In the wake of the election of Barack Obama, a writer explores black American identity and the ritual of return in Ghana.
Image courtesy of Emily Raboteau
By Emily Raboteau
“Eh! Are you the daughters of Obama?” an old woodworker called from his stall in the art market on the road to Aburi. This was in July of 2009, on the heels of the American president’s first visit to sub-Saharan Africa since taking office. I was traveling in Ghana with my friend Kaya and I was taken aback by the woodworker’s question. Black friends back in the United States who’d traveled to Ghana before had all been called obruni, and been stung by it. In Twi, one of the most common of the seventy-five languages spoken in Ghana, obruni means stranger, outsider, foreigner. It also means “white person”— a rude awakening for black folks who’ve come here in search of their roots, though Kaya, who lived here for a time, explained that obruni is seldom meant maliciously, and can even be used as a term of endearment.
But so far on this visit, nobody had called us obruni. Instead, this woodcarver questioned if we were Obama’s daughters. What did the old man mean by it? For a moment, I wondered if he was asking us if we were mixed race. Both Kaya and I, like Barack Obama, each have a black parent and a white parent. It was more likely the old man wanted to know if we were American. Clearly, we were not Ghanaian. But how did he know we were not Egyptian? Or Syrian? Or Tuaregs from the Sahara? Maybe our clothes or our cameras gave us away. Or maybe, ours were American faces. For the first time, somebody had guessed my identity correctly, and for the first time I wasn’t reluctant to admit it.
I understood that in the asking, all the woodworker really wanted to know was if we had money to spend on his wares. Still, I was proud to say it: “Obama is our father.”
“Yes!” I answered. I understood that in the asking, all the woodworker really wanted to know was if we had money to spend on his wares. Still, I was proud to say it: “Obama is our father.”
“Eh heh,” beamed the old man. He wore a long, loose Cleveland Indians jersey that fell nearly to his knees. His feet were bare beneath the frayed cuffs of his jeans. “What do you think of this man, your new president?”
“As a president, I like him,” Kaya said. “As a black president, I love him.”
“White people voted for him too!” the woodworker crowed, as if it were a miracle. “They want to try a black man for America. Some of us Africans know how blacks fought there. I studied history,” he began. “I know about the Black Panthers and this man, Booker T. Washington. Also, WEB Du Bois. In those days, if I am right, they weren’t admitted to school. Isn’t it?”
“Well, not exactly,” I said. “They went to separate schools. Schools that weren’t as good.”
“And that situation hasn’t really changed,” Kaya pointed out.
“But you will surely agree it’s a long journey for a black man to be in the White House,” the woodworker said. “We are proud that Obama is there. People came from Kenya, Nigeria, all over Africa to see this man. We are black and we are proud, say it loud!” he shouted. I smelled his breath suddenly and realized that he was drunk, overeager. This was, after all, a market, and he had souvenirs to sell. I steadied myself for the hustle.
“Have you heard of Martin Luther King? He said one day we will all be judged not by the color of our skin but by the content of our character. Now what he said has come to pass,” he reasoned brightly, clapping his hands. I thought him a very good salesman in that moment. I expected him to begin showing us the masks and stools he’d carved. Then came the pitch.
CHANGE HAS COME, the billboards announced. And also, AKWAABA. Welcome Home.
“Do you want an African man?”
“No thanks,” Kaya said, laughing.
“Nonsense! You must go and take my son here. Ekow!” he called back into his little stall. A young man in a brown silk shirt with white polka dots emerged from behind a towering stack of mancala boards. His lower lip was dyed luxuriously purple. It was a beautiful brushstroke, like a bright tuck of plumage on some exotic bird. I gazed in wonder at that purple while he stared flirtatiously back at me. Meanwhile the woodworker began unbuttoning Ekow’s brown silk shirt to exhibit his son’s pectoral muscles.
The old man was so playful, I knew this striptease was partly in jest, but I also felt we had turned some dark corner. I was afraid to see what he might do next to prove his son’s value and strength. I could almost imagine him opening Ekow’s mouth to display his teeth and gums. Wasn’t that what the traders did at markets when exchanging a human life for brandy, gunpowder, baskets of cowry shells, Venetian glass beads, or lengths of patterned cloth?
“He is a good worker,” the old man urged. “If you take him to America and get him a job, he’ll bless you with many children.”
“Your son is beautiful to look at but I’m not looking for a man,” I said hurriedly, trying to keep the situation light. “How about I take a mancala board off your hands instead?”
Kaya and I moved on, but later, with the mancala board tucked beneath my armpit, its pebbles chattering inside like a rattle, I couldn’t stop thinking about the mysterious purple shine of Ekow’s lower lip. That peek of color seemed to represent the wide cultural divide between us, which the woodworker had tried to bridge with such charm. There was a reason his son’s mouth was purple, and even if I couldn’t kiss it, I found it beautiful and wanted to understand it. Was it a mark of his tribe? Asante, Ewe, Krobo, Ga?
I asked Kaya if she could explain the purple’s significance. She burst out laughing and said, “Honey, that was gentian violet, for infection. The boy probably had a herpes sore.”
Kaya left me to pursue some research on indigo but not before introducing me to her friend, Kati, a bead designer who was kind enough to let me stay with her in Accra for a few days. A generous, panda-shaped, no-nonsense woman whose eyes smiled even when her mouth didn’t, Kati owned a bead shop in the neighborhood of Asylum Down. The shop was a rainbow of ropes and strands and bins of beads that shone brighter than candy. I was tempted to fist them into my mouth and suck them for their color. Kati’s hands were quick and sure as a surgeon’s with the tools of her trade—the flat-nose pliers, the tweezers, the thread cutters, the wire nippers, and the beading awl.
I sat with her in the back room of the shop, where she allowed me to use her office phone to make a call. I’d come to Ghana with the phone number of a critical contact. I dialed and waited for an answer, looking at the small “Yes We Can!” poster tacked to the wall.
Kati had given the Obama daughters a beading lesson on their father’s first visit to sub-Saharan Africa. Sasha and Malia had been very shy and sweet in their matching dresses, Kati told me. The Obamas had left only two weeks before I arrived in Accra, and their trace was everywhere. You couldn’t take a tro-tro ride without passing by a shiny yellow billboard plastered with Barack Obama’s face. Usually he was pictured next to the Ghanaian president of the time, John Atta Mills, against a backdrop of the U.S. and Ghanaian flags, the red and white stripes of the one dissolving into the black star of the other, as if to suggest the historical link between the two nations. But you might also spot Obama smiling on Independence Avenue or Liberation Road with Michelle by his side, like fairy godparents of industry, perched above businesses with names like CHRIST IS IN ME FASHIONS, or BUT SEEK FIRST THE KINGDOM OF GOD CONSTRUCTION WORKS or NAKED I CAME CHOP BAR. CHANGE HAS COME, the billboards announced. And also, AKWAABA. Welcome Home.
“Hello?” A tired voice finally answered the phone.
“Dr. Robert E. Lee, I presume,” I said.
He didn’t laugh at my David Livingstone reference, perhaps insulted by my bad joke. Instead he asked who the hell was calling. Before I could answer, he explained that I’d woken him up from a nap and anyway, he was all talked out. “I’m an old man now. I’m in my nineties,” he coughed. “I don’t know what you all want from me. I swear I’ve done an interview every week since I came here.” Dr. Lee was Ghana’s unofficial ambassador for African-Americans come to learn about Africa.
I did the math in my head. Fifty-two interviews a year multiplied by fifty-two years would have equaled over twenty five hundred interviews. Surely the man was exaggerating.
“Please,” I pressed. “I came all the way from—”
“No, young lady. You listen to me. I’m retired. You hear? From Martin Luther King to Malcolm X, every one of you Negroes who comes through Ghana tries entering through the same two doors: the door of no return, or me.” He was speaking of the coastal castles through which our ancestors may have passed on the slave route across the Atlantic. “I’m talking to one of you about Africa tomorrow. I’m supposed to talk to one of you about Africa next week. I’ve talked so much I’m all talked out.”
But I didn’t actually want to talk to him about Africa. I wanted to talk to him about America. Why did he leave just as the Civil Rights Movement was taking shape? And how in God’s name did a black man come to be named after the father of the Confederacy?
As a philosophical concept, sankofa is better defined by the proverb “Se wo were fi na wosankofa a yenkyi,” which translates, “It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.”
But Dr. Lee cut me off before I could ask about his past. “If you really want to learn about your roots, try talking to an African,” he wheezed and hung up the phone.
Kati looked up from her beadwork with her eyebrows raised. “Sorry-o! No need to tell me the dentist won’t see you. Your face betrays your disappointment. I beg you please, make your long face short and sweet before Mrs. Mills arrives.” Then she went back to work attaching three long strands of fat orange and red beads to a gold clasp for Ghana’s then first lady, Mrs. Naadu Mills, who would be picking up the necklace later that afternoon.
I smarted at Dr. Lee’s accusation that my quest was a cliché. Yes, Ghana is a major site of roots tourism, attracting roughly ten thousand African-Americans every year, far more than any other nation on the continent. Yes, many of us are drawn by the nightmare of history to the coastal castles. And yes, I wanted to see the slave castles too—how could I not? But more than all that, I wanted to talk to people of African descent drawn to Ghana by the myth of return.
Under the Right of Abode, any person of African descent in the diaspora can live and work in Ghana indefinitely.
Under the Right of Abode, any person of African descent in the diaspora can live and work in Ghana indefinitely. Roughly one thousand African-Americans live in the nation’s capital today. Having lived there the longest, Robert Lee was the undisputed elder statesman of this community. He and his late wife, Sarah, both dentists, repatriated in 1957, at the invitation of Kwame Nkrumah. Nkrumah called for skilled black professionals from all over the world to help strengthen the newly independent country. Lee and Nkrumah had been classmates at Pennsylvania’s historically black Lincoln University in the late 1930s when Ghana wasn’t yet Ghana but still the British colony known as the Gold Coast.
I liked the ring of the phrase: Right of Abode. It wasn’t as poetic or official as the Right to Return, or aliyah, the law that allows Jews to immigrate and settle in Israel. Yet the sanction was almost parallel, a Promised Land of another kind. I wasn’t sure what that meant in practice for me and other black Americans with complicated feelings about our citizenship. For those like Robert Lee and his wife, who’d had the guts to tear up roots and plant them here in Ghana, what did home mean now?
“Dr. Lee said I should seek out an African.” I said, sulkily.
“Good advice. You are in proper Africa after all,” Kati replied, holding the First Lady’s necklace up to the light to check for flaws. As she worked, the long, loose sleeve of her purple kaftan fell to her elbow, revealing a heart-shaped sankofa tattoo on her forearm.
In Akan, another of the seventy-five languages spoken in Ghana, sankofa literally means “go back and take.” As a philosophical concept, sankofa is better defined by the proverb “Se wo were fi na wosankofa a yenkyi,” which translates, “It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.” It’s been expressed by African-Americans as, “We need to look to the past to understand the present.”
To witness the black sankofa inked on Kati’s forearm was culturally confusing. Ethnically, Kati wasn’t any more African than I was Japanese. In fact, she was Hungarian. At this very moment, she was streaming music from a Hungarian radio station and humming along to the tune. Yes, Kati Torda, master African beader, was a white woman.
“Naadu Mills is African enough for you,” said Kati.
Later, when Ghana’s First Lady arrived at Kati’s shop in a Mercedes Benz with a driver and a bodyguard, the only thing I could think to ask was, “What did you think of Barack Obama?” Mrs. Mills touched the curls of her stiff copper-colored wig and gave such a politic answer that I forgot it as soon as it came out of her mouth.
“I’m more interested in talking to African-Americans. Or Rastafarians,” I told Kati. “You know, the descendants of slaves who came back here in search of a homeland. Zion. I want to know if they found it.”
“Oh-ho. If it’s Zion you’re hoping to discover, my friend, then good luck-o, as long as your spirit carries you on that journey. Rather you should pray for the small earth in front of you. But first dash me small kele wele from across the road.”
“Kele wele. Go and come. You must please just follow your nose.” Kati pointed her eyes at the door with no further explanation. I knew a dash was a gift. She was asking me to bring her something, but I had no idea what.
Outside, the smell of open sewers fought the smell of cooking fires. A seller at JESUS IS ALIVE FABRICS dozed in the tropical heat, surrounded by bolts of electrically bright patterned cloth—one of them printed with a repeating image of Obama’s face. A young mother with a sleeping baby bound to her back carried a tin basin full of bladder-like plastic bags of drinking water, the size and shape of breast implants. She gracefully straddled the gutter and squatted to pee without removing this burden from her head. In fact, everyone carried their loads on their heads, and half of them were selling what they carried: boiled eggs, smoked herring, charcoal, bundles of dry broom grass.
“You are welcome, sister,” the people called. “Come and have a look.”
Why weren’t they calling me obruni? Maybe it was by design. So many tourists flock to Ghana determined to discover their roots that its Ministry of Tourism had recently renamed itself the Ministry of Tourism and Diasporan Relations. One of its efforts was to shift the image of African-Americans from rich travelers to long-lost brothers and sisters. There is a big profit to be made from this our slave past. For a price, Africa’s lost children could be reunited or reborn in an African naming ceremony, a captivity reenactment or a Door of No Return ritual. Surely obruni like me would spend more money in this Promised Land when that word wasn’t used?
I wouldn’t have minded being called obruni. How could I claim to be of a place I had never been? I couldn’t even balance a dictionary on my head.
“Sister,” called the young mother who had finished peeing in the sewer, “I can see that you are thirsty! My water is safe for your mouth.”
“No thank you, sister,” I answered. “I already have enough to drink.”
What was it Kati asked me to find? I did as she suggested. I followed my nose. The closest cooking fire glowed across the red dirt road, fanned by an old woman in a loose batik wrapper. She sat close to the ground on a two-legged stool.
“Hello, Auntie!” I greeted her as I’d learned to do as a mark of respect for older African women. “Is that chale wate?” I pointed at the tempting plantains frying in red palm oil with what smelled like ginger paste and hot peppers.
“Eh!” The old woman slapped her thighs and laughed from her belly at my mistake. “You like my foot too much. Is that right?” She lifted her legs and wiggled her toes, pointing at the dusty plastic flip-flops on her crusty feet. “These chale wates are not for sale-o! Make you chop this kele wele instead,” she said, ladling the plantains out of the boiling oil and into her bare hand. She served me a portion in a cone of dot matrix printer paper and took two cedis in return.
“Eh!” she called as I turned to go. “Are you the daughter of Obama?”
Emily Raboteau is a novelist, essayist, and avid world-traveler. This piece is adapted and extracted from her debut nonfiction book, Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora, forthcoming in January from Grove/Atlantic Press.