We are running away. No one puts it like that, no one says those words, but we all know that’s what we are doing. We all hear it in the muttered conversations that float unwillingly out of neighbours’ huts; we all see it in the tense looks and jerky gestures, and in the pained smiles. We all know that’s what we are doing but there is no one willing to say the words. We are running away.
War is coming. In truth, it is already here. It has blown in with the dry winds, and settled like dust upon everyone and everything and it also brought with it fear. War and fear coat all of us. The animals felt it first: since the last Akwasidae Kwesi Sika has poured out his troubles (almost as frequently as he pours the bitter palm wine down his throat) about how it seems the forest has suddenly become extraordinarily deficient in game. The small birds that kept me company on my way to the river have vanished, leaving not so much as a feather in their place. Kwesi Sika’s hunting dog went chasing after a chicken and never returned. They can smell it in the air, my grandmother says, the blood that will spill and the death that will roam here. Somehow, so can I.
When I was younger, at a time when my brother’s stories of ghosts and demons still frightened me, my mother was caught in one of our father’s farms with a younger man from the village. Of course, that day, I knew none of this. All I knew was that my mother had been bad, and so as her only child I had been bad as well. I remember it as the day my father became a real person to me. Before then he had been a distant shadow, an apparition, but in the heat of his anger, he finally gained in my eyes a body as he set himself with my mother in a fury I know no ghost to possess. When he finally straightened over her, she was dragged to the sub-chief who dealt with these matters, and she was, as was custom, thrown out of the village. I was sent to live with my grandmother, a strong, able woman who still held her head high as she was condemned in her daughter’s stead.
It is these thoughts that possess me as I gather my meager belongings together and wrap them in an old cloth of my mother’s. It is the past that sits heavily upon my brow as my grandmother helps me balance my load atop my head. She places two fingers on my forehead, her way of reminding not to think so much and sends me off in the direction of my father’s property. I know that I will never see her again but this is the only goodbye we need. Neither of us is of many words and ours is a language of gestures and long looks. I feel her eyes on my back as I walk into the night and by this, I know she will miss me too.
We are gone by sunrise. I know that as the day progresses the stillness will confirm the rumours that Kwabena Manu has done what was in his nature to do, what was in his blood to do. I know that they will call him a coward like his father before him. They will call us all cowards. They will spit out the word like venom as they try to cover their own fear with anger, wishing in some deep dark part of them they were cowardly enough to do the same. I pause my thoughts as I almost trip over a stone and press two fingers to my own forehead, prodding myself back into the present. The party is quite a large one. Three or four other families join us, each group heavy laden with goods and small children. There is no chatter, and all faces surrounding me are as grimly set as I imagine my own to be. Even the smallest child can sense this is no time for fussing. As for me, even in this group of outcasts and cowards, I am an outsider. No one speaks to me, and I speak to no one. Once, when we took shelter from a sudden shower I heard one woman ask another why I was even there. I had asked myself the same question. There was no one more shocked than myself when my father approached my grandmother to command that I join him in the exodus. I did not carry any hopes that this meant I had been forgiven for a crime I had not committed, and if I had I would have been very disappointed because they treated me with no more mind than the air beside them.
It was the most harrowing, exhausting experience of my life. The wind was dry and hot during the day and the nights were so cold I regretted that I did not have any plumpness to gain some heat from. The sun bore down on us unceasingly and the moon-eyed us at night, both judging us from their high perches in the sky. We took all of it without complaining, each of us knowing that this was our punishment for our desertion, each somehow believing our suffering would attain for us some measure of forgiveness from the gods. The fourth or fifth night I felt something trickling cold and wet trickle down my leg. It was blood. For a moment I thought I had been cut by one of the sharper leaves of the bushes we moved through but then realization hit me quite suddenly; this was my first blood. I laughed quietly to myself, before detouring for a few minutes to use one of my oldest rags to staunch the flow. I thought of home, of how my grandmother would have sighed with relief. I was the oldest girl who had not yet bled. I thought of the rites, of my dancing through the streets, of swallowing the egg whole, of a party in my honour. Then I sighed with relief for myself; that would have been too much attention on me.
It took an entire moon cycle for us to reach our first destination at the foot of the mountains. I had never seen them before, and I marveled at how high up they were and felt a little dismay in that we would have to climb them. But climb them we did. We made our way slowly, carefully, but even with all our caution there were still many accidents. Most of the younger children did not survive the trip. The mountain was cruel, taking, at least, one of us each day until we agreed by general consensus that we had come high up enough to escape our white predators.
We settled down eventually, building new huts, discovering new streams and battling the local animals for control of small pockets of land. And slowly, this place became home. We were joined later by other runaways who brought us news of our motherland, of women and children killed, of our chief captured and exiled and of the now absolute control of the white man over our tribesmen. We considered ourselves wiser for leaving, and the guilt we had borne so heavily fled us for good. We also heard they had given us a name as if to sever completely any link with us. They say a man was accosted by his neighbor for fleeing one of the villages and called a coward, and he replied, “Me ne menk)k) wu? So they call us the Kwahus. We all agree that this suits us.