Monthly Archives: August 2023

Remembering My Friend, Véronique Amenan Akpoueh (d., Aug. 3, 2023)

Ours was not an ordinary friendship.

Race, class, religion, citizenship, educational background, and (for 14 years) parental status divided us. Language brought us together. Curiosity and intellectual companionship kept us going.

Véronique and me in the village (1993) (photo by Philip Graham)


Initially, Véronique (given that personal name in the French colonial-style school she attended) grabbed the chance to practice her grade-school-era French with me, an uninvited visitor in her village bordering the rain forest. As for me, while I struggled to learn the tonal West African language surrounding me, I immediately felt grateful to find a woman who spoke a language I knew. Later, as my grasp of Beng developed, Véronique turned out to be a naturally gifted language teacher. She happily shared her love of her native language, finding ways to explain the nuances of proverbs, metaphors, and secret speech. From there, our friendship blossomed.

During my first month in her village in east-central Côte d’Ivoire, Véronique and I met daily as she oriented me to the new worlds confronting me. “Why do babies wear so much jewelry and make-up?” was the first question I had asked our new village father. “That’s secret women’s business,” he answered. “Ask my cousin, Véronique.” I did, and Véronique immediately explained the medical goal of this symbolically resonant bead and face paint, distinguishing it from that purely decorative bead and face paint.

Amenan readily distinguished the linear and circular medicinal treatments from the decorative eyeliner and eyebrow pencil adorning this baby boy (1993) (photo by Alma Gottlieb)

Here was a villager who operated far from her neighbors’ proclivity to conceal knowledge from a stranger—understandably wary (from decades of colonial and post-colonial oppression) of what I might do with it. Instead, Véronique delighted in sharing her knowledge of her world. Quickly, she moved from informant to instructor, and from there, to friend.

Back in 1979, both my academic mentors had firmly instructed me to choose a village with a population of fewer than 500 people for the year-plus of doctoral research I would conduct in rural West Africa, so I could get to know everyone in a face-to-face community. Véronique tried to convince me to remain in her village of 1,500 for the next 14 months. But my advisors’ instructions remained firmly in my head. So, after a month of browsing among the 20 or so Beng villages, my husband and I left Véronique’s welcoming space and moved to a village of 250 notoriously suspicious people some 2.5 miles up the road.

The tiny village I chose to live in during our first stay in Bengland (1979) (photo by Philip Graham)

Véronique warned me repeatedly that the residents of the village I selected—the seat of the local, secretive, traditional religion—had strong reasons to reject me. Attentive to these warnings, my husband encouraged me to remain with my new friend in her village. Stubbornly, I ignored both their urgings and promptly experienced firsthand all that Véronique had predicted.

But Véronique forgave me my arrogance; by the time I confessed my decision, our friendship had been sealed. As Philip and I packed up our suitcases, Véronique made me promise that I would return once a week to spend the day with her. And, so I did. Moreover, over the following 14 years, when we returned twice to Bengland (the second time, with our son, then six years old), we lodged in her compound.

Amused, Véronique watches our six-year-old son observing two girls pounding corn (1993) (photo by Alma Gottlieb)

*

My writer-husband has written that “anthropology is gossip with footnotes.” Véronique had never heard of anthropology when we met, but by Philip’s definition, Véronique turned out to be a consummate anthropologist par excellence.

Every week of our first year’s stay, I drove or biked 2.5 miles to chat with Véronique in her village. No sooner had we completed the long, formulaic greetings required of a hostess-and-guest than Véronique launched into a monologue consisting of all the village goings-on I had missed over the past six days. Véronique was literate—one of two women in her village who had gone to elementary school—but she didn’t need to jot down notes about any of the week’s events to keep them in her mind. Out poured a list of the week’s highlights, from quotidian to momentous.

From these sessions, I soon learned the meaning of fɛn plã na. Literally, the expression means two days. But its reach is more than that, with two standing in metonymically for several. A better translation would be, in the past few days or, even more vaguely, recently. And so, within an hour of my weekly arrival, I heard about everything that, according to Véronique’s all-seeing ethnographic eye, had happened fɛn plã na. As Philip once described Véronique (referring to her by her Beng name, Amenan) as she eagerly approached us with village news, “Amenan was already making a beeline to us, her juicy-gossip face firmly in place—at times like this, Amenan was most Amenan.”

Nothing was out of bounds for Véronique’s skilled storytelling. I learned about breastfeeding woes suffered by a new mother, and a strange condition afflicting the rectum of an old man. I heard how a young girl had been sent to Abidjan as a companion for a childless aunt, and about the latest rants of the village madman. I learned who had broken the weekly sacred day by cursing a relative, and whose domestic dispute ended up in the village chief’s court. After this rich news catch-up, we would settle down under the shade of her coffee trees for a more systematic conversation about a topic of interest to us both, whether wily hyena folktales or witchcraft. But Véronique’s expansive mind was such that one recounting led to five more. I soon learned to restrain my impulse to return to the original story and let Véronique’s prodigious memory, knowledge fund, and chain of associations take her where they would.

Véronique and me in our signature spot under her coffee trees (1980) (photo by Philip Graham)

*

The balance of power between the two ends of this financially unequal relationship tilted constantly. Véronique gave me intellectual gifts that became symbolic capital fueling my career. I brought material gifts that Véronique and her family valued (first, soaps, baby clothes, and dried fish; then, furniture; finally, we funded the construction of a new house and, more recently, an adult daughter’s business venture, and treatment for a serious sinus infection that threatened my friend’s eyesight). Véronique also readily offered advice whenever I solicited it (how should I respond to learning that the chief of our tiny village had blacklisted me, or to my husband who was angry with me for not fully translating something he needed to say?); I timidly returned the favor on the rare occasions that Véronique solicited advice (two of her daughters were fighting, or her Ghanaian husband had disappeared yet again). In these ways, across the darkness created by drastically divergent social histories, the sunlight of common humanity shone through.

Véronique and me walking to interview her uncle, the king of the Savanna region (1980) (photo by Philip Graham)

It was obvious enough what I gained from our relationship. But beyond the day-to-day gifts I could bring her (and the larger investments I was able to make later), what did Véronique have to gain?

I believe Véronique longed for a conversation partner of a different type from what her beloved family and neighbors offered. After all, she had attended school through the fifth grade. That modest level of education gave her expanded life experiences, compared to those of her peers. Following her five years at a Catholic elementary school, the nuns coordinating her education must have seen the bright spark of deep intelligence that drew her to me, for they soon offered Véronique a year’s job as an assistant, accompanying them as they conducted a regional program to promote rural health.

Based in the nation’s second-largest city of Bouaké some 80-miles-and-a-world away from her home territory, the program brought young Véronique from village to village—mostly, inhabited by Baulé people, not Beng. Her cultural horizons expanded as she gauged similarities to, and differences from, her homeland. She learned how to help women birth and breastfeed, how to diagnose diseases from Guinea worm to tetanus. She came to juggle two distinct religious systems—the spirit- and ancestor-based cosmology of the Beng world view, and the monotheistic cosmology of Christianity. And she gained knowledge of a new biomedical pharmacopeia that complemented the healing forest herbs she already knew. Beyond these technical funds of knowledge, making the rounds of villages beyond her own made Véronique a new sort of cosmopolitan. Returning to the somewhat insular bounds of her own village must have felt confining. By the time Philip and I showed up unannounced one hot September day in 1979 that surely started out like any other hot September day, I must have offered food for a hunger that had long but quietly gnawed in her belly.

*

Véronique was born to political and religious privilege on both sides: her father’s older brother was king of the Savanna region, while her mother’s brother was the most senior Master of the Earth of her village.

L: Véronique’s paternal uncle, King Bonde Como, of the Savanna region (1980); R: Véronique’s maternal uncle, Kokla Kouassi, senior Master of the Earth (1980) (photos by Alma Gottlieb)

Dire poverty underlay all these rich cultural inheritances. More comfortable walking barefoot than wearing the rubber flipflops I once bought her, Véronique did, and did not, exude royalty.


From a lifetime of work—rising by 6 am to walk deep into the forest to chop down trees for firewood, carry a log on her head back to the village, use it to light a fire, then bathe babies, cook breakfast, and wash the dishes, all before returning to the forest for a full day of hard farming in her rice and vegetable fields, followed by cooking dinner, washes the dishes, and bathing the babies again—Véronique’s clothes were as threadbare as her neighbors’. Nor, at something like 4’ 9”, did her height visually mark her status. Her tall husband sometimes teased her in his lilting Ghanaian English: “She’s just a Pygmy, a regular Pygmy.”

Véronique carrying her baby grandson on her back and a log on her head


Yet, as Véronique walked through the village, her tiny frame commanded attention far beyond its dimensions. Everyone greeted her, and, as she returned the greeting, more often than not, she was asked for advice. A baby wasn’t eating, a child had developed a mysterious rash, a fever wasn’t disappearing, and what did Véronique advise?

Véronique helping a young relative learn to walk (1993) (photo by Alma Gottlieb)

Sometimes, she sold home-grown medical treatments for a shotglass of grain alcohol she made; more often than not, she dispensed herbal remedies at no charge. If her preparations healed, she was thanked; if they didn’t have the desired effect, I never saw her blamed—confidence in her knowledge, unshaken.

Whether working or relaxing, Véronique was widely appreciated by relatives and neighbors as an impromptu babysitter.

This set of photos of Véronique taking care of multiple infants (including “dry-nursing” one from her milk-less breast) was taken on a single day in 1993 (photos by Alma Gottlieb)

Her skill in massaging infants’ heads widely was especially sought out by new mothers.

Véronique massaging an infant’s head (1993) (photo by Alma Gottlieb)

Our own bonds spilled over beyond fictive kinship. I was present at the home birth of one of her daughters who, as coincidence would have it, bore the same Beng day name as mine. Véronique made sure to instruct baby Amwé that I was an important person in her life.

Véronique points to me and asks her baby Amwé, whose birth I observed, “Who’s that?” (photo by Alma Gottlieb)

Nor did her skills remain confined to the gender-stereotyped world of women. Men paid attention when Véronique directed animal sacrifices. On several occasions, she asked me to buy trapping line in the Bouaké market so she could set traps and hunt small animals.


Véronique overseeing the apportioning of meat from a sheep that was slaughtered in honor of Philip’s recently deceased father (1993) (photo by Alma Gottlieb)

*

This week, I learned that Véronique had finally succumbed to an illness that had caused her much suffering over the past month. Medical care being what it is across much of the continent that Europe underdeveloped, her illness will forever remain unidentified. Two doctors to whom her daughter Lucie took her for consultations claimed they couldn’t do anything for her, and the emergency money I wired to Lucie didn’t make a difference.


Maybe it was pulmonary complications caused by chickenpox—which my American dermatologist, on hearing about the symptoms, named as a likely cause. Maybe it was something else. Maybe Western biomedicine could have effectively treated it, and Véronique would be alive today. My dermatologist said that had Véronique been in an ICU, round-the-clock nursing care would at least have alleviated the symptoms, and perhaps held death at bay. Or maybe Western biomedicine could not have identified or treated the disease, and no medicines yet exist that would have kept her alive.


Being a continent away, my imagination and guilt are both running riot. What if? I keep asking myself. But, no What if can rewrite history. The global North and the global South cohabit the same planet yet continue to produce human experiences worlds apart. As I contemplate how I can honor the ordinary-yet-extraordinary life that my friend Véronique lived, she continues to peer over at me through her framed photo.

Véronique’s signature look (1980) (photo by Alma Gottlieb)

Those wry, wise eyes remind me daily that we humans must constantly endeavor to bridge all that separates us. Our distinctive subjectivities may conspire with the institutional structures that divide us to keep us from ever fully knowing each other. But, as Véronique implied when I once expressed surprise that she—then, a 30-something woman—was good friends with an elderly woman well into her 70s—trying to see each other across our multiple divides is all we’ve got.

Véronique continues to watch over me in my home office as I work at my desk (2021); (photo by Philip Graham)