“To find a place that fits. Where past and present coincide. Where the landscape feels like a version of the self. To walk out into such a place, so at home in its vocabulary that you don’t need words. Memory eased, exonerated. The mud-covered streets of the heart so prosaic they promise a life of their own.”
The sound of this country is the cowbell. That same five beat refrain:
ding ding ding DING DING,
The background for beer as well as church, the pulse underneath the red earth. Everything is in the dirt here, the body, the blood and the Holy Ghost. Forget the stars, though once you get out of the city, out of Accra, out of the exhaust they are quite beautiful. In the city there are no great astral beauties, just great hacking coughs, rust colored spittle settling into the corners of mouths, wet burgundy drying deep into the cracks of ashy toes.
And here you are, in the midst of harmattan, the season of Saharan dust settling over the city, the sky a flat, lifeless brown, sneaking out of school to buy fried yams with your friends. Here you are dodging traffic and security guards to make it five feet from the school gates, slide stained money out of your pocket and hand it to the sweaty braless woman manning the dull silver pit of grease. You later find out her name is Happy, which seems fitting, considering the face she makes every time you hand her a 5,000 cedi bill. Here you are, stuffing your face with sticks of yellow yam and orange sweet potato until your face shines with grease. Here you are, sticking your hand into the accompanying bag of red and black pepper sauce, running your finger around the edge, flipping the bag inside out, placing it in your mouth, sucking out the juices. Here, you are taking it all in.
You drive everywhere or rather, are driven everywhere in this country. You never get anywhere on foot unless you’re stumbling down Oxford Street, dodging the outstretched hands of beggars and men of dubious intent. And even then, sometimes you smack the wrists away from the safety of the interior of your taxi. You forget sometimes there is a natural world, being a city girl through and through. The closest you get to wildness is the goats wandering down the middle of the street, the memorable image of chickens falling into open gutters, a mushroom cloud of white feathers and feces molded green.
There are still times where you get back to the wild. Back, because it’s where you are from. Back because your veins and the soil are sisters. On a Habitat for Humanity trip in eighth grade you spend all day carrying plastic buckets of water up and down a hill. The buckets are green and give the water a pale tint, the color of celery. The second day you mix huge batches of concrete, grey and mealy. A boy named Derek Achampong splashes some of the watery mixture onto one of his shoes, exclaims “Hey yo! These are hundred dollar kicks.” He doesn’t even have the decency to look ashamed, doesn’t even have the decency to look around at the villagers, their eyes large with the sum of $100, of more money than they will ever have at one time.
You first come to know nature when you move to Michigan, not outside, but fittingly, in the pages of a book; in the story “Making Love in 2003,” by Miranda July. It’s a story of a girl who sends her longing out into the world, who wants so much for love that she can’t help but pray to everything, to the linoleum beneath her feet, and deeper. The world answers her call, gives her an amorphous black mass that makes love to her every night; that fills her.
This idea, that the world can answer your prayers, that the idea of heaven could be not above but all around, in the oxygen you breathe, in the food you eat, is everything you’ve wanted to hear. You don’t know how to adequately express your wonder but you try to tell your best friend one day at lunch. “Isn’t that the most fucking amazing idea ever?” you say, searching her eyes for some sense that she understands. And she does. This is a girl, after all, who spends hours in the woods, crawling on all fours, who comes to your room scratched and smelling of white pine and says “I have a poem I want you to read.”
You resolve to spend as much time as you can stupefied, to open yourself to the world completely. You find yourself wanting to absorb the world, to take on people’s sadness, their love. You become a vehicle of consumption and you want nothing more than to unhinge your jaw and swallow the world whole, contain all the horror and beauty within yourself. You write lots of bad poetry.
When the snow falls that winter, your second winter, you find yourself depressed. You have come, in this winter to know sadness, to find a place inside yourself that is larger than you will ever grow, that is rooted deeper than inherence. Your sadness is not dark and cavernous but dazzlingly white and never-ending. It is months long and well lit but ill formed at the edges, blurry at the horizon and soft, easy to get lost in. You think maybe if you stop moving it will go away but you start to go numb, lose your train of thought. Like the snow, your sadness is seemingly unaffected by salt water, the warmth emitted by your body, your sibilant prayers for the world to stop spinning. And like your sadness, the snow is a constant reminder that you are not in control of much.
As time wears on you find yourself no longer a citizen of any land. You still cannot walk on ice but the heat in Ghana makes you break out into a rash. You have never really had a sense of belonging to any one place except this galaxy, but this loss is sad for some reason. There is fodder for poetry in this nomadic existence at the very least. You find yourself doing this a lot lately, trying to quell your pessimistic urges, thinking ‘there’s a poem in there somewhere.’ And if there is something strong enough to bridge the gap then it is this, finding beauty in the red smears your shoes leave in the snow.
“Fefe Naa Efe” also relies on incredibly concrete details worked into a half-seen scenario – in this case, a childhood divided between Africa and the States.
—M.T. Anderson, 2010 Hunger Mountain Prize for Young Writers Judge