So I’m eating cake under the stars in Accra and the night air is sweet as Christ on the tip of my tongue and I can hear the fishy heat—crisp as a town cracker digging into lemon caviar and, out of nowhere, a herd of white chickens, wild white chickens, fly like basketballs into this one tree. A jacaranda?
True—I’d never seen white chickens before, and I’d certainly never seen them fly. I’m simply a city poet who dreams of drumming up chicken recipes, ones that pair nicely with saffron and red potato, a book of succulent chicken recipes reminding me of Sylvia, my beloved blind grandmother. I nearly named it “Blood Icarus” but quickly aborted that idea after catching a messy episode of CSI Miami. True—a firecracker in Arcadia, Florida, a place full of chickens (non-white and grounded), once ricocheted around the good arm of an old palm tree and cocked me right in my stomach. It left a red hole that grandmother had dabbed with iodine and later called my “lucky star.” I was eight and craving chicken that night, too. A kind of kiddie chicken soup for the soul, less the potato, red or otherwise.
I was seeing stars.
Cassava reminds me of potato. Its brown woody shrub, a native plant of tropical America, grows gorgeous in Ghana. My first trip to Malam Market, a fiery zest of female farmers in inner Accra, revealed a peeve I later scrawled into a poem: they don’t smell like much.
I expected them to smell like sour feet, but they didn’t smell like sour feet at all. Smelly feet, one way or the other, would’ve been better than a black hole of anti-scent. I dislike things that don’t smell. I think smell is like voice. Every writer needs it. And fruits and vegetables are no different. They should all have voice. Like cats, they should mark the world with scent. Why do dead things get to claim all the voice, get to have all the scents? I mean cake is a dead thing, smelling of cheap lemon, and here I am eating cake under the stars in a West African country with the equator for its footstool.
My host, Emma, had not baked the cake herself, but thinking I’d prefer it the “western” way had taken a tro-tro (a low-cost shared minivan squeezing up to 10 people inside) from Adenta to McCarthy Hill to fetch me some “proper” cake from the newly built Shop-Rite, a chain of commercial grocery stores owned by a South African corporation. They sold chickens, too, she told me, her toothy smile shooing lemon eyes.
When I first saw Emma she was killing flies with flowers, her headdress a riot of purple polygons. She worked in Malam Market as a vegetable lady and had a lot of voice. Her English was soft and kind and complemented her Twi, the language of her people, the Akan, an ancient tribal group with a king situated in the east, in Kumasi.
Her daughter Cecelia, a crippled nine-year-old, was the crown jewel. She was there that night as we sat under the stars eating cake, watching chickens, white as doves, shooting hoops. “Obruni,” she shouts with a whoop of delight. “Obruni!”
Cecilia was heavenly. She would plunge into my lap like a broken bird ready for a treat or a pat on the back after doing a tedious chore, laughing out loud. I loved Cecelia like my own daughter and would always stop and pick up chocolate or crayons or a tin of iced cookies, some exotic British brand, to surprise her. Nightly, in the presence of numerous dinner guests, I’d beam with pride, assuming the word to be a title of affection or a loving nickname like “auntie” or “mommy.” Obruni, a Twi word meaning “foreigner,” a word that fell from her lips like gum drops, went undetected by me for weeks.
Was she laughing at my ignorance? Was I the dumb American? Was I the fool who thought herself to be from Africa, only to be rightfully diagnosed as a foreigner?
I touched the red hole on my stomach. I thought of my grandmother and her love for my little white eyes. A love strong enough to tell me a lie. A love dynamite enough to tell me that I’d had something “lucky” blasted into my flesh, some sort of funeral in my stomach? Cecelia, I later learned, had been conceived without defect, but her mother had eaten something unlucky from a village tree. Et voilà! Cecilia’s legs, battered and misshapen, had arrived on a Sunday night, a pair of powerful twisted trees. With gnarly knees and a huge smile, she walked with violence.
I never once laughed or thought to laugh. She was me and I her, and we weren’t foreigners. We were mother and daughter on the chicken farm of old, stinky veggies galore—friends. Was she the reason I’d come to Ghana in the first place? Had I come to reclaim a daughter who’d no longer recognized me? Or did I simply mistake her for my own? “Call me Emily,” I wanted to say after years of anonymous payments for chocolate and school fees and braces, volumes and volumes of American poems—cases! Cee, I wanted to love you.
Here in Baltimore, in a headscarf full of holes, I fill my long string with candy, lower it from my window, and let them see me. I let the children see me.