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Notes on the Submissions

Notes on the Submissions

By Martin Egblewogbe

Libations are, I dare say, an intrinsic part of Ghanaian culture. But what is “Ghanaian culture”? We might seem to have a grip on the definition, but it is only  a fleeting hold. In a nation that has over forty indigenous languages, none of which is the official language – that honour falls on English, the language of the colonial power; a nation of different cultures brought together by strokes of the pen in far away Europe, it is a question to which the attempt at an answer demands care and caution. I must add, though, that the remarkable fact that the nation has persisted and thrives, shows   that the different constituent cultures have more similarities than differences. Yet “Ghanaian culture” is in a state of flux, as the people re-define themselves and carve out a unique identity from the synthesis of the different cultural antecedents, while accommodating the intense bombardment of external cultural influence from the West, predominantly, but increasingly, the East. It is a work in progress, you may return some time in the future for a more complete, and better defined, “Ghanaian culture”.

Libations, however, are a recognisable part of social activity in Ghana. We know what a libation is, what it means, what it is meant to do. The influence of Christianity, Islam, and other religions,  which in general frown on libations because they are seen as an extension of the traditional animist religions, has not erased the practice. If for nothing at all, the symbolism of the act is not lost on us. We relate to libations also in a philosophical way, where we see our ancestors as occupying a space not sensible to us but contemporaneous nevertheless. Our fore-fathers are not gone, they are displaced.

The poems selected for this edition are written in diverse styles and look at libation in different ways: as prayer, as communion, as conversation between the present and the past, as introspection, and as celebration. They include contributions from young University students and older academics, from professionals in various fields, from published writers to new, unpublished voices. Just as a libation can be poured using various potable liquids and mixtures, so this collection of poems goes to serve one purpose. The collection is in itself, a libation.

Let me now proceed to share some personal impressions on the poems in this collection. L S Mensah, in her poem “A Flake of Rain”, examines a communication with her ancestors mediated by a slashed rain-drop, in which the ancestors ask a question to which perhaps, there is no answer that can be bereft of shame:

And in the still gargling, gurgling silence
I knew the rain-flake had died
Of a broken heart
For ancestral wishes unfulfilled,
Unfulfilled by me.

Dannabang Kawubong’s “Libations in Memory of Aruba” is a recollection of the slave trade, but from the perspective of the poet touring the Caribbean island Aruba, which played a minor role in the slave trade. He sees the poem as a libation, and the tone of victory despite the darkness of the slave trade is evident:

This poem then is a libation to remembrance of those who sleep
Who sank below the waves swinging between Aruba and Ghana!

Kwadwo Opoku-Agyemang’s two part “Libations from Cape Coast” is also a poem of recall: recalling a lost love, recalling a people with a past of glorious conquest and yet of sorrow, ending with the poignant lines:

They have soaked memory in water
And history walks on stilts
Above all wars
Above all wars.

It appears to me that Ghanaian writers are colonising the English language and assimilating into it Ghanaian colloquialisms, from which they then craft their poetry. Thus we find in some of these poems an unrepentant recourse to Ghanaian languages while writing in English. Examples of this can be found in the poems “Libation”, by Nana Asaase, “Praying Down the Quaff”, by Novisi Dzitrie, “The Enquiry” by Aisha Nelson. The poems include words, phrases and transliterations from Twi, Ewe, and Ga. All these work to give a certain distinct flavour – a totally Ghanaian taste – to the poetry. And this is a style that is increasingly becoming mainstream in Ghanaian writing. It is a style that has come to stay.

Some of the poems include an address to an audience, requiring a response, as in a linguist addressing a gathering, or indeed, a libation being poured. In this excerpt from Nana Asaase’s “Libations” we have a response in Twi: (weɛ), which is a word signifying endorsement.

I lift this to our veiled minds
May it bring light (weɛ)
Bumper harvests and fertile wombs (weɛ)
So next when we pour libation
We will not deny the earth (weɛ).

Novisi Dzitrie’s poem. “Praying Down The Quaff” while describing a libation, is a libation in itself. The gathering is addressed by the one pouring the libation: “agoooooo... agooooooo... lo!”, followed by a prayer, and the pouring of the drink itself:

fafa, here before my feet, a drink

do afe

fafa, here to the right, a drink

do afe

fafa lo, here, to the left, a drink

do afe.

“The Enquiry”, by Aisha Nelson, includes the invocation “Tswa, Omanye aba” loosely translated as “may good luck come our way”, in the third part of the poem which is a libation, a prayer:

Tswa. Tswa. Omanye aba.
Let dew be found to show for the morning
let the spirit and soul reconcile.

Not all the poems are in celebration of libation. In Mawuli Adjei’s “The Last Communion”, a voice calls out in despair and anger, perhaps, at the sense of being abandoned by the ancestors:

Akpagana, Dekpekutor, Shitor, Soglo—
If I call one, let him call the others—
Perhaps, the time has come
To banish all invocations and libations
Trample this shaky calabash and dregs underfoot
And jolt you from your eternal slumbers.

Nana Yaw Sarpong’s “The Economics of Libation” takes a rather humorous look at one of the odd consequences of colonial activities and the slave trade: Schnapps, typically imported from The Netherlands took pride of place in Ghanaian culture as an item included in dowries, presented at naming ceremonies, as offerings to deities, as payment of fines to traditional authorities, and of course, in pouring libations. With the lines

Schiedam wins on the sixth of March
The earth must be wet
For our ancestors see with blue eyes.

Sarpong is suggesting that the independence of Ghana¹ is really not complete. In a more modern and cosmopolitan vein, Nana Nyarko-Boateng’s  short and intense poem “Yaa” and G. Edzordzi Agbozo’s “Wanderer’s Words” present a picture of lonely, perhaps angst-ridden individual pouring libation. Cosmopolitan not-withstanding, we still find in “Wanderer’s Words” direct transliteration of Ewe proverbs:

Cattle hoof cannot fit antelope’s foot
Buffalo does not borrow snake’s dance-cloth.     

I find in Nana Akosua Hanson’s “A Dreamer’s Libation” a hope-filled introspection in the light of the past, present, and future. These lines, repeated through the poem, echo powerfully of self-assurance:

I am the one
I am Dream’s destiny
I am the hope of dreamers...

Nana Fredua-Agyeman’s “Finding My Voice” is written in memory of Kofi Ghanaba (previously known as Guy Warren), who left an indelible mark in Ghanaian music and culture. The first part of the poem suggests a loss, a dispossession:

We were a dead people
A people without a voice.

But in the second part of the poem, by the medium of libation, the voice is regained:

The drummer calls upon the bold ones
With encrypted messages
Thundering through the land.

Amma Konadu with her poem “Hawa” appears to re-tell the story of the Fall in the Garden of Eden. Full of powerful allusions, the poem associates tears with a prayer, and are a libation:

The dripping of her tears
Struck the chords of
Mercy in the master’s breast
Each drop a prayer
Her copious tears a plea...

The poems are not all focused on the past, or on ancestors, or on the self. “Bro Panyin’s Cauldron” by Crystal Tettey looks at contemporary international politics with a take on Edward Snowden and associated matters:

Papa Snow poured into the main stream
hope that illegal surveillance would be abandoned
he had walked into Bro Panyin’s cauldron

“Bro Panyin” translates as “Elder Brother”.

Finally, Kofi Amankwah Asihene’s simple and direct poem “Water” turns things on their heads: Mama Africa offers her children water to quench their sorrows. In a way, this is libation in reverse.

Mama Africa
Offers you all
To quench
Your sorrows.

Martin Egblewogbe
Legon, 8th March 2014

¹ On the sixth of March, 1957, Ghana gained independence from Britain


Martin Egblewogbe

Martin Egblewogbe was born in Accra, Ghana, where he currently lives with his family.  He is co-founder (with American writer Laban Carrick Hill) of the Writers Project of Ghana.

He is the author of the collection of short stories, “Mr Happy and The Hammer of God and Other Stories” published by Ayebia in 2012. He co-edited, with Laban Carrick Hill,  the anthology “Look Where You Have Gone To Sit” (Woeli 2010). His stories have won a number of awards, and have appeared in anthologies, for example, “Face To Face: Poems and Short Stories about a Virus” (Woeli 2004), and also in newspapers, and e-zines.

Martin Egblewogbe is a lecturer in Physics at the University of Ghana, Legon.

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