The Ancestors Are Not Really Dead
The last Thursday of August broke bright over Asukope, a
sleepy village nestled on the southeastern edge of the
tiny West African country of Togo. The place already
seethed with life—for the only time in the thirteen
lunar months of the Ge calendar—for the 344th
celebration of the annual Yeke-Yeke festival
commemorating the long trek of their ancestors here.
At the northern edge of Asukope Djoboku Ametoglo, clad
from head to foot in white calico cloth, stepped out of
his torrid hut at 1:00 p.m. and winced at the sweltering
heat which hit him. A 52-year-old medium-built man
standing 1.75 meters tall, he tripped over the brick-red
beaten path toward the royal palace at the center of the
village. He sighed anxiously. Although he had assisted
the late Huno—chief priest and custodian of the shrines
of Togbe Asu (the founder of the village) and Mama
Nyigblen, one of the nine Ge gods—for a year, it was
only ten months ago that he had been chosen as Huno.
Leading the Asukope delegation to the festival grounds
for the raising of the Sacred Stone—the ancestral stone
which predicted the new year—was to be his first major
assignment. Will he be able to do it right? Often
witches and other Hunowo threw charms in the way of new
ones to measure their spiritual strength. The gods and
the ancestors also punish people for blunders. Djoboku
had been prepared spiritually yet his heart fluttered.
Djoboku’s gait slowed down as he approached the palace
veranda—where a group of men clad in white cloths sat
chattering—and a scowl formed on his long face.
“I don’t like being late,” he said in a loud,
broken-like voice. “Go call the other members. If we
don’t take our matters seriously here, should we do the
same to a public gathering?” His small, shy eyes dimmed
and the furrows on his forehead deepened.
vexed, Togbe” someone pleaded.
“I’m not,” he said. “Supposing some people take our
place at the festival grounds.”
The gathering refuted his assertion angrily. “That can’t
happen,” someone added.
The other members arrived one at a time and soon the
delegation got complete. Two young men hitched up a
white banderole bearing the name of the village, its
motto: Keta Aklolo, and the drawing of a stretched
python, the totem of the village. A young vodusi—priestess—carrying
the Togbe Asu ancestral stool on a pillow hopped behind
them; Djoboku fell into the line and then the rest of
the people formed two queues behind him and they set
forth singing and clapping their chests to the rhythm:
Keta Asukope Aklolo,
we’re on the way
Togbe Asu’s descendants
Make way for the children
partake in the ancestral celebration.
They hit the main laterite road to Glidji-Kpodzi where
the Stone will be raised. The road had been smoothened
of its deep gullies cut by erosion. The farther the
group went the thicker the bare-chested, jubilant crowds
became. Delegations from other Ge villages melted into
each other. Djoboku recited charms to ward off evil.
Half-way down Glidji-Kpodzi, the next village, they
turned right into the alley leading to Agbatsome, the
festival grounds. The musty smell of whitewash escaped
from the freshly painted walls of the houses. The
stifling heat hummed with the babel of voices, vibrated
with the singing, and throbbed with the drumming as they
A sea of people wearing mainly white clothes jammed
Agbatsome. Younger people perched in neem trees and
crouched on walls. Drummers pounded irresistible rhythms
out of the long cylindrical red-and-green drums in front
of the shrines to the south and the singers sang
The singing of the Asukope delegation, which had worked
up to a loud crescendo as they approached the edge of
the ground, snapped out and they stopped and stared at
each other. The western dais, reserved for the clan
delegations, was already bursting with people.Who had
the guts to take their place? Djoboku fumed as the
members of the delegation muttered angrily. He brushed
down his pencil-like moustache and grunted.
The Huno in charge of protocol matters skittered over to
them. “The Minister for Culture decided at the last
minute to attend the festival,” he explained. “So we had
to change the sitting arrangements. Some of the invited
guests were shifted to the western dais. You can take
your seat on the eastern one.” The Huno left to attend
to other matters.
Why didn’t the protocol think of it’s clans? Djoboku
wondered as they plodded toward the eastern dais
reserved for the paying public, wearing long looks.
dried-up man waved eagerly to them from the third row.
They climbed up toward Coco Kekessi. He had been
assigned to Djoboku as assistant to help perform the
ceremonies in the shrines. He loved to drink and Djoboku
distrusted him a bit.
“Don’t you see
your friend?” Coco said to Djoboku, indicating a
cleanly-shaved man with bushy hair sitting second from
Djoboku cried and shook hands warmly with him. “How is
Mensah said. He was a successful consultant agronomist
and son of an antique dealer. “How are things?”
“We thank the
ancestors for our good health today,” Djoboku said. “But
we’re still waiting for their financial blessings.”
“You have them
already,” Boukari said, grinning.
at him with arched eyebrows.
“The stool,” Boukari whispered and Djoboku took a deep
breath. It was during a research Boukari was doing into
medicinal plants for a foreign herbal medicine
manufacturer that they got to know each other. Djoboku
had freshly been appointed Huno and he desperately
needed money to bring himself to the level of most of
the other Hunowo who had big farms and cosy homes, drove
4x4 vehicles, and wore expensive lace clothes. Boukari
had suggested selling the Togbe Asu ancestral stool and
Djoboku had left him in a huff.
2:30 p.m. The sun continued to beat down as if a bonfire
raged nearby. A group of vodusiwo—bare-chested, white
clay rubbed all over their bodies and clad in dazzling
white ample expensive lace skirts and decked with
waist-length multi-colored beads—marched in, dancing
slowly. Their anklets jiggled to the slow throbbing of
the drums as they stamped their feet and swayed their
arms slowly, weighted down by the copper armbands and
They aligned themselves at the right hand side of the
Ministers of State, VIPs, and traditional chiefs
occupying the permanent official dais of asbestos roof
supported by concrete pillars. There, they stooped,
looped their hands by their sides and swayed
majestically from side to side. The crowd clapped
Boukari tapped Djoboku on the shoulder and leaned
forward. “I’ve an opportunity to buy one of the farms of
that foreign company I did research for,” he said.
“Oh, great!” Djoboku said and stared out at a Vodusi who
had torn herself away from the group and stopped in the
area enclosed by the dais.
“Not yet,” Boukari said. “I don’t have enough money to
buy the farm. But if we sell the stool I could buy the
farm and you could also be a great Huno.” He grinned.
Possessed by the gods, the vodusi stopped dancing and a
distant look came into her eyes and she seemed to be in
a trance; then she began to tremble, rolling her eyes
like a dice, now she clawed the air and yelped Ai! Ai!
Ai! like a puppy.
“Is that why you came here?” Djoboku asked, not taking
his eyes off the vodusi.
She jerked forward and a group of Hunowo standing nearby
caught her and hauled her to the low-walled area where
the Sacred Stone will be shown to the people for the
last time. They fanned her back to life. After regaining
consciousness, the vodusi trotted to her group as if in
slow motion, and slapped their palms.
“Yes and no,”
“What do you
“I came to
witness the festival and also planned to see you
“Do you think
there’ll be this festival for you to witness without
about this later,” Boukari said and straightened
The loudspeakers called the chiefs, the elders, and the
Hunowo of the nine clans to come and assist Nii Matse,
the chief priest, to offer prayers before the Stone was
outdoored and Djoboku got up. Behind the crowd directly
opposite, the land dipped into the Gbaga River whose
western bank shimmered in the hot sun. Further, the
marshy grassland stretched right to the horizon.
They led Nii Matse, clad in white, wearing a crown of
straw over a fluffy white cap and holding a torch made
of a bundle of grass, southwards to Mama Kole’s shrine
holding the Sacred Forest from which the Stone will be
raised. The drummers now performed with renewed frenzy,
their swarthy, muscled bodies glistening with rivulets
of sweat. They poured libation here and at the shrines
of Kpesu and Sakumo. More vodusiwo got possessed.
When Djobokou returned to the dais wiping off beads of
sweat from his brow, the Huno in charge of protocol
raised a song. Accompanied by the ritual drums, the
crowd picked it up, singing fast, then not so fast, and
finally slowly. Then the Huno cried out and they sang
the last refrain, clapping their chests. Stooped, some
danced frenetically to the rhythm. This continued until
“A-h-e-e-e-lu lo-o-o-o!” the Huno cried—meaning woe unto
“A-h-e-e-e-lu lo-o-o-o!” the crowd shrieked and a sea of
arms snapped up. All eyes turned towards the shrines.
Led by a group of Huno, a tall, young man held the Stone
on a leaf in his outstretched palms and crawled around
the arena. People jostled each other for a peek at the
Stone. After hoisting it at the arena, the Hunowo
crawled back to the Sacred Forest.
The Huno in charge of protocol mounted the walled
platform in the arena. “This is the message of the gods
and the ancestors for this year,” he announced and the
place fell silent. “The ancestors say people no longer
venerate them so they’ve also turned their backs on
them, that’s why there’re so many troubles. If you want
peace, perform purification ceremonies for the ancestral
stools. The good news: there’ll be a lot of rainfall,
fish and food.”
The crowd roared
and began to scatter from the festival grounds, chanting
festival songs and dancing.
The setting sun has turned into a fiery golden ball.
Boukari stepped down to Djoboku’s side. “I’ve booked an
appointment for us to meet Mr. Ruben Peeters in Hôtel
Paradis tonight at Aneho; he’s a Belgian antique
Djoboku scowled. Why didn’t Boukari consult him before
booking the appointment? Did he want to force him to
sell the stool? “Okay,” he croaked.
“If you can agree on a price before Saturday afternoon
when he’ll fly back to Antwerp, then I can bring expert
carvers to have a look at the stool. We can even go into
partnership to grow and export medicinal preparations.”
Djoboku nodded. He knew herbs and Boukari mastered
agriculture. Maybe he could sell the Belgian some lesser
stools, like the one he sat on in the shrine. “Okay,” he
Then the sky to
the north darkened.
“Rain at this
time?” Djoboku said, peering up.
“No, it’d be
just showers,” Boukari assured.
Just then a few drops spattered. People scattered for
cover. The air freshened and a cool breeze whooped. As
suddenly as it had begun the rain ceased. Rainfall is a
good sign from Tsawe the god of rainfall. But its
falling at this time was strange. It had doused them in
the morning in the circular shrines. Now Djoboku
wondered if this was not some signal from the gods. When
angry, they send rainfall so that Kpesu, the god of
thunder, can kill with the thunderbolt. No, Djoboku
shook his head, the Stone said there’d be a lot of
rainfall and this was the beginning.
Djoboku left Boukari and descended into the cheering and
surging crowd. A fine film of reddish-brown dust hung in
the air. Djoboku was squirming his way to the Sacred
Forest for the last ceremonies when someone pulled on
the sleeve of his large shirt. He turned to see Elpidio
Ohin, a wiry-built man, smiling at him. A junior
lecturer in cultural anthropology at the Université de
Lomé in the capital, Elpidio first came to the village
to see Djoboku when a student, native of Asukope,
brilliantly defended his thesis in sociology on “The
Social Significance of the Yeke-Yeke Festival among the
Ge People.” Elpidio had been present in the village
since that morning taking notes on the prayers in the
shrine of Nyigblen and on the preparation and the taking
of the ritual bath water.
“How beautiful Ge culture is!” he praised. “The
just-ended ceremony glittered like a Brazilian carnival
I saw on television, of course without the sensuality
and the permissiveness. You Hunowo have the big
responsibility of preserving every aspect of our culture
for the pride of future generations.”
although not without much pride, all because of
Boukari’s proposal to sell the Togbe Asu stool.
“I’ll be greatly
honored to meet you this evening for explanation on
aspects of this afternoon’s ceremony.”
“Would 8 p.m. be
okay?” Djoboku said.
in the Sacred Forest when Nii Matse was pouring libation
Ancestors, we thank you
for a successful festival
We’ve received your
Your wishes will be
that ours are answered too.
He repeated with soft drinks and water. Each Huno was to
do the same. Djoboku slunk to one corner of the forest
and called Elpidio with his cellphone. He couldn’t honor
the interview with him and at the same time go to see
Boukari’s buyer. “Can we postpone the meeting to
tomorrow morning?” he said. “Around seven.”
Elpidio sighed. “Of course, if that’s what you want. Too
busy, huh?” he joked.
Djoboku suppressed a sigh. “The ceremonies here are
going to be long,” he explained. “Besides, I’ve to see a
Belgian antique dealer in Aneho.”
“Antique dealer?” Elpidio asked suspiciously. “What does
Djoboku thought quickly. “Some information,” he said and
suppressed another sigh.
“They start by
information,” Elpidio said, “and end up by influencing
people to sell them our cultural heritage.”
“No, no, no, it
isn’t that,” Djoboku said quickly, wishing Boukari
hadn’t put him into this. Boukari? he asked. No,
“Please be wary
of those cultural assassins,” Elpidio advised.
sure,” Djoboku replied too quickly.
“If we don’t
know where we’re going to, at least we must have these
things to tell us where we’re coming from.”
Djoboku thanked him, hung up, and took a deep breath.
The ceremonies ended around 8:30 p.m. Djoboku was
already about two hours late. He rushed home and dragged
on jeans trousers and shirt. He pulled a beret over his
closely-cropped greying hair to camouflage himself. A
Huno was supposed not to go everywhere, especially at
this time when they were in communion with the ancestors
and the gods. He switched off his mobile phone and put
it into his desk drawer. A large number of people had
already left the village but quite a number still milled
about. Djoboku stood under a shady mango tree staring up
and down the dark road looking for zemidjan—the
motorcycle-taxi. After fifteen minutes of tut-tutting
and nervously staring at his watch, he started down the
road. It was not until he got to the limit of Glidji,
the royal town, that he saw a motorcyle. Djoboku flagged
it and hopped on it.
Boukari slouched by the side of the road peeking at his
watch. He threw his arms into the sky when he saw
“Whew,” he sighed. “I thought you wouldn’t come.”
When Djoboku explained all, he asked irately, “What
happened to your cellular phone?”
“I switched it off,” he said. “At this time I receive a
million calls. I don’t want people to know that I’m out
of the village.”
They started into the hotel lobby. “My trust is in you,
Djoboku,” Boukari said, patting him on the shoulder.
“And our future is in your hands.”
Djoboku bit his lower lip and suppressed a sigh.
Mr. Ruben Peeters slouched in a cane chair behind the
hotel on the veranda which stretched right into the
winding lagoon. He was a large man with thick grey hair
and a sandy moustache and beard. Behind a tongue of
sandy land, the Gulf of Guinea roared and boomed and
sighed, sending in salt-laden fresh breeze which shook
the leathery leaves of the dark coconut trees at the
beach. Mr. Peeters jabbed at his watch.
“No taxi,” Boukari explained.
“Car broken down by your terrible roads, huh?” Mr.
Peeters joked and sipped his fruit juice.
Djoboku shook his head. “I’m now thinking of buying
Mr. Peeters smiled. “Ah, this is the opportunity to
offer yourself a limousine.”
Djoboku smiled half-heartedly.
“Now, how much do you want for the piece of wood?” Mr.
A piece of wood? Djoboku thought with horror. Togbe Asu
had carried the stool on the long journey from Keta when
his people incorporated the Ga emigrating from Accra
from 1660 until they arrived here in 1680. Although
Togbe Asu was dead, his spirit rested in the stool. “Two
hundred million francs cfa,” he said. That was about
cool blue eyes widened; he whistled slowly, slumped into
the chair, and stared at Djoboku.
suppressed his joy.
million francs!” Mr. Peeters repeated slowly. “For that
piece of wood?”
ordinary wood,” Djoboku countered. “It contains a
“You can keep
the spirit,” Mr. Peeters said with a laugh. “I need only
Boukari said, hurt ringing in his voice, “two hundred
million is exaggerated.”
“Far, far, far
exaggerated,” Mr. Peeters added.
“Then give me
time to think over it,” Djoboku said.
“I can’t buy
anything above fifty million,” Mr. Peeters said and
stared at flies buzzing around the round light on the
“What about Mr. Stijn Janssens?” Boukari said to Mr.
Peeters. Then he turned to Djoboku and whispered: “He’s
a Belgian antique collector. He’s in Hôtel Plage d’Or in
Lome. He’s a fabulously rich industrialist. He can
afford expensive antiques.”
Djoboku wished he had hiked the price much higher.
“Let me call him now,” Mr. Peeters said and reached for
his cellphone resting on the table. He spoke in a
language Djoboku did not understand. He guessed it must
be one of the Belgian languages. At the end of the long
call Mr. Peeters dropped his head into his palms and
stared into the floor.
“Something happened?” Boukari asked anxiously.
Mr. Peeters raised his head and said, “Stijn says he’s
just received a call from home. The biggest Belgian
antique collector has died and he’s been offered his
collection at about two billion francs cfa.”
whistled. “Does that affect this business?” he asked
Peeters whispered and clutched his forehead again.
Djoboku heard Boukari mutter under his breath.
“He said he’ll
decide tomorrow if he’ll buy the stool too, but he
didn’t sound optimistic.”
turned lusterless. Djoboku felt like clapping.
“Don’t you think we can influence Mr. Janssens to buy if
we brought him to see the stool in the shrine?” Boukari
suggested to Mr. Peeters.
“No, not now,” Djoboku countered. “A lot of people are
around and the shrines are crowded.”
Boukari leaned towards Djoboku and whispered. “Don’t
let’s miss our chance, brother. Are you telling me that
these whites would be the first to visit the shrines?”
Of course not. Djoboku knew that. Foreign researchers,
journalists, tourists, curiousity-seekers are visiting
the shrines in ever increasing numbers.
“We could present them as film-makers,” Boukari
continued. “The villagers would be thrilled that their
culture is going to be shown to the world.”
Djoboku shrugged and noticed that Mr. Peeters was
watching them in a curious manner.
“We’ll buy the stool and any other pieces Stijn approves
of,” Mr. Peeters said and added, “Of course, if they’re
reasonably-priced. Not two hundred million,” he spat the
last words contemptuously.
Then you’ll have
to resuscitate your ancestor to carve a stool for you,
Boukari pleaded to Djoboku.
know when the stool disappears,” Djoboku said.
about that later,” Boukari whispered to him.
“Then let’s meet
at 2 p.m. tomorrow”
prices, okay? African Bishop,” Mr. Peeters said and they
burst into laughter.
emerged into the street, Boukari said: “Try to sell the
wooden gold to the whitemen.”
“It isn”t that
easy, you know.”
difficult about it?” Boukari almost sneered.
“As I said
earlier people will discover that the stool is gone.”
Boukari shook his head. “We’ll carve a replacement and
give it patina. It’d be impossible to identify as a
Djoboku thought for a while and shook his head
violently. “A replacement will have no spirit.” He knew
now why certain ancestral stools have become worthless:
they contain no ancestral spirits.
spirit?” Musa said contemptuously.
stool without a spirit is like a car without an engine.
Useless. One might as well do without it.”
“Know that no
one eats the ancestors.”
asked in the sceptical manner of the non-initiate.
me with their problems such as sterility and pay for my
his lips. “Okay, okay,” he said, “but what’s chicken
change compared to the jackpot we’d get from those
“I need money badly but selling the stool is like living
in a remote area full of danger and disconnecting the
phone link to an emergency center.”
“Why should you go hungry when money is right under your
nose?” Boukari said. “I don’t understand Africans. We’ll
always remain poor.”
Djoboku found it difficult to understand Boukari’s lack
of appreciation for cultural artefacts. “I prefer
financial poverty to cultural impoverishment. Besides,
selling the stool could mean death.”
“People have sold theirs but they’re still alive.”
“Those must be lesser family ancestral stools. Due to
neglect the spirits have left most of them. Togbe Asu’s
stool is for the whole village and has always had a
servant. Nobody plays with a stool like that.” I don’t
know why I got myself into this.
“Since the Ge gods don’t like blood and all gods abhor
women in menstruation, we can use menstrual blood to
kill the spirit in the stool.”
Djoboku made a
“I can get it in
a G-string,” Boukari said. “Money can buy everything
not Togbe Asu’s stool.
“Can I count on
lightning flashed. A slight thunder rolled.
“Hurry up before
the rain beats you,” Boukari said and turned away.
Djoboku checked the time. It was past 10:00 p.m. He
regretted for coming to the rendezvous. He breathed hard
and set off. Thunder grumbled again and an eerie
lightning flashed. Rain at this time of year? Djobokou
wondered, peeking into the dark sky and wishing he would
find zemidjan soon. Aneho looked like a ghost town. The
main road was deserted. This didn’t surprise Djoboku.
People normally became spent on this day and went to bed
early. But that didn’t worry him at all. His concern was
where in the world he was going to get a zemidjan back
home. He needed good rest for the next day’s ceremonies.
A drizzle showered and he quickened his pace. He knew
now that he had to walk home. It was impossible to get a
zemidjan when it rained. Why did he follow Boukari? He
should have listened to Elpidio. People like Boukari
always lead one into trouble. Tomorrow he will let them
know his position. No more beating about the bush. The
rain poured now as he left the lit street and hurried
through the dark toward the Zebe bridge spanning the
lagoon dotted with fishing villages and palm groves. The
water scintillated. The slanting raindrops hitting it
gave the impression of numerous fishes jumping in there.
Djoboku walked at the edge of the road and at the
junction, turned left into the untarred road to Glidji.
He stuck to the middle of the road, peering carefully
about. The elephant grasses bordering the road harbored
snakes. Djoboku saw something slither in front of him
and he jumped. He laughed at himself when he realized it
was a puddle. Buildings loomed as Djoboku climbed the
small hill toward Glidji. The rain let up somewhat. Soon
he emerged into street lights again. He passed beside
the Portuguese-style Catholic church on the left. Beyond
it, the market, with its long and high stalls, was
quiet. In a few hours, women will lay out their wares
and shout to attract buyers shuffling through the narrow
aisles. Beyond the market, dim street lights etched out
houses leading to the royal palace.
As Djoboku left the lit street of Glidji toward the
darkness of Glidji-Kpodzi he felt as if he was going
into a cave. Crickets chirped and toads croaked in the
stagnant waters beyond the tall grasses. Further away,
tall, withering, slanting coconut trees and an
occasional cluster of plantain trees fluttered lazily in
the slight breeze. Whitewashed tombstones stuck out of
graveyard like giant mushrooms.
Not a soul stirred in Asukope. Djoboku crept to muffle
his steps and took a deep breath when he entered the
warmth of his hut. He dried himself, stopped chanting
incantations, thanked the ancestors, and went straight
to bed cursing Boukari.
When he roused himself awake the next day, Djoboku
fumbled at the top of the whitewood table beside his bed
for his watch. By the heat in the hut he knew the day
had broken long ago. He peeked at the watch and
whistled. 8:30 already. What in the world will Elpidio
think of him? He trembled a little with cold. He again
cursed Boukari and wondered if the rain wasn’t some
message from Togbe Asu.
Wincing from bodily pains Djoboku left his hut and
hobbled northwards along a red laterite path bordering
the Gbaga River which gurgled lazily in the opposite
direction. He soon came to a mammoth baobab tree where
the path curved sharply to the left down the incline to
the dying river. At its banks three huts, one round and
two square, stood in a triangle. The surrounding land
lay bare. But the area around the shrine was bushy,
giving the place a weird look. Today was the day of
mourning of the dead. Mourning and the beating of drums
was banned three months before the festival. Followers
of Nyigblen knelt before the shrine and prayed. It was a
few minutes past nine. Like everybody else, Djoboku bent
over a small earthenware pot laden with palm fronds
puffing out thick smoke to purify himself. Then he
entered the shrine, barefoot and back first, across the
white calico fluttering at the entrance. Kneeling in the
soft sand the gathering sang ritual songs in nasal
Djoboku’s face contorted into a scowl when he found Coco
sitting in his stool, sprinkling the ritual bath water
on people who knelt beside him. “Since when did the
river swallow the sea?” he said aloud.
Coco laughed in an embarrassed way, sliding off the
stool. “People were getting impatient when you weren’t
coming so I was obliged to attend to them.”
prayed for anybody, I suppose,” Djoboku said, sitting
“Oh no, I can’t
do that,” Coco said. “Does anybody play with the
that you know that. Djoboku nodded Elpidio to a stool
ceremonies took a toll on you, I suppose,” Elpidio said.
“It’s not easy
for us at this time of year,” Djoboku answered, feeling
that you have an able assistant.”
Djoboku felt a
pang of jealousy. “He’s quite okay.”
marvellous work. You could have seen the number of
people who were here at seven.”
Djoboku made a
mental note to confide more responsibility to Coco after
the festival. “Bring up your requests now,” he said to
the people and a woman stepped forward.
married for five years but I don’t have a child,” she
“Mama Nyigblen I invoke you,” he said with feeling.
needs a child. If you don’t give her one who’ll venerate
you tomorrow? Let her know that you’re the god of
participants answered again.
sprinkled the woman with the ritual bath water. “By this
time next year you’d be carrying a baby in your arms.”
participants answered as the woman kissed the ground.
Then others also
came with their requests.
At the end Djoboku burst into a song of praise. The
participants picked it up, clapping their chests to the
rhythm. Some of them sprang to their feet and danced.
Elpidio, face shining like a star, took notes
frantically and snapped pictures with a small digital
camera. The ceremonies had almost ended when a vodusi
began to yelp.
Silence fell in the shrine. Elpidio’s pen hovered over
his notebook. Djoboku lowered his head. The vodusi began
to speak in the language of the initiate.
Djoboku interpreted for Elpidio. “She says that Togbe
Asu says someone is about to offend him. He has already
sent this person two messages but he’s again speaking
through the priestess so that the person will understand
that one doesn’t play with fire.”
“Who is that
person and what could he have done?” Elpidio asked.
“We have to
consult the fa, the god of divination, to find out,”
Djoboku said and clutched his head in his palms.
spent here convinces me that we’ve a treasure,” Elpidio
said. “Please do your best to preserve it.”
By the time the
ceremonies ended, Elpidio was so thrilled that he
invited Djoboku and Koku to lunch.
comfortable car,” Djoboku remarked as they rode in
Elpidio’s VW Golf Touran to a chic restaurant at Zebe.
tittered. “My wife lent it to me,” he said. “I don’t
have one myself yet.”
will let you buy one soon,” Djoboku said.
said eagerly, “I’ve been thinking of something to make
sharply at Elpidio. You too? Was Elpidio a snake under
grass? Djoboku grunted.
through his shiny beard. “You know I studied in America
and have some contacts there,” he said.
Here he comes
too. Togbe Asu why are you tempting me so?
“We can bring
down American tourists during the festival and even go
on speaking tours of America.”
straightened in the cushion seat. “That’s a wonderful
idea,” he said brightly.
“Never have I
heard anything so interesting,” Coco said from the back.
During lunch Coco ate as if famished. “The food is as
perfect as the pair the two of you are going to make in
promoting Ge culture,” he observed.
Djoboku glowered at him but Coco’s head was down in his
By the end of the lunch Djoboku and Coco have had so
much wine that they staggered when they left the
restaurant. Elpidio had sipped not quite a glass.
“I doubt if I
can balance myself on a zemidjan,” Djoboku confessed to
Elpidio when they came to his car.
“It’s my duty to
drop you” Elpidio said.
several times. This is somebody to work with.
“Culture is big
business if well organized,” Elpidio told Djoboku when
they got back to Asukope.
everything in your hands,” Djoboku said brightly.
“I’ll make the
necessary contacts when I get back to Lome.”
“Don’t let this
chance slip by,” Coco encouraged. “The other people are
This was in apparent reference to Boukari. Djoboku gave
Coco a dark look. This is what you get when you go
eating and drinking with a drunk.
Elpidio and Djoboku shook hands warmly. Djoboku patted
Elpidio’s back with great affection. Elpidio promised to
come back in the evening to witness the ceremony of the
mourning of the dead.
Back to his hut Djoboku scowled on seeing Boukari, Mr.
Peeters and Mr. Janssens standing there. Mr. Janssens
was a thin, tall elderly man with a bald head and a
double chin. He appeared stern. Djoboku sighed. How he
needed a nice little siesta!
punctuality,” Mr. Peeters said, jabbing at his watch.
“I have very
little time at this time of year,” Djoboku said to
Boukari in Mina, the local language.
said, “but try to be on time with white people. For them
time is money.”
suppressed a sigh. He didn’t like this group in the
least and he would do everything to get rid of them
“Let’s go to the shrines,” he offered, hoping his
faltering steps wouldn’t let them think he was a drunk.
He tried hard to walk like a sober person, especially
avoiding rough terrain.
“I’ve let the whitemen bring you drinks for libation and
a goat for the offering on Saturday,” Boukari whispered
to him as they headed toward the village center.
“May the ancestors richly bless them,” Djoboku said
although he didn’t like the idea of the presents very
much. All the same he thanked them himself later.
Togbe Asu’s shrine was a round structure in front of the
royal palace. A giant neem tree stood in the center of
it. The gnarled branches of the ancient tree and its
bunched, numerous leaves gave shade to the wide open
space which also served as the village square. All
around, a jumbled network of rectangular mud huts roofed
with thatch stretched.
They entered the shrine and Djoboku jerked off a white
calico covering something between the awesome protruding
roots of the tree.
“Wow,” Mr. Janssens sighed when he saw the stool. It was
carved out of white wood which has turned brownish with
time. The top was curved and the middle was a leopard
clutching an antelope in its snout. The rectangular base
looked worn. Mr. Janssens reached out to touch the stool
lying on its side.
himself in his path. “Don’t,” he cried. “You may get
Mr. Peeters said
something to Mr. Janssens and the two stepped back.
Mr. Peeters said.
toward the stool. It seemed to reach out to him. “Three
The whitemen let
out exclamations of indignation and turned red.
cette blague! ” Boukari muttered.
Yes, a good joke to shy all of you away, Djobokou told
himself. The Belgians whispered to each other and knelt
in front of the deities fashioned out of mud.
touch,” Djoboku warned.
to him and stared at him with pleading eyes.
million,” Djoboku repeated coolly.
“How much do you
want for this?” Mr. Peeters asked, pointing to a deity
laden with feathers, oil, and food. It was Togbe Asu’s
“It’s not for
sale,” Djoboku declared.
“Where have you
brought us, Boukari,” Mr. Peeters muttered and dragged
Mr. Janssens out.
at Djoboku and stormed out.
murderers! Djoboku muttered and went home to sleep.
throbbed slightly when he got up around 5 p.m. He blamed
Boukari for it. He reached Nyigblen’s shrine and a pain
darted through his heart to find Elpidio in conversation
with the Belgians. Why did they come back? And why did
Elpidio come so early? Was this another signal from
Togbe Asu? Djoboku wondered. Boukari stood apart, his
face screwed up into a dark frown. Apparently he wasn’t
happy about Elpidio talking with his whitemen.
“I came early to
take down the atmosphere of the village before the
remembrance ceremony,” Elpidio explained.
trying to rein in his jumbled feelings.
him aside. “The whitemen have come to take pictures of
the pieces which interest them.”
would like to show them to his wife.”
been doing that. Djobokou nodded them in. Elpidio tagged
“Let that joker
wait outside,” Boukari said.
“He isn’t a
joker,” Djoboku explained. “He’s a lecturer at the
“What does he
want?” Boukari asked.
mind his own business,” Djoboku said.
“This is what
I’m asking for. It’s our business now.”
said. “Unlike you, he has an appointment, although not
and they disappeared into the shrine.
“Ge religion will be nothing without these artefacts
that you see here,” Elpidio explained to the Belgians
snapping pictures. Boukari stared questioningly at
Djoboku who shrugged. “The spirits in them are the
“This is why I collect African artefacts,” Mr. Janssens
said. “If Africans survived the jungles teeming with
wild beasts, then surely the spirits protected them.”
“As for me, African artefacts mean business,” Mr.
Peeters said. “Without them what will my gallery in
Antwerp be? An empty shell.”
the lives of Africans will also be like empty shells,”
Elpidio said. “That’s why they must remain here.”
“Get this man
out of here before he blows up the business,” Boukari
whispered fiercely to Djobokou.
Djoboku went on
indicating pieces for the Belgians to photograph as if
he hadn’t heard Boukari.
“You don’t know
how much your happiness means to me,” Boukari said.
“So you’re doing
all this for me?”
“I intend to
lift you higher than the highest mountain.”
eyelids lifted upwards.
to take these things out of Africa,” Elpidio said aloud.
blushed and gaped at each other.
“If you wouldn’t
mind we’d meet at the village square soon,” Djoboku said
Elpidio bid the
others goodbye and as custom demands Djoboku led him out
and for a short distance.
“Be careful of
these perpetrators of cultural genocide,” Elpidio
“If I sell my
ancestors, what would I eat?”
Back in the
shrine Boukari asked him to give the whitemen a definite
price. Djobokou shook his forefinger in the air.
Darkness covered Asukope when Djobokou came out of the
shrine. He joined Elpidio at the royal palace. Soon a
deep throbbing tore through the moist night. Instantly
drumming broke out everywhere. The ban on mourning was
lifted. Wails broke out everywhere. Djoboku and Elpidio
shuffled over to the cemetery on the other side of the
laterite road. Long red tongues of candles flickered on
the black night and lit up figures crouched on the
The next day while assisting at the ceremony of the
sprinkling of roasted ablo—
a steamed corn dough meal—at the royal palace at 6:30
a.m. in the presence of Elpidio and Coco, Djoboku could
not help thinking of Boukari. He had probably seen the
last of him and his Belgians. Djoboku went into a rage
and asked them to disappear when Mr. Peeters said it was
insane for anyone to stick to a fixed price in Africa
where haggling was the rule. Now he was regretting a bit
for shooing them off. He’d lost the chance to sell them
the pieces which didn’t have much significance.
“Will it be
possible to get some cash advance from your Americans?”
he asked Elpidio.
work that way,” Elpidio explained. “They pay for work
Djoboku’s shoulders slumped. He tried hard to hide his
pout. Maybe he should have sold Boukari’s partners
something. Is a bird in the hand not better than ten in
“If the business
with the Americans will take ages, then I don’t know-”
begins furiously,” Elpidio began, “but it burns out
quickly whilst an evergreen one takes time to ignite
“If a feast will
be interesting, it shows in the morning,” Djoboku
“Don’t look for
today,” Coco advised. “Mind tomorrow instead.”
The chief of the
village was about to pour libation when Boukari arrived.
more firewood than I can carry, Djoboku thought with
regret and wondered what had brought him again at this
called me to make you a last offer. One hundred million
francs. Please accept it.”
cried, “do you want to remain poor forever?”
“Are you God to
decide my destiny?”
this man the stool, he needs it urgently.”
hard to hide his anger. “Why should he, Christian and
European, need something animist and African more than
understand. He doesn’t need it the way you do.”
“Then he doesn’t
need it at all. For the way I need it is the way it was
“Why are you so
reluctant to sell?” Boukari said in exasperation.
“As priest I’m the intermediary between the people and
the gods. I’m also the servant of the god and
interpreters of the will of the gods for the people. I
don’t want to slash the branch on which I’m sitting.”
“I told you we
can give you another branch.”
“A crutch is not
the same as a leg,” Djoboku said.
swallowed hard. “It’s nonsense to be so attached to a
piece of wood.”
“It gives us
“It gives you
nothing. You’re only sentimental about it.”
Djobokou sighed. Only a Christian who has converted to
Islam and changed his first name Bernard to Boukari but
didn’t pray could be so callous towards a religious
Djoboku excused himself and went over to Elpidio. “When
a matter comes out it can no longer be hidden,” he said.
“You know about that our brother-” He winked toward
Boukari. “-and his whitemen. They’re after me to sell
them Togbe Asu’s ancestral stool.”
to his feet. “Never!” he thundered.
and went back to Boukari. He shook his head resolutely.
Boukari whipped out his cellphone and called Mr. Peeters.
In a little while he and Mr. Janssens appeared. They
were talking in hushed tones with Djoboku when thunder
rumbled. Djoboku stared anxiously into the sky. A vodusi
yelped. The thunder rolled again. The vodusi began to
predict disaster for people intent on offending Togbe
Asu. Boukari began to tremble. The Belgians asked him
what the matter was. He lied to them. The rain
Djoboku scooted to Togbe Asu’s shrine and threw himself
flat on the ground in front of the stool. “Togbe, I’ve
sinned against you,” he spluttered. “I beg you not to
kill me, I won’t sell your spirit. It was a temptation.
If ever I decide to sell you, let Kpesu instantly split
me into two.” The rain stopped.
Rushing back to the palace looking agitated like one
possessed by a god, Djoboku wondered why he should end
the year selling the ancestral stool entrusted to him
and beginning the new one on a false note. Twenty-seven
Hunowo have taken good care of the stool for centuries.
On Monday the spirits of the ancestors will go back into
the stools. If he sells the stool where will Togbe Asu
go to? Togbe Asu’s message has been clear for all to
see. Boukari too has seen it now.
“I’m not selling
even the tiniest pebble of the sand in the shrine,”
away. Mr. Peeters and Mr. Janssens shrugged and slunk
out after him.
Djoboku and they hugged each other. Coco nodded
that truly the ancestors were only gone but not really
* * * *
Note from author:
In Africa the belief that the ancestors are not really
dead is widespread. To keep their spirits near and to
venerate them, stools which they used in life (chairs
did not exist in ancient Africa) are kept in ancestral
rooms or shrines. During festivals which are celebrated
usually in August / September, the ancestral spirits are
invoked for their protection. I have myself participated
in several Yeke-Yeke festivals and helped my brother
collect data for a sociological study of it.
Togbe Asu’s ancestral stool is kept in memory of the
ancestor who founded the village more than three
centuries ago in present Togo. For antique dealers such
a stool is of great value. This is why Boukari Mensah
approached Djoboku Ametoglo, custodian of the Asu stool,
to sell the stool to a Belgian antique dealer so that
they can have money to solve their respective problems.
Djoboku wavers between decision and indecision to sell
the stool and when the ancestors send him signs of
warning, decides not to sell the stool. He learns that
the ancestors are not really dead.
I have published in newspapers in Ghana (West Africa),
www.ezinearticles.com, in AIM, Clubhouse,
and Skipping Stones. My stories have been
accepted for publishing in Highlights for Children
and My Friend.
posted 24 April
* * *
Coltrane, "Alabama" /
Kalamu ya Salaam, "Alabama"
A Love Supreme
A Blues for the Birmingham Four
/ Eulogy for the Young Victims
/ Six Dead After Church
* * *
My Story, My Song (Featuring blues guitarist Walter Wolfman Washington)
* * *
* * *
Life on Mars
By Tracy K. Smith
Tracy K. Smith, author of Life on Mars has been selected as the winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. In its review of the book, Publishers Weekly noted the collection's "lyric brilliance" and "political impulses [that] never falter." A New York Times review stated, "Smith is quick to suggest that the important thing is not to discover whether or not we're alone in the universe; it's to accept—or at least endure—the universe's mystery. . . . Religion, science, art: we turn to them for answers, but the questions persist, especially in times of grief. Smith's pairing of the philosophically minded poems in the book’s first section with the long elegy for her father in the second is brilliant." Life on Mars follows Smith's 2007 collection, Duende, which won the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets, the only award for poetry in the United States given to support a poet's second book, and the first Essence Literary Award for poetry, which recognizes the literary achievements of African Americans.
The Body’s Question (2003) was her first published collection. Smith said Life on Mars, published by small Minnesota press Graywolf, was inspired in part by her father, who was an engineer on the Hubble space telescope and died in 2008.
* * * *
Blacks in Hispanic Literature: Critical Essays
Blacks in Hispanic Literature is a
collection of fourteen essays by scholars and
creative writers from Africa and the Americas.
Called one of two significant critical works on
Afro-Hispanic literature to appear in the late
1970s, it includes the pioneering studies of
Carter G. Woodson and
Valaurez B. Spratlin, published in the 1930s, as
well as the essays of scholars whose interpretations
were shaped by the Black aesthetic. The early
essays, primarily of the Black-as-subject in Spanish
medieval and Golden Age literature, provide an
historical context for understanding 20th-century
creative works by African-descended, Hispanophone
writers, such as Cuban
Nicolás Guillén and Ecuadorean poet, novelist,
Adalberto Ortiz, whose essay analyzes the
significance of Negritude in Latin America.
This collaborative text set the tone for later
conferences in which writers and scholars worked together to
promote, disseminate, and critique the literature of
Spanish-speaking people of African descent. . . .
Cited by a
literary critic in 2004 as "the seminal study in the
field of Afro-Hispanic Literature . . . on which
most scholars in the field 'cut their teeth'."
* * *
Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in
By Melissa V.
According to the
author, this society has historically exerted
considerable pressure on black females to fit into one
of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the
Matriarch or the Jezebel. The selfless
Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to
white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of
those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the
relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable
temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as
an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the
characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television
shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.
points out how the propagation of these harmful myths
have served the mainstream culture well. For instance,
the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for
black females to feel a maternal instinct towards
As for the source
of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their
own bodies during slavery given that they were being
auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless,
it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate
the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate
* * * * *
Salvage the Bones
A Novel by Jesmyn Ward
On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family that’s about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrina’s inexorable winds is the voice of Ward’s narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her family’s raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brother’s “blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt.” Her father’s hands “are like gravel,” while her own hand “slides through his grip like a wet fish,” and a handsome boy’s “muscles jabbered like chickens.”
Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this
simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk
sounding like a compost heap, but this isn’t usually
just metaphor for metaphor’s sake.
She conveys something fundamental about Esch’s fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect. She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. . . . What remains, what’s salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.—
* * * * *
Ancient, Ancient: Short Fiction
By Kiini Ibura Salaam
Ancient, Ancient collects the short fiction by Kiini Ibura Salaam, of which acclaimed author and critic Nalo Hopkinson writes, ''Salaam treats words like the seductive weapons they are. She wields them to weave fierce, gorgeous stories that stroke your sensibilities, challenge your preconceptions, and leave you breathless with their beauty.'' Indeed, Ms. Salaam's stories are so permeated with sensuality that in her introduction to
Ancient, Ancient, Nisi Shawl, author of the award-winning Filter House, writes, ''Sexuality-cum-sensuality is the experiential link between mind and matter, the vivid and eternal refutation of the alleged dichotomy between them. This understanding is the foundation of my 2004 pronouncement on the burgeoning sexuality implicit in sf's Afro-diasporization. It is the core of many African-based philosophies. And it is the throbbing, glistening heart of Kiini's body of work. This book is alive. Be not afraid.''
* * *
By Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie
Somebody has to tell the truth sometime, whatever that truth may be. In this, her début full collection, Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie offers up a body of work that bears its scars proudly, firm in the knowledge that each is evidence of a wound survived. These are songs of life in all its violent difficulty and beauty; songs of fury, songs of love. 'Karma's Footsteps' brims with things that must be said and turns the volume up, loud, giving silence its last rites. "Ekere Tallie's new work 'Karma's Footsteps' is as fierce with fight songs as it is with love songs. Searing with truths from the modern day world she is unafraid of the twelve foot waves that such honesties always manifest. A poet who "refuses to tiptoe" she enters and exits the page sometimes with short concise imagery, sometimes in the arms of delicate memoir. Her words pull the forgotten among us back into the lightning of our eyes.—Nikky Finney /
Ekere Tallie Table
* * *
The White Masters of the
The World and Africa, 1965
By W. E. B. Du Bois
W. E. B. Du Bois’
Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization
* * *
Ancient African Nations
* * * * *
If you like this page consider making a donation
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Negro Digest /
Browse all issues
* * * * *
The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan
The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
Only a Pawn in Their Game
Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for
George Jackson /
* * *
The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg
Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804
January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of
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(Books, DVDs, Music, and more)
17 August 2012