Saturday, January 21, 2012

Two New Banahenes

(Note: Since I don't have still shots of every stage of my own and Megan's naming ceremonies, I'm going to blend pictures from ours with those from later ones, when friends and guest teachers who have joined me in Somanya received their African names. Hence the variations in people's clothing.)

As instructed by Manye Mamiyu, we showed up at her house the following Sunday at dawn. Well, not quite at dawn. We were actually running behind by maybe half-an-hour, but I didn't foresee a problem. I had already been learning that, by West African standards, being only a half-an-hour late is like being an hour early here in the U.S..

Manye Mamiyo Banahene and Her Spokesman
Adamnor Banahene Samuel
However, Manye Mamiyo was a little irritated about it. She immediately asked why we had inconvenienced her by being late.

"I'm so sorry," I told her. "But we very much wanted to be wearing African clothing when we received our African names, and the seamstress didn't finish until just now." This was true. Megan had gone to the seamstress at daybreak to pick up our new outfits, which had still been receiving their finishing touches as she waited.

Manye gave a dignified nod, seeming satisfied with this explanation. "Thank you for that," she said graciously. I nodded in return.

We handed over the two bottles of gin and the seven Ghana Cedis she had told us to bring. One of the bottles was immediately passed to a woman seated nearby. She rose and carried it into the house through one of the doors opening off of the front porch. We never saw it again. The other bottle, however, ended up playing a prominent role in the ceremony that was now beginning.

Manye Mamiyo Saying Prayers
Manye arose and, taking the second bottle of gin and a small glass over to the stairs we had climbed to reach the porch, she began speaking as she poured libations to the Banahene ancestors. I was later told that her words were prayers, though whether to the ancestors or simply about them I don't actually know. Originally, the Krobo people were ancestor "worshippers." (I put the word in quotes because there is some controversy about whether the term accurately describes these traditional beliefs and practices.) After colonization by the British, however, the vast majority converted to Christianity under the influence of missionaries from various countries. Today, some 80%-85% of the people living in Ghana's Eastern Region are Christians of one denomination or another. (For more statistical information about the people of the Eastern Region, click here.) However, many traditional rituals, beliefs and customs coexist with the newer practices, with no noticeable sense of conflict or inconsistency. Here is my understanding of the situation, but please remember that these are only impressions, interpretations and memories of what I observed and was told while in Ghana, combined with things that I have since read. I think that, for many modern-day Ghanaians, ancestors, while not worshiped as gods, are nevertheless still formally honored on a variety of occasions, and that the pouring of libations is a spiritual act that demonstrates reverence for these relatives who now exist in the spiritual world. (Here is a fascinating site for those interested in learning more about the traditional spiritual beliefs and practices of the Krobo people).

Manye Mamiyo Pouring a Libation
to the Banahene Ancestors at Guest Teacher
Helen Sigler's Naming Ceremony
When Manye had finished her prayers, she came back and sat down on her ceremonial stool. She proceeded to pour gin into the little glass and took a swallow, afterwards pouring the few remaining drops on the floor of the porch. Her spokesman then took the bottle and poured again, repeating her actions, and then again, this time handing the glass to each of us in turn so that we, too, could demonstrate our reverence for the ancestors of the family we were joining. It quickly became apparent that some of the people present didn't want to actually drink the gin. In those cases, they simply brought the glass to their lips and then poured a few drops out on the concrete floor.

Mel Receiving her African Name
(and being Queened)

Once the glass had made its way around the porch, a shorter stool was placed in front of Manye and I was directed to take a seat on it. She brought out a simple little bracelet that consisted merely of a piece of cotton string and a few very plain beads. She tied this around my right wrist. (I would later learn that this bracelet would signal to the world the fact that I was now a Queen Mother. However, it had a special value, and I would be expected to return it to Manye Mamiyo within a week or so. Of course, at this point I didn't even know I was being made a Queen Mother, so the significance of this bracelet completely escaped me for the time being.)

Manye then began tying on another bracelet, this one a strand of chunkier, off-white beads with a faint wave of turquoise and gold mixed in. She was careful to fit this bracelet to my wrist exactly so, the idea apparently being that it should be hard enough to get on over my hand that it couldn't fly off if I waved my arm. Once she was satisfied with the fit, she sawed off the tails from both bracelets with a little paring knife.

Kathie Power Johnson, Guest Teacher,
Going Under the Knife
(Just as an aside, at this point in a similar ceremony some two-and-a-half years later, when my friends and guest teachers Kathie Power Johnson and Sarah Thomas were receiving their African names, Manye said something to one of the women watching the ritual, who then disappeared into the back room, only to emerge a moment later with a huge butcher knife. Manye took it in her hand and began bringing the blade towards Kathie's wrist to cut the tails from her bracelet. I'll never forget the look on Kathie's  face when that huge blade started coming towards her. I'm sure she was wondering why the *%$&#@*%& I hadn't warned her that this ceremony called for ritual cutting! Even Sarah, who received her name after Kathie, couldn't quite suppress a little wince when the knife came back out. But their expressions got a smile from Manye and a chuckle from pretty much everyone on the porch.)

Sarah Thomas, Guest Teacher,
Receiving her African Name
But back to the story: As Manye was tying on my bracelets, she was also talking, though for some reason no one was translating for me, so I had no idea what she was saying until later. Here's what Bernard eventually told me she had said: "I am now your mother and you are now my daughter. You now have two homes and two families, one here and one in America. You will always be welcome here. You will always have a place to stay here. You will always be safe when you're here, because I will protect you. And you will never have to stay in a hotel."

When she had finished, her spokesman found a pen and a piece of paper, and he wrote out my name for me to keep, which was a good thing because I no longer own a memory, and the name is a long one. As it was, it took me the better part of a week to memorize it. Here's what it said: "Manye Dede Adanki Banahene III."

Bernard had been videoing the whole ceremony, but he stopped for a minute when I looked at him in some confusion. "It says 'Manye'," I told him. I already knew that this word meant "Queen Mother."

He shrugged and smiled. "She made you a queen," he told me.

To say that I was surprised would be a gross understatement. I was absolutely astonished. Me? An African Queen? In this lifetime?


But I had already been waved back onto the bench to watch while the whole process was repeated for my niece Megan. Five minutes later, she was Manye Dede Tsaako Banahene II, "Queen to the Youth." (She was 22 at the time.)

The Building Where the Ancestral Spirits Reside
Following more libations and prayers, we were walked to a new location, where the ancestral spirits reside in a small building marked with the Banahene name. Its doorstep was filled with dirt and gin bottles that had been overturned, presumably after having been emptied during the pouring of libations.

The Placing of Relics that are Part of the Ceremony
Manye's spokesman proceeded to do a sort of rhythmic, ritual tapping on the door of the residence. I seem to remember someone telling me that this was by way of asking the ancestral spirits to accept us as part of the family, but don't quote me on that. Whatever the case, something apparently signaled our acceptance by the ancestors. After more prayers and more libations, the ceremony was finished. As we walked back through the royal neighborhood, a woman came out of her house and pointed at me and then at herself and said, "Adanki. Adanki." She, too, was an Adanki Banahene, she was telling me. I was now a part of her family. And my hostess for that first trip, whose name before she married had also been Banahene, now became my sister. She later presented me with a circlet of beautiful old beads as a sister gift. It, along with the off-white beads my new mother had given me, will always be my most prized possessions.

Three Queens at a Durbar (Festival Ceremony)
But the full import of what all this meant didn't really hit me until the night before I was leaving to come home to the U.S., when I went to say goodbye to my new mother. I was waiting in a hallway with several other women who spoke a little English. We were all laughing at our awkward attempts to communicate with each other when, much to my astonishment, a beautiful young woman of perhaps 25 or 26 came out of a doorway nearby and stopped in front of me, saying, "I am your daughter."

Talk about being flabbergasted! I was quite sure I would have remembered if I'd ever given birth! But she was perfectly serious. Apparently, by becoming a Banahene, I had climbed right up into the middle of their family tree and taken up a recognized position there. I simply couldn't get my mind around it. But after a few seconds of just sitting there gaping at her, I finally shook off my surprise and said, for lack of any other words coming to me, "Well you're my very first daughter." At this there was a little flurry of disagreement among the women who were sitting around me. Thinking that I meant "my first-born daughter," they all hastened to assure me that I had many daughters who were older than this one.

So here I am, almost 60 now (55 then), and I don't even know how many children I have. I feel somewhat ashamed that I have not tried to meet them all and at least learn their names, perhaps even gotten to know them a little. But, aside from always being extremely busy working on Soul of Somanya projects whenever I am in Ghana, I suspect that such introductions would require the giving of many gifts on my part. As it is, the list of people to whom tradition dictates that I should bring gifts each time I come is growing rapidly, to the point that I could easily fill my entire airline weight allowance with nothing else, thereby jeopardizing Soul of Somanya's robustness, since it would mean I could not bring with me much-needed supplies. Moreover, gifts cost money, and Soul of Somanya (and therefore I) simply have none to spare. So I have postponed this pleasure, though with great regret. I have, however, had the pleasure of speaking to another of my new relatives since I returned home, a cousin (brother?) of Manye's spokesman. Having come across my story when researching the Banahene family on the internet, he promptly called me up to let me know that I now have a relative in Texas, where he now lives.

I hope that someday I can meet them all. I hope I can take a more active role in this family I am so honored to have joined. Maybe some day I'll be able to stay in Somanya for more than five or six weeks, and have the luxury of leisurely days that aren't pledged to the completion of training and other Soul of Somanya tasks that simply can't wait for a year or two until I can come up with the money to make another trip. I hope so. I so love being there, and I know that a richer and deeper kind of adventure would be mine if I could spend unhurried hours getting to know this Krobo family that has so graciously, so unequivocally, welcomed me into its bosom--even into its history. For now, I can only dream about it. But one day . . . .

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