Azonto Lessons

There is a pause when the lights go at 1 a.m. and the fan stops whirring. Until the generator shudders to life and the air returns to the room, the fan whirring reassuringly over your head again. In that pause you hear the world of other sounds that exist outside the electric drone. A neighbour’s child, the thunder of a storm making its way across the night, the dying moments of an evangelical service, a lone dog barking in the distance, insects whose names you do not know. The sounds of nighttime Accra are so familiar that in those seconds when I wake up in the sudden and unbearable stillness I get confused about where I am.

There are many moments of confusion during my time in Ghana. It is déjà vu for something I have not yet seen.

Excerpt from Azonto Lessons, a piece I wrote for this month’s issue of Caribbean Beat.

Read the full piece here

From Home to Home

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Ah went away
Ah leave and ah forward home
Ah forward to stay
Ah must see mih way
—Forward Home, Andre Tanker

You know that move? The one when the pressure from the drumming gets to be too much. When you feeling like your spirit might separate from your body. You ketch the power of the rhythm and it’s like your spine can no longer keep your body upright. You are water and fire and moving air. You are one in a crowd heaving like jouvay morning when you on that Savannah stage and the sun coming up over your Laventille hills.

Your knees buckle and you dip. Your arms end up on top your head—you can feel all your chakras open and the kundalini rising like smoke from some sacred fire burning inside you. Your feet do steps you never knew you knew. Your bottom is a republic.

I am outside the palace of the Asantehene in Kumasi dancing with a couple hundred other people I have never seen before. It is the day before the funeral of someone I do not know. I was passing by and heard the music and the combination of a riddim section and sweet brass was too much to resist. It’s a telling moment in this my first visit to Africa. I submit to a bigger force that has drawn me here. I submit to what Africa has done to consolidate itself not just in a vague way in my imagination but in the front of my mind.

I’ve seen a few different Africas in the past three weeks. I’ve seen the Africa you see on television. The one they want us to believe is the only one that exists. I’ve seen the Africa that made me want to plead with the gods of personal hygiene and promise to never take indoor plumbing for granted again.

I’ve seen the Africa of my imagination. The one that looks like home. That feels like I belong here. That I blend into and don’t feel like an outsider. And people who don’t question why a little black girl like me should be interested in the things that I am interested in. I have seen more Christian churches than I can count. And the fear on the face of the woman who accompanies me to witness a roadside ceremony that marks the death of a powerful traditional priest.

I have seen the kind of wealth that would make my uptown London friends feel like paupers. And discovered another level of pan-Africanism that we forgot that out little T&T that has given the world. Speak the names George Padmore and Henry Sylvester Williams and CLR James and Kwame Ture in some quarters and the air starts to vibrate with the memory of the contributions.

I have met Ghanaians who want to know what scenes Trinis really on. They want to know how come the T&T Government acted so shady in signing the gas deal that eventually went to the Chinese. They want to know if Trinis don’t want to deal with Africans, if they really believe the fiction that black people not good at business.

They want to know if we know that it is because their past President Gerry Rawlings came to Trinidad for Emancipation that the Door of No Return at Cape Coast castle was reopened and that every year people come from all over the diaspora to walk through that door.

Ghanaians pick at their wounds too. We talk politics into the wee hours. E-mailgate rubs up against a court hearing on irregularities in their recently held general election. We laugh on the outside at the colossal stupidity of politicians on both sides of the Atlantic. But weep on the inside. At how we are still confronting the same post-colonial monsters.

We commiserate with the African Americans who have only recently discovered what we have known for 50 years—that because your leader looks like you it doesn’t mean that he or she has your best interests at heart.

I wish I could bring a few people from T&T to meet all the little black boys and girls I was hanging out with. The highly educated ones. The ones who do not feel the need to apologise for their blackness or don’t feel like you curse their mother if you call them African. Who understand that being sure of who you are isn’t a threat to anyone else’s identity. In fact, your surety puts you in a better position to contribute to forward movement.

When I regain control of my body and the music is just an echo, my spirit is dancing still. To the music of possibility. I wash off the last remnants of doubt on that same coast where my ancestors were taken away in ships. I left home to come home. And they welcomed me like I had never left. When I leave home to go back home, I hope the welcome will be as warm.

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Castle in the Sand

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I wish I could give all I’m longing to give
I wish I could live like I’m longing to live
I wish I could do all the things that I can’t do
Though I’m way overdue 
I’d be starting anew

—I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free, Nina Simone

 

 
At a bend in the road, you turn right at the University of Cape Coast and the sight of the sea is startling. Not just for the sun shining silver on its surface. The row of coconut trees makes me feel like I’ve fallen asleep and woken up on the road to Mayaro. And I know that somewhere far far away on the other side of the Atlantic, I’ve stood on the beach watching the same sun shining silver on the sea’s surface imagining what the coast in Africa looked like.

But now that I am here, there is a lump in my throat and a sense of dread building in my ears. Elmina is a pleasant enough fishing village. Some of the inhabitants are light-skinned, a leave over legacy from 400 years of ownership of Elmina Castle by the Dutch, the Portuguese and finally the English. They say they came here first for gold. But as we enter the Castle and begin the tour our guide says they were always on a mission to trade in humans.

We go down into the dungeons where the stench of centuries of human decay is still palpable. We go down into the belly of the castle to meet the noise of ancestors screaming out in agony. The roar of the sea is distant as is sun’s light. He shows us where the Governor would stand and select women captives to rape. He shows us the death dungeon with the skull and crossbones over the door where no-one came out alive. By the time we get to the Door of No Return I am plotting ways to escape.

Even as I walk here I am having that kind of out-of-body experience. This is not really me. We retrace the steps of millions of people whose names we do not know.  Who died here covered in the filth of others. Who suffered every possible indignity known to humankind to make others wealthy. The familiar weight of my bag, the camera in my hand. I focus on these things to protect me from the magnitude of what I am confronting.

To those who say it is time to forget I say that the stench of 400 years of human waste is unforgettable. To those who say black people should get over it, I say we need more than ever now to understand that enslavement is real and present and as much a threat now as it was 170 years ago. Some of us choose enslavement now. To material things. And people. And the god of someone else’s ancestors. And the drivel of politicians. And looking like someone else. 

We have the freedom to choose these prisons. Far from Elmina. Far from the plantations. Far from the stinking, fetid dungeons and ships, we choose to be shackled to death and decay. It is history but it still lives. The virulent strain of capitalism that runs the world right now will not think twice about reintroducing chattel slavery. And they might not ship us across the Atlantic anymore. But some of us don’t mind the cheap labour that makes our laptops. The sweat shops that make our clothes.

Some of us don’t see the connection between the material possessions that we crave that keep other people in grinding poverty. Elmina is Elmina. Elmina is also a clothing factory in Bangladesh that collapses under the weight of its own greed. Elmina is a mine in South Africa where police officers shoot to kill when the miners demand better wages and working conditions. Elmina is the scorn poured on trafficked women from South America in a police-run whorehouse in Trinidad.

Elmina lives and breathes and laughs in our faces. The dungeons are still full of the stench of our complicity in the enslavement of others for our benefit. I flee from the stench and the darkness. I run from the Door of No Return, hoping to never have to be there again. In that hot, dark place. Bent and broken.

With my modern mind that knows only freedom I wonder whether I would have survived. Whether I would have chosen death rather than face the uncertainty of the dungeons, the crossing, the plantation. Survival is a mark of defiance. I feel another surge of pride that I belong to them. They must have had serious belly. They must have been the bad-minded ones. I wonder if they didn’t long to join the sea’s percussion. Their bones the rhythm section for the waves’ endless bass. 

I feel another surge of pride that we made it. That the ancestors on whose shoulders I stand were strong enough to endure that Hell that I shudder to imagine. So that I can stand here now. Free as ever. In the light at the top of this castle. Watching the sea and longing for Manzanilla.

Ghana Roadtrip

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Hurtling into Fanti country in a beat-up Benz with a wonky gear box, the potholed roads make us zig zag, narrowly missing kamikaze goats and African versions of maxi taxis. Women walking between villages with loads on their heads and babies on their backs and cutlasses in their hands. I’m on the way to a clinic in the middle of nowhere with a Trini warrior named Dr Susan Alfred from Matelot who trains young village women to become dental technicians.
Our young driver Sammy swerves in time to the Bunji I am blasting. What is this music? I say soca…He says ahhhhhh and nods his head.
Different vibe, same energy. Keeping us moving forward.

This evening at WEB Du Bois’ compound

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Went to WEB Du Bois’ compound for an open forum with Angela Davis and Ama Ata Aidoo, the grand dame of African women’s writing. Looking for a seat, this woman sees my mother and says ‘you look familiar’! Turns out she was in Trinidad a few times for Emancipation, but hasn’t been back for several years. She say she coming back this year!
She’s finding us molasses and honey for Eintou to do her rituals when we go to Cape Coast on Monday to walk back through the Door of No Return….
They also spoke about how many Caribbean people came and lived in Ghana thanks to the efforts of early Pan Africanists like Garvey, CLR James, Henry Sylvestre Williams and George Padmore. It’s all a bit overwhelming, to be honest. So I’m going to do like a good Trini and find a fete so I could dance out all that I’m feeling and trying to find names of feelings for. Ase!

You are home

I cried when we took off in Rome. I cried when everyone started clapping when the plane touched down in Lagos. I cried again when we got to Accra and everyone clapped. I ran out of the plane, hoping I wouldn’t further embarrass myself with more tears. I started laughing instead, when the wall of heat hit my face. The smells and the people and the steupsing and the laughter. ‘You are home,’ the man behind me said. ‘You are home.’

London is the Place

 

I still smile every time I come out of the Brixton Tube station and turn left, and it’s like being in Africa and Asia and the Caribbean all at once. The incense man outside the supermarket is really from Barbados, though he pronounces “incense” like a Jamaican. A car passes, blasting the latest funky house summer scorcher, the unholiest of combinations of high life’s easy groove, dancehall’s driving bass, and soca’s call to wine.

 

Piece I wrote for Caribbean Beat Magazineon my ongoing love affair with Babylondon.

 

Things I learned today while learning to ride a bike

Yeah so this about twenty years late, but better late than never, no? Well I figure if I really want to commit to this hippy life I should at least know how to ride a bike. This is a lot easier than it sounds, but to my surprise I didn’t suck as badly at it as I thought I would and I did manage to pedal a few times.  But it occurred to me as I wobbled along, picturing all the while that I was riding to Spitalfields Market (maybe this is why I was distracted and couldn’t steer straight) that life is a lot like learning to ride a bike. For the following reasons, in no particular order.

1. it hurts sometimes.

2. you need to find balance!

3. you will fall!

4. it really helps to have a boomsie (thank you, starch mango tree)

5. did I mention balance?

6. be patient with yourself, you will get it evenutally (I had a few Don Music moments)

7.  random men will think it’s okay to give you their (unsolicited) advice.

8. when you can’t make it up the hill, it’s always good to have a friend to push you, and steer you away from the potholes.

9. there are potholes and you seem to be attracted to them.

10. laughing helps.

11. everybody looks this stupid at least once in their lives.

12. brakes! don’t forget the brakes.

Anyway, my hands hurt from hours of over-zealous brake application so that’s about as much wisdom as I can impart for now.  all of which is to say that I’m glad that I got over my lameness and actually took the chance to try something new!

This is what it sounds like when boys cry.

It is an awful sound.  Guttural and raw.  A teenaged boy sobbing.  It is the worst sound and it twists my insides and I am fighting back tears.  Not for the boy these boys are weeping for. I did not know Zac Olumegbon.  Or more correctly, I do not remember him.  He was the little brother of my little sister’s best friend.  She had the most serious face, I remember. I always wondered why children here always looked so serious. Like they had the world of worries.  Perhaps they do, living in this corner of Babylondon.

And if I have run away from Trinidad hoping to escape the endless statistics of little black boys killing each other for honour, to regain their misplaced manhood, I have run to the wrong place.

Brixton, despite the gentrification and the nice gastro pubs and the belligerent foxes, is one of those London places where crime happens.  I don’t see the Eastern European whores in the park anymore and outside the Library they’ve made it all shiny and new.  But there are still old homeless people and young drugged up people and sad drunk people of all ages.  They do not go away despite the shiny new surfaces.

The sight of crying children is unbearable.  I guess because I take such a pragmatic view of death. It happens. It is natural.  Zac’s life as one of the speaker’s says, has been stolen.  Like a chain from someone’s neck.  Like the childhood of all these young people who have to say goodbye to a boy who has not yet lived.

They stabbed him.  Children stabbed him.  Children like him.  What can they possibly know of life to warrant killing a 15 year old.  What could they possibly be so sure of that they can take another life?

I look at the faces of my sisters’ friends.  They are young and old at the same time.  Too much living too soon.  I cherish my own sheltered childhood.  That I got to doubt myself and make believe and wish and dream and never once wonder if someone was going to deny me the chance to make mistakes.

My fought back tears are not for Zac.  They are rather for his friends and family.  Hundreds of them.  Gathered in grief on this bleakest of summer days.  There are long silences punctuated only by half stifled sobs and sniffles.

The police stay a respectable distance.  No profiling now.  No microwaving of leftover sus laws.

A young man read/raps Psalm 37 in the rhythm and truth of his Sath Landin twang.  The cheeky boys from the bus hold each other and cry silently, and then wipe the tears away as if they are angry with their leaking eyes.

My fought back tears are for them.  For their anger and grief.  For his mother and his sister and my sisters and all the young women here who will have to find a way to keep loving these men who are at war with themselves.

What war the Pastor asks. What war can they fight when they own nothing? What post code, what block belongs to them?  What property do they own when they live in state provided housing, are second generation immigrants? Where do they belong? Not even to themselves.

These children cry and my mother instinct moans helplessly.  There is no consoling for this kind of grief.  You can’t stick a dummy in the mouth of a generation that is becoming accustomed to burying their own.

I leave before it is finished.  Leave his mother reading the mountain of tributes.  Leave behind  Zac Olumegbon, who was the little brother of my little sisters friend.  They hope he has not died in vain.  All these people who have come to weep for him.  They hope no more will have to shed tears like this again.  Still, sirens wail in the distance, louder than Zac’s mother, louder than the thud of a boy fainting from grief, louder than the shaky voices of his school friends crying out to Christ for mercy. On this bleak summer day.

Songs and Memories

Been doing a lot of backing up and adding and deleting tonight. Listening to favourite songs and some songs I haven’t listened to in ages. Brings back really wonderful memories of my life and times, trodding through creation, meeting some wonderful people and maintaining ties with some lovely old friends. Some songs I can’t listen to anymore because they are so full of memories…some of them bring back a time when life was less complicated. But I am thankful for them all. I guess I’m documenting them in the unfortunate event that I forget how much these pieces of music and the times and the places and the people mean to me.

Billie Jean – Michael Jackson Early 1980′s George Lamming was staying at our house, working on something or another. My sister had just got a copy of the Thriller album and we set about playing it over and over. Uncle George declares to our great shock and horror ‘Who is this Jackson person?’ So of course we had to put on a whole concert for him, including Didi doing the moonwalk across the living room. At the end of the song, Uncle George declares ‘This is a funny sort of house’.

Inglan is a Bitch – Linton Kwesi Johnson – 1987 London The mother took me to an LKJ concert in London somewhere. I don’t remember the details because I slept through most of it, but at some point in the night I remember waking up to see this little black guy prancing around the stage singing in the roughest, loveliest voice I’ve ever heard ‘Hinglan is a beeetch’. Been in love with him ever since.

Everybody Wants to Rule the World – Tears for Fears – 1986 Watford. I was standing at the bus stop outside Woolworths with my sisters on the way to school. I was standing there minding my own business when this woman comes up and punches me in the face. Dry so!! Buss my lip and everyting. Not pleasant. This is the song that was playing on the radio when the Babylon came to question me about the woman after school.

Natty Dread – Bob Marley and the Wailers May 2000 Kingston. Went down to Trench Town to do some volunteer work at a community centre. They didn’t cater for the vegetarians so we wandered across the street looking for a vendor. Happened to wander straight into the yard where Bob used to live with his mother and Bunny Wailer. We sat in the shade of giant ganja trees and reasoned with rasta elders who gave us fruits and coconut water to eat. Bliss!

He Loves Me – Jill Scott – Winter 2003 England – Road Trip to Stone Henge with my very good sister friends Tonni, Tamara, BinghiNya and Gab. Nya was driving us to Bath and then she started to sing this song. I am so very thankful to have these womyn in my life!!

Here and Now- Andre Tanker – Winter 2003, China. I didn’t find out that Andre died a whole three days after… That day Tonni and I took a trip to the sea off Qinhuangdao. It was cold and the water grey. But it was good to be by the sea and I was glad to have a moment to whisper my goodbyes into the waves.

Fools Die – Peter Tosh- New Years Day 2004 London. Passed out at Skateboard Pete’s New Years Party, woke up at 6 am and this is the song Svenn was playing. A melancholy way to start a bizarre year that I was very glad to see the end of!

Shanti Om – Lord Shorty – Jouvay 2004 Trinidad We were just coming out of the Savannah. I think Shel Shok was the DJ. The sun was just coming up and they drop this song! Ooooh gouud…I was never so happy to be home as in that moment. By Ash Wednesday I was cured of that, though.

Natural Roots – Jah Shaka – Summer 2004 Me and Empress Jo in Finsbury Park at an all day Dub festival. The house in Turnpike Lane with the Hairy Fairies and food and reasonings and energy balls and falling asleep standing up in all night Jah Shaka dances in the Rocket in Holloway. The N29! D&G ginger beers and the best 24 hour snack shop in Trafalgar Square. Primrose Hill and vegan Thai buffet paradise for stoners. Sundays in Spitalfields market. Cheesy reggae Saturday nights in Camden! And that lovely Ethiopian bredrin, Yohannes was his name?

Water No Get Enemy – Fela Anikulapo Kuti – Autumn 2004 London – Svenn used to play this song at least twice a day. I don’t know why it became such an anthem for us, given that we were living in the middle of Chelsea with Ralph Lauren as our corner store, ha! Walking down to King’s Road we would spontaneously start singing the song together. Our merriment was frequently cut short by a burst of running to catch the Number 19.

One Day – Mungal featuring 3 Canal – New Years Day 2005 London – Me, Kassie and Nya talking about all our hopes and dreams and fears on the brink of a new day.

Zion – Maximus Dan – Summer 2005 – I was living in Zürich and getting rather fat. So every morning I would go for a run in a vineyard near the lake. It was mostly uphill and I would never really think I could make it. But just as I got to the top of the hill this song would come on and I would practically fly down the hill towards home, smiling maniacally with my hair flapping about in the breeze. Needless to say the neighbours stared at me like I just landed from another planet….

Anisiedad – Daisy Voisin Christmas 2005 Trinidad. I hadn’t been home since my grandmother died in 2003. The mother was in the kitchen making black cake and then this song came on and it made me think of my Ida and the fact that she was the original black cakist. That I would never again have the pleasure of her boofs, her smiles, her sarcasm, her pakchoi and rice! I hadn’t had a chance to cry for her in almost two years of travelling, working, loving, moving again, running away and trying to figure out where home was. But then Daisy came on and I got a full appreciation of all that I was missing and all that I had missed.

Live Good – Burning Spear- Carnival 2006 Chatham …the first time I went down to Chatham and met the women of the community and was so impressed by the concern and commitment that I was motivated to get involved in their struggle against Alcoa. When the meeting was finished we ate with them and then Samantha, the 8 year old daughter of our hosts, took my hand and walked with me around her yard. She pointed out all the different trees: mango, pomerac, zaboca, fig. And then she looked me in the eye and said ‘if Alcoa comes I not going to have this anymore’. Part of the reason I never went back to Switzerland…

Ee wa Obakoso – Ella Andall – Summer 2007 Iceland – We were driving up to Husavik right at the northernmost point of Iceland. At about 1 am it was still light and my anarchist friends decided that that was a good time to go check out a crater. It was so windy and cold I ran all the way. Got to the top out of breath with the wind howling in my ears and the crater’s gravel crunching under my hiking boots. I don’t know if I was crying because I was so cold or because I was so overwhelmed to be where I was for the reason that I was there. I had never felt so far from home and yet so close to myself. The wind blew my tears away and then everything got very still.

Naturally – Slow Train – Rainy Season 2008, Trinidad. Me and Kassie, joined by Jacob on a road trip to Toco. We practically wore a hole into that cd replaying that song speeding through the north coast.

Even After All- Finley Quaye- Many Many Nights 2008 The Republic. After party cleaning up. Svenn bepping on the day bed. Sheli listening to every note. Keshav singing and washing dishes. Makeda cooking, again. Me playing ten last songs. Daddy O recounting Amel’s birth. Lemongrass and ginger tea, chocolate tea and pongkin choka. Enamel cups and loud laughter.

Okay I’m going to stop there before this gets too cheesy….