“n. Idle chatter; v. To flatter or cajole”
The American Heritage Dictionary

By Bob Pellaton

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The dappled light that filters to the floor of the equatorial rainforest in Ghana reveals one of the most beautiful and peaceful places on earth. A canopy of kapok trees soars 200 feet over your head; under it a denser canopy of oil palm, ebony, cocoa and plantain; then saplings groping for the light; and a forest floor littered with plants and fungi. It is a quiet place, save for birds arguing endlessly, or the distant rustle of leaves as a monkey, still unseen, senses your approach.

To the Ashanti people who inhabit the forest, it is sacred ground. The spirits of their ancestors live there. Every rock, every tree, every animal also has a spirit which must be appeased before it can be appropriated to man’s use. The dark side of the forest is that those spirits sometimes have minds of their own. Even with libations poured, they may be unhappy with the way you conduct yourself. Woe to the young man who ventures there without heeding the wisdom of the elders.

I was such a young man in 1958, part of a mixed group of American and Ghanaian university students living together in the tiny village of Safo. We were there to help build a school – agents of social change in a newly independent country, welcomed by its president, lauded by its press, headstrong with purpose.

Two miles off the dirt road from Kumasi to Mampong, the one-lane track through the forest opened onto a clearing where about two dozen compounds were clustered, each home to about twenty family members. Outside they all looked alike: mud walls surfaced with cement.

Before the largest of these, the chief’s compound, stood a large tree with sheltering branches. The village chief, seated under it on the royal stool had greeted us in Twi. He and the elders standing beside him were an impressive sight in their toga-style kente robes and gold adornments. The chief’s ‘linguist’ invited us to sit. By Ashanti custom, visitors must never discuss business in the village before sitting down for a social chat, a drink, and a libation to the ancestors. It is called palaver, soothing to man and spirit.

Within a week we had adapted to the rituals and rhythms of life in Safo. Mornings were damp. Shutters opened, bedding was aired, and fires lit. Village women balancing the day’s ration of water on their heads came to our compound. The linguist summoned us to work with his two-toned gong. There we cleared stumps, leveled termite mounds – some as tall as ourselves – trenched footings, dug clay, mixed it with a dash of cement, and pressed it into ‘landcrete” blocks. A fetish priest kept watch, lest we offend any spirits. It didn’t take us long.

No sooner had we finished the foundation when the elders, after palaver with a government agent, decided that a kapok tree in the forest, about 150 feet away, had to come down. Labor was cheap. But the village could not afford to replace the materials needed to build this school if the tree were to fall on it. The next morning the priest spread a circle of white powder around the base of the tree. There was drumming. It grew more intense. He whirled himself into a trance. The drumming stopped and the priest declared the tree’s spirit reconciled to our task.

Taking turns with the single axe available, we whacked at the buttress roots stabilizing the huge trunk, eventually standing inside our own cut to reach the center. It was dusk before the trunk started creaking. Some of us shouted “Timberrrr!” and ran; the villagers retreated more soberly. I looked back in time to see a majestic oil palm bent, decapitated, its head flung far into the forest. The ground shook. Dust. Silence. A huge swath of rainforest had been laid bare. I felt foolish for my irreverence. A mighty spirit had fallen that day.

On more typical days, villagers resumed their chores between midday and the late afternoon rain. Wives pounded cassava root to a doughy consistency, narrowly missing the fingers of children who turned the pulp between strokes. Farmers took machetes deep into the forest to harvest ripe cocoa pods, whose beans other children later dried in the sun. Weavers turned brightly colored cotton and imported silk thread into kente strips. I ordered a robe for myself. “Three weeks will be just enough time,” the weaver said through a translator.

When the schoolmaster, an English-speaking Fante from the coast, found that I could paint, he talked me into copying illustrations from Curious George, the children’s favorite book, onto the classroom walls – complete with captions in Twi. Word spread quickly through the village. I was invited to palaver with the chief. We chatted, drank warm beer, and poured a libation to the spirits. Apparently, I had broken village protocol. But as long as I also painted something for the royal compound – better than anything the schoolmaster was getting – it would be O.K. I finished the illustrations quickly and devoted afternoons to working on a cocoa farming panel for the chief.

Things got hectic at that point. There was palaver over the fetish priest inviting us to a ceremony in the sacred juju house. The chief kept sending his linguist to our compound to check on the panel. The weaver and his apprentices started working after dark to finish my robe, and the schoolmaster fretted about a roof to protect his much-prized mural. I was so confident it would all get done that I took a day off to go shopping in Kumasi with my roommate.

We misjudged the time it would take to return (by what the Brits called a “mammy lorry”) at the end of a busy market day. Jumping out at the junction, we ran the last two miles to be in time for dinner. I had to use the latrine so badly that I ran there first, asking my roommate to cover for me.

When I did get to the compound, my face was ashen. I could hardly get the words out: “I dropped my wallet with my passport…in the latrine!” A flashlight confirmed the worst. There it was, down about ten feet – the walls a seething mass of cockroaches. I had visions of never being able to leave Ghana, of never going home, or worse yet – of being lowered into that latrine. I ran through the village in a panic. Elders came out, sized up the situation, decided I wasn’t possesed, sat me down under the chief’s tree, and sent for the linguist. They gave me a drink and we had palaver. The next day I marveled at the simplicity, if not the elegance, of their solution.

When I got back to the States (with my passport) the origin of the word palaver intrigued me. In English it is a pejorative. The Ashanti, borrowing a Portuguese word used by 19th century explorers looking for gold, made it into something almost prayerful: to be at peace with your spirit, and the spirits around you, before attempting to solve problems.

Why is my culture so primitive, I wondered.

1 comment on Palaver

  • Sandy Wiener

    Bob, this is so wonderful! Partly your subject and partly the captivating writing.

    Much resonance here for me. Partly Africa, partly spirits of the ancestors, the drumming, the tree spirits, the juju . . .

    Very different from my experience in urban Freetown for a year after law school.

    My sense of the resonance above came later, and becomes increasingly germane for me. For instance, recently I had a weekend of two ayahuasca journeys deep into this domain. Also, for kind of start for me, see my Life Story about poetry and precognition.

    As for my time in Africa, I wrote a remembrance that I gather got to first base in The New Yorker, but no further. I think I will make a story from out of that and then make a link to the whole piece that persons can go to if they wish (I would not expect many takers).

    Back to Africa: Yes, I hope you write about your return to the village much later.

    I got back to Freetown four years after I left, as an aide to Soapy Williams, head of African Affairs in the State Dept, as I am sure you recall. Well, more stories.

    And I think this is enough for now. Thank you for the writing, Sandy

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