Nana Yaa Difie of Kokofu (popularly known as Beryl Karikari) was my dear wife of 43 years. She was snatched away from me on 9 February 2007. May the Almighty hold her hand and sing her softly softly to sleep – to sleep, perchance to dance.
Everyone knew her as Beryl Karikari. But to herself, and me, who was closest to her, she was Nana Yaa Difie of Kokofu, Asante, Ghana. That’s what her father taught her – that he had named her after Nana Yaa Difie of Kokofu, a queenmother and his direct relative. He himself bore the name of Karikari – he was the direct grandson of the Asantehene (King) Kofi Karikari who died in 1884.
Although Beryl knew that her father was the grandson of this Asantehene, it was not until I took her to the Wallace Museum in London and she saw the death mask of King Karikari, cast in solid gold (with part of the gold missing, no doubt broken off and sold for profit by someone who didn’t know its significance, or didn’t care) that she really absorbed the fact that she was the great grand-daughter of an Asante monarch important enough for his death mask to be cast in gold.
She was too modest to let me know that she recognised in his features, something of her own late father. But she did cry involuntarily as she gazed upon King Karikari’s features. For the stolen gold death mask – a work the like of which you cannot find in Ghana, even in the National Museum – brought home to her, more than any history I could have taught her, the dastardly nature of colonial conquest.
Beryl Karikari was born in Liverpool, England, and did not see Ghana until she was in her late teens. Her father, Prince Berko Karikari, brought her to Ghana just in time for Ghana’s independence celebrations on 6 March 1957. Her father was a well-known showman who delighted the customers of the European stage with his fire-eating and other daring acts. His fellow showman on stage was Nathaniel Laryea, who was, for a time, the entertainment manager of Star Hotel in Accra, and who is credited with introducing the famous “afternoon jump” that made the formerly austere place the hangout of the young and “with-it” crowd of Accra.
Apart from sharing the stage, Laryea and Prince Karikari married from the same family in Liverpool - he married Ethel Carder while Prince Karikari married Emma Carder. Those two ladies must have been women of enormous courage, for in the 1930s, marriage between white women and Africans was not universally welcomed in Britain.
With the Second World War sending Prince Karikari into the merchant navy, his wife and young children (they were three, of whom Beryl was the youngest) were left to fend for themselves in wartime Britain. As the German bombs fell over Britain, the authorities decided to “evacuate” the children to relatively safe areas. Beryl and her elder sister, Olive, were among these evacuees.
Beryl was only five when she was evacuated to rural Wales, and the trauma of it lasted all her life. This is how she recalled it:
“The authorities had not made any prior arrangements for us to go and stay with anyone in particular. We just arrived by train and all of us – hundreds of children without any family members – were herded into a church and made to sit down, while the families that wanted to help out came and looked us over. It was done by pot luck: they went through us scrutinising our features and picked whoever caught their fancy and took them home with them. Whether because Olive and I were of mixed race, or because we had been instructed by our mother never to allow ourselves to be parted - we were the last to be picked up. We just sat there, hungry, cold and miserable, as people came, looked us over, and passed us by – again, and again, and again. When were we going to get someone who wanted us? It was a most humiliating experience. But that wasn’t the worst of it. The couple that eventually took us in didn’t treat us like members of their family at all. We were bounded into an unwanted room downstairs, while they all slept upstairs, and we got the impression at every turn that we were not wanted but that they were doing their duty, as dictated by the government.”
Beryl’s eyes brimmed with tears when she added: “Because they took us to rural Wales, and the woman who took us had probably never seen a black person before, and so she thought I was dirty and that was why I was brown. She washed me and washed me - quite roughly too - trying to make me white “again”. Bad as that was, it was the hunger that nearly killed us: we were always hungry and cold. We didn’t hear from either my mum or dad, and didn’t know whether they were alive or dead in the war. We suspected that my dad, being in the Navy, sent us food parcels from the places where his ships berthed. But we never got anything. We shall never know whether the family got it and used it without telling us of it. At the end of the war, when my mother came and took us away, all dressed up and in an expensive taxi, we felt so relieved and proud. But we never talked much about our experiences. It was just too painful.”
Who is this Beryl Karikari? She was my dear wife of 43 years. She was snatched away from me on 9 February 2007. She had had a mild stroke last year, which affected both her speech and her memory. But she was aware of her surroundings and managed to retain her independence to a degree. I mean - four days before she suffered the second massive, fatal stroke that resulted in the brain haemorrhage that killed her, she went by herself from Forest Hill in south London to John Lewis in Oxford Street, central London, and back. Safely. Typically, she had gone to buy a special ribbon to tie the parcel in which she was going to put a gift she had for one of the grand-daughters she doted upon so much, Tanya. For Tanya’s 13th birthday.
I remember the first time I ever saw her, as if it was only yesterday. I was enjoying one of the delicious club sandwiches for which the Ambassador Hotel in Accra was famous in its early days, when she walked by. The confidence with which she walked, the way her absolutely white uniform clung to her, and the aura she left in her trail as she disappeared, smote me like lightning. I remember saying under my breath, “now, what’s that?!” At the time, she was working in the front office of the hotel.
She was already well known in Accra society, but not to me. After coming “home” to Ghana with her father, she soon showed Ghana that she was a dancer of no mean repute. She danced solo for the guests at the Independence Ball in 1957. She was captured on film doing it. We recently saw her performance when OBE-TV in London showed a film of the 1957 independence celebrations. Beryl was an artist to the roots of her hair: trained at the St Martin’s College of Art in London. She could paint, sculpt, weave and sew, but dance was the art that occupied most of her being. She formed her own troupe, the Heatwaves, which entertained guests at the Beachcomber nightclub, and later, also at the Continental Hotel in Accra, now the Golden Tulip.
Beryl crafted a fabulous choreography for the Heatwaves – a mixture of Ghanaian hi-life and Cuban-Latin stuff, especially cha-cha-cha. As I have intimated, she did the costumes for the group herself. In fact, she was multi-talented to a degree that was amazing: she designed and sewed clothing; she created head-gear as well as arm and leg-wear. So the dances she created were authentic spectacles, as well as being totally novel. One of her dancers was so good at cha-cha-cha that everyone called her “Ajoa Cha-Cha-Cha”.
Beryl wasn’t above doing a number herself occasionally, usually at private parties. Her dancing partner was a guy of superlative footwork called Nii Addy. Many was the time I watched them on the floor and wished that I had not been born with “two left feet”, so that I could take Nii Addy’s place opposite her.
When we moved to Britain, she continued further to develop and adapt an interest she had acquired in Ghana – making dolls. In Ghana, she had made magnificently attired miniature figures depicting well-known Ghanaian characters – a woman with a child on her back and a load on her head, say, or a warrior on horseback, wearing full Northern gear.
In Britain, she created such easily-recognisable figures from British folklore as Mary-kill-the-cats; Fagin from Oliver Twist and a Garden Flower-girl, which she sold variously in Endel’s Street, Covent Garden Market and other craft markets.
Beryl and I had two sons – Akwasi and Kwabena, who are mourning with me. She also brought up two of my sons from other mothers – Yaw and Kofi. She gave them her love in equal measure to those of her own sons, and they are both as devastated by her death as those who came from her own womb.
Beryl’s two elder siblings, Olive and Raymond, both preceded her to “Asamando” [the place Of the dead] as did her mother, her father, and her father’s lifelong friend, the entertaining Nathaniel Laryea of Star Hotel. So she won’t be lonely up there.
My fondest hope is that she has already lined them up, sending them into fits of laughter with dances from the Beachcomber “European hi-life” repertoire, or some of the pre-robot movements she picked up when her troupe went to entertain Ghanaian soldiers in DRCongo.
Yes, if truth be told, it is we who have been left behind by such an engaging spirit, who are to be pitied. For me personally, she is an irreplaceable love. May the Almighty hold her hand and sing her softly softly to sleep – to sleep, perchance to dance.