Mwatabu S Okantah
Ghana Time, or, Fools' Frontier? (Part Five)
Updated: Jan 29, 2020
We are finally in Tema, in the compound of the brother-friend who named me, Okantah. At a time when I had become conscious that I could never be fully human without a proper name, I met a University of Akron student from Ghana, Nii Ardey Otoo. I was tormented knowing I had a slave name. By this time, I had been thunder-struck into a painful new cultural awareness when I met my first “African from Africa African.” A chance encounter exploded everything I thought understood about being Black. At 15, the James Brown classic, “Say it loud, I’m Black and I’m proud,” had already moved me to wonder, “Why do we call each other Nigger?” I remember returning to my dormitory that afternoon, staring at my reflection in the mirror and asking, “If he is an African, what does that make me?”
I had assumed a fellow Black student was an African American that day. My mind raced with Tarzan images. I could not stop myself from asking all the embarrassing questions. Where did he learn to speak English? Where did he get his clothes? Did he live in a hut? I even asked if he had killed a lion? I had met Albert Kemokai, a student from Liberia. He awakened in me, a longing to connect with the Africa I began to feel deep in my bones. We became close friends. My real introduction to the continent came through interactions with other African students on campus. I often found myself the only African American in a lively group of Africans. Some “Black-American” friends even began to sarcastically ask, “So you think you an African, now?”
I had not seen Nii Ardey in years, when I visited Ghana for the first time in January 1990. I had no idea if he was still in the US or if he had returned home. It was comforting just wandering the city where he had grown up. I was staying with a friend I met during my time at Cleveland State University, Nii Ayi Ankrah. My name had appeared in a campus newspaper article and he wanted to know, “Who was this African American named, Okantah?” He had named his son, Nii Okantah. I was stunned but not surprised, when we literally stumbled upon Nii Ardey at a Twelve Tribes Rasta Groundation gathering in Accra. I would learn Nii Ardey's actual family name was Ankrah that day. He and Nii Ayi discovered they were extended family members that day. We embraced each other as kindred spirits that joyous day.
It was no coincidence that I reconnected with Nii Ardey at a Rasta gathering that fateful day. Rastaman vibrations have come back from the Diaspora, “strong-strong,” in Ghana. I had seen the same signs in Nigeria and in Senegal. Nana Eduakwa, even told how a Catholic priest once remarked, “Bob Marley is like a new “Christ” figure.” It is time to re-imagine Africa. The continent is so much more than a geographical location. What does it mean to be African in this new millennium? What does it mean to be a global, Pan-African community in the 21st century? What does it mean to be African in this remarkable, Year of the Return?
After spending nineteen years in the US, Nii Ardey returned home in 1989. Born and raised in Accra, he moved back into his Ancestral village, Mayera Faase, in the Greater Accra Region, and farmed that first ten years. He had been summoned home by the Family Head. He and all of his siblings were living in the United States. He said, “My experiences in the States, taught me that I had to move back to the village because that is where the culture is.” The psychic and the spiritual wounds he endured living in America for all those years made him know, the life-giving culture was what he needed most. The Elder said it was time to bring the family in Ghana back together.
On this sojourn, I would learn the true family origin of my African name. I was finally able to visit the places in Nii Ardey’s life I no longer had to imagine. Places he had shared with me in pictures and in stories about growing up Accra city wise. Sitting with one of his uncles in the family owned hostel in Accra, they told the story of how his father’s first name, Otoo, became his last name because of the arrogant ignorance of a colonial schoolteacher. When asked his name, his father gave his “Christian” name and combined it with his true name, Otoo, which would be mistakenly recorded as his colonial surname. Listening to the story further confirmed, Europeans knew exactly what they were doing when they imposed their names on the peoples they colonized.
It all came together in another village. Nii Ardey took us to Mayera Faase, to meet the Queen Mother, Naa Abrefi I. When he told her that I had taken Okantah as my family name, she smiled and gave me a strong hug. We went outside onto the veranda and Queen Mother Naa Faase, the Chief’s Okyeame (Linguist), Ataa Laryea and Nii Ardey poured a traditional Libation for us. They thanked the Ancestors for allowing us to return. I thanked them for bringing Nii Ardey and Aminah into my life. The Okyeame told me that I would always be known as Nii Okantah Ankrah in Mayera Faase and that we would always be welcomed. Once again, we were welcomed home.