Through the assortment of games we played under the Neem tree, we learnt to win, but we also learnt how to lose.
So far, almost all the stories I’ve told readers who’ve sat Under The Neem Tree with me have been funny ones. But in focusing on the amusing, I have not yet done justice to the concept of sitting under the Neem tree. One of the most important aspects of the experience, after all, is to teach the young about things which they might have heard of but have not had direct experience.
For instance, when I was growing up, it was under the Neem tree that we learnt how to play the games that taught us how to cope with the vicissitudes of life. Of these games, the most ingenious was the game of marbles (nter in the Twi language). First, you had to go into the bush to search for and collect the nuts of the nter tree. Where did one find them? Well, that was lesson number one.
If you worked it out and were successful, you brought the nuts home and then applied fire to one side of them to bite “legs” onto them, which enabled the nuts to “dance” on a special mat. You won other people’s nuts if you could knock them off the mat with yours. (I shall give a full description of this game one of these days; one can imbibe a lot of philosophy from it if one is an educable type of person.) Nter was only for boys, which may give you a clue as to the psychological machismo that was attached to it.
Another popular game was oware. Everyone could play this. Like nter, you had to brave the hazards of the forest to collect nuts. But it was worth it, for this was a game that taught you mental arithmetic and long-term strategising as well as clever deceptive manoeuvres. And the language that went with it was suggestive, to say the least. For instance, the term for winning an opponent’s pieces was the same as that used to describe the sexual act itself. It was a game that could make you laugh like a jackal or make you cry like a wounded civet cat.
It was under the Neem tree that we learnt how to play the games that taught us how to cope with the vicissitudes of life
For the girls, there was also the game ampe. Although entirely physical, ampe also taught its players how to anticipate and defeat another person’s moves.
Then, there was tumatu, a mixed gender game, in which squares were drawn on the ground, and sharp brains were needed to remember where other players had conquered territory in order to avoid stepping on them. The Scramble For Africa in miniature or Politics 101 perhaps? I leave that to you.
But not all the games were dedicated to fun. Some made us delve into the reality of death. In all the games we played, you could lose out, or “die”, as a player and become a mere bystander. Or go home, with your tail between your legs.
Alternatively, you might end up watching as your siblings, tactical “allies”, or friends were defeated, despite your best wishes and support. Thereby, you learnt empathy, sympathy and resignation. All at the same time.
So, under the Neem tree, you acquired the knowledge that “all days are not equal”. And sometimes, this learning was not just metaphorical, but quite real.
You see, we chatted and told stories whilst playing too. For instance, it was during an nter contest that I learnt about the death of a strong bully called Kwa’Ntwi, who bestrode the twin villages of Saaman and Dwaaso, about five miles from my hometown of Asiakwa. He used to terrorise the entire area, as far as Osinor, and would force women to give him some of the food they were carrying home from their farms.
One day, however, he made a mistake. He intercepted a hunter who was carrying the game he had caught back to his home. When the hunter warned Kwa’Ntwi to stop harassing him, the bandit beat his chest and shouted, ”What can you do?”
He then charged at the hunter, who sidestepped him neatly and cocked his gun. He warned Kwa’Ntwi, but the bully got up and tried to rush the hunter again. “TI-REEEEENG!” The hunter pulled the trigger. And now, there lay Kwa’Ntwi, bleeding to death and chewing the gravel on the ground.
The boy who told this story told it as vividly as if he’d witnessed it with his own eyes. We knew he hadn’t, but that was the beauty of being under the Neem tree – everyone who had a talent was allowed to display it, and the boy with a flair for storytelling had used his skill to teach us that you could push people too far. (Incidentally, legend has it that Kwa’Ntwi’s killer was acquitted of murder on the grounds of self-defence against a well-known tyrant.)
Another bully we heard about gathered under the tree was the chief of Abenne, from the state of Kwahu adjacent to ours. He thought no-one could kill him because he had gone and “‘eaten” (as in, subscribed to the protection of) a powerful juju in northern Ghana. But he too was left sprawling on the ground after a man he’d slapped about shot him twice. This seemed to be a true story for we knew of a cloth called “The useless talismans of the Chief of Abenne”.
Through these stories, we learnt how death can come for anyone, and will eventually come for everyone.
This was a lesson I learnt once again in real life when my friend, the former Ghana Airways pilot Captain Peter Dorkenoo, passed away. He hadn’t been in the best of health, but when I remember him, I think of the time in the early 1960s when he was flying for the West African Airways Corporation (WAAC). I was writing a story on him for Drum magazine and his story was big news for he was flying the DC-3, an aircraft that was so temperamental it needed both physical strength and good brains to pilot it through the West African skies. It was unheard of for blacks to become captains in WAAC, so Peter and a comrade of his, Captain Thomas Agyare, were pioneers of the highest order.
In fact, Peter was one of the first four black Africans – two from what was then the Gold Coast, two from Nigeria – to be trained by the British to become pilots in the mid-1950s. When Ghana Airways was formed in 1962, both Peter and Agyare were trained on Viscounts and became captains on that aircraft. Then, they moved on to jets – the VC-10 to be exact. At that time, the VC-10 aircraft was the most sophisticated on earth, and to see two Ghanaians flying them so smoothly that the passengers often clapped when they landed was a great boost for Ghanaian – and African – self-confidence.
Peter Dorkenoo died at the end of September 2014, aged 84, having enjoyed life to the full. I can testify to that because he taught me a great deal about the finer things in life – among them, lovely cars, jazz music and good films. May he rest in peace.
Another person who taught me a great deal and has now left this life was Professor Ivor G. Wilks, who died in Wales this October, aged 86. I first met the acclaimed historian in 1954 at the University of Ghana, where he was lecturing in a seminar on international affairs. He had been a lieutenant in Palestine before coming to Ghana and his lectures were extremely interesting, especially as the Middle East was particularly tumultuous at the time.
When I became a reporter for the magazine New Nation, my first major assignment took me to Northern Ghana, where I discovered that Wilks was the Resident Tutor for the Northern Territories, based in Tamale. Although I had only been his student and hardly knew him, he very generously put me up at his bungalow and gave me ideas regarding where I could go for stories. Most importantly, he suggested to me where I might stay in Bolgatanga, Navrongo and Bawku without straining my tiny budget too much. It was also due entirely to his assistance that I obtained my first-ever scoop – a story entitled “How I Deceived The Tongo Fetish”.
By the time I became editor of Drum magazine, Wilks had done original research in Ashanti, Northern Ghana and beyond, which had enabled him to break new ground with the publication of a small but explosive book entitled The Northern Factor in Asante History. In this book, Wilks re-directed the epicentre of the history of the Asante empire away from the hackneyed version that concentrated on the coast where the Asante had had relations with the British and other Europeans. He revealed instead the Asante’s relations with Northern Africa (mainly through records written in Arabic) through the great trading post at Djénné. He proved that the Asante were ready to modernise through contacts with the rest of the world, through the Mediterranean, and not just through the southern Gold Coast.
Wilks later produced several authoritative books, including Asante In The Nineteenth Century and Forests of Gold: Essays on the Akan and the Kingdom of Asante, which established him as the foremost world expert on Asante history. He did for Asante history what Basil Davidson has done for African history as a whole. When he left Ghana’s Institute of African Studies, he became a Professor at North-Western University in Illinois, US. I feel grateful to have known him and wish him eternal, peaceful rest.