I Went Back to the Kitchen

May 15, 2013

Anna Jarvis, the founder of the mother’s day holiday in the United States, held a memorial for her mother in 1908. Some time after the ceremony, she began a campaign for a national holiday to honor all mothers in the United States. Ironically, years later, the same woman who had fought for this day of recognition spent the rest of her life fighting against it. It had become too commercialized.

The day that was supposed to celebrate the hard work and the strength of mothers had been reduced to Hallmark cards. The celebration that required time taken aside for a mother had been reduced to a quick dash to the mall for flowers and a quick hug to wrap them up in. We set alarms in order not to forget to make the one-minute call to say “Thank you.” We tell ourselves we are busy. She just needs to know we didn’t forget.

Like most people, I had nearly forgotten the meaning of this day.  For many years it had been about e-cards and one-liners. Nothing original. So, today instead of just sending a card, a hug, and a bouquet of flowers, I cooked. For four hours I stood in the kitchen, mixing ingredients that I knew raises her eyebrows. I baked the chicken in a way that I hoped will be talked about years from now.  Mother had taught me a little clove of garlic mixed with ginger, onions, and pepper, steamed with anything, can go a long way.

While adding the seasonings to the rice, I smiled. I felt a sense of the love my Ghanaian mother must have felt in all the years she spent in the kitchen for me, waking up at dawn to make sure I had breakfast before school, leaving work early to make sure I had dinner, and rushing up and down the stairs with soup to heal my sick body

She taught me lessons from life with kitchen conversations.

In the kitchen she taught me to be a lady. While cooking, she listened to my retelling of heart breaking moments.  In the kitchen she comforted me. While washing dishes we bonded.  In the kitchen my mother showed me the power of submission. While mixing ingredients, she gave me a guidebook to life. I learned to trust when she asked me to taste her combination.

It wasn’t much. Just a meal for dinner, but going back to the kitchen I remembered the instants time and busyness had erased from my memory. It took a day of intentionality, going back to the place where I knew my mother best, to remember how much she had done. I remembered how deep her love for me is and how much I hated being away from home.

She did not do or say much in response. She just gave me a hug, and said “I love you,” but I felt at peace. I recalled that we weren’t as broken as life had made it seem. She is still my safe place.  She is still the only one who understands me. She is my mother.

The food might not have been to her standards, but I know her heart is warmed in a special way.

What did you do this Mother’s Day that took you back to moments in life that you have forgotten? I have declared this month for Mothers, so, it is not too late.  Some bought tickets for their mothers to fly home. Some simply had a day of yoga with Mom.  We would love to hear of your original ways of making your mother feel special this week.  Share with us via a comment below, Facebook, www.facebook.com/penciltribe and twitter, www.twitter.com/penciltribe.


Sandra Owusu-Antwi – Editor

Pencil Tribe Magazine


How to Tell Your Story

May 7, 2013

A university-level creative writing professor instructs all her new students to spend time each day observing and then writing factual descriptions of anything observed in their morning routines. The subjects observed do not have to be remarkable or outstanding, but can be as simple as the porridge on the stove or the glass of water beside the bed. The descriptions themselves, however, must be devoid of all metaphor and free of the imposition of assumption and interpretation. The effect, after weeks of this, is that the students, now avid observers of their environs, see that often the detailed and unembellished description of a person, place, or object contains its own narrative. The story flows naturally after the nuances have been discovered.

For years, I convinced myself that I did not have enough experience living in Africa to create the African stories I want to tell. I told myself that the holidays to visit family in Ghana and Kenya, or even months spent working in Uganda, had not provided me with enough material to weave a narrative worthy of Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, or Mariama Ba. What I failed to realize was that my voice would come more from my ability to observe and describe the incredible people and places around me than from the number of interactions I had or the length of time I’ve spent on the contient. Some of the best narratives, whether conveyed through writing, photography, or other media, come from those who have simply taken time to see who and what is around them with fresh eyes and describe those observations with depth and specificity. The people and objects around us all have incredible stories to tell, if we take time to observe them and give voice to their narratives through the power of our pencils.

I will leave you, dear Pencil Tribe, with one of the happiest observations I have floating in my memory. My paternal grandmother loved to cook for people just as I do now. One of the last times I saw her before she passed was in 2006. She lived in Accra with my aunt, and although the house had an indoor kitchen and the expected accoutrements of a modern urban dwelling, my grandmother still preferred to cook outside. So my aunt had set up for my grandma a little outdoor area where chickens and their baby chicks ran around at her feet as she half squatted on a tiny stool over a small fire. The most impressive foods came out of the round, dented, uneven pots she threw onto that little stove. The light soup with it’s diabolical Scotch Bonnet peppers, fufu she pounded herself, chicken that she killed, plucked, and cooked to deliciousness. Even her salted boiled eggs were phenomenal. The most wonderful part, though, was seeing her move about that outdoor kitchen with a confidence and grace not expected of a woman whose body limped from age and whose vision was partially robbed by diabetes. Though she hobbled a bit, she flowed from one station to another, grounding spices with morter and pestle, squatting to add them to the soups, and drifting away from the fire to chop more tomatoes or scoop more water into the pot using a smaller tin bowl that seemed an extension of her arm. There was a happiness and a focus in her eyes, and her concentration remained unbroken until the meal was done. Even her fluffy yellow chicks were in tune with her motions as they waddled around her feet while she cooked. The only time she took a break was to scoop up one of the chicks and place it it my outstretched hands.

This was our communication. I was never taught Twi, Fante, Akan, or any of the many Ghanaian dialects she had mastered, and she had never learned English. Yet I could see the love pouring from her fingertips as she pinched spices and peppers into the soup. Every movement contained a message, and watching her was positively mesmerizing. She could see that love flowing into me as she intently watched me consume everything she made with gusto and lick the bowl for good measure. By the time she surprised us by learning a few words of English, her actions had already conveyed the three words that she worked hard to commit to memory just for me and my sister: “I love you.”


Melanie Habwe Dickson – Editor

Pencil Tribe Magazine


Last Week: Hell, Heaven, and Somewhere in Between

April 22, 2013

This past week has brought a lot of tragedy. The Boston Marathon bombings, the explosion at the fertilizer plant in West, Texas, the attacks on civilians in Mogadishu courts, the devastating earthquake in Longmen village, the Ghanaian mine collapse, the deadly earthquake that hit Iran, the various violent attacks in Iraq, the influx of bird flu deaths in China, poisoned letters to U.S. leaders, and the post election violence in Venezuela are just some of what hit us with shocking blows. Some call the week of April 14th “the week from hell.”

If last week was hell, I experienced people overcoming hell by reaching towards heaven in their thoughts, prayers, and interactions with their fellow person. Amidst the tragedies that we all saw and experienced personally, whether by being on the scene or sitting glued to our TVs and laptops, I saw those who transformed, and for the better.

In America I saw a newfound awareness of all the tragedy that occurs every day in other countries throughout the world. We saw Bostonians reaching out to Syrians, and Syrians responding with mutual condolences. We saw people from every walk of life, every religion, every ethnicity unite in mutual fear, and then in mutual strength, not only through patriotism, but also through our common bond of humanity. We strove for the common aim most of us share, the aim to live in peace.

Our theme for next month’s issue is “Identity.” Although I gain my identity through my Ghanaian roots, through my American nationality, through my method of worship, through my womanhood, I am striving to root my identity in more than that. I am trying to place my identity in being human. I am someone who is imperfect and inherently self-centered but someone who strives to move the focus outside of myself.

I am not alone; we have many around us who, out of fear, have lashed out at others, attempting to affix blame to those different from them. There were reactions that attempted to associate senseless acts of violence with those individuals who are not understood. Although there were countless examples of true and noble patriotism, there have also been those who have lashed out under a guise of ‘patriotism,’ in an attempt to hold close all that is comfortable and identifiable to them in the world.  However, these instances of negativity should not color the amazing acts of beauty that we have seen thus far. We should instead use them as teaching moments for others as well as ourselves. We should share the beauty among the ashes of tragedy, of our previously comfortable existences, of narrow-minded viewpoints.

It is fitting that today is Earth Day, because the Earth that we all share exemplifies our inherent link as people who are striving towards heaven in our actions and thoughts and our ability to land somewhere in between.

How has your view of identity changed, if at all, since last week? What has last week taught you about yourself, our society and our world? Leave a comment, submit your pieces at submissions@penciltribe.com, or let us know on Facebook and Twitter.


Yvette Badu-Nimako – Editor-in-Chief

Pencil Tribe Magazine



April 15, 2013

They gave me a number. It was under my seat. I picked it up, number 364. The speaker then said in a sad tone, “that number you picked up represents an eight year old girl sold into sex trafficking.” He then asked that we pray for the little girls associated with these numbers we have just received. There was then a video presentation that explained that the little girl, of whose number I held, was sold before her eighth birthday to a man she had never met. She was exploited against her will and then sold to other men who could afford the “master’s” price. Yes, these masters were the rich pastors, teachers, lawyers, businessmen and simply any man willing to put a child through torture for his pleasure, a victim explained. The next presenter then asked that we donate money so that girls like 364 could be saved, offered food, and given an education. It broke my heart. The callous injustice towards these humans trafficked and our depressed idea that our donations can save them. It all broke my heart, but what else can we do but pray and give?

I have allotted it to the difference in characteristics of the Ghanaian culture in which I was raised and the American culture in which I live now and even that does not seem to make sense. It just appears as though the world I live in now is so cruel compared to the world I grew up in. To my childhood mind the world was kind, people were neighbors, and everyone was an aunt, uncle, brother, sister and cousin. I almost wish I had never dreamed of growing up, because for whatever reason I have traded human relations for buildings, trees, and streets and an occasional hello to and from a neighbor. Our fight to be independent of everyone and everything has somehow dehumanized us. Instead of using our talents towards prevention, we shift all the responsibility to the government and the few who we believe are willing to put their lives on the line to protect and fight. We do not need to be informed; we can’t waste time raising awareness and or searching for solutions. We work hard at our jobs to get enough money and when someone else comes to solicit we sign our names off by giving a bill or two and a sentence of prayer during the service. After the program we may continue to talk about how sad the life of the person in that video was and then pat our backs for giving some money. By the next morning we go about our daily routine and the stories that made us cry the day before have been forgotten.

I say “we” because I am also guilty of unconsciously applying Darwin’s law for the savage to men in the civilized world, where only the strongest man will survive. In this case the trafficked will be the weak.

We might have the excuse that we don’t even know where the pipelines for trafficking are to stop any of these atrocious acts. However, there are many in our smaller communities whose deaths we could have prevented. These includes the old woman living right  next door and slowly dying of loneliness; this includes the person sitting next to you in class that a simple conversation could have saved from a suicide. There are many people that we could have saved by being thoughtful, by letting go of our greed and our ability to step on whomever we can to get where we believe we need to be, by not allowing fear prevent us from treating people as people.

I do not know how much the community has changed now, but I remember the African neighborhood I grew up in very well for one main reason-it consisted of neighbors. Instead of throwing away, they shared. They protected each other. Yes, my neighbor could punish me for being foolish and my parents thanked her for it.  When my parents were not able, my neighbors provided. We knew how to help each other because we knew what most people were going through. We spent time together.  I keep these memories close, because they remind me that although there are people who are set on destroying each other, there are more people who can love, protect, care, revive, and save.

So I’m challenging you, our readers, to ask yourself what you can do to help the little community you live in today. Everyone has a talent and a gift, how can you use yours to build a neighborhood? How can you prevent people like number 364 from getting to the point where their name are replaced with numbers? I challenge you to look for a need in your community, do something to change what you can and tell us your story via a comment, Twitter and Facebook. We all play a part.

Sandra Owusu-Antwi – Editor

Pencil Tribe Magazine


Who Inspires You?

April 8th, 2013

By now, we have all (hopefully!) watched Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s incredible TED talk, “The Danger of A Single Story.” If you’re like me, you watched and re-watched it, each time feeling a new crescendo of emotion as you absorbed the multiple layers of Adichie’s message. As she recounts her own experience growing up in Nigeria but immersed in a literary world populated exclusively by British and American children, I recall vividly an experience I had in the first grade, when I was six years old, as a first-generation American child growing up in the suburbs of Washington, DC.

Like Adichie, I was an avid reader from age four, and the many worlds created within fiction were as real and important to me as my physical world. One day in class, we were going around the room reading aloud from our book of stories, when one leapt off the page so vigorously that it elicited from my throat an audible yelp. I jumped to my little feet, overcome with excitement. The short half-page story was simple but, to me, astounding. It described a man named Kwabena coming home from work, kicking off his shoes, pounding his fufu, and sitting down to his favorite meal after a tiring but happy day. I was more excited than the first time I went to Disney World. This depicted MY home life! Fufu is MY favorite food too! I have uncles called Kwabena! The cartoon image accompanying the tale was of a smiling, dark-skinned man carrying a bowl of stew while preparing to sit down on his couch. His was one of the only brown faces in our whole reader. My classmates wrinkled their noses with their childlike aversion to unknown foods. I excitedly described how my Ghanaian father and I prepare our fufu almost every night, how we eat it (no chewing!), and how we do not feel as though we have really eaten if we have not had fufu in a long time. Some uttered a collective “Eww!” when I described fufu’s texture as sticky. Ultimately, nobody was interested, and our teacher quickly moved on to the next story. I slowly resumed my seat, overcome by a feeling that, upon reflection, I can only describe as isolation. I tuned out for the rest of the class, reading the story of Kwabena over and over again until we were dismissed. In a school where I could count the number of black children on my right hand, this story that described the foods I ate at home meant the world to me. Then, as now, I loved stories that exposed me to new cultures and new ways of life, both within the home and without. But this – for the first time, I was reading a story that made me feel like I was returning home. At age six, the thrill of power and inclusion I felt when a story actually resonated, albeit in a minor way, with my home life was so powerful that the memory is still fresh, twenty years later. In that moment, I was inspired to write pieces that would make others like me feel similarly embraced by this feeling of home.

Some of you may have heard of Botlhale Boikanyo, the fiery eleven-year-old poetess who took South Africa by storm last year when she won South Africa’s Got Talent 2012 with her original compositions. In Botlhale’s audition, she offers an original poem (fast-forward to 3:18), in which she calls upon us, her attentive audience of Africans worldwide, to be proud of our homes. She reminds us that our homes on the continent are our future, our haven. Though her message is simple overall, what strikes me most is the nuanced way Botlhale draws out the crucial time-space continuum through which we must look to our pasts to ground us in the present and lead our steps in the right direction for the future. Her animated tribute to Nelson Mandela, which got her through the semifinal round, goes beyond telling Madiba’s well-known story. As Botlhale refers to Madiba as “my first black president,” my mind immediately flits to President Barack Obama, who has been given this same moniker in the USA. The young poet recognizes and thanks Madiba, this pioneer who is eighty-three years her senior, for clearing the debris of injustice and apartheid from the road she now walks with relative ease. Watching Botlhale, it strikes me that as we build up our continent from the inside out, we must seek inspiration from all generations – from our peers with whom we brainstorm; from our parents and grandparents, who suffered so that they could break barriers for our benefit; and from the children like Botlhale, whose youthful voices so aptly remind us that we must still fight to secure our future, and theirs.

So readers, I ask you – who inspires you?

Mandela inspires young Botlhale, and they both inspire me. I know we all breathe a collective sigh of relief every time Madiba overcomes illness, because, despite his age, we are not ready to let him go! Last week, while continuing to mourn the loss of the great Chinua Achebe [see last week’s editorial] and simultaneously doing some spring cleaning, I came across an essay I wrote for my ninth grade World History class. I cannot imagine what the topic guidelines were, but I chose to write on Things Fall Apart. Expecting poor writing quality and insufficient depth of analysis from my fourteen year old self, I was reluctant to read the five-page book report. Though some parts are as cringe-worthy as I expected, I am surprised – pleasantly so – by the intensity of emotion behind my analysis, an intensity that I know was inspired by Achebe. In particular, my fourteen-year-old self praised Achebe for humanizing these African characters in the context of colonialism, writing:

“They [the people of Umuofia] had their own lives and customs, and would not think of invading others in an attempt to force their beliefs upon them. In this book, the tables were turned, and the missionaries were the savages, hunting down innocent people of African tribes. They completely destroyed the lives and close-knit communities of the people whom they overthrew, and they hid these unforgivable and merciless acts behind the church. The white people disgraced their own society by using their religious beliefs to mask the violence and hatred they spread in Africa, yet they still called themselves superior.”

Reading this now, I chuckled aloud to think of how my history teacher, an older white man, might have reacted to my teenage rant against the evils of the plundering white colonizers. I am proud of myself for being this bold and opinionated, and for recognizing this struggle that we still face in combating popular negative stereotypes of what it means to be African. I am grateful to Achebe for igniting that passion in me at a young age and for giving me an example toward which I could strive.

Recently, a first-gen friend of mine who does a lot of work in development confessed that she is perpetually in despair over the dismal status quo beleaguering many African nations. I bristled immediately, rattling off many innovations in technology, green energy, media, fashion et cetera that I have seen pinging around on my conspicuously Africa-focused Twitter feed. She cut me short, reminding me that it is her job to research and help mediate many of these social, political, and violent disputes cropping up in the non-Western world. She pointed out that since she spends nearly all her time at work, the vast majority of the Africa-related narratives she tunes into daily are negative, frustrating, and heart-breaking. As Adichie would say, they tell a single story. My friend made me realize that even she, a native of East Africa, was in danger of having her definition of her own home be redefined by someone else’s single story. She made me realize that sometimes we have to make a concerted effort to surround ourselves with the good narratives, which do exist in abundance – those that inspire us to turn our eyes, hearts, and energies homeward. Indeed, we must seek out our own sources of inspiration to fight the danger of the single story. I sent the video of Botlhale’s audition to my soul-weary friend, and she immediately resolved to continually seek out and grasp sources of positive inspiration.

Readers, this week I challenge you to find your own sources of inspiration from Africa. Become familiar with at least one historical figure about whom you knew very little, and at least one contemporary figure whose work you admire. Let their efforts and achievements ignite a passion for progress inside you – and share your findings with us! Tell us [via Twitter], who inspires you?


Melanie Habwe Dickson – Editor

Pencil Tribe Magazine


“If you don’t like someone’s story
WRITE YOUR OWN”  — Chinua Achebe

April 2nd, 2013




These are prophetic words as we re-launch Pencil Tribe Magazine this month.

I can still remember reading Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe for the first time as a junior in high school. It was the beginning of a long and beautiful cultural voyage that I continue on to this day.   You see, although I was born in Kaduna, Nigeria to unapologetically Yoruba parents, we had immigrated when I was still just a child to the United States.

Like many Africans, I struggled during adolescence with these dueling identities.  Why I could not hand things to my parents with my left hand or why I kneeled and said funny words when my parents entered the room; or even the aroma of moi moi wafting through my mum’s kitchen were difficult things to explain at ten years old to the neighborhood kids.

To boot, outside of the nostalgic reminiscences of my parents and three older siblings; photographs; and brief conversations with family still on the continent; I was lost as to who my own Nigerian voice was.  Where was I supposed to look for my own cultural enrichment?  The lack of African history and literature that I found at my college preparatory high school (the best in the state) was appalling.  I had all of these questions, but it was up to me to fill in those gaps. So, I chose to read Chinua Achebe for my English Literature thesis project.  If American schools and society refused to acknowledge our writers, laureates and our greater contributions to the world then I would explore them myself and I would educate everyone else while doing so.

I think Chinua Achebe followed the same paradigm.  It still amazes how he popularized (think The Roots album of the same name) an Igbo protagonist living within the realities of post-colonial Nigeria from an entirely African perspective, rather than fixating on the Western notions of literature as was à la mode at the time. Now, it is up to us as the next generation of Africans and enthusiasts to carry the torch.

In this globalizing world we have a unique vantage point to expose this “new” Africa and what has always unquestionably been a diverse and beautiful array of voices, peoples, cultures, language, and perspectives.  Let us follow Mr. Achebe’s great example by continuing to write and share our own stories.   Send your work to submissions@penciltribe.com.  We look forward to reading them!


This issue is dedicated, in loving memory to Chinua Achebe.

Adeola Olagunju – Editor
Pencil Tribe Magazine

Olagunju Pic

Contact Adeola: adeola@penciltribe.com




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