Non Fiction

Yaa’s Legacy: Under the Odum Tree


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If there is one word I could describe my mother with, which pretty much sums up her life, it is that she was tenacious. This was a woman who in the moments before her death, drove herself to the hospital. She had suffered a massive cardiac arrest.

If the manner of her death is not a symbolism of her life, then I am not sure what is. However, the Akan proverb that you cannot know a person until you know their beginning means that we have to start this story of her life from the very beginning.

My mother was born in Akyem – Pameng, a small village in the Akyem Abuakwa Traditional Area, which is in the South Eastern part of Ghana, in the land most famous for its rainforests which were once said to have the tallest trees in Africa. According to stories, my mother was not expected to survive past infancy. She was by all accounts, and these were in the times when mass immunization was not yet introduced, not a healthy baby and infant. As if resigned to her fate as a child of the gods, she was named ‘Firi’, after one of the ancestral gods of the land. In Akan tradition, children of gods are meant to be with us for a short while, and the belief is that they are sent to us to serve a specific purpose and then after that, they go back to their rightful place amongst the gods.

The story goes that my grandmother had been married to my grandfather for a few years, but any child she bore either died during delivery or shortly afterwards. After this happened for a few pregnancies she consulted an oracle. The belief is that there are three types of people in the land. The first are those that we can see, running around going about their day to day business of farming, hunting, walking, cooking, eating, laughing, dancing. The second group is that of the ancestors who watch daily over us. The final group is that of those waiting to be born. Sometimes, our ancestors have unfinished business and can plead with the gods to return to earth. But this is only temporary and the gods give them permission to come back as a newborn with the sole purpose of carrying out the tasks that they had been unable to do because of owuoo. In the wrangle with owuoo during the transition from being an ancestor to becoming a newborn, something can go wrong, and they can be in limbo, effectively stuck in a purgatory between death and life. This struggle between owuoo and the ancestor prevents those waiting to be born to enter the world, and intercessory prayers have to be made.

So it was, that my grandmother became pregnant again, and gave birth to my mother, and named her Yaa Firi Ampofowaa. A few months went by, and although taken ill, sometimes for long periods, she always pulled through: it seemed that she was here to stay. But there was still a niggling belief, amongst the family, that she still had some unfinished business and would return back to the gods after she had accomplished her task. When my grandmother found out she was pregnant again, and delivered a boy, he was named Kwaku Ampofo. No one thought it strange that he was given the name of his older sister. After all, as a child of the gods, she wasn’t here to stay.

Being born a woman, around those times, Yaa Firi did not have the chance to be formally educated. But she did get the chance to learn a trade, because that is what women did instead of being educated. The belief was that a woman was going to get married off, and by spending money (and time) on education, her bridal price increased, as well delaying the time before she was eventually married. She therefore learned her trade as a seamstress. She also obtained an English name, as was deemed ‘proper’ during colonial times. She chose, or more accurately was given the name, ‘Felicia’, as it was similar to her Akan name, and became Felicia Ampofowaa, from then on.

It was during this time that she met my father, Kwaku Opoku. Opoku, then known as Emmanuel, was one of the shining lights of the village. A precocious child, who having the dual fortune of being born male, and into a family of cocoa farmers, was sent to school under the big odum tree run by the Presbyterian catechist. Spotting the child’s precociousness and his ability to grasp concepts faster than any of his class mates, he was sent off to the next town where the Presbyterian Church had built a six-roomed school. There he was able to flourish amongst the equally gifted children, arriving from the surrounding villages far and wide. My father had to make the 10km trip, barefooted every day, but was considered one of the lucky ones. At age 14 he sat the common entrance exams, which determined which pupils went on to middle or secondary school. He was one of those people who had the ability, the gift, to sail through exams, winning scholarships, eventually obtaining a Bachelor of Science in Agricultural Science.

My father tells a story about how he got his name. Since birth records were non-existent, and the calendar system of dates was based on the moon and festivals, it was difficult to properly determine the age of children. So the catechists used a strategy to determine which boys were deemed of school going age, apparently devised in colonial India. The theory is that at age 5 or 6, a boy should be able to reach and touch his ear using his opposing arm. So at the beginning of every new school year, boys would line up in front of shady trunk of the odum tree under the watchful gaze of the catechist, take their right arm, reach over their heads and try to touch the tip of their left ear. When Opoku was 5 years old, he duly turned up under the odum tree, but try as he did, his fingers just couldn’t quite reach his ear. Disappointed, he trudged off back home, and had to wait for another year.

When the year came by, he was easily able to grab and pull his ear, not just touch it. As was deemed proper, the boys had to ‘lose’ their heathen names and be given ‘proper’ Christian names. If you were lucky enough to have been baptized by the catechist, this name was already known. If, however, you didn’t have one, one was chosen for you, at the whim of the catechist. This was the unfortunate situation that befell Opoku. One look at him, and the old catechist, said, “Emmanuel. From now on you will be called, Emmanuel.” The name was inscribed in the catechist’s book of new pupils. The name, Emmanuel Baffour-Awuah, would become his official name, until he was able to change it to Opoku Baffour-Awuah at the legal age of 21 years.

Opoku and Yaa’s relationship developed, as they spent time together whenever Opoku came back to the village during his vacation breaks from studies. Since Opoku was about to complete his tertiary education, and with that degree certificate came unfettered access to a wealth of opportunities in the independent Ghana, they looked forward to this day. Whilst preparing for his final exams, Opoku received word that he had to come home to the village. When he arrived, Yaa told him she was expecting a child, his child. Taking a moment to compose himself, realizing the gravity of his situation as a poor student, but knowing that he had to take responsibility, with a quiet dignified tone he told Yaa not to worry. Opoku then went to speak to his favourite uncle, telling him of his predicament. His uncle led him immediately to the Abusuapannin, the head of the family, who informed them that if Opoku was sure that he wanted to marry Yaa, he would make the necessary arrangements to ask for Yaa’s hand in marriage. When the initial enquiries were made, a delegation led by the Abusuapannin made the trip to Yaa’s household to perform the customary rites of marriage. Without Opoku and Yaa present, the elders of both families haggled over the bridal price, and eventually agreed on a mutually acceptable price. As the Abusuapannin walked back with his delegation, he was thinking to himself that they had struck a good bargain for the bridal price for a daughter of the Agona clan, whose grandfather was a chief of Apedwa. But, ahh, he remembered, she is not meant to be with us long.

On Christmas Eve later that year, Yaa went into labour and delivered a baby boy in the early hours of Christmas Day. He was called Kwadwo, because the boy was born on Monday. But as was ancient custom of the Akan, the naming of the child was the sole domain of the father. Opoku had, by this time, graduated from university and was working as an agricultural officer in one of the state farms in the hinterlands. Since this was during the period of military rule, all university graduates were meant to embark on the mandatory one year’s national service. But as an agricultural graduate, his skills and training were highly sought after during these times of failing crops and unpredictable rainfall. The state cooperative farms were a key priority area of development in the (new) military government’s drive to stave off famine and starvation through providing a stable production of crops such as corn, groundnuts, cocoa, yams and oil palms. In addition, these farms also bred chickens, sheep, goats, pigs, and cattle.

On hearing the news about the birth of his first born child, Opoku made the long journey from his national service station to Pameng early Saturday morning after a hard week’s work tending the farm’s crops and animals. He arrived shortly after dusk, rushed in to see his gurgling baby, lifted up the baby’s legs, saw it was a boy, and said to Yaa, “let us call him Opoku”. Although Opoku was his name, it was also the name of his father, the boy’s paternal grandfather, who himself was named after an uncle. So the name was considered of particular significance and great honour. At eight days old when the boy was circumcised and then taken, the following Sunday, to the Presbyterian Church for his dedication ceremony, he was given the Christian name of Bernard, which was chosen by his maternal grandmother.

After his national service, Opoku was offered a job as a research officer at the Crops Research Institute at Bunso, which was a godsend since it was in the Eastern region and, more importantly, was under two hundred kilometres from Pameng. However, with the state of the roads it took close to eight hours to make the journey. During the rainy seasons, the roads turned into a muddy puddle and finally submerged whole sections where bridges over the flooded Birim river once were, making the journey impossible until the waters subsided. But Opoku managed to spend most weekends in Pameng with his wife and son. In due time Yaa became pregnant again, and gave birth to another son, born on a Tuesday, and therefore was named Kwabena Gyamera, after his paternal uncle. At his circumcision and dedication he was given the Christian name of Eric.

Not long after the birth of Kwabena Eric, as he became affectionately known, Opoku applied for, and won, a highly sought after Commonwealth scholarship to study for a Masters in the University of New England, in Australia. Although it was an opportunity too good to pass up, he was aware of the fact that moving to Australia would mean him having to leave his young family for the next two years, at the very least, and miss the chance to see them grow. But he was reassured that they would be very well taken care of by the village community. He also promised to write often and send remittances to Yaa and the kids, once his scholarship stipend arrived.

Like all African women, however, Yaa was brought up to be self-sufficient, and she first started by putting her training as a seamstress to use. But for this she needed a sewing machine, so she was kindly lent some money from her mother, Maame Abena Mansa. Her plan was to do some petty trading in the local markets with this seed funding, and with the profits generated have enough money to buy a sewing machine, and then join a cooperative dress making business. She sold everything from foodstuffs such as onions, cassava, yams, to snails and salted fish, as well as chewing sticks made from the bark of neem trees, which had natural antibacterial qualities for keeping teeth strong and gums healthy, as well as the breath fresh. She travelled far and wide peddling these goods in the markets of Apedwa, Suhum, Osino, Techiman and Asuom, to mention but a few. To make the journey from Pameng, she had to wake up at the crack of dawn, catch the early morning trotro to Kwabeng, and then take one of the many mammy trucks for her onwards journey. The mammy trucks were built of wood with a Bedford chassis. It was long realized that the Bedford chassis was sturdy enough to withstand the constant potholes that mark the roads and highways of Ghana, and throughout western Africa.

These mammy trucks are all purpose vehicles named after the female petty traders, like Yaa, popularly called “mammies”, no matter their age or marital status. These petty traders, mammies, tend stalls and sell everything from individual cigarettes, foodstuffs, groceries to auto parts, and are the most integral segment of the African economy. And since they depended on the mammy trucks for their transport, it was often remarked that the mammy trucks were the backbone of the economy. But more importantly, around those times, these mammy trucks were often the sole mode of transport, ferrying people, goods and services, from villages to towns and cities.

It was on one of these trips when the mammy truck Yaa was travelling on was involved in a fatal road traffic accident. The actual cause and how it happened remain quite hazy, but Yaa tells the story that she was making her journey to Suhum to a market she had visited on numerous occasions. The previous day, Eric had not been feeling well, and since she was trying to wean him off breast her mother had suggested leaving Eric with her. She had made her usual journey on the early morning trotro from Pameng to Kwabeng, and had boarded an already packed mammy truck to Suhum, loaded to the hilt with foodstuffs, goods and people. She must have fallen asleep because she was suddenly awoken by the jerking and rocking from the cabin.  She felt herself thrown off the wooden benches that served as seats in the cabin of the truck, airborne. Alongside her, others were hurtling through the cabin. Instinctively she threw out her arms to cushion the inevitable impact. She found herself lifted and tossed, amongst the cabin’s contents, foodstuffs, goods and people, and somehow a bleating goat. Desperately looking, feeling, for something to hold on to as the truck continued on its trajectory, she landed on the bare boards at the side of the truck.

She drifted in and out of consciousness, and remembers shouting for help till she was hoarse. The woman next to her had cracked her skull and she was stuck between her and one of the benches, and couldn’t move. She felt searing pain, and realized that she was covered in blood, but on close inspection it was not her blood. She was unconscious again, and subsequently woke up in a brightly lit room with an apparition in white walking towards her, first thinking it was heaven, then realizing that she was in a hospital. She fell into unconsciousness again. She had taken a bang to the head, possibly from one of the dislodged benches from the truck. It turned out that they had been involved in the collision with an articulated lorry carrying a load of timber logs. Luckily, it was not a head on collision, and the driver had swerved to the verge and crashed into a ditch at the side of the road.

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