THE RAVENS OF THE SKY

The raven (what the zoologists call “the white-necked African raven”) or what the Akans call kwaakwaadabi or anene, is one of the most remarkable birds in the world.

Its appearance is, of course, so striking to our ancestors that they wove a proverb out of it. In fact, the proverb they created to describe the raven is is a perfect definition of the word, “paradox”. For what the proverb said of the bird was this: “wafirabirisi de nweraabɔ ne kɔnmu!” [This means, literally, that “it has donned a mourning cloth [birisi] on its body, whilst, at the same time, it is wearing a white cloth [ɛnwera] around its neck to proclaim to the world that it has been found guiltless of any charges laid against it, and it’s therefore rejoicing!” 

Now, these symbolic signs of “mourning” and “guiltlessness” are very eloquent in Akan culture: when someone is wearing a black cloth, it is unnecessary to ask the reason why: everyone appreciates, immediately, that the person is in mourning. Similarly, if a person emerges from, say, a chief’s court, wearing a white cloth around his/her neck, or having been smeared on the hair with white powder, he/she carries a clear message: “The court has decreed that I am innocent of the charge laid against me by my adversaries.”

Now, what sort of bird could have extracted such a double-barrelled sample of rich imagery from the linguistic mill of our ancestors? Kwaakwadabi. Anene! Of course! On the one hand, it’s commonly named after the raucous, onomatopoeic sound that rents the air from its throat like a trumpet all day long. But on the other hand, the same bird summons into being, the notions of mourning and exulting simultaneously. Yet, strictly speaking, the two notions ought to annihilate each other. Ha – think of matter and antimatter in physics! 

You can see from the above observations that I have devoted a great deal of attention to the bird we also commonly call the “crow” in Ghana. The reason is that the bird has astounded me beyond measure by how it has recently behaved towards me!

You see, I am used to breaking a piece of bread into crumbs and throwing the pieces into my yard (I dare not call it a garden!) for the birds to come and pick up. They do so gratefully. The first to come are, usually, the “bola-birds” or “atwuro”. Tiny and unobtrusive, they go about munching bread-crumbs, gratefully picking up ants that also come out of the ground to partake of the “manna”.

They accompany their eating with little shrieks of delight. And I join them in spirit. I remember the verse we used to recite at the lunch-break in primary school: “They all look to you for their daily bread. You give them and they pick it up. You open your palms and good things satisfy them!”

Next come the doves. The male dove, as I have reported before in another article, is the most horny animal I have ever seen. Whilst the female is busy munching what it can find on the ground, the male would be about ten or so dove-steps behind her, comically moving his head up and down and cooing, indicating that it wants to mount the fem: ku-ku-ku!….ku-ku-ku! 

Why are males so stupid? The female, busily intent on eating, can’t see that the male behind her is bopping its head up and down in a homage meant to attract the female! Yet the male keeps doing so, meanwhile, puffing its feathers up to make it look bigger than it actually is. Behind her! Why doesn’t the male dove wait for the female to fill its belly with bread-crumbs first? Anyway, he’s punished for his stupidity, for any time the female finds that it’s got too close to her, she flies away! 

The female keeps flying away from the male with obvious irritation. Yet the male continues its display, as if it’s not interested in whether it’s noticed or not, let alone whether its homage is appreciated. Indeed, I’ve only seen it succeed in getting its way with the female once or twice. The evidence suggests that whatever one can say of the male dove, one cannot deny that it’s got bags of patience, while the female it courts demonstrates an unimaginable amount of feminine indifference. 

After the doves come the gur-gur birds (apatuprɛ). Who gave this remarkable African bird such a nondescript name (apparently, the name means “bird” in ancient Babylonian!)

I love these birds, because, when I was a kid, we interpreted its beautiful, bass singing note to be asking: “Mankani da gyem. Wonnkusa?” (Aren’t you going to tend the cocoyam you’ve put in the fire?)

After the apatuprɛ comes the raven/crow. Now, this is a bird that’s as clever as a bird can be. It doesn’t come straight down. It swoops across the yard, taking in everything. Next, it perches on the roof opposite mine, or on any tall thing that can give it full visual command of the yard. 

When it is satisfied that all is okay, it makes an awkward landing, using its talons to steady its heavy frame so as not to fall over. Then it begins to eat – going for the larger morsels first. After it has swallowed one or two piece, it puts a fairly big morsel in its beak and flies off. It would have gone to feed its chicks in its nest elsewhere. 

Anyway, when it comes back, it’s usually accompanied by two or three other crows. At this stage, all the other birds fly away and leave the yard to the crows, for the crows are both noisy and very bossy. The bola-birds, in particular, have to become very alert, for the crows bully them a lot by threatening to peck them if they don’t leave the bread-crumbs for the crows!

One day, I sided with the bola-birds and yelled at a particularly obnoxious crow that was driving the bola-birdsaway from the breadcrumbs. 

It was the worst mistake I could have made. The crow jumped up and angrily flew away. But as it flew off, it yelled back at me very loudly several times. I was left in no doubt that it had taken my interference with its authority very badly indeed.

I didn’t think much of what had happened. Until the next morning. When I had thrown the breadcrumbs around the yard as usual, I went to sit on my chair to await the arrival of the birds. But this time, it was the crows that came first. They didn’t land in the yard. They went and perched on the roof opposite. 

Then more crows came and perched beside those already there. And more. And more. And more! Before long, there were about forty crows sitting on the roof opposite me. And they were all cackling very loudly!

(To be continued)

By CAMERON DUODU

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