An evening with Maya Angelou

I am standing inside Hanover Theatre trying to tell the security man that Maya Angelou is expecting me. He does not seem to believe me. I cannot blame him, even I find it hard to believe that I am going to meet this living legend…

In my final year of high school, I discovered the poem Phenomenal Woman and it immediately elevated the way I viewed myself as a woman. I soon found out that the poet behind those edifying stanzas was a civil rights activist and the author of ground breaking  books like "I know why the caged bird sings". I wanted to meet Dr. Angelou. I have been nursing this dream secretly for many years but six months ago, it almost happened. She was supposed to be in Toronto and a kind friend who addresses her as 'Auntie Maya' made a few calls to see if she would meet me. She generously agreed. I took the day off work to meet my heroine. I got as close as her hotel only to find out that she had fallen ill so she had not made the trip. Disappointment rumbled through my body like hunger pangs. When would I ever get this opportunity again?? As fate would have it, a few weeks ago, I read that Dr. Angelou was going to be talking at the conference in Worcester. With a nod from my kind friend, my feet raced as fast as my heart until I reached Hanover Theatre.

… Now I am in the foyer, gesticulating persuasively to security to send me backstage. Several verification phone calls later, I won my case.  The stage manager comes out and leads me to a private entrance. Two students and an impeccably dressed woman ( I will tell you more about her later)  are already waiting in a narrow hallway. After a few minutes, the stage manager beckons us to follow him into the green room.

The first thing I see is a silver platter filled with diced fruits and food that you only eat with two fingers. I am tempted to walk towards the feast but my eyes are being pulled to the centre of the room where a regal looking woman sits like an Ashanti Queen. Silvery locks have been neatly coiffed on her head like a crown. A string of freshwater pearls dazzle around her neck. The other people walk to her and they talk for a moment. I want to do the same but I am surprisingly shy. Then, she calls my name.

"Ms. Bonsu?" The room is instantly filled with the richness of her deep voice.

I approach her gingerly. I don't know whether to courtesy or bow. I feel my knees buckle into a shaky bow.

"You don't have to bow!" Her firm words halting me midway. "Come closer. No, don't go behind me. Here, come in front of me so I can see you." She directs. We exchange a few words in the Ghanaian dialect, Fante, before I step aside to give the others a chance. My palms are a bit sweaty but I am coming into myself. I want to get closer to her. No, more than that. I want to interview her. I turn boldly to her PA and asked if I could ask Dr. Angelou a few questions. "Yes, but quickly, the event starts in a few minutes." Now, what do you do when you have a really tight window to interview a legend? Do you ask about her favourite lipstick or do you skip the frivolity and discuss current affairs? I take a deep long breath and straighten the creases in my dress. I fix my eyes on the resplendent woman before me. As I think of the great things she has achieved in life simply by following her passion, I decide to ask a personal question that has been burning a hole in my heart.

"Dr. Angelou, Thank you so much for this opportunity."

"You are welcome Ms. Bonsu."

"Dr. Angelou, I've started this initiative which highlights positive stories from Africa but after three years, I feel burnt out. I am so tired. What do you do when you feel discouraged?"

"Don't get discouraged. If you have a 'to do list' do it." She replied.

"But what if you want to give up because you don't see the results of your hard work?"

"You just press on. There is nothing more to it. Just keep going and sooner or later, the people who rejected you will come begging. Don't give up. Just do your to do list. Just do it."  At this point my heart is doing the listening. The impact of her words stir my soul because she is speaking directly to my fears. Does she know about my inbox which is flooded with rejection letters from literary agents?  Does she know of my fantastic manuscript that publishers won't touch? Does she know about the incomplete website, the travel plans and the personal matters ricocheting in my head? Whom I'm I kidding? Of course she can relate to my angst. Not long ago, she was also a thirty-something year old idealist. She traveled the world, wrote books, won Grammys, earned Doctorates and inspired a whole generation in the process. Through the dark tint of her glasses I could read the warmth in her eyes. I smile and ask my next question.

"Dr. Angelou, my favourite poem is "Phenomenal woman". It was the first poem that told me how a woman should carry herself. What inspired you to write this poem?"

"My life, but really because we are ALL phenomenal." She delivers this with a certain confidence that is lost to many of us. From the corner of my eye, I see the silhouette of  the stage manager. It is my subtle cue that my time is up but I feel emboldened to ask for one more thing.

"Dr. Angelou, I would love to take a picture with you. Would that be alright?

"Yes." She drawls. "Stand next to me. Here, you can hold my hand." Really? Disbelief is washing over me. I uncross my fingers and plant them firmly in her palm. It feels soft and inviting. The ridges of her wisdom and experience rub smoothly against the naivete of my. Disbelief is coming over me again. I am actually a breath away from my heroine and I am really holding her hand. As if she sensed the awe overwhelming me, she speaks firmly to me.

"Ms. Bonsu, stand up straight. Lean on no one and Bow ONLY to God."

The depth of those words resonate in me. For months, my head has been downcast with self-doubt and fear. Now I hear the truth in her words loud and clear. I push my shoulders back, unbuckle my knees and smile like an Ashanti princess. In a flash, the moment was sealed.

To be continued…

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  1. Hats off to you, Amma! Your day will come and we shall testify!!! Great piece!

  2. Excellent piece Amma, I'm very proud of you!

  3. Thank you guys. It was a wonderful evening

  4. A very touching and inspiring piece, Amma. What you desire shall be yours - I have no doubt about that

  5. Hats off to you Amma! You are a great inspiration.

  6. Wow! Congrats, Amma!

  7. great job. you are an inspiration to me amma. your day is already here. u have asked God for your breakthrough and he already answered u, u just have to believe. xoxo

  8. Amma, thanks for sharing this. I love Maya's advise, and would take it too. It helps to hear that we will get "there", in terms of our hopes and aspirations, if we keep on keeping on. Great work.

  9. Amma, I congratulate you for sharing this wonderful exprience with us.  I have always wondered what it would be like to meet  Maya who has been an inspiration to us. You are so fortunate and I pray that you will put into practice all the advice given. I have always known that you will go far…..your TIME has come and great things will start happening.  Much love. 

  10. Auntie Edith, how your words move and inspire me. Keep me in your prayers. All the love to you as well.

  11. amazing and so inspiring! keep going forward and never give up

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