All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes
The telephone call brought unsettling news. The secretary’s voice simply said:
— You are wanted at the Ghanaian Times.
I sped to the office building, accompanied by nervous excitement. Had my article been accepted, or had the editor discovered what I already knew; that in order to write about the United States, capitalism and racial prejudice one needed a lifetime, three hundred thousand words, and a lot of luck?
T. D. Bafoo was on his feet when I arrived at his desk.
He waved my pages at me and as usual spoke in short explosions.
— This is good, Sister! You Black Americans know a thing or two, don’t you?
He spoke too quickly for me to respond.
— We will have a new baby, you know?
— And we will invite you to the outdooring, in the country.
An outdooring is the first African rite of passage. It always begins at dawn, eight days after the child’s birth, and gives family and friends a chance to see and welcome the newest soul.
— I am asking Alice, Vicki, and Julian and others! Come! Black Americans must see how we salute life! Party! We have a great party for life! Come to my house, here tonight in Accra. Greet my wife. I will tell you how to come to us in Kanda.
I thanked him, took his address, smiled and was again left standing as he hurried away.
The modesty of T. D.’s pretty bungalow was surprising. He was a Big Man, and even in Nkrumah‘s best of all worlds, Big Men often lived in coarse ostentation. Some owned huge castle-like houses and were driven by chauffeurs through the streets of Ghana in Mercedes-Benzes and limousines. Although most cabinet ministers, members of Parliament, government administrators, and wealthy businessmen wore the common matching shirt and pants which had been popularized by the President, their wealth and power were not held in secret. Wives, mistresses, girlfriends, and female relatives were known to wear heavy gold necklaces and bracelets to market and to import expensive furniture from Europe. It was not unknown for some Big Men and their women to treat the servant class as slaves. They were generally unpopular, and in safe company they were ridiculed, but their power was threatening and little was said of them in public.
A smiling T. D. met me at the door.
— Sister, come, come inside. You are finally here. You are at home, and meet my wife. Come, we will eat foo foo and garden eggs.
Although he still spoke as if he needed to cram everything into one sentence, he was a quieter man in his own house.
His wife was a tall, brown woman with an earnest face and a beautiful voice, and was very pregnant. She smiled and took my hand.
— Sister Maya. Akwaba. Welcome. I am making chicken for you, since you can’t eat fish.
T. D. grinned:
— Sister, news travels in Ghana. We know everything or nothing. Come, we will have beer. What do you like?
Beer preferences were fiercely defended or opposed. The two vying brands were Star and Club.
— I’m a Club person myself.
I spoke as proudly as I had heard Ghanaians do.
— Ye! Ye! I knew you were okay. I am Club too. All Star drinkers are untrustworthy. Differences between good and bad beer drinkers are stronger than the imperialist introduced divisions between Africans. Don’t you think so, Sister?
T. D. laughed like a boy and took me into his study.
— We will drink in here.
He spoke to his wife:
— Join us when you can.
We sat down in a room crowded with books and papers and magazines. Mrs. Bafoo spoke from the doorway:
— Kwesi, are you going to give Sister Maya your famous speech? You would do better if you stand on the chair. She entered carrying beer and laughing.
T. D. had the grace to drop his head. When he looked at me his eyes were sharp with mischief.
— Sister, I am Fanti. This woman is a nurse, but she is also an Ewe. A terrible mixture. Nurses think they know the body and Ewes think they know the mind. Oh boy, what have I married?
I spent the afternoon eating with my fingers and listening to T. D.’s political discussions. I experimented with my Fanti, much to the amusement of my hosts, and found that while I had a reasonable vocabulary, my melody was not in tune. T. D. suggested I pick up Ewe, but when I heard Mrs. Bafoo sing-speak her language, I decided I would continue struggling to master Fanti.
The couple, throughout the evening, tenderly but relentlessly teased each other about their mixed marriage, laughing at their differences, each gibe a love pat, sweetly intimate.
I left after nightfall with directions to T. D.’s country place, and the feeling that maybe the new friendship would lead me behind the modern face of Ghana and I could get a glimpse of Africa’s ancient tribal soul. That soul was a skittish thing. Each time I had approached it, bearing a basket of questions that plagued me, it withdrew, closed down, disguising itself into sensual pleasantries. It had many distracting guiles.
The musical names of Ghana’s cities were lovely on the tongue and caressing to the ears; Kumasi (Koo mah see), Koforidua (Ko fo rid you ah), Mpraeso (Um prah eh so). Ghanaians boasted that Accra and Sekondi were old towns showing proof of trade with Europeans in the fifteenth century. I loved to imagine a long-dead relative trading in those marketplaces, fishing from that active sea and living in those exotic towns, but the old anguish would not let me remain beguiled.
Unbidden would come the painful reminder — “Not all slaves were stolen, nor were all slave dealers European.” Suppose my great-grandfather was enslaved in that colorful town by his brother. Imagine my great-grandmother traded by her sister in that marketplace.
Were those laughing people who moved in the streets with such equanimity today descendants of slave-trading families? Did that one’s ancestor sell mine or did that grandmother’s grandmother grow fat on the sale of my grandmother’s grandmother?
At first when those baleful thoughts interrupted my pleasant reveries I chased them away, only to learn that they had the resistance of new virus and the vitality to pop into my thoughts, unasked, at odd and often awkward times.
So I had been intrigued watching T. D. and his wife using their tribal differences to demonstrate their love. Getting to know them might lay to rest the ugly suspicion that my ancestors had been weak and gullible and were sold into bondage by a stronger and more clever tribe. The idea was hideous, and if true, I was forced to conclude that my own foreparents probably abstained from the brutish sale of others simply because they couldn’t find tribes more gullible and vulnerable than they. I couldn’t decide what would be the most appalling; to be descended from bullies or to be a descendant of dupes.
The Bafoos’ love could erase the idea that African slavery stemmed mostly from tribal exploitation.