UNDER THE NEEM TREE
Goodbye to The Dear Departed by CAMERON DUODU
From New African Magazine December 2014
So far, almost all the stories I have told readers of New African who chose to sit Under The Neem Tree with me, have been funny ones.
But in doing that, I have not done justice to the concept of sitting Under The Neem Tree. One of the most important aspects of the experience is to teach the young about things of which they might have heard but which they do not have direct experience about.
For instance, when I was growing up, it was Under the Neem Tree that we learnt how to play the games that taught us how to cope with the vicissitudes of life.
Of these games, the most ingenious was the game of marbles (nter in the Twi language) . First, you had to go into the bush to search for and collect the nuts of the nter tree. Where did one find them? Lesson Number One!
If you were successful, you brought them home and then applied fire to one side of the nuts to bite “legs” on it, which enabled the nuts to “dance” on a special mat prepared for the game. You won other people’s nuts if you could knock them off the mat with your nut. I shall give a full description of this game one of these days: trust me one can imbibe a lot of philosophy from it if one is an educable type of person. Nter It was only for boys, which can give you a clue as to the simulated psychological machismo attached to it!
Another popular game was oware. This could be played by everyone – old lovers as well as boys and girls at their pubescent best as practitioners of disguised eroticism. Oware could make you laugh like a jackal or make you cry like a wounded civet cat.
Like nter, you had to brave the hazards of the forest to collect the nuts. But it was worth it, for this was a game that taught one mental arithmetic plus long-term strategising and clever deceptive manoeuvres of a tactical nature. The language that went with it was suggestive, to say the least. For instance, the term for winning an opponent’s pieces was the same as is used for describing the sexual act itself!
For the girls, there was ampe. Although entirely physical, ampe too taught its players how to anticipate and defeat another person’s moves.
Then, there was a mixed gender game called tumatu, in which squares were drawn on the ground and sharp brains were needed to remember where other players had conquered territory, in order to avoid stepping into them. The Scramble For Africa in miniature or Political Education 101? I leave that to you!
But not all the games were dedicated to fun. Some made us delve into the Reality of Death. In all the games we played, you could lose out – or “die” as a player and become a mere by-stander. Or go home. With your tail between your legs.
Or you could watch your siblings, your tactical “allies”, or real and feigned “friends” defeated. Without being able to help them survive, even if you try, surreptitiously, to support them. Thereby, you learnt empathy, sympathy and resignation. All at the same time.
So, Under The Neem Tree, you acquired the knowledge that “all days are not equal”. In fact, sometimes the learning moved away seamlessly from the metaphorical to the real.
You see, we chatted and told stories whilst playing. For instance, it was during an nter contest that I learnt about the death of a very strong bully called Kwa’Ntwi, who bestrode the twin-villages of Saaman and Dwaaso, about five miles from my home-town, Asiakwa. He was used to terrorising the entire area, as far as Osinor. He would force women to give him some of the foodstuffs they were carrying home from their farms. But one day, he made a mistake: he intercepted a hunter who were carrying the game he had bagged home.
When the hunter warned him to stop harassing him, Kwa’Ntwi clutched the five fingers of his right hand together, beat his chest very hard with the first and shouted at the hunter, ”What can you do?”
Then he charged at the hunter. The hunter sidestepped him neatly. He then cocked his gun. And warned Kwa’Ntwi again.
But Kwa’Ntwi got up and tried to rush the hunter again.
“TI-REEEEENG!” the hunter pressed the trigger of his gun.
There lay Kwa’Ntwi, bleeding to death and chewing the gravels on the ground.
The boy who told this story made it sound as real as it would have been had he been standing there when it happened. We knew he wasn’t there, but that was the beauty of being Under The Neem Tree: everyone who had any talent was allowed to display it there. The boy with a good flair for story-telling taught us that you could push people too far. (Apparently, Kwa’Ntwi’s killer was acquitted of murder – on the grounds of self-defence against a well-known bully and tyrant).
Another bully we heard had about was the chief of Abenne, in a state called Kwahu that was adjacent to ours. He thought no-one could kill him because he had gone and “’eaten” [subscribed to the protection of] a powerful juju in Northern Ghana. He too was left sprawling on the ground by a fearless man who shot him twice with a “double-barrelled” gun after being slapped about by the chief. This was a true story, for there was a cloth called “The useless talismans of the Chief of Abenne”.
So we learnt about how death can come for anyone. When death did come for my friend, the former Ghana Airways Pilot, Captain Peter Dorkenoo, Peter wasn’t in the best of health. Nevertheless I mourn him as if he was a young man cut off in his prime.
For that was how I remember him: I was doing a story on him for Drum Magazine when he was flying for the West African Airways Corporation (WAAC), in the early 1960s. He was big news for he was flying the DC-3 (Dakota), an aircraft that was so temperamental it needed both physical strength and good brains to pilot it through the West African skies, what with the strong winds that accompanied tropical storms, and the low visibility that occurred during the Harmattan season. It was unheard of for blacks to become Captains in WAAC, so Peter and a comrade of his, Captain Thomas Agyare, were pioneers of the highest order.
Indeed, Peter was one of only four black Africans who were the first to be trained by the British to become Pilots in the mid-1950s – two from the Gold Coast and two from Nigeria. When Ghana Airways was formed in 1962, both Peter and Agyare were trained on Viscounts and became Captains on that aircraft as well. Then they moved on to jets – the VC-10 to be exact. At that time, the VC-10 aircraft was the most sophisticated on earth, and to see the two Ghanaians not only skippering it and flying it so smoothly that the passengers often clapped their hands for the Pilots when they landed their aircraft, was a great boost for Ghanaian – and African – self-confidence.
Peter Dorkenoo, who was also Champion [Sports Car] Driver of Ghana, died aged 84 at the end of September 2014. He enjoyed life to the full: I can testify to that because he taught me a great deal about the finer things of life – among them, lovely cars, jazz music and good films. May he rest in peace.
Another person who taught me a great deal and has left this life was Professor Ivor G Wilks, who has died in Wales, in the UK, aged 86.
I met the late Prof Wilks at a New Year School organised by the University of Ghana’s Extra-Mural Studies Department at Legon at the end of 1954. He was lecturing in a seminar on international affairs which I joined. He had been a lieutenant in Palestine before coming to Ghana and his lectures were extremely interesting, because the Middle East was in ferment at the time. The “Baghdad Pact” was in the news and the Anglo-Israeli-French invasion of Suez (1956) on the horizon.
When I became a reporter on a magazine called New Nation, my first major assignment took me to Northern Ghana, and I discovered there that Prof Wilks was the Resident Tutor of the Department of Extra-Mural Studies, based in Tamale. Although I had only been his student at the New Year School and hardly knew him, he very generously put me up at his bungalow in Tamale, and gave me ideas regarding where I could go for stories. Most important, he taught me where I might stay in Bolgatanga, Navrongo and Bawku, without straining the tiny budget New Nation had given me.
It was due entirely to the assistance given to me by Prof Wilks that I obtained my first-ever scoop – a funny, fact-based story entitled “How I deceived The Tongo Fetish.” By the time I became editor of Drum Magazine, he had done original research in Ashanti, Northern Ghana and beyond, which had enabled him to break new ground with the publication of a small but explosive book entitled “The Northern Factor in Asante History”.
In this book, Prof Wilks re-directed the epicentre of the history of the Asante empire towards its relations with North Africa and away from the hackneyed version, which concentrated almost entirely on Asante’s relationship with the coast – where , o0f course, Asante had battled for control against the British and other Europeans. Prof Wilks had acquired a knowledge of Arabic and he revealed – mainly through manuscripts some of which he unearthed himself whilst doing research in Asante, Northern Ghana and North Africa – that Asante’s relations with Northern Africa, through such trading posts as Djenne. proved that Asante was ready to modernise itself through contacts with the rest of the world, through the Mediterranean, and not just through southern Gold Coast. He thus changed the history with which we had been fed in school — “West Africa As Civilised By The Whiteman” to “West Africa As It Was When It Ruled Itself!” I was thrilled when he pointed out that Akan words like ponkor (horse) and djata (lion) were unmistakably imported from Asante’s Northern neighbours.
Prof Wilks later produced two authoritative books, Asante In The 19th Century, and Forests of Gold, which established him as THE foremost world expert on Asante history. Indeed, he did for Asante history, what Basil Davidson has done for African history as a whole. When he left the University of Ghana’s Institute of African Studies, he became a Professor, then Regius Professor, at North-Western University in Illinois, USA. I feel gratified to have known him and I wish him eternal, peaceful rest. And I send my heartfelt condolences to his children, David Amanor and Dede Esi Amanor.