The Sword in the Stone: Father’s Day in Ghana
Don’t let the title of this blog lead you to think that I grabbed a quick flight to London or to the Disney resort in Hong Kong (they have a replica of the sword in the stone). Yes, I am still in Ghana. Yes it is Father’s Day, and no, this is not some Arthurian hallucination brought on by my anti-malaria meds.
In the courtyard of one of the largest hospitals in Ghana you find an ancient Asante sword. The sword is embedded in a large boulder. It is protected by a simple, one room shelter and a caretaker. Many regional chiefs gathered at that spot in the 1690’s at the request of Okomfo Anokye, the closest advisor to the Asante King Osei Tutu. After much debate, an alliance was formed among the formerly warring tribes of the region. The sword appeared in the stone as a symbol of their unity and mutual protection. Okomfo stated that if anyone were to remove it, the newly formed Asante nation would be lost forever.
This sword and the Golden Stool (or throne) are the founding symbols of the Asante people. The Asantes grew to become one of the most powerful nations in West Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries. Their territory rivaled the national borders of modern day Ghana. They were a formidable enemy of European colonial power until their eventual defeat by the British in first decade of the 20th century. Swords still remain one of the most recognizable symbols of the Asantes specifically, and Ghana in general. Two crossed swords, the Adinkra symbol “Akofena” is used by the Black Stars, the Ghanaian national soccer team. They advanced further than any other African team in the World Cup in South Africa. They also keep beating the US team consistently! This symbol of power on the battlefield has been transformed into a symbol of shared sacrifice, combined strength and national unity on the soccer field.
There is no shortage of swords embedded in stones throughout other cultures. In Italy, a 12th century nobleman named Galgano Guidotto, son of a Tuscan feudal lord, rejected a life of power and wealth after a stern chat with Michael, the Archangel. He decided to trade his cushy future for a much harder life in service to God and the poor. He walked up on a small hill outside the town of Chiusdino, took out his sword and stabbed it into a rock. A small chapel was built around that rock in 1185, the same year of Galgano’s canonization. His fame grew quickly. The throngs of pilgrims needed accommodations. Monasteries were the hotels of the Middle Ages. A huge Cistercian monastery was soon built at the foot of the little hill to house and protect pilgrims from the dangers of Medieval travel. The monks followed Galgano’s example of a life devoted to the care of the poor, the weak, and the stranger. This monastery eventually became one of the most powerful and influential institutions in that part of Italy for quite some time. Today, the walls of this beautiful church stand tall. The wooden roof has not survived the ages, so the sky is the ceiling and the soft grass is the floor.
Like the Asante sword, Galgano’s sword has never been removed. The Asantes buried their sword in the rock as a sign of their mutual sacrifice and loyalty. Galgano’s sword was the sign of one man’s exchange of personal wealth and power for a life of service to others.
The most famous sword in a stone is the one that was removed by an unlikely boy who became the mythical king of England-Arthur. We don’t know a whole lot about the historical Arthur other than, as a military leader, he successfully pulled together a ragtag alliance of warring Celtic tribes to hold back the Anglo-Saxon invasions of the 5th century. The legend, popularized by a 12th-13th century French poet, Robert de Boron, transformed his military exploits into one of the greatest legends of Western literature. The tale has been retold countless times by many authors. As the ailing king laid on his deathbed, the barons jockeyed for position to take his place. After the intervention of a famous wizard named Merlin, a plan for succession emerged. The guy who could pull a sword out of a stone would be the next king. All the muscle-bound barons gave it a try. All failed. It was the skinny, weakling kid named “Arthur” who showed off his divine sponsorship by yanking the sword out. Physical strength was not the leading qualification of a good king. Wisdom and humility was. That same Arthur went on to build the perfect city of courtly virtue. The Knights of the Round Table gave up their individual ambitions to serve a common, greater good-the ideals of Camelot. This story has captured the attention of centuries of readers, moviegoers, and now tourists in Hong Kong! From animated Disney films to Luke Skywalker, humble kids from backwater towns (or planets) keep brandishing swords (or light sabers) in the fight between Good and Evil. While Galgano and the Asante chiefs plunged their swords into the rock, Arthur had to remove the sword to realize his destiny.
Today is Father’s Day at home in the US. The internet connection is mercifully strong. I received some high tech messages from my children today. Francesca made me a card with a Father’s day poem set to the tune of “We wish you a Merry Christmas” that ended with “and a nice bowl of fufu.” Fufu is a local delicacy here in Ghana and one of Francesca’s favorites. Matteo sent me one of the shortest, and most gratifying Father’s Day messages in Facebook history… “Hey Babbo, you da man.” All of this is good medicine for a dad half a world away.
It is also Father’s day here in Ghana. Ghanaian TV is filled with words of encouragement to fathers and stern reprimands for those that are not doing their duty. They don’t mince words here in their public service announcements. In addition to the trappings of modern TV, images of great Asante leaders and their swords frame many of these messages, inspiring Ghanaian fathers to emulate the wisdom and sacrifices of their traditional leaders.
Whether the story involves stabbing swords into stones or pulling them out, it seems they all carry a powerful message for Dads on this Father’s Day. The Asante chiefs, the Italian saint, and the legendary Celtic king all put aside self-serving ambitions in favor of something better. Dads (like Moms!) love their kids even though they cannot predict how they will turn out. They love their kids on the days when everybody falls short. They love their kids without knowing what surprises, both glorious and tragic, might be handed to them by forces beyond their control. Providing love and protection to a child trumps any career achievement. Being a dad is the hardest thing I have ever done. It is also best thing.
When I say “fathers,” I mean something including biological parenthood and beyond. I am talking about all those men who have put a child first. Though my wife and I have just about the best possible parenting situation, we still screw up sometimes. I am so grateful for the many dads that help out Francesca and Matteo on the days when I run out of energy, wisdom, and patience. My children are truly blessed to have a long line of co-padres and co-madres that care for them as much as their own children. When asked about how he managed to raise his two marvelous sons, my dear friend Dale responded, “When the boys sought out mentors other than me, I encouraged it.” Just as those Asante chiefs (all of them powerful in their own right) gathered their combined strength and wisdom into a nation, a bunch of good men and women combined their talents and poured them into Dale’s kids. Many of those people are the same that watch over my kids and other kids back in Geneseo. They have helped to create a tiny nation of young adults that will do great things. I won’t be surprised to see this legacy continue into the next generation.
When I was little, I was on the receiving end of the time, talent and treasure of a long line of smart, caring people. My dad, my brother, my grandfather, my pastor, my music teacher, and my college professors, top off an all-star cast of mentors that kept me from screwing up too much. They could have spent all those hours doing something else, but instead, they chose to help me through some tough spots-even when I showed no gratitude until years later. A whole bunch of stern chats and encouragement pointed me in a pretty good direction. Many of them still keep an eye on me today. You are never too old for guidance from someone who loves you.
I wasn’t the only kid who received love and attention from my list of dads. My father and mother spent countless hours providing health care for children in migrant camps. They also founded our local, volunteer ambulance squad. My brother and his wife have adopted Vietnamese children. My college professor, Bill Cook has spent much of his life adopting teens and making his home a safe place for young boys of many ethnic backgrounds and life circumstances. I don’t have enough space in this short blog to list the many kids who have benefitted from same people who helped me.
Parenting, whether you are a dad, a mom, a foster parent, a co-padre or co-madre, is a lesson in humility. Like San Galgano, we thrust the sword into the stone every time we trade a day of personal advancement for a day with a child. Like our Asante brothers, we thrust the sword into the stone every time we gather the resources of our extended family, neighborhood, monastery or country in service of needy kids. Like Arthur, no matter how weak or ill equipped we may feel, we often have to pull that sword out and take it into battle for kids that are ignored and neglected. Either way, fatherhood is a glorious, dangerous adventure that rivals any of King Arthur’s exploits.