Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A Most Unlikely African Queen

It was during my first visit to Ghana that I was made an honorary Krobo Queen Mother. Even now, four years later, I have trouble at times believing that such a thing could ever have happened to me. I mean, there I was, a 55-year-old white woman of no particular prominence, who had first stepped foot on the African continent only two weeks prior to my queen-making ceremony. Moreover, while I had come to Somanya hoping to be of some use to the people there, I hadn't really had a chance to actually do anything yet--certainly nothing deserving of such a distinction. The ceremony took place on my second Sunday in Somanya, and I had only taught my first class in jewelry-making on Thursday! So why was I being given this great honor?

It has occurred to me since that part of the reason may have been a strategic one on the part of  Manye Mamiyo Banahene, the Queen Mother who gave me the title. After all, having been made a queen (even just an honorary one), how could I not come back and continue the project after this first visit? As a prime motivator, the honor was a compelling one. Perhaps she knew that the conferring of it would bind me all the more forcefully to my original purpose in coming here. Perhaps she even sensed my hunger for the more exotic aspects of this journey. But far from resenting this form of manipulation (if indeed it was manipulation), I admire her cunning and sagacity in devising such a scheme, not to mention the determination to help her people that the strategy demonstrates. When you have as little to work with as this woman does, you have to be incredibly resourceful to get things done. More power to her (or, as they say in Ghana, "More grease to her elbows!"). I only wish I were as ingenious.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me start by giving a little bit of background on the Krobo Queen Mothers. Ghana is a democracy, but the traditional government of the Krobo region is still a vital force, and holds a great deal of influence with the people of the Krobo tribe. There are, or so I have read, upwards of 370 Queen Mothers in this region. They are an integral part of the traditional government, having successfully lobbied for admission into the decision-making bodies of the Manya Krobo Traditional Council and the Regional House of Chiefs after having had their traditional female base of power eroded by European administrators throughout the period of colonization. 

Krobo Queen Mothers are traditionally responsible for the welfare of the women and children in their communities. They have a very personal approach to their work, and are routinely (and warmly) welcomed into the homes of those under their care. Thus they are able to identify and help to solve various sensitive problems that might otherwise remain invisible to them and to their communities. Among many other accomplishments, this amazing group of women has been in great part responsible for breaking the culture of silence surrounding the HIV and AIDS pandemic in the area; for substantially contributing to the reduction of the HIV and AIDS prevalence rate from a staggering 18% clear down to 6%; for successfully promoting the banning of certain aspects of traditional and cultural practices that degrade and endanger females; and for helping to re-ignite awareness of the need for education for everyone in Ghana--including girls and women.  (For more details about the Queen Mothers of Kroboland, visit the Manya Krobo Queen Mothers Association's blog at http://manyakrobo.blogspot.com/.)

In other words, these women are incredible. Moreover, if I understand correctly (and please feel free to let me know if I am in error here or elsewhere in this post), they do not get paid for their work. In fact, I'm told that they finance their efforts from whatever money they are able to raise and/or from their own incomes, which are sometimes at the same subsistence level as those of the people they are serving. I greatly admire these women. They are committed, determined, wonderfully resourceful, and apparently tireless in their efforts to help their communities. As far as I'm concerned, they are true heroines, and I am very honored to be associated with them, even in a purely honorary capacity.. 

But back to my story: Within the first week of arriving in Somanya, Megan (my niece) and I were taken to visit the Queen Mother of our district, Manye (Queen Mother) Mamiyo Banahene. Now, I had read before coming that one of the first things visitors should do upon arrival in a West African town is to visit the Chief or King in order to to get his blessing on whatever agenda or project was being proposed. But we were told by our three young guide/protector/partners that the person we needed to visit was Manye Mamiyo. So one night, at what seemed to me a very late hour for visiting, we set off in the pitch-black darkness that characterizes nighttime in Somanya everywhere except on its few main streets.

The darkness seemed very thick and close around us. It was almost completely impenetrable to my streetlight-trained and aging eyes, with only the occasional reflection of moonlight on a white t-shirt or a brief gleam of starlight on a dark arm or cheekbone to help me maintain some sense of which way I should be walking. I remember that Bernard, ever gallant and sensitive to my needs, eventually dropped back to guide  me, taking my hand whenever we came to a rough spot on our path as we picked our way through the woods and past dozens of crumbling mud-brick houses and broken-down hovels that I, by this time, knew to be the homes of typical Somanya families. The silence was broken only by the sounds we made walking and the occasional deep croak of a bullfrog or the startling squawk of some family's rooster. I reflected, not for the first time, that a more cynical person would be fearing for her own safety walking through these forest paths and lightless back alleys with only the company and protection of these three young male strangers. But I never once felt that kind of fear--my gut was consistently communicating to me that I was safe with these young men; that my niece and I were both safe. In fact, I was honestly more concerned about turning an ankle and becoming a burden on them or, worse, being rendered unable to do what I had come to this place to do.

Eventually we emerged safely onto a street that was marginally brighter, and fairly crowded with buildings on either side, though the street itself was deeply rutted and still treacherous to anyone less nimble-footed than a goat. And then we were approaching a two-story building that, while larger than the typical home in Somanya, was certainly no less dilapidated. Our guides spoke briefly with a woman who was standing on the porch that ran the full width of the house. She then disappeared inside, emerging a few minutes later to motion us up onto the porch and towards a long wooden bench, where we sat and waited  for the entrance of Manye Mamiyo.

A few people came out of the house and gathered around, taking seats nearby. After awhile, a man in traditional dress (which, for males, consists of a length of colorful wax-print fabric wound around the body and up over one shoulder) approached from the street. After ducking into one of the darkened doorways of the house, he returned to set a carved wooden stool against the wall in (as it turned out) anticipation of Manye's entrance. (I was later told that only people of great distinction in Ghana have ceremonial stools, and that the degree of carvings and other ornamentation on those stools are indicative of their rank and influence.)  He then sat down before us on a stool made of plain wood. He introduced himself in English as Adamnor Banahene Samuel, Manye's spokesman and translator. I later learned that he is a well-educated man who had, for many years, been a teacher.

Let me state here that one of the most frustrating things for me when I'm in Ghana, and the thing that most holds me back as I try to learn to negotiate my way through the culture, is that, when people translate, they tend to mention only the parts that they deem it important for me to know. Unfortunately, what they think is important and what I think is important are two vastly different things. But no matter how hard I try, I can't seem to convince anyone (even Bernard) that I want to hear it all--every single word! Instead, a typical scenario has someone talking for three or four minutes without a pause, after which my translator-of-the-day will offer a one- or two-sentence explanation of what has been said. Grrrr!

But Manye's spokesman is the exception to this rule. He always seems to translate line by line. Unfortunately, in his case, while his English is very fluent in terms of both vocabulary and grammar, it is still fairly heavily accented. Add to that that my hearing is very poor and you have a recipe for confusion (mine, not his). Despite his best efforts, I usually feel that I'm missing more than half of what's going on. So, while I am going to try my best to convey the gist of what was said during that first meeting. my renderings of his translations may sometimes be a bit off.

Manye eventually came out of the house and took her seat on her stool. I suspect that we had awakened her, for she was garbed much as her spokesman was, in a length of brightly-patterned fabric that had merely been wrapped from behind up under her armpits and around and over her breasts, where she had tucked an end in to keep the cloth in place. Her shoulders had been whitened with some kind of powder or ointment, which I later learned is a kind of remedy for prickly heat. She wore a turban of a different print on her head. It served to accent her amazing face, which was basically unlined, making it hard to tell her age, and which had a crease on one side that looked as if a bullet had once grazed her cheek. I wondered if this might be a scar from some ritual cutting that had been made at sometime in her past. Whatever the case. it merely served to add character to an already-interesting and (I think) very beautiful face.

She did not smile, but regarded us very solemnly for a moment or two before speaking. Then she asked us what our business was in Somanya.

Everyone turned to me. I realized suddenly that, as the elder of the group, I was expected to do the honors. I hadn't anticipated having to make any speeches, and I hesitated for a minute, wishing one of the young men would take on the task. But they just waited, looking at me expectantly. I was to find that semi-formal speech-making is expected in Ghana in pretty much all such circumstances, and I have gradually become more or less used to jumping right in and addressing whatever assemblage I'm facing. But that night, I was a bit intimidated at having to speak so off the cuff. Finally, drawing a deep breath, I explained as simply as possible what our plan for the project was at that point in our thinking. She listened as my words were translated for her, and then nodded. Then she spoke at great length, though I caught very little of her speech from its translation. Finally she stopped and just sat, looking at us.

I thought this might be a good time to present her with the gift I had brought for her--a necklace I had made of crystals and freshwater pearls--so I  asked Bernard if the time was right. He bid me wait by placing a hand on my arm, and then asked her if it was okay for me to approach her. She nodded again, and I brought out the necklace and walked it across to where she was sitting. She examined it closely, and then nodded yet again. Still no smile, so I wasn't sure whether she was pleased with the gift or not.

She spoke then again at some length. I was later told that she had commanded us to come back on Sunday at dawn to receive our African names. We were to bring two bottles of gin--one of high quality, the other ordinary--and seven Ghana cedis (Ghanaian dollars). We were then told that we could depart.

We shook hands all the way around and then started making our way home. I was dying to know what had happened; whether Manye had approved of our project, and whether she had liked her gift, so I asked Bernard how he thought the visit had gone.

In his usual verbose way, Bernard said, "Fine."


I tried again. "Do you think she liked her gift?" I asked him.


I probed a bit further. "A lot or a little? I mean, did she love it? Or was she just somewhat pleased?"

"She liked it."

Right. I tried a different topic. "Do you think she approved of the project?"

"Yes," he told me.

"Okay, what did she say about it?"

"She said it was good."

"Oh, come on, Bernard," I said in frustration. "She talked for several minutes! She must have said more than that!" 

He smiled slightly, but only said, "She said it was good that you come here from America to bring prosperity to the community."

I gave it up, lapsing into silence. Clearly details were not going to be on tonight's menu.

I would later learn that Bernard could be very talkative when he was in the mood, and I would learn to read his moods a little better and, when I could bring myself to do so, wait until he was ready to speak for the details I so craved. But for tonight, it was enough to know that we had the royal stamp of approval. We could go forward with the project, secure in the knowledge (mistakenly, as it turned out) that we had followed the correct protocol.

I was, even then, before I got to know and love this amazing woman, very happy to have received her blessing on our efforts. I did not know at the time that she was very soon to become my mother, and I her daughter. But that is a story for my next post.

To be continued....   

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