Elinam Agbo


Elinam Agbo was born in Ghana and moved to the United States when she was ten. She has since lived in Nevada, Kansas, South Carolina, and Illinois. A graduate of University of Chicago, she is currently an MFA candidate in the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at University of Michigan. This is her first published story.



If not for the white Harmattan fog and the orange stars hovering over my eyes, I would have recognized Efua Agbezuge on the gravel road. Instead I squinted at the undulating shape, a dark vertical line with a glow, a full-body halo. It was a thirsty morning in December. Around the shimmering figure, hibiscus petals fell like slabs of shriveled flesh. The spiny remains of a rose bush snarled at anyone who passed it. No roosters crowed.

I was returning from a pond deep in the woods, where I occasionally found fish. I had not had any success in days and was wondering if I would need to try again even earlier tomorrow. The sky turned from indigo to tangerine during my trek home, and daylight shone on my soiled hands and feet. I saw Efua—or rather, the shape of her—when I looked up from scraping the mud off my sandals. I immediately thought her a spirit and veered my wheelbarrow through a forgotten farm to avoid the encounter, trampling over cornhusks and cassava sticks. I was too disappointed to be haunted by an angel, too weak and empty to be bothered by a ghost.

I arrived at my doorstep to find items that had not been there earlier: a traveler’s Ghana-must-go bag, a newspaper-wrapped tuber of yam, a small sack of gari. They should not have looked so purposefully placed, leaning casually against the cracked clay of my hut—I had done nothing to deserve them—and yet there they were, at least two different kinds of food. I told myself it was another vision, induced by my hunger, fueled by false hope. What if my mind had conjured food in place of what may have been a bundle of snakes? There was no one around to check, so I did not dare touch a thing. Either Tasi Mary had returned from Lagos or my time was near.


The year was 1983 and no clocks struck anything except the hour of exile. Nigeria had begun its purge of our people—illegal immigrants, they were calling the Ghanaians seeking asylum from economic and political strife. The radio at Chief Ega’s house wouldn’t stop chattering about the millions congesting border checkpoints. Soon the returning exiles flooded the cities. First, their reluctant homecoming, then the crowded streets and diminished resources. Food stores were drained as demand exceeded supply. And those of us who lived off the land were fine until the rains stopped and the land rejected us too.

Here at home, the northeasterly wind blew dust in our faces. Neighbors visited less frequently. Probably because they couldn’t stand one another’s groaning. Some preferred to bide their time indoors—waiting for the arrival of rain or death, whichever came first. Others like Chief Ega, our resident rich man, seemed to have evaporated into the air. He had left no evidence as to where he had begun or where he was going. Even the diligent kerosene boy was nowhere to be seen, leaving us to resort to our way of lighting fire before kerosene: dried palm chaff and twigs.

Rolling my empty wheelbarrow through our abandoned market, I could not help but reflect on how the village roads had grown lonely as burial grounds were prepared for the dying. No drums were pulled out for the dead. Rocks clanged in blackened pots, boiled all day to keep hungry children expectant until their eyes closed from fatigue. The last playful child I’d seen had stumbled on one of these pots, knocking it over and discovering his parents’ ruse. I remember how abruptly his giggling had transformed into wailing, the pain of his burns inseparable from that of wretched disappointment.

Now even wailing required too much energy. Now those children who could crawl out of their rooms went to Ane Afi, my grandmother, for her Anansi retellings, tales Ane wove as deftly as the trickster-spider-man wove his webs. Before each story, the old woman would instruct her audience to break open dried palm kernels with rocks so they would ease their empty stomachs. I marveled at the strength in Ane’s voice, how it carried, especially from a body surviving on koko with palm kernels in the morning and palm wine in the evening. As if porridge, nuts, and wine were enough to sustain her brittle bones. When I asked for her secret, she claimed to have experience with famines with the same air she claimed to have experience with storytelling.

As I reached the jacaranda tree in Chief Ega’s compound, Tasi Mary’s name escaped my cracked lips. I had been waiting for my aunt since news reached me that her letters were lost in transit. There was nothing I could do but wait. Few lorries left the closest station and fewer arrived. We hadn’t seen a new face in months. No merchants or cowherds. Ane Afi kept asking about the shepherd boys from neighboring villages whenever she craved meat.

I spent my days strolling through the village grounds and nearby forests, collecting palm kernels to deliver to Ane and searching for streams or ponds because where there was water, there could be fish. On my way back, I stopped at Chief Ega’s veranda, where he had left his wireless radio. I had been replacing the batteries. When food became scarce, there seemed little need to trade material possessions. Hence my large supply of triple-A batteries.

Chief’s radio was stuck on one station, replaying the same news, but I listened to the crackling noise when the village lost its music. Also the radio of my mind was broken, on repeat, like the chorus of a song: Tasi Mary is not coming back. I had returned for Tasi Mary but Tasi Mary would not return for me.

I needed something to break the loop.


“What are you doing, Adzo?” my grandmother called. The resurrection of my day name broke through the sour song.

“I’m just sitting, Ane.”

“Just sitting or inviting spirits into that head of yours?”

“I’m waiting for Chief,” I lied.

Chief Ega was not really my older brother’s name. I told myself the hunger had taken any memory of his given name so my inner jester could invent a nickname. Ega, money, seemed appropriate. Ega Gameli, money and the absence of money, made even more sense to me though I could not say why. He had come to his wealth quite surreptitiously, from a bargain with an unnamed merchant in the Ashanti Region. Though I wondered: what if his road to affluence only seemed surreptitious to me?

“Oh, you didn’t hear?” Ane said. “Your brother has abandoned us-oh.”

From the glint in her eye, I knew Ane did not really mean her words, that she was aware of her grandson’s whereabouts and did not feel at liberty to disclose it. She had always been our best secret-holder.

“Isn’t running away what we Gameli children do best?” I played along.

“Ah, if only it was just the children,” Ane started.

She slipped into the tale she always spun when discussing our family misfortunes. She started from the first Gameli who, named for his poverty, defied the odds and married the village beauty, a taciturn young woman with eyes black as obsidian and skin soft as feathers. The bachelors had been seeking the beauty’s hand since her first blood and while the men seemed blind to her lack of status—she was an orphan—the women of the village grew suspicious of her vague origins. Some suggested she was the wife of a river god in her previous life, hence her charms. Others claimed she carried an ancestral curse, hence her solitude. The men, perhaps because they were enchanted, dismissed these rumors and envied Gameli his fortune. For that is what she brought him—weeks after the wedding, Gameli happened upon a diamond in a stream, then another, and another. Even the wise elders could not explain his sudden prosperity. The women began to think maybe Gameli’s marriage was not a curse but rather a boon.

Even if it was a boon, time revealed it to be an ephemeral one. His wealth amassed in cattle and farmland for years until it became clear that Gameli’s wife could give him diamonds but not children. No longer a young man, he hoped to leave his riches to a son. He sought council from his peers and elders, who advised him to take another wife. This is when the invisible thread of his bride’s silence snapped. That moonlit night, the villagers heard a loud cry and saw a blazing trail of fire, from Gameli’s compound into the forest. Months passed and no one heard from either Gameli or his wife. One day, the man appeared with a baby boy and no wife. Whatever happened in the depths of that forest had stripped him of his memory. Such was the origin of an affliction that would linger in his bloodline for generations to come.


When Ane finished, she leaned her cane against the wall and sat a step below me. I released a broken breath. I had heard this story many times in my life. It was the reason I left for the capital at sixteen, in search of answers that were not hidden in lore. Answers that would lead me to a cure and a future.

“Ane, what does that story have to do with Chief?” I asked, to keep her talking.

“Oh, child,” she said. “It has to do with everything in our family.”

Her ensuing silence sent me back into the halls of my mind.

I used to believe in curses. In womanhood, however, I felt emptied of faith regarding blessings and curses alike.

At least one child in our family contracted Gameli’s affliction every generation. Sometimes the symptoms were mild, as was with Ane whose lapses into the distant past did not hamper her life—she raised nine children and was respected for her wisdom. But there were also cases like my mother, who, like the first Gameli’s wife, wandered into the forest, never to be seen again. The elders told me her dark eyes had been wild that morning, rolling around in search of a fixed point to latch on to. They said she had not recognized anyone’s face, not even my father’s, and by the time they thought to restrain her, it was too late. She was gone.

Tasi Mary shared my distress—she had holes in her mind too. When I became a woman and informed her of my plans, she paid for my passage to the capital. I arrived in the city before realizing that answers did not grow on trees. They were held in books and those books were locked in towers I could not reach. I needed to eat and so I searched for work. With my primary school English, I became a nanny for a private school teacher who later recommended my services to her employer, a white woman named Hannah. To join her household staff, I was baptized into Hannah’s faith—at the time, the sprinkling of water on my head seemed a harmless prerequisite for the coveted job. I raised Hannah’s twins for four years. The girls clung so closely that their mother invited me to accompany her to England. Shocked, first by her willing detachment from the children, then by her recognition of my service, I asked for time to think on it.

In the weeks before Hannah needed my final answer, a hand gripped my shoulder one afternoon as I was shopping for groceries. It was my brother, then a newly crowned Chief. We embraced and addressed one another’s health. I praised his brawn and his batakari, a smock he had won off a gambler from the North. He told me I had grown beautifully. Our pleasantries dissipated, however, when I shared Hannah’s offer. He demanded I return home immediately—how could I even consider running off to some unknown land, the white man’s land no less? His rage did not give room for my defense, and I did not get the opportunity to bid Hannah’s girls farewell.

Back in the village, Tasi Mary was my sole advocate. Outside of Ane’s tale, no one understood my reasons for leaving. Even surrounded by my well-meaning relatives, I felt drained of purpose, like an empty vessel that can never hold water. The elders asserted, in that resigned manner of the burdened, that life’s questions often do not have clear answers.

While their words were validated by experience, my aunt and I—afflicted as we were—could not find peace in their truth. She arranged for me to marry Edwin Agbezuge, a city doctor whom she believed could find a cure for me, if such a thing were possible.


Less than three years later, I ran back home the day I stopped recognizing my husband’s face. Back home to an infuriated Chief and a departed Tasi Mary.


I woke from my thoughts to the sun receding beyond the horizon. I did not even remember Ane leaving her place on the steps, the only sign of her presence the shawl around my shoulders. I walked home, considering whether a jug of palm wine would clear my mind. I moved the bags inside the hut, too weary for caution. I pulled out a stool and rested my back against the clay wall. I was placing a cool cloth on my forehead when the knock came.

“I’m looking for Rose,” the person on the other side said. “Rose Gameli.”

I raised a candle to see who was asking for me and saw eyes that mirrored mine. Eyes the color of dusk.

“I am she,” I told the owner of those eyes.

“My name is Efua,” she said. “Efua Anya Agbezuge. I’m your—”

“Child,” I said, the word like the abandoned secret it was, a revelation I had never intended to hide. “You’re my child, my daughter.”

Her reply was a grave nod.

“Are you getting married?” I blurted, forgetting custom. No “come inside, sit down, what will you like to drink, and tell me of your journey?” my better half chastised. The opposing half, who was curt and brash, replied: “Why else would she be here?”

“I’m sixteen,” Efua said, and I wasn’t sure if that was a reply to the marriage question or the question I had asked myself.

A gust of wind rattled the plywood door and Efua shivered. I let her in. Normally I would request proper identification from a stranger but Efua’s invitation was in her eyes, her mouth, her nose. I presumed the long forehead came from her father, whose face I still could not recall.

“Are those yours?” I asked, pointing at the bags I had dragged inside.

She nodded. “They’re gifts for you,” she said.

Gifts. Gifts were for women who did not leave their two-year-olds crying on a dock, women who were not always looking for an escape from the future. Gifts were for mothers, and I had relinquished my motherhood fourteen years ago.

“Are you returning from Lagos?” I asked, because I could not confess my rumination on gifts. And because Ghana-must-go bags, in those days, carried Nigeria’s outcry for Ghanaians to go back to their country.

“I’m sixteen,” Efua repeated. I suppose she felt that was all I needed hear in order to understand. As in, “I’m sixteen”—isn’t that too young to marry, too young to leave home for a foreign land?

I wanted to tell this girl who wore my face that younger children had gone to Nigeria. Children like Chief’s son who left at fourteen, against his father’s wishes, to find his own path. I wanted to tell her she could not trust anything I said, since even the knowledge recorded in my journals came from other minds, those who remembered what I could not. I wanted to tell her sorry, that Tasi Mary was not here to offer the possibility of a more coherent truth. Sorry, for everything else.

Our eyes met for a moment—hers searching, mine avoiding—as I was thinking of the next thing to say. I swallowed my premature question, a lump that irritated my parched throat (I could not think of the appropriate words and felt a hot wave of shame; I was awkward and uncertain, like a child).

“Make yourself at home,” I murmured finally. My eyes returned to the ground.


I woke up the next day to her face hovering above mine. I blinked in question. She withdrew, almost reluctantly.

Efua poured some gari into water, allowing the mixture to rise to make eba. I thought she was preparing her breakfast, but then she handed me the bowl.

“You don’t have to do this,” I said.

She shrugged and prodded me to eat with only her gaze. I succumbed and ate half, offering her the rest.

After breakfast, Efua braced her head on her palm. We waited for something neither of us knew how to initiate. Was it mother-daughter conversation or something more rudimentary? And where could we begin when I did not possess all of myself, and she could only know what others had said of me? We were both unreliable.

I left for my daily trek into the forest and returned at the close of day to find Chief Ega at my door. He was speaking to Efua.

“You are always welcome here, child,” I heard my elder brother telling my forgotten daughter. This was the same man who had said, upon my return from a failed marriage, “What did you think would happen to a girl who went without her family’s consent to marry a man named Agbezuge? Of course she will bring us his belligerent life.”

At least there was some comfort in the knowledge that his frustrations did not extend to that belligerent man’s child.

“Where’s Tasi Mary?” I remembered to blurt out before he could vanish again.

“Dead to us,” was all he said. Like you, I expected him to add, but then my mind took me back to his use of “us,” to his crippled tone. I wanted to ask whether he was finally including me, but by then my brother had departed with the last light.

Later, when I browsed through the words in my journals, I would wonder if I had asked of his son, if he had shared that knowledge with me, if I had willingly left the answers out of my written memory.


The next day, we woke to the first rooster’s crow. Before I could rise and roll up my thatch-mat, Efua prepared breakfast and filled in my gaps. She had roamed the village for two days—first upon her arrival and then again when I left her in my hut. She had introduced herself as my daughter, interviewing those of my relatives whose doors remained open. Surprising myself, I asked if she had heard anything new about Tasi Mary.

“Chief said he traced her to the southwest, where she had married a Yoruba man and bore three children,” Efua said.

She pulled her stool next to my place on the mat. Her head cocked to the side as she peered at me through thick lashes.

I nodded, not just to satisfy her. I was relieved to hear my aunt continued to live even as I grieved the distance between us.

Efua took a deep breath then added, “He also said she did not remember him.”

I looked up at her then, not expecting what I found. It was solace, however temporary, in the swirling black I saw inside the brown of her irises. She, at least, had discovered some of the truth she was seeking. Lips pursed in a sympathy I did not deserve, Efua gave a nearly imperceptible nod before turning to my cooking utensils. I studied her shoulder blades as they curved in and out. Imagining the focused frown she now hid from me, I listened to the grating of a spoon against an earthenware pot, the promise of a shared meal, of full stomachs and hearts warmed in homecoming.

If I had not known better, I would have thought the Harmattan fog was seeping through the space under the door, clouding my vision so I couldn’t see where either of us would be the next day, the next year, or the years after that. But I knew better. I knew the girl sitting across from me was not a trick of the mind, that we were two strangers seeing each other for the first time.

I grew up with my mother's stories—most were about her early life in the Volta region of Ghana, an ancestral home I had only visited once or twice. I think perhaps because of this distance, they often felt like bedtime stories to me. One of the most recurring tales had to do with a famine she and her sister survived in the '80s while she was teaching in a small village. Last winter, a conversation about the history behind ‘Ghana-must-go’ bags sparked something in me, and with my impossible yearning to close the generational gaps between my mother and me, the characters in ‘1983’ emerged. Their story was not far behind.