Saturday, December 12, 2020

Texas notes: Oshun

     Austin bureau chief Caren Jeskey comes to the rescue of the pandemic homebound with a well-timed trek across the globe.

     “You’re coming to Africa with me,” my friend Stacey whispered in my ear. We were in a Cultural Awareness course at DePaul University, and our professor, Dr. Derise Tolliver Atta, had just finished describing an upcoming study-abroad trip. Dr. Tolliver Atta is a psychologist interested in bridging the gap between Western healing and traditional African healing, and she was giving us the opportunity to join her. I was in.
     After months of vaccinations, gathering travel documents, and packing, about 25 of us set off for our three-week adventure. It was late fall of 1996. The moment we stepped off the plane straight onto the tarmac I was moved to bend down and touch the ground. Africa. The hot damp air enveloped us.
     We headed to a simple ornamental concrete hotel for the first leg of the trip. Each morning after breakfast we climbed into a big yellow bus that took us around the rural West African countryside.
     We visited the Wonoo village where nimble weavers created intricate kente cloth made of handwoven strips of cotton and silk. We spent hours in the packed, rambling open-air Kejetia Market, taking in strong aromas and brightly colored wares. There were wooden sculptures and ceremonial amulets. I was drawn to a female figurine that represented fertility, and also to a Queen Mother statuette; a sturdy woman holding one child in the front and carrying another on her back. I bartered with the shopkeeper and brought them home with me. In many years of traveling and paring down possessions, they still come with me from home to home.
     On our day trips we were invited into small villages to respectfully observe the ways of priestesses and priests. It seems fitting to mention the females first, since we were in Ashanti territory whose society maintains a matrilineal structure.  
     Prior to being allowed into sacred areas, we’d circle up around village elders in community halls, and Dr. Tolliver Atta and the other leaders of our group would be questioned via an interpreter. Sometimes these assessments lasted for long stretches of time and involved pouring libations onto the ground in homage to ancestors. Once we were deemed safe— harboring no ill intentions—we were led through heavily wooded paths to hidden rivers with huts secreted away near the banks, to witness primal rituals designed to heal those who were suffering.
     We studied with students and professors at the University in Cape Coast, staying in a resort of private casitas on the ocean for a while. We drank coconut water straight out of the shell and ate lobster fresh from the sea.
     The South Atlantic Ocean almost kept me with her. One day a few of us were swimming cautiously, not too far out. It was a Tuesday. An undertow grabbed us and we all decided it was time to quickly get back to shore, but the ocean had other plans for me. Giant waves started crashing over my head and each time they relented and threw me back into the air, I gasped and tried to keep my eyes on the beach. For some reason I started calling out “take me home!” in my mind, and each time I was spat back up I’d see that I was getting farther from the shore.
     The next thing I recall is sitting in the sand at the edge of the water. Stacey came running over and asked “what happened?” I said “oh, nothing. I felt an undertow but was able to get back to the shore.” She and a few others looked at me incredulously. “No, Caren. That’s not what happened. You were rescued.”
     I had no memory of the rescue, but when they described the man to me I recalled seeing him each time I looked towards the beach, like a beacon. When I passed out he plucked me out of the waves. Then he disappeared, and I hadn’t even gotten his name. I wish I could thank him.   
     A man from Cape Coast came over and said “Oh! Obruni,” the Akan Fante word for foreigner, literally "those who come from over the horizon.” He said “I was wondering why you were in the ocean on a Tuesday.” I had long braids in my hair and from a distance he’d thought I was a local. He told me that locals know not to enter the ocean on Tuesdays, since that is the day to honor Oshun, the goddess of water. I wish I’d known.
     Later I realized that I was missing a piece of jewelry. I was bedecked with silver necklaces, earrings and rings— the only thing that was gone was a toe ring with waves etched into it. That night as I tried to fall asleep, I kept getting woken up with what felt like hands grabbing my ankles pulling me back out to sea. I didn’t sleep much.


  1. I live four miles from Lake Erie, the shallowest of the Great Lakes, which is why it is infamous for generating huge waves. These breaking waves can create a rip current, commonly called an "undertow"--in the mistaken belief that you get dragged beneath the surface. In reality, a fast-flowing river of water sweeps you away from shore.

    Every summer there are fatalities, when warnings are ignored by beachgoers. So that part of your story was not at all amusing. But when I read "Oshun, the goddess of water"--I cracked up anyway. Oshun, the goddess of the ocean? You can't make this stuff up.

    I think she took your wave-covered toe ring to show her power, and because you pissed her off. Oshun and her Great Lakes sisters, Mishegoss and Eerie, can swallow anyone with ease, in the blink of an eye. On Tuesdays, and on any day that ends in a Y.

  2. Ha! Yes Grizz- well said and thanks for the laughs. I am fortunate that my beacon was there.

    1. Maybe it is not for an undertow, swim parallel. The best way to survive a rip current is to stay afloat and yell for help. You can also swim parallel to the shore to escape the rip current. This will allow more time for you to be rescued or for you to swim back to shore once the current eases. There is a difference between and undertow and a rip current In physical oceanography, undertow is the under-current that is moving offshore when waves are approaching the shore. ... An undertow occurs everywhere underneath shore-approaching waves, whereas rip currents are localized narrow offshore currents occurring at certain locations along the coast. Getting of an undertow similar to getting out of a rip current. Remaining calm though would seem to be hard.


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