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Opinion | Jan 26, 2019

The America That Is Not For Me: Part 7

The America That Is Not For Me: Part 7

I am one of six children, five boys and a girl. And childhood was one special individual I couldn’t wishfully bury alive in the stinking misery of death, a death shaped and informed by the characteristic frustrations and confusions of adulthood, a memorable stage on the Cartesian coordinates system of my developmental psychology.

To this day this special individual of childhood remains a powerful statement of my nostalgic sense of paedomorphic wonder. Childhood, a dense vegetation of colliding contradictions, also, for me, was a mastermind and harbinger of adulthood.

Childhood was a picturesque language of godly beauty, a bubbly universe almost indescribable in its bold statement of exquisite mapping in the narrative and processing corridors of human consciousness.

Childhood was a happy world of endlessly laughing and dancing angels, of friendly but redoubtable human gods and goddesses of forceful intimate persuasion who inhabited incomprehensible spaces within the crevices of immanent innocence, of sweet-scented goddesses of human kindness.

Childhood was fun really. We grew up surrounded by love, humanity, aromatic clouds and blankets of pleasant-tasting cuisines, a panorama of pristine flora and fauna and of singing bodies of water huddled under a downward-looking telescope of a cheerful sky of stars and moons and suns and rainbows, a fresh ambience of fruity airiness, a cohort of friends, and a loving extended family.

Childhood was the ideal for lost adulthood.
Childhood knew no death.
Childhood knew no graves.
Childhood knew no blackness and whiteness.
Childhood knew no lies and falsehoods.
Childhood knew no bounds of mortality.
Childhood taught me to cook and childhood taught me to cook for my siblings, parents and other members of my extended family.

Childhood turned me into a full-fledged chef by the time I was about nine.

Childhood was simply childhood. And soulfully musical.

Except that childhood faced fierce competition from two of its greatest mortal enemies, a hungry army of bloodsucking mosquitoes and of indistinct images of frightening dreams―over ownership of the rambling silhouette of nightly curiosity.

Those encroaching vampire dreams and demanding mosquitoes eventually became normal fixtures in the quiet biome of nagging childhood curiosity until the evolving tadpole of adulthood ushered in a breath of fresh air for the gaping gaps that constituted, among other things, a gross misunderstanding of the embryonic intricacies of the natural environment. Each child had a piece of land on which he or she farmed, an activity that inadvertently exposed the child to the immunological implications of the hygiene hypothesis, leading the child to a precocious yet incremental understanding of nature and his or her relationship with nature. The child understood growing up that he was an instrumentalist embodiment of the complex language of nature.

Micro-farming and gardening therefore taught us children responsibility and self-reliance and respect for nature.

Adulthood did come around eventually, contaminating the primal innocence and rational ignorance of a mature brain wrapped up in the innocent clothes of childhood. I was growing and growing on a gradualism scale but―along the clock spectrum of time―I saw myself in my quiet childhood while my other self, with its creeping sense of relative maturity then sheltered in the colorful waterfall of my precocious childhood, exposed a personality of maturity and a fixture of intellectual immaturity simultaneously sharing a humble pie of congruence and conflict in the underlying cosmos of my developmental psychology. I was studying science in school at this time and my small world, a world inhabited by a forest of incomprehensible human beings and creatures and ideas, and this world which was also circumscribed by a constrictive horizon and finite knowing of little things, began to open up a little bit for me to pry into.

That distant world was a strange place of audacious and creepy imaginings, a place where probability and determinism clashed and controlled the behavior of atoms, and where the biomes of mosquitoes, fruits, dead people, snakes and diseases, mourners, witches and wizards, ghosts, roaming doppelgangers and ancestors, urchins, forests and rivers, the living, music and dance, thunder and the moon and the sun, and prayers quashed the silence of monotony. Life was full of promise when the innocence of childhood shared a continuum with the wisdom of adulthood and when parenthood constituted a masterful blend of childhood and adulthood, of maturity and experience.

Life was a blossoming of community, a community of fullness and amity and wondrous happenings in the evolving psychology of childhood.

My parents traveled with us, their children, along the labyrinthine trajectories of our developmental psychologies. My father served in the Ghanaian army. Thus we spent part of our childhood on an army barracks, part of the Military Academy and Training Schools (MATS). I also had part of my primary education in a school sited on as well as funded and overseen by the military, in fact a public school situated four to five hundred meters from a location where a paternal uncle of mine, Air Vice-Marshall George Yaw Boakye, was executed by firing squad at the Teshie Military Range along with his colleagues made up of army generals and a colonel―almost all of whom made up the Supreme Military Council (SMC), the Ghanaian government at the time.

Air Vice-Marshall Yaw Boakye became a prominent member of this government because of his rank as the Commander of the Ghana Air Force. Also another brave uncle of mine, my father’s elder brother, served in the Ghanaian military. My uncle and his colleagues were then buried in unmarked graves. Ghana had its own version of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), named the National Reconciliation Commission (NRC), after which the bodies of my uncle and his colleagues were exhumed and reburied with full military honors. The violent death of my uncle still haunts my father and the rest of the family to this day. More important, Wole Soyinka offers a sharp criticism of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in his book The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness. This book builds on his McMillan-Stewart Lecture series which he delivered at Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute, now renamed W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute at the Hutchins Center. Literary theorist and critic Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a multifaceted scholar whose works I’ve read and some of which I’ve critiqued and written about for my international readership, directs this center which primarily focuses on academic research on the African world.

Now let me go back to my family. My beautiful mother was a hardworking woman, a house wife, and a petty trader. I recall those days of yore when I woke up in the wee hours of the morning with my mother to prepare for the market, Makola Market, so-called, where we sold roasted yellow plantains. My mother roasted the plantains while I, a little boy who should be sleeping, carried a tray of roasted plantains on a growing neck and hawked them around men and women of all walks of life. The hawking activity enrooted my appreciation in domestic life generally and home economics in particular.

Actually, I hawked to supplement the remittances my father sent us from Libya. My father had been discharged from the army and after working with one or two companies in Ghana, Japan Motors Trading Co. Ltd. and Volta Aluminum Company (VALCO), he shipped out to Libya for greener pastures. My mother later joined him in Libya and we, my siblings and I, resettled with a maternal uncle who was a successful accountant with Kingsway Department Store as well as an Elder of the Church of Christ.

My maternal uncle had four children, two boys and two girls, all of whom were older than any of my siblings by many years. In fact, we looked like their children. Both of my uncles were Church of Christ pastors. Also none of them was married when we moved in with them. Today one of my uncles, the second eldest child, was living in the United States at the time and still lives in the United States. His elder brother also lives in the United States now. My aunts were very beautiful. We constituted one big family.

My granduncle was married to a hardworking and gracious woman who cooked the best dishes in the whole world, took great care of us with utmost patience and with the priceless experience of maternal dedication, as well as with the encompassing beauty of angelic overprotectiveness and diligence and intelligence of a great woman who truly cared for and loved human beings with all her heart. We saw her as a doting, saintly matriarch and mother of gods and goddesses and angels. She was flawless in the way she carried herself and discharged her uxorial duties. She was indeed a paragon of motherhood.

Living with this maternal family was, in more ways than one, like living inside the simmering chaos of an itching boil waiting to explode in volcanic precision. Children only ate once on Sundays. Why? I don’t know! Only my granduncle ate more than once on Sundays. On the other days he ate before any child did, as well as before his own children and wife. Of course, as children we couldn’t wrap our heads around why an adult would choose to eat before his own children and grandchildren did. What’s more, our granduncle never bothered to ask any child whether he or she had eaten. We hid away as our granduncle ate while waiting for an opportunity to present itself and when this did happen, we competitively jumped over ourselves as we made a beeline for the leftovers, helter-skelter. We sometimes fell into a kick bollocks scramble over these leftovers until commonsense prevailed that we should share. Other times, though, we weren’t fortunate because our uncle got to the dining table before we did. We cried when this happened. Life was that hard for us children.

My parents shipped food to us from abroad but our granduncle and his children consumed everything without including us, the intended or rightful owners of the said food. Our granduncle cared more about his survival than the collective survival of the household. In other words our granduncle cared more about the expansive fullness of his belly than the mournful tears of his starving grandchildren―us. His wife wasn’t part of this wicked scheme and always tried to do her best for us. Finally, our granduncle occasionally squandered or misused money intended for the payment of our school fees, leading to our expulsion from school. There were occasions when we stayed out of school for extended periods of time because of this problem. We used our absence from school to run errands for people in the neighborhood during those times―in exchange for food. This problem derailed my sister’s education given also that my granduncle never prioritized her education. None of us developed chronic sticky fingers despite our domestic challenges.

On the other hand he was sympathetic to the son of his eldest daughter. This however wasn’t the case with two of our cousins on the side of his wife, one the son of Afrobeat and highlife legend Ebo Taylor, the other a daughter of one of his wife’s extended female relatives.

I however managed to pull through secondary school because I worked very hard, hard enough to win full scholarships and prizes throughout my secondary education. I even sent what remained of the scholarships to my mother after all my school expenses had been paid off, to invest in her petty-trading business. I wrote essays for my seniors in exchange for preferential treatment. I also did homework assignments for classmates in exchange for food and other basic items such as stationery. Writing for others at a tender age helped me hone my writing skills. A maternal uncle of mine who before his retirement was a prominent Ghanaian ship’s captain later headed the Tarkoradi Harbor, Ghana’s oldest harbor and one of the nation’s only two harbors, the other being the Tema Harbor, drove to my boarding school from time to time during which he gave me money to support myself in school. He too, like his elder brother, took a great interest in my academic development. My uncles prosecuted their avuncular responsibilities with utmost admiration and humility and respect for their extended family.

Another maternal uncle, who served as headmaster of two major secondary schools in Ghana and later as Assistant Director of Budget and Planning, Ministry of Education, introduced me to the rich and vast world of African literature at this time. I began to read profusely and to build my storehouse of vocabulary. My siblings did exceptionally well in school too in spite of the many challenges we encountered. Today one of my siblings who lives in New York is a chemist, pharmacist (Doctor of Pharmacy), and radiologic technologist; another sibling of mine who lives in Colorado is a biochemist, clinical pharmacist (Doctor of Pharmacy), writer, clinical scholar/preceptor, and master’s degree holder; and a third sibling also living here in Colorado is a systems analyst who doubles as an “expert” in other fields related to computers, real estate, legal matters, and the like. We are trying to get our youngest sibling to get a college education as well. This is extremely indispensable for all of us. Ultimately, we’ve chalked up these little successes in America on the strength of our African culture, hard work, honesty, and the need to become generalists and multipotentialites because the daunting challenges we’ve been encountering in America keep changing each sibling’s specialized focus on a specific academic discipline. We’ve learned to individuate our unique American experiences as they befit the peculiarities of our mental and emotional contexts.

In my own case, I’ve variously relied on the concepts of conscientization and experiential education as well as on the wide-ranging topical, philosophic, scientific and theoretical writings of Ama Mazama, Molefi Kete Asante, Cheikh Anta Diop, George Dei, Théophile Obenga, and Brazilian educational philosopher Paulo Freire to drive myself through the disappointing thickness of cyclical frustrations and institutional racism in America. Freire’s influential works―Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Pedagogy of Freedom: Ethics, Democracy and Civic Courage―have offered me massive support as I navigate through the structural or institutional weaknesses of the American educational system. Over the years, I’ve surrounded myself with friends and mentors from around the world who count amongst some of the world’s most important and influential theorists, scientists, university professors, mathematicians and economists, philosophers, writers and authors, humanists, historians and historiographers, political activists, founders and editors of academic journals and newspapers and websites, academic referees/reviewers, dissertation advisors, and so on. I continue to learn and benefit from this fountain of exceptional and gifted thinkers who’ve done and still continue to do so much for the world.

Still, life wasn’t all rosy at home in the midst of the few positives I managed to chalk up through sleepless nights growing up in Ghana. I couldn’t go home on midterms when almost everyone else had, for instance. I realized that it wasn’t in my best interest to go home on midterms given that my granduncle didn’t approve of my coming home. Going home meant that he’d have had to dip his hands into the unfathomable depths of his belly for additional funds to underwrite my stubbornness―coming home on midterms. I remembered staying behind on one of those midterms during which a battalion of strange insects invaded my face. The invasion left a bloated face over the one I was born with. The fact was that I still couldn’t bring myself to go home even with this strange medical condition. I took it to the school dispensary but not much was done by way of treatment. I was fortunate that it was a self-limiting medical condition.

And as if that weren’t enough, my granduncle got himself caught up in an eclectic brew of other controversies as well. My father had sent him money to buy a house for him, a house for our collective comfort, only for this money to end up drowned in the deep of my uncle’s pocket. It turned out that my uncle had used the money to set up a business without my father’s knowledge. When the time came for my uncle to return the money, contradictory stories as to the whereabouts of the money began to emerge. My granduncle and uncle couldn’t cough up the money in spite of my father’s persistent promptings. Another hemorrhage of hard-earned money unaccounted for.

It’s nonetheless interesting if not hypocritical of the highest order for my granduncle to assign each child a different passage of the Bible to read every morning, after which the child explained what this assigned passage meant in the context of its spiritual and material implications, and particularized the importance of these implications to how each child lived his or her life. We prayed immediately after this. And we did our Bible readings and prayers on empty stomachs. Of course, our granduncle was the only one who comfortably sat on the efflorescent fullness of his belly. Prandial satiation was his style of pursuing spiritual upliftment.

“And the Lord God of Israel is with us!” he loved to say this while letting out streams of thunderous volcanoes of flatus. He did this quite often especially when we stood behind him and scratched away pimples on his back. Moreover, religious and spiritual airs suffused our private lives and choked the temperamental and philosophical secularity of the household. This brings back mischievous childhood memories. I remember sitting in my father’s lap as a child when I broke wind. A neighbor who lived with us in the same compound house asked who’d broken wind and I pointed at my father. How embarrassed my father became! “Amanfuo ako te brofo,” a classic burger-highlife tune by George Darko, a beautiful song I recall singing one day while putting on my granduncle’s socks and shoes as he couldn’t bend over his bulkiness to put on his own socks and shoes, when out of the blue he extended his head across his stumbling-block bulkiness and thundered into my ears, “a Christian shouldn’t be singing these pagan, secular songs.” My granduncle probably couldn’t understand that he was starving us to death with his stilted attitude underpinned by a convenient exegesis of domestic elitism borne out in the reality of biblical patriarchalism, that I understood the substance of the song essentially to be a dirge―a dead metaphor for him, and that I was smoothing my passage to my grave by singing this dirge.

This song basically encourages human beings to enjoy life to the fullest, a life of hedonism, so to speak, because the interior temperature of a coffin is unbearable. I already was in that coffin and felt the unbearable heat of starvation, of hopelessness, of helplessness, and of biblical patriarchalism.

Life was war and the sanctimonious adult, our granduncle, the mastermind of this war didn’t engage his adult enemy combatants of equal standing in questionable household politics such as the ones we experienced together―but rather with an opposing team of innocent, helpless and hopeless children. Hunger was the oxygen we breathed and before long that oxygen run out. It did run out eventually. What did we do? We began to steal, to steal food specifically. We stole other items as well, items we sold to friends and teachers and used the money therefrom to buy food for ourselves. Conscionable thieves we became. How else could we’ve survived the wickedness of hunger, of hopelessness, of helplessness? How else could’ve survived those strangulating hands of biblical patriarchalism? How else could I’ve survived the excruciating storm of hunger to tell this story?

Petty stealing and lying and truancy saved us from the incriminating pangs of hunger. Stealing and lying became our Jesus, our savior, our messiah. At church, there were times we stole the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper to feed the burning callings of our secular starvation. We ate only twice a day Mondays through Saturdays. We ate corn porridge without sugar and milk for breakfast on certain days. One of my brothers approached our granduncle during one of our suppers with a complaint about his fish head, the only “meat” that came with his food. “Fish head is the best part of a fish; you eat the head of a fish to become wise. The head of a fish is where wisdom is located!" my granduncle said dismissively. My brother wept uncontrollably.

Owura Joe usually sent me out to get kebab for his patrons and the kebab seller added two or three extras in acknowledging Owura Joe as his regular customer but I always ended up consuming the extras on my way home before finally handing over the rest to him once I got to the bar. Never did I divulge to Owura Joe that I stole his kebabs. This secret has remained with me to this day. We patronized local street restaurants or chop bars and bought food without being paying for them. We skillfully orchestrated our thievery of food such that we were able to use the same amount of money to buy three, four or five times the amount of food we actually felt could quench our hunger, albeit I’d attribute my chronic stomach pain to protracted episodes of hunger. Though we now know Helicobacter pylori causes ulcer, it was sheer luck that I never developed hunger-driven ulcer.

We began doing other things to survive in Flower Garden. Flower Garden was the name of the walled compound we lived in. The grey-bearded landlord Mr. Bannerman, his three-story castle, his family, and his tenants shared in this spacious compound as well. Flower Garden also housed a post office that served the entire community. Flower Garden specialized in wreath making. Families and individuals from the community and beyond bought flowers for weddings and other social ceremonies, for funeral corteges and hearses, and as part of prearrangements.

Families of the dead from far and wide contracted the overseer of Flower Garden during wake keepings to decorate the rooms where the dead were kept for public viewings and visitations. Flower Garden made wreaths according to families’ specifications. Though I was fed but not paid for my labor, I learned to make wreaths and to decorate rooms during wake keepings and visitations as a little boy. During this period of my life, I saw more dead bodies than many have probably experienced in their entire lives. Some of my siblings and cousins did the same. I got used to seeing dead bodies to the extent that the dead never scare me in this day and age, beyond the fact that we also sporadically worked with undertakers.

A dead body is what my American experience has made of me.

Well I did run errands for Owura Joe, the eldest son of the owner of Flower Garden. Owura Joe oversaw the flower business associated with Flower Garden. He also owned and managed a popular drinking bar contiguous with our rented house. The drinking bar wasn’t technically a pub because it services didn’t include servings of meals. Only kebab was sold in addition to a wide array of alcoholic beverages. The bar was a planet for unrestrained hedonism.

The sound of music from the bar flowed directly into the nooks and crannies of our home and our fledgling bodies, blasting away the urgings of hunger, of hopelessness, of helplessness. The sounds of roots reggae and traditional highlife and burger-highlife flooded the universe of our childhood from this bar, revolutionizing our thinking and exposing us to the richness of the human voice, of the human soul, of the human mind.

Peter Tosh, Bob Marley, Max Romeo, Alpha Blondy, Bunny Wailer, Steele Pulse, Black Uhuru, Mighty Diamonds, Jacob Miller, Dennis Miller, Burning Spear, Israel Vibration, Ijahman Levi, Mutabaruka, The Congos, Toots and the Maytals, Culture, The Abyssinians, The Gladiators, and Don Carlos became part of the cultural and epistemic lexicon of our relative youthfulness.

These singers spoke truth to power. They sang about the environment, love, universal brotherhood, politics, humanism, social injustice, equal rights and social justice, poverty, philanthropy, racism, political corruption, race and human and international relations, spirituality, corporate responsibility, romance, science and ethics, religions, economics, butter and bread, philosophy, educational philosophy and corrupting of the mind, revisionist history, apartheid, and pacifism among others. These musicians and their songs were an eye opener. They opened our eyes to the world around us and to human behavior in particular. These music genres chased away unprogressive thinking and thoughts of misanthropy and negativity and belligerency but, at the end of the day, we learned more from roots reggae and from the classic wisdom and proverbs of traditional highlife than we could ever learn in school.

I'd take roots reggae and traditional highlife with me wherever I found myself studying including studying applied mathematics in the United States. I’d study mathematics, physics, and chemistry in addition to a number of non-scientific subjects before enrolling in an undergraduate program for mathematics. A paternal uncle of mine, my father’s youngest brother, then a university professor at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) took me under his wings and exposed me to his academic writings in peer-reviewed journals and some of the major publications of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Another paternal uncle of mine, my father’s cousin, also chaired the Department of Agriculture at the same university (KNUST). Finally, I’d take additional undergraduate classes in trigonometry, calculus and software applications related to calculus and computer programming, analytic geometry, and statistics in the United States. In a nutshell, I come from families with strong educational backgrounds.

My education and all the communities I lived in Ghana―particularly the cosmopolitan city Accra―the capital of Ghana, brought me in contact with diverse ethnic groups from around the country and West Africa. I also studied Mormonism with some white missionaries from the United States. I got to know other White Americans whom my family attended church with―the Church of Christ. So race, too, wasn’t an issue for me until I relocated to the United States. America completely changed everything I knew about my race and ethnicity and humanity, and about the concepts of essentialism and racism and ethnocentrism. I became very conscious of my racial and ethnic existence on the basis of this radical transformation and began to see others along these lines. I also began to interpret my existential self as a dangerous theatre and instrument of internecine contrasts subject to the social and political experiment of the American experience.

In other words, in all of my Ghanaian experiences I always took my color and the color of the people I interacted with for granted until I moved to the United States. Of course, I did witness lingering reminders of ethnocentrism or ethnic chauvinism as part of my experiences in Ghana but being ethnocentric has never been part of my ideological, cultural and epistemic genome. I have always been a strong believer in the commonality of humanity and therefore ethnocentrism has never played any role in my thinking and relationship with others.

Here in America, then, can I take myself out of the experimental dolls of Kenneth Clark’s and Mamie Clark’s? Perhaps not.

In any event, my parents left Libya and upon their return to Ghana they took us from the care of our granduncle. Eventually sanity and normalcy and storge returned to my nuclear family. I remember those happy days of my childhood when my father taught me new words and how to read newspapers and listened attentively while I read newspapers to him. In fact the old glories of childhood began to appear in leaps and bounds under the care of our biological parents, but even so, the scandalous manner in which our granduncle treated us has caused my parents considerable pain and distress. This was why they brought us to America to have a better life. Alas, the suffering continues unabated in America. Our American journey has been a difficult and complex and extremely painful one. My America's the cataclysmic earthquake Salman Rushdie describes in his novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet. Where is Caleb Carr's The Alienist to examine my American head? Here in America, then, I find myself already too deep in the inferno of Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy.

Of course childhood is bliss, adulthood a catastrophe. I long for the innocence of childhood.

Francis Kwarteng
Francis Kwarteng, © 2019

This author has authored 560 publications on Modern Ghana.
Author column: franciskwarteng

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