View Full Version : Oh, The Stories We Will Tell

The Informer
8th August 2011, 09:45 AM
In Ghana, back in the 1970s, telephone calls, incoming and outgoing, were connected by a live operator, one who—though I’m sure she was not supposed to—could actually stay on the line and listen. It didn’t seem like a bad job at all.

I had just immigrated to America during that time period. Whenever my family and I called Ghana and I heard an operator’s voice, I would find myself envying that ability to spend all day eavesdropping on people’s stories of love and loss.

Even then I loved hearing stories. Maybe “especially then,” would be more accurate because the love was new and like all new love, it was insatiable, full of a hunger for more, more, more. Fortunately, I had someone in my life who was willing to contend with my curiosity and feed that ever-present desire for lore—my late grandmother, Comfort Carboo (or, Auntie Baby, as so many of us called her). I was reminded of her and of that magical time when my phone rang a few hours ago and, upon answering, heard what momentarily sounded like Auntie Baby’s voice.


“Nana-Ama, I just called to tell you I’m in town,” the voice said in Ga. A chill ran down my spine, and my eyes filled with tears. The nostalgia was almost too much to bear. It was Auntie Nardu, my mum’s younger sister, who lives in the United Arab Emirates. Until then, I’d never realised how much she sounded like my grandmother, her mother.

Auntie Nardu is one of the people with whom I spent a fair amount of time when I first moved to the US. I thought she was one of the most glamorous people in the world, with her floral polyester pantsuits and her perfectly spherical Afro. In those days, she lived in Boston, and my most powerful memories about my first visits to that city can be encapsulated in a single word: whiteness.

Of course I’d seen white people before while living in Ghana, but not in such numbers, or varieties. There were the blue-eyed, the green-eyed, the blonds and the redheads, the Hippies in their “flower-power” VW vans, and the New England gentry with their Burberry scarves and hoity-toity pretensions.

And then there was the other whiteness, snow, which on some days fell like a million miniature stars from the sky, their lights dimming slowly during the descent. On the ground it looked like powder but it was cold to the touch and it crunched underfoot. Imagine a Ghanaian girl, at six years old, leaving the warmth of Accra where everything, from the people to the homes and buildings to the earth itself, was sun-baked, drenched in colour, from butter-brown to blue-black to the deepest shade of purple; imagine her suddenly finding herself in a place with a sun that shined but offered little warmth, a place with a near-absence of colour.

My mum and dad settled in Washington, DC, which was nowhere near as cold as Boston, where Auntie Nardu was, but it was still a major cultural shock. Auntie Baby, who would come and live with us for lengthy periods of time, helped me make sense of this new world in which I’d found myself. She did it with stories. Stories that helped ground me in my own history and, during difficult transitional periods, inspired me to see the humour of my circumstances.

How I worshipped my grandmother, her no-nonsense wisdom and her ever-ready pronouncements that often found me unable to decide whether I was baffled, amused, shocked or offended. Usually it was a mixture of all. I remember one day Auntie Baby asked me to stir a stew she was making so she could step away and tend to something else for a few minutes. I discovered a rhythm to the task, which made it pleasurable, and when my grandmother returned I was dancing in place as I stirred the stew, singing “Tse tse kule / tse tse Kofi sa / Kofi sa langa / langa chi langa / kum Adene….” Suddenly I felt a light slap against the back of my head.

“Don’t sing when you cook,” Auntie Baby said with a mock-sternness. “You will spit in the food.”

It was always something with my grandmother: once, after I’d gotten into a bag of makeup and painted my lips, my eyes and my nails and Auntie Baby saw me she asked, “Who do you think you are, Gina Lollobrigida?” I had no idea who that was, so Auntie Baby sat me down and told me all about the famous Italian actress. In reality, I learned more from those stories about Aunty Baby and the events of her young adulthood than I did about Gina Lollobrigida; that’s because we exist fully in every weave of the yarns we spin.

My grandmother’s manner of speaking was full of metaphor and description. That was partly her personal style and partly the influence of her culture. Ga-Adangbe people know how to turn a phrase, how to find the right nuance to make an insult truly scar. I mean, how exactly do you translate the subtle distinctions and implications of a word like yakagbɔmɔ?

I know that koosɛ nyo is usually loosely translated as “bush person,” but that’s not its actual meaning. Koosɛ literally means behind the bush, so to be called such a person speaks volumes about one’s lack of civility, decorum and general presentation.

It is these descriptions, these nuances that I try to infuse into the English I write. This, I’ve discovered, allows me to make that colonial tongue more elastic, to “master” it in a way that suits my purposes and fits my history, a history that my grandmother anchored with her stories.

There is a saying, a variation of which exists in almost every African tribe, language, and culture: “the reason the hunter is always victorious is because the lion does not have a storyteller.”

When people ask me how it is that I’m familiar with certain sayings and phrases and elements of the culture that were in vogue way before my time, I tell them it is because by telling me stories—be they family narratives or Kwaku Ananse tales—my grandmother gave me the gift of memory; she made me victorious and present in a way that I might never have known myself to be if I’d relied solely on others’ representations of me and of my people.

One of my favourite pastimes is going to chopbars. I used to frequent them with my cousin, the late Ferdinand Ayim, another person who fed my hunger for stories. I love chopbars because they give me the ability to fulfil that yearning I had as a child when I used to hear the telephone operators’ voices; it allows me to sit and eavesdrop, to take in the stories that people tell when they are at their most unaffected, when their fingers are sticky with fufu and stained with soup, when they are full and, at least right then, content with life.

That is one of the times when I love Ghana the most because for that brief span what I hear are not complaints about the government or the opposition or the brokenness of our system; what I hear is the understanding that we come from something larger, something greater. I hear my grandmother’s voice. I hear the value that we place on our culture, on our lives, and on the legacies that our forebears so gracefully handed down. I hear the reminder of who we are, a reminder that is written into my favourite song, Amandzeba’s “Wɔgbɛ.”

Wɔgbɛ dzɛkɛ, e dzɛkɛ, e dzɛkɛ wɔ dzɛ shɔɔŋ…
Akwa akɛaba tsumɔ wɔ hiɛ yaafo kɛ latsa akɛ tsumɔ wɔ hiɛ anunyaŋ fɛɛ

And the more we continue to remember our journey, our glory; the more we continue to see ourselves as victorious, oh, the stories we will tell and the battles the world will recognise that we have already won. “The View From Here,” a weekly column by Meri Nana-Ama Danquah, is featured in the Daily Graphic newspaper every Friday. This article MAY NOT be republished without written permission by the author.

Source: Meri Nana-Ama Danquah - outloud@danquah.com