“Nana Yaa had wanted to bring down Kwaku Dua since they were both five years of age.” Mum’s story always begins exactly like that. She even has a name for her story, my mother. She calls it ‘Nana Yaa, Kwaku Dua and the Green-Gold Fire’. When I was little, I would beg Mum to tell me the story before I fell asleep at night. I can still hear her uncompromising refusal. “This is an extraordinary story, Afua. Not some little fairytale for bedtime.”
As I got a bit older, directed by teachers waxing lyrical over the idea of the Australian nation built upon the tales of elsewhere, I would ask my mother to write her story down. But my mother, stubborn as she is, would always say, “Oh no, who is going to read my silly scribblings? This is a story written on my soul, not destined for paper. And anyhow, Afua, I know what you are up to. I do not want our story read by those small brats and freckled teachers who think Vegemite is some kind of heritage of which to be proud.”
But today I have the better of my strong-willed mother. Today is one of those rare occasions where I know the words will push themselves over her tongue. We — hundreds of us — have descended upon a school hall in Bankstown. No doubt when this square, pale brick box was built way back in the 1970s or 80s, nobody would have imagined it being filled with over 300 Ghanaians dressed in swathes of patterned material. The material is the red of life that streams through our veins, the white of mother’s milk and vast skies, the inky blacks, greys and blues of the dark depths of the human soul. These are the colours of kinship and mourning, for Auntie Adwoa, a relative by some stretch of the family tree branch, has recently passed. My mother, now the matriarch of our Sydney clan, is in charge of organising us, the women, to prepare the funeral feast. I know that once Mum has created some order out of us, the story will begin. I am here to capture it in my heart. At twenty-one, I am old enough to use the quiet deep inside of me to concentrate with my full being, and to realise the meaning behind the words.
My grandmother, our great matriarch, says Mum, was Nana Yaa Sono Asare Ofori.
After slowly drawing out the name of my great-grandmother, Mum pauses and looks around, making eye contact with each of us listeners. At this point, we all feel it — the silvery spin of the spider’s web that ties our souls together, the blood of the clan running through us, the union with the ancestors. I love this moment. She continues.
Nana Yaa came into this world on a Saturday, hence she was named ‘Yaa’. Now, Yaa, as we know, means bravery. Early in her life, Nana Yaa acquired the additional name ‘Sono’, meaning elephant, because even as a tiny child she had astonishing powers of memory, just like those magnificent creatures.
This story has been entrusted to me, I believe, by our ancestors. I was Nana Yaa’s confidante and witness at the time of the events at hand. This is the story of one day, some forty years ago, when I was a child of only nine years. Nana Yaa and her sister Nana Abenaa had raised me from the time my poor mother died, before I could even say one word. Nana Abenaa was the sweeter one, but with Nana Yaa, it was like she and I had one mind, one soul. Our soul-in-union had a brittle shell that Nana Abenaa’s did not. Nana Yaa would always know my secrets before one word had spilled from my lips, and she would tell me all of hers. Even when she would not tell me, I could always read her. She would say, “Child, stop fixing me with those eyes. You know your gaze pierces my insides and does terrible things to my bowels.”
Nana Yaa had wanted to bring down Kwaku Dua since they were both five years of age. Our ancestors presented her with an opportunity when she had made ninety-one years of age. She was a patient woman, our grandmother. After all, she had waited eighty-six years for the perfect opportunity. Ninety-one years her broad brown feet had stubbornly gripped the dusty earth of our dear Ashanti land. Her small stubby toes spread wide and the flatness of her feet were evidence of her sheer determination. Through this body she anchored her soul in the world of humans until retribution against Kwaku Dua had been exacted.
If somebody had stared into Nana Yaa’s eyes on the day that the ancestors proffered her their gift of opportunity, they would have surely seen a strange green-gold glow emitting from them. The flash of a leopard’s gaze at night. A fusion of the yellow cacao pod, the jade leaves of the shade trees and the sparkle of the night sky. But not one person, aside from me, of course, was the least bit concerned with the hunched old woman at that moment. Perhaps those whose ankles she rapped with her walking stick as she pushed her way to the front of the crowd scowled at her in passing. But mostly, the hundreds and thousands of people were happily and impatiently waiting for a sighting of the anticipated spectacle below.
The villagers from just outside Kumasi town had gathered in two lines on either side of the road that gently snaked up the hill. The two lines of people met at a throng on the hill’s crest, where Chief Kwaku Dua’s grand white colonial mansion stood. Oh, the sight of the waiting crowd alone was enough to stir such excitement that one would have been forgiven for not holding down one’s breakfast. I remember watching the hornbills overhead in the cloudless azure sky. Their flight usually regal and relaxed, on this day their movement was oddly jagged, as if they could not keep straight bearings. Was it that they saw two pythons lying on the hill below, in a mating dance? Pythons of sizes large enough to raise their bodies high into the skies and pluck out the hornbills? Pythons with scales of iridescent hues?
For although this gathering was about death, it was such a change to typical death rituals that every kin gathered, young and old, was wearing not the subdued shades we wear today, but dazzling cloth, rich with the density of the primary colours and their cousins. Reds, blues, yellows, orange, greens, purples. This was cloth still saturated with fresh dye, not yet faded by sun, or wear, or scrubbing. Cloth like new, for special times. With its intricate line work and geometric patterns, the cloth was draped generously across the bodies of the villagers, each with their muscular right arms bare. A handsome contrast of firm, smooth, dark skin and colour it was. The women also wore the cloth piled atop their heads, in the style that we wear today. Clean-scrubbed children delighted in the rare opportunity to freely follow their natural instincts to play. Relaxed adults happily greeted distant kin and enjoyed the sensuous feel of being so magnificently attired. Every person smelled fresh, without dirt and sweat from toil touching them. All chattered about what awaited their hungry eyes, and excitement quivered and zinged in the sweet, heavy air.
It was the first time that any of us could remember Chief Kwaku Dua opening his gates to us villagers. For once we could stretch upright, backs tired and sore from working cacao plantations and food gardens, and languorously gaze upon our lands below. Or rather, the lands that we worked and Kwaku Dua had claimed as his own. The vista was stunning. It was the end of the rains, a radiant day, and a brilliant, almost lurid young green surrounded us, dotted with clusters of the villagers’ circular thatched houses. The canopy of rainforest, cacao and shade trees spread luxuriantly around the base of the hill.
Nana Yaa alone remained unmoved. Her attire was the same as on any other day — a simple cotton shift, its colours dulled to insipid shades over time, as shapeless as a cacao sack. I, too, under her command, was dressed as normal. God forgive me, a corner of my soul splintered away from hers and was filled with a thunderous anger for this shame I felt had been inflicted upon me by Nana Yaa.
“A man only of Kwaku Dua’s level of vulgarity could invite such a spectacle. Why should we dress for it?” she said to me, reading my subversive piece of soul. A neat sphere of spit closely followed her words for emphasis and splayed on the dusty ground beside my feet. Osikani, rich man, she hissed under her breath.
You know that we Ghanaians invest great value in our funerals and will spare no expense. Look at today, even here in Sydney, far from our homeland! Kwaku Dua, reportedly deteriorating in strength, had taken this custom to dizzying new heights of show and cultural innovation. As always, driven by his ego, Kwaku Dua did not want the party to be held only after his death. Two months before the events I am recounting here, Kwaku Dua had called the two greatest living coffin artisans, Papa Tetteh and Samuel Mensah, both based in Accra, to his white mansion in the Kumasi region. At this meeting, Kwaku Dua informed Papa Tetteh and Samuel Mensah that they would need to vie for his coffin contract, worth many millions of cedis. Kwaku Dua wanted the greatest vessel that had ever been: his home, his transport to the ancestral spirit, an offering to his forefathers so as to entertain and flatter them into providing him welcome. Stronger, however, was his desire for every living person in the whole of Ghana and certainly in his region to be reminded of his superior status.
Word had travelled on the coastal winds blowing in from Accra that Papa Tetteh had constructed not one but a whole train of coffins in order to secure the reward. This burial train had been transported to Kumasi. It was now being carried by a troupe of men from the town to Kwaku Dua’s mansion.
This, the burial train, is what the villagers had turned out to see. Nana Yaa thought it to be nonsense. She could not believe that the ancestors would be stupid enough to be blinded to Kwaka Dua’s lifetime of obscenities by fancy boxes. She imagined the spirits, including that of her brother Kumi, receiving Kwaku Dua as naked as the day he was born, his flaccid little appendage rendered even more shameful in comparison with his body’s monstrous size. No box would spare him.
A cry was heard from below and carried rapidly up the hill, as if as a grassfire. “It has arrived!” a large, handsome woman beside Nana Yaa and I exclaimed.
After the first collective cry a momentary hush descended upon the crowd, eyes rounded, jaws swinging on their hinges. The silence lasted for a mere heartbeat before exuberant cheering, clapping, singing and dancing broke out, welcoming the burial train.
Nana Yaa was proud to have retained a complete set of teeth and the sharpest hearing in her village despite her considerable years. The latter power manifested itself in impressively large ears that seemed to hang two-thirds the length of her bony bare skull, and beyond, the lobes extended over the years by heavy, beaten gold jewellery. But her eyes’ ability to reach distances had long since betrayed her. Nana Yaa squinted down the hill to where the burial train emerged. I knew she would not be able to make out anything but some formless objects in brilliant shades, and I could not find a gap in the crowd through which to peer.
“Tell me, child, what is the first coffin? My eyes are dull,” Nana Yaa asked the woman standing beside us.
“Grandmother, excuse me, I cannot hear you,” the woman shouted, bending to match Nana Yaa’s height.
“The first coffin, child! What is its form?” Nana Yaa rasped, as loudly as her aged lungs allowed.
“Grandmother, I am not sure. It is placed atop an elephant… Wait… Is it? Yes, it appears to be a person.”
“A person, child?”
Now, you must understand Nana Yaa’s surprise. This was unheard of. These expensive coffins would be carved and painted to replicate the shapes of inanimate objects dear to the deceased. Not people.
“Indeed! A woman! With large breasts and a rounded belly. Oh, she is so beautiful, Grandmother. On her head is a crown of feathers in all the colours of the wild birds of the rainforest. And the way she is sitting with one hand on her belly and the other outstretched with palm upwards, why she looks so serene and gentle. Grandmother, do you not see that her fine figure is all in gold? And her cloth, oh to wear such fine cloth. I do not know where Papa Tetteh found this pattern, it is not an Ashanti pattern. Oh, how the sunlight hits her, you would think she is glowing from the inside, like the Goddess is here with us right now, living and breathing. Samuel Mensah must be feeling bad. Very, very bad indeed.”
So the leading carriage was Ulombu, our people’s deity of fertility! I glanced at Nana Yaa and could see that this tickled her, fed the cold, green-gold flame inside. With the burial train snaking nearer to where we stood, I forgot my anger with Nana Yaa for shaming us with plain dress, and became her eyes. I described the other coffins that followed Ulombu. There was a giant cacao pod, symbolising the source of Kwaku Dua’s wealth. It was as yellow as the blazing sun, formed like a misshapen egg, pointed at one end, with a rough, knobbly texture. So imperfect, like the real pods are, as to be a perfect replica. Next came a boxy, grandiose, white Mercedes-Benz sedan, so much like the one that belonged to Kwaku Dua, the only such vehicle in the area, that it looked as if it could glide away on its wooden wheels at any moment. Not only had Papa Tetteh elicited a deep metallic sheen from its white coat of paint, but it was replete with all the trimmings — a Mercedes-Benz badge on the hood, glass windows and side-view mirrors, windscreen wipers, even an antenna. Following the Mercedes-Benz was a yellow-and-white lottery card and a blue lead pencil with which to mark the boxes; a chocolate bar carrying a label of Ghanaian cocoa, with the effect of a smooth red paper outer and crunchy silver wrapping peeping through either end; a blackened silver fish with dull glassy eyes of death representing Kwaku Dua’s favourite dish of fried fish; a cigarette with a glowing red tip as if one was spying it at night; and a bottle of rum with a beautiful multicoloured parrot on the label. How Papa Tetteh achieved the effected of the glass bottle’s transparency, I do not know. All Kwaku Dua’s great passions, comforts and vices were there, and I described them all to Nana Yaa.
But it was Ulombu the fertility goddess alone that captured Nana Yaa’s attention. No doubt Papa Tetteh chose to showcase this unique vessel at the front as a way of flattering Kwaku Dua’s Big Man ego. In so doing, he hoped that Kwaku Dua would choose this coffin in which to be buried in. Ashong was known as a greatly fertile patriarch, with seven wives, fifty-four children, one hundred and twenty-seven grandchildren, and a number of great-grandchildren so great that no-one could be bothered counting, lazily referring to them as ‘one thousand’.
But our Nana Yaa knew something about Kwaku Dua, a secret that he once, twice, thrice begged her never to tell another. In their mature years, she speculated that Kwaku Dua had long forgotten her, or believed that the morsel of secret knowledge that she possessed would have long gone stale and lost its deliciousness. Or that she was seen by their people as nothing more than an eccentric old grandmother with a motheaten memory. Yes, she did mutter and complain perpetually. Yes, she was too old at that time to care for any social niceties, voicing savage truths whenever she desired and indulging in exactly two loud emissions of gas after each meal. But she knew, although it had been a while, that she could command an audience when she wished to. After all, she was from royal lineage, just like Kwaku Dua.
We had followed the crowd that had closed in behind the advancing burial train to the giant set of marble steps leading to the entrance of Kwaku Dua’s mansion. Having once again successfully jostled her way to the front of the crowd, with I in her wake, Nana Yaa gazed up to where Kwaku Dua sat not far from her, on his grand marble verandah. Where Nana Yaa’s body has shrunk, brittle and lined with age, sunken and hung loosely on small muscles, Kwaku Dua’s had gained in corpulence, developing folds upon folds of soft, velvet-sheened flesh. No wonder they called him Kwaku Dua — Kwaku the Tree. Each year he acquired another ring of flesh. Kwaku Dua perched on a chair gaudily modelled after the Ashanti legend of the Golden Stool. This further disgusted Nana Yaa; that he could use the symbol of Ashanti unity like this. Kwaku Dua’s squat legs were spreadeagled to make room for his gross belly to rest atop his thighs and cascade over the space between his legs, where Nana Yaa and I imagined his little shrivelled peanut to lie hidden and smothered. His two eldest wives sat on either side of him, while the other wives stood flanking him. They were all heavily ordained with gold necklaces, bracelets and anklets and were carefully groomed, some of them quite beautiful. But Nana Yaa knew that none of them could command the hold on Kwaku Dua that she once could.
So everybody was there – all of Kwaku Dua’s clan and all of his workers from our clan, all Ashanti people but rivals nonetheless. And it was to be Kwaku Dua’s last public appearance before he succumbed to the call from the other world, a day that he expected would cap his grand status as revered Ashanti leader. How would Ashong react when Nana Yaa breathed her practiced words of fire into the crowd and humiliated him in the place from which no man can escape? Kwaku Dua had never been quick of wit, unlike her, unlike his father. Nana Yaa and I — one mind’s eye, one soul — imagined his big flabby lips flapping open and closed, no words emerging. To leave the human world with the crowd’s laughter ringing in his ears and that thought in every person’s mind would mean that Kwaku Dua would be forever remembered as a Very Small Big Man.
Nana Yaa and I found our inner thoughts to be momentarily distracted by the movement of a figure in the crowd. It was Samuel Mensah! We did not expect the losing party in the contest of coffin artisans to appear, to be a witness to his own disgrace. What was he doing there? Nana Yaa was perplexed; I too. Samuel had a strange expression on his face, and there was a look in his eyes that echoed against the hollow walls of our insides. That green-gold flash of iris and pupil was not hers and mine alone that day. Samuel Mensah stealthily retreated to the area where the women cooked. We could smell the freshly-slaughtered animals cooking; see the women busily preparing the feast over open fires. All the villagers were looking forward to tasting meat. Nana Yaa and I were not hungry though, and our focus returned to Kwaku Dua. The familiar fire in our bellies was feeding us. It had done so for Nana Yaa since she was just five years and sat on her grandfather’s knee while he told her the old stories, of how Kwaku Dua’s people had unjustly asserted their dominance over her own.
Our people, Nana Yaa’s people, were the original inhabitants of the area, born from the earth upon which we stood that day. Kwaku Dua’s people had migrated much later in search of water. Rightfully, Nana Yaa’s people could rule Kwaku Dua’s and it is likely that that natural social order would have continued had it not been for colonial interference in our land. The British and Kwaku Dua’s people recognised something in each other; the common desire to bring down our kingdom. Together the British, the Fante and Kwaku Dua’s people fought bitter wars against our people across the nineteenth century, and managed to establish control.
When Nana Yaa was young, the blaze inside her was less demanding, a flame that simply warmed the glinty steel in her heart and provided the heat to undertake minor mischievous deeds of sabotage against the rival clan. She had always targeted her age-mate Kwaku Dua, recognizing his innate lack of intelligence and knowing that he would ascend to the position of chief one day, if he could secure the strategic marriage as planned for him. It was to Nana Yaa an enjoyable game. At that time she did not hate Kwaku Dua; rather, she pitied him and sometimes even rather liked his stupidity. And he was certainly handsome back then. All body and no brains, her clan sisters would giggle.
Nana Yaa worked on the cacao plantation belonging to Kwaku Dua’s family, the same one where I was raised. In their late teens, before Kwaku Dua had taken his first wife, Nana Yaa was able to assert her dominance over him. While it was difficult for me to imagine as a young child, Nana Yaa had been known, in the freshness of her youth, to be very beautiful — radiant skin, feline eyes shining like starlight, the straightest back and most graceful gait imaginable. She was also very proud. People would whisper that beauty like hers could only come to no good, and indeed most men and boys were terrified of her intelligence and her disdain for them.
Kwaku Dua, however, was too stupid and inflated with self-importance to feel any intimidation. He slavered after Nana Yaa like a dog in heat. Nana Yaa, on her part, liked to lead him into the deep, dappled, private shade of the rainforest bordering the cacao fields, reveling in having Kwaku Dua’s undoubtedly desirable body at her mercy. He would do whatever she told him to. But he could never get his little peanut to grow enough to find release. Nana Yaa enjoyed taunting him even as he begged her not to tell anyone, but he always felt impelled to try again.
Once, as he had fallen asleep in the forest after yet another unsuccessful attempt to relieve himself of his lust for her, she had even rubbed the fresh insides of chilli on the inside of his discarded clothes. She could hear his cries from a considerable distance as she hurried back to her work, smiling, imagining the particularly painful burn in his groin. Nana Yaa never told anyone but me about this time with Kwaku Dua, for before her death she did not want it known that she had lain with him. But she knew he had not fathered those fifty-four children he claimed as his own.
It was not until many years later that the playful flame inside Nana Yaa was fanned by a sudden gust, erupting then into an insatiable, vengeful inferno. Nana Yaa’s younger brother, Kumi, had attempted to lead an uprising against the now-chief, Kwaku Dua.
“Fools”, Nana Yaa jeered under her breath as she looked around the happy crowd gathered to see the burial train, many of whom were our own people. “Do we no longer have a collective memory of the old times? If we did, these simpletons would remember another parade of death, led by Kwaku Dua, far more macabre than this one. They would remember him carrying Kumi’s head on a stake through the villages.”
It was on that very day of Kumi’s death, when, at the age of thirty-six and with five small children, Nana Yaa vowed to bide her time for calculated revenge against Kwaku Dua.
At the foot of Kwaku Dua’s mansion, Papa Tetteh stood in front of Ulombu, grinning madly, confident of his triumph over Samuel Mensah. Smiling, smug, Kwaku Dua struggled to his feet with the aid of his wives. Nana Yaa’s old heart began to beat dreadfully as she readied herself to deliver her long-closeted information. I know this because mine did too. I was afraid, because while my young heart could beat fast and strong, Nana Yaa’s had a sick, irregular beat, reluctant to be spurred on more quickly. Nana Yaa took a deep breath and closed her eyes, connecting her soul with that of her ancestors. This was surely why they had brought her to this earth— to ruin the stupid leader of the rival clan, Kwaku Dua, and help tilt the balance back in the favour of her people.
Just as we felt the ancestors’ fire warming our soul-in-union, mustering our courage, we heard the crescendo of a crazed man’s cry. His strangled war-call stopped the joyous clang of celebratory sounds. Nana Yaa’s eyes snapped open, met mine and then alighted upon a naked figure— Samuel Mensah! — screaming through the crowd wielding a log ablaze at one end. Before the shocked crowd could react beyond stepping out of his path, Samuel set alight the first carriage in the train of coffins. The goddess of fertility went up in a fierce fireball as Papa Tetteh wrestled the heartsore man to the ground. Later, when the villagers would tell the story, they would without fail describe the strangeness of the blaze. a bright green at its centre with tongues of gold, it elicited shivers of cold rather than a burning sensation in those nearby.
Kwaku Dua, meanwhile, clutching his chest, seemed to melt off his golden stool. He hit his marble verandah, sticky blood spreading rapidly from the crushed right side of his skull as if desperate to break out of its confines, delighting in escape.
Watching both Ulombu and Kwaku Dua disintegrate before her eyes, Nana Yaa’s internal fire was extinguished. I too could feel it smoulder and die inside. For a moment we were disappointed, feeling empty, cold and surprisingly ravenous. We had been jilted of the opportunity for revenge. But then we heard the whispers and laughter of our ancestors echoing in our soul. We knew, suddenly, that the Ashanti spirit world was not fooled by Kwaku Dua’s apparent procreative abilities. The goddess of fertility was now nothing but ashes. The other world knew the truth, and everybody gathered there that day would soon proceed to the next world where they too would see the light of the truth. I stared at Nana Yaa, for her face seemed to be strangely contorted. Then I realised. She was smiling! It was the first and last time I saw her jaws set so. A tear, emerald in colour I swear, slithered across the crevices of her left cheek.
Later, as we trudged home with our kinsfolk, Nana Yaa paused for a moment, leaning on her stick. I looked back at her, rushing to her side. It was too late. Although she appeared serene, her wiry bowed legs weakened and caved under her, as if her bones were nothing but crumbling paper. Finally, her toes lost their firm grip on the earth.
Her story finished, my mother comes back from her reverie; her ‘merging with the ancestors’, as she calls it. She briskly claps her hands to signal that we are to return to work preparing the feast. My aunties, cousins and sisters resume everyday conversations, gossiping in pairs and small groups. But today I keep my gaze focused on my mother. She is wearing a strange, sad smile, and her pupils in their dark beds are ablaze with a green-tinged fire.