Abena, are you Ghanaian?
After I touched ground at Kotoka International Airport, in the brown sprawling mess that is the city of Accra, until I stepped into the New York snow outside of John F. Kennedy International four months later, I was asked a few questions on a semi-regular basis.
My father, Kwame, was born in Kumasi, Ghana, a small city in the center of a small country. Ghanaians call it the Garden City. I offer this fact to anyone who asks me what I am and if that part of me happens to be Ghanaian.
Abena is a Ghanaian name––meant for those Ghanaian girls born on Tuesdays––and I do suppose I have some Ghanaian features. Ghanaians also have a tendency to ask for my Christian name, or my British name, upon discovering that my name is a traditional one. This seems to me awfully, perversely peculiar, as if having a Ghanaian name is not enough. “But . . . your Christian name? Is it Abigail?”
Sometimes I feel like I live on the shores of a warring ocean, and sometimes I believe firmly in the need to not prepare for things.
So, yes, I am Ghanaian. But when I look in the mirror, I often see a wry smile and my mother’s Haitian cheekbones. My mother, Danielle, is from a small village town in the Central Department of Haiti called Saut D’eau. Saut d’eau is the French word for waterfall. In my youngest memories, my mother’s village smells and sounds and looks something like the washed-out edges of old photographs: a scruffy-faced goat tied to a iron stake in my great-uncle’s backyard; a brown river that flows up to my chubby arms; my great-grandmother’s paper-thin brown skin; a great massive waterfall on the edge of town, shooting wet confetti rain into the palm and pitch-apple trees below; a dog with fat ticks, panting on the porch of a pink stucco ranch house; darkness and latrines and spiders.
Haiti is washed-out, although it breathes solidly in the family I have in New York, my mother and grandmother and aunts and cousins. Haiti breathes in the green mangoes and keneps and canisters of rum that my grandmother smuggles into LaGuardia Airport by way of Miami International; it also breathes on the coasts of West Africa, in Ghana and Togo and Benin, in the high-ceilinged walls of slave castles like Elmina and Cape Coast.
I don’t think it occurred to me that there was anything more to know about my Haitian family in New York. Holidays, birthdays, and barbecues were always full to bursting with my mother’s chattering extended family: Grandma Denise; Uncles Eddie (with the dreadlocks), and Joe; Aunts Juneau, Marie, and Rosemary; cousins William (the Jehovah’s Witness), Yamiley, Jean, Andy, Jackie, Dennis, Cecile, and now baby Antonio (whom I have yet to meet).
Grandma’s apartment on Dean Street was the site of all meet and greets for the Registres: whenever a parent was stuck at work or going on vacation or exterminating rats or roaches, their children were dutifully deposited on Grandma’s doorstep in Crown Heights. I remember pieces of the 20-minute drive that we would take from our home in northeastern Queens to Grandma’s building in Brooklyn. In particular, I remember the cemetery we would drive through, its expanses hugging the edges of the narrow Jackie Robinson Parkway. I would hold my breath and count to 12. After tumbling out of the car at Grandma’s stoop, we would walk up the four flights of winding project stairs, my brother Kwame pushing and prodding me up along the way; I would smile broadly when I reached Grandma’s landing.
“Hi, Grandpa!” A mischievous smile from the family matriarch.
“Aw, Gramma! You know I’m not Grandpa!”
And she would smile, and I would smell the griot and bouillon and black-eyed peas burning on her silver-polished stove top.
Grandma Denise has since moved to Elmont, a small, quiet, mostly black suburb on Long Island. We still do the “Gramma-Grandpa” shtick from time to time, but I have never known either of my paternal grandparents. In fact, the only member of my father’s extended family that I was ever close with was his brother, Apraku. Or his half-brother, as I discovered a few months ago. My Ghanaian family has always been a mystery, and so few of them lived in the United States at all. Indeed, my being Ghanaian never seemed to exist outside of odd symbols when I was growing up: a too-small skirt made of traditional kente cloth that I received from “a relative” (always a relative) when I was six; the steaming tray of jollof rice that I brought to my elementary school’s international luncheon in the fifth grade; my name. I often wonder if the size of my mother’s Haitian family isolated my lonely father more, if the sight of the 12 Registres around the Thanksgiving table hurt him any. By the time I was old enough to ask, my father was no longer there to tell me.
My mother and father separated before I turned 10, and when my parents broke apart, I listened to shards and scraps of their arguments and heard what is best and worst about myself: that Haitians were just stupid enough to have been shipped across the Atlantic; that Ghanaians are too black African.
In the current political landscape of my life, my father is prone to ignoring the Haitian flags and rainbow banners that paper the walls of my bedroom. He also has a certain proclivity for such acerbic non-sequiturs as, “Haitians are losers” and, “How were your trips to the slave castles? You know you don’t have any slave ancestors.” At times like these, I am between an acid that comes from a failed marriage and internalizing harmful ideas about half of myself. At times like these, I am often thrown for a loop as to how, exactly, to be.
Abena, have you been to see your family in Kumasi?
From August to December of last year, I lived in Ghana and spent most of my time avoiding the half of my family that lives there. I saw my father’s face everywhere on the streets of Accra—saw his dark skin, his shiny bald forehead, his anger. Saw my own dark face mirrored in the thousands of rich, poor, young, and old Ghanaians who surrounded me. We visited the Wli Waterfalls in November, and while everyone waded to their necks in the cold, silty water, I hung back and felt myself fly to plateaus and stucco in the Caribbean.
In many ways, Haitian is the only way I know how to be. When I think of Haiti I think of my mother and of safety and warmth, perhaps in an infantile way, but as soon as I got to Ghana, I needed to be Ghanaian for everybody. My white friends looked to me for some harmless combination of authentic African tour guide and token black friend. My African-American friends glared with jealousy that I was able to come to this country and find, quite literally, what they could only seek symbolically: roots.
The drifting Haiti of my memories seems especially muddy, especially hard to pin down, when remembered in tandem with the crystal-clear images—in my memory and in my iPhoto album—of my semester abroad. My memory seems to be working overdrive in snapshots of bus rides and conversations recalled verbatim.
For example, my cousin Jeffrey—Amoakohene is his Ghanaian name— called me almost daily to ask how I was doing. He was born in Kumasi, like most of my family, but lived and worked in Tema, another coastal city just east of Accra. One night, after much fretting on my part, we had dinner at Labone Coffee Shop, and he brought me Ghanaian chocolate and a kente cloth dress. I accepted the gifts, tugging uncomfortably at the collar of my button-down shirt and trying to smooth my jeans. The dress would spend the next few months folded up in the back of my closet.
I’ll save it for Amma, I reasoned, thinking of my small sister. She’s appropriately feminine.
I constantly received phone calls from unknown numbers in Ghana, family members in Accra for the weekend and wanted to catch a glimpse of rich Uncle Kwame’s American daughter. Every time I thought to pick up the phone, I thought of the conflicted look on Jeffrey’s face: one part familial love for his cousin Abena, one part disappointment (did I imagine it?) at her lack of boyfriend, lack of husband. I may have imagined all of it, but I felt this most acutely when the NYU Accra program took us on a day trip to Kumasi.
At four in the morning on a wet-smelling October Sunday, it was already hotter than any October day in New York. Our four resident assistants were running in circles around the 32 kids who made up NYU’s Accra program—waking and re-waking us, distributing two-liter bottles of Voltic water and Styrofoam rectangles filled with fried chicken and jollof rice.
Many miles and many hours later—during which we had paid 20 Ghana pesewas (about 12 cents) for toilet paper and took pictures with ostriches at the largest tilapia farm in West Africa—I had my headphones on, face pressed to the warm glass of our tour bus.
“All right, everyone,” sang a convivial, maternal voice from the front of the bus. My sleeping classmates stirred; Julian snorted loudly and fell forward with a start.
“I know it’s been a long ride, but we’re finally in Kumasi.”
The voice belonged to Christa, the assistant director on our campus and an American ex-pat from Philadelphia. I fished through my gray traveler’s backpack, trying not to kick the empty bottles of water, now caked in mud, that lined the bottom of the bus. It was close to three in the afternoon, and I was in Kumasi.
“Hey, Abby, what are you thinking about?”
I must have looked strange. I sat up and turned toward the friend who had asked me.
“Nothing much. I can’t believe how long it took to get here!”
“Yeah . . . Hey, isn’t this where your dad’s family is from?”
“Mm . . . yeah. I guess?”
I turned around, back toward the picture window of the tour bus, at the houses and streets and colors and children playing on dirt roads, and I imagined whole other lives for myself outside of Queens and New York and an immigrant’s America. Piles of trash burned in black plumes, shoeless kids in football jerseys roasted goats, and I, who had not been back to Haiti in more than a decade, felt as though I could have been in the back of a pickup truck in Saut D’eau. They are not so different.
But, I thought, very deliberately, this isn’t Haiti. I was six the last time I was there. This is Kumasi, and I am 20 and a college student and a lesbian in a country where to be so is illegal.
I turned off my phone and turned up my music.
Abena, do you have a boyfriend?
The week before I boarded the plane to anglophone West Africa was suffocatingly hot. For three days I had put off packing. The evening before takeoff, as cicadas buzzed lazily in the maple tree outside my bedroom window, my father interrupted my haphazard packing spree in order to impart a particular bit of wisdom.
“You know I have always accepted you, Abena.”
“Mhmm,” I intoned. I bit my tongue, bent over my dresser to examine two nearly-identical pairs of pants. I was trying to decide exactly what shade of blue would best complement my new African personality.
“Sit down and talk with me.”
My father has a very peculiar way of talking about my sexuality, and it is one that involves never actually saying the word “gay.” But, in very roundabout and awkward terms, we proceeded to discuss my sexual orientation, my fierce love for the New York City Pride Parade, and my tendency to gravitate towards activism in issues of gender and sexuality. However, my father warned, my sexuality was not something that I was to discuss in any context in Ghana. “I am only concerned for your safety,” he implored. I knew what he meant; I had done some casual Googling, had read the articles that friends and acquaintances were circling on various social networking sites. Ghana Orders the Arrest of All Homosexuals. Ghana Cracks Down on Gays. And here sat my father, my absentee father, sitting on my twin mattress and telling me: Stay in the closet because I love you. Since coming out to my father late in high school, it has always seemed as though he has accepted, or at least tolerated me. But something in his voice told me that my Ghanaian family, the family I never met and never knew, would not.
“And in any case,” he said with an air of finality, “it is not proper to talk about such things with family.”
Ah. So, there I was, standing at the precipice of twin mountain peaks called Your Father and Your Past, and a shove called Homophobia sent me tumbling back into the abyss. I could not be both Ghanaian and gay, my father was telling me, so I had to choose. I chose gay.
I was never, and cannot imagine, being asked whether I am attracted to women while I was in Ghana, but once, while conducting street interviews for a project on the queer community’s presence in Ghanaian media, a man stood with me behind the camera and spoke candidly with his friend about the good uses of rape as a tool for curing lesbianism.
I also don’t usually feel guilty for my more masculine gender expression. Fairly recently, however, I was walking through the men’s section of Macy’s, riffling through flannel shirts and track jackets. It was a few days before Christmas and a few days after I landed back in New York. I felt explicitly out of place, gendered in a way that I have never felt in New York City. I felt the gaze of my Ghanaian family, who would have been so happy to see me, in Kumasi, in a kente dress.
“We just want to see you!” the voicemails, messages, and emails said. Experiencing Ghana for the first time as an adult was very different from experiencing Haiti as a child. Do you want to run through the waterfall? Becomes Do you have a boyfriend? and your age, status as family member, and being a woman conflates into a list of heteronormative assumptions that bury your existence as a person.
I am at a point in my life where there is something in the thought of speaking with my family that gives me panic attacks, and all of this has grown into a wedge between me, and my ancestors, and my ancestry.
Abena, wo te Twi?
Abena, you speak Twi?
Twi is a principal indigenous language in Ghana and the most commonly spoken language in Accra. It is also a language that I heard a bit of growing up; sometimes my father would answer the phone and lapse into a string of garbled sounds I could not understand, and I imagined him sharing secrets I would never hear, with people I would never meet.
I do not speak Twi, but I do understand bits and pieces of the very musical Haitian Creole language. When I was five, my babysitter’s name was Madame Apollon, and at breakfast every morning, the two of us could be seen giggling and throwing cereal at my big brother Kwame, all the while chattering away in Creole.
“Bonjour, Abby! Ça va?”
“Ça va bien!”
“Cafe au lait, Abby?”
“Non non! Du jus, s’il vous plaît, Madame!”
I often found that people in Ghana—saleswomen arranging orangesat the market, men playing mancala on the street—were grossly offended by my inability to speak Twi. I found myself longing to respond, “No, but I do speak Creole,” or “No, but you could ask my dad why he never taught me.” My resentment towards my father for not teaching me Twi is naïve and self- centered to be sure. After all, what do I know of the immigrant’s imagination,of wanting your child to be normal and American and assimilated?
After living in Ghana for four months, 120 days, I do know how to say a few words in Twi. Allo. Hey, friend. Yebeyhia bio. See you soon. And one more little thing. On sticky, hot Accra mornings, whenever I walked through the house gates on the way to Creative Writing or African Popular Music, the guards would smile and say something very curious. It wasn’t a question.
Abena, ko bra.
Abena, go and come.
“Go and come” is the very particularly Ghanaian way of saying something like, Come home safely, because I care about you. So, to Ghana and to Haiti and to my absentee Ghanaian roots, and to all of these other slippery questions from last semester, I would like to answer: All right, Ghana. I was not always comfortable. But for now I am safe, and I will try to go and come. Hopefully, I’ll be able to answer your questions a little more honestly when I do.