When I was two years old, my parents sent me to live with my mother’s side of the family in Takoradi, Ghana. They never meant for it to be a life-changing phenomenon, just four years of time that I wouldn’t really remember. And for the most part they were right; I don’t remember much from my time spent in Ghana—just sets of spasmodic spaces, places, and faces that come and go with time. But if there is one theme in my memories of the time I spent there, that my brain refuses to let go of, it’s Wofa and his impact on my life.
Wofa has no blood relation to me. But he is a respected family friend of my grandparents and has been with us through thick and thin. The word Wofa translates to uncle in English, but he has been more than an uncle to me and the other members of my family. From picking me up early from school in Ghana despite criticism from the teachers, to letting me sit on his lap and drive his car at the age of four, Wofa allowed me to develop a mischievous sense of humor in the safest way possible. He possessed and still possesses the kind of patience that allowed him to entertain a hyperactive version of myself. (I know it’s hard to imagine a version of me that’s not calm and collected, but she did exist once.) Even when I would drive my grandparents absolutely crazy, Wofa would just sit me down and calmly explain to me that the old must be respected. And I always listened to what Wofa had to say.
There are many many ways that Wofa and I spent our time together, but my favorite by far was when we would sit under the pergola in my grandparents’ compound drinking a crisp bottle (not can) of Coca-Cola and chewing sugar cane. In those moments, he would develop a look in his eyes as if he were in two places at once and time would stop. I knew the words that he would say by heart. “Naomi, ma min ka anasesɛm nkyerɛ wo.” Naomi, let me tell you a story. I would put my Coke bottle down, turn my whole body towards him, and let my mind wander.
What I didn’t know then was that these stories weren’t just stories. Embedded in the words coming out of his mouth and their manifestations in my imagination were the cultures and religions of my ancestors that had been stripped from them through the process of colonialism. But by telling me the stories, Wofa was giving me a chance to claim them for myself while keeping on in our people’s oral tradition.
All the stories he told me had the same protagonist, named Kwaku Anansi. It is hard to put a description on him because his form depends on the story. Sometimes he is just a man. Sometimes he is just a spider. And in other stories, he is a terrifying hybridized version of both. Anansi’s moral code also changes depending on the story. In some stories, he is the aggressor, using his cunning and mischievous thinking to steal and benefit himself. In others, he is the deified helper of humanity, similar to the Greek Titan Prometheus, and through his threadwork, he binds us all together. Regardless of his form, there is always a moral to the story. In the way that Aesop’s Fables are meant to teach us valuable life lessons, so too are the stories of Kwaku Anansi.
There are many stories to choose from, but today, with the help of the internet and my translation skills, I will be telling you all one of my favorite ones, titled “Kwaku Anansi and his new wife.” While I can’t tell the story like Wofa can, I can certainly try.
Once upon a time there lived a man named x. Kwaku was both greedy and selfish, and even after he got married, he had no desire to share his food with his new wife. One day, he went to the Sky God, Nyame, to complain that his wife was nothing more than an extra mouth to feed. He also complained that she was eating his share of the food at home. Nyame asked Kwaku, “What would you like me to do about this problem?”
“Nyame, please give me a wife with no mouth upon her face,” replied Kwaku.
Nyame looked upon Kwaku with bemusement and wonder as the trickster never failed to surprise him with his strange reasoning and outlandish plans.
“Okay,’” said Nyame. “Come the morning I shall give you a new wife with no mouth upon her face.”
Kwaku was so excited that he went straight to the supermarket to buy yams and plantains for the next day. “Finally,” thought the greedy man, “all of the food that I buy will be for me alone to eat!”
Waking up to a beautiful sunny morning, Kwaku Anansi saw his new wife in the kitchen preparing breakfast. The wife turned and acknowledged her husband with a silent nod, then continued with her breakfast preparations before the stove.
Kwaku could not believe that he was lucky enough to have a new wife, one who would cook only for him and eat nothing herself. And he could not believe that he had gotten away with asking for such a wife from the Sky God!
Several days passed and things seemed to be going very well … until he went to check on the food supplies in the kitchen. The greedy man was very surprised to discover that most of his food had disappeared. He knew that he could eat a great deal of food, but had he really eaten four bags of rice, six yams, and three plantains in such a short time? Kwaku was very puzzled because he was supposed to be the only one eating the food, especially if his new wife didn’t even have a mouth with which to eat.
And so he decided to find out. Over the next few weeks he kept a very close eye on the kitchen. But no matter how closely he looked, he could find nothing unusual at all. His wife cooked every meal only for him. Kwaku just did not understand why he still had to buy twice as much food each week. Where was it all going?
One night, Kwaku woke up to drink some water as he was very thirsty. It was then that he heard a rumbling noise in the house and quickly went to check on his wife. But when he entered her room he discovered that she was not in her bed. So then he crept towards the kitchen and peered through the open door. The greedy man could not believe what he saw. There, sitting on a stool at the table, was his new wife emptying a big bowl of food into her body. He watched in amazement as she scooped up the boiled rice and yams, lifted up her right arm, and put the food into a mouth that was hidden in her armpit!
Kwaku was very shocked to see such a thing. He thought to himself, “So this is where all of my food has been going. My wife has a secret mouth in her armpit and she has been stealing food during the night! What a mean trick!”
The next morning, he took his wife back to Nyame and demanded to know why she had a mouth hidden in her armpit.
Nyame answered, “You asked for a wife with ‘no mouth upon her face.’ And so I gave you a wife with a mouth under her arm. You did not ask for a wife with no mouth at all.”
Kwaku felt humiliated and tricked, but Nyame had no sympathy for the greedy man. Nyame said to him, “You had a devoted and loving wife, Kwaku, but because of your selfishness you thought you would be clever and demand a new wife from me. I am showing you that I am much wiser than you, and I hope you have learnt a lesson here. Greed and selfishness have no place in life.”
When Wofa first told me this story, my mind immediately jumped to the idea that I should never get married. I refused to take a chance that my husband could one day sign me up for an involuntary organ transfer, because how was four-year-old me supposed to bark at random dogs on the street, if my mouth didn’t function? Wofa just sighed and said that when I was older, I would understand the story more. And he’s not wrong, because now that I’m older and obviously more mature, I’m worried about the acid reflux that I would get if my digestive system ran through my armpit. Mr. Belsky and Mrs. Marks, we should talk after this because this is a serious biological question.
In all seriousness, the Kwaku Anansi stories matter both because of the content and the storytelling process. The telling of tales like this teaches us how to be humans and how to know one another more fully. Also, oral tradition, by definition, demands the storytelling process to continue. Yes, they have a certain irony and humor to them, but they matter also because of the audience, which today is all of you. By telling you all this story from my culture, I carry on my tradition. I plan to tell them to my children and my nieces and nephews in the same way that Wofa told them to me so many years ago and as I am telling them to you all today.
Recently, I’ve begun to study for myself the ways that diverse stories of the past and of the divine have come to us in America. The reading, which Maya so eloquently presented, comes from one of my favorite shows, titled American Gods. The point of the show is to highlight the experiences of peoples from all around the world and the ways that they have brought their Gods and stories to America. From Irish immigrants to African slaves, different peoples across history have used storytelling as a means of survival and connection. Storytelling keeps culture alive. It shapes and makes our values, our morals, and our ethics. All stories matter, and through them we build an inclusive, loving society in which we all belong.
As I stand here today and look into the crowd, I can say confidently that Groton is a place full of stories. So many people have brought their story into our story, just as I have brought my story into your story and the story at Groton today. On Revisit day we are even more conscious of new ones to come.
You don’t need to sit under a pergola or to be drinking a bottle of Coca-Cola in order to experience the beauty that comes with these stories. You don’t even need to have someone in your life like Wofa to tell them to you. You just need to take a second. Sit still. And let your mind wander. People’s stories and histories are all around us if you just take the time and listen.