There are some people in one’s family who always manage to carve a special niche for themselves in one’s heart. When I was growing up, there was one woman in my extended family whom I loved almost as much as my mother. She was my “aunt”, because she was my mother’s cousin. Except that that’s incorrect, because in my Akan culture in Ghana, there is no word for an “aunt” who comes from the maternal side of one’s family. One’s mother’s female siblings as well as her cousins are all one’s “mothers”.
It is not only after the death of one’s natural mother that these other “mothers” assume their responsibilities towards oneself. Even when the natural mother is alive, they act as a backup to the “Team One” – mother and father. If one is hungry and one goes to the home of any of the other “mothers” and there is food, one would be given a serving.
Now, don’t ask me why food was so important to children with a background like mine. I suppose we were often hungry because our meals take so long to prepare. Also, it is rather difficult to store our cooked food, lacking refrigeration as we did. So although we were always sure there would be food in our own house in the long run, we were also ready to partake in meals that didn’t originate from our own mother’s pot.
But one had to be sure that the family members one did this to were very close, because going around other people’s homes to deplete the size of their meals was strictly frowned upon. Anyone who made a habit of doing this was typecast as an ahwa (a term that describes, almost in taboo terms, a creature who is even more contemptible than what is known as a “sponger” in English).
I was lucky, because there were three houses where I was guaranteed a share of any meal that was going, without running the risk of being labelled an ahwa. One of these was the house of my mother’s mother’s sister’s eldest daughter, Maame Afia Kyeraa. She was a beautiful woman, almost as softly spoken as my own mother, and like her, kindness itself. The tragedy of her life was that she couldn’t bear children of her own, and so she took my mum’s many kids – of whom I was the eldest – as her own children. Sadly, her barrenness inclined her to try out several husbands, some of whom hailed from outside our town. One of these was a goldsmith, which to us meant he was as good as gold. She travelled with him to some faraway, dangerous place, known to us only as “Mines”.
As a “sophisticated lady”, she often served some of the delicacies that we kids hankered after – stews made with tins of sardines or pilchards, or better still, corned beef – and soups that always betrayed a lot of fat content, prepared as they were with fresh goat, mutton or beef. (If anyone had told us then that fat in red meat was bad for our health, we would have ignored him, and wisely so, for in actual fact, protein was largely absent from our diet and so we were instinctively attracted to anything with protein in it, especially meat).
The place Maame Kyeraa and her husband went to live in was the gold-mining town of Konongo, which was not more than 60 miles from my town, Asiakwa, but which, by the way people talked about it, seemed to be near the other side of the moon. The story from the “Mines” was that it was a most dangerous place where workers had to be taken deep underground to dig for gold. Sometimes the earth into which they dug holes collapsed on them and killed them. Even on the surface, white security men could shoot a “piis” (pistol) at any African miner who tried to steal some of the gold.
The women who lived in a mining town were also people who knew what temptation – by money – meant. Maame Kyeraa had many tales to tell about the relationships between men and women in a mining town. She told us about women who had been caught having sex with other men behind the backs of husbands who, they thought, had gone underground; the ready use of cutlasses on such women by some of the wilder foreign migrant workers from neighbouring countries who worked at Konongo; (if they returned home unexpectedly and caught their women at it, they just went straight for both the woman and the man); there was also fireworks – or more accurately, cutlass-works – if some blabbermouth told tales about someone’s wife to the husband, or the steady boyfriend who was paying her rent and putting food on her table. Anyone who lived in a place full of such “adventures” would have been an interesting person to us, but I was very lucky because glamorous Maame Kyeraa regarded me as the son she had never had. So I could discuss things with her which I couldn’t do with my own mother.
One day, when I was about four or five, I confided to her, as the “traveller” in the family, that I too wanted to travel. “I want to go to – Aburokyire (England)”, I told her. Ei? She herself had only been as far as Konongo, and maybe to Agogo or Tarkwa, Baabiaani or Prestea (mining towns) with the goldsmith. And I wanted her to take me as far as to England?
She gently pooh-poohed the idea but I kept nagging at her. So, one fine day, she dressed up nattily, called one or two of her sisters together, whispered something to them, and then said aloud, “Kwadwo says he wants to go to England. Come with me and let’s take him there”.
I was so excited! We were going to England! You should have seen me. I wore my best clothes, including a super-fashionable white pair of shorts with a red band on either side. I couldn’t help thinking that – I would come back very rich. Why? Because the money we spent was made there! I might even see “King George The Sixth”, whose head was on the coins and pound notes. And then, there were all those things we bought which were labelled “Made in England” – cloth, tinned foods, bicycles, lorries. Yieeee!!
Well, we took the road that led from Asiakwa to Kyebi. We walked for about half a mile and then saw a maize farm near the road. As soon as we passed the farm, Maame Kyeraa stopped and said, “We have arrived in England”.
“What?” I said, incredulous.
“Ah, you said you wanted to go to Aburokyire, didn’t you?”
“Yes!” I replied.
“Now what is that growing in the farm over there? Is it not aburoo (maize)?”
“Yes, it is.”
“Now, this place where we are, is it not aburokyire – a place to the back of the corn-field?”
“Well, then what are you on about? You wanted to come to aburokyire and we have brought you to aburokyire.”
Nobody actually laughed, but even as young as I was, I could sense that a fast one had been pulled on me somehow. I wasn’t happy at all about such an anti-climax. I knew something was not right but I couldn’t lay hands on it. Where, for instance, were all those white men who were said to live in Aburokyire? Where was all the money? The corned beef and the rest? However, we turned round and came home, with me pert and silent, but nobody minding me. I knew I had been short-changed but I didn’t know why or how.
When I grew up and was able to analyse clearly what Maame Kyeraa had done, I was extremely impressed with her intelligence. She was a stark illiterate, but somehow she had managed to deconstruct in her mind the word Aburokyire, and parsed it into its etymological components, aburoo and akyire, and silenced me with the outcome. Would a person with literary education have been able to make use of words so intelligently to flummox an obstreperous child?
Maame Kyeraa, with her unacknowledged literary skills, died in January 2006. Thinking of her makes me wonder what she could have done with words had she been blessed with Western education. As I wish her farewell, I urge my readers not to despise “illiterate” members of our society like her, for among them are some of the finest and most sharp-witted wordsmiths the world has ever seen. Maame Kyeraa died at the age of about 80-85, and people in her age group are all leaving us day by day. Unfortunately. Soon, we won’t be able to tap the brains of any of them.
What wouldn’t I give to talk to the “illiterate” person who was able to use a combination of rhyme, assonance, alliteration and onomatopoeia to compose the following verse, all in the head: (it forms part of the praise-poetry of the kings of Akyem Abuakwa):
Nenam seseaa ase
Ma seseaa ase
(The Leopard [the king] treads along
the thicket, causing the thicket to shake
Do you realise that all that this poet wanted to say was that when the king passes by, his passage affects the entire community? Amazing, isn’t it?
Or the one who composed this one:
Na yeema wo nsa!
(Three Sasaboronsam demons be they;
Three friends are they;
And they’ve got three wives too;
They do take a drink
And they give you too –
How wonderful it would be if one were to be able to go around villages in Ghana and Africa, collecting such precious jewels of oral literature, before all its practitioners die out.