From the Ashes a Cheetah Rises – A Peculiar Ghanaian Tale

Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s Prime Minister, was deposed in a bloodless coup d’état inmap-ghana-africa-imp February 1966. For once, the CIA was not involved, but I was there.  Well…I was ‘sort of’ there.  It was my very first coup d’état and I slept through it.  It was hot, gray and raining when I rose to consciousness on February 25, 1966 so it was either 10:00 a.m. or 2:00 p.m. but how I knew that is anyone’s guess.  I snatched at the vestiges of images in my mind to form a thought. Any thought I could recognize as such would do.  Finally, it occurred to me I had no idea where I was.  It was no small relief to feel my control-freak kicking in to begin its inventory of the situation.  The data packets were sorted and re-sorted until they made sense.  Ah ha! I was in a hospital room in Tema, Ghana smack in the middle of West Africa.  Although I recalled curling up to receive a spinal tap I had no idea why I had gotten one or how I got here.  To my great relief, Audrey entered the room.  Answers would come now.

Audrey was my friend.  Typically Ghanaian, she was beautiful, elegant, and graceful.  Audrey was also the mother of five and very wise.  She entered the room silently and began to bubble in Twi, her native Akan language, when she realized I was awake.  My command of Twi was much less than hers of English or Dutch but I gathered I’d been unconscious for several days as a result of a bout with meningitis.  She had brought wonderful cut oranges, which my parched body fairly inhaled, and some bloody awful tasting tea, which she said would heal me quickly.  Later I wondered if she came prepared with these wonders daily or if she knew that that day I’d be back.  The Ghanaians I know and love are incredibly intuitive.

In the early morning hours of 24 Feb., 1966, Ghana's armed forces, with the cooperation of the National Police, took over government in "Operation Cold Chop", a well-organized coup d'etat. The first announcement made from Radio Ghana said that the coup was led by Kotoka.  Nkrumah`s statue was pulled down! Here children are seen standing on Nkrumah`s statue”

In the early morning hours of 24 Feb., 1966, Ghana’s armed forces, with the cooperation of the National Police, took over government in “Operation Cold Chop”, a well-organized coup d’etat. The first announcement made from Radio Ghana said that the coup was led by Kotoka. Nkrumah`s statue was pulled down! Here children are seen standing on Nkrumah`s statue”

As the excitement settled, Audrey unfolded the tale of the coup.  She said that the generals had seen Kwame Nkrumah safely out of the country and then taken over.  She also spun images of very dark happenings in Accra, Ghana’s capitol.  The zoo had been broken into and many animals slaughtered and, she said, when the people toppled a statue of Nkrumah they found the skeletal remains of twins. Bad Juju.  Prime Minister Nkrumah had worshiped in his own temple and completely embraced his surrogate title, Osagyefo, which means “redeemer”.   Times would become even more difficult for the Ghanaians and very strange for expatriates like me as General Joseph Arthur Ankrah took the reins of power.

All of us faced a new Ghana, a new order to life as the military closed the harbors, set up checkpoints, and inserted themselves into schools, unions, and the workplace.  The dash-bribes-became virtually codified and bottles of Simba (beer) would no longer do. Cash became king. This is not to say that Nkrumah had done less, it was just that he did it differently.  Nkrumah was focused on his intellectual legacy as well as his in-country power.  Ankrah’s administration was corrupted at a far more fundamental level. Continue reading

Hammond

A Ghanaian who witnessed the fall of colonial rule and the rise of self-rule, Hammond appeared ancient to my nineteen year old eyes. He was a member of the Fante people. His face was weathered and his brow heavy but the parallel scars on each cheek and the scars of various shapes on his arms testified to his traditional upbringing. Hammond carried a well-used King James Bible at all times and was a respected juju man in his village. He read only classic literature and his script was incredibly ornate. Hammond spoke clearly but wrapped his lessons in riddles and open-ended questions he refused to answer.  An enigma, Hammond took the role of the Greek goddess Mentor teaching Telemachus seriously. Why he chose this particular nineteen year old to push through the door of adulthood, I will never know. That he did is a gift I will always treasure. Hammond, you see, had Mana. He could reach through the veil and touch the gods.

Michael, Kwame, Addo, Kaita, and Kofi were already a team managed by Hammond when I proudly began my little 18-month contract to run the recreational facilities for Kaiser Engineers International in Tema, Ghana. Of course, I had no idea what I was doing but I was young and confident that I could learn. The recreation facility—pool, bar, snooker room, and outdoor movie theater—were located within the concrete block walled interior of the ex-patriot compound I always referred to as the Pequod, the famous ship in Moby Dick that represented the world.

My Kaiser briefing probably included corporate goals and objectives but the only thing I recall my boss telling me was to fix the pool so that his wife’s hair did not turn green. You bet! Once Hammond introduced himself and the team, I asked what on earth could turn the boss’ wife’s hair green and why. Hammond explained that she did something to her hair that many oburoni, white man, do that made her hair a yellow color.

The chlorine used in the pool came in 55-gallon drum excessed from WWII. Sometimes things happened and hair turned funny colors. I quickly learned that broadcasting chlorine can result in interesting pH phenomena. Over the next few weeks we experimented. We learned to drive the pH very high between 1:00 and 2:00 P.M., right after the afternoon rain. We waited an hour for the water to calm down in the beating equatorial sun and we’d all jump in for our swimming lessons and mix it up the best we could before the kids and women arrived. By the time the men came in, there was little evidence of chlorine left. Pretty much we solved the problem; although we ran around with red eyes and bleached swimming suits for a while.

Hammond taught me about spitting cobras in the equatorial regions of Africa when we found a baby in the grass. He said we’d find twenty or thirty more and the mother. We did. He demonstrated that he could get the truth from people using a hot knife on a tongue. Although we almost came to blows, he was already in the process when I arrived at work. The thief was identified and ousted from the team and we had no more missing anything while I was there. He laughed at my outrage, protested that only the thief felt pain, and suggested I learn about ways of his people.

One week, Kofi and Addo showed up three days late and had completely forgotten how to swim. I was fit to be tied and ready to terminate when I heard Hammond’s low rolling laugh. His story was of palm wine and celebrations and time. Time, it seems, is a construct of the western world. It is the celebrations that mark the soul. Palm wine, a sweet beverage fermented from a bamboo tap made in a living palm tree, binds the important events in the West African’s life. Religious and other festivals, marriages, deaths, leaders, and sorrow are all bound to the continuum through palm wine. Palm wine is also good medicine. Kofi and Addo stayed employed and learned to swim again.

Hammond believed that most of the strife between tribes was caused by oburoni lines on a map that kept the people from using their land properly. Still, he remembered the colonists fondly. His life was hard. He was grateful he grew up during the colonial times because he was never hungry and had been taught to read and write. As a youth he worked in the gold fields along the Ankobra and Pra rivers and their tributaries. He credited the hard, hard work in the gold fields with building his body and the western medicines with keeping him alive. He often spoke of the abject poverty and ignorance being forced on the younger generation by the Nkrumah government’s commitment to stamping out the tribal culture. This contributed to the sadness in his eyes, I think.

Hammond’s third wife, a younger woman, caused him fits. He outlived the first two wives. The Ghana I knew was a matriarchal society. Business was conducted by the women and men performed the work. Women in Hammond’s tribe stayed with their parents and the husbands came to visit. This wife was a pistol and he was forever considering the situation. Nice to know he was human.

When Michael died, Hammond was there to help me understand. Michael was a kid like me. Like me, he was sure of himself, and a bit arrogant. Like me Hammond had knocked some of the rough edges off of him. Hammond spoke of parasites and death. Parasites, he said, came because the people had forgotten how to prepare the medicines to cure them. Death, he said, came to give Michael another chance to learn.

One dark, moonless night, after my contract with Kaiser was completed and Kwame Nkrumah was out of power; I was driving a dilapidated old Land Rover up the road to the village where I worked with an old, Dutch bush doctor. I heard a thump on the front left panel and felt something. I stopped, in spite of the strict instructions I had been given. In the flashlight beam I found a woman with a child strapped to her front, and a basket full of stuff strewn everywhere. I felt the horror of believing I had hit someone. Then I felt terror as a silent crowd of people began closing in on me as one. Out of nowhere, Hammond appeared. He ordered me to drive away. I refused. He grabbed me and roughly threw me into the Land Rover, all the while shouting at these people in his language. I did as I was told. The next morning Hammond was there to explain the ruse. The woman hit the vehicle, probably with a stick, and pretended to be hurt when I stopped. Since I was carrying no money, I probably would have been beaten to death. These incidents were the sign of the times in Ghana. I was lucky and he probably saved my life. How did he know? Where did he come from? When I asked these questions, he looked down and smiled. Another of Hammond’s unsolved mysteries.

The last time I saw Hammond was at the celebration of my leaving Ghana. He was decked out in a magnificent kente cloth of golds, blues and reds. His skin was oiled and radiant in the sun. He looked radiant; more like a spirit than a man. We drank palm wine and laughed and cried. I heard the drums talk along the river for the first  and last time. They were heralding a visit from someone up north. I’ve long sense forgotten the details of the message and, now, recall only the sound and the thrill. He gave me a note of goodbye and gold lantern to keep his spirit with me always. I have them safely tucked away in a Burmese Black Lacquer box.

The late sixties were a remarkable time; the western world was upside down. The decade opened on a very changed U.S. landscape right in the middle of the heat of the Cold War (1947-1991). The population was less than half of what it is now and over twenty-five percent of the people were under the age of twenty. It is thought-provoking to consider the Arab world is currently at that same demographic checkpoint with over a quarter of the population under twenty years old and rushing headlong into the consequences of a baby boom. I totally missed the sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll. I discovered West Africa, Hammond, talking drums, and the world. What a rite of passage it was.