Sankofa, Ghana Days, & The Dash

There is an Adrinka symbol here that looks like a bird with its head reaching behind. When you ask vendors about it, they say “return to your roots,” as if you should know what that means. You see this symbol at the same stands where the vendors loudly hank the trinkets that have the Gye Nyame symbol. They will point at Gye Nyame and say, “Except God”, and then to a Sankofa and say “Return to your Roots!” I wonder if they are talking to me, or just trying to sell me trinkets. As I have begun understanding these Adrinka symbols, I decide that the Sankofa symbol could be my symbol, because our time here in Ghana feels as much about returning to who I was, as it does about discovering what this county has become.


Visually and symbolically “Sankofa” is expressed as a mythic bird that flies forward while looking backward for an egg (symbolizing the wisdom from the past) for its mouth.

There is another story who’s representation looks very much looks like Sankofa symbol, it is a story that is woven into one of the paraments at my Seminary, a more visible echo of the story that is carved into the back of the wall in the chapel, above where the altar might have been if the seminary were not of the reformed tradition. As is, there is a sort of mini half built-in altar that is never used, nor referred to as an altar, and above it is this large relief carving of a pelican. The story behind it has to do with the male pelican, who tradition holds in times of great famine will tear at its breast to bleed so that its young will not starve. In my mind I have this vision of the young birds crying out, mouths open pointed up, like funnels, vying for every drop, crying and pushing each other loudly. I have no idea if pelicans do this, but it is a metaphor for Christ, how He shed his blood for us, and that is why, I suppose, the seminary chose it for the chapel.

But when I think about those metaphors, the story that connects with my time here is return to your roots. Return to who you were created to be, to what Suzanne calls, “the old Steve”, and not the one I had become. Sankofa. Literally meaning “it is not taboo to go back and fetch what you forgot”.

In an email last April, Andrew (the Methodist pastor who has returned to Ghana, and reclaimed The Nissan Patrol) asked what I was going to be doing, while Suzanne taught. I think Andrew was trying to recruit me for the mission field and I wrote back:

> As I have been prayerfully exploring my purpose during this next year, I feel it is,
> first of all, to recover from a pretty stressful seven years of ministry. Like the land
> laying fallow on the seventh year, (Ex 23:10-11), I hope to heal, to be useful to
> the Kingdom again. … Some days I feel like I’ve been strip minded, and now
> that all the coal had been removed, I’m just a toxic waste site. Its not that bad,
> but I know this pace is not sustainable, and something has to give.
>
> So I believe it is God’s timing that will bring me to Ghana, where my family spent
> the year 1968-69. I was 8, and came back a different person.

“Sankofa” teaches us that we must go back to our roots in order to move forward, and so I believe that is why I am here. Sankofa, I must reach back and gather the best of what the past has to teach me, so that I can move forward with its knowledge. Sankofa teaches that whatever I have lost, forgotten, forgone or been stripped of, it can be reclaimed, revived, preserved and perpetuated. I feel I am on this road, but there is more journey ahead of us.

[This sign means road bumps again.]

Now I’m in the car with Anna, driving and she says: “There is always something wrong with Ghana roads.” We’re at the intersection once known as Spaghetti Circle, officially Tetteh Quarshie Circle. Tetteh Quarshie is the 19th century blacksmith who brought cocoa to Ghana. You can still visit his farm and, so the tourist books say, see Ghana’s first cocoa tree. This intersection was one of the worst intersections in Accra until it was completely rebuilt last year (lucky for us!) so that it is no longer one large traffic circle, but a series of clover-leafs, circles and over-passes. There are even big red warning signs to tell you that the traffic lights are working. I have to laugh at that, warning people that the lights are working, when so much of the time here, the lights are not working. Anyway, my daughter Anna has an amazing ability to sum complex concepts in a single sentence, “There is always something wrong with Ghana roads…and if there isn’t,” she says, “they make one.” She is talking about the bumps. It seems that Ghana has two ways of controlling the speed of traffic, and neither of these is a speed limit sign. The first and most popular is letting the roads deteriorate to the point that it is impossible to go faster than a crawl even in four wheel drive. The second is to take a perfectly good road and install bumps in the road. Think residential speed bumps, and then place them on I-35. Sometimes in the city they use rumble strips, but they are not as effective and I have got to wonder, what is it like living next to these sets of rumble strips, as people buzz right over them, making a loud, boom, boom, boom, all through the night. Just add it to the already full array of night noises, I guess.

Night noises, the sound of Ghana: like roosters who start crowing at 4am (and then go strangely quiet at 7am), like the meat pie vendors who walk the streets, pushing a cart, honking a black rubber bicycle horn, or the shoe shine guys. I can understand the roosters, and even the meat pie guy, he sells to the night guards, but the shoe shiners, they bug me.

The shoe shiners don’t just walk by, they carry a box full of shoe shine supplies, and on the side of the box is a flat hard piece of black plastic, which they strike a wooden brush against. WHAP! It is amazingly loud. They do this as they walk, holding the brush in their right hand, swinging it from front to back with the box in their left. At the end of the ark in back, the brush strikes the hard black plastic attached to the shoe shine box, Whap! Step, step, Whap!, step, step, WHAP! I get it, this is how they announce their services. What I want to know is why at 3am in the morning? I mean is there a lot of business at 3am? Are people lying awake waiting for their shoes to be shined? Waiting for the shoe shiner so they can rush out there and have their shoes polished? Or are they lying awake waiting for the meat pie guy, honk, honk, honk. Either meat pie guy or shoe shiners wakes the roosters, and they start going off, about every 9 to 11 seconds (yes, I’ve calculated it). Then there are the planes, but thankfully they don’t start until 5:20am.

We live close to the airport, close being a relative term, it is not like you could walk there, but we are near enough that the planes fly close overhead. The joke is we can see what people are reading. It is not like they always fly, it really depends on wind direction, but when they do, they do so about every hour. I just learned at the dinner table, that everyone has dreams, or thoughts about one of these planes crashing. When they come this close, you can understand it. Oddly, nobody thinks about them crashing into our house, in their dream it crashes in the next block, tearing a big gash into the land, and then the story (or dream) becomes how we help, people living in our house, no school, treating the wounded like a makeshift MASH unit. When they fly overhead I find myself—as the conversation has paused and everyone is looking up—listening for a crash, and relieved (ok admittedly sometimes disappointed) when I don’t hear one. It’s the adventurer in me (and I’m not the only one who does this either). But after a few weeks you get used to it and you don’t notice the meat pie guy, honk, honk, honk, or the shoe shiners WHAP, step, step, WHAP! or the roosters. The planes are a different matter, you just don’t get used to them, like the bumps they put in the roads.

[Another Sankofa design]

The Japanese Government is replacing the main road out to Cape Coast. Apparently the thought is that if they build better (or more) roads in Ghana, people here will buy more Japanese cars. So they are replacing the first type of road with the second, replacing the old crumbling road with a new one, and as soon as they are finished with the smooth, well designed and built road, the first thing the Ghanaians do is place bumps on it. It is enough to make you cry because here you are in rural Ghana, not far from the coast, cruising along on this wonderful road, doing all of 100 Kph, (62 mph) and then you see the sign, and hit the brake—bumps. Worse yet, you’re cruising along on this fine, wonderful, glorious road and you see them, actually see them tearing up this newly finished highway, putting in bricks, and the ramps up to them, and next time we’re out here, we will have yet another bump. Fox wants to stop and bribe (or dash them) them not to do it, imagine bribing someone to NOT do something. Kind of like the US farm subsidy program that pays farmers not to grow wheat.

The Dash. So on Monday, Emmanuel and I are trying to get our cooking gas cylinders filled. There is a cooking gas shortage in Accra, and so there are “gas lines”. There is a long row of cylinders and about half way through the line there is a sign that says “NO GAS”. Silly me, I’m thinking they are about to run out, and this is where they figure they will run out. Nope, it’s the dash line. The man speaks something to Emmanuel in Ga, his native language. “Lets go,” he says to me, and we put the cylinders back in the car. “That man, he said something to me in our language,” Emmanuel pauses, “he wanted a dash, he saw you coming and wanted a dash before he would sell us gas.” As we are talking, I see the sign move, I guess someone was willing to pay to get to the dash line.

“How much did he want?” I ask as we’re driving away. “I would not pay him,” he said not answering the question. Emmanuel already thinks US People try to solve all problems with money. “I know that, I just want to know how much, how much did he want?” He thinks about it, ¢20,000, roughly two dollars. Now to fill the whole container would have been ¢106,000 ($11), so he is extorting 20%, not bad work if you can get it. I think it is interesting the whole calculation of dash, or bribe. Emmanuel puts a great deal of thought into it, like when the power company comes buy and wants to trim the trees, but won’t do so unless you dash them. “How much?” I ask. The man says something to Emmanuel in their language, naming his price, and Emmanuel tells me “Lets go,” and back inside the compound he tells me the amount. Or yesterday, after our garbage has sat out front for two weeks (the garbage men are on strike), the neighbors have hired someone to haul theirs off, and for a dash they would haul ours off too. How much, I ask. ¢50,000 ($5), OK, I say, and when I come home the garbage has been taken away.

So I don’t go back to “dash-gas” and the next week, I’m trying to fill the containers at dash-gas’ neighbor, there is a long line, 37 gas containers ahead of us. I calculate it takes 3 minutes each, and so we’re talking at least 90 minutes. We have a back-up cylinder for cooking, but Emmanuel doesn’t and so they have been using a coal pot for two weeks. The line is moving, there is a camaraderie developing with people moving other’s cylinders up the line, and then as I am just 5 away from being next, a man shows up with three small cylinders and cuts to the front of the line. People object, naturally, since we’ve been there more than an hour standing in the hot sun. There are loud words, shouting, and people moving his cylinders out of line and him moving them back, and then someone decides to allow him to do this, and they fill his containers (but get this…he has trouble paying, so they let him walk). Anyway, when I am two containers from being next, the gas runs out or as they say “It is finished,” (meaning they just ran out of LP gas) You just have to laugh at the situation. There will be days like this, when the country or its customs work against you, and then you have a choice to make.

Right now I’m laughing, shaking my head. I think that is the first thing that Sankofa has brought me. There was a time not too long ago that I might have let this thing ruin a day, or a week, but it hasn’t, or I have not chose to let it. I used to say “There will be days like this,” but now I call them “Ghana Days.” “Ghana Days” are when the culture, or the people, or just bad luck works against me, because I’m a obrunie, because I new here, because I don’t understand the culture or history. Maybe Ghana’s roads don’t have the monopoly on having something wrong with them. Maybe it is the days spent on life’s roads, when there will always be something wrong with them, and if there isn’t, there soon will be.

“Pastors aren’t called to make everything right,” I heard our conference preacher[1] say this summer at Annual Conference. She is talking about the things pastors don’t understand.

She was right. Too often I think, I got confused, or the people I served got confused, and Sankofa has begun to teach me this. I had thought as pastor, I should be able to make things right; but in fact, I couldn’t do that–I had “Ghana Days” myself, days that no amount of dash could fix. Days that really, only the cross could help, and so maybe that’s what we pastors are called to do, like the conference preacher said, pastors aren’t called to make everything right, we’re called to point to the cross, only that can make everything right.

[1] Gail Ford Smith, in a sermon “Who Will Be a Witness?” 1 Co. 1:26-2:5

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