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Bambara Beans

(Don't Move the Fire, Part II)

March 14, 2020

A plate of Bambara beans

Don’t move the fire. Keep on living deeply, no matter what. Keep on feeling it.

This can be a challenge in daily life! But it hasn’t been for me this past month. Who/what do I have to thank? Ghana, of course. And a person who catalyzed a visit.

Ghana has long been a primary source of “the fire” for me. When I lived there, from 1989 to 1991, I always felt intensely, incredibly ALIVE. The same has been true of my visits over the past three decades. And whether I was there or not, Ghana has always protected me. Looked after me. Nurtured me. It’s been a good place to be physically, whether during a 1991 Gulf War or a 2020 virus pandemic. And it’s been a great place to go, in my mind, anytime I’ve needed sustenance.

In short, Ghana has always had my back. And it still does.

I hadn’t been there since 2016, when I went on the writing trip that resulted in Black Volta. And I didn’t have any clear plans to go this year, until just a few months ago. Had I forgotten that I needed to GO? Had I begun doing what is so easy to do: begun sleepwalking through life?

Dewey and ‘Groundnut Soup Woman’, in Kumasi, February 2020

Luckily, my friend Dewey swooped in and saved me. “Pete, we should go to Ghana,” he said in a text last November. For shits and grins, I checked the prices. Round trip Denver to Accra: $751. We booked it immediately and got another friend, Gabby, to come with us.

In 31 years, no one has ever before asked me to take them to Ghana. I leapt at this chance to show Dewey and Gabby my homeland, the place that lit a fire in me that still burns and smolders in the center of my chest.

They both had to return to their jobs in the USA after ten days. I’ve stayed on. Ghana is not a place to visit quickly, and I am grateful to have taken some extra weeks and do a few things. One has been to travel back to Wa—the main setting of Black Volta—and close a circle of gratitude with a few certain people. Revisiting Wa was exquisite and surreal, like walking around on a three-years-ago movie set, with all of the actors staying in character!

And of course, I went back home to Navrongo. I’d taken Dewey and Gabby there earlier, but it had only been enough time to say “hello.” Now I was able to go back and spend more time, and say “au revoir.”

Me and Victoria, in 1991

Last Saturday was a market day in Navrongo. I met up on a shaded market lane with my old friend and neighbor, Victoria. We went and sat with another friend, Margaret, who I jokingly refer to as “Ajjigapena” (you can click on the links for more stories pertaining to these people).

Victoria’s voice, I feel I have always known. A chord reverberates in the center of my chest when she speaks, something as familiar to me as my own soul. This helps me know that I have not moved the fire too far. Other people also have this effect on me: Alasko, Sweet Mother, Henry, Abuyama, and Mama Fat, to name a few. (Again, click on the links to read more.)

Me and Victoria, in 2020

As we sat in the Navrongo market last Saturday, Victoria said to me, “On Monday you should come for your Bambara beans.” Then she chuckled.

Thirty one years later, and people still remember and are amused by my love of Bambara beans. I ate them almost every morning during the years I taught chemistry at Navrongo Secondary School, running from the lab to some tables outdoors where ladies sold cooked food. I’d get 50 cedis worth in a blue plastic bowl (people still remember the blue plastic bowl). The hearty beans, with a spoonful of oil and a pinch of salt on top, where the epitome of food for the soul. Ghana soul food.

I think it was amusing to people because Bambara beans don’t get a lot of respect here. This can happen, I think, whenever a food is cheap and easy to grow. Bambara beans love sandy soil, warm temperatures, and sparse rainfall (they only need about 300 mm of rain per cycle). In short, they love Navrongo. But Navrongo doesn’t necessarily love them back, even though the beans are protein-rich and (in my opinion) delicious. And their plants fix nitrogen to the soil to boot.

“You should come in mid-day,” Victoria continued. “That is heavy food, which should be eaten in the middle of the day.”

Victoria serves her Bambara beans on March 9, 2020

Henry and Alasko came with me. Henry picked me on his moto, and we met up with Alasko, who came on his bike.

Victoria greeted us at the entrance to her compound, and led us to a table she’d set up behind it in the shade of a neem tree. She disappeared for a few minutes, and returned with a big pot of warm boiled beans. She also brought a second, smaller pot containing the necessary condiment oil to which she’d added fried onion slices.

And so, on March 9, 2020, we ate a lunch of Bambara beans.

And in this manner, I feel such a deep gratitude for not having moved the fire. For keeping it alive.

Don't Move the Fire

February 14, 2020

Nene Nwoko

I always knew my novel Black Volta needed to be narrated by a woman. How lucky could I possibly get?

Here’s how lucky: For this audiobook, I teamed up with the acclaimed Nigeria-born actress Nene Nwoko. Nene has completed her work, and the audiobook is now available at Audible/Amazon. To hear a sample of Nene’s performance, please click here.

Where the text brought words and images of Ghana, now you can plug in your earbuds and let Nene take you there!

Nene Nwoko

A warm, expressive voice is one thing; Nene’s magnetic screen presence is something else. Her work has been recognized by the Africa Movie Academy Awards (AMAA), Peachtree Village International Film Festival, and the Lone Star Chapter of The National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. Her award-winning films include “The Okra Principle” (2009), “Mystery of Birds” (2011), “Take The Spotlight” (2014), and the documentary “I Am More” (2014). Recently she completed riveting performances in the TV miniseries “The Chosen,” and an episode of CBS’s “S.W.A.T.”

For more on Nene and her exciting and growing body of work, you can check out these links: Nene’s IMDb Page, Nene’s YouTube Channel, and Nene’s Website.

As I listened to the final masters of Black Volta chapters last month, I became warmed by Nene’s voice all over again. But there was more to it than that—much more. In addition, I felt the fire of deeply-held memories of a life richly lived.

When I completed my Peace Corps time in Ghana in 1991, I was determined to keep the fire alive and never let it go out. If there was one thing I always felt while living in Ghana, each and every day, it was of being intensely, incredibly ALIVE. Never did I want to lose this feeling and begin sleepwalking through life.

Of course, over these subsequent decades this has taken some effort! And I have not always been successful. My long-gone corporate career offered continuous challenges to feeling vibrant and alive. But it also occasionally helped me, especially when it sent me to Colorado, to Puerto Rico, to India.

Marissa and Me, in northern Luzon

Daily life continues to challenge me. So when my longtime friend Marissa invited me to join her on a January visit to her home province in the Philippines, I said, “Yes!”

Marissa and I dated back in the nineteen nineties. Then and since, I have been lucky to be infused by her generous and kind essence, her friendship, and her stories (and stories, and stories!): of a fascinating life growing up in a rural Luzon barrio, heading onward to Santiago Chile, and still onward to the USA, where she is a dentist focused on community health and wellness.

To say that Marissa hasn’t forgotten where she came from is an understatement. Her life is a vast and rich canvas, filled with epic stories and a massive cast of characters. And it all began in the barrio. Now, I was finally taking the opportunity to go with her there.

We began with massages in Manila, which more than prepped us for the journey north to the mountains of Baguio and onward around the lush northern shore of Luzon, visiting friends and family along the way. We marveled at an Imelda palace, night-drove through wet country roads still recovering from the recent super typhoon, and survived a wild crazy pontoon canoe trip through the swells and crashing surf off the isle of Palaui (the setting of “Survivor” seasons 27 and 28).

Marissa at the front gate of her family’s former home in Mallabbac barrio

And, of course, we went to the barrio.

“Are you connecting the dots now, Pete?” Marissa asked me one evening, referring to the stories of her life for which I was grateful to now have mental pictures to go with and keep forever.

We were getting down from a horse-drawn calesa in the northern city of Tuguegarao, and preparing to load ourselves into the rear of a rustic jeepney for the ride back to the barrio. Gently, I patted the heated nostrils of the pony that had clip-clopped us through the busy streets. As moto-tricycle rickshaws buzzed past, I followed Marissa toward the back of a chugging tricked-out silver jeepney. Then I paused to look at all the rich, teeming life all around me, and enjoyed for just one more moment soaking it all in.

“But this city, Tuguegarao,” I asked her, as we settled into our seats on the jeepney bench. “What does the name mean?”

Calesa, Tuguegarao

“It comes from legend,” she replied. “Apparently there was once a fire here. Someone yelled, ‘Fire!’ in Ibanad, which is tugi. Someone else yelled, ‘Don’t move!” in Ilocano, a phrase which became shortened to garao. Put the two together and there you have it: Tuguegarao.”

“Aha!” I said, smiling. “Fire…Don’t move!”

Or put another way: “Don’t move the fire.” YES!

Don’t move the fire. Keep on living, deeply. Keep on feeling it. Keep on letting it burn, hot, in the center of your chest.

Zia 2020

January 15, 2020

Sidewalk warming fire, Santa Fe Plaza

“Ahhh,” I said to my friend as we basked in the warmth of the burning piñon logs on the sidewalk of the plaza. There we were, huddled in the 7,000-foot chill of Santa Fe, New Mexico. It was New Year’s Eve, a few minutes before midnight. We were there not to watch a ball drop, but a sun rise.

As the sweet aromatic smoke washed over us, I looked around at the crowds and the lights. Nearby, the Kiwanis Club doled out free hot chocolate and bizcochitos (New Mexico’s state cookie) to happy holiday makers. Who knew, that Santa Fe was such a groovy place to be on New Year’s Eve? The third oldest European-founded city in the USA was at its character-filled best (only St. Augustine, Florida, and Jamestown, Virginia are older).

And here came the sun! Rising above La Fonda Hotel to meet at big lit-up 2020.

But is this okay, I wondered? After all, this wasn’t a sun at all, but a symbol—a sacred symbol of the Zia people.

The Zia are believed to have settled at the base of the nearby Nacimiento Mountains, where the Jemez River peters out, in the 1200s. They were thriving in the mid-1500s when Spaniards encountered them and proceeded to subjugate them and outlaw their religious ceremonies. The Zia successfully rose up against the Spanish in 1680, only to be crushed and massacred nine years later. When two ethnologists from the Smithsonian arrived at Zia Pueblo in 1890, they counted less than 100 people. This husband and wife team proceeded to collect as many artifacts as they could from the believed-to-be-dying pueblo.

Around this time, a sacred clay pot of the tribe’s Fire Society went missing from its kiva. It showed up later in an artist’s home in Santa Fe, and was transferred to a museum (it has since been returned to Zia Pueblo). This pot bears the symbol of a round sun with stylized eyes and a mouth, and groups of three rays emanating in four directions.

Fast forward to 1923. The Daughters of the American Revolution were holding a contest to design New Mexico’s State flag, and physician Harry Mera recalled seeing the symbol on the Zia pot. He and his wife Reba worked up a design. They omitted the eyes and mouth, and increased the number of rays in each direction from three to four. This won them the 25 dollar prize, and the Zia symbol went onto the flag. No one asked the Zia for permission of course; at the time the Zia weren’t allowed to vote and weren’t considered citizens.

Thus the sacred symbol went into the public domain without the Zia being able to do anything about it. It also went onto license plates, coffee cups, the state quarter, football helmets, et cetera. Schoolchildren were forced to stand before the symbol each morning and say, “I salute the flag of the state of New Mexico and the Zia symbol of perfect friendship among united cultures.”

Hot chocolate and bizcochitos in Santa Fe Plaza

Perfect friendship? I asked myself, watching the sun symbol rise, shaking off the chill. For reasons we don’t need to get into, the word ‘perfect’ has taken on a sinister aspect for me.

And this symbol was a sacred symbol—a sacred, stolen symbol.

But what does it mean? Or what did it mean, to the Zia, before it became common property?

Perhaps it represents four compass directions, or four times of day, or four seasons, or four stages of life, as some propaganda would have you believe. This preoccupation with the number four seems to detract from the importance of the sun-circle itself, a geometric figure that neither begins nor ends…one that had eyes and a mouth in the original version. The original symbol’s human features seem significant, being that it came from a culture rich in kachinas, or powerful spirit-personifications of things we see in the real world. If given veneration and respect, kachinas can use their power for human good.

“Respect,” I whispered, as the symbol continued to rise and the crowd counted down the seconds to the new year.

By the time the Zia people mustered the legal resources to challenge their symbol’s misappropriation, it was firmly ensconced in the public domain and there was nothing they could do other than request to be asked for permission for its use, and request that it be used with respect. Wear it proudly on a tee shirt, for example, but please don’t engrave it on the bottom of an ashtray or emblazon it on the side of a porta-potty.

The clock struck midnight. Fireworks exploded off the roof of La Fonda Hotel. The crowd roared at the risen sun.

“Respect,” I whispered.

Happy New Year. Let this one be one of kindness: kindness and respect.