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photo by Colin A. Danville

When I was a junior in college, I spent a semester in Ghana. One part of the program consisted of living in a village with a family. I was chosen by the village chief to live in his compound because I was the only black student in the group of 24 students from schools all over America. Everyone else was white, as my grandmother had predicted on my layover at Heathrow.

My village was Ampento. On my second day there, the wife of the chief died. When I came back from having breakfast with my peers at the main meeting house, my compound was in mourning. Elaborate wails sprang forth into the otherwise gorgeous morning from the women in the compound. I did not know what was wrong, only that something was wrong. The men, who I later learned were the oldest sons, were in all black. Young women were bringing palm wine to them in calabashes. The village people began gathering at the entrance of our compound to show their respects. I still had no idea what was wrong. A young girl, one of the chief’s granddaughter’s and my informal guide, ran up to me, “My grandmother has died!” She beamed, a big smile spreading on her face as she took delight in pulling me deeper into the chaos. I was a spectacle. The people were ecstatic about my presence and passionately mourning death at the same time.

I was without words. I had just met the chief’s wife the day before. She was in perfect health. I just couldn’t believe that she was dead. Then, as if I wasn’t disoriented enough, I see the woman I met yesterday walk across the compound’s center. I’m like, what’s going on? The chief’s wife is definitely still alive! I don’t remember who finally explained it to me, but sometime later I learned that the chief’s second wife had died. She had been in a nursing home and ill for a long time. That in fact, I was living in the house of the third wife. And the mourning sons belonged to the first wife. All in all, the chief was responsible to three households, but because he was a converted Seventh Day Adventist, polygamy was not officially allowed. He lived, in the church’s eyes, with the third wife, who was for their purposes, his only wife.

After the thrill of my foreign presence abated, the people got on with the usual rituals of mourning their dead. During my senior year in a poetry seminar, I wrote a poem about this experience called, “Sunday Mourning in Ampento,” enjoying the play on the two words, morning and mourning. Today as I was sifting through my thoughts on what to write, this juxtaposition appeared to me. And so I wanted to just venture from there and see what words fell into place.

This morning I awoke to a feeling of heaviness, carried over from last night. The why is not so clear as just that the feeling is. The weight of it reminded of the duality found in each new day. That the morning brings hope of something new to come. And it also marks the death of another day, a time never to be had again. Whatever was not finished, or realized, or salvaged from yesterday’s happenings, is gone. And sometimes, even as there is joy in new beginnings, there is grief over the passing of things we can never retrieve.

These thoughts are incomplete, I know. I just needed to give testimony to my moment. I needed to put something down that I can come back and reimagine, in more detail, later. I find relief in such anchoring. However inadequate, it is still something. A breath in this work, the relentless, emotional inquiry that is my life.

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