Soft on the Foot

Alternative Title: "Ajjigapena"

November, 2008

Location of Navrongo, in northern Ghana

Oral tradition states that Navrongo was founded by three brothers who moved their families from Zecco, Burkina Faso at about the turn of the century 1800. Butto, the eldest, named their new home “NavagorO,” which means “soft on the foot.” “Nav” equates to “foot,” and “gorO” is the sound that your foot makes when you step forward and roll it through the sandy soil.

During the European scramble to partition Africa in the late 1800s, the northern area of Ghana became subjected to a bit of military competition between England and France. The two powers parried to determine whose colony the region would fall into. This meant that white men were physically present in the area for essentially the first time.

And at the same time, slave raiding was still going on around Navrongo. This was in spite of the fact that the slave trade had been outlawed around the world for half a century. Navrongo was situated directly along a longtime slave marching route, and the region itself was still a lucrative source of captives.

In 1901 the Chief of Navrongo, called the Navro-Pio, invited Britain to establish a military encampment here. The Navro-Pio did this partly because he believed it would help ward off slave raiders. In 1906, a Canadian missionary named Oscar Morin arrived and founded a Catholic mission alongside the British encampment. Since then, Navrongo has been a center for Catholicism in northern Ghana. The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows was constructed here in 1920. In 1934, Navrongo achieved the status of Mother Parish for Northern Ghana.

So Catholicism is big here. At the public boarding school where I taught, there is a small mosque located a stone’s throw from the chemistry lab. Next to the mosque stands a much larger church.

My students were about half Muslim and half Christian, and I faced a quandary whenever my lectures went past 1:30 pm, an important Muslim prayer hour especially on Fridays. Class did not officially dismiss until 1:50. Should I end early or keep on going?

My friend Henry Pwazaga, in 2008

Many people of Navrongo and its environs are Christians, and they will introduce themselves to you using their Christian names. These are not their only names, mind you, and may not even be the ones they normally go by. At first I liked to ask people what their local names were and I tried to learn them.

Whenever I cycled into town to go to the market or to proceed on a lorry to Bolgatanga, I parked my bike at my neighbor Victoria’s sewing stall. Victoria is also called Anuyire which means “my mother’s name.” In those days Victoria came to market only on market days, which occur one out of every three days. But she shared her stall with a woman named Margaret who came to the market every day. Often it was Margaret who watched my bike.

One day I asked Margaret for her local name.

“Ajjigapena,” she said, smiling.

I asked her what it meant.

“It means: ‘I have something.'”

I filed her name in my mind, assuming it meant that she was not impoverished i.e. she “had something.”

For several weeks after that I happily waved and shouted, “Ajjigapena!” each time I approached her in the market. But soon I began to notice a ripple of reaction in the crowd whenever I did this: abrupt, concerned reactions from the people in my peripheral vision.

Finally, one day while cycling back to the school alongside my friend Smart, I turned and asked him what Ajjigapena meant.

He gave me a confused look.

“It means: ‘I have a penis,’” he said.

Me and “Ajjigapena”, in 2008

I swerved off the road and nearly crashed into the bushes.