We don’t often write about what it means to know someone distanced from you in years. Or what it means to have the years and sea prevent the knowing. So that when you hear that they asked of you or sent their greetings, your soul beams so brilliantly but so does the worry. Both begin deep, deep down—quite eternal what they’ve given you. But its source, at least physically, not so. There’s an urgency, you know? I have yet to lose one of these parts of me and so perhaps my understanding of what it is to know stands fiercely, and exceedingly loving, not yet made softer, smaller, wilted slightly by grief and patient truth.
As many stories of knowing begin, this one too begins with food, language, and place. Ghana in December is when the diaspora returns in droves. Women disembark flights with their hair wrapped and screenshots ready. Old WhatsApp group chats are brought back to life as relationships are rekindled, and long-plotted misadventures begin to take shape. Families gather to spend days together once again, as mine had. And idle days offer bridges between the adventures. It was one of these days that the power of language shone especially brightly.
Hands and body idle in the humid Accra heat, my feet found their way towards my grandmother’s kitchen. Upon entering, I had timidly asked a woman busy at work if she wanted my help. A few minutes of silence—the shuffle of footsteps, boiling of okro soup, and whine of doors closing elsewhere in the house notwithstanding—had passed. I think if I were somewhere else with someone closer to me in age, I might have felt not entirely at ease with the quiet. But there is something about the time spent with elders that exist without our silly fears of silence or petulant demands for immediate response. And so, I waited.
As a child of the diaspora, I had anticipated a question and it came in due time. Ese Eʋegbe? Yes, I understand Eʋe. And this was the beginning. She smiled and my wish to help was shortly granted. Almost immediately, I found myself being directed: Tso fetri. Lé dzo né. And there’s one task that my hands still remember. Squatting on the floor by the stove, after taking careful note of her technique, I began to grind the still-shelled shrimp by hand. Arms burning and grip faltering, I have never felt more strongly the presence of our great mothers. The same way language collapsed the years of silence between student and teacher, the act of preparing food in the ways we’ve done in the place we’ve been created a knowing not limited by words.
Yes, we spoke. But as Toni Morrison reminds us, the force of language is in its reach towards the ineffable, and our knowing was not rested precariously in the hands of words. Nor the learning so suffocated in an airless classroom that by the time it was found it was no longer recognizable.
She asks for me on the occasional phone calls with my mom and I think of her often. That day exists so loudly in my mind, nearly drowning out the roar of the sea. It makes small the days spent on this side of it.