BETWEEN ocean and desert, in the place that is now called Ghana, there is a great green forest. Or, at least there was. There is still a forest, but it is less great. Parts of it were claimed by my ancestors, tamed into my fatherland—Asante (or, Ashanti, as it is often spelled). I have never lived there, but I visit often, and have since I was a child. These days, I live in Brooklyn, New York.
When I was growing up, my father worked for a United Nations agency. His job meant that I was raised a nomad, moving to a different country every few years: Tanzania, Italy, Ethiopia, Uganda, and England. Annually, my father was granted what the UN calls “home leave.”
When we stepped off the plane in Ghana’s capital, Accra, my father would sometimes turn to me, spread his arms wide, and say, “Akwaaba!—Welcome.” As many diplomats do, my father moved easily wherever we were. But in Ghana, even more so. In Ghana, he seemed to glide.
At some point during our home leave, without fail, an inquisitive stranger—a Ghanaian—would inquire about my ethnicity. My mother is Armenian American. Usually, the stranger would ask this question in Twi—the Asante language that, along with English has become a lingua franca in this small nation of about thirty million people where over eighty languages are spoken. I do not speak Twi but I always knew what was being asked by the way the stranger observed me—like I was an unidentifiable food in a buffet.
“What are you talking about?” my father would answer, always in English. “This is my daughter. She’s a Ghanaian—an Asante girl.” Then, to me: “This is your home too.” I liked it when he said that, liked to be told that I belonged where he belonged. My mother left when I was two. I saw her rarely. To her, to her homes, I couldn’t remember or imagine belonging.
In Ghana, I often felt out of place. Physically, I stuck out both in a crowd and among my own family. When I ate fufu with my hands as everyone else did, people laughed and made a big fuss. Obruni, market women called me as they motioned for me to bring my father over to their stalls. Obruni means “foreigner.” But, it was also true that, despite how I stuck out in Ghana, when I was with my father, anywhere could be home because he was my home. And, Ghana was where he was happiest, so I was happy there too.
On home leave, we’d spend a few days seeing some of my father’s cousins and school friends in Accra, then he’d borrow a car or hire a driver for the five- or six-hour journey to Asante. Head resting against the window in the back seat, I’d watch as the city dwindled—buildings and crowds shrinking, concrete roads transitioning to copper-colored and dramatically potholed dirt.
The dirt road took us through small towns with bustling shopping districts and roadside “chop shops” selling cold beer and skewered meat; through villages of mud and wattle houses with thatched roofs; and through swaths of lush forest from which groups of teenaged girls emerged, buckets of water elegantly balanced on their heads. When they turned to speak to one another and laughed without disaster, I thought it a miracle.
Sometimes, my father would fill the hours in the car with Anansi stories, part of the ancient and rich Asante storytelling tradition. The Anansi of the stories is a trickster spider. He moves back and forth between the human and animal worlds, and the world of gods and spirits. Everywhere he goes, he causes trouble. He schemes and carries out elaborate plots: to purchase the sky god’s stories; to trick the tortoise out of his lunch; to give the moon as a gift to his favorite son; to steal all the wisdom in the world for himself. Sometimes Anansi wins, sometimes he loses. Often his comeuppance results in humanity’s gain. He spills the pot of stolen wisdom just as a rainstorm sweeps through his forest home.
“This same forest we are now passing,” my father would say.
The rain washes wisdom into the river, which carries it to sea and spreads it all around the world.
My father, as his father did before him, and his father before that, often opened Anansi stories by saying, “We do not really mean that what we are about to say is true. A story, a story; let it come, let it go.” He often closed them with, “This is my story. If it is sweet, or if it is not sweet, take it elsewhere, and let it come back to me.”
My grandmother lives in the Asante region’s capital, Kumasi, on a street named for her—Ofaa Jantuah Street. Jantuah is her maiden name and it is the surname most people in the community know her by, although she did formally take my grandfather’s name when they married—a practice British colonization brought. Traditionally, Asante society is, in many ways, matriarchal. Men move in with their wives’ families when they marry. Children inherit property from their mothers. There is a king—the Asantehene—but he is selected from a pool of eligible men with royal lineage by a queen mother (so called not because she is the birth mother of the king, but because she is the spiritual head of the community and the keeper of genealogical knowledge).
My grandmother’s home—a ten-year-old house built with funding and oversight by my aunt Harriet on the same plot of land where Auntie Harriet, my father, and their two other sisters, Violet and Freda, grew up—is nestled among the homes of extended family members.
The old house still stands, though the roof leaks in the rainy season. Sometimes, in the dry season, my grandmother rents it out, most recently to a Russian doctor with a private practice in the area.
All day, relatives stop by with food and gossip—jollof rice with goat meat, kenkey and stew, the latest news about a nephew who got married without properly introducing his wife to the family elders. All of it, especially the gossip, my grandmother receives with enthusiasm. She is losing her vision and balance. Getting out and about is difficult. This upsets her, but she is comforted by the company of loved ones.
In addition to her daily visitors, my grandmother is cared for by her nephew, Papa Yaw, who has lived with her full-time since before my grandfather died seven years ago. For his caregiving, Papa Yaw is compensated by the extended family. This is a common arrangement in Asante—younger single men and women taking care of their older relatives. Among my extended family, there is a pooled pot of money for elder care, school fees, health emergencies, and funerals. Every year, everyone contributes what they can, including, in recent years, me.
When a family member is in need, the collective steps in. This, I know firsthand. I know it in a deep way, in a way that makes me feel safe. After my mother left, my father did his best with my sister and me on his own, but his work was demanding and required frequent travel. For two and a half years, until he married my Tanzanian stepmother, he sent us to live with Auntie Harriet in England. Auntie Harriet loved us—and still does—like we are her own children. Her daughter—my cousin Laura—is, to me, like a sister. In the Asante tradition, this is as it should be. Children are raised communally. There is less difference between an auntie and a mother, a cousin and a sister, than in the West. I was separated from my birth mother, and I longed for her, but I have never been without mothering.
My grandmother’s younger brother—my uncle J.E., a retired soccer player for both the respected local team, Asante Kotoko, and the Ghanaian national team—lives in a separate guest quarters behind my grandmother’s old house. My grandmother and Uncle J.E.—she in her late eighties, he in his late seventies—still squabble like siblings. She bosses him about; he complains. He always forgets to lock the gate when he comes home from the spot (what Ghanaians call bars), she counters. Beneath the squabbling, though, there is love. Because Uncle J.E. never married and has no children of his own, my grandmother makes sure that he gets his fufu and groundnut soup. When he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, the pooled pot of money paid for his treatment, saved his life.
Auntie Harriet built the new house because, as she moved toward retirement age—she worked as an intensive care nurse in England for forty-five years, and still picks up shifts—she knew that she wanted to “go home more often.” Despite the forty-five years abroad, Asante will always be her home. Now, she is there for several months every summer and some Christmases. She enjoys the quality time with my grandmother. They pass their afternoons on the porch—hosting visitors, snacking on fresh pineapple and papaya, and arguing with politicians on the radio.
“Useless, the lot of you,” they say. “All this money you are collecting from us, and still we have dumsor.”
Dumsor is what Ghanaians call the country’s persistent and unpredictable electric power outages. The term is derived from two separate Twi words: dum—”to turn off or quench”—and sɔ—”to turn on or kindle.” So, loosely, Dumsor means “off and on.”
When I was a child, in addition to the Anansi stories, my father told me stories about our origins and traditions.
Starting in the fifteenth century, members of the Nsuta, Bekwai, Kokofu, Dwaben, and Mampon tribes, seeking space to settle and grow, migrated north—from the overpopulated basins of the Pra and Ofin Rivers, into the uninhabited forest that became Asante.
Taming stubborn wilderness into farms and villages was no small feat. Neglected settlements were quickly reabsorbed. Defending them required unrelenting effort and cooperation. Through that cooperation, the many tribes, loosely linked by language and lineage, became one people—the Asante people. Central to their new identity was a collectivist way of life—close-knit extended families, practices of mutual aid, shared responsibility for caring for the community’s young and elderly. This way of life still binds my family across borders and time zones. Unlike the generations before us, many family members of my generation and the generation after mine were born and raised elsewhere—in the United States, UK, Germany, and Canada. But, regularly, we meet in group chats, social media groups, and when we can, in Asante.
At seventeen, my father left Asante and journeyed to the United States to attend Denison University in Ohio. Later, for graduate school, he moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts. There, he met my mother who grew up in neighboring Watertown.
My mother’s grandparents were survivors of the Armenian Genocide—the systematic mass expulsion and murder of Armenian people carried out in what was then the Ottoman Empire between 1914 and 1923.
For generations—before they were driven out and forced to trek across the Middle East on foot, seeking refuge—my ancestors had lived in the city of Marash at the foot of the Ahir Mountain. In the way that Asante is my fatherland, Marash is my motherland. But, Marash no longer exists. Armenian homes, churches, schools, and businesses were long ago burned to the ground. The town rebuilt in its place is called Kahramanmaraş. In Kahramanmaraş, there is no one for me to visit.
My Armenian ancestors—those who survived—eventually found asylum in Argentina, France, and the United States. When they were growing up, my grandparents both spoke Turkish at home. They also spoke English with Massachusetts accents. As adults raising my mother and her brother, they attended an Armenian Orthodox church, but they celebrated Jesus’s birth on December 25 as well as January 6—Armenian Christmas.
Growing up, I often felt distant from both of my parents’ ancestral homelands—culturally, geographically, linguistically. I never learned to speak Twi. Nor do I speak Turkish or Armenian. To each other, my parents spoke English. But, I have only shadows of memories of them as a couple.
Despite the home leave trips to Ghana, I hesitate to fully claim the country or the Asante region as my home, particularly when in the company of other Ghanaians. I am worried they will test me and I will fail. This has happened before. It happens almost every time I am interviewed by a Ghanaian customs official when traveling there as an adult. I hand over my American passport. The official opens it to the identification page, sees my name, looks up at me, nose wrinkled.
“And your middle name is Adjoa?”
(Adjoa is the Asante name given to female children born on Monday. The day of the week on which a person is born is believed to affect their soul and character).
“So, you’re a Ghanaian?”
“Do you speak any Ghanaian language?”
“Eiii, why not? If you’re a Ghanaian, you must at least know Twi.”
“I know. I want to learn.”
“You must try.”
Usually, I manage to laugh. I say, “You’re right.” I try to hold onto my father’s words: “This is your home too.”
“Akwaaba,” the official sometimes says as she stamps my passport.
I feel even less secure in calling myself Armenian because, until I was in my late twenties, I spent very little time with my mother’s family. My mother is a U.S. citizen, so I became American at birth, but I did not live here until I was eighteen and moved to New York for college. Calling myself American doesn’t feel wholly truthful either. And, although I did learn the language in some of the places I lived as a child and teenager, I cannot claim those places either, not in an unassailable way. Those homes, I knew, were always meant to be temporary.
When I was thirteen, my father died of cancer. My mother still did not come to claim me. Once again, my extended Asante family reached out to hold me, steady me, guide me. They offered me homes. So many offers, even from relatives I had only met once or twice. In the end, my sister and I chose to stay with our stepmother. We didn’t want to be separated from her and our little half brother. We didn’t want anything else about our lives to change. But, the offers were a reminder that we would never be alone, that we would never be without a place to go. For that reminder, I was and remain deeply grateful. But, it was also true that the loss of my father—the great hero of my life—widened the distance and intensified the dislocation I felt in relation to my places of origin, and to the sheer concept of home.
As is true of many people who lose parents at a young age, my grief is very much a part of who I am. I grieve for the mother I never got to know as a child; for the shelter of my father, taken too soon; for all the places I wanted to belong to but had to leave behind; for my destroyed, unknowable, motherland; for the fatherland I will never fully inhabit. My grief—for people, for place, for home—is a constant. In a strange way, it is a comfort. “Your joy,” wrote the Lebanese American writer, poet, and visual artist Khalil Gibran, “is your sorrow unmasked. And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears. And how else can it be?”
How else can it be? Because I grew up a nomad, I have seen so much of the beauty of the world: the sun rising over Mount Kilimanjaro, the majesty of rain on the Serengeti, dancing flamingos in a lake in the Rift Valley. I rode on my father’s shoulders through a butterfly sanctuary in the forest of Asante. As a teenager, I spent a long spring afternoon eating gelato and reading Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities in the Colosseum. I went white-water rafting on the Nile. My high school graduation, I celebrated dancing in a London night club. On the double-decker bus home, I fell asleep on my cousin Laura’s shoulder. It was only because I had so loved all my temporary homes that I grieved losing them.
Beneath the mask of my grief over the loss of my father is the joy of thirteen years spent listening to his stories. From a well of tears of abandonment by my mother rose the laughter of the relationship we have forged over the last decade.
“I always loved you,” she tells me often now, and I believe her. She has shared with me her sorrows—sorrows that made it hard to be the mother she believed I deserved. I have told her how desperately I longed for her, sorrows or no sorrows. Together, we are working toward being able to face each other, finally, fully unmasked.
But, the thing about being comfortable with grief is that you might not notice—at least not right away—when it has swollen or multiplied to an unbearable weight.
A new story—the story of growth—has overpowered the old story. That story is a story of destruction. We have already destroyed too much.
In October 2018, the UN released a climate report warning that without “unprecedented action,” catastrophic conditions could arrive by 2040. Those conditions include floods, drought, food shortages, mass displacement and extinction, unrelenting natural disasters, war, and destruction of all of the homes I have loved. Those conditions remind me that all of those homes are so very connected to one another; that borders and divisions are human constructions. I wish this reminder did not come from catastrophe.
It is hard to say why this particular report caused my knees to buckle. I think and read about climate change all the time. I work in urban planning and policy, including on issues of environmental justice. The evidence the report assembled, the conclusions it drew, were not surprising.
I lived in New York’s Chinatown when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012. In pajamas and fuzzy slippers, I stood in the doorway of my four-story apartment building and shone a flashlight onto the street that had become a river. Hours earlier, we had lost power. Tree branches and plastic bottles rushed by. A baby’s shoe. At the sight of a swimming rat, I screamed and slammed the door shut. Upstairs, we had filled our bathtub and sinks with water. The candles I bought the day before released the clashing scents of cinnamon and lemon verbena. My roommates played Cards Against Humanity and joked about the zombie apocalypse. The following day, to meet a friend, I walked to the West Village. On the way, I stopped to stare at a building that had lost its facade. It looked like an intricate and uncanny doll’s house: unmade beds, paintings and photographs still hanging on walls. Most viscerally of Sandy, though, I remember the darkness. I remember the howl of the wind. It sounded like admonishment, like threat, like the future.
In the years that followed: Hurricanes Maria and Harvey, the Greenland ice sheet turned to slush, the Amazon and the Australian bush on fire, record temperatures, toxic air pollution in Chicago and India, half of the Great Barrier Reef bleached to death. And, meanwhile, paradoxically: the blotting out of scientific evidence in environmental policy and rule-making. The denial of the evidence itself by some global leaders. The president of the United States calling climate change “mythical,” “nonexistent,” “an expensive hoax.”
So, no, I was not surprised by anything in the UN climate report. But, my knees did buckle. For months—on the subway, in meetings, in the shower—I fought back tears. I had trouble sleeping and focusing. I felt hopeless.
This hopelessness, I learned on the Internet, is widespread. It is a global phenomenon. It has a name: climate grief. It often comes on—as it did in my case—gradually and then all at once. What I was grieving, I realized, was related to some of my other, more private, griefs. I was, in a way, grieving the loss of a home. But, in this case, that home was the planet. In this case, I wasn’t just grieving the end of my time in a place, but the end of all life on earth.
In the summer of 2019, I traveled to Ghana to visit my half brother, Kwame, who lives there now with his wife, Elizabeth. They had just welcomed a baby boy, Nana Kwasi, and I was desperate to hold him.
In the back seat of Kwame’s car, on our way to a restaurant in Accra, I held onto Nana Kwasi’s tiny foot. Strapped into his seat, he snoozed. I laughed at his gurgles and sighs. But, as my love for my nephew surged, so too did my grief. What kind of world would Nana Kwasi inherit? Outside the window: endless traffic. Piles of plastic bottles by the side of the road. Black fumes pouring out of trucks.
Ghana is the world’s fastest growing economy. For many Ghanaians, this is a point of pride. As is the case everywhere, many there worship the idol of growth.
Growth, the story goes, is the answer to all of society’s ills: joblessness, poverty, disease. Only through growth will the so-called developing world “progress.” Growth will end dumsor. Growth will bring education, hospitals, health, happiness, safety, flat-screen televisions for all.
The idolatry of growth is evangelized by economists, Wall Street, academia, pop culture, the media, and by the cult of capitalism—a cult to which most governments around the world belong.
But, the reality is that endless economic growth is a dangerous false idol. The planet cannot sustain it; is already unable to sustain it. Not only are the resources available to us—fuel, minerals, metals—finite, but the more we use them, the more greenhouse gas we emit. Writing this feels ridiculous. It’s such a simple truth. So very obvious. Yet, an insistent belief in the idol of growth persists. It is what our nations, our economies, our ways of life are built on. In Ghana, as everywhere, this belief has had dire consequences: land degradation, coastal erosion, river pollution, and deforestation.
According to a 2019 report on the status of the world’s primary forests, Ghana’s rainforest—the great green forest of the Asante origin story—is rapidly disappearing.
In 2018 alone, to logging, mining, and the expansion of industrial agriculture, the country had a devastating 60 percent decrease in primary rainforest. This was the highest percentage of rainforest loss of any tropical country.
But, during that trip to Ghana to meet my new nephew, I recalled another of my father’s stories.
In addition to collectivism, he said, another element central to the Asante identity, born out of our relationship with the forest, was a deep fear of and respect for nature.
In the precolonial Asante religion—a religion that grew from and reinforced the experiences and lessons that united the tribes—maintaining a harmonious relationship between people, nature, and spirit was humanity’s highest duty.
The Asante believed in a supreme creator, Onyame; in an Earth goddess, Asase Yaa; in lesser deities called abosom, many of whom took the shape of rivers, trees, animals, and stones; and in ancestral spirits.
Since the early twentieth century, most Asante people have identified as Christians. But, Asase Yaa, the ancestors, and the abosom have not been forgotten. As has happened around the world and throughout history, sacred stories have been combined, revised, and reconciled. Old and new ways of understanding and being have merged. Multiple, even conflicting, realities coexist. My father, for example, was an altar boy in an Anglican church; and, as a baby, he received his Asante name in a ceremony in which he was placed on the earth, as a symbol of thanks to Asase Yaa for giving him life. Libation was poured to her and to the ancestors to secure their guidance and protection. I also received such a ceremony, as did my siblings. Kwame saw to it that Nana Kwasi received one too.
Because Onyame created the earth on a Thursday, that is Asase Yaa day (Yaa is also the name given to female Asanti children born on Thursday) and on that day, she is to be granted rest. No tilling or harvesting. No burying the dead. On other days, before disturbing the earth, before taking of her bounty, permission, through the pouring of libation, must be requested. And, no one is to demand from the earth more than they need. Pollution and desecration are forbidden.
Once, while walking with my father, I let a candy wrapper drop to the sidewalk and did not move to pick it up.
“For disrespecting her, Asase Yaa might send rain to your birthday party,” my father said. I grabbed the wrapper, stuck it in my pocket.
Nana Kwasi’s baptism.
Kwame and Elizabeth asked me to be Nana Kwasi’s godmother. Together, we traveled by bus to Asante to visit my grandmother and to baptize the baby in the same Anglican church where my father was an altar boy.
Kwame was only five years old when my father died.
“I wish I had more stories about him,” he said on the bus to our fatherland, “to share with Nana Kwasi.”
“As his godmother,” I said, “I promise to tell him all the stories I remember.”
In the stories my father told—about the forest from which we came, Asase Yaa, the ancestors, the abosom, and Anansi the Spider—there is an antidote to the story of growth. I do not have to believe the stories literally to locate the lessons, to locate the source of the love that has sustained me before and will, I believe, sustain me again.
We do not really mean that what we are about to say is true, I will tell Nana Kwasi. A story, a story; let it come, let it go.
I will tell him: We are a people born from a forest. From it, our ancestors took only what they needed. What they had, they shared. This is still true. Because it is still true, you will never be alone in the world or be without a place to go.
To Asase Yaa, our people presented their children with thanks. To her, they paid respect.
A new story—the story of growth—has overpowered the old story. That story is a story of destruction. We have already destroyed too much.
But, the old story is still alive. It is alive in the ways our extended family cares for one another. It is alive in what is left of the great green forest and in the hearts of the Ghanaian people who are fighting to preserve it. Environmental activists in the country are taking the government to court to stop a project to mine for bauxite in a protected national forest.
Grief need not harden us. It can open us. It can remind us of all that has given us joy. It can remind us that we are all, in the end, bound to one another, despite distances and feelings of dislocation. It can remind us that our highest duty is to maintain a harmonious relationship between people, nature, and spirit.
This, I will tell Nana Kwasi, is my story. It is born of your grandfather’s story. If it is sweet, or if it is not sweet, take it elsewhere, and let it come back to me. O
Purchase Nadia Owusu’s new memoir Aftershocks, out January 12, 2021.