In the Dodowa Forest

My name was Twimdjor, which meant, ‘My heart is at peace’. My name became Twimdjorr, meaning , ‘My heart is heavy’. And my heart was indeed heavy.

Why would it not be? I was crawling on my belly like many of the slithering things I had beheaded. That was when I could see where the blade of my cutlass fell with the rays that found their way through the thick canopy of leaves. Of course, no one dared touch the white python- that was my clan’s totem. Earlier today, the trees had cast their shadows. Now they cast no shadows, the whole forest was a shadow- it was a moonless night. It was cold and wet and silent with the noise of the owners of the night- the nightly rains and the strange forest animals. We had been on this side of the forest for four days, or so we thought and still, we were hiding. My Asafo group had been ordered to lie low. Word had come that the enemy lay in ambush and an entire group had been wiped out clean, like an empty bowl that had contained fufu eaten by a glutton. And the forest was a glutton. Since the battle began, it had eaten many of my kind. Young men who had just begun to apprentice in the trades of their fathers. Young men who had precious little sisters with breasts barely the size of limes. Young men that mothers would be delighted to have as sons-in-law because their biceps showed that they could chop firewood. But these young men had been eaten, and still the forest had not belched with satisfaction. It would eat more. The forest was a glutton.

But I refused to get eaten, so I lay on the forest floor and I inhaled the pungent smell of the cocktail of rotting leaves and the repulsive stench of animal carcasses and there I thought. I thought long and I thought hard, trying to find the reason why I was lying not on my straw mat in my hut. I did not know why we had to fight this battle. In fact, many people did not know. I had heard many people say many things before we left for the forest. You know our mothers and how they talked. They said that the Asantélii were coming and they were coming to take our land with us on it. They also said that it was a fight between some )hene and the white man, whose skin was as pale as chicken breast.

They said many fearful things and sang many empowering songs. Songs that I had never heard. It was the first time that the Dangme was going to war since I was born, and the war songs they sang could shake your heart and spark the fire of courage in you. That fire still burned in my heart and kept me awake. Sleep eluded me because the concoction that fear and courage had mixed up did not go down easily into the stomach. But so was the concoction we drank before coming. It was supposed to be a charm to protect us but yesterday, at around dusk, while we crouched and hid, Tetteytsu our Asafo group leader whispered to us that its powers were wearing away. He advised that we make it to the centre of the forest and there we would find a shrine.

‘We could then bathe ourselves in more potent charms,’ he intoned, managing a weak smile.

But in the meantime, we had to wait on the eastern side of the forest, and listen for the break of dawn, for we could not see her if we watched for her.

She arrived with the shrill singing of the many different birds in the forest. She danced and patted our backs with gentle drizzles and she promised us sunshine with a single ray. We got on all fours and followed her.

Our progress to the middle of the forest was slow. We dug trenches and filled them with thorns that could pierce an elephant from one side to the other. We covered these death traps with green and brown leaves; they were abundant and worked perfectly to camouflage the depressions we made on the journey. These trenches were all over. They had swallowed many of our enemy’s men. And these new ones would swallow even more.

We inched closer and closer to the charm shrine and I began to wonder why we had not had a visit from a messenger from any of the other Asafos. I quivered a little, afraid of what possibly might have happened. Suddenly, I heard loud shouts from a long way behind us. We were confused and did not know if it the calls were for us or against us. I panicked. We all panicked. We crawled fast, I even faster. Like I said, I refused to get eaten by the forest.

The shouts got closer and closer, then more intelligible.

Then I made out ‘Tetteytsu! Tetteytsu and his Asafo!!’

Our leader ordered us to stop. Reluctantly,  but without complaining, we did. We waited for some time, still bent low and very alert. I made out a man weaving his way around the large trees towards us. He knew about the trenches and missed them expertly. He must be one of us.

As he got closer, he spoke again. He was one of us.

‘It is over!’ he announced, pretty much out of breath but very energized regardless.

And as if we did not hear him the first time, he said again, much louder this time, ‘The war is over. The Ashantélii have been beaten. The Katamanso War is over!’

Tetteytsu first chuckled, and then he sat. He shook his head this way, then that way and said, ‘Two market days have gone and the third approaches, if my counts have been right. My Asafo and I have had no battles, except that with the elements of the Dodowa forest. And you ran here to tell me that the Asantélii have been defeated?’

‘Exactly so, my brother’, affirms our messenger.

Tetteytsu burst out in laughter, like a bridegroom who had had a gourd full of palm wine and the sound of his joy echoed through the forest and through our guarded hearts and we eased up.

Our very welcome messenger went ahead to tell us that all the Asafo groups were to gather at the Tsenku falls which was at the north of the forest. We had to cleanse ourselves before going home he continued to say. Leading the way to the waterfall, he began to recount the marvellous feats of the other Asafo groups. He told about how a boy of 17 was able to hold hostage 12 hefty men while the rest of his team were away hunting for food. As he narrated all these, I became a bit agitated.

What stories shall I tell about a war I went to but did not fight? I was grieved. Our victory was my victory, yet not my victory. If ever I went to a war again, I shall fight and not only seek not to get eaten by the forest.

It was 1826, the Katamanso War fought in the Dodowa Forest was over. The Asantélii had been defeated, but I fought no war and my peaceful heart was heavy.

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