So when I burst into tears for Whitney and found myself wishing I had kept my bottles of pain pills from when I had kidney stones, I knew it was time to check in with someone else. Yet, it was three more days before I arrived in the crisis psych unit.
It bothers me that people with other illnesses don’t have to deal with stigma if they check into the ward. My kind, if we check into a ward, it goes down in history. Even on my citizenship questionnaire they asked if I had ever been committed to a mental institution. I couldn’t believe it! How many “unsound” Americans were there already? Are we judging who we let in based on sanity? Shouldn’t chemo and shock therapy be on the same level? In any case, I was to be sworn in in a few weeks and I couldn’t risk it so I didn’t check in.
I had a residual will to live that was still flickering, albeit feebly, I figured I’d give it a chance. I jumped from the covered wagon and watched it speed up and disappear into a cloud of prairie-like dust. I checked for bruises and walked across the street to the Psych clinic. Luckily for me, I currently live a few hundred feet away. Serendipity? Not sure! Several hours later, still teary eyed and shaken from the jump, I took my first pill prescribed by the psychiatrist. I did battle with the pill for almost twenty minutes before inserting it into my mouth and proceeding to swallow it. I hated being reliant on something else to keep me sane.
Diagnosed with Bipolar II with Rapid Cycling disorder in 2007 after suffering from a misdiagnosis of Depression for two years, I had been on steady medication therapy for almost four years. I weaned myself off because I felt better while living in Ghana for six months surrounded by brown people all the time. Sure I had different levels of stress but it was different. I was pleased with myself when I returned to the US; I marveled at how alive I was and how well I was doing emotionally. I was determined not to return to meds. There were emotions, the full range of which I had not experienced in a while, that I was loving. The drugs dulled you to an extent, you know? In order to balance you out, something had to give. I had been loving my full range of emotions so much that I was shocked to find myself staring at a coated peach-looking pill. I prayed strength from Ancestors, and hoped it didn’t disintegrate in my mouth like the other one used to do.
I just thought I had a chance to manage it without chemicals so I was going to try. Little did I know! I hate being wrong and I hated feeling less strong than I knew I was. I am dealing with the feeling of failure at my original plan. I am dealing with disappointment that I was doing so well before and then just like that it was gone. All signs of sanity gone! I am dealing with myself not having recognized the cycle rolling in and taking over after five years of monitoring my patterns so closely. I kept boasting that I had developed an acute sense of being able to recognize it a mile away. It was certainly well disguised and sneaky this time. And this time, it was almost as bad as the first episode that got me diagnosed five years ago though thankfully not as long.
So I am on pill # 4 feeling fuzzy and not as clear headed quite yet and apparently it gives my stomach the runs and my head a headachy-dizzy feeling. I hope neither is for long. I can’t tolerate feeling physically ill as well. The doctor took a look at me in the clinic and said my original medication which took almost 6 weeks to work its way into my system, was not going to get me out of the danger zone fast enough, hence this new pill. But I got to wonder if it’s worth the side effects I keep discovering with each pill.
I finally watched the film The Soloist, a year after I read it as required reading of a Compassion class at Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley. Perhaps not the best time to watch someone with mental illness but hey, in the covered wagon, choices were limited. It made me reflect on how many people actually suffer from chemical imbalance and how thin that veil between sane and not sane is. If I had heeded any of the urges to act out in anger or irritation, I would have crossed over and been labeled. The ability to keep it under wraps and to “manage” my disorder is what distinguishes me from others who are roaming the streets or committed. I lie very well to cover up the actual ravages of my mind. I cover up the inner turmoil so well sometimes my closest lovers can’t tell when it’s really bad.
Over the last two weeks I have pondered if this is a good thing. What is the cost of these charades that I play? Do they cause me more harm than good? At what cost is it to me to not check myself in for long term treatment and care? Wouldn’t it be better to have a kitchen team figure out what to feed me three times a day versus taking two hours just to get me fed just once? Would a support group with other sufferers help or would identifying with others make my disease more real to myself? My facilitator in my Women’s Initiative Simple Steps program applauded me for showing up and participating even after I had visited the crisis clinic just an hour before class. Is there something to be said for doing shit no matter what? What is the cost to my spirit? Is this spirit not meant to be on earth long anyway? Wherein lays the balance between preserving the appearance of sanity for the outside world and allowing myself to fall apart realistically? I don’t have the answers to these questions. I can only say that for the most part, I believe this time I have done a little bit of both and I have been honest with most people in my life about how bad it really was.
I feel like sometimes I lie and don’t tell the whole truth about how I’m really feeling. And sometimes this makes me feel guilty because I spend enough time in my life espousing honesty and open communication. This time though I don’t necessarily feel guilty, just a little sad and sort of smh ish (yeah I made up a word from an abbreviated phrase) because it is not easy to voice that I have been out of town from myself and for the first few hours of traveling, I didn’t even recognize it.
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It’s my second Easter without any feelings about church in general. Good or bad. I don’t miss it. I just miss the community and the music mostly. I attended my first Seder last night in place of a good ole’ Good Friday preaching and crying service. I must say, I didn’t feel like I was missing out.
The Seder, although not traditional and definitely ten times bigger than family-style, was quite well organized and planned. I felt some of the heaviness of the occasion but not in the usual overwhelming and debilitating way that causes numbness. We reflected on our collective liberation, we did our best to sing the Hebrew songs, did ritualistic eating, stuffed our faces with dishes made by loving hands, heard beautiful poems by Suheir Hammad and Naomi Shihab Nye and shared in the traditions of the Jewish culture all in honor of the freedom of all peoples. The evening also included direct social action events like donating to help a group that will be going to Turkey to dramatize the words of queer folk in Lebanon. I was full when I left.
I reflected this morning…
I’m getting a strong sense that I have an aversion to the actual Good Friday service because of the wailing and crying and processions that accompanied Good Fridays in Ghana. Of course it is not that dramatic here in the West, but I can’t bear to step foot in a church because of this past history. Christians in Ghana take this service so seriously, it even becomes comical. Folks wear the same dark traditional funeral cloth that’s dyed a shiny, almost licorice shimmer, with imprints of reds and maroons and burgundy’s. With black head scarves the entire sanctuary is black. If Mama Nature does not give us sunshine that day, you can book an appointment with your therapist immediately following service. Yes, it’s that depressing!
Services were at 12 noon and at 3pm. Each one had its particular crowd. The former attracting a more subdued and less-showy crowd. If you wanted a seat at the 3pm service, it would behoove you to arrive by 2pm right when the nooners were letting out. True to legend, all sinners did indeed show up for church on Good Friday. Most of the extras in the crowd were folks who generally went to mass twice a year—Christmas and Easter. As ushers struggled with crowd control, and younger men were roped into first giving up first their seats and later, into carting extra chairs from the Fellowship Hall and classrooms, these delinquent church-goers smiled broadly as they coyly squeezed themselves into already overcrowded pews. The priests often advised the regulars to be welcoming to these delinquents as a form of penance. “Practice doing penance by giving up your favorite corner of that pew on which you have a lifetime membership.” This didn’t go over too well as regulars had formed habits that were not easily broken even for penance-sake. Some regulars who arrived late would cause a scene either by demanding their favorite corner, or stubbornly squeezing into that favorite pew by climbing over purses, shoes, and laps, and planting themselves right in the middle causing folks to have to automatically shift to avoid being sat on. The more subtle of these regulars would go by their favorite pew and smile sweetly at any newcomers there. Yet others would wait until it was time for offertory. As people went down the center aisles to place their offerings in the baskets near the altar, these regulars would move into their favorite spots leaving angry and confused delinquents in their wake. Such deviousness when we were supposed to be repentant. I guess they could repent at next year’s service.
I recall crying and wailing for a good portion of the service. Handkerchiefs at various stages of browning and blacking from makeup and kohl (eye-liner) were completely soaked and re-soaked at various points of the service. At some point in the service, ushers led lines of black-clothed parishioners towards three wooden crosses to kiss the wounded and crucified Jesus. Other ushers tried to keep up with wiping the slobber to show some semblance of sanitation. This part of the service seemed to take forever since some parishioners “fell apart” at the foot of the cross and had to be carried away for counseling. I don’t think as a kid I quite understood how the mere presence of a piece of wood could do this to someone. It baffled me. How could people command such deep grief on such short notice? The theory is of course, that if you were truly remorseful for your sins then the tears would come easily and unprovoked. Ours is after all a religion of fear. Everything was about Jesus and hurting him, and the stuff we had to apologize for—a year’s worth of shortcomings. It worked to whip most of us into shape. I dare say the WWJD movement had its roots in missionary Africa.
We usually left church stunned into silence for the better part of the evening. This probably suited most parents since children were usually out of school for Easter and by day two had probably started to wear on the adults already. We returned on Saturday to keep vigil until such time as the story line says the stone was rolled away and Jesus appeared to his female disciples. We returned again donned in our year’s best, usually a shade of white, on Sunday to rejoice that Jesus was risen. Again. Easter Monday was church picnic. Easter was about being in church just about every day for a whole week, beginning early Palm Sunday morning with the procession through the streets of Abeka.
I think over the years of defining and re-defining my faith for myself, I have come to observe the day as a calm and quiet one. I rarely do much talking on the phone if I can help it and I generally journal and reflect. If I add some sad music, then sometimes I provoke the tears to come. Yesterday was no different. I spent it quiet and reflective, mostly editing my 123-page (for now) memoir that I will be turning in on Thursday as part of my thesis work. I ended my day with the Seder, and I must say it was just the ending I needed. Some poetry, some social justice action, good food, reconnecting with one of my American exes who has known me the longest in the US, and reflecting on the idea of our collective liberation. I couldn’t have asked for a better observance of the day.
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“Dinner was great, huh ladies?” Ranni asked the next morning as we walked to class.
“I like the new student!” I declared emphatically.
“Correction, prospective student! And of course you would!” Chinukwe retorted.
“What is that supposed to mean?” I asked searching their faces as they both pretended to find another subject of concern at that very moment.
“See you later!” I split off and headed towards the cafeteria still perplexed.
Later, as I checked my email and drew my time table for the week, I wondered if the girls knew. I almost fell over when I saw an email from Amakka:
“My father’s driver will not be picking me up until Tuesday. Do you think you could suggest some things to do around here? Are you free Monday?”
I couldn’t get my fingers to type fast enough. I have just the thing! I would invite her to come hang out with Chinukwe and I at our usual power lunch and lab. Chinukwe and I subscribed to the idea that powering through four days of thesis research and then taking three whole days off was more efficient than doing a bit each day and taking a few hours off each day. I wrote back. She wrote back. Fifteen minutes later, it was settled. I kept my fingers crossed that Chinukwe would not be upset with me.
“Hi! It’s good to see you again.” I said approaching her. Unfortunately, Chinukwe bailed on me this morning.”
“It’s not because of me, is it?” Amakka asked.
“Don’t be silly!” She bails sometimes. She said she had to run an errand for her part time job.
“I hope you didn’t eat already.” I said searching her face.
“No, I could eat.” She responded meeting my eyes.
We got our plates of avocado sandwiches and Fanta and walked to my favorite spot in the canteen. Come to think of it, I was glad Chinukwe didn’t come after all.
As we ate we talked a little bit. It seemed we had quite a bit in common. Cancer in our family, divorced parents, half siblings…. I loved her sense of humor when delivering even the most depressing of stories. I explained to her what we usually did on our lunch and lab. Even though she was not a student at our school, I could get her into our lab with Chinukwe’s ID number.
Two hours later, we had donned lab coats and were busy titrating and calibrating test tubes and flasks. We decided to work individually on one of my own most recent experiments, break in two hours and share results.
“All done!” she yelled out from the front of the lab right before the timer began buzzing.
“Yeah right!” I retorted looking for an excuse to keep working.
“Yeah really. Come see for yourself.”
I went over, and to my surprise she had solved the problem I had been having trouble with for a week.
“Seriously, you must explain how you came by this equation!”
As she spoke, I struggled to keep my eyes on the flask and buret.
“What do you and Chinukwe usually do after this?” she asked.
It depends on what we each have going on.
“What do you have going on today?” she asked.
“Nothing. This is it.” I said.
“Do you want to see a movie or something?” she asked shyly.
“That would be nice. I don’t get to do that very often.” I responded.
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She was a first year PhD student from another school a few miles away in Nsukka, who was considering transferring to my school in Enugu. I flashed my award-winning smile at her and pulled out a chair for her at the table my friend, Chinukwe, and I were seated at.
“Welcome.” I said.
Chinukwe, quite worn out and slightly cranky from our long day in the lab, said,
“What did you say your name was again?”
I cut my eyes at her and turned to explain her behavior to Amakka.
“We are all very tired. Mr. Oware works us to death in our morning class in BioChem lab. “We barely get through lunch before Mrs. Nyame drills us in Physics Lab.
“Tuesdays are just all around torturous! Chinukwe chimed in, regaining some of her usual pleasant bubbly energy.
“Come, I think we have to show her around as Prof requested,” I whispered quickly to Chinukwe. Something about Amakka’s eyes had caught my attention and I didn’t want to be left alone with her. Chinukwe reluctantly unfolded her long, lean, dancer body from the couch, straightened her dress and picked up her back pack.
“Ok, I’m up, let’s go!” She ordered.
“So where are you from?” I asked Amakka.
“Nyamara, about fifty kilometers from Nsukka,” she replied. “My parents tend a farm down there.”
“Why do you want to transfer?” I asked.
Chinukwe looked at me.
“I thought a few minutes ago you said you were tired and couldn’t wait to get to your bed! Where did you get this sudden energy?”
“Well yeah, I did and still do but we have a visitor to our campus.” I stated matter-of factly, avoiding both pairs of eyes. We left the cafeteria and headed down the hallway on the first floor.
“We should start in our department.” Chinukwe stated.
“What’s your thesis research on or have you not decided yet?” I asked Amakka.
“I’m doing mine on the tsetse fly which causes…,” I volunteered.
“…trypanosomiasis,” Amakka chimed in looking me directly in the eyes.
“How surreal! I am too.” she added, a smile spreading across her lips.
“Ei! What is this?” Chinukwe said cutting through our private moment.
“Nothing!” We both chimed as we quickly broke the magnetic field that had held our eyes briefly.
After we showed Amakka around our department, we walked to the 5th floor to show her the labs. There we ran into Ranni just leaving the lab for the day.
“I’m famished! She stated dramatically. Ranni was often prone to exaggeration to get her point across.
“Yeah, I could eat!” I said.
“O! Where are my manners? Ranni, meet Amakka, she’s a prospective student.” I added.
“Why don’t we all go eat at Madame Danquah’s Chop Bar? It’s almost dinner time.” Chinukwe said.
“If we leave now we should be there before the first batch of fufu comes out and before those Upper Six boys eat all the good parts of the goat.” Ranni was infamous for dating younger men and frequently leaving in her wake, a serious of unresolved circumstances that erupted at the most inconvenient of times. We all knew it wasn’t necessarily that the goat meat would be all gone if we delayed.
“Amakka, do you eat goat? Fufu?” I asked, resuming our locked-eye relationship.
“Yella!” Ranni said pointing to the door, calling on her Arabic ancestry as she did on occasion.
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I am irritated. Someone butchered my name. I am trying to decide if I’d rather they try to, and fail or ask me for help first. Perhaps my irritation lies in the energy with which he committed this crime. He’s another fellow immigrant, I deduce this detail from his accent; I think I should cut him some slack. Then I think to myself…No! He of all people should know better. Sure, that’s a gross assumption.
But seriously, his butchering of all my names resounded in the waiting room, and while it lasted, I had flashbacks of snickering, pointing children. Would I have preferred that he spell out my name instead? Calling for a K-u-u-k-u-a. Perhaps my irritation continued because he was so cocky about it too. As if to say: I am an immigrant, I betcha I can say this one!
I was so irritated I didn’t have the usual grace to explain to him that the double ‘u’ in the first half of the name was not stressed necessarily or that the ‘k’ in my last name was silent because Westerners often couldn’t muster the nasal sound that was required for anything close to an accurate pronunciation. To top it off, he tried saying it multiple times before giving my irritated self a chance to come to his aid. Arrgh!
“Next time you come, I’ll get it right!” he proclaimed emphatically as he repeated the name once again in its entirety, determined to get it right.
Maybe it boils down to just plain attitude. Maybe if he hadn’t been cocky about his mispronunciation, I wouldn’t have been upset and gotten so irked.
Funnily enough, I don’t feel any of the general irritation of wanting to change my name to the non-African-sounding Lyall or Elliott or LeMaire or Riby-Williams that make up my family tree; this used to be my auto response in the past.
Looking back on the moment now a month later, I can have some perspective and empathy. I have also had moments when I’ve felt so sure about the pronunciation of an African last name only to have been proven wrong when I finally met the owner of the name. Maybe that was what happened to the guy.
So which is better? Trying to say it and then totally messing it up, or asking how to say it and attempting to repeat it as correctly as possible? Nothing irks me more than those who after asking for help (more than once) in saying it then proceed to laugh loudly and nervously, throw their hands up in the air helplessly and inform me that they wouldn’t try it even if they had Rosetta Stone sounding it out phonetically for them. The sadder issue for me is that this latter crowd is often comprised of my non-immigrant Black brothers and sisters. Almost as if getting it right would reveal some residual knowledge of Africa. It leaves me speechless. If this is the case, why did you bother asking me to say it so many times for you to begin with? SMH.
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“Your hair is so cute!” she squeals.
I tense up.
“I like your hair! How did they do it? I mean is it like just twisted?”
I nod as I slowly close my book and raise my head to meet her face.
I already knew she was white. I had spied her when I sat down.
I really have no patience for white people gushing about my hair. Especially not this morning.
I had stared in the mirror long and hard for almost twenty minutes before I left home debating what to do next once my two-month-old twists came out.
Not today! I think to myself.
When I finally face her, I muster a “Why thank you kindly smile” but I guess it doesn’t contain the enthusiasm she expected. Perhaps my irritation shows through the forced smile.
“Yes, it’s just twisted.” I reply in answer to her earlier barrage of questions.
“I wish I could have that done to my hair! She squeals again, this time a considerable octave lower.
I don’t suggest that there are several places where she could get it done. Nor do I mention how expensive it is. Nor do I even entertain the thought of volunteering to give her a closer look or let her touch it.
I just sit and try and hold the smile.
I think she’s confused now because she sighs and says, “it’s just really cute…that’s all.”
“Thank you.” I say again wondering what else she would like to hear from me.
My lack of enthusiasm about her compliment has bothered her. It’s obvious she feels rebuffed.
I can’t help her. I’m just exhausted being a doll to be admired or oogled. Really. For a moment as we both board the train I wonder what would happen if we, Black people, began oogling and gushing about white women’s hair and wanting to touch it. Sort of like cat-calling men back on the street. Would it create the desired effect?
Sometimes though I think, why is it such a big deal that she is admiring my hair. Maybe it’s coming from a place of genuine appreciation. I admire my sistas afros and locs sometimes. Do they feel the same way about me doing it as they would if it were coming from a white woman?
Then I remember the baggage. The history that is forever etched on our very DNA. That’s right. That’s why I bristle when they squeal.
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Hello Dear Blog Family,
You have been on my mind at least once a day for the last month. I am sorry for not keeping you posted on what’s been happening. Quite a bit has happened and it’s all occurred so fast that I’ve had to do all I can to physically keep up. Blogging about it to share has been high on my priority list but I haven’t been able to make that happen until now. Thank you for checking in and reading and liking posts even as it’s been silent on here. I’ve missed hearing from people, perhaps you have as well?
Forgive me for the silence. You will find though that I have been writing. Working very tirelessly on the memoir, as well as a lot of other social commentary pieces that I will share with you soon. I also finally got off my behind and turned in close to 5000 words for two contests and a residency application. Keep all those appendages crossed for me!
So where to begin to catch you up…
With the now…
I am seated in my PJs perched a-top my free leather sofa writing to you. It’s 7:20 am on the West coast. I hope Mother Earth is planning to send some California sunshine my way today because right now, it is quite cloudy and chilly. The weather patterns in the U.S. have been quite unreal the last three weeks. I visited an 80-degree Maryland/DC for a few days in mid-March and returned here to find a foggy and rainy 50-Degree California. I keep saying we should be praying for forgiveness for all that we have done that’s messed with Mother Earth’s rhythms.
It has been a month of adventure beginning with AWP which was held in Chicago this year. I LOVE Chicago! I’ve never had the privilege of living there, but when I worked at Notre Dame, I visited quite often, taking the South Shore train up whenever I had a weekend off. In addition, some of my closest and life-long friends who have become family live in Chicago. So I planned to spend a week in Chicago even though AWP was only 4 days long. I had an amazing time. Despite the tight and insane AWP presentation schedules, I managed to see all seven of my friends and spend some individual time with each of them. What a blessing to be so rich in friends! It was great to see them all because generally we see each other at least twice a year but because of my time in Ghana, I hadn’t seen some of them in almost a year. I had so much to tell them about my time in Ghana, the students, my love-disgust relationship with the politics in Ghana especially when it comes to women & queer folks, my family pestering me about marriage, you know…everything about how I had grown in the last 9 months since I last spoke to or saw them. The biggest blessing of all was that everyone was so generous with their time and money and didn’t make me feel as though not having a job made me less of a human being. I crashed with my one friend and her boo in the West Loop and on the first night when I arrived, they had blown up my mattress and made my bed so cute and cozy, it brought tears in my eyes. So thoughtful. Ours was an unlikely friendship but we have nurtured it for twelve years and it has grown. A white girl from the UP and an African girl full of racial politics at every turn. I returned to Cali with an overflowing heart, quite grateful to have such wonderful friends in my life.
AWP itself was a blast as usual. This year, I challenged myself to attend more sessions and offsite programming because thanks to my one friend I was just within a 20-minute walking distance of the conference hotel, and I had purchased at CTA 7-day pass for the train. I went to sessions mainly on getting residencies and fellowships because I felt that’s where I was in my writing career. I’m ready for some of the free money out there to help me finish writing this first book. I learned quite a bit about the process and the many options out there. I sat in on a Fulbright discussion that was quite enlightening. I also challenged myself to be supportive of panels that were mainly led by either Black women or People of Color. When I looked in the AWP Bible, there weren’t but a handful, and they were occurring simultaneously almost as if to make sure attendance was low. This was also the case for Queer issues’ panels. It reeked of the Divide and Conquer mentality. It felt as if someone was afraid there would be a revolution if only one Queer Issues panel or POC-led panel was held per time slot. And maybe there might have been because folks would have shown up in their numbers. Who knows? We didn’t have the opportunity to find out. As it stood, everyone apologetically said: “well you know we are competing with this other POC panel or Queer panel so thank you for choosing to come here.” We shouldn’t have to compete against each other for participants. There aren’t enough panels as is, why should they all randomly happen to be scheduled simultaneously? My favorite off-site event was the Lamda sponsored Queer Writers of Color (yeah!) event held at the Center on Halsted. I ferried my little happy behind on over there as soon as the last panel was over, inviting all my friends in Chicago to come. It was surreal. We do exist! We sound amazing, like brilliant! And we are so beautiful. The room felt cozy and I felt I belonged. Finger snaps and ululations kept me grounded. Yes this was POC culture; we showed appreciation when something sounded good. At an not-on-purpose almost all white women writers’ offsite event, I got mistaken for the server three times even in my dress slacks, nice sweater, and name badge (saying the same thing as theirs)! After the third woman asked me to pour her some wine, I cracked. She stuttered in her blindness, turned red, composed herself and then decided to tell me that she too had been a server before and I was standing behind the table just as a server would. Let’s just say I had to leave the event soon after. Ugh! We do have such a long way to go sometimes.
Anyway, I wrote some pieces while I sat pondering the shortage of POC panels as well as the unfair arrangement of them. I will share it with you soon.
After 6 days in Chicago, I returned to Cali Tuesday morning at the crack-o-dawn to welcome a new friend into my life. We were soul sisters from ancient times. The Ancestors have been telling me, but I am often stubborn so I don’t listen well. She stayed for a week and we had a fun exploring the Bay and soaking in the warm sunshine. I had two cooking gigs that week she was visiting and I must say she passed the test of being able to handle me under stress. There will be more on her later.
Since I returned to the Bay, I’ve been contemplating starting a catering business. I have been cooking for a long time, and catering at random moments for different people. But this time when I returned, it felt like Ancestors were telling me that in addition to finishing the memoir, I should cook. It hasn’t been easy juggling the two loves. But I have decided to try my hands at it. I have catered four receptions for The Contemporary Writer’s Series at Mill’s College, and will be doing the last one for the semester tomorrow evening. I did the Generations Literary Magazine Launch, and that was a great accomplishment; I realized that unless I go commercial there is no way I can pull off that many dishes for that many people (11 different items for 75 people). I have not made much money because most events have small budgets and I’m spending some on groceries as well as renting a Zipcar to cart things around. So I am at a crossroads of sorts needing to make a decision to move forward about beginning a small business and perhaps buying a car. I’ve been invited to participate in SF Small Business Week in May so I have to get serious soon, I think. I’m beginning with a brand new website. Stay tuned for more!
I made a trip back to Ohio after all this to visit with my mom and sister and to fly out to Maryland for my cousin’s wedding. So even though my cousin is Ghanaian, it was not a typical Ghanaian wedding with the traditional engagement rituals because he married an American woman. It got me thinking about culture, loss and preservation that is, and how somehow certain things are ok in Diaspora. We adapt to Diasporic (made it up, yep!) rules and create new customs as a result, yet even within these new customs there is rigidity about what passes, what gets ok’d, and what doesn’t. I know I’m being very cryptic at the moment but I will post a piece I wrote on this later.
I am chipping away at the memoir steadily. I have to turn in a reasonably sized thesis on the 12th of April. I am determined to be ready for this because the closer I am to a clean copy, the easier it would be to find my agent and publisher.
Finally, the biggest news of all is that I am going through the process to become an U.S. citizen. I am learning things I didn’t have the chance to learn because I didn’t do high school in the U.S. I feel rather proud and excited knowing all these founding principles.
Thank you for reading and commenting and I hope you will enjoy some of the pieces I post next. I promise not to be gone for so long next time.
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I am surrounded by laughter amidst Tigrinya, Amharic and some snippets of Spanish. I wish I spoke another language. Well, I do, but another more universal language I guess. I think I miss being surrounded by my own languages in a place where I understand almost all of the main ones.
I LOVE Ethiopian and Eritrean food. It is as if my mom transferred this to me in the womb. I’ve not travelled there yet; my only claim to fame is that my mother went to nursing school in Asmara and she can speak the languages and cooks a mean Doro Wat if she is craving it badly and her best friend Ms. Zahra is not able to deliver her a pot on demand. This morning I decided that I would have it for breakfast. The cashier looked at me when I ordered the largest platter of njera and kilwa there was, as if to check my pulse. I smiled and said I could wait 20 minutes for them to get set up. She asked the owner if it was ok to get started on this big meal at 9:30 am. She too looked at me curiously and then when I nodded emphatically, she smiled and said sure and left to go fix it for me.
I guess I miss being surrounded by my culture. I wish there was a Ghanaian café where I could go and hang out all day surrounded by the smells and sounds of my culture. But I guess for now this will have to do. People are friendly here and welcoming and I love the food almost as much as I love my own.
I came here to work on my memoir this morning and the food helped a bit. I am discovering that there are some things that are easy to write and others that I am struggling deeply with. All the people I am writing about are alive, except for my father. What if they hate me after I’m done writing? I’m following some threads of conversation here and there about lawsuits and memoir writing and I’m slightly concerned. Then of course there is the fact that some parts of my memory are just refusing to yield the memories I am diving for. It’ll be a blend of researched facts, memory, factual memory that others can confirm, and the rest in between the grey. What do we call this part? How do people protect themselves? Can there be any sure protection? I don’t intend to hurt anyone but the story must be told.
Enjoy the next snippet:
[As people nodded and traded anecdotes about my father, I traveled.
“Onoa ohwε mboframa ebien sika yεa odze brε me oboso a? Sε wannfa ba nkε oye!” Grandmother would stutter in her frustration, fussing about the meager amount of money my father brought for our upkeep on his sporadic visits. Our father’s departure always evoked such outbursts from Grandmother though none were ever expressed in his presence. Grandmother had custody of Sheela and I after our parents split up. This man was like the occasional relative who, never remembering actual anniversaries, bundled any and every celebration—First Communion or Confirmation, awards or performance debuts—into these sporadic visits.
“Ko ko ko.”
“Whana nyin?” Grandmother would bellow out “The resident house help, Sheela, or I would approach our iron gate and ask the same question.
“It’s me, your daddy,” he’d say if Sheela or I answered the gate.
“Oyε mb0frano hoo papa,” he’d say in Fante if the house-help answered.]
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I missed a week, and all week I was thinking I really ought to at least post a vignette from my memoir, and all week I kept thinking I will write that blog entry so no need to post a vignette. But as you can see I didn’t get to it. It was a very busy week. It begun with my hosting people in my new space, news of one of my student’s losing her father, my sister Sheela’s best friend losing her mother, and ended with the news of Whitney Houston’s death as I was recovering from the violence in Safe house, Denzel Washington’s latest movie. Surreal!
I received about 25 people in my new home last Sunday and I have to say I was impressed with myself. Almost all the various tributaries of my life came together in these 25 people and for the most part everything flowed effortlessly. People made conversation. People asked for advice and people gave it. People asked for a re-cap of my time in Ghana. People were kind and interested in each other. I was a happy camper. My best bud stayed the night and honoured me with the gift of doing my dishes. But the day begun with me not wanting to get out of bed and with absolutely no groceries in my house. At first I didn’t panic: I’d go out to the grocery store and grab the necessary ingredients but then I realized that some of my guests were coming early and that just couldn’t be arranged. When a few calls to some key people didn’t yield any solutions, I had a slight moment of panic. What would I serve people? It even crossed my mind to “order” food! I KNOW! But that thought was short-lived. Finally calls were returned and groceries arrived and I began cooking. I had some great sous-chefs. Everyone was well-fed and watered by the end of the evening and I dare say they all had fun.
The theme of feeding folks continued through my catering gig at Mills College on Tuesday where I had the privilege of feeding Nuruddin Farah who specifically requested fish cooked the “Ghana way. It was a pleasant evening but this catering thing is no joke. My back was on fire by the end of the night. I fed myself and my ex, my famous groundnut soup which took about four hours to prepare, on Wednesday. Again on Friday, I fed two more friends and then two more again on Saturday and Sunday. SO all in all I fed about 100 people this week. Do I need a new career? I have been exploring the idea of setting up shop somewhere. During the party, I was introduced to Guest Chef andGuerilla Cafe’s pop-up restaurant. I have applied to both. Keep your fingers crossed y’all; I might be coming to a location near you .
So it’s not a wonder that with feeding this many people, looking for furniture for my new apartment, trying to be a support for the grieving people in my life, and trying to find work that will keep a roof over my head, the most important thing of all went by the way side: My writing. No blog. No new vignettes to add to my memoir. No journaling. I am happy to say that I did edit almost half of the memoir at various times during the week. Plus I met with my advisor who had plenty of notes for me. It’s coming along. I officially have two months until it’s time to turn in my manuscript for my thesis. I know this is what i’m supposed to be doing this year so I’m sure it’ll fall into place. In the meantime, I’m working on my citizenship, figuring out how to pay my bills, and feeding people.
Enjoy another taste of the memoir:
I am the fourth child of my father, from the Ewe in the Volta region of Ghana. My father borrowed five women’s wombs. He legally married only two of these women. I am the eldest child of his first wife, fourth womb. My father, according to family tales, never stayed with any woman long enough to have more than one child with each of the five “recorded” women with whom he had children. That is, until he met my mom and charmed by her beauty and culinary skills, stayed long enough to have two girls, Sheela and I.
I am named Kuukua, for girl born on Wednesday in the Fante ethnic group, Dzigbordi, for the attribute patience, and Yomekpe, the paternal family name, which means “grave stone,” the latter two originating from my father’s ethnic group. I trace my mother’s maternal lineage to an English merchant who docked on the coast of Ghana and decided to settle down and marry a woman from the Akan-Fantes in Cape Coast. Her paternal lineage, in much a similar way, traces back to colonial settlers intermarrying with the Gas in Accra. These two groups intermarrying with the colonial settlers created a spectrum of tans and browns in our family.
I was raised in my maternal Grandmother’s house. A five-eighths mulatto, she was highly suspicious of the locals and for her, this meant anyone with a darker skin shade than hers. Not only was my father’s family a darker shade of brown, they were also not Catholic, and so were to be doubly feared.
Grandmother’s extended family were practicing Anglicans because of the original merchant descendant, but three generations before, my great-grandmother converted to Catholicism before her marriage to a Scottish man thus, causing our branch of the family to become Catholic. By the time our generation came along, we practically only kept company with those who were Catholic. For the majority of our growing years our lives revolved around our Catholic Preparatory school and our neighborhood Catholic parish, St. Charles Lwanga. We had the occasional non-Catholic friend playmate; once a Muslim family friend included my family in the Ramadan food deliveries, honoring our friendship and shocking Grandmother into silence. Reared only with my maternal lineage for most of my life, I had little knowledge of my father’s family, food, and religion. Once I was ready to reclaim what had been taken from me, I began to notice the joys and challenges that go along with recovering historical memory that has lain dormant.
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She looked around and saw that the chairs on either side of her were occupied by men. White men. The smell flooding her nostrils were a good indication that these men had not showered in days, if not weeks. Sometimes she wished her people in Ghana could witness this kind of white man, then maybe they wouldn’t worship the white man so much. She glanced over again. She dared not make eye contact. Matted hair and grimy looking clothing expanded the narrative. The numerous and assorted collection of grocery bags, paper and plastic, all somehow defying their original capacity requirements sealed the deal.
She struggled not to wrinkle her nose even though this was futile because it seemed the only reflex action to such stench. She was highly educated and very socialized to be aware. She knew all the rational reasons why and how some people got to this place and she had long since given up on pity because it served neither her nor them. Guilt was still worming its way out. She was Catholic after all. She’d heard that sometimes this one took a lifetime. She was content to be seen as WIP (Work in Progress). So she sat still, fighting the self-wrinkling nostrils and analyzing her situation.
So not pity or guilt…but…yep! Panic! Was it possible for her to get to this place? Was it possible for her to be homeless? The only difference between her and these two white men on either side of her was the little money she had in the bank. The only reason she was able to leave her ‘bags’ with the Bellman at the Hotel Whitcombe was because she was smartly dressed and had stayed there a few nights prior. The man next to her could not have just waltzed in the way she did and dropped off his shopping cart while he went to enjoy a Caramel Macchiato at Starbucks. He couldn’t have casually left his ‘bags’ for safekeeping and be freed from its stigma for a few hours. The difference between she and him was her appearance, her confidence, and the dollar bill she thrust enthusiastically into the Bellman’s palms as she arrived to collect her bright red Polo suitcase. Or was this the difference?
If she had to lug around all three of her bags all day, would people assume her situation or story? Would they judge her? Treat her differently? She had spent much of the day hugging her two bags close as she sat in one of those bucket chairs at the mall and later as she perched on a high chair at the Starbucks counter nursing her overpriced Macchiato. The barista there had eyed her as if to say: “I know your kind!” She eyed him back daring him to make a comment. The difference between her and those white men was the $4 it cost her for that drink and her laptop which she pored over so furiously searching for places to live. This created a barrier that allowed her to pose as not homeless. This gave her a voice and allowed her to stare him back in the eye.
But in reality, for how long? Without a job and a steady income, the money in the bank could be gone and then where would she stand? Food for thought.
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Ok, so this week I’m not sure I’m sticking to the promise of themed reminiscing…anyway you decide!
Tears welled up in my eyes as I sat down to dinner with my sister on Wednesday night. We were celebrating my birthday early, but I didn’t feel like celebrating. I was moving again. I am forever leaving friends and family behind. It also felt like the tears from Ghana were finally catching up to me. (I refused to cry when I left). As she sat smiling across from me, all I could think of was the fact that I was moving away from her. Again. It’s true what Grandmother said: even if you never see someone, just knowing they are there, close by, and you could get together whenever, is of some comfort. (That’s what she said when I told her I was returning to the US). I feel like the woman in Chocolat who was always moving whenever the North Wind came calling for her. Although this time I feel it’s more of a calculated move. I feel I have lots of things to accomplish this year knowing the things I know now.
I enjoyed my one month vacation mostly spent in Ohio with my mom and sisters, with a week-long excursion to Kalamazoo, MI to see one of my closest friends. But now it’s time to do that ‘Something’ this year. Like publish that memoir! Of course I had moments when I felt like moving permanently into my mother’s house and going to find some job right there in Columbus…it didn’t matter the kind of job…and just vegging out. It’s real easy to just exist, but I think it takes more effort o actually become more than a mere existence. I would probably get frustrated very quickly if were to just exist anyway. These moments haven’t lasted very long, thankfully. I’ve come to my senses rather quickly, shaken off the thought and quickly regrouped. I knew that I couldn’t stay in Ohio for a few reasons but sometimes it felt comforting to think of it. I knew I needed to return to the Bay at all costs.
It was a difficult holiday psychologically because I had to watch all the housing situations I searched for, fall through, and that made me a bit nervous about returning to the Bay. But I just had to trust that the Bay was where I needed to be and something would work out. I’ve gotten lots of assurances of couches and beds but I know what it takes for me to share space with folks I already know so I’ve been hesitant to accept any of them long-term. I’ve felt like perhaps I was being too picky, but I know that my sanity is very important to me and as such it must be thoroughly considered above all else in every situation. I trust that the universe will work something out.
In all this searching, I’ve noticed that I miss my students very much and I find myself reaching out to my colleagues in Ghana and requesting a play-by-play of their days. At first I attempted to follow the school’s hours trying to stay awake till when they arrived in school so I didn’t miss anything. I’ve let go of that. What surprises me is that I didn’t think I was so invested. But I should have known. The job defined me for 133 days. I loved it, hated it. I cried. I laughed. Some of the students challenged me. Some frustrated me, especially when they wrote atrocious essays, but almost all of them loved me and I, them, and now I miss our daily interactions.
I think I am still in transition between being that adult who was in charge of so much, (Ironically enough my boss used to describe me as “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”) and being this adult who is currently in charge of nothing. A friend of mine this weekend said I walk taller now that I’ve returned from the Motherland. I can’t help thinking a big part of it was because of my interactions with everyone the last 6 months. Returning to the motherland as a responsible adult was just what I needed, to perhaps claim my space in society. To stand and be counted. Now the charge is what am I going to do with this newfound height? What will I do this year that will reinforce this and will serve as a thank you to the Motherland and my people? I think beginning with completing that memoir might be just the thing I need to do first! Cooking and Dancing more often might follow close behind. Join me!
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The space of time between when a person has been confirmed dead and put in the morgue, and when the person is brought home for laying in state, sometimes lends itself conveniently to forgetting. Perhaps they have travelled and they will be back soon. Or they are in the hospital and I’ll go visit them tomorrow. But when the person arrives on that day lying in a casket, and all evidence points to the fact that they are really no longer in the land of the living, then, you have no choice but to face the hard and painful truth.
For me, this day came with my dad after 2 months of me knowing he was dead. I hadn’t seen him for two years when I got that fated call. And then the funeral was not held for almost a month after I arrived in Ghana. When I walked into his sitting room where he was laid in state that fateful Friday, I called everyone who was nearby a liar because I claimed they were passing off some dead guy as my father. Such blasphemy! Oh My! Did I cause a scene! Tonight, as I write, I am thinking of my aunt and my cousin, but more so my aunt, who will be receiving her husband and lover of 30 plus years, back to their marital home, in two weekends. She saw him off to the hospital that first week of December not knowing it would be the last time she saw him alive. In 2 weeks, when they bring him home from the morgue, she will finally have to face the truth she has known for the past month. That breaks my heart.
For the last few weeks since I arrived in the US I’ve been pondering death. You see, death stole another member of my family on December 12, 2011. Wait! Maybe I should blame the cancer first. Since September 2010, I’ve lost three family members, two to cancer. The kind of cancer that robbed them of a right to enjoy food—stomach and colon cancers to be exact. The most recent, my uncle (from my aunt and uncle duo I wrote about on April 12) died exactly 8 months from when I wrote that entry. The sad part is that I watched helplessly as the disease consumed his flesh, and I mean kwata kwata (empty-no sign of anything better existing prior). A doctor and a nurse who were now beyond medical help! Depressing!
The best part: I got to be in Ghana for 6 of those 8 months, and for this I am very grateful. I got to help my aunt take a bath and rub oil on my uncle’s body. I experimented with different fruits when I discovered they had a smoothie maker still in its box. I coaxed him to try my various creations. I made them pancakes, which is what we call crepes, because they were light and both of them could tolerate it even though my uncle complained that he didn’t want the obronyi food. We joked about my having grown up away from a father’s scrutiny and he took pleasure in chastising me if I was gone from the house for too long. We quarrelled and then not knowing how much longer he had, I quickly made up. After all, what good is not talking when there might not be enough time to talk? When I told him I was going back to the US, he made me promise to buy him a book. Now I am torn about whether to still buy that book or not. I believe this is just a distraction…
So in all honesty, I’m sure this topic will come up again. It’s not the crisis of facing my own mortality per se but I’m really pondering why our family, and feeling a bit more stressed about my own health. With my mom being a hospice nurse I’ve heard the stories, but experiencing it first hand was a calming experience. After a while, I just had to make a conscious effort to just enjoy the time I still had with them, rather than cry or hover over them in pity and fear. I will miss his chuckle and jokes and his shuffling feet which had become a signature tune in the house. If I think of him and miss him this much, I can only imagine how my aunt and cousin feel left alone in the house. My heart really goes out to them.
My Sister and My Tribute for the funeral booklet:
We grew up knowing Uncle Addo and Aunty Aku’s house was where we went for respite from Grandmother’s strict house rules.
Sure they too were strict, but they were fun and allowed us to be kids.
There, we were allowed to go pasare (gallivanting) in the Sakumono flats’ neighbourhood.
There, we were allowed to help pound “purple” (made from cocoyam) fufu.
There, my usually shy little sister would answer to her nickname of “laa” when “Shee” was belted out by Uncle Addo or Aunty Aku.
There, we had voices and these two encouraged us to use them.
After years of living abroad, I still know of their house as the place where I can be myself.
I feel privileged to have had the chance to spend more time with Uncle Addo during the past 6 months.
We were able to crack jokes while I rubbed him with Baby Oil or coaxed him to drink just a little more of my experimental fruit smoothies.
It was a sad ending to my 6 months in Ghana to lose him two days before my departure.
Difficult as it is, today I am choosing to dwell on this privilege to have had a chance to re-know and re-love my aunt and uncle instead of my loss.
We will miss you, Uncle Addo but you live on in our memories of our times together.
Kuukua and Sheela
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