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Parts of Speech

This is installment #13 about my experiences in Ghana, West Africa, as a Peace Corps Volunteer working with cashew farming families from December 2011 to December 2013. It’s part of an essay collection Kabile, which starts with an introduction here.


I‘m sitting on my porch, reading by lamplight and only vaguely aware of the activity around me. Auntie Amma and Margaret run by, shouting, and Esther follows. I look up, thinking that probably some of the kids were in trouble again. Esther has been yelling at them all evening.

But then I hear a noise in the distance, coming from the center of town. Soccer match?

No, this is different.

The sound coalesces into wailing, screaming, crying. It grows louder as more people join in, all around. It’s easy to visualize everyone running to the source of the noise, from all directions. It sounds as if the whole town is crying.

I stand in front of my house and wait. Auntie Amma finally returns, crying and babbling in Nafaara. I can’t understand a word. She pantomimes sleeping, confirming for me that someone has died. Tears roll down my face also, moved by the storm of emotions around me. I stammer at her, in English, that I do not understand everything that she says, but that I was also very sad for the town. She replies in another stream of Nafaara…this is how our conversations go. We only ever partially understand the facts of what we are trying to relate.

Esther returns a while later, and makes the same pantomime of sleeping, and we have a similar conversation.

The keening goes on all night; I hear it whenever I wake. In the morning, people prepare for funeral, doing minimal chores, washing and dressing carefully in blacks, browns, a bit of red.

Auntie Amma on the right, sometime later at the “final funeral rites” for her 33-year old daughter. This was not the death described in here; “last funeral rites” are 3-day celebrations planned by the town to periodically celebrate the deaths in the community. In Kabile, deceased were buried the same or next day. Final funeral rites were extensive celebrations that also serve as family reunions, estate settling, grieving, but also a lot of partying in your finest funeral fancy dress.

I’m told that the woman who died was “not old”; that she “was not pregnant but was large”, and that she had been to the hospital recently.

I prepared myself also, as best I can, by wearing my black shirt and being ready to leave in case someone comes to take me. I have not gone to a funeral yet, and as it turns out, I do not go to this one. I resolve to ask Esther or Mary to take me to the next one. I never know if I am being intrusive or standoffish.

So I stay home, and try to make use of the unusual quiet time—everyone else in town is at the family house of the deceased.

I check on the mother hen who’s been brooding in the banana trees outside my house, and and only find some broken shells. Later, I find her with her with a dozen or more new chicks.

Only a few, at best, will survive the many predators. Stephen once told me a story about why:

Hawk and Hen lived together in a small house. One day, Hen was sick and did not want to go out and work. Hawk said to Hen, “Give me your cutlass; I am going into the bush and will use it to cut down a tree to make a drum.”
But Hen refused with an excuse, “No. If the owner of the tool is sick, then the tool is also sick and so it must also stay home.”
So Hawk went into the bush alone, and found another way. He brought the log home and made a drum.
Some time later, Hawk heard some drumming in the house. When he went to look, he saw that Hen was using his drum.
Hawk told Hen, “You did not let me use your cutlass, but yet you use my drum. OK then, you use my drum, but the price will be one of your babies.”
And that is why even today every mother hen loses at least one of her chicks to a hawk.

For now, though, the hen is busy with her little flock, searching for any crumb that might have been overlooked by the other animals wandering about.

There’s enough cell signal to get email. One is from my ex, catching me up on his life, chatting about his current relationship, saying that it had developed into something like love.

“Something like love.” It inexplicably triggers some kind of sadness, anger, and pity in me.


In the quiet of my neighborhood, I hear distant sounds of the funeral, the peeps of new chicks fading into them.

It occurs to me that love is a much better verb than it is a noun. As soon as we start throwing “love” around as a noun, we hang other things on it, possess it and entomb it as if we were dead pharaohs. We try to hold it in time like a fly in amber. We drain the very life out of it.


In the afternoon, my neighbors return, quiet and subdued.


The next morning, I drink my Nescafe, eat oatmeal, watch the lavender sky brighten.

I hear Auntie Amma, singing something sad and trembly while she bangs slowly on a pot. I don’t understand what she is singing.

Or maybe I do.

Love is a terrible noun.

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