Fiction

The Birth and Death of a Nation: Fiction by Kabu Okai-Davies

Image: Hugo Rodigues & Pixabay.com conflated

Image: Hugo Rodigues & Pixabay.com conflated

It was the hottest month of the year, a day of hope, at the midnight hour of national anticipation. On that chosen day, a voice announced to the world the birth of a nation, prophesying that its independence would be meaningless unless it linked its freedom to the total liberation of Africa. No one realized that the vision of this new country was resurrected from the graveyard of history, dead for over five centuries. That day was 6th of March, 1957. Ghana is the country, born of an ancient dream to relive its unfulfilled promise. In its past it was an empire, then an artificial nation called the Gold Coast. In its future form, it still remains an unfulfilled promise, an empire that never was. I was born in its capital, Accra, crying as though I was forced into the world. I wanted to stay in my mothers’ womb, but providence had ordained my arrival at the exact moment the clock struck at the hour of midnight. I arrived as though heaven dropped me like a philosopher’s stone, destined to cast a spell on the conscience of my race.

It was the coincidental breaking point between the past and future, like a fault line, a tipping point to spread the dream of freedom. All the nations of Africa fell under the spell, enchanted by the desire to be free. I was born as the voice spoke, choking with the emotion of expectation. The world heard that voice so clearly it was like a bell sounding, resonating with the ancient cadences of hope, desire, a deep yearning for self-fulfillment. There were tears of joy, applause, euphoria, hallucination and the excited cheers of the masses singing songs about victory. While I was in my mother’s womb I could hear voices calling my name on radio, “come forth, ye who are destined to become the future pioneers of freedom, come out and be born.” The unborn expectations of my generation and the salutations of those who come before me, all insisted that I be delivered immediately. To be the first born at the stroke of midnight as the new Ghana was born, linked two destinies together; mine and Ghana’s. All of this coincided with my mother’s contractions as the masses cheered at the Polo Grounds, the voice that had rallied the nation for a decade towards freedom, stood before the world and made the proclamation of Independence; then he wept.

All the other artificial nations from the surrounding lands and the Diaspora came to witness the birth of Ghana. Word went out that what was once considered dead, was now alive again, making it possible for the dead to dictate the conduct of the living. The dead have lived long before we were conceived. The longer we live, the more people we know dead, than alive. The storied journey of life into an eternal realm of infinite time is a transit phase into the afterlife. From the moment of birth, we start peeling off layers of life until the ultimate point of death, emptied of earthly things, dispossessed of matter, bereft of body. Only the spirit remains, reincarnating in other worlds where ancestral souls reside beyond our ken. Those who became endowed with the gift of communicating with the dead became sorcerers, custodians of ritual magic to determine the nexus between life and death. By the edicts of their will the living live their lives and because the country was once named after a dead empire, it demanded of the living human sacrifices, to keep the name alive. This is how it is. This is how it will remain. Democracy will not change it; the Dutch could not stop us practicing our beliefs, neither the Portuguese nor the British. In the world of the dead, time is infinite; in the world of the living, life is finite. Here in this country, we have learnt how not to wait on time, believing, time waits on us; time wasted on earth is time regained in death. What we do not become on earth, we attain in death, in the afterlife.

I first heard the national anthem, followed by a dirge and eulogies. I was lying in state; my body etherealized upon a bed, adorned with flowers. A kente cloth covered the lower part of my body. Next to the bed, a framed portrait of me was placed on a divan. I heard wailing voices, mourning the passing of a national hero. I could see, like an invisible observer, a cipher from an out of body experience. My somber, dry face was powdered. Many were gathered, clothed in black and red attire, music playing and the prominent members of society were present, seated beneath a canopy. “This land is under the guardianship of the gods, their presence can be felt by the invisible footprints they leave across the land,” someone said. I cannot remember who it was, but he said it in a whisper, straight into my ears, in lamentation. “Your death was the cause of a metaphysical assassination, God bless our homeland Ghana, every day we bury the best in our midst. You died too soon. You could have been a great leader. This is the handy work of sorcery. Your brother is known to dabble in the occult magic of death. We have buried a sitting President, a former Vice-President, some members of Parliament, victims of spiritual assassination and now you, a rising star. I can only imagine what great things you would have done if you had lived,” the voice said. “Life in this country has become synchronized to the mysterious clock of death. Death is the font of prestige, privilege, power and the means by which we speak of the past and to the future. The living speak to the dead, and the dead speak through the living,” I heard the mourners speaking about my life, as I stood there, an invisible witness at my own funeral.

Everything felt bewitched. I convinced myself, this is impossible. I was inconsolable in my grief, still aware of the heartlessness of the living. I am not ready for this, unbelieving this was happening to me. So many worlds, so much to do, so little done; such things to be, and I am already dead? I thought I had lived all my life till then, in my dream, fired by visions, “determined to equip myself for the service of my country.”

Ah, it is a nightmare. Something resolute within me doubted it. I was unconvinced of death’s ploy to make me deem as true, the sinister evidence of my fears. The living in this country die many times before their death, a nation obsessed with funerals, bury its future before it is born. Not everything that happens in life is written, I thought at that moment of awakening. Millions die with dreams untold, stories that vanish and become myths, repressed nightmares, buried in abandoned graveyards of memory or murmured as hearsay. Some are whispered at night, against the backdrop of a lamp shade or at the fire side storytelling sessions.

After waking up from the dream, I struggled to reconcile myself to my nightmare and decided to craft a story that has since refused to sleep, until I tell it, before I truly die. My story began the day I was born. My father named me Oblitey Laryea, after my grandfather, the late Nii Oblity Laryea, aka, Nii Dade, ironman, the smelter. I was the favoured younger son of Papa Nii Laryea, Dabebi, son of the iron man, and I was born on Independence Day, Dadenabi; grandson of the smelter, “the man who melts iron,” as he was called by his peers. He had learnt the craft of smelting iron as a blacksmith from an ancestral clan of traditional smelters, and perfected his craft through the tutelage of the British to be a goldsmith and a welder. My father preferred gold to iron, and through that, he amassed his wealth and welded together a family fortune that made him rich and powerful amongst the Gas of Accra and Osu.

My mother had already given birth to four girls, two of them twins, and my father, desperate to have a son, promised my mother a golden ring of the highest grade, if she gave birth to a son. “I will marry you all over again, if you give me a son,” he told my mother. And that is why I was given the nickname, “golden boy.” Who knew that in my father’s desperation, he had consulted an oracle and had an affair with the hope of conceiving a male son with a woman who hails from a house of sorcerers? The sorcerer had convinced my father, if he planted his seed in a womb, initiated by ancestral medicine men, she would give birth to a male heir. And so, though my mother gave birth to a son, my father had already been given a son from an accursed womb. My brother would become my nemesis in the contest over our inheritance of father’s shame, on the throne of thorns.

There are many stories and arguments surrounding the exact time and moment of my birth. Some said when the national anthem was first being played, that is when my mother started having birth pangs. Others said I was born seconds after the midnight bells announced the beginning of a new day and the birth of the nation. The synchronized clocks of the world struck together, a second after the fateful moment, I appeared out of my mother’s womb. Some claimed that I was born, “before,” and others said; “right after,” the very moment when Nkrumah said: The Independence of Ghana is meaningless, unless it is linked to the total liberation of Africa. Some claimed that by the time Nkrumah had finished his speech, I was completely out of my mother’s womb, screaming air into my lungs, an act of infant proclamation, I am alive and that is why many believed my destiny is inextricably linked to that of Ghana’s. Years later, I asked mother many times about her version of the story, but she would have none of the oracular prophesies surrounding my birth, telling me almost nothing. “I was too tired giving birth to you to bother about what was going on at that moment. All I heard was that, you were the first child to be born after Ghana became independent,” she said. Mother said I was nearly throttled at birth, because the umbilical cord was tangled around my neck, and there was no thought of destiny, but the idea of untangling me from the conduit that succored me to the source of life in her womb. After various attempts by the midwife and the nurses to get me to breath, she got up and smacked me on the bottom so hard, I cried out and started screaming for air. “What has being strangled at birth got to do with your destiny?”She asked.  Sometimes, she would reply to my probing questions, by saying, “My son, you are a Ghanaba, you were born just after midnight on Independence Day, as it is written on your birth certificate.” It was recorded that I was the first child to be born at the Korle Bu Teaching Hospital on the first day of Ghana’s Independence.

Ghana and I share the same birthday. I am like Ghana an unfulfilled promise, a misdemeanor of history, yearning to reconcile myself to the contradictions of my birth. If Ghana is worthy of its name, conceived out of a dream that must last for a thousand years, it must be a dream worth dying for. Photographers snapped their flash cameras of me in my mother’s arms. I was on the front page story in the Spectator, and also appeared in other newspapers as the first child of freedom. But on this day, after having the nightmare, witnessing my own funeral, I woke up convinced that not all destinies were meant to be. That is why there are many sides of every story, the dark side and the bright side. What is written does not reveal everything.

This is where the dream of my death and the truth of my life begins and ends. The night before on September 21st, 2012, I had attended two separate funerals. The first one was the funeral of a clan leader to an influential family in Osu, Accra; the other was for a child who died of cerebral malaria, victim of the continuing scourge of mosquitoes in Ghana. The men who worked with me on my campaign as an aspiring parliamentary candidate had advised me to avail myself to the common folk and strive to become known and respected in the constituency, by attending more funerals.

“That is where you will meet all the important people,” I was advised. “If people see you at funerals they will know you care,” they said.

“This is Ghana, people have to see you at funerals, then they know you’re a serious candidate, you have sympathy for the sorrows of people,” they added.  The two young men who served as my confidants in that part of Osu in Accra; Ashon and Odartey, advised me. They were my henchmen, guardians and protectors; veterans from the trenches of politics in Accra, who knew how to work their way around the streets of the city and build secret networks of trust amongst the voters.

“Go to funerals, shake hands, talk to people, contribute money, let them see you, mention your name and soon, word will spread around that you are serious. Funerals determine the destiny of everything in Ghana, never forget that,” Odartey said. Though I felt troubled by the nature of their advice, I had no choice but to trust them as I knew that in Ghana, the destiny of the nation was tied to the culture of funerals. Hence forth I made it a point to attend as many funerals in the constituency as possible. The night before the dream, Tete took me to the funeral of the late clan leader in the crowded neighborhood of Osu and stood next to the deceased chief, while he spoke on my behalf to the dead man who was lying in state.

“Nii Tete, father of our clan, bread giver and soul protector. Before you I bring this man of vision, this man who has travelled around the world, who has good intentions for this country and wants to represent us in Parliament. I bring him to you, for your blessing. When you go into the world beyond, tell our ancestors that we have decided to stand behind this man, in his quest to go into Parliament. Bless him with the charisma of the gods that he can become the redeemer of our land and follow in the footsteps of the many great ones who have come before him. Let him lead us to glory and victory in your name,” he said before the restful and lifeless head of the clan leader lying on his death bed. I was mortified and yet fascinated by this act of intercession. This communion with the dead appeared as though I was part of a surreal occurrence for which I was just a witness and not a participant.  The memory of that day became lodged in my dreams. Instead of seeing the clan leader laid in state, the corpse happened to be mine. What we must all remember is that, after the funeral, the body is dumped in the crowded cemetery; the coffin is smashed, to deter grave robbers stealing pricy caskets and selling it for the next funeral.

Once that part of the ritual of burial is done, the forgetting begins and the collective mentality of amnesia takes hold. The obituary posters are left on the walls of the city, new death notices are plastered on the old and the next celebrity of the country, now dead, shall have their poster posted on the lamppost. After every funeral celebration, the party, the fornication, adultery, the networking about the next funeral starts; announcements are made, dates are determined and the attire for the next funeral is decided. Do we forget the dead, or they persist in our memories, speaking to us in dreams? I do not care how many times Ghanaians yearn for the resurrection or reincarnation of the father of the nation; he will not come back. I woke up, realized death is nothing but a long nights’ dream-mare, a journey into oblivion.

Call me the redeemer, the Osagefo, the liberator; he who led the struggle for our liberation and announced the rebirth of Ghana, tied our many dreams of redemption to the future of a lost past. Tell the dead I’m not ready until I tell my side of the story. This is a nation obsessed with funerals; they live and prepare for the next funeral as if it is the future. That is why I said on national television that, “a nation that lives for the next funeral, shall have no future, even in the world of the dead.” This is why I was assassinated and this story will be an investigation into the crime of my killing. I want to know the secret behind my killing and how it was done, without a gun, a knife, or poison. I did not die from an accident or even a prolonged illness; it was sudden, unexpected and it happened in my sleep. The evidence can be found in the metaphysical realm of my investigation into the nature of sorcery and how it was responsible for the birth and death of this nation. If it is true that my brother was responsible, I will revenge; Yes, I will.

With my death, Ghana died again, returning the nation to its ancient origins, I convinced myself in the dream. I could have been a national hero, a leader like the Osagefo, you know? It was at that precise moment of thought in the dream that I woke up from my nightmare.  I had died in my dream. When I woke up, I felt diminished, as if everything about me had been peeled off, layer by layer, stripped of all meaning, at a dead end of my wits, paralyzed and drenched in fear. It was past midnight. I was alone in bed, crying. I could hear funeral songs being played on loud speakers from the other side of the house where I lived. My tears flowed freely as if something bottled up – a compressed sense of anxiety – clogged within my heart for years was now open. I stayed awake wondering about my dream, until I heard the muezzin’s call to prayer from the mosque on the loudspeakers at dawn, two blocks away and that got me back to bed, aware that I was still alive.

Ah, Mother; would you have untangled me out of death’s grip as I lay dying, garroted in my sleep? This moment of all moments, at this place in time, a country corrupted to the core, in this superstitious season of sorcery; why would I allow myself to die at this time, here of all that there is to it, in this country? Land of invisible assassins, who tried to kill the founder of their nation and the ones they love as a tribute to their ancestors. Sorcery thrives in a country where the powerful feel threatened by those who question the moral of their right to preside over the country’s empire of shame.

Is this why we have become a nation obsessed with the belief that the dead are still listening, so we talk to the deceased, laying in state? We have not managed to reconcile ourselves to the mystery of death and because we do not believe that the dead are dead, we return to funerals to view the lifeless faces of corpses, convincing ourselves they are only asleep and would awake in the afterlife. Bitter, sweet, sour taste of life, do we have a choice in the matters of life and death? I longed for years to return to this place after wandering around the world, believing my visions could aerate my country, drowning in the pungent waters of history. But it was not meant to be; I died before giving birth to the dream.

In a deceased state, my dispossessed self existed like a bubble, though concerned with matters of great import: the dividends of democracy and the fortunes of freedom. In death I could not avail myself to the service of my country, because, I was already dead. The truth did occur to me that the spirit of the dead roam everywhere. I became aware of our doubts and misgivings about democracy for the illiterate, my hallucinations became a form of refuge from the knowledge that what was dead of me was not what I needed to keep my vision of myself alive. Nkrumah never dies. He still lives in the magic of his charisma – which we have not been able to rationalize. His personage and cult-like stature continues to linger within the realm of national regrets; he too was assassinated and though it took a while for him to die, he died many times before his actual death. Probably if I am able to write my story while the rest of me that is still alive, is able to do so, then I too shall live forever.

I came of age after Nkrumah died and told tales about the mythical stature of the Osagefo. He was a god, a show boy, capable of uncountable transformations of his personality. He was our national idol and hero, a giant amongst men, vilified by some, worshipped by many and women laid their cloth on the earth on which he walked. He was beyond comparison, a descendant from the legendry realm of great ancestral leaders, mover of mountains, David against the Goliath of Imperial Empire. He was adored and the women showered him with adoration and appellations worthy of a leader.  It was said that he walked on water, transformed a lake into a river, conjured the rain to quench the thirst of millions. And in him, all our hopes and dreams rest upon the Osagefo, our redeemer. This was what I remembered about him, on my death bed, in my dream.

In my dream of death, I wanted to awake and tell my mourners, “A nation obsessed with the ritual of death, shall die many times before its final death.” But I was asleep, dead in my dream and even if I dared to speak, no one would hear me, except the dead. So I held my thoughts to myself, a shadow figure invisible to those who mourned me. In the absence of logic and rational thinking, the inherited habits of superstition reigns within the apostolic tale of national memory. Any reader of this story would assume I am suffering from the hallucinations of a dead man. It is only in this state we realize that we knew more about ourselves than we cared to admit while alive. Beyond matters of life and death, everything seemed to have been on a long road to a dead end, away from where I had originally intended.  I could not believe my realizations were true.  I will not end up in the history books of my country. Yet, without a doubt, I returned to Ghana after many years in America, traveling the world; with the single hope I could repeat how Nkrumah returned to the Gold Coast, with a golden chalice of visions, to ignite a new sentiment, conceive and gave birth to a new Ghana. We bemoan the death of the nationalist generation; leaving in their wake, a generation led by factional cohorts of squanderers, corrupt to the bone, sleazy citizens without conscience, lost on the path set forth by the founding fathers.

When people around the world asked me where I was born, I tell them, “Accra, the capital of Ghana.” Once upon a time Accra was a fishing village. Years later it became a collection of settlements, hamlets and towns, before it was populated and chosen to become the Capital city by the British. Later the city started to spread its tentacles across the open plains into a disorganized city of roads branching into fruitless places without water, without drainage systems, filthy beyond recognition, out on roads, starving of hope and hungry of dreams. Who granted me the audacity to believe I could become a redeemer of my generation? Was it my father, date of birth, inherited visions; my knowledge of the world?  Oh, yes, I was bestowed with visions, continental in scope, intended to sweep the race off its feet to follow me to a new promised land, convinced that what is fractured can never flourish, that tribalism is treason against history, as I roamed the streets of the world. I dreamt of making fishers of men, disciples of democracy, inventors and innovators of industry. My mind flustered, rattling with ideas, filled with schemes on how to transform nations addicted to tradition and lead them into new kingdoms, driven by new technologies, freeing the masses from the opium of decadent creeds designed to make nations poor. But in death, how will I be able to inspire the nations?

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Image: Hugo Rodigues & Pixabay.com conflated

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