Reporter's Notebook: The rez through African eyes
By Cindy Yurth
October 18, 2012
HINLE — Like many people who have moved around a lot, I divide my life by space as much as time.
There was the Venezuelan period, birth to age 6, followed in rapid succession by the Houston period, the Colorado period, the Boise period, another Colorado period, and the Utah period, which was interrupted by the Antarctica period and two Africa periods. Then it was marriage and the start of the current Navajo Nation era.
Each place came with its own set of friends, and if you've moved around as much as I have, you know you tend to attract the same set of people with different names and, in my case, skin colors. I always seem to have a Helen — that's the fun, slightly wacky friend who's a blast to be around but utterly unreliable in a crisis; an Analia — the serious friend who's sometimes a downer but the go-to gal when you're in a jam; and Surrogate Auntie.
Surrogate Auntie is the slightly older woman who takes me under her wing and shows me the ropes of wherever I am. In this, my Navajo Nation incarnation, Surrogate Auntie is the indefatigable Dorothy Denetclaw. In my Africa phase, it was Salome Osafo.
I met Salome, a.k.a. Auntie Abenaa, in Abetifi, Ghana, while taking language immersion training for a volunteer assignment with my church. She was one of a number of local churchwomen who had each offered to take one of us in for a couple of months while we learned the local language, Twi.
I hit the jackpot with Salome and her family. She was incredibly patient with my cultural faux pas, a fabulous cook, had an easy sense of humor and the calm, deep wisdom I came to associate with West African women of a certain age.
I didn't know I was anything special to Salome. I figured I was one in a long line of annoying Westerners she put up with out of a sense of duty to her church. When it came time to part, she said, "Some day we shall meet again in America."
"Sure," I said, never thinking for a minute it would actually happen.
We wrote for a while, Salome more often than I, and then her letters stopped. I figured she had better things to do than keep up a relationship with an annoying Westerner on the other side of the globe.
Life went on; she was widowed, I married and moved again. I think I wrote her at least once from Chinle and sent her a Navajo Times newspaper, which must have thoroughly confused her.
Fast forward to this spring, when a lovely black face appeared on my Facebook wall. It belonged to an Ama Asantewa Obeng. "Ama" is the Twi name for any female born on a Saturday, so I knew lots of Amas. But there was something familiar about this one. Of course! Salome's daughter, whom I remembered as a skinny teenager trudging off in her school uniform, books in arm. Now she was a grown-up in her 30s, with a master's degree and a good government job in Kumasi.
Ama messaged me that Salome had lost my address and been searching for me for years, until Ama found me on Facebook. Salome was in the U.S., staying with a niece!
Since she was in Virginia, I hastily arranged to accompany my husband to a conference in Washington D.C. We visited Salome and her niece's family in Leesburg, and caught up. Poor Salome, now in her early 60s, had had a minor stroke and then cancer, that's why she had stopped writing. I felt awful for not making more of an effort to stay in touch.
Back in Chinle, my husband started his "World of Music" class at Chinle High. It's a music appreciation class he teaches every couple of years, sort of a musical tour of the world. He had introduced a unit on African music, focusing on Ghana, and asked me to make a presentation.
"Too bad we can't get Salome out here," I said. "I feel kind of weird being a white person talking about Africa."
If you know my husband, you know he has a way of making things happen. Before I knew it, he had arranged an itinerary for Salome, and the school's yearbook class came through with an extremely generous offer to pay for her plane ticket with some funds they had left from last year's sales.
If you have moved around as much as I have, you know it's sometimes hazardous to mix your worlds. I had some trepidation about bringing Salome to Chinle. It was a long trip for a diabetic cancer survivor in her 60s, but more than that, I worried someone might make an offhand comment about "zhinnies."
I had lived in West Africa for four years and only heard a racial slur against me one time (granted, there may have been more that went over my head or behind my back). I wanted my friend's time in America to go by without her having to hear one.
As usual, I had underestimated my adopted hometown. Chinle loved Salome as much as I do. Eric's World of Music class, all boys, made her feel like a celebrity as they posed with her for pictures for their Facebook pages. She even got a bunch of teenage boys to dance.
"Move your hips!" she ordered. "I'm 62 and can move my hips! You are 18 or 19, you can't move your hips! Dance for Grandma!"
The kindergartners at Mesa View Elementary all wanted to touch her; she had the 5th-graders eating out of her hand; the yearbook class offered to dedicate this year's book to her.
In turn, Salome learned a lot.
"You mean the red Indians are still alive?" she asked when she first arrived. "In history class, they make them sound like a long-ago story."
"Yes," I said, "but they prefer to be called Native Americans." (Ha ha, her turn to make a cultural faux pas.)
I took her to Canyon de Chelly, but she found the stories at the overlooks almost too much to bear. She couldn't look at Massacre Cave.
"You people, you wanted to kill all these beautiful, plumpy people!" she accused. "Why?"
One reason, I told her, was because there were rumors of gold underneath Navajo land.
"This gold!" she said, shaking her head. "It has caused a lot of trouble!"
She told me that since the price of gold has climbed to improbable levels, Ghana has become pockmarked with mines, most controlled by foreigners behind the scenes in spite of laws limiting mining to Ghanaian companies. Environmental controls are minimal and barely enforced, and in one case the erosion from a mine site diverted a river, flooding a village.
"Well, you couldn't kill them all," she later observed of the Diné. "Now their descendants are many. And they will never forgive you."
It seemed an odd thing to say, since Europeans had certainly wreaked havoc in her country too. You can still visit the castles in Cape Coast and Elmina where the slaves were held before being shipped out, the floors still embedded with heavy iron shackles and chains. I felt weak to ask my friend if she ever looked at me, and thought of that ugly time not all that many generations ago.
The connection between two oppressed cultures wasn't lost on my husband's students, who after a week with Salome, gave a performance of Ghanaian music at the school. In introducing the final song, the African-American spiritual "By the Waters of Babylon," one of them drew a parallel between slavery and the Long Walk.
Salome herself drew connections between Ghanaian and Navajo weaving, pottery and stories she had learned about during her week on the rez.
"The Navajo and the Akan, it is as though we are one people!" she marveled.
I learned something too. You really only have one life, if you get a chance to mix your worlds, you should definitely take it.
My only regret is that Salome and Dorothy, my two surrogate aunties, never got to meet each other. Of course, there's always Facebook.