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By Fr. Joseph D. Panabang, SVD
Ghana, West Africa
Last December, 1988, Patrick and I started our first missionary journey to Asukoko. “Asukoko” means red river. I jokingly asked my guide whether this red river had some connection with the Red Sea and he said emphatically, “Oh no, none at all.
Even a Tractor Can Not Pass
Because of the bad road, most of the vehicles going there are tractors but they only get as far as Kunsu. Alighting from the tractor at midday in Kunsu, we proceeded the last four miles to Asukoko by foot. The catechist of Kunsu joined us to make the group “Trinitarian.”
We had to walk through wide open savannahs but that was no problem. With my big umbrella I looked like an important chief on a palanquin. People of the few villages we passed by were shouting “obruni”, “obruni” (white man, white man). Most whites here are insulted when called “obruni”. But I always answered by smiling and waving my right hand (it is taboo to greet with the left hand). I waved with a twinkle in my eyes because for a brown non colonial Filipino to be called “obruni” is no problem.
Sun Turns Yellow
From the open field, we entered the dark deep jungle along the “red river”. I was almost expecting to meet Tarzan. The breeze was cool and refreshing after the vile dust of Harmattan. Harmattan is the season from December to February, when the dust the Sahara Desert is blown all over Ghana. During this time the sun is covered by dust clouds and everything is so dusty and dry that even your lips are cracking. You can even look at the yellowish sun with your naked eye. The river is not really that big but people say it is big and impassable during the rainy season.
Strange Medical Plants
All along the way, aside from learning the local language, my companions kept me busy by identifying herbs and trees which according to them, are medicinal. Some of these herbs and trees, weird and peculiar in from and shape, made me suspect perhaps their power lies in their weirdness and peculiarity. I am no herbalist but I teach you something if you come to Asukoko.
By twelve, we arrive at Asukoko. People near the river, suddenly, like a driving tornadic wind, burst into terrifying shouts as if to signal a final assault against an invading army. I was frightened and when I asked why, they said to my relief, “They are announcing your coming.”
We are led to the house of the catechist where they welcome us with pots of “pitoo” (a native beer brewed from guinea corn. Walking for several hours under the rising humidity and scorching heat of Harmattan, it would be a “mortal sin” not to drink “pitoo” which I personally call the ‘good water”. But before we drank, there was the customary libation, not to forget to invoke the intercession of the Saints – the real ancestors who help the living. This is my own way of trying to incorporate this practice into their Christian faith.
After the traditional welcome, we had to go around the village, house to house, greeting everyone repeating the same greeting over and over again- an excellent way of learning a local language. It was an amusing sight to see hordes of children following me with killing curiosity. “Look at his hair; look at his skin, his ears, oh how handsome,” they were telling one another not knowing I could understand some of what they were saying.
One unique characteristic of this village is that, they are all members of the same clan. It is a big family of more than fifty and all are solidly Christian.
The mass was lively with a little dance to rhythmic throbbings of royal drums and mesmerizing polyphonic singing; it was irresistible. I thanked the people for their presence. In response, they told me they were so happy and grateful for they did not expect that the foreigner could also walk the way they do. That December 9, 1988 will go down in their history for it was the First Visit by a white man and the First Mass in their village. It seems it was Limasawa island all over again!
On our way back the following day, there was a big army car parked at the main road, partly hidden. At first I thought there had been a coup d’etat. But after greeting the soldier with my usual smile they offered us a ride. I felt proud riding a breakneck speed on a Ghanaians First Class Combat Car for the first time. So terrible was the speed that I thought the driver was not driving fast but only flying low. No such thing as bumps or holes! But I was all thanks when we reached Kintampo safe and sound.