Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Ghana Journal I - Akwabaa and Bodacious

It's nearly a month since I returned from my trip to Ghana, a short but meaningful one. My daughter was going because of her interest in international health, particularly, in Africa. She'd been to Swaziland twice, and I'd gone once before, back in the 70's, to parts of East and West Africa. How nice it would be, I thought, to be on the Continent together. Beyond that I wanted to go to one of the dungeons where the enslaved Africans were held before loaded on ships for the infamous Middle Passage. I had not done that before, but now I had a need to do so. I learned they are called castles, but that journey is not for today's Ghana Journal.

A family friend, Bernadine, and I flew non-stop to Accra. Nine hours. The flight, with center rows of 3 seats, flanked by rows 2 seats deep, was full. I speak from the vantage point of coach class, and have no idea if all the business class seats had bodies. Judging from our section and the airport terminal, Ghanaians ruled the passenger list, and I couldn't help notice that quite a few were mothers with young children, and some grandmothers. I imagined happy occasions on their returning home, to visit or stay.

Akwabaa! This is the greeting you hear and see on signs everywhere. It means you are welcome. And you are. You feel it with customs folks who look over your passport and make small talk, smiling young men who swamp you once you're outside the airport itself, vying for the role of helping you to your transportation, with hotel staff, and the young men and women vendors who approach the car selling home made and store bought food, pouches of water, gum, dish towels, nearly anything that can be used. The Ghanaians we encountered had a warmth and dignity about them, from those in the middle class sector to those who live in a small village we visited in Kligor, a few hours drive from Accra, in the Volta region.

Accra is a sprawling city teeming with buildings, traffic circles, serious traffic at rush hour, and people on the move. Unlike my time there before, where we only walked, we only rode. Felix, our driver, is an Ewe, an ethnic group that originates from the Volta region. Every morning he appeared at our hotel in a crisp neat look, shirt and pants, ready for the day's agenda. A dark skinned man in his early 60's with a head-on smile, he let us know early that he is a Christian man who observes his faith seriously. That didn't get in the way of his humor though, and we had some good laughs. The only time Bernadine, my daughter and I did any substantial physical activity was at Kakum National Forest, where we had some serious climbing to do to get to Canopy Walk. It's not for the weak-hearted. High above the forest, a plank of wood swung as we walked, holding on to the rope banister that topped the braided rope that ran from it to the wood. That was the railing to keep us in. It reached our waist, sometimes. My daughter found nothing enjoyable about it, and I admit the forest got dwarfed, as I concentrated intently on balance as I stepped.

Wherever we went, from Accra to the village in Kligor to Cape Coast, where two of the castles that imprisoned our ancestors were located, Ghanaians brought up Obama. In their faces I saw a deep pride and joy in the son of an African now President, a man who chose to visit their country with his family. I too felt a deep pride, learning more about their first President, Kwame Nkrumah, when we visited his memorial, accompanied by our well-informed tour guide. The audacity of this African man in leading Ghana out of colonization by Britain, only 52 years ago. The strategic foresight he had in marrying an Egyptian woman and envisioning a unified and free Africa. The legacy of audacity in our ancestors is a mind-blowing, immeasurable gift. Growing up, I remember the word bo-dacious . "She's so bodacious," we'd say, like too bold, over the top. But where would we be without those bodacious folks in our history, and in our lives today?

Photos by thandiwe.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Confusing Lists with Life - Rumi, to my rescue

Lists are like brushing my teeth and washing my face -- fundamental to meeting the day with a semblance of togetherness. Even now that I'm working two part-time jobs and not one full-time job and three part-time jobs, they are essential. I make lists by the week, with usually two columns, headed Calls and To Do. They help rein in the panicky feeling that sometimes surfaces, the one of not knowing where to start, the one accompanied by images of me running around from one thing to the next, flitting like a manic butterfly. Lists bring me back to the moment of what I can do, a specific task. It is on paper and I can direct myself to getting it crossed off.

Lists are my evidence of a manageable life, one in which I have control, or some. They are reassuring, like clean teeth and fresh breath, a face refreshed with warm water and a creamy cleanser, topped with rose hips oil and then a moisturizer. Ahhhh! I am in the world, not under it.

As the details and stimuli of life come at me like confetti from a paper-shredding machine in the sky, lists are up there with screening, ignoring, and scanning for a time frame. If its not relevant today or this week, the fine details are left for when I will need to take action. My attention will have more motivation to stick around then.

In addition to a sense of control, lists give me pleasure. Each time I can pick up a highlighter and bathe an item in its pastel, there is a sense of accomplishment. I have done something with my life, my time. I have met a purpose. But every now and then I get some distance on this, and sadly, it seems like much of life is tied up in this notion. The state, the agency wants to know how many clients did you see this week. The university wants to know how many articles have you published. The city wants to know how many tickets did you give out today? Friends ask what have you been up to, and somehow you feel like you have to have something to show, something you've gotten done, an outcome of some sort. And things like enjoying one's children, reading poetry, or spending years to write a poem, just don't cut it as worthwhile living. They don't fit the solid, reductionist measure.

It is easy to get entranced by the pervasive chanting that says accomplishments are the essence of life, racking up numbers, crossing off items on lists. It is so much harder to see and feel the jewel in the process, the quality of trying, the beauty of investing our time in loving and creating, and in reflecting.

"Wherever you stand, be the soul of that place." Rumi

I had a card with that saying on it. That is the life I aspire to, the living I want to do. I need to be reminded, again and again. Rumi offers his own spell and I go to him and others who remember.

Photo courtesy of Bernadine Tolbert

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Reflections on Alice Walker and Haiti

While every person and every situation we encounter can be viewed as a teacher, clearly some stand out. Alice Walker is one of those teachers in my life, and my gratitude only deepens with time. I thank her for the term 'womanist,' one that I have taken on, instead of 'feminist,' to acknowledge my feminism as rooted in the African-American culture in which I've been raised. I thank her for taking on the hard stuff that so many people (whites and people of color) rather not take on in the space of their minds and daily lives. Many African-Americans, men predominantly, but not exclusively, disparaged her representation of a black man as physically and sexually abusive, in the Color Purple, particularly when it emerged on the screen. I've heard similar critiques about the film Precious. Back in the days when our only images in the media were that of buffoon, maid, and pimp, I too shared in this sense that our representations needed to be uplifting. But Alice is willing to say the hard stuff about destructive dogma and practices in the world and our backyards, sexism only one among them. And she does not stutter-step.
I remember how excited I was back in the 80's to get hold of her Spelman College Founder's Day speech about 'oppressed hair.' She spoke of her transformation into allowing her hair to be natural in its shape and texture. I shared it generously. I remember how profoundly sad I felt after reading Possessing the Secret of Joy, that pulled the drapes wide open on the magnitude of the oppression of women's sexuality. She blew me away in her essay, The Only Reason You Want to Go to Heaven is That You Have Been Driven Out of Your Mind, in which she affirms herself, straight on, as a pagan who sees Nature as God.
And now to my latest read, We Are The Ones We Have Been Waiting For, there is a line that stands out to me, one relevant to the recent imprisonment of American missionaries in Haiti.

"The colonizing mind invites itself wherever it wishes to intrude."

This line emerges as she speaks of NASA wanting to go to Saturn, "uninvited," but its relevance cuts across generations and geography. If it is true, that these missionaries gathered up children with no respect to whether they were orphaned, then we have a colonizing mind in play, the same kind that removed Native American, and Australian aborigine children from their families in the name of betterment. That betterment is an assertion of superiority, often based on identities of religion, culture, race or class. The colonizing mind does not distinguish between help and domination. Haitians, who have paid dearly for being the only Caribbean nation to militarily win their independence, have had enough domination.

Alice Walker, thank you for writing and living in ways that give me and others the courage to keep giving voice, to keep valuing our sensitivity to injustice, its nooks and crannies, even as the world tells us we're crazy or passe.

Photo courtesy of