Once, many years ago, the forest areas of Ghana were like Paradise. Our parents – like all other parents in our village – were allocated a plot on which to make a farm. We helped them to do it, as best as our meagre strength (now usually referred to by economists as “manpower resources”) enabled us to. The whole family created the farm together and harvested it together. We hadn’t heard of Karl Marx, yet we gave our services “each according to his ability” and we received from our farm, “each according to his need!”
The funny thing is that although we fulfilled one of his maxims for an ideal society, Karl Marx himself would probably have dismissed our society as “primitive” and “feudalistic” because our farmlands were shared to us under the supervision of our chief and his elders. We didn’t complain about the system under which we got our farms, but Marxist purists would most certainly have condemned it on our behalf. Well, we didn’t know any of that, so we didn’t care. We grew our crops. And carried enough food home on our heads to feed ourselves. When our supply was exhausted, we went back to the farm and brought home some more food. Nobody taught us to have a “balanced diet”. But somehow, we knew that yam, cocoyam and cassava (starchy foods) should be balanced with plantain (iron) and banana (sugar) as well as vegetables (vitamins).
More importantly, we also knew that we ought to eat things that gave our bodies protein. This is where the fun began. We crossed several streams before we reached our farms. Streams full of fish, crabs and prawns. Our father knew how to construct a trap out of dried raffia, which ingeniously enticed the water creatures into the traps with raw cassava, pawpaw, and other things that he had somehow discovered were delicacies for them. They went into the trap to eat these things. And they couldn’t come out again. Instead, they became our delicacies.
There is no sight as edifying as watching one’s father wade into the depths of a stream, pull out his well-hidden fish-trap (adwokuo) and empty out of it, a variety of wriggling and writhing creatures – shrimps, eels, tilapia, crabs, minnows.
There was a risk to this business – on a rare occasion, a water-snake would be inside the trap and a faint-hearted father would drop the trap back into the water and forget all about its catch. But a tough dad would find a way of releasing the snake back into the water. If the task proved dangerous, he would find a way to slash off its head carefully with his cutlass. We absorbed so much from our father by watching him that we could do some of the things he did, when he happened not to be around.
My mother could inspect fish-traps without sweat. And sometimes, I would ask to be allowed to do it – in the areas where the water was not too deep. You have not seen a happy boy until you see one who is sucking nice juice out of the claw of a boiled crab which he took out of the water himself (at what he imagined was some risk to himself, although his mother would have been watching over him to ensure that he came to no harm whatsoever).
Traps placed in strategic places in the forest were a different thing. They were more likely to catch dangerous snakes like black mambas. So they were approached with great care. The traps were usually made out of a strong piece of wood which was bent into a type of bow to whose end was attached a piece of wire or some other very strong string. Raw foodstuffs – cassava, cocoyam pawpaw and so on – were placed in the trap in such a way that any animal that tried to reach them would automatically displace a contraption that was attached to the bow and cause it to spring upwards. Any animal whose head was inside the wire or string when it sprang upwards was a goner.
If we saw a bow that was “half-standing”, it meant it had caught something. But what? We would creep forward and make sure it wasn’t a snake that the trap had caught, before approaching it. The most treasured catch of all was a grass-cutter. We also delighted in catching duikers and bigger antelopes, as well as bucks. The variety of animals we could catch depended on how deeply into the forest we had laid our traps. Civet cats were about the most awkward to catch, for if they weren’t dead when we approached them, they could scratch and bite before being killed.
So we learnt some amazingly useful techniques from our fathers. And we were filled with admiration for them. Freud could tell you that a society in which the children admired their fathers was a successful society but we won’t go into that. Some, like my own, could go hunting at night with their mates – something that was dangerous because a member of the hunting pack could easily be mistaken for an animal and shot dead if his companions were not ultra-careful. The risks these men took and the wonderful techniques they invented, made us realise – without being told – that they were superior beings, and when they directed us to do things, we accepted their authority without quibble.
But then, colonialism came and tried its best to psychologically shatter our self-confidence that was based on our ability to conquer and enjoy our own environment. The biggest weapon the colonialists used was “education”. They cleverly linked their foreign education to a new system of economic advancement. So our people had to embrace it with glee. If you grew cocoa or coffee, it helped if there was someone in your family who could read the weighing scales and calculate how much your crop was worth, and not be forced to take only the word of the clerk of the foreign company that purchased your crop.
So colonialism took no prisoners, psychologically speaking. It destroyed our way of life and by the time the colonialists gave us “independence”, many of us had become strangers to our own environment; native sons of the soil with foreign matter in our brains; or – as Frantz Fanon eloquently designated it – a people with “black skins, white masks”.
It wasn’t only our fathers who enabled us to cope with our environment. Our mothers also taught us a lot of useful things. In my family, for instance, we all surrounded my mother and helped her prepare our meals. Everyone had an allotted task. Mine was to mash tomatoes into the soup she was cooking at a signal from her, and check the salt level. So I was the first to notice whether she had made a good soup or a poor one. And I would be encouraged to tell her!
Our honesty with one another enabled us to cultivate easy relationships. We all had “families” that were very large indeed. Look at this: my family, at age five, consisted of (a) my father; my mother; my brothers and sisters; (b) my father’s brother (whom I called “My Other Father”); (c) my maternal grandmother; (d) my maternal grandmother’s sister (whom I called “My Other Grandmother”); (e) my “Other ‘Other’ Grandmother” and her six children; (f) my father’s sister or my aunt; (g) my father’s other sister or my “Other Aunt” and her eight children; (h) two cousins of my mother’s, each of whom I called “Uncle”, and the six children of these “Uncles”; (i) the widow of my father’s uncle and her four children.
Now, any problem encountered by each member of this huge family was accepted as the problem of all of us. My “Other Grandmother”, for instance, was the one who managed to borrow for me the sum of money I needed to enter the University of London’s General Certificate of Education examination, without which I could not have obtained employment as a reporter at Radio Ghana.
In such an atmosphere, we went to bed happy, and usually woke up in the morning feeling on top of the world. The constant sunshine helped, of course. And because we mostly ate good organic food that was well cooked, we seldom fell ill. Walking many miles to our farms also toughened our flesh and bones, enabling us successfully to fight diseases like malaria and dysentry. Cholesterol? You must be joking. We hardly encountered much mental stress, either. By and large, the blood ran through our veins freely like water in a fast-flowing stream. But then they sent us to school. There, we began to be brainwashed to despise our own way of life. If one did anything wrong – such as arriving at school late or being talkative in class – the teacher would order one to go and weed portions of the School Park or compound. So weeding, which was an integral part of how we created our farms, now became a punishment!
If one’s work in class was poor, the teacher would send one to the school farm to plant foodstuffs and vegetables. He did this because he regarded farm work as only fit for the “unintelligent” people, who could not be easily taught! Yet all he was saying, really – had he been “intelligent” enough to realise it – was that his method of teaching the child had failed to yield the desired results. In our schools, there were no stupid teachers whose methods failed to accomplish the task of educating children. Only pupils could be stupid!