Death makes you think about purpose and finiteness. We’ve spent the last few days combing physical albums and digital hard drives looking for pictures. Mum was photogenic. The camera liked her. She liked the camera back.
What I ask could be a fitting legacy for the life of mum?
Today is One Week — a custom in Ghana’s rich culture in which family and friends come together to reflect, meditate and pay solemn attention to her passing one week ago.
In her house in Ghana as I write, our Cousin Kojo, Brother Yaw, sister-in-law Charity, Auntie Barbara and others will be welcoming a steady stream of neighbours and well wishers. “Auntie Chris!”, will be the quiet exchange, punctuated by piercing wails. “The Lady from London”, is how those that know her from afar will recall her.
Mum had built a reputation as royalty. In some ways, she was. Her mum who lived beyond 100 years was German (daughter of an engineer); her dad worked on the trains decked in a suit in the 1930s. Her sisters — some 11 of them — went to convent schools. They were a celebrity family in Kojokrom, Elmina.
In London, she worked as a nurse for many years, and afterwards in several care jobs before, in her pensionable years, she yearned for her time in Ghana.
Today we’re meeting at Jasmine, mum’s grand daughter to eat fish and chips — mum’s favourite. Sometimes she would refuse to eat Ghanaian dishes; she trusted only her cooking. If she was cross too or believed she was wronged food was a piquant retributory route — a faux hunger strike. “Im not hungry”, she would murmur under her breath, as we all chimed, “Muuuuuummm”!
But if you were vigilant, you might catch a glimpse of a bag of fish and chips in her Gucci handbag that she had quietly asked one of her grandchildren to buy from the local. Gucci handbag? Oh yes, mum was getting payback in her pension years for all the active-work years she’d toiled in sweat. Her glasses were a brand too.
The Ashantis, one of the main tribes in Ghana, have many proverbs. In fact, were you to speak to an elder they speak wholly in proverbs and metaphors. This one, which the great Nigerian singer Fela Kuti made into a hit, is one of the more intriguing. The lyrics are below. You can hear the song here.
(Sung in Ashanti (Ghana))
Fe fe naa efe inti na, o ba tu le ka
O so ne nu fu na yese
Ebeti a to nti
(Chorus): Ebeti a to nti
(Sung in English)
It is because of the beauty
That is why a woman
Holds her breasts when she runs
Not because the breast is going to fall
In many ways it’s a metaphor about the implicit. What we see is not always what is seen; what we think is not what is always worth thinking. As we scoured the many photos, and there are many with my siblings and mum, I, gazed at these two; time stamps on my memory.
One features me standing next to my mother at Prempeh College, Ghana, circa 1980s. In my left hand I'm holding a kodak camera. In the other, taken several years before in Streatham I’m holding an art pad. The camera for many who know me is an extension of my arm, and Art my preferred realisation of reality.
Of course I never knew this, or at least was uncomfortable with acknowledging it, not perhaps until the artistic director of the Southbank Centre referred to my work as art. “but I’m not an artist”, I said. “Yes, you are, let me worry about that”, she replied.
Mum was an artist. Life was her canvas. I recall she was so proud when she finally got a doctor in the house. Not a medical one, but to my mum why split hairs — a Dr is a Dr right in Ghanaian households?
In our never ending trajectory of learning, my PhD taught me what Ghanaians knew all along. Nothing is as it seems. Art, art, is how we might, or seek to see the world, journalism is how it’s literally interpreted.
The photograph’s immanence is our worm hole though memories — the material world and thought — giving us room to see beyond what is seen. Over the years, on my travels it’s been my way of conversing.
The implicit is so redolent in Ghanaian culture that when someone rings to console us, they start off the conversation with, “I have heard…is it true?” “Yes it is…”. Mum, the indefatigable, has suddenly and not without attention, left by the side of the house.
Perhaps, then this in another Ghanaian metaphor Sankofa (meaning to retrieve from the past) is my tribute to mum. The camera that I clutch, courtesy of my mum, and the Art that she helped me see in the world should be how I say farewell.
Her final journey on this earth; photos for her album to bookend many others. Ehh nyamin shra wo. God Bless you.
Addendum from the evening’s One Week
Our one week will take place on the 1st of June. We head back to Ghana for her final resting in July. If you can make the one week, it would be nice to see you. The venue, in London, will be posted soonish.