THE STRANGE TALE OF THE GREAT IROKO by Eunice Adofo

 

The news of my father’s death hang heavy on our necks like the chains and shackles of a thousand Salaga prisoners. The cries of twenty-five newly widowed women pierced the thick darkness the moonless night brought, leaving it empty and completely dead. The only light that shone through the night was the happy flickering fire in Pokuya’s eyes. She was Papa’s youngest wife, and still in her prime. Perhaps, the sad news in itself was liberation to her forcefully captured heart, and as much as she wanted to hide how she felt, she couldn’t shed a single tear. She went unnoticed by the other wives who were stuck fast in a herbal bath of nauseating melancholy. Any woman who did not cry when her husband died was branded a witch per the custom of Nsuma.

 

 I am an outcast. I am a griot. I am a loner who often sits under this Iroko tree with a chewing stick in one hand and my chin resting in the other. My bulgy eyes are pregnant with unseen and untold secrets of passers-by. No one talks to me because I am the woman who was returned to her father’s house after six years of an unfruitful marriage – not even a miscarriage to show for it! And besides, I am not seen.

But this tale is not mine… I am only a griot telling the story of profound beauty that lays waste between two rival waters. Pokuya is beauty – the flawless beauty the goddess, Densu, desires. It is rumoured that the goddesses of our land conspired against her and led her to that ill fate. The ill fate I must tell you about.  A tale that reeks of insurmountable pain, like that which hot coal brings when pressed against a living skin. And it weighs heavy on my burdened heart.

 

I told you about the happy glow I found in her face on the day the news about father’s death was broken. Didn’t I? My young mother was ecstatic. You could tell from the way her buttocks rigorously bubbled with joy as she set out to do her morning chores the following day. Obviously, she was unaware of the danger that loomed ahead of her as a result of being the last wife of my father. She came from the village of Mpram and so their customs differed slightly from ours.

 

We woke up the following day to the high priest’s death chant. His loud voice filled the air, sending birds and insects that had been in slumber flying into the morning sky. The cowries and beads that hang from his juju staff jingled in unison with his coarse but steady voice.  He walked straight into Pokuya’s hut and pulled her out by her ear. Amidst incantations and the prying eyes of our neighbours, the poor girl was stripped to the skin. Adiemu the Chief priest dipped fresh leaves into a pot of concoction that he carried along with him and sprinkled it on Pokuya. This ritual was believed to keep the ghost of her departed husband away from her. It was necessary because she was the last and favourite wife of her departed husband.

The ritual continued till noon after which Maame Asabea, my mother and the eldest wife of my father, dragged Pokuya to her hut for the customary seven days of confinement.

 

The last I saw Pokuya, she was being escorted by the seven virgins of the Agona clan to the shrine of the Chief Priest. There, she was required by custom to serve the rest of her days as the wife of the god of Iron and Rain. Poor Child! She was only seventeen, young, innocent and so full of life. And so tears coursed down my cheeks and my body shook with rage as I watched her leave.

 

Days became weeks and weeks slipped into months and the memory of Pokuya became stale in the minds of the village folk. But gossip in these lands as we have it, travels faster than a gazelle escaping from a bush fire.

I was on my way to fetch wood to start my morning fire one day when a young man huddled in a three piece ntama approached me. He introduced himself as Nyantakyi from Mpram.  Even though he had happy feet that approached me with commendable swiftness, his face looked drab and dreary.  He advised me to offload the wood I carried on my head since the discussion he wanted to have with me was quite lengthy. He had come from Mpram following the rumours of Pokuya’s ill fate. He had plans of marrying Pokuya on returning from Sokoto, a far off land that had trading as its heartbeat. His line of work required him to travel a lot. Being a trader’s apprentice was hard work that involved a lot of sacrifice. But on his return to Mpram a few weeks back, Pokuya’s mother told him how my father had won Pokuya’s father over by showering them with gifts of cows, gold and calico.

Eventually, Papa Nkonim was forced to believe that my father was more capable of taking care of Pokuya than Nyantakyi. And so after convincing himself with that line of thought, he exchanged his daughter for an exorbitant dowry without the slightest remorse or guilt.

The brokenhearted Nyantakyi on hearing the rumours came to me to find out if all he had heard had an iota of truth. His face sank when I confirmed the truth in the rumours. He thanked me profusely and hurried off as swiftly as he had come in.

 

In spite of the sadness that sat on his face, I saw a dint of determination in his eyes. And so it came as no news to me at all when the village gong messenger announced that Pokuya had gone missing from the shrine the following week. He added that, all young men who were eligible to join the Asafo group were to converge at the market square in the evening to form a search party.

 

This was unheard of! A god-wife escaping from the shrine? But how was that even possible? It had to take unprecedented courage and goodwill to get out of the caves in which these women were held hostage. And then it occurred to me. If Pokuya had just escaped, she couldn’t have gone too far. I filled my gourd with some water and dashed off into the thick forest to find her before the Asafo group did. I wouldn’t be able to stand the sight of a public hanging especially if it was Pokuya. The more I thought about it, the more my heart raced and the quicker my legs paced.

After two hours of a fruitless search, I sat under a mango tree to catch my breath. The breeze that blew was a sweet balm to my throbbing feet.  I lifted my gourd to get a drink of water, and then suddenly I saw it. There was a strange figure behind an anthill a few metres away. I crept slowly towards the anthill and there they lay – Pokuya and Nyantakyi huddled together like two chickens on a rainy night. I tapped their shoulders softly so as not to frighten them. In spite of the caution I took, they both jolted from their slumber and their bodies shook with fear.

 

I couldn’t wait for them to calm their nerves. I warned them about the approaching danger. They did not have time and had to be well on their way till they crossed the twin rivers. It was only then that they would be safe. 

I decided not to go back to Nsuma right away for fear I might meet the Asafo group on my way back. I did not want to lie in case they chanced upon me in the forest. I decided to see the lovers off as far as the twin rivers and use a different route back to Nsuma.

En route to our destination, Nyantakyi recounted how he had gone to Nyanpori, a distant village fabled for its witchcraft and black magic in search of the powerful Tsali who made talismans that made people invincible and invisible. It was rumoured that, he had the power to metamorphose into any fearsome animal he wished to be. Last moon year, gossip has it that he changed into a lion and devoured the men of Futa who laid siege against Nyanpori during the battle of Nsamannsaman. Not even a single warrior  survived. Nyantakyi had to use all his life’s savings to acquire the talisman since Tsali only made it for kings and warriors who often gave him a lot of gold in exchange.

 

Nyantakyi’s tale filled me with awe for the beauty of young and selfless love so much so that I did not even notice we were fast approaching the rivers. It baffled me the length he had to go to ensure Pokuya’s safety. This was love, in its most pure and unadulterated form.

 

“It wouldn’t be long before the Asafo group catches up with us” I admonished Pokuya and Nyantakyi . I tried persuading them to sit in the abandoned canoe that sat in between the twin rivers, but Nyantakyi hesitated because he did not know who the canoe belonged to and he did not know if it was fit for the journey ahead. We were burning with hunger and thirst by then and so Nyantakyi suggested we looked for something to eat first before setting off with Pokuya on the water journey.  I pointed out some coconuts I had eyed hungrily just before we got to the river bank. They were ready for plucking and hang sumptuously just a few metres away. Nyantakyi rushed to it and I followed him after I had asked Pokuya to watch the canoe.

 

Even though the coconut tree was tall, Nyantakyi’s strength and agility got him to the top in no time. He tugged on the fruits and one by one, they came tumbling down. I caught them before they hit the ground just like I used to when I was a kid with my older brother, Senako. This exercise thrilled me,  flooding my head with good childhood memories.

 

My musing was cut short when I heard a piercing heart wrenching cry. I dropped the coconut I had just caught and rushed towards Pokuya. I saw her jump out of the canoe like a frightened child. But before I could run to her, something unprecedented happened. I froze in my tracks as fear crippled me and sent my knees bowing in the sand like I had just discovered the dwelling place of a deity. My jaws dropped and my eyes blinked continuously. I wasn’t even in control of my facial muscles anymore.

 Nyantakyi whizzed past me in an attempt to reach out to Pokuya…and then in the broadness of the daylight, a loud and deafening thunder struck.  Nyantakyi lay on the ground as stiff as a chameleon’s tail, as black as soot. He had touched Pokuya’s arms in an attempt to prevent what was happening.

 

Pokuya was no longer human. She had transformed into the most unimaginable thing ever! In place of her arms two large branches had shot up into the sky. Her wide hips had grown into a tree trunk. Her feet, breasts, face, everything had disappeared within the twinkling of an eye. Or was it my eyes that were playing tricks on me? A large palm tree stood before me and Pokuya was nowhere to be found! And poor Nyantakyi! He died trying to save his lover from this horrific demise.

 

 I lay paralysed in the sand and everything had become so quiet and still. And then I heard the chanting of war songs from afar. The Asafo had reached us. I didn’t run. I just lay still in the sand till they found me. The leader of the Asafo group, Kwabena Kena  rushed to pick me up when he saw me in the sand. He searched my body for wounds but found none. Another Asafo member who had rushed to Nyantakyi screamed and placed his hands on his head. Perhaps he was moved to the point of tears by the lifeless body that lay burnt beyond recognition in the sand. But men were not supposed to cry as our culture demanded and especially, not a man in the Asafo.  The other Asafo people by now had surrounded the scene. They began to ask questions? “Where is Pokuya?” “Did she perish in a fire?” “Was that her lifeless body?” Amidst sobs and tears, I narrated the whole story to them. They gazed at the palm tree in disbelief when my tale was over.

“Have you gone mad?” Kwabena Kena asked in a raging voice. He snatched a machete from an Asafo and rushed to the palm tree. He slashed it twice and jerked back in wonder. Red drops of fresh velvet blood oozed from the tree. Some Asafo members took to their heels at the sight of the bleeding palm tree and the others who could not run were dazed or as they would rather call it, out of courage. Kwabena Kena’s face went stone cold. He ordered the Asafo people to pick up the remains of Nyantakyi’s body and commanded us to head back to the village.

Nyantakyi’s body was likely to be delivered to the people of Mpram once the elders had looked into the matter. I got on my feet and picked up my gourd and followed the Asafo group.

 

Just before we stepped into the forest, I opened the gourd to get a drink but my intuition told me to look into it first before emptying its contents in my water-starved body. This was the same gourd Pokuya held before she met her fate and I wasn’t even sure if drinking its content was going to bode well for me. But I was so thirsty. I peeped into the gourd and screamed in fright when I became aware of its content. “Why was the water bloody?” I thought to myself. I dropped the gourd and ran after the Asafo group. Amidst dirges and low whispers we marched towards Nsuma.

Before we could get to the palace, we heard the sound of drums and atentebens in a distance. The news had reached the palace before us and everybody was moving hurriedly to the palace court. I already told you how news travels fast in these parts.

We were greeted at the entrance of the palace court by the shrill voice of Adiemu and his seven virgins. Adiemu was adorned in cowries and a stiff raffia skirt. He danced in a possessed gyratic motion that put fear in the hearts of onlookers. The seven virgins carried head pans filled with fetish chalk, eggs and “busom” leaves. They danced around a circle that had been marked with shilo. Nyantakyi’s body was placed on a mat a few metres away from where the Chief sat. The Chief looked glum and pensive. The incident was a little too much for him to chew in a day.

 

After minutes of dancing, screaming and wailing Adiemu asked me to step forward. He commanded me to fetch the sand under my feet from where I stood and pour it into his calabash. He then told me to spit into it. When this was done, I stepped back into the crowd and watched on. Adiemu mixed the content of the calabash with a strange concoction and recited incantations from the sacred scrolls.

 

All of a sudden, fire lit from the calabash. The fire danced on the surface of the liquid in the calabash. Ooh! Aahs! and murmurs filled the air like the sound of a million angry wasps. Adiemu looked into the fire and called for the crowd to be silent. His coarse voice bellowed throughout the palace court and every ear in the gathering shot up to hear the interpretation of the incident.

 

“Pokuya offended three gods and a goddess – the god of Iron and Rain, the goddess of Densu, the god of Offin and the god of Pra and so did the young man who lies mortified in this court. He was the one who broke into the cave and escaped with Pokuya. And to make matters worse, she mixed the waters of the twin but rival waters, Pra and Offin.  The goddess Densu was called upon by Offin to seek her counsel but when she gazed on Pokuya’s mortal beauty, she condemned her to the tragic fate of changing into a palm tree which now stands between Pra and Offin.” His voice drowned in my thoughts as I remembered the tale Aberewa Pomaa told me weeks before she passed on. The tale had it that, the god of Pra and the god of Offin had both been in love with the goddess Densu. Pra washed all its fishes into her course whenever Odomako blessed the land with abundant rain. And so did Offin. But instead of just fish, Offin also washed alluvial gold into Densu’s waters. This gesture won Densu over to Offin and this angered Pra extremely and brought enmity between them. This was how the twin waters became rival waters and it was decreed in all surrounding lands by the fetishes of the river gods never to mix their waters.

Many years ago, a hunter from a distant land had tried to create a water course between the two rivers. He turned into stone immediately and he was never heard of again. Aberewa Pomaa had ended her tale with a folksong that went:

 

“Oso tie 3mma nkwa

Obedience gives life

 

Oso tie ma ahot)

Obedience gives peace

 

Mpaninfo) adi kan aka

The elders have said it before

 

Nti fa to wo tirimu yie”

So keep it in mind.

 

“But I thought it was all a folktale and it happened so many years ago” I said to myself. Oh Pokuya. I buried my feet in the sand at the palace court, sat on the ground with my hands on my head and wailed.

 

The chief ordered his Abrafo to seize me immediately. I had aided and abetted two young souls to offend the gods. And in order to cleanse the land, there was the need to remove anything that was considered an abomination. If that wasn’t done, hunger and disease was likely to plague the land.  I was condemned to death at the hands of the Abrafo. Maame Asabea wailed her insides out as I was being dragged out of the court. A sack was placed over my head and my hands were strapped to my back. The force with which it was done sent a sharp pain down my spine and I squealed. It was total darkness that surrounded me. And all I could hear were voices—strange  and familiar voices that were bound to fade into non-existence once my life was taken.

 

As the Abrafo pushed me on to the dwelling where I was to face my death, I began to say my last prayer to Odomankoma. Unexpectedly, I was shoved and I could feel my body losing its balance. And so with a loud thud, I hit the bottom of what felt like a pit. Little by little, I could feel the earth enclosing me in the pit as the Abrafo sang and hauled mounds of earth on top of body. The sack was taken off my head once the song had died down. But instead of sympathizing faces all I saw around me was feet. Scrawny little feet, thick and dirty feet, pale feet, feet everywhere. My whole body had been covered in earth except my head and before I could process what my death was going to be like, there was a sharp pain and everything went blank…

 

I don’t know how long I ceased to exist… or how long my lifeless body shook or how long my blood spilled on the land they sought to cleanse. But when I became conscious of myself, I felt light and free. My spirit had drifted out of my body and I could see the people who stood around me at the palace court, hurrying off to their homes. Maame Asabea was still wailing…her eyes looked puffy and her tears poured down incessantly. I drifted towards her to touch her, to feel her and to tell her I was doing just fine. But as much as I tried I couldn’t grasp her.

 

In an epiphany, I knew I had become a ghost…an nsamankyenkyen. I had not been able to cross over to our ancestral land where all good souls who lived well on earth departed to. With my hands wrapped around my body, I strolled towards my favourite and most peaceful dwelling.

 

And there I sat every cursed day of my life, and watched silently as passers-by talked and laughed and gossiped. I watched quietly as the young girls jumped energetically in a frantic will to win an ampe game. I watched on as the young children played house. The boys became fathers and the girls, mothers. And I watched on as playing house sometimes went a little too far. And in the evenings when children gathered under the tree to hear stories and folktales from story tellers, I possessed the bodies of the griot or influenced his or her thoughts. In this state…I was alive again….In this state, I could relive through the stories I forcefully told. And I often thought to myself “Perhaps I will live forever, I will live again…under the shade of this great Iroko.”

 

 

GLOSSARY

 

  1. Aberewa: An old or elderly woman
  2. Abrafo: Traditional executors of the Ashanti people.
  3. Agona: The Agona belong to one of the eight clans of the Abusua (family) in Ghana. Abusua is the name in Akan culture for a group of people that share a common maternal ancestor. The Abusua line is considered to be passed through the mother’s blood (mogya). There are several Abusua that transcend the different ethnic subgroups. People of the same Abusua share a common ancestor somewhere within their bloodline, which may go back as far as 1000 years. It is a taboo to marry someone from the same Abusua. The animal symbol for the  Agona is the parrot.
  4. Ampe: A local game played in Ghana that involves jumping and clapping.
  5. Asafo: Asafo are traditional warrior groups in Akan culture. The word derives from sa, meaning war, and fo, meaning people. The traditional role of the Asafo companies was defence of the state. As the result of contact with European colonial powers on the Gold Coast(present-day Ghana), the Fante, who inhabit the coastal region, developed an especially complex version of the concept in terms of its social and political organization based on martial principles, and with elaborate traditions of visual art, including flag banners with figurative scenes.
  6. Atenteben: An indigenous aerophone that looks like a flute.
  7. Busom: Akan word for gods
  8. Densu:The Densu River is a 116 km long river in Ghanarising in the Atewa Range. It flows through an economically important agricultural region, supplies half the drinking water to Ghana’s capital city of Accra.
  9. Futa: Another make -believe town
  10. Iroko:  An Irokois a large hardwood tree from the west coast of tropical Africa that can live up to 500 years.
  11. Mpram: Another make-believe town
  12. Nsamankyenkyen : A ghost that has not joined the realm of the dead and still lives among the living.
  13. Nsuma:  A make-believe town in Ghana.
  14. Nyanpori: another make-believe town
  15. Odomankoma: The Almighty God.
  16. Offin: The Offin riverbed is 90 metres above mean sea level. The Offin has cut steep side channels, average depth 12–15 metres, into the rolling terrain over which it flows. The Offin and the Pra rivers form the boundary between Ghana’s Ashanti region and Central region
  17. Pra: Rising in the Kwahu Plateau near Mpraeso and flowing southward for 240 km through rich cocoa and farming areas and valuable forests in the Akan lowlands, the Pra enters the Gulf of Guinea east of Takoradi in Ghana.
  18. Salaga: Salaga is a town and is the capital of East Gonja district, a district in the Northern Regionof north Ghana. Some remanants of the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade in the form of a pond known as Wonkan bawa (Hausa for “the bathing place of a slave”) and a young baobab tree on the site of the old slave market is still present today.
  19. Shilo: Byzantine clay
  20. Sokoto: A populated place in Ghana (general), Ghana with the region font code of Africa/Middle East. It is located at an elevation of 228 meters above sea level.Sokoto is also known as Sekoti, Sokoto.
  21. The battle of Nsamannsaman: An imaginary war