I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
I was nine years old when I first met Kumi, who used to be one of our neighbors on Zongo Street, a densely populated suburb of Kumasi, Ghana’s most prosperous city. Kumi was tall, lanky, and handsome, and always well-dressed: clean white shirt, black tie, and neatly pressed khaki trousers. He wore black shoes, and his strides were long and slow. His hair was nicely combed and he shaved every morning before he left home for the central post office in the town proper, where he worked as a mail clerk.
Kumi lived by himself in an unadorned two-bedroom flat that was located at the dead end of Zongo Street. A low bamboo fence surrounded the house, to keep pedestrians away from his compound. The fence was painted black, and so were the shutters of Kumi’s house; but for reasons known only to himself, he left the rest of the building unpainted. He was probably the only person on our side of the street who liked flowers; the hibiscus were his favorite, and he had them planted all over his little compound.
Books were stacked everywhere in Kumi’s house—small books, large books, old books, and even antique manuscripts that were written entirely by hand. The windows of the house were always shut, and the only source of light in Kumi’s living room was an old, rusty hurricane lantern that sat on his study table. This always left the living room in half-darkness, which he seemed to prefer. A large portrait of his children—two boys of about the ages of seven and nine—hung above one of the windows in the living room, though Kumi never talked about his children. There was speculation that his wife had tried for months to seek a divorce from him without any success and that he had come back home from work one afternoon to an empty house. She had run away, taking along their two sons. This, apparently, happened two years before Kumi moved to Zongo Street, when he lived in Ash Town, a suburb north of the city. Mansa BBC—the name we gave our street’s biggest gossip, a large, garrulous woman—claimed that Kumi’s wife had run away because she believed he was mad and feared that he might harm her and their children. Of course no sane person on the street believed BBC’s story, as every aspect of Kumi’s life seemed to reflect that of a full gentleman. And, besides that, Kumi had never been observed whispering to himself or running around naked in the market square, as some mad people in town did.
Though Kumi’s reticence and shyness made him quite unapproachable, his generosity made him a favorite of many people on Zongo Street. He seldom mixed with the people, and yet he was respected by almost everyone: men and women, adults and young children. His aloofness was not because he was Western educated and therefore considered himself better than the streetfolks—a very common trait among such types on Zongo Street and in the city. He was a person who humbly devoted himself to his books and his thoughts and also cared immensely for the children in and around our neighborhood. He rarely missed the numerous community functions of burial and funeral ceremonies, weddings, and outdoor gatherings for newly born babies. But whenever he attended these functions, he sat far away from the crowd, in a corner, surrounded by little children, who were his best friends.
Unlike the other adults who gathered at Aliko’s barber shop to engage in idle chatter—that usually ended up in heated arguments, Kumi never argued or quarreled with anyone. He frequented the barber shop as often as once a week, but he went only to get his hair trimmed. He never opened his mouth to join in the mindless arguments that went on. Kumi was always seen with his face buried in either a book or a newspaper, as if avoiding the stares of people on the street. He would lift up his head whenever someone greeted him and would say to the person, “How are you being treated by fate?”
On Friday evenings he would invite my friends and me for a biyan-tankwa and biscuit party. And almost every day, on his way home from work, he bought me and my brothers and sisters presents of meat pies and Fanta drinks. My mother would thank Kumi when he brought the gifts to us, and at the same time she would ask him to stop buying such expensive food, insisting that it would spoil us.
At most of the weekly parties Kumi threw for us, he spoke endlessly about the importance of education and the need to become good citizens of our community.
“You boys should take your studies seriously in order to become responsible adults in the future … you do not want to end up like Suraju,” Kumi would say in his soft voice. Suraju was Zongo Street’s most notorious swindler and petty thief; he was a drunkard as well. “All of you here know that Suraju would have led a decent life if he had had an education. It would have given him a decent job instead of the wretched life he is leading, sleeping all day long and getting up at night to steal and drink. Don’t you agree with me?” Kumi would ask.
We would all reply “Yes,” raising our fists in the air as if we really understood what he was talking about.
Kumi, at times, talked to us about Socrates, Nietzsche, Kant, and Spinoza. My friends and I had no idea who these people were—I didn’t even know what the word philosophy meant at that time—but Kumi claimed that they were the greatest people who had ever lived and had tried, by means of their ideas, to recreate the world. He never explained to us why the ideas of these people failed. To be honest, Kumi’s stories were quite boring at times, but we listened to them anyway—because of the food he gave us.
The more I went to Kumi’s house, the more curious I became about his life; it was partly because I never knew exactly what mood he was in at any time. His face had an expression that showed neither sadness nor happiness; it did not resemble any form of sentiment I knew. I wondered why Kumi lived by himself, with no wife to cook for him or children to be with and tell stories to at night. I also wondered what his thoughts were whenever he was alone in his house and happened not to be reading any of his fat books.
Once when my friends and I were visiting Kumi, I asked him, “Are you happy?”
Even before I finished the sentence, I realized how wrong it was of me, a mere child, to ask him such a question. At first I thought he would be upset and even chide me, but in a friendly tone he asked, “Must one always be happy?”
I did not know what to say, and so I kept silent and looked away from him. For a while, Kumi did not say a word either, and I realized that he was waiting for me to speak.
“I … I thought every person wants to be happy all the time. I want to … I want to be happy all the time,” I stammered after a brief silence, during which my friends sat uneasily and looked at me with drawn faces as if I needed to be punished for asking that question.
Kumi smiled and began to speak. “Listen carefully, young man, and all of you here as well.” He moved his cane chair closer to where we sat on the couch. “We human beings live every day of our lives in expectation of happiness, as you just mentioned.” He paused, looked at me, and then continued. “But have you wondered why no son of Adam has ever attained complete happiness in his lifetime?” he asked, looking at us one by one.
We did not say a word. The truth was, we had nothing to say. We looked away from him and then at one another like a flock of sheep in a pen that was too small for them. I did not have any idea what my friends were thinking at that time, but, personally, I was already regretting that I had started the whole thing. Moments passed without any of us responding to Kumi’s question, and so he continued.
“The reason why we are never happy in life is that we are never content with our situations or what we have at any time. The only means by which one could attain complete happiness is to avoid living in constant expectation of it since that is what causes our unhappiness and consequent bitterness about life.” I did not know exactly what Kumi meant by that, but I went along with it all the same and nodded my head—as my friends did.
He then began a long and boring discourse and concluded by saying, “Happiness is nothing but the comfort of illusion.” Happiness is nothing but the comfort of illusion? I was utterly confused, and one of my friends was already dozing by the time Kumi got to this point in his lecture. As if trying to prevent us from leaving, Kumi quickly moved onto another topic—a topic on which he had often delivered long sermons to us.
“You must be able to restrict your utterances, young men, or else you and trouble will forever dwell together. You should always remember that we human beings are what we say. Many times, greatly respected people have lost their dignity in the eyes of other people because they have allowed their mouths to precede their minds. Our egos may reside in our minds, but it is the mouth that makes it known to the rest of the world. So be mindful of what you say.”
My friends and I were exhausted after Kumi’s long sermon on this particular visit. Before we left his house, he gave each one of us two toffees and encouraged us to visit again the next day, which only I did.
During one of my numerous visits to Kumi, he told me that books are far better companions than are human beings, because one learns from reading, and that unlike humans, books are reliable. He spent his free time alone, reading. He read books that were as huge as the encyclopedias I saw in the Ashanti Library. He once told me that those books he read were books of theology. I didn’t know what theology was. I asked him what the books were really about, and he told me that they were the true books of Moses and all the apostles that the Hebrew and Quraish people never found.
“Then how come you have them? How did you get hold of these sacred books? Who gave them to you?”
“Don’t worry, young man,” he said, laughing. “This is beyond you now, but you’ll understand later as you grow up.”
As time went by, I gave up my attempts to understand Kumi’s philosophic statements. I regularly visited his house though, hoping that I would someday be able to figure out all that he had been talking about.
And then one evening he told me something that confused me even more. I didn’t know whether to believe what he had said or not, considering my reverence for his knowledge. He told me that the history of the world was somehow fabricated by the white man.
“They changed everything in the original book of scriptures and filled it with false dogmas that suited their own greedy intentions,” he said.
He also told me that the black race would have dominion over the rest of the world before it ends; he even claimed to know exactly when the world was going to come to an end. I asked him how he found that out.
“It was predetermined,” he replied. “The supreme ruler of the universe, in his revelation to Moses, predicted all of these and many other hidden truths, but they were altered.”
Kumi replied harshly, “Didn’t you hear me? I said the white man!” Such harshness was quite unusual for him. He shoved a huge book in front of my face and asked me to read and find out for myself. I became scared and left, forgetting to take the book with me.
Later that day, after the evening meal, I told my mother about what Kumi had said to me, though I refused to mention his harsh attitude toward me. She said: “Do not go to his house so much. That man does not look healthy to me these days; he seems to be crazy in the head.”
I silently disagreed with my mother, and I was, for a while, upset with her for speaking the way she did about my friend, though the dramatic change in him was evident. He no longer seemed to care so much about his neat appearance and demeanor in front of me and my friends, who, by now, rarely visited his house. The neatly stacked books in his living room were now scattered everywhere, making it difficult even to find space for one’s feet. Kumi’s hibiscus flowers began to wilt, the plants dying in the end—apparently he had not been watering them. And despite all this, nothing mother said about Kumi was enough to deter me from going to see him. I always came up with new excuses that would get me out of the house so that I could visit him. I would tell Mother that one of my friends had borrowed my textbook at school and that I was going to collect it. Before leaving our house, I would throw one of my books out the window, so that I could carry it back with me after I had visited Kumi.
On one of these visits, Kumi looked me in the eye and said, “I am beginning a serious study of the history of mankind, and so tell all your friends to stop coming here.”
“And me too?”
“Yes, I’ll let you know when I am done with my studies, so that you can start visiting again,” he said, and brushed his fingers over my head. He gave me a little book that was entitledManifestations and urged me to read it as soon as I could. I tried to read the book at home that evening, putting aside my homework, but couldn’t understand most of what I read. It was not until several weeks later—after reading and rereading many sections of the book—that I finally began to get a grasp of its contents. It was written in 1932 by Anthony Mtoli, a self-proclaimed “Africanist” and “spiritualist” whom I had never heard of before. The book called for a universal black rebellion against “white dominance,” and was full of curses and diatribes on Europeans, Arabs, and all white-skinned people. It was shocking and scary at the same time for me, reading the little book. I was brought up not only to revere Arabs and their culture, but to see every single one of them as a paragon of beauty, virtue, and spirituality—all because the prophet of Islam was himself Arab. At the Madrassa, or Islamic school, I was made to believe that all white people are geniuses and daredevils, and that Arabs among humans are what the angels in heaven are among other spiritual bodies. And there I was, reading that some “Arab invaders” had once waged wars against black people in West Africa, and in the process of that war had enslaved my ancestors and forced them to convert to Islam. For the first time I became aware of the fact that there actually used to be a period in history when the people of my tribe, Hausa, weren’t Moslems at all. Before I read Manifestations, I never doubted that humanity itself began with Islam, and that God had chosen a prophet among the Arabs because they were morally and spiritually superior to the rest of humankind.
Night after night before I went to sleep I read and reread Manifestations. The more I understood the book’s contents, the more I thought about Kumi and wondered what he might be doing at that time. I eagerly awaited the day he would come by and invite me and my friends to his house again; I longed to impress him with my knowledge of the book he had given me. But my hope and excitement amounted to nothing. Fate had it that I was never to see the inside of Kumi’s house again.
Kumi’s barring us from his house was disappointing news to my friends, who had especially missed his regular Fanta and biscuit parties. It became quite obvious at this point that something was really bothering him, but no one could tell what it was. He walked hurriedly now, whispering to himself all the time, with no paper or book held to his face. He hardly responded to people’s greetings anymore, including Mother’s. As time went by, he was seldom seen on the street. I guessed he had stopped working at the post office also, because one of his coworkers came to inquire about his continued absence.
One night, some few weeks after Kumi was last seen, we heard loud, piercing noises coming from his house. And each night after that the noises grew louder and more intense. People began to gather in front of his house at night to listen, even though no one understood what the noises meant or what was actually going on inside. Rumor had it that the noises were made by the ghost of an old man, who, many years ago, was buried on the plot where Kumi’s house was erected. The noises sounded like the voices of a thousand people, all of them chanting, screaming, and shrieking. At one point, the street’s imam gave an order that any person who valued his life should not go near the house at night. As soon as it got dark, parents locked in their children for fear of the bad spirits believed to be hidden in Kumi’s house. Even the adults, when they walked near the house, did so in quick strides, as if they were being pursued.
The people on the street wished they could ignore the horrible noises, but it was impossible; the commotion coming from the house got louder and more intense with the passing of each night. Meanwhile, a new rumor spread that Kumi had gone insane because he had read too many books. Yet another suggested that he had died in his house and that the noises were made by his ghost.
Then things began to change. Early one Friday morning—roughly five weeks after the noises had begun—we heard Kumi shouting at the top of his voice. Myself and a handful of people came out to see what was the matter with him. We saw Kumi pacing up and down the street, holding a huge book, from which he recited. His normally clean-shaven face was now heavily bearded and his hair was curled into short, thick dreadlocks. Kumi had grown lean, almost skeletal. He was barefoot and clad in a long white robe, with a red cotton belt tied around his thin waist.
“Supreme ruler of the universe, Ti-gari himself. Look around you here. Look at the poverty in which you live; look at the misery, the ignorance, the disease. And yet you continue to worship their so-called omnipotent and beneficent gods. The Christian slave traders told you that Jesus is the son of God, and this Jesus, according to them, is white. Meanwhile, the Islamic invaders had already arrived and told our ancestors that it is because of the love of only one human being by the name of Muhammad that the world itself was created. You must remember that this Muhammad is supposedly white too, a white Arab.”
Kumi claimed that everything he preached was revealed to him by the God of his new religion in nightly visions. It drove me close to tears when I stood among my friends and watched as he raved, I went up and tried to talk to him at the end of a preaching session, but he acted as if I were a complete stranger to him. That night I cried silently before I went to sleep, careful not to let my mother hear.
“Long before these invaders came to our land, we had our own gods … gods of our ancestor’s ancestors. We also had Ti-gari, who ruled over all the gods and men in this universe. Unlike the abstract and partial gods brought to us by these invaders, the gods of our ancestors and Ti-gari are merciful, generous, and impartial to the needs of people of all races—ours especially. Our ancestors used to live with these gods, and with Ti-gari himself. They talked face to face with the supreme ruler in their shrines, and all their needs were fulfilled. And then came the Christians and the Moslems, with their gods! What did our ancestors do? They quickly abandoned their god, not knowing that these invaders had come to them with scriptures in one hand and a sword or chain hidden in the other hand, ready to capture and take them away. The Christian and Islamic intrusionists came and asked our ancestors to look up into the sky, to look up to heaven, while they filled their ships with our gold, young men and women, timber, diamonds, cocoa—the list is endless. And even to this very day we continue to allow them to strip us of our rightful and natural possessions that have been bequeathed to us by Ti-gari. Why can’t we see the foolery? Why can’t we see the falsity? Why do we continue to take this insult? Why?” Kumi at times seemed to lack answers for some of his own profound questions.
People turned out in great numbers during the early days of his preaching. And while some of them were inclined to believe in Kumi’s new religion, others thought he had gone mad or that his behavior was the result of heavy drinking.
“According to the scriptures they brought to you, Jesus is said to have hair like lamb’s wool,” Kumi shouted during an afternoon of preaching. “Now, you all know what a lamb’s wool looks like. Just like your hair and my hair, right? Why then? Why didn’t we question the Europeans when they brought us the blonde-haired and blue-eyed pictures of Jesus, telling us that he is the son of their God? And also, how come we didn’t question the Arabs, who in practice, bought and sold our ancestors into slavery, when they preached to us that their religion is that of peace and equality among all the different races in the world? Because you know what, Brothers and Sisters? It was because we allowed our minds to be carried away by false promises of gold, wicked glory, and a future salvation that is nothing but a hoax!”
Kumi knelt down at this point, and from his bag he pulled out a portrait of a man he claimed to be the real Jesus, and whose true name according to him was I’sama. He raised up the portrait—which was drawn on a piece of cardboard paper—so that everyone present could see. The figure in the portrait had overgrown bushy hair, a flat nose, prominent lips, and was dark-skinned. He returned the portrait to his bag after a short while, and then continued with his preaching. “And so, Brothers and Sisters, do not bow down to any false images of I’sama. He is a servant of Ti-gari and not a son of any of their gods as they made you to believe. And remember always that he is as black as anyone among you here.”
I did not know what to think of Kumi’s new religion, and so I asked my mother’s opinion about it. All she said to me was, “Too much knowledge at times leads people to the ways of the devil.” She then warned me to stay completely away from Kumi. I began to think that he might actually be evil. And yet I refused to believe all the speculation that went on about him, and argued with schoolmates of mine who believed him mad.
In her bid to console me about Kumi’s plight, my mother told me that people who were crazy had the same capacity to create justifications for their behavior that normal people did. I realized that her explanation—as rational as it seemed—was probably intended to make me understand how hopeless Kumi’s situation was, and thereby help me to come to terms with it. Her attempt, however, had the opposite effect on me: I developed an even greater feeling of pity for Kumi, saying to myself that he was a victim of a power or force I did not know.
Soon things began to get worse for poor Kumi. His body began to smell, apparently because he had stopped bathing. He was obviously not eating, as he grew thinner and thinner. Some of the kinder people on the street, and a few of his relatives who lived on Zerikyi Road, tried to talk Kumi out of his new preoccupation, but he refused to listen to anyone. Some even attempted to send him to the mental asylum in the town proper, but he cursed and threatened them, saying that whoever touched him would be afflicted with an incurable disease. In the end, he was left alone.
Despite Kumi’s deteriorating health, he still remained unrelenting in his attempt to spread the new religion. By this time, everyone on the street had lost interest in what he had to say, with the exception of the children who gathered around him, even though nothing he said in his long sermons made any sense to them. After a while, the children also got tired of listening to Kumi’s exhortations. But that did not discourage him from preaching, which he did day and night, rain or shine. Gradually, his voice grew thin, almost inaudible. People began to walk past him without even looking at him. He, meanwhile, remained the only known convert to this new religion.
Then one day during the rainy season, there came a terrible storm. The wind that followed with the rain ripped off the roofs of many buildings on Zongo Street. It rained continuously for three days and nights, with thunder and lightning, as if the whole world was coming to an end. While people were in their houses during the storm—praying for the protection of their lives and property—Kumi was outside preaching to no one but himself. We would peep through our windows and see him pacing up and down the muddied street, still preaching, with his voice completely drowned out by the pounding rain.
After this fateful storm Kumi was not seen on the street for a couple of days. I had a feeling that some terrible thing had happened to him, but I had no idea what it might be. Two nights after the storm, I had a dream, and in that dream I saw Kumi being lifted up into the sky by black angels. I told my mother about this dream the following morning, but she hushed me up and warned me not to disclose it to anyone, not even my father.
On the third day after the storm, while people were still trying to repair their damaged roofs and fences, some concerned neighbors, including my father, knocked several times on Kumi’s door, but heard no response. A day was allowed to pass, in the hope that he would come out if he were in his house, but this hope ended in vain.
Five days came and passed, and Kumi was still not seen. The street’s elders then decided that his house must be broken into. It did not take my father and the others much effort to break into the flat, because they found the main door unlocked. They pushed it open and walked inside. Kumi was found lying on his bed, pale and quite dead. He was still clad in his white robe, and the red cotton belt was tied tightly around his thin waist. And out on the street people whispered darkly that a book, a very large one, lay open on his chest.
Everything about Kumi’s funeral was carried out hastily. Instead of the three to seven days that were usually spent mourning and praying for the dead, not even a full day was spent for him. And not many people showed up at the funeral either, not even his runaway wife and two children, all fearing God’s wrath against those who prayed for a dead nonbeliever. A handful of his relatives from Zerikyi Road and about a dozen people from Zongo Street made up the entire gathering at the prayer ceremony, and they were all hardly able to wait for the imam’s closing prayers, so that they could leave and attend to their personal affairs.
Parents on the street forbade their children to go near the place where Kumi’s funeral was being held, claiming that his ominous death might bring ill luck to their families. But despite this fear, my father took me along with him. I sat on a short stool next to my father as the prayers were being recited, with my mind not on the imam’s words but on the book that Kumi had given to me—the little book that had not only revealed to me the highest truth about humanity, but had also taught me things I never before knew about myself and my family, my clan, tribe, and the entire black race. I wondered if my father had ever read such a book, and what his thoughts might have been about it. But I dared not ask questions like that—a child just wasn’t supposed to ask questions, especially if they raised doubts about Islam and any of our traditions. After the prayers I walked silently behind my father, anxious to reach home so that I could read aloud, as a memorial, passages from Manifestations, which was at that time tucked in between the skin of my belly and the waistband of my khaki shorts.
—Mohammed Naseehu Ali is a native of Ghana, West Africa. He attended Interlochen Arts Academy Michigan, and Bennington College, Vermont. He lives in Brooklyn.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee