Notes from Ghana #19

Here is a description (and a little history) written  by Rory Magill of my naming ceremony that the elders invited everyone to share. This included a shot (or tot) of the local Akpoteshie which everyone in our group was offered….we’re not telling who all accepted, but it was all in the service of tradition :)


On her first trip to Ghana in 1990, Kathy Armstrong established what would become a life-long, ocean-deep connection with drummer Kwasi Dunyo who, by simple dint of his wonderfully accented English, gave her her first African name, Kahti. Somewhere between Kahti Armstrong and Kahti Am Strong.
When she returned to Canada, she inspired her new friend Rory Magill to book a flight and go see for himself what it was all about. On his first trip to Ghana, he acquired a number of names: Kofi Tetteh Tsulu Dogo Dogo – Friday-born second-son red tall tall.

The written versions of Kathy’s name in Ewe circles was a different matter. Letters to Canada from Dagbamete friends arrived addressed to Rory and Karthy, or to Roly and Katchy – letters which usually ended with lovely wishes, like “more grease to your elbows.”

On her second trip to Ghana, Kahti Am Strong went with her new traveling companion, Kofi Tetteh Tsulu Dogo Dogo Rory Magill. Whereas she had previously been greeted enthusiastically with cries of “Kahti”, she was now moving with a man and moving in a pretty fiercely patriarchal country – a man’s world – and now, as she walked with Kofi Tetteh etc., she was met with very enthusiastic cries of “Dogo Dogo!”  Suddenly: Mrs. Magill. This, the woman who had impressed an entire village on her first trip with her masterful turn on lead drum at a powerful chief’s funeral. This, the woman who had since that time brought Kwasi for a working visit to Canada, setting off a remarkable chain of explosions that has brought continued prosperity to the unstoppable Kwasi Dunyo, and to his family and his village. This, the woman whose African name Kahti became synonymous in Kwasi’s village Dagbamete with “white person”, so that subsequent white visitors to the village were often greeted as “Kahti”. But now, visiting in tandem with a man, it was all “Dogo Dogo” this and “Kofi Tetteh Tsulu” that. And now Kofi Tetteh Tsulu Dogo Dogo was adding little by little more names, first by having his head shaved, thereby earning himself the epithet Sakora, and second, by simply being a man and thereby receiving from our man Kwasi the honorific Nana Nii, which means nothing less than Chief in two different languages.

As Rory’s name grew longer and longer, Kahti’s stayed short and to the point. She began to wonder why KTTDDSNN Rory Magill would so easily acquire so many names, while hers remained so….short and to the point. Was it a case of male privilege? This might spell trouble for the two, who were in fact much more than travelling companions. In fact, this their second trip to Ghana – their first trip together – directly preceded their wedding in Toronto, which, not surprisingly, involved a lot of drumming, dancing, singing, libation and excellent fun. That is another story for another time.

Long years lay ahead for the too-short-named Kahti and her extravagantly-named husband Nana Nii. And so one day Kofi Tetteh Tsulu Dogo Dogo Sakora Nana Nii Rory Magill realized it might fall to him to redress this untenable inequity. He consulted with Kwasi and with Kwasi’s niece Aku and with other Ghanaian friends and he consulted his handy pocket guide to the Ewe language.

The first place to look for a Ghanaian name is the day of your birth. Kahti Am Strong was born on a Sunday and so she would be Kwasiwa. She was the first-born child in her family, and a girl, so in Ewe she would be Ewui (which sounds like your either whistling or blowing out a candle). Kahti’s huband was always fond of calling his wife Mama (once there was a babe in her arms) and, after getting past the fact that “Mama” is Ewe for grandmother, he found that it also means “Queen Mother”. That seemed very fitting, given her leadership status in what is essentially the village of Baobabtree and her prominent status in Dagbamete. Kwasi provided the kicker with Yenunya. Mama Yenunya, he said, was a very powerful, highly respected, much loved Queen Mother of his village a couple of generations back. Say no more. Mama Yenunya would now be virtually reincarnated in Kahti Am Strong who would now be called Mama Yenunya Ewui Kwasiwa Kahti Armstrong. A name fit for a king. This grand new name was emblazened on a plaque and presented to her on the occasion of her forty-fifth birthday.

When plans were struck for a third Baobab trip to Ghana, an idea began to hatch in Kwasi’s mind.
As the trip came near, Kwasi declared that Kahti’s new name must be properly appointed to her. When we finally arrived in Dagbamete, he told us there would be a naming ceremony. Time had truly come. The name had been very satisfactory, if a little under-used. It would gain more currency if the elders of the village formally conferred the name on her and blessed it, speaking it repeatedly, reminding everyone of all the parts of her fine new name. So we awaited word from our host about the day of the naming.

The day came, and our entire retinue, the moving village of Baobabtree, assembled at the lodge, some in newly acquired Ghanaian finery, and followed Kwasi down past the shrine to the hunters’ house, the mysterious windowless little white house decorated with black insignias denoting power and prosperity. There we took instruction to sit on the long benches outside the hunters’ house, the house said to have once been Mama Yenunya’s house. As benches filled, more benches were carried over by the lovely and wonderfully named Divine, attendant at the shrine and junior brother to Kwasi.

As more benches were brought over, benches were re-arranged and assembled guests were asked to get up and re-arrange themselves along with the benches.

Thoughtful bench re-arrangement carries some import at special occasions in Dagbamete, and Divine delivers benches with uncommon grace. The elders sat on benches facing assembled guests and the subject herself of this naming ceremony. A cluster of women sat on the foundation wall of Mama Yenunya’s house.

People continued to arrive until we were perhaps sixty or so. Crates of minerals – the very common offering of soft drinks – were delivered to the feet of the elders, as were bottles of akpeteshie, the favourite drink of the ancestors. A calabash of palm wine was brought for the purpose of the naming. Kahti was called up to join the elders together with her husband and daughter and the three followed the elders of the shrine just outside the assembled gathering to face east, where the tiniest of the elders took the calabash, reached into the palmwine with one hand and began to stir as he spoke a long blessing. This east-facing libation was an invocation to the ancestors and he called out various names. With gentle prompting from Kwasi, the man stirring the wine was able to remember all the names that would receive blessing that day, often preceding each name with the sound “uh”. Uh Kahti Armstrong, etc., etc., uh Rory Magill, etc., uh Iris Magill….and finally came the new names. Mama….Yenunya….Ewui….Kwasiwa….Armstrong. The name Kahti was not included, it seemed, perhaps because everyone in the village knows the name Kahti so well. The elder bent down, called one more invocation and poured the soapy-looking wine into the earth in waves, intoning with each wave some other name. He then received a shot of akpeteshie which he touched to his lips but then poured fully into the earth to chase the wine. Then the akpeteshie bottle was upturned to pour the rest out for ancestral enjoyment.

We then followed the elders back through the gathering and out the west side to face the gods and offer similar libation all over again. This time, curiously, the naming ended up with a twist: it came out Mama Yenunya Ewui Kwasiwa Armstrong Magill. Maybe that’s supposed to be Armstrong-Magill, in this age of hyphenated names. But truly, truly, we know the name is Mama Yenunya Ewui Kwasiwa Kahti Armstrong. And now we know, following the many blessings and several intonings of the name, now we know that Yenunya is pronounced with soft or implied n’s. Ewui is still whistled, and Kwasiwa, after our dear brother Kwasi, is pronounced “sh” in the middle.

The men’s work done, it was time for the real celebration to begin. The new Mama Yenunya was invited up to dance with the elders of the village women – daughters and granddaughters of the original Mama Yenunya, as it were. Among them was the lovely and surprisingly young, new Agbadada – leader of the village women
– who had just recently succeeded the long-lived and much-loved Auntie of our dear friend Jambola. The new Agbadada engaged the new Mama Yenunya in a warm embrace and a celebratory dance.

Another woman took hold of the celebrant and pulled their heads close together at the forehead, sharing sustained, broad smiles. More dances and more warm smiles and embraces followed. And so Kathy Armstrong was inducted into the ranks of the Mamas of Dagbamete, and her new name was enshrined for all time. And from now on, every time she visits Dagbamete, she will come with a long, rich, meaningful and most honourable name.
-Rory Magill

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