Conversations with Ayanobasiya (Part One)

Ayanobasiya was always ready to talk about heavy subjects. 

“Can you describe what the next world is like when we die?” I asked unexpectedly. “What is the afterlife like?”

She laughed. “Who do you think I am? I am not a koko (a witch returned from the dead). I have not died before!” Ayanobasiya looked toward a passing bicyclist, composed herself, and continued. “I’m not able to give an answer. But there is a woman I know. She’s saying it’s a good place. That is why people are dying and not coming back. If it was a bad place, the dead would come back.”

I couldn’t tell if she was joking with me. “Are you afraid of dying?” I asked.

“I’m not afraid. I’m only afraid of sickness and having to suffer all of those things.”

“Why do some people fear death and others don’t? Many older people I speak with do not fear death.” Elders seemed to welcome their impending death with an air of serenity. One man described how a neighbor begged a group of undertakers to take him too when they passed his home. He complained he was too old, it was time for him to go.

“That has to do with certain people,” Ayanobasiya said. “They know as they are living on this earth, they are always living their life very good. Then there are other wicked people doing bad things. They don’t want to die because they know that when they die, they won’t reach the ancestors.” 

She stood a good chance of meeting her ancestors. Ayanobasiya lived her life well, and she was what Nankani people in Sirigu would consider a moral or “correct” person. 

“Ayanobasiya, what is the good life then? Let’s say a woman dies, and everyone says she lived a good life. What does that mean?

“A woman is living a good life when children are in the house. When she is cooking. When you are making food and you don’t hide it, people can just eat the food in front of the children and not worry about sharing [an abundance of food]. Then, if you are sick, or one of your friends is sick, you will visit the sick person. And if you have herbs in your house, maybe you bring the herbs, give them to the fellow, and the sickness will be better. Or you can even advise the woman: ‘do these things and you will get better.’ It is good to be a woman who advises the sick. Maybe a woman visits you, and you didn’t even ask her, and she helps with the plastering work on the house. Such a woman, when she dies, people will say she was a good woman.”

Ayanobasiya had a mischievous gleam in her eye and a critical edge. She kept up with the latest issues in Sirigu, women’s rights, and development, and she could reveal the root problems behind any circumstance. She didn’t use terms like structural violence or externalities, but she spoke of these concepts with ease. I visited Ayanobasiya weekly to learn more about her life and culture. And I came to value her perspective as an opinion leader and mother (she raised eight children). In her life she experienced severe illness, famine, epidemics, and participated in witchcraft accusations and deaths. But she also witnessed improvements in child and maternal health, access to education, and the eradication of female genital cutting. 

We visited in the afternoons at the side of her compound under a solitary shade tree. It was a quiet spot, less visible, and not on the thoroughfare to the house. Men meet at the public “face,” the main entrance of their house, a place subject to interruption, surveillance, and distraction. The front is a “male space.” People pass by and greet each other, and family members come through on their comings and goings. The shade near the side of the house has a distinctive ambiance. Women go there when the compound becomes unbearably hot inside. It’s a space to relax, finish a few chores in the breeze, or hold private conversations. At the start of each visit, Ayanobasiya spread out a woven mat for herself and insisted I sit on the chair or wooden stool she brought from inside. I would tower over her while she sat, legs locked straight in front, her back in perfect posture—a challenging pose to sustain.

“When you were young, when you were a small girl,” I asked, “did you have dreams for what you wanted to be or do in your life? As a child, what did you want to become?”

“When I hadn’t grown up yet, I wanted to go to school so I could become a nurse. But my parents didn’t put me in school.”

People’s aspirations across cultures are familiar. Nankani children today also dream of becoming pilots, teachers, artists, nurses, and police officers. What differs are the barriers and their limited resources. It is not as simple as “putting one’s mind to it,” or following the latest clichés and myths for success. 

“Was it too costly or were the other children already in school?” I asked.

War Dancer

“My mother suggested that I go to school. By then, I was already weaving things for the war dances—the material they tie their bows and belts with. That was what my father was doing. They needed women to help grind and bring the materials. My father said he wouldn’t allow me to go to school because who would be in the house to do those things? So my father did not agree.”

Family needs come before individual needs. Parents prefer their children to work on the farm or somehow contribute to the domestic economy—extra hands to hoe weeds or a pair of eyes to watch the animals. When Ayanobasiya was young, most families sent only their worst behaved and least capable children to school. The British wondered why Nankani children were so bad. Parents kept their smartest, hard-working children at home. 

“I’m going to change the topic,” I said. “I want to learn what makes people happy. Can you describe the most memorable, happy, or joyful moment in your life? A time when things were really good.” I expected she would talk about her children. I should have known better. 

“It was during the wet season, about the time of the harvest. A person came to take me to Navrongo for a workshop.” Navrongo, the district capital, was about a 30-minute drive away. “I stayed there for four days and ate a lot. The place had all those modern facilities. Bathing and those things where you can open the water and it will flow on your head. They have that. They even gave me money, around 1.4 million Cedis ($150)! And brought me back to my house in a car.” 

“And the opposite, what’s one of the difficult or hardest times?”

“One time there was the famine. We woke up and didn’t know what to do. The children were crying. I couldn’t get any food and there was nothing to eat. That was the hardest time I can remember. No food to give to the family.”

“Is ensuring there is food the most painful thing about having children?” I asked.

“Feeding them is always a problem that worries parents. And when they are sick and you cannot care for them,” she added. “It is also the drugs. When you go to the hospital and they say you should buy those drugs, but they are not always easy to get. It’s a problem to be unable to care for the sick children, a big problem.”

In my last chat with her, I asked what message she wanted others to hear. She went straight to the root cause of the troubles people in Sirigu face. The persistent specter that stymied her ambitions and shaped her life, relationships, and the memories she shared. 

“The problems here are about poverty,” she said. “When you go back, send that message forward. The people of this place are very peaceful, we love people, we are hospitable. But the problems we face, they are always about poverty.”

Want read more? Check out my book “Spirit Children.” Read part two of this essay here.

Ayanobasiya as the sergeant at arms for her women’s singing group. Ready with her whistle (and often a stick), she kept the tempo and everyone in order

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