L. S. Mensah was born and raised in Accra, and has been living in the UK for the past few years. Recently her work has appeared in the annual Barnet Poetry Anthology, Akwantuo.org and Sentinel Poetry’s Champion Poems.
Five Questions with L. S. Mensah:
1. The complete reversal of the poem is an interesting device. What inspired it? Had you seen it done in others poems, or did you come to it yourself?
It’s called a "specular" poem. I believe it has been around for some time, but it was Julia Copus who popularised it. Her poems "The Back Seat of My Mother's Car" and "Kim’s Clothes" have become classics in their own right. As you can see from the link, she has a far better grasp than I have managed. Basically the lines in the first stanza are reversed in the second. The only thing one is allowed to move around is the punctuation.
2. What effect do you hope for the reversal to have on the reader?
To enable it to be read another way, in other ways. You have to see this as if through a mirror. When you stand in front of a mirror, you of course see your own reflection. But then again what seems to be your left hand appears as the right hand of your reflection you see.
There is another reversal of a sort, for the narrative is structured around a variation of the oath formula. In the typical oath, the speaker sets a condition for himself. If he ever violates that condition, he suffers the consequences. In this poem, the speaker has set a condition alright. However, it is up to the addressee to meet that condition and if not, suffer the conditional curse.
3. Can you explain trokosi for our readers who aren't in the know? What is your personal experience with trokosi? What inspired you to write a poem about it?
Trokosi is ritual bondage or servitude of women in parts of the South of Ghana, Togo and Benin. Virgin girls are pledged to shrines in atonement for crimes committed by a member of the girl’s family. Her family is responsible for her upkeep in the shrine, and if she should die or become too old before the debt is paid, the family is obliged to replace her with another girl. Shrines could also make these demands in exchange for other services.
Personally I have no experience with trokosi. Really, I come to this topic by way of writing some poems about the Slave Trade. There are obvious parallels here. Back then the loudest voices against abolition were the traditional authorities, because a considerable percentage of their economies depended on the trade. Even after the Abolition in 1807 (British Empire) and later the Abolition Act of 1874 -75 (Gold Coast Colony & Protectorate), they still found ways to circumvent the system. There were courts set up to prosecute anyone buying, selling or even owning slaves, but it was not unusual for owners to bring their slaves before chiefs and religious elders who then administered fetish oaths to bound slave to owner. No slave would dare break this oath for fear of possible (supernatural) consequences. Colonial and court records abound with examples.
The historians tell us that it was only around the late 18th to early 19th century when shrines started to request humans as payment for their services. This coincides with the period just before and after the abolition of the Slave Trade, so the practice is just over 2 centuries old.
4. What is your intended audience for this poem? Ghanaians or global? While obviously you can do both at the same time, do you view this more as a poem that's meant to inform or to persuade? In other words, to inform the uninformed, or to engage in a discussion/debate with those already in the know?
This poem is for anyone, and is meant to serve as a stepping point, possibly for some kind of debate. Whether it persuades the reader is really up to that reader, because when it comes to debates over tradition, attitudes are pretty much set in stone. There is a tendency to create a halo around everything we call tradition, even when it exploits our own people. It becomes an unequal relationship with one side exerting power in all sorts of ways over the other. This is about the material and sexual exploitation of women pure and simple. It is also a class thing. Those who defend the system, including the priests, chiefs and local educated elite usually have their daughters living far away in Accra or in the West. Their daughters and granddaughters would never be bonded to these shrines as initiates. It is left to their poorer relations to carry this on.
5. What is new in your writing life that our readers may be interested in?
I’m waiting to see what the upcoming anthologies from The Ghana Poetry Project and Mensa Press would bring for me. For now I’m working on some more specular poems, as well continuing with my poems on slavery.
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