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Growing Up in Kumasi


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By Kwame Anthony Appiah
An excerpt from the Preface to In My Father's House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1992)

My first memories are of a place called "Mbrom," a small neighborhood in Kumasi, capital of Asante, as that kingdom turned from being part of the British Gold Coast colony to being a region of the Republic of Ghana. Our home was opposite my grandparent's house -- where scores of her kinsfolk and dependents lived under the direction of my step-grandmother, "Auntie Jane," who baked bread for hundreds of people from Mbrom and the surrounding areas -- down the street from many cousins of various, usually obscure, degrees of affinity. Near the center of the second largest city in Ghana, behind our hibiscus hedge in the "garden city of West Africa," our life was essentially a village life, lived among a few hundred neighbors; out from that village we went to the other little villages that make up the city.

We could go higher up the hill, to Asante New Town, to the palace of the Asante king, Prempeh II: whose first wife, my great aunt, always called me "Akroma-Ampim" -- the name of our most illustrious ancestor -- or "Yao Antony" -- the name of the great-uncle and head of the family from whom I acquired my anglicized name "Anthony." Or we could travel in another cultural direction to the campus of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology-known always as "Tech"-where I went to primary school, and where many of my friends' parents were professors.

Some worlds -- the world of the law-courts where my father went, dressed in his dark European suits, carrying the white wig of the British barrister (which he wore after independence as in the colonial period), a rose from the garden (my mother's garden) always in his button-hole; the world of parliament, where he went in the first years I can remember, an opponent now of his old friend Kwame Nkrumah-some worlds we knew of only because our parents spoke of them. Others -- the world of the little church, St. George's, where we went to Sunday school with Baptists and Copts and Catholics and Methodists and Anglicans, from other parts of the country, other parts of the continent, other parts of the world -- we knew inside and out, knew because they were central to our friendships, our learning, our beliefs.

In our house, my mother was visited regularly by Muslim Hausa traders from what we called (in a phrase that struck my childhood ear as wonderfully mysterious, exotic in its splendid vagueness) "the North." These men knew she was interested in seeing and, sometimes, in buying the brass weights the Asante had used for weighing gold; gold-weights they had collected from villages all over the region, where they were being sold by people who had no use for them any more, now that paper and coin had replaced gold-dust as currency. And as she collected them, she heard more and more of the folklore that went with them; the proverbs that every figurative gold-weight elicited; the folk-tales, Ananseasem, that the proverbs evoked. My father told us these Ananse stories, too, some of them picked up as a political prisoner under Nkrumah (there was little else to do in prison but spin yarns). Between his stories and the cultural messages that came with the gold-weights, we gathered the sort of sense of a cultural tradition that comes from growing up in it. For us it was not Asante tradition but the webwork of our lives. We loved the stories-my sisters now read the ones that my mother has published to my nephews in Gaberone and in Lagos; my god-children read them here in America-and we grew to love the gold-weights and the carvings that the traders brought.

And the family we grew into (an "extended" family, our English friends would have said, though we would have thought of their conceptions of family as "contracted") gave us an immense social space in which to grow.

But we also went from time to time to my mother's native country, to England, to stay with my grandmother in the rural West Country, returning the visits she had made to us. And the life there-perhaps this is only because it is also part of my earliest memories-seems, at least now, to have been mostly not too different. My grandmother lived next door to my aunt (my mother's sister) and her family, in the village where my aunt was born, just as my father lived next to his father; and so, by an odd cultural reversal, my father lived opposite and close to his patrilineal kin (in matrilineal Asante) while my aunt and her children lived next to their matrilineal kin (in patrilineal England). But it was my father's matriclan and my English grandfather's matriclan-descendants of the eight sisters, of whom one was my great-grandmother-that I came to know best over the years.

If my sisters and I were "children of two worlds" no one bothered to tell us this; we lived in one world, in two "extended" families divided by several thousand miles and an allegedly insuperable cultural distance that never, so far as I can recall, puzzled or perplexed us much.

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