Sometimes, when I’m poring over a newly arrived set of photographs on the computer in my home office at 6 a.m., or I’m huddled with a photographer and a superstar model on set past midnight with three more looks left to shoot, I feel at my most content. Through bougie Western eyes, this probably looks out of balance: I’m overworking at the expense of my personal life; I need to create boundaries, or whatever. But I’ve never seen work and life as truly separate. It’s not how I was raised. My parents were both hard workers; their careers were at the centre of their lives. Even as they were surrounded by six kids and an endless extended family, nobody went hungry. And I’ve been my parents’ son since the day I was born, at the tail end of a dry African winter in 1972.
I can’t imagine any other line of work for my father, Major Crosby Enninful, than the military, with its authoritarian rigour and devotion to order. By the time I was born, the Ghanaian military was one of the most powerful in all of Africa, and it made for a prestigious career. Officers had solid, middle-class lives, with houses on military bases and enough pay to ensure education and upward mobility for their children. Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president, the first in Africa to sever his nation from the British Empire, had a pan-Africanist vision for the country that was once known as the Gold Coast. As Ghana was relatively socially and economically advanced among its neighbours, it meant that Ghanaian soldiers traditionally did frequent tours abroad, often aiding United Nations Peacekeeping forces. So, for most of my childhood, whether he was in Liberia, or Egypt or the Middle East, my father was elsewhere.
That suited his children just fine.
I was born in Takoradi, one of the bigger port cities along the coastline, the fifth of what would become a family of six children. There was Crosby, the eldest, named after our father, my sister Mina, brothers Luther and Kenneth, and baby sister Akua. In Ghana, it’s common to take the name of the day on which you were born. As I was born near midnight on 22 February, the hospital had one date, and the post office another. So my mother Grace gave me two Ghanaian names: Kobina Kiveku, or Tuesday Wednesday, as well as my Christian name, Edward. I was really only Edward in school. Most people called me Asiamah. In Akan, the country’s most dominant language after English, it means ‘Blessed Child’.
We lived on a military base in Takoradi, a cocoon of pristine order inside the more laid-back city, The base was dotted with neat little stucco bungalows on stilts that we used to run and hide underneath. When I was still quite little, we relocated from Takoradi to the capital city of Accra, where we lived on another base called Burma Camp, just across the road from the sea. It was a similar dynamic: our family living on an island of tidiness surrounded by a city unconcerned by order. Burma Camp looked so organised and perfect to me as a child, with its clipped lawns and freshly painted little houses.
That order hid a darker reality. Ghana suffered from political instability and frequent military coups. Whoever was in charge at the time was often settling scores with whoever came before. Our home was the last in a cluster of cottages, and we had a clear view of a hill that had a string of wooden posts erected on top. That was where they’d execute, by firing squad, whoever was considered an enemy of the state. Every few weeks or so we could see it happening from the window of our house: the soldiers would march condemned men with pomp and ceremony, cover their heads with hoods, take aim and fire. We’d hear the gunshots crack as their bodies would slump. ‘Oh, is it firing-squad day?’ we’d ask each other. Anything habitual becomes normal when you’re a kid.
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Excerpt from A VISIBLE MAN published by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2022 by Edward Enninful.