North to Paradise: A Memoir
The desert is full of corpses, scattered among the dunes.
A man sat down. Alone. In the middle of the desert. We had been walking for days, trusting the man who said he could lead us out of those endless sands. We had no food or water. Hope dwindled with each passing day. There was nothing as far as the eye could see. The wind howled, and the air burned in our lungs.
That man, the man who sat down, couldn’t go any farther. He had used his last ounce of strength.
“Leave me,” he said.
He didn’t care if he died.
“You can do it,” we urged him. “Just hang on a little longer. We’ll be there soon.”
“Leave me,” he repeated.
“There can’t be much farther to go.”
“We’re going to be all right, we’re the chosen ones.”
“Leave me . . .”
He just sat, alone, in the middle of the desert. Slowly, we started walking again. He got smaller and smaller until he disappeared. I imagined him dying silently, over the course of days, his last breath as feeble as a bird’s. Then he must have lain there, dry and rigid, just like all the other bodies we’d encountered along the way.
The smugglers had abandoned us, betrayed us in the middle of nowhere, without explanation. We wanted to reach Paradise, the Promised Land. When we started out, there were forty-six of us. Only six survived.
I was born on a Tuesday. I don’t know the month or the year because that doesn’t matter in my tribe. But I know I was born in the tropical African country called Ghana. My village, in the Brong-Ahafo region, within the Techiman District, is in the middle of the jungle, surrounded by lush vegetation. It’s an incredibly fertile region: drop a seed anywhere and a plant will grow. My mother died giving birth to me. According to the traditions of my tribe, the Wala, when this happens, the baby must be abandoned because it was born under a curse. It’s left to die. Luckily, my father, Seidu, was a shaman from the tribe’s royal family, and he could save me. Our distant ancestor founded the Kingdom of Wa, and his descendants became the four branches of the family—known as the four gates—that take turns governing. We belonged to one of those gates.
The Wala have their own unique form of identification: a small scar on the right cheek, a small cut we’re given when we’re born so we can recognize each other. It’s important: in a fight, it may mean the difference between being taken down as an enemy or protected as a fellow tribesman.
As a shaman, my father was not a member of the Islamic faith. Though his wife and children were Muslim, he adhered to the religion of our ancestors. When his father died, the family performed a ritual and the spirits chose my father to continue the shamanic practice; the tradition has been passed down in this way for generations. My father believed that the gods are everywhere—in nature, in rivers and mountains—and that all things have a soul. Growing up, I was always confused because I shared his religion at home and the Muslim religion in the community. Even as a child, I could tell people thought of Islam and Christianity as somehow superior to the ancestral religion. My father wasn’t even allowed in the mosque.
Being spared as a child was the first miracle I experienced in my life, the first of many times I narrowly escaped death. To save me, my father moved us to another village, Fiaso, where we lived with my aunt, the woman who raised me. I grew up thinking she was my mother, but she was actually my mother’s sister.
In Fiaso, we spent our days working the fields. If we wanted to eat chicken, we grabbed one from the poultry yard. If we wanted to eat some other animal, we’d hunt it in the jungle. At night, we set traps, and as soon as dawn broke, we’d run out to see what we’d caught. And when there was nothing else, we’d gather mangos, oranges, and all the other things that nature provides. You never go hungry in the countryside. I had it easy in my village: I was the shaman’s son, and I lived in a big house. I didn’t think about my future much. I expected that my life would be typical: I would live off the earth, tend to the animals, marry, and have children.
The houses in my village were made of clay, and the roofs were made of bamboo, branches, and other plants. We took our water from the river. Actually, there were two rivers: one female and the other male. One was for drinking, the other for washing. I’ve never tasted such fresh, crystalline water anywhere else. There was no electricity, so we used kerosene. There was so little artificial light that at night, you could see millions of stars shining in the sky, like burning embers dotted across the heavens. When I was a boy, on nights with a full moon, the light was so strong we could play outside.
“If you stare at the moon too hard,” the elder women told us, “a witch will come and kill you.” They also warned us not to point at graveyards. That could kill you too—unless you swallowed a pebble first, of course.
It rained a lot in my village, and the houses were made from natural materials, so we had to make constant repairs. My father was very good at that kind of thing, and people always asked him to help mend or build houses, or oversee the work. That was another reason everyone respected him.
My father was a serious man with a slight build, and he was very agile. With us, his children, he was distant and severe, not talking much, except to give orders: “Come do this, go do that.” He taught us not through words, but through actions, which we learned to imitate. I respected him immensely. My adopted mother, Amina, was cheerful and talkative. Besides managing domestic tasks, she also sold essential goods, like salt and peanuts, which she brought from the town of Techiman. My mother was kind, even when my father was strict. She always tried to shield us from his beatings. Once, I dropped the water gourd on the way back from the river and it broke. He became very angry and beat me badly. “Even if he kills me, it’s not going to fix the shattered gourd,” I remember thinking. “What’s the point in getting so upset?” It’s normal to beat children as punishment there.
I was a soccer fanatic, even though my father didn’t approve. With my best friends, Francis, Jafaro, and Salu, I would set up a soccer field (though in Ghana, we call it football) in the flat areas outside the village. I played forward, and I was pretty good. My team always won. Francis could buy soccer balls in Techiman because his parents gave him an allowance, so he always brought the ball. Whenever he got mad, he’d grab the ball, say it was his, and leave us with no way to play. Sometimes I’d get so caught up playing soccer that I’d be late to tend the goats, which made my father furious. So it felt really special when one day, when we were playing a proper match rather than just a scrimmage, he came to watch me play. I remember playing better than I ever had before, knowing that he was watching and that he was proud of me. He was in shorts, but he also wore a beautiful green-and-yellow kente cloth that he saved for special occasions.
I lived with my extended family—there were twenty of us—in a big house with a central courtyard we used for meetings and household tasks, like preparing food or hanging up laundry to dry. Parents, grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles, we shared a strong bond. In my land, family is sacred, and elders are the most important and respected of all. Children are just work mules; nobody pays much attention to them. Elders are the wisest because they have lived the longest. Since knowledge is hard to come by, the best way to learn something is to ask an elder.
At night, around the fire, the elders would share their experiences and tell folktales where animals were the main characters. That was how we learned about nature and survival. I remember a story about a man-spider who was the wisest in his village. He wanted to make sure no one could ever be wiser than he was, so he tried to collect all the world’s knowledge, put it in a gourd, and hang it from a tree where no one could ever reach it. He tried to climb the tree with the gourd hanging from his belly, but it was too heavy, so his son, Kuakuata, suggested carrying it on his back. This enraged the father because he realized he hadn’t collected all the world’s knowledge after all—his son knew something he didn’t! The elders used that story to teach us that you can never know everything.
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|Epub||February 19, 2022|
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