Issue 7 / Nonfiction

Nonfiction by Christina Brobby

Obruni

We stand beside each other, an elderly black man and a middle-aged woman, watching children in ochre yellow shirts, their wiry hair so short that only the knee length shorts, tunic dresses, and occasional flashes of gold on ear lobes distinguish gender. They pour from the confines of long, low buildings and onto the narrow road between the school and Daddy’s home. Usually he stands alone, slight frame erect, smooth black arms hanging loosely, waiting for Samuel, the boy who lives at the house during school term. For days, I join my first father, recently found, who insists on being called Daddy.

Restless, I wander up the street, half aware of boisterous giggling and chattering. Ahead, two girls run toward me. I smile and say “Hello” because I haven’t mastered “Good afternoon” in Twi, the language of Ghana’s Ashanti people to which Daddy belongs.

The boldest child reaches out to touch me, then changes her mind and yells in a high, lilting voice. It sounds like “el bruni.” A white flash of laughter and they flee back to their friends. I watch all of them running toward the main road, sandals kicking up red dust clouds from the dirt road, the chanting a weakening echo.

In the courtyard with Daddy, I tell him about the children. “They were saying obruni, not el bruni. It means, ‘white person,’ ” he says, the low pitch of his voice matching mine. For a moment, I am confused, but even with his failing sight he is aware of my mixed-race heritage. He claims that I remind him of my mother, something I can’t dispute since I have no memory of my first eighteen months with her before entering a Barnardo’s orphanage on a spring day in southeast England.

My new sister, Carmen, elegant and willowy with Daddy’s dark skin, is one of his seven other children. At Kotoka airport days ago, she and my cousins laughed when she said, “Old man, there’s no way you could deny that Tina is yours. You’re the male and female version of each other.”

My brother Tony’s home is a rambling ranch-style house with a manicured lawn and well-tended gardens; the property, secured by a high wall and guard, could be part of any affluent North American suburb. Today, a clownfish orange-and-white-striped open tent covers much of the garden and protects us from the equatorial sun. Linen-clad tables littered with half-eaten plates of Western, Chinese, and Ghanaian food — skewered chicken and other roasted meats, fried rice and jollof rice, salads, kenkey — are being cleared by waiters.

Tony is hosting the family gathering to celebrate Goddash’s return. In my first telephone conversation with Daddy weeks ago, as I sat in the early hours of a new day at home in the Yukon, he explained, “I used to tell your brothers and sisters and the rest of your family that one of us was unaccounted for. I called you Goddash, which means God’s Gift, and I told them that one day Goddash would come looking for her people.”

I had been too enraptured by hearing him and Carmen for the first time to properly appreciate the parable whose moral might be to never give up hope. Today, I have heard the story countless times, and been told of the picture of a black girl that hung on his wall for years in remembrance of his lost daughter until he ruined it while attempting to clean decades of dust obscuring the child’s features.

Daddy constantly apologizes for the low attendance, perhaps forty or fifty people. I am overwhelmed, unable to comprehend being part of a large clan. Carmen promises that we will visit many of Daddy’s numerous siblings who still live in the family’s home town, Kumasi, the capital of the Ashanti Region, a few hours inland. I recall my childhood as bereft of extended family despite Mum and Dad each having a sister. As a result, my understanding of relationships beyond immediate family has always been vague, and terms like cousins removed once or twice from me or grand uncles distinct from regular uncles were no more than amorphous concepts until recently.

I am part of a group, with Tony and another brother Chris, his wife, and some of our cousins. The conversation started in English to accommodate my unilingualism but soon flowed into their language of comfort, leaving me to observe my brothers: I will never tire of listening to Tony’s baritone voice that sounds like Paul Robeson. Chris, self-assured and accustomed to audiences, engages his whole body in communicating. The brothers look alike, full of face and body and richly dark like Daddy, but there is little apparent physical resemblance between us. Earlier this year, after learning my first father’s family name, I scanned the internet for connections to my past. Chris’s face was one I viewed, seeking affinity. I think he would laugh if he knew I’d dismissed his picture after noting the intimidating presence that crowded the screen. The likenesses between us though are not evident on a computer; they are in our large hands and over-long toes. It is unsettling, too, to notice my head tilted at the same angle as Chris while he listens, like I am deliberately mimicking him.

When I told them about the school children calling me obruni, cousin Rita took my hand and raised it so that my honey-gold forearm brushed against hers. “Now that’s black,” she had told us. They had laughed at my protestations that I am considered black in North America, and regarded me as if waiting for me to laugh at my own joke. In Ghana, there is no question that I am a white person. On this trip, there is almost too much to comprehend: I am the infamous Goddash, found, a clone of my first father, and I am white. I came to Africa believing it was the end of wondering who I was, and of being mislabeled in life.

 

When Mum and Dad brought me home from the Barnardo’s home, they already had their own teenaged daughter. Two years after my arrival, they returned to the orphanage, two girls presumably being insufficient, and came home with Shannon. A black and white photo shows our mismatched family gathered on the long sofa in the living room. Mum, a forty-something, well-dressed woman in a checkered black and white dress sits at one end, while Dad, his hair thinning, a quiet look of satisfaction with life on his face, is the other book-end. Leeann’s features reflect her parents’ — their aristocratic noses, her mother’s wavy hair and wide smile, her father’s laughter lines. Shannon and I wear the same outfits — heavy, itchy sweaters and plaid skirts, as if matching clothes might speed up the new sibling bond. People will guess Shannon to be of Mediterranean or South American descent. My kinky hair—unevenly cut by Mum’s inexpert hands—and skin darker than the others are obvious indicia of my heritage.

Even before primary school, I could recite Mum’s understanding of my origins — my original father was Ghanaian and my mother likely Irish — although it would be years before any of those words had meaning. In my small universe, black did not exist, despite her explanation and the photo. Mum, Dad, Leeann, and Shannon were family and, wrapped in my own truths, seeking to belong, I saw all of us in the same white light. It would take our move to suburban London, and new schoolmates with skin tones darker than mine whose parents spoke other languages and wore different clothing to pierce my naiveté.

In my teens, Barry White, Isaac Hayes, the Jackson Five, and Al Green ousted Mum’s favorite Tony Jones records as Shannon and I danced to the weekly TV show Top of the Pops. I grew an afro like Angela Davis though I knew nothing of her political views and joined my friends at the local nightclub on Fridays where there was slow, sensuous grinding to ska and reggae.

My boyfriend, Mike, and his Jamaican background were my ticket into a club that I hadn’t known existed. His home was always full of noise and relatives, friends and friends of friends arriving unannounced and heading straight to the kitchen. His mother, small and feisty, spoke patois so fast that I often nodded and smiled without comprehension. She fed me rice and peas, plantain, and curried goat, often taken from someone’s plate even as food was being cut and forked into the relative’s mouth.

Whenever I made new friends at school, Mum asked whether they were white or black. Now, she wondered why my boyfriend was so dark and why I couldn’t be like Leeann and date a nice white boy. I could have said, “Because I’ve never been asked out by any white boy, never mind a nice one. I could get old waiting for one to even notice me.” Or I could have asked her why it mattered. It was her latest preoccupation; when I was younger, as she walked with Shannon and me her constant worry was that, “People will think I’ve been with a black man.” When Dad was with us, who knew what people were thinking?

After moving in with Mike, we spent weekends with his West Indian mates and their girlfriends, often at someone’s home, occasionally at a party or a club. I learned to distinguish between Jamaican, Bhadian, Trinidadian, and other West Indian accents and the stereotypes associated with each island state – those considered lazy, slow, dishonest, those with big butts, those whose butts were too flat. I was stunned by the casual labeling and placing of each other within the new hierarchy even as I was disappointed that my Ghanaian heritage excluded me from their categories.

Mike’s family came to Heathrow Airport a few years later when he and I joined those seeking a better life in Canada. In a picture taken that day, our young son, Lee, is beside his cousin, their features so similar they should be twins. Even now, the suggestion that my son resembles me is automatically deflected with, “No, he’s the spitting image of his cousin,” as if I never learned to seek likeness between me and those around me.

 

Daddy tells me repeatedly that he always stressed the importance of post-secondary education to his children whose degrees were earned from various countries including England, America, and even Canada. Inevitable comparisons of parents’ aspirations — Daddy advocating education for all of his children even as my Mum told us that higher education was a waste of time for girls, pushing marriage as the ultimate goal for us — and what my life might have been are gently but firmly quieted.

Daddy speaks with pride that I am the first lawyer in the family and with relief that I am not the drug-addicted lost soul of his fears. The route to my present profession was convoluted, delayed by motherhood, the move to a new country, a failed marriage, and other diversions. Although I’ve been practicing family law for almost a decade, certain memories of my articling year for a criminal defense firm are still clear and painful. I rarely speak of them and now. And although I’m tempted to share them with Daddy as evidence that becoming a lawyer was not the smooth path he might imagine, I silently declare them off limits. For our first visit, we only sketch, in broad strokes, our lost histories. Despite Daddy’s advanced age, I trust there will be future opportunities to elaborate on memories that still embarrass me. For now, though, being in his and my siblings’ presence is enough.

 

The Provincial courtroom in suburban Toronto looked similar to many others throughout the city, with wooden, pew-like benches secured to the floor as if to prevent them being pilfered by those who sat on them. I sashayed up to the wooden gate separating the public, including those accused of committing criminal offenses, from the lawyers, clerks, and judges. I wore my favorite outfit — Jones New York skirt and top in soft shades of pink and blue, the carefully selected wool jacket in a complementary pink tone — my briefcase hanging from my shoulder. In less than eighteen months, after articling and completing the bar admission courses, I would be accepted into my chosen world.

My principal, Edward, was already at the counsel table as I gave a perfunctory bow toward the empty chair that would be occupied in a few minutes by the judge. “Miss, you have to stay behind the gate until your case is called.” The court’s clerk looked at me. I kept walking toward Edward, hoping that she would realize her error.

“Miss, I asked you to go back there,” her voice raised, hand giving an imperious, waving gesture toward the benches. “Only your lawyer is allowed up here.”

Edward looked up, following her eyes to me. As he comprehended the scene, I was reminded of a boy in primary school calling me a wog, a common derogatory term in 1960s England for people of color. Now, my mortification as Edward turned to the clerk recalled that of the young girl standing on the school stage while the boy, at Mum’s insistence, apologized to me in front of the whole school.

Edward was fierce, his words piercing the clerk’s disdain. I mumbled, “It’s okay, Edward, forget it,” but my voice was lost in his fury. While he ranted about her being racist and making assumptions based on my skin color, I imagined myself ordering the clerk to enter the witness box for cross-examination. “How could you mistake me for an accused person when I’m wearing Jones New York?” I would have asked, as if a designer-label outfit could protect me from the woman’s biases.

Weeks earlier, in a different provincial courthouse, in a different southern Ontario city with a different clerk, a similar request was made, but that time with a warm, helpful demeanor and in Edward’s absence. Not Jones New York that day. Another suit, as carefully selected. It made no difference. Both women saw through the same lens of their own truths despite evidence that contradicted their assumptions. I gave a frozen smile to her apology and reassured her, as if I was responsible for the error.

Minutes later, the clerk called for order as the judge entered the courtroom. I stood beside Edward, outwardly calm, but my mind would remain in a state of disorder for hours, presently only capable of incongruent thoughts of cross-examination.

No part of law school, bar admission courses, or work experience had prepared me for being mistaken for an alleged criminal. More than ever, I felt like a fraud, that I had no right to believe I belonged there. The shame of being black and wishing I was otherwise resurfaced. How could I represent people accused of committing criminal acts when the Court couldn’t distinguish between who I represented and me?

 

If Dad was still alive, I could imagine my two fathers meeting over a pint of Guinness and a glass of Johnny Walker to discuss my merits and faults. They share the same Christian name and both were born under the sign of Sagittarius, their birthdays two days apart. When I tell Daddy, he says, “Oh, I met your father. It was on the day of your adoption hearing. I went to court to make my final plea to the judge, and your father was there.” The judge spoke to each father separately in his chambers. Daddy pitched his plan for keeping me within the clan: his spinster sister, in the social-work field and also living in London, would help raise me until Daddy finished his studies and returned to Ghana.

His story fills a small gap in the missing first few years of my life. Neither Mum nor Dad ever spoke of the day that I legally became their child. From Mum’s occasional references to the time leading up to the event, I was aware of her constant fear that one of my first parents may return to claim me. Now Daddy says, “The judge told me in no uncertain terms that I must never attempt to find you. I was to have absolutely no contact with you or your family from that day forward.” No more attempts to visit me, which had up to that point been thwarted by my first mother and the social workers, and no more financial contributions to my upkeep. I imagined the two fathers leaving the court house: Dad’s strides, buoyed by the piece of paper with my new name and parents, just as my other father, lost in his thoughts, walked toward the train station. Was that the genesis of Goddash?

I met my aunt on our trip to Kumasi. In her seventies, dementia had erased her beyond a vague smile. She was fairer than her older brother; after days in the sun, the color of my skin almost blended with hers. She gazed ahead into the darkened room most of the time, with occasional picking at the edges of the handkerchief in her lap the only indication of emotion. Throughout that visit, my attention strayed from my other two aunts to her. I wondered whether my feelings of affinity toward her would have been the same had I not been aware that she might have raised me.

 

I sit at another linen-clad table under a different colored tent watching Daddy’s profile. From here, Carmen will drive me to the airport. At this retirement party, few of my family members are attending, but they know many of the couple hundred other well-dressed guests, so I am left for much of the time with the lookalike man beside me who appears lost in his memories, perhaps already reliving the past ten days. Now I have touched those bulging veins on his hands and brushed my long fingers on his smooth arms. I’ve watched him sitting at the table eating his meals in the tiny eating area of his home while the ancient fridge labors loudly to keep our drinking water cold. I’ve invested hours committing his features to memory, storing them for recall when I’m back, alone in northern Canada.

Before this trip, I was cautioned by Leeann and others that my mixed heritage may not be accepted by Africans, including my family, fueling my already heightened fears of rejection and the usual conviction that I would not be not be good enough. It would not be the first time. As a teen at a party with Mike, I had walked across the room to join an enclave of beautiful West Indian girl-women. My smile remained etched on my face as one of them said, “Yo tink you better than us or sometin? Just ‘cos yo light-skinned?” She had assured me that I was nuttin. I had never learned a quick repartee to similar accusations.

I smile as Carmen’s elegant fingers move rapidly across the cellphone’s keyboard as she sends yet another text message; now I can join my cousins’ gentle teasing that she must sleep with the phone in her hand, and will refrain from saying whether she does, though we have slept in the same bed for most of this trip. She introduced me to Ghana’s highlife music, helping to select the CDs packed in my suitcase. I have followed Chris around his offices as he introduced me as his sister (never half-sister) to his disbelieving staff. After he went into his office, one of them had asked, “Not for real?”

“Yes, for real. He’s my brother,” I’d answered, thinking of my reaction to Chris’s photo on the internet. Tom, Chris, and Carmen are already planning my return next summer when Ghana and I celebrate fifty years of our existence.

My African family assumes that I am one of them, regardless of my obruni status. Daddy’s story of Goddash returning one day to find her clan was like a bookmark in the family, retaining a space that I entered as I walked across the arrivals hall at the airport to Carmen who waited with the slight, elderly man and the rest of the welcoming committee. In the future, as I wake in the cold of Yukon’s dark winter or lie sleepless in the early hours of summer’s long light, I will constantly forget that I am found and will take myself through the remembering process — the first phone calls with Daddy and my sisters, their dolce voices like echoes of mine; the photo of Daddy and me in profile, my brother’s long toes opposite mine at the party — and even though only one of Daddy’s siblings was afflicted, I will wonder whether dementia will rob me twenty years from now of the ability to remember that I am Goddash.

dingbatsmaller

Christina Brobby was born and raised in England but has for a number of years called Whitehorse in northern Canada her home.  Her creative nonfiction essays have appeared in anthologies in Canada. She is currently working on a memoir about finding her birth family. Selected by Vanessa Martir.

Image titled “Ibi Dreaming” photograph copyright Inye Wokoma.

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