The Ancestors Are Not Really Dead

The Ancestors Are Not Really Dead


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



 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.



The Ancestors Are Not Really Dead

By Akoli Penoukou


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.

“Don’t get 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 are coming

Make way for the children of warriors

To 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 approached.

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 themselves hoarse.

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.

A somewhat 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 his right.

“Boukari!” Djoboku cried and shook hands warmly with him. “How is business?”

“Fine,” Boukari 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.

Djoboku peered 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 4×4 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 the amulets.

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 ecstatically.

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,” Boukari said.

“What do you mean?”

“I came to witness the festival and also planned to see you afterwards.”

“Do you think there’ll be this festival for you to witness without ancestral stools?”

“We’ll talk about this later,” Boukari said and straightened himself.

Djoboku nodded.

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 3:00 p.m.

“A-h-e-e-e-lu lo-o-o-o!” the Huno cried—meaning woe unto evil wishers

“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 dealer.”

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.” He smiled.

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 said again.

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.”

Djoboku smiled, 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.


Djoboku arrived in the Sacred Forest when Nii Matse was pouring libation with gin:

Ancestors, we thank you for a successful festival

We’ve received your message

Your wishes will be hearkened to

So 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 he want?”

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, poverty.

“Please be wary of those cultural assassins,” Elpidio advised.

“Sure, sure, 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 Djoboku.

“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 one.”

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. Peeters asked.

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 360,000 dollars.

Mr. Peeters’ cool blue eyes widened; he whistled slowly, slumped into the chair, and stared at Djoboku.

Boukari’s jowls shook.

Djoboku suppressed his joy.

“Two hundred million francs!” Mr. Peeters repeated slowly. “For that piece of wood?”

“It’s no ordinary wood,” Djoboku countered. “It contains a spirit.”

“You can keep the spirit,” Mr. Peeters said with a laugh. “I need only the stool.”

“Djoboku,” 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 concrete ceiling.

 “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.”

Boukari whistled. “Does that affect this business?” he asked anxiously.

“Somehow,” Mr. Peeters whispered and clutched his forehead again.

“Why now?” 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.”

Boukari’s eyes 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, Djoboku thought.

“Please,” Boukari pleaded to Djoboku.

“People will know when the stool disappears,” Djoboku said.

“We’ll talk about that later,” Boukari whispered to him.

“Then let’s meet at 2 p.m. tomorrow”

“Reasonable prices, okay? African Bishop,” Mr. Peeters said and they burst into laughter.

When they emerged into the street, Boukari said: “Try to sell the wooden gold to the whitemen.”

“It isn”t that easy, you know.”

“What’s 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 copy.”

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.

“What’s a spirit?” Musa said contemptuously.

“An ancestral 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.”

“I do.”

“How?” Boukari asked in the sceptical manner of the non-initiate.

“People consult me with their problems such as sterility and pay for my services.”

Boukari chewed his lips. “Okay, okay,” he said, “but what’s chicken change compared to the jackpot we’d get from those people?”

“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 face.

“I can get it in a G-string,” Boukari said. “Money can buy everything these days.”

Everything but not Togbe Asu’s stool.

“Can I count on you?”


Just then 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 tones.

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.”

“You haven’t prayed for anybody, I suppose,” Djoboku said, sitting down.

“Oh no, I can’t do that,” Coco said. “Does anybody play with the fearsome gods?”

It’s fortunate that you know that. Djoboku nodded Elpidio to a stool beside him.

“Yesterday’s ceremonies took a toll on you, I suppose,” Elpidio said.

“It’s not easy for us at this time of year,” Djoboku answered, feeling guilty.

“Fortunately that you have an able assistant.”

Djoboku felt a pang of jealousy. “He’s quite okay.”

“He did 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.

“I’ve been married for five years but I don’t have a child,” she said.

Djoboku nodded. “Mama Nyigblen I invoke you,” he said with feeling.

“Amii!” the participants answered.

“Your daughter needs a child. If you don’t give her one who’ll venerate you tomorrow? Let her know that you’re the god of fecundity.”

“Amii!” the participants answered again.

Djobokou sprinkled the woman with the ritual bath water. “By this time next year you’d be carrying a baby in your arms.”

“Amii!” the 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.

“Each minute spent here convinces me that we’ve a treasure,” Elpidio said. “Please do your best to preserve it.”

Djoboku nodded.

By the time the ceremonies ended, Elpidio was so thrilled that he invited Djoboku and Koku to lunch.

“You’ve a comfortable car,” Djoboku remarked as they rode in Elpidio’s VW Golf Touran to a chic restaurant at Zebe.

Elpidio tittered. “My wife lent it to me,” he said. “I don’t have one myself yet.”

“The ancestors will let you buy one soon,” Djoboku said.

“Yes,” Elpidio said eagerly, “I’ve been thinking of something to make us money.”

Djoboku stared sharply at Elpidio. You too? Was Elpidio a snake under grass? Djoboku grunted.

Elpidio smiled 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.”

Djoboku 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 plate again.

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.

Djoboku nodded several times. This is somebody to work with.

“Culture is big business if well organized,” Elpidio told Djoboku when they got back to Asukope.

“I leave 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 dangerous.”

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!

“African 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.

“Yes,” Boukari said, “but try to be on time with white people. For them time is money.”

Djoboku suppressed a sigh. He didn’t like this group in the least and he would do everything to get rid of them quickly.

“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.

Djoboku hurled himself in his path. “Don’t,” he cried. “You may get hurt.”

Mr. Peeters said something to Mr. Janssens and the two stepped back.

“Last price?” Mr. Peeters said.

Djoboku glanced toward the stool. It seemed to reach out to him. “Three hundred million.”

The whitemen let out exclamations of indignation and turned red.

“Quelle est 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.

“Please don’t touch,” Djoboku warned.

Boukari shuffled to him and stared at him with pleading eyes.

“Three hundred million,” Djoboku repeated coolly.

Boukari sighed.

“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 god.

“It’s not for sale,” Djoboku declared.

“Where have you brought us, Boukari,” Mr. Peeters muttered and dragged Mr. Janssens out.

Boukari glared at Djoboku and stormed out.

Cultural murderers! Djoboku muttered and went home to sleep.

His head 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.

Djoboku nodded, trying to rein in his jumbled feelings.

Boukari pulled him aside. “The whitemen have come to take pictures of the pieces which interest them.”

“What for?” Djoboku fumed.

“Mr. Janssens would like to show them to his wife.”

Tourists have been doing that. Djobokou nodded them in. Elpidio tagged behind them.

“Let that joker wait outside,” Boukari said.

“He isn’t a joker,” Djoboku explained. “He’s a lecturer at the university.”

“What does he want?” Boukari asked.

“Each should mind his own business,” Djoboku said.

“This is what I’m asking for. It’s our business now.”

“No,” Djoboku said. “Unlike you, he has an appointment, although not for now.”

Boukari sighed 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 binding forces.”

“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.”

“Without them 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.”

Djoboku’s eyelids lifted upwards.

“It’s criminal to take these things out of Africa,” Elpidio said aloud.

The Belgians blushed and gaped at each other.

Boukari stared at Djoboku.

“If you wouldn’t mind we’d meet at the village square soon,” Djoboku said to Elpidio.

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 warned.

“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 graves.

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.

“Americans don’t work that way,” Elpidio explained. “They pay for work done.”

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 the bush?

“If the business with the Americans will take ages, then I don’t know-” He shrugged.

“A bushfire begins furiously,”  Elpidio began, “but it burns out quickly whilst an evergreen one takes time to ignite but-”

“If a feast will be interesting, it shows in the morning,” Djoboku countered.

“Don’t look for today,” Coco advised. “Mind tomorrow instead.”

The chief of the village was about to pour libation when Boukari arrived.

I’ve fetched more firewood than I can carry, Djoboku thought with regret and wondered what had brought him again at this time.

“Mr. Peeters called me to make you a last offer. One hundred million francs. Please accept it.”

Djoboku shook his head.

“Why,” Boukari cried, “do you want to remain poor forever?”

“Are you God to decide my destiny?”

“Please, sell this man the stool, he needs it urgently.”

Djoboku tried hard to hide his anger. “Why should he, Christian and European, need something animist and African more than us?”

“You don’t 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 intended for.”

“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.

Boukari swallowed hard. “It’s nonsense to be so attached to a piece of wood.”

“It gives us something.”

“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 item.

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.”

Elpidio bounded to his feet. “Never!” he thundered.

Djoboku nodded 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 spattered.

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,” Djoboku shouted.

Boukari stomped away. Mr. Peeters and Mr. Janssens shrugged and slunk out after him.

Elpidio thumbed Djoboku and they hugged each other. Coco nodded approvingly.

Djoboku learned that truly the ancestors were only gone but not really dead.

*   *   *   *   * 

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), on, in AIM, Clubhouse, and Skipping Stones. My stories have been accepted for publishing in Highlights for Children and My Friend.

posted 24 April 2007

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John Coltrane, “Alabama”  /  Kalamu ya Salaam, “Alabama”  / A Love Supreme

A Blues for the Birmingham Four  /  Eulogy for the Young Victims   / Six Dead After Church Bombing 

 *   *   *   *   *

Audio: My Story, My Song (Featuring blues guitarist Walter Wolfman Washington)

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Life on Mars

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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.

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Blacks in Hispanic Literature: Critical Essays

Edited by Miriam DeCosta-Willis 

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, and scholar 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 America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

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.     

Professor Perry 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 Caucasian babies.

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 indiscriminately.

*   *   *   *   *

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.”

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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.—


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Ancient, Ancient: Short Fiction

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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

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*   *   *   *   *

The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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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 Slavery /

George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

*   *   *   *   *

The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

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update 17 August 2012




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Related files: The Ancestors Are Not Really Dead  /  Into His Arms  / Out of the Clouds  //  How can we trust them? / On Learning of Walter Rodney’s Death  (poems) 

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