The End of Skill: Mamle Kabu
The message for Vanessa showed his growing awareness of the issue of African-American heritage and its value on the kente market. Vanessa had been his greatest education on this topic so far. Thrilled to meet a kente weaver, she was effusive about what kente meant to her and the sisters and brothers back home. She already owned several kente-patterned items, which she had bought in America, including a backpack, a head tie and a dressing-gown. On the day she took him to the beach and stripped off to reveal a kente-patterned thong bikini, however, the expression, ‘Now I have seen everything’ came to his mind. Even as he enjoyed the rear view of the tiny kente triangle pointing like an arrow to the shapely cheeks of Vanessa’s bottom, he could not shake a niggling feeling of discomfiture.
- Mamle Kabu, a writer of Ghanaian and German parentage, was born and raised in Ghana and completed her education in the United Kingdom where she studied at the University of Cambridge, obtaining a BA and MA in Modern Languages and an MPhil in Latin-American Studies. She returned to Ghana in 1992 where she has since been resident, and in addition to writing fiction she does research consultancy in development issues.
- She has published numerous short stories in various anthologies and journals in Africa, the UK and the US. “The End of Skill,” one of these, was nominated for the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2009. In 2011, she won the Burt Award for African Literature for her young adult novel The Kaya-Girl, published under the name Mamle Wolo. In September she was long listed for this year’s Golden Baobab award for children’s writing for her new story “Flying through Water.” Mamle has also written poetry, two screenplays and is working on a novel. She is currently a resident writer on the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program fall residency.
‘How d’you like my kin-tay bikini Jimmy?’ she asked.
‘It’s very sexy,’ he said evasively and then added in what he hoped was a casual tone, ‘So you like wearing kente like this?’
‘Are you kidding me? Man, you know what it means to us. I feel so African when I wear it. I love it, can’t you see that? I want it around me all the time. You know Jimmy, I could wear it all day long – day and night.’
Jimmy had perfected the art of keeping his father out of his mind on such occasions, but this time the spectre of the old man rose unbidden before he could stop it. If he could see and hear Vanessa now … what would he say to the idea of a kente thong bikini making someone feel ‘African’? The cloth of kings worn day and night, a kente arrow pointing to the cheeks of a woman’s bottom … Jimmy shuddered. How could love and esteem be expressed in such different ways? He knew his father would never understand that a person who used kente in such ways could genuinely love and esteem the cloth. Vanessa, on the other hand, would never be able to understand that surrounding herself with something and making it a part of her everyday life could show anything but love. She had big plans to help Jimmy break into the American market, and had promised to explore export opportunities for him when she returned home. She assured him that there were many African-American companies that would snap up his cloth for graduation gowns, designer clothes and all sorts of ‘heritage’ goods. Jimmy showered her with kente gifts. This fulfilled the multiple role of expressing affection, promoting his weaving for future marketing opportunities and compensating for his periodic blunders with regard to her racial sensitivities.
It took an exquisite stole, originally ordered by an ambassador’s wife, to appease her the day his friend Nana called her white. Vanessa was one of those African-Americans who had more white blood than black. In Ghana, far darker people were called “white”. Even Ghanaians of mixed parentage were often called white. Jimmy had actually laughed aloud the first time he had heard her call herself a black woman. He was astonished by the degree of anger and pain this caused her, and was cowed by her scathing attack on him for his failure to recognise his own brothers and sisters from the Diaspora. Jimmy quickly realised that not taking her seriously on this topic would be the quickest way to end their friendship. Although he could not fully comprehend her point of view, he resolved not to make any other careless slips about her colour. He also came to realise that racial sensitivity and an awareness of the issue of heritage gained him incalculable goodwill with his African-American clients, which naturally translated into excellent profits.
However, keeping up his guard with Vanessa was harder than he had imagined, especially as it also meant worrying about his friends’ blunders. The day he introduced her to Nana at the craft centre he was nervous. He had warned Nana in advance but was still fearful because he could see that Nana could not take it seriously. Nana gave Vanessa an effusive welcome, which delighted her, and when he teased Jimmy in Twi, ‘So this is your black woman’ and laughed heartily, Vanessa assumed that they were simply exchanging some guy gossip. Jimmy laughed too but warned him again not to slip up. Nana assured him that there was no need to worry. Everything went extremely well at first, and Vanessa took a liking to the talkative Nana. She admired his kente goods and asked about some of the patterns. Jimmy knew that Nana would be surprised by her knowledge of kente designs. She had read a book about kente and, through her persistent questions and discussions, had even taught Jimmy some new things about the cloth.
‘Oh, that’s “Fathia is right for Nkrumah”,’ she exclaimed, pointing at the cloth named for the Egyptian wife of Ghana’s first president. ‘And this must be “Family is strength”.’ Nana nodded in open-mouthed admiration and asked if she also knew the names of the newer designs. She had no idea but was eager to learn. He picked out the ones he thought she would find most interesting. ‘This one, for your former president – is named “Clinton”.’
She was duly intrigued. Jimmy explained to her that it was of the same pattern as the one that had been presented to President Clinton on his visit to Ghana.
‘And this one call “Hippic”,’ continued Nana, thoroughly enjoying himself, ‘for people who can’t afford.’
Vanessa looked puzzled. Jimmy did not actually know the full term ‘Highly Indebted Poor Countries’, but he explained as best he could that the cloth had been jokingly named to mark ‘Ghana going HIPC’. To their joint relief, Vanessa understood and found it extremely witty. While Nana cast about for another interesting cloth, she glimpsed a heavy rayon piece with a dazzling variety of patterns.
‘Is this the Adwi … Adwen … I mean, the one that means “the end of designs” or something like that?’
‘Adweneasa – My skill is exhausted,’ supplied Nana in garbled English, impressed again.
‘Oh, is that how you translate it?’ Vanessa looked confused. ‘So what does it mean, literally?’
Jimmy sighed. Naming kente cloths was a complicated business. His father was one of the few people he knew who could name most cloths with confidence. Young city-based weavers often referred to a popular chart of kente names and meanings when questioned by their clients. That was where Nana’s version of Adweneasa had come from. It was a particularly challenging example with a variety of different interpretations.
‘Adwen …’ he mused. ‘Nana, how do you explain Adwen?’ He asked in Twi. They discussed it for a few seconds and Jimmy said: ‘Something like “ideas” or “intelligence”.’
‘Wisdom,’ chimed in Nana.
‘Art … creativity, skill,’ mused Jimmy.
‘I thought it meant “designs” or “motifs”,’ said Vanessa.
‘Yes, it does,’ said Jimmy, and Nana nodded emphatically.
Jimmy tried to explain that the motifs woven into the cloth represented the inspiration and skill of the weaver, hence the use of the same word for them. ‘And “asa” means “finished”,’ he concluded. ‘They say that the Asante King for whom this design was first woven admired it so much that he said … er, how can I put it?’
‘That the limits of weaving skill had been reached,’ provided Vanessa, who had read about it.
‘Yes,’ said Jimmy, relieved for this succinct explanation. ‘So it means, “the end of skill”.’