Friday, July 31, 2009

Being Accepted into the Family Kane

I am now called Michael Adjei Kane Kwei. Early during my stay here Eric asked me if I would like to visit the Kane family village, Asuokor-Odumase. It is located about two hours north of Accra in the mountains. I was of course very interested. Adjetey, Eric’s uncle, and Eric’s father, Cedi, both spoke about wanting to go. In fact Uncle Adjetey said that the clan may be interested in accepting me into the family. I was first taken aback by the gravity of the suggestion, but then became intrigued with the prospect of joining the Kane family.

When I first thought about traveling to Africa I had little idea who I would meet or what I might learn. I knew I wanted to find out as much as I could about Ga coffin making and I knew in order to do that I must meet someone who was a master coffin maker. And with great luck I was introduced to the grandson of the man who started the whole thing. Eric turned out to be very helpful, knowledgeable, and exceptionally generous, as was his family. I was invited to live in Eric father’s (Cedi) house, indeed I was given Eric’s room. I was made very welcome and comfortable from the beginning.

Time passed during my stay and I was wondering if visiting the family village was going to happen. Eric offered to take me on Sunday of the same weekend as the funeral but I was exhausted. So, we planned for the following Sunday. We (Eric, Cedi, Uncle Adjetey, and me) left early and the usual place Eric and I ate breakfast was closed. Eric asked if I “would take porridge”, and thinking of a hot bowl of oatmeal, I answered “Sure. Let’s make certain there’s some coffee, too”. I was getting my stomach all set for breakfast. About an hour later, I tapped Eric (who was driving) on his shoulder and asked if there was still porridge in the near future. They all laughed and said, “Soon, soon.” About 15 minutes later we stopped in a gas station in a small town and Eric said “We will take porridge”. I looked around and at this point not having had my morning coffee grumbled something disparaging about porridge in a gas station, but Eric said “No, no not here, across the street.” On the other side a woman sat on a stool in the street, behind a huge kettle. The stool was so low, all I saw at first was the top of her head. I assumed the oatmeal was bubbling away inside the pot and she would ladle out some for my breakfast. I asked for one serving and she proceeded to pull out a small, soft plastic bag, open it up with one hand, and spoon out a gray, soupy liquid from under the lid of the kettle with her other hand. This was done with the slight of hand and dexterity of someone who had done it many times before. After the interest in her prestidigitation wore off I realized that I had a tepidly warm softly, squishy plastic bag in one hand and three bean flour fritters in the other. My experience with this form of container was very limited. In fact the last time I ate from one of these soft plastic bags I bit into a corner, which you are supposed to do and began to squeeze the bag from the bottom, which you are not supposed to do. This created a rather flat geyser of liquid that spread out all over my clothes. I did not want that to happen again. I held onto it gingerly as we searched for my coffee. Coffee in Ghana is Nescafe, which is dried coffee crystals mixed into warm to hot water. But that is just the beginning. Then half a can of evaporated milk is poured into the cup followed with 3 to 5 spoons of sugar. I have figured out how to ask for no sugar but when it comes to the evaporated milk it seems to be all or none, so I usually give up and take the usual amount of milk. But in this case no Nescafe could be found.

So, grumpy and warm bag in hand I cautiously got into the back seat of the car and off we went. I had to figure out how to use this bag. I knew the corner had to be bitten off, but I also knew I had to support it somehow because there is no integrity to the bag once the skin is broken. Swerving and bumping down the pothole infested road the ride did not help me either. I cupped my left hand around the bag with my fingers cradling the sides and bit off a small part of the corner. The gray liquid stayed inside the bag, but now I had to figure out how to get it out. It was a liquid and not the oatmeal paste I am used to eating with a spoon, so I tried slowly squeezing the bag. This worked as long as my fingers supported the sides of the bag. The taste was strong of ginger and the consistency was a bit like I imagine library paste might be if diluted with warm tap water. It actually complimented the bean flour fritters and helped the dry bits slide down comfortably when I swallowed.
Once that was over, still not having had my coffee, I tried to concentrate on the beautiful country we were driving through. We were approaching small but steep mountains on the left of the highway. They were dotted with large trees that had dark green tops leaving open space in between so one could see the gray and white granite outcroppings showing brightly in the sun. As the highway progressed we began to climb into the hills and the plants became more lush and thick. Then we abruptly turned right, onto a red dirt road and continued to climb. The road was so narrow and closed-in with vegetation that when we met anyone walking they had to back into the tall grasses and plants and in effect disappear as we slowly passed by. After twenty minutes or so we came to a fork, turned right and soon were driving into an opening with a small settlement of mud houses (15 or 20) that were scattered over a flat ridge. We drove by three or four places then stopped. We got out and walked around a house to meet Wofa (uncle) Anang. Adjetey and Cedi sat and talked with him for a while then we all got up and walked between a few more houses and a hundred yards or so, to an opening next to a building, then through two court yards into a final courtyard and met Wofa Nyangkpo. Wofa Nyangkpo is the elder of the village and the one who would perform the ceremony to accept me into the family, if that is what they decided to do. So, after introductions, we all sat down and had a lot of discussion between everyone, including much lobbying by Adjetey. It was decided that I was indeed worthy to be made a member of the family. We could have one of the sheep rams that had been left for ceremonies by other family members for a sacrifice to the ancestors and the ceremony could happen.
Things had to be prepared and arranged, so, Eric, Adjetey, and I walked into the cultivated areas behind the village that were thick with vegetation. There were plantain and banana trees, coconut palms, and cocoa pod trees, all densely packed together, sometimes each variety growing right next to other. On the edges of the cultivated areas were densely packed trees and grasses and shrubs. Very unlike Mr. Klu’s pineapple farm there were no vistas here. Every view was close and verdant. This was repeated in the courtyards. The intimacy created by the buildings surrounding the small cooking and/or gathering areas was complimented by the inclusion of an ancient tree or two and when you could see over a rooftop the giant trees of the forest seemed to be bending in.

When we walked back we went into one of the first courtyards we had walked through to meet Wofa Nyangkpo who greeted us standing next to a huge umbrella of a tree. It covered most of the area touching three of the four roofs that bordered us. This courtyard had great grandmother’s house on one side and great grandfather’s house opposite, and in the corner was the entrance to the village shrine. This was a very important spiritual center of the village. In fact great grandmother had wed a man from another area that had strong juju and had brought it back to this village to begin the shrine.

Wofa Nyangkpo and a man, Satchimo, who would help with the ceremony, led us to a raised area at the entrance to the shrine where they sat. In front of the raised platform there were five chairs arranged for Adjetey, Cedi, me, Eric, and Wofa Anang. We all sat down and Wofa Nyangkpo began prayers to the ancestors and spilling libation (schnapps) to honor them. Since there are many ancestors this took several minutes. We then all drank and spilled libation on the ground to honor the ancestors. Then Satchimo produced a large wooden bowl in which he had placed a tightly woven wreath of leaves and vines that he had gathered from the forest. These plants have strong spiritual power for the village and were to be used to pass the family’s juju to me as well as Cedi and Eric, much to their surprise. Satchimo poured water over the leaves and vines and began to work up a greenish froth from the mix with his hands . Once done, more prayers were said and the ram was sacrificed. The blood was dripped around the bowl of plant froth to honor the ancestors and seek their support.

Cedi was led by Satchimo to the other corner of the courtyard where Cedi took off his shirt and sandals. He was asked to bend at the waist and receive the froth in his hands and rub it on his body as if he were bathing. This covered his skin with the plant froth. Eric was next and did the same, but he cupped his hands and took some of the liquid to his mouth and drank. Now he was asked if he wished to have cuts made on his skin to allow the juju of the plants to enter into his body. This was something that we had discussed for me, but not something Eric had planned for himself. He decided to do it and this allowed me to see what I was about to do. Satchimo produced a new razor blade and took it out of its wrapper. He delicately pinched a bit of skin from Eric’s chest with his left hand and cut 4 or 5 very shallow quarter inch long cuts with the razor in his right. Satchimo continued the same process at each of the top of Eric’s wrists, side of his elbows and shoulders, each side of his chest under his arms, once at the base of the neck and twice at the lower back, left and right. Afterward a black, chalky substance, later described as medicinal plant material that had been burnt and crushed, was shaken out of an old bottle and rubbed by Satchimo into and over each wound.

After Eric sat down it was my turn and I went through each step as they had done before me. When it came time to do the cutting Satchimo was very gentle and careful. He left and returned with another wrapped razor blade, but before opening it, he cleaned some of the bits of leaf and vine from my hair and skin. His touch was gentle and firm. The cuts were minimal. In fact I have had figure pricks for blood tests that felt more invasive. The process as I had seen with Eric took a while and as Satchimo was close to finishing I began to feel the lightheaded sensation associated with shock. The blood was leaving my head and draining to my body core. With a bit of disbelief I was laughing to myself thinking, “This can’t be happening”. Satchimo finished, and as he reached for the bottle of burnt herbs I leaned forward trying to get my head lower then my body core. All the while I was trying to explain to everyone the symptoms of shock and how cuts sometimes initiate it and that I may need to sit down. Someone brought a chair, I sat down, leaned my head forward while Satchimo rubbed blackened leaves into the cuts.

This was the end of the ceremony and Wofa Nyangkpo and Anang left. Cedi and Adjetey went off in search of gin. Eric and I sat, cleaned off, and put our shirts and sandals back on. I was now part of the family Kane. Satchimo asked me if I would like to go into the family shrine which I could not do before as a non-family member. I took off my sandals and followed him in. It was a very sobering and I felt honored.

1 comment:

  1. Kocham Afrykę, chciałabym tam kiedys pojechać, ale niestety póki co mam swoją pracę w szpital Świebodzice to mje rodzinne miasto