In part one of the review of my Grandfather’s biography, I explored major aspects of his story and the ways in which the past has been preserved in my family in a manner that I hope resonated with anyone that read it.
As the title implies, one of my key motivations in writing this is to reflect on the impact the notion of having a family legacy has on our lives as modern day Africans across the world. If you think about your own family history and heritage, what are some of the things that have been handed down?
For some, it is a name; the prominence of which is known wherever it is mentioned and the need for its sustenance emphsised over generations (e.g. pressure for the male child to continue the family line and such). For others, it is property and possession; family houses, farms, businesses, heirlooms and so on. For others still, positions and titles are handed down, in political and cultural spheres, so that dynasties that endure for generations are formed. Whichever it might be for your own family, it is undoubtedly a mainstay of most African cultures to maintain a sense of legacy.
For many families, the fundamental form of legacy that is passed down to generations is a name and the male child through which it is handed down. Although there are several matrilineal family systems in which inheritances are passed down from the mother, the male child remains prominent in the African psyche as far as the survival of the family name is concerned. The stigma attached to not having a male child is very real, and it gets more intense for women, particularly those who are entirely childless. It is in times like this, the overemphasis (in my opinion) on legacies dependent on bloodlines becomes evident. In my grandfather’s biography, he presents a particularly interesting account of our family’s own pursuit of a legacy from the perspective of his mother.
He records that, after losing her first three sons at different stages in their childhood, my great grandmother vowed to reject any other male children born to her. When my grandfather was born, she would not nurse him for fear that he might not survive. A strange sense of foreboding overcame me as I considered this and the apparent trend of disappearing males in my family. I have often unwittingly joked that there is a male deficiency in my family without realising the historical backing and context that exists. In my nuclear family, I am the only son amongst my three sisters and my oldest sister has four girls and no sons. In discussing this with one of my sisters, we realised that in our extended family, our grandmother in her second marriage had no sons at all and that is just one example.
Interestingly, I learned that the phenomenon of my great grandmother’s dying boys was akin to the Ogbanje children of Igbo culture and the Abiku of Yuroba culture. Most of us are familiar with the former concept as popularised by Chinua Achebe’s critically acclaimed Things Fall Apart with the character Ezinma who was considered an Ogbanje because she was the first of 10 children born to her mother that did not die in infancy. It is however part of an ancient belief system and its literal translation in the Igbo language is “children who come and go”. In Things Fall Apart, Achebe reveals that, within a certain amount of time from birth, Ogbanje would deliberately die and then come back, repeating the cycle and causing the family grief. Often the dead child would be cut or mutilated so he or she would not return. Some Ogbanje, however, were said to return, bearing the physical scars of the mutilation. How interesting that, what may have seemed like an off the cuff comment on the circumstances of his birth by my grandfather reveals parallels to other cultural beliefs and also draws attention to the bigger picture of our fixation on legacies and genealogies and the ways in which we seek to explain and define things.
The importance of tracing a genealogy to us as Africans is also revealed through my grandfather’s writing in the way he makes connections to the founding of the Kwahu people. I am interested to know from all of you across the African spectrum if it is as common across your cultures for links to constantly be made to royal families as it is in Ghana. These connections provide a sense of importance and belonging to something greater than self, and thus important to forming the narrative of legacy.
My grandfather notes our family’s connection to the Baadu stool (a stool refers to the throne on which the Chief sits and a sense of royal identity) of the Kwahu people. My grandfather notes that, his father (once a stool carrier for the heir to Nana Baadu 1), and cousins preferred Christianity to Chieftaincy, so none of them occupied the Baadu stool to which they were customarily entitled. In effect, I may have very well been the heir to the Baadu stool, had my great grandfather done his duty! No worries though, the swivel chair I am currently sitting on offers enough comforts.
In a sense, the modern day equivalent of royal families is political dynasties. I cannot in one sitting dissect the very new phenomenon of the political dynasties that have arisen across the continent, but it is known that by the mention of and association to certain names doors are open that might have ordinarily been shut. We are all guilty of name dropping and my grandfather was not subtle in this. He reveals that my great grandmother Ama Serwaa was the sister of Yaw Boakye; father of Nana Ofori Atta 1 and Dr. J.B Danquah. I am very aware that these names mean nothing to most of you, but they are prominent personalities in Ghanaian history and the struggles for independence. Particularly, Dr. J.B Danquah; described as the doyen of Gold Coast politics, he was one of the “Big 6” along with Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, who led the struggle for independence.
In many ways, the piece of writing my grandfather left was a legacy on its own, and this is very poignant to me. I feel like there are things that endure beyond a name and one of those things is the power of a story. Personally I am eager to see more of a shift in the way we look to preserve our history as Africans, particularly for families such as mine where the male child simply is not there to carry on the “name”. We can no longer limit our perspective on the way our history is preserved. I am eager to see less emphasis on things as fleeting (arguably) as a name and more on the telling of our individual stories through the various mediums now available to us. A new vision of an African people whose stories are preserved in hearts and spirits.