Moments in the Osu Cemetery
A soft wall of silence surrounded him the moment he stepped across that supernatural threshold that divided the Osu Cemetery from the other world,
Across the road thousands of people had moaned, screamed, commiserated with two soccer teams in the National Stadium, the day before. He could look across the curving roadways that led to the elaborately structured government buildings, and imagine how much pain and joy had been suffered in both places.
Familiar names flickered up at him through the dappled splashes of sunlight; Appiah, Kotey, Lartey, Hlovor, Hamabata, Forsdon, Amegashie, Steiner, Reindorf, Brew, Azigi, Nkrumah, Ashi, Brown, Seyiamah, Amartefio, Hayes, Quaye, Annan, Sackey, Wiafe, Wreh, Yankah.
The sleepy men who "guarded" the cemetery saluted him with drowsy waves and silent greetings.
“0, you're here again? Hello. So, how is it?”
He returned their greetings, with equally lazy greetings... “So, you’re sleeping, huh? Well, why not? Who needs to be awake in a cemetery?”
But he was telling a bold lie. He felt a sense of awareness in the Osu Cemetery that he had never felt in his life. He was forced to conceal this sense of internal ebullience. What would people think if they saw an African-American skipping through the cemetery as though there was something in the place that turned him on? It was a complex joy. The tranquility was usually triggered by a morning, or mornings that were never tranquil. He had discovered the Osu Cemetery... the tranquility of the Osu Cemetery, by accident.
One midmorning, after a serious Capoeira exercise workout in the steam humidity depths of the National Stadium, he stumbled out of the wrong exit and wandered across three lanes of errant traffic, into the Osu Cemetery.
Several of the large, above the ground rooted trees, beckoned him to their juicy shade. He chose the odd looking one to the left, went to squat on tree fingers that were perfectly molded to his back.
The sweat of the workout, the exhaustion of dealing with everyday life in Ghana, the mysterious headache that was threatening to become a malaria episode all seemed to be sapped from his body by the strength of the tree.
After thirty minutes of "treetment,” he slowly stood and stared at the tree, from its accommodating trunk, to the gigantic head that blotted out the Equatorial Sun. He turned from staring at this tree, to the trees that filled the cemetery.
The next day, after his workout. It didn't require much effort to bring up a sweat in Ghana. He stepped across the threshold for the first time. The men who were "guarding" the cemetery looked at him with indulgent surprise. He was obviously an Obruni who had discovered something of interest in the Osu Cemetery. O!!
By now, the names on the slabs of concrete (Appiah, Kotey, Lartey, Hlovor, Hamabata, Forsdon, Amegashie, Steiner, Reindorf, Brew, Azigi, Nkrumah, Ashi, Brown, Seyiamah, Amartefio, Hayes, Quaye, Annan, Sackey, Wiafe, Wreh, Yankah) and the trees that air conditioned the dead seemed to be familiar strangers.
He strolled up and down the aisles, blatantly fabricating life histories and short stories. It was unavoidable.
Grace Appiah, the youngest daughter in a family of seven brothers, must have dealt with a couple serious, romantic situations in her life. Maybe she had a foreign love affair.
Kotey, a woman of spirit, substance and light, an entrepreneur. Wasn't she the owner of the Shalizar Bar in Osu? Descendants? Wasn't she the victim of inflation and a wounded heart?
Ben Lartey, one of the greatest actors in the world, who said "To hell with Britain if they don't discover me heah, I certainly won't go there!"
Grace Hlovor, the professional maid; "I am a maid, I know what my job is, I know what is expected of me and I am pleased with myself."
Hamabata, the Fulani broadcaster, on the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation honor roll. The circumcised Muslim woman who sought to raise Ghanaian women's consciousness.
Forson, the peteshie drinker. "I had one too many shots of “kill me quick!"
Amegashie. My God in Heaven, did this woman raise the educational consciousness of the people of Ghana or not? Yes, she did. It's in the history books.
Paul Steiner, the Professor. What he did, over there, behind that petrol stations, is incredible. He taught Ga and he taught respect for Ghana.
Rama Brew, an actress. Ahhhh, but much more than that. She took reality to another level because she was a step above real.
Azigi. Well, he could've been the best Capoeirista in Ghana, but he was a serious negligent and loved the flash rather then the substance.
Nkrumah was the best and the hippest taxi driver Ghana has ever produced. The problem is the C.I.A. realized that and had him poisoned. Or shot. Well, whichever, he doesn't drive anymore.
Ben Ashi. they didn't discover him 'til it was tooooo late. Ashi was in possession of spiritual information that he had managed to computerize.
Brown tried to cheat himself aboard an American deal, and failed because ho didn't really know what the Deal was.
The student Sekyiamah. She was the brightest and best of her generation. Too bad she died so soon.
Arthur J.M.R. Amartefio, destined for greatness, everyone knew it but Arthur J.M.R. Amartefio.
Mr. Hayes, the crippled barber. He lived the life he preached.
Kofi Annan, who tried to put the world back together and almost succeeded.
Here lies KoJo Yankah, a hero.
He settled himself against the thick trunk of one of his favorite trees and stared, from the mossy shade of the trees in the cemetery, to the blistering scenes beyond the threshold of the cemetery. For a few moments he wondered if he were dead.
The dimensions were surrealistic. Inside the cemetery there was peace, stillness, cool shadows. And fifty yards away there was strife, heat, disease, animal passions. Why would anyone want to be out there rather than in here?
His question caused him to smile. Only dead people want to be in here. Well then, what the hell am I doing in here? The compound questions broadened his smile.
He look around the cemetery, taking in everything; a mother hen and chicks, scratching here and there for food. Two men slowly digging a grave, a hundred yards to his left. A woman with a child walking down the center aisle of the cemetery.
By now, after weeks of pausing to rest, to think, perhaps to meditate, the names and the slabs of marble were familiar strangers to him.
They inspired silent monologues; on this planet we are all searching for a way to know The Unknowable. Competition has given us different names for this search. Buddhists, Catholics, Jews, Hindi, Muslims, Protestants, Searchers, Santeria...
He felt no fear of the snake as it made its weaving way five yards away from his feet. A beautiful pattern, green and black, not too large but probably poisonous.
Well, I'm already in the graveyard. He tilted his head back and stared at the branches and leaves of the tree that gave him such a cool place to relax in.
Just the simple things really matter, a cool drink of water, shade from the hot sun, a smile from a friendly person, the innocent laughter of a child.
It was a gorgeous morning, the sky overcast with blue grey clouds. He sprawled on the marbled top of Kofi's large tombstone and stared up at the sky.
He had pushed himself a bit doing his workout in the stadium by running up and down the stadium steps ten times. Ten times, five hundred steps. He felt his thighs tingling from the exertion. Man was designed for exercise, for running, jumping, moving around. What does it feel like to be immobilized?
The fine droplets of the rain awakened him from his soft nap. The rain was a soft kiss, a mist being sprayed. He sat on the side of the tomb and looked at the people beyond the threshold of the cemetery, buying, selling, working, playing, living, enjoying, the spray.
He closed his eyes and pouted his lips skyward, to receive the misting as a kiss. He had been in Ghana long enough to know that all of the Ghanaian languages had many names for the types of rain that came down during the May September rainy season. They would have to call this the kiss mist. The mist was so warm and sweet that he felt his shirt dampen and dry up on his back. A beautiful rain. He felt the urge to talk to someone about it. But, there was no one there. Well, there was no one that he could talk to.
And the day he had strolled into the cemetery, (forgetting that it was a Saturday, a big funeral day in Ghana), and found himself engulfed by a funeral memorial party. He could tell that they had come to commemorate the death of someone, but he had walked into the cemetery too late to see who had been honored.
Clusters of people in funeral clothes (possibly considered unfunereal in other places) circulated through the cemetery. They obviously knew more than one person buried there. The old man in his rich cloth, with the rich smell of palm wine on his breath, spoke to him.
"My son, do you have relatives buried here?”
The African American in him responded, "Sir, I have relatives buried all over Africa.”
The old man readjusted his cloth and nodded wisely. He wasn't certain that the old man clearly understood what he meant. The White man, Yellow man, Black man, Brown man, Native American stuff seemed so far away in the cemetery. And drive by shootings, ritual suicides by space cadets, Wall Street manipulations, the C.I.A. the price of gold, of butter, of all commodities, of all the drummed up dramas that insecure people had designed to make their lives, and the lives of all the people they touched miserable. None of it meant anything in the cemetery. The thought made him sit up straight. Why not have the people who were determined to kill each other meet in the cemetery to discuss their differences?
It seemed perfectly logical to him, they would all have to reach the same conclusion; we 'nay not be able to live together, peacefully, but we will definitely be in the same place peacefully, if we kill each other.
The thoughts, the ideas, the notions filtered through the trees, landed on his head, never allowed him to forget that he was being advised by voices he couldn't hear and faces he couldn't see. No problem. He knew he would be with them in the future. For the moment, he was simply spending moments with them.
Accra is supposed to be the capital of Ghana, West Africa, but I'm sure that a mistake has been made. Accra might be more than that, it might be a frame of reference for a kaleidoscopic state of urban hallucination. Accra, Ghana, a kaleidoscopic hallucination. Mmmmm, good place to start. Being a part of it does not make it any less fantastic; realism becomes chained to the surreal, and therein we have the beginning of an understanding (Rastafarian use of the word) about how to describe life in this place.
Buying/selling, re buying/re selling. Perhaps three fourths of the people who live in this city are trying to sell something, mercilessly. On some days, everyone seems to be trying to sell something to everybody else.
Arbitrarily; con men/women attempt to give those who are illusion oriented whatever they feel they need, to feel “complete.”
The slicksters are quite overbalanced by the beggars, people who are so completely done in by life, that they can't imagine taking themselves to another level. Or maybe they don't need to. After a few months of walking up and down, I became focused on two beggars. One of them was a woman who looked as though her limbs had developed in spider fashion. She was a daughter of the dust, actually.
The other source of my enchantment was a woman who had leprosy. She frequently claimed donations from me by sneaking up behind me, to present her noseless face for my intimate inspection. I screamed a couple of times and gave her thousands of cedis on each occasion.
What/why was I giving her money?
A) Because her nose, fingers and toes had rotted off?
B) Because she made me think of my late, great, Aunt Mary?
C) Because she was so clearly a representative of all that I was being exposed to? I was quite certain, with her visible signs of disease, that she probably was not spending her begged income on well chilled bottles of ABC.
I wasn't so certain about "the spider woman,” the daughter of the dust. Passing through her querencia, I was frequently surprised to see her having her hair braided. Why did that annoy me? Why shouldn't a woman who happened to be a beggar cripple have her hair braided? I had to let go of a few notions. Just because a woman has a body like a spider doesn't mean that she isn't a woman, or doesn't want to behave like a woman. The afternoon I strolled past her, my mind on a bunch of other thoughts, was a feverishly recalled day for months to come.
"Hello," she spoke to me. "Hello," I replied, and took careful note of the two young children playing around and about her spidery limbs.
"These are my children,” she said as she slithered into a defensive coil. Her children?
How could a severely crippled woman, hobbling along under the power of her knees and knuckles, have children? How could she get pregnant? Who was the man who made love to her?
My mind was fast forwarded and reversed at the same time. Maybe it was the Sun. Or the malaria or something else that I have been infected by, that I couldn't identify. For days, I was bombarded by those kinds of rhythms. For days I tried to think logically about the things that whirled around me. There were times when I succeeded for a moment, and then I was forced to relinquish that small victory by something overloading it. I flowed with the flow of Accra, finally, not being intellectual, but careful, observant and feeling.
In the middle of the stench that piles layers of negative thoughts in front of us, there are flower smiles, magical body gestures that convey a sense of human warmth that cannot be found anywhere else in the world, especially if you are an African American.
(A word of caution. Many Ghanaians, many Africans are not totally hip to the Diasporans. We may have a certain look, but they discount that and buy into culture.)
If your Twi, Ga or Ewe isn’t up to snuff, then you will probably have to suffer with the ridiculous concept of being an "Obruni,” an outsider, a European. Some African Americans have been so offended by being labeled "Europeans" that they've not made an effort to return to the Motherland.
(There's much more to be said about this peculiar phenomenon, at another time.)
We can put ourselves on Pause, from moment to moment, recognizing Fathers, Mothers, Sisters, Brothers, Uncles, Aunts, Cousins, friends, neighbors, enemies. And they see those same figures in us, but the “Obruni" thing gets in their way and makes it difficult to claim kinship to us, in the way that we claim kinship to them.
Accra brings up all this, all of these things. Strangely, in this place where commerce means everything, sin is not easily found. It is not unknown, but it is not flaunted either, O.K.? Commerce in many places means selling the human body (sexually); that is not the way it works in Accra.
There is a proper order of things, which may be attributed to the Ashanti domination (pre-British) rather than anything colonial. During the heat of the day (starting at full daylight) breakfast is sold; waakji, tea, breads, peanuts, pineapples, fruits. No sex.
(A word of caution: The Ghanaian beers, ABC, Club and Stan, have been substituted for what can be called breakfast, with a number of traditional men ... buying into the idea.) Those who are addicted to Akpeteshie (a profoundly low grain gin that may be West African Liquid Crack) will have their drink whenever they will have it. They are the vanguard of the dope plague.
But, so far, no one is selling ass for Akpeteshie (1997. Maybe it's changed). Sex is reserved for the night and there is plenty of it. Of course, in a third world country (Chairman Mao's designation), with as many smart people as there are in Ghana, someone figured it all out years ago; sex sells better than Kente cloth.
There is no competition, of course, because the Kente cloth market closes down well before the sex market on King Road opens. Corruption and commerce. Can we separate corruption from commerce? Well, we'll try. But first, in Ghanaian terms, we’ll have to define each one, and which is which.
Corruption, in Ghanaian terms, means "dash," a little something that you present to whomever is going to help you get something done. Formerly, as the historian socio people tell us, there was a person ("the Atsiame/Linguist”) who was responsible for making the citizen's needs/urges/desires known to the uppers and vice versa. The European takeover knocked the "Linguist" into a cocked hat. Now anyone who feels that he/she can facilitate matters can contribute to the corruption by simply contributing money. And not promising anything.
Formerly, the Okyeame (Atsiame) was a solid figure in the pantheon. He was responsible for doing something, and he did, because his reputation depended on it. Nowadays, when any underpaid policeman is able to demand a two thousand cedi “tip” at the nearest roadblock, the notion of an "Atsiame"/"Okyeame” levels corruption to the ordinary level. Commerce, driven by corruption, takes us to another level.
Commerce, driven by corruption may be equated to wholesale mendacity, or to be more down to Earth, outright lying. Accra, on the business level is bursting at the seams with liars. No one is expected to tell the truth, if they can get away with lying. Of course, this is a fact of business in most parts of the world; in Accra, Ghana, it is a finely honed art.
"So, Kwame, we have a deal. You have promised to pay me one million cedis tomorrow.”
"Yes, I promise.”
Tomorrow comes, for example.
"Well, Kwame, it is now tomorrow. You have the one million?”
"I did not say that I would pay one million cedis. I said that I would promise to pay you if I had the cedis. I'm still chasing the cedis.”
And so on and so forth. Now then, in the middle of all this chicanery, there lurk honest people whose word is their bond, whose every action is governed by a strict code of ethics. The pendulum swings and sways from one to the other, giving the bite of life in the city a rough edge, sometimes a slippery slop, always something interesting.
There is a kind of PMS rhythm to all of this, an off rhythm that feels like a soloist soloing with an orchestra of soloists.
And it goes on from sun up 'til sundown. After the sun goes down the rhythms change. There is a night life filled with stories of young girls from small villages who have discovered how much easier it is to make their cedis, selling themselves, rather than selling oranges. Want to hear a story?
They also tell lies.
It would be hard to imagine that a Lina Sappong could exist in Africa. For the Eurocentrists (that's not really a put down word) she might've been considered a Ghanaian "Holly Golightly," minus the ballet shoes in the 'fridge.
I met her, forced fed, one might say, at the outdoor screening of an incredibly boring European film at the Goethe Institute in Osu, Accra.
I was impressed by the nonchalant way she left her purse in her seat, midway through the pretentious cinematic nonsense we had wandered into, to do whatever she wandered off to do.
Afterwards, for some vague social reason, we were channeled past a couple tables loaded with Guinness stouts, to discuss the stuff we had just sat through.
Lina reappeared, snatched her purse from the seat (it wouldn't've been there that long in Chicago) and joined me in the Guinness reception line. Her nostrils were flared for some unknown reason.
Sexy woman, that's the first impression. Sexiness oozed from her pores. It had more to do with the look in her eyes (layered by black horn rims), than her shape.
She wasn’t what you would call "a fine woman," but she did have a well shaped figure. The long jersey knit dress gave her a smooth look.
"So, what did you think of what you saw?”
She stared at me as though I had said something dirty. Or did the look mean that she wished I had said something dirty? I would become quite familiar with that ambivalent look in the months ahead.
“Oh, it was not too bad.” ,
(No one outside of Ghana is ever going to be able to deal with the immense number of tonal qualities that can be lavished on “Oh!”)
Now what? We did a clockwise, counterclockwise stroll, our Guinnesses held at port arms, and wound up in front of each other again. A staggered, spacy kind of conversation started in earnest.
She came to see the films at the Goethe Institute every Thursday because they were "windows to the outside world."
It was my first time. And I wasn't impressed.
We fumbled to discover what we had in common. Beyond what seemed to be our ability to chat about ordinary things, it was difficult to determine what we had in common.
Some of it had to do with this opaque quality about her, and some of it had to do with me making an easy effort to preserve my cool.
Within another time frame it would have been quite easy to take matters to a "your place or my place" level, if the vibe had warranted that kind of honesty.
But we weren't there anymore; we were in the bitter grips of a sexual plague ... alas, 1992, and only the foolish and the crazy were into making daredevil propositions without doing a lot of screening.
Time to go, the Germans were putting us out. “Raus! Rau nuit ihnen’ raus!”
I strolled to the parking lot with her. Surprise! She had a car. First woman under thirty years of age that I had met in Ghana with a car. Was she rich? Well, maybe not, but the car was certainly an indication that she had a more than average income coming in from someplace.
We agreed to meet again, the following Thursday, unless it rained (it was the rainy season), and if it did, we'd meet the Thursday after.
I strolled through Osu's rutted roads after our handshake and datemaking. We were going to meet again next Thursday, unless it rained. We were going to meet again, for what?
I spent the following week puzzling over that question. We were not planning a platonic relationship, that seemed quite obvious. But if there was going to be a label placed on us, what would it be?
In Ghana, women still hold the reins concerning what the nature of a relationship between a man and a woman is going to be, appearances to the contrary.
Photo used courtesy of the Web
At the lowest level, the pussy-for a price lady makes it plain that that is what it's going to be.
The "girlfriend" to the unmarried man. The "girlfriend" to the married man. The “mistress/second wife.” The "married woman/mistress.” And on and so forth,
The subtle fringes and flows are carefully tended; it keeps everybody “properly” oriented.
Which means that I had to iron my emotions out and determine what we were going to be to each other. I had to assume that it was on me. The "game" indicates that the man pays for the game, but the women determines how it's going to be played.
Well, she wasn't married, I could assume that because I had met her by herself at a movie. That wasn't a married woman's thing to do.
My status was clear; I was a mature, single, African-American male, back home again, who was not expected to be celibate.
By Thursday I had figured it all out. I was going to ask Lina to be my "girlfriend" and take it from there. I was completely open to whatever after "girlfriend" might lead to, including matrimonial "hiss and bliss," as a cynical matrimonialist once described it. I had figured it all out. I hadn't figured Lina out.
The movie was much better than the last one and we left the outdoor theatre chatting about the ambiguous ending as though we'd been attending films at the Goethe Institute for years.
We were in her car and heading for the beach in front of the Labadi Beach Hotel, complete with a string quartet of Guinness Stouts, before I really had a chance to seriously air my views about what I thought we might come to mean to each other.
We parked in front of the artificial barrier in Labadi, that separates the rich from the poor, the Africans from their beach....
(Malibu is different. The White people in Malibu have an unwritten agreement; if you get enough money, we'll let you in, no matter how dark you are.)
And sipped our Guinness stouts. After the final one, Lina signaled for me to get out of the car, I followed her.
We came to the narrow passageway that was guarded by an incredibly hip ol' dude, who took one look at the full moon glaze in our stout shot eyes, and asked me, “Hold my gun and I will get you a blanket.”
I stood in place, silently howling at the moon, holding "his gun," a large gauged stick, 'til he returned with a woven mat, the kind I have often seen Muslims pray on.
I handed him his "gun," “dashed" him 500 cedis and he graciously allowed us access to Labadi Beach at midnight. We arbitrarily stumbled to the dunes at our left.
It was a primeval evening, humidity as warm as our blood, an African night sky filled with so much moon that it made me feel as though I was walking under an interrogator's chalky white light.
Who decided where the place was going to be? Was the place decided before we got there?
"Do you have condoms?" she asked in a voice that I didn't recognize. Maybe, I thought, we would discuss what we were going to be with each other. There was no time for that before we “hit the beach.”
Minutes later we saw the stabbing beams of search lights (they're called "torches" in British oriented Ghana) rapidly waving towards us. We had plenty of time to realize the gravity of our impetuous, Guinness driven actions; "Oh! You should have used protectors, this one has spoiled.”)
"It is a protector.”
The police/army people, with their beaming lights, arrived anti-climatically. That is to say, after scouring the mat and my pelvic area, they couldn't find any spots of conviction, plus my dominating Afro American-Obruni speech pattern (Lina was strangely silent) seemed to have an effect on their authoritarianism. They escorted us to the exit and sent us away with a solemn warning.
"Do not come back here to do what you have done again.”
I could tell, from the sneaky way the "guard" studied the ground at his bare feet, that he had sicced the police on us. Too bad. I sneered at him, we were too quick for your snitching.
Maybe that was the way they had set it up; the "guard" lets you in for a small "dash" and then notifies the police. If you're caught flagrante, and want to get out of it without a lot of trouble, then you "dash" them.
The "guard," of course, gets a piece of the action for his troubles. In Ghana, unless things have changed incredibly, the “dash" can work miracles. And so, thusly began my evenings with Lina.
She worked in one of the Ministries. I never found out which one, and when she finished her day at the office, she had to have her Guinness.
A mysterious person, filled with unpredictable moods, behavior. She tells me that it would be quite impossible for us to have dinner (on this particular evening), but, as I slip through the gate to go and have the dinner we were not going to have together, she is parked across the narrow, rutted road, slumped down in the spy mode.
I'm being surprised all the time. One evening, after one Stout too many, she tells me that she has two children.
"And your husband?"
"He is not about.”
He is not about. Does that mean he has taken a temporary leave of absence? That they are divorced? What?
Paranoia grabs my attention for a few evenings. What does the husband who is "not about" look like? Why is that man with the reflecting sunglasses, the one with the slashed cheeks, staring at me?
Why is that man following me? Is he following me?
An evening at the Rivera hotel, the sound of the ocean lapping the shore is hypnotic, it's time for us to have a serious conversation. "Lina, I've been doing a lot of thinking about us.” A crashing splash creates a watery accent. And immediately afterwards the ocean returns to its velvety ebb and flow.
"Well, tell me what you've been thinking.”
"About what?” I'm at sea. What should I do? I want to ask her to marry me. But she already seems to be married. And has two children. What happens to the children when she spends the night out? Does she love me? Do I love her?
Well, what's love got to do with it?
The following Thursday at the Goethe Institute film showing. I was ten minutes late, the film had already started. Lina was seated between two large, dark skinned men. They looked like bookends. I studied their profiles and body language from across the aisle, discreetly. Were they her husbands? Was one of them her husband? Were they simply two men who just happened to be seated on her right and left? I didn’t know what to do.
The wrong move would be terrible. Even if one of the other men was her boyfriend, there would still be a nasty thing happening, for me a stranger, to tap her on the shoulder. Her boyfriend? I thought I was her boyfriend. But she wasn't looking around anxiously, the sort of thing a person would normally do if they were expecting someone.
What to do?
Indecision paralyzed my intentions, and before the lights came on I low profiled out via the outer aisle. The whole business felt tricky. I felt confused, low, distressed. What the hell was going on with us? I couldn't put it together. We had suddenly zipped from something (whatever it had been) to zip. I didn't know where she lived. I didn't have her phone number at the Ministry of whatever. I was miserable about her for a whole week.
It rained on Thursday, film night, a blizzard of water. It took a serious hair of dandelion petal pulling logic -- "she loves me, she loves me not, she loves me” -- to prevent me from going to the Goethe Institute in the rain.
Another week before the next film. I had firmly packed my program into a neatly paragraphed sentence.
“Lina, I love you and I want you to be my wife."
I'll always wish that I hadn't arrived before the film started, before the lights were turned off. In the dark I could have made another low profile exit, but now it was impossible. She gave me that strange ambivalent look and strolled to her seat behind a bushy faced, tall blonde man. I was devastated.
The ninety minutes of film was a blur in front of my eyes. I kept trying to persuade myself that I wasn't crying. Maybe I wasn't crying, maybe my eyes were simply bleeding. The film must have been a good one because the gathering moved out slowly, exchanging comments as they made their way to the exit. Lina and the tall blonde man were a few couples in front of me. He suddenly split off from her. The men's toilet. Now is my chance. I tried to be as casual as my urgency would allow me.
“Lina, what happened?" I tried not to grind my teeth together.
"You didn't come.”
"I did come but I thought you were sitting with your husband."
"This one is my husband," she nodded toward the men's room with her chin. I remained in place, like a rock in the middle of a stream, as the other people and her husband flowed onward.
That was the last time I went to the movies at the Goethe Institute.
There were days when it seemed that I had walked from one sector of Acara to another, seamless, dreamy walks.
A mid-afternoon bottle of well chilled ABC at the Shalizar Bar in Osu. It's a warm day, not hot, the sun slowly climbing to a vertical position. I'm walking to Labadi Road, to take a taxi to a friend's house in Nungua. Sometimes all of the taxis are running on Labadi Road, sometimes none. I catch a tros tros going to Labadi. Why not? I need a haircut and there is this small side of the road barber shop owned by my friend, Mr. Lee Hayes.
(A tros tros is a Volkswagen van that's been converted to a mini bus. The tros tros stuffs about 20 people into it's interior, plus the driver and the “mate," and is not comfortable at all).
Labadi seems hotter, dustier, a bit more ragged about the edges than Osu, but that's clearly a momentary impression. I manage to escape the maws of the tros tros without ripping my clothes on a couple of sharp edges but the "mate" manages to hold onto my 200 cedis change. They cheat as often as possible, everybody, ancient riders as well as new blood. O well.
I'm strolling through passageways, over trails, small “alleys" actually (called Lungu Lungu), that only the local people know about. The "alleys" are caked with stagnant wash water, slimy green moss, garbage, people cooking, buying, selling, chickens, children, goats, wash hanging on the lines.
Mr. Hayes sits in the window of his one room barber shop. He greets me, welcomes me.
"Come in! Come in! You are welcome. Long time!"
Once again, I'm standing in the doorway of his shop, unselfconsciously checking him out. He is a marvelous spirit on many levels.
He is sitting on a crate, leaning out of the window to greet friends, tell dirty stories, give instructions, welcome his clientele. He has a normal body from his head to his waist and from that point his body becomes a spider’s body. I've seen this abnormality a lot, like the young woman begging at "37.”
He directs you to “remove your shirt and hang it on a hook” (or directs one of his eight children to do the job). He has two "normal" wives. And you are positioned on a low stool between his withered legs as he offers profound commentary on the state of the world and clips your head.
Mr. Hayes would never take prizes as the greatest barber in Ghana, or anywhere else, but he offers something on a spiritual level that no ordinary barber could give. He doesn't complain about life, how poor business is or any of that. He takes care of business and that's that.
I was on my way to Nungua, just up the road a bit, but after the mediocre haircut and the superb chit chat, I'm hungry. I'm in Labadi. Why not go to Mojay's Chop Bar? My friend will understand.
Mr. Hayes tries to return my "dash" halfheartedly, agrees to accept it after I gently insist. Once again I'm making my way through the Lungu Lungu. We are familiar strangers after a year or so. Some people give me a friendly nod and smile, definitely puzzled by my passage through their secret avenues.
Mojay's Chop Bar is not at all remarkable. In some ways it's like Mr. Hayes' barber shop. There is much more in the place than its reason for being. Its screen doors open onto a fair sized room with fifteen tables strategically placed. The tables are covered by checkered table cloths that feel like linoleum.
The floor is slanted downward from the door by a few inches, the walls are covered with Christian posters (St. Patrick, Jesus, Lazarus, Mother Mary, St. Michael, St. somebody else, all painted in pale Venetian Euro White) and four fans mounted in the ceiling that are as noisy as tornadoes.
(Someone is always requesting that the fans be turned down a notch or two.)
A bar at the slanted opposite side of the door and off the side, behind a dreary little curtain, "the kitchen.”
The menu at Mojay's is simple: fufu and light soup, with fish or goat. Kenkey and fish with pepper. And when you least expect it, okro stew, or palmnut stew. I will have the fufu and light soup with fish and two eggs. And a cold ABC. Maybe that's Mojay's ace in the hole, the cold ABC.
Some people who have never eaten fufu before they tripped to Africa profess a profound dislike for it. I like it, but I found it odd to "eat" a food that was simply swallowed.
A waitress named Irene caught me "chewing" fufu one lunchtime and sternly admonished me for it.
"What are you doing, sah?! You mustn't chew fufu. You must swallow it. Are you getting me, sah?! You must swallow it."
I sip my beer, swallow my light soup flavored fufu and chew on my fish and eggs. The combination of flavors is interesting and exciting. I am satisfied. It's late afternoon now. Time to visit Susan in LaBone.
Fortunately, I manage to grab a taxi that's going to Danquah Circle from Labadi Road. I'll come down at Danquah/King Road and walk the six or seven blocks to Susan's on 3rd Norla Lane.
(The scenes I'm about to describe occurred largely before Susan's marriage to Ben Ashi, a dynamite brother in his own right.)
LaBone must be considered "upscale." The homes in that area are quite nice and it literally sits "upscale” from Osu. Susan's in La Bone. Susan is the Head Mistress of the only Montessori School in Accra (imitators lurk just beyond her front gate), and maybe in all of Ghana.
I have only the vaguest idea of what the Montessori Method is, after having been talked to about it for hours and hours. Apparently, it is a “Children oriented” method of teaching that gives four year olds the power to read, write and reason. Her waiting list is two years long, the parents are pleased, the children are happy, but Susan remains unimpressed by her success. That requires a great deal of self-grounding in a place where titles seem to encourage the title bearers, like everywhere else, to behave like assholes. She is a short, slender woman with a lovely, humourous face and beautifully beige skin. A self-proclaimed "half-caste" (her father is Ewe Ghanaian/mother is English) who is all Ghanaian. We begin to arrive after the school day has ended (say, 2:00). We? Who are we? Who were we?
We are the ones who come after the children have finished for the day. And like the children, we come from all parts of the world. Susan welcomes us with Cold Star beer (periodically replenished by her right hand men, Zacariah ("Yessir, madam") and Jacob.
It took me only one week away from the hospitality of her home, her school command post, her "salon," to realize what I was missing. Yes, the chilled beer on a warm afternoon was quite nice, welcomed with gusto, but it was the freshness and variety of ideas from passionate people, eccentric people, supernormal, intelligent people, that gave those long afternoons such a lovely flavor.
And Susan was the heart and soul of it. Where did she find the energy to spend the whole day running her school (and a number of teachers ragged) and most of the evening participating/moderating/dealing with all of the rest of us? I've only had one other time in my life (from 1960-1962) that was filled with as many rich sessions as we had in her space. We talked, argued, discussed, analyzed, rhetoricized, pontificated, learned.
Atheism was the only tabu subject. And there was no argument any of us wanted to give up in favor of having the subject on the agenda. Above and beyond that, the world was open to explore. There were evenings when the explorations took such a lucid turn that all of us were made to feel as though we were staring through clear glass.
It wasn't about big words at Susan's, or being oppressively intellectual. It was about pragmatic clarity. The people who came regularly wouldn't permit murky, draggy, intellectual bullying to take place. Usually a slight, witty nip was enough coerce the heavyweights back into the people-friendly lane. The nip might become a full fledged bite, if the intransigent deserved that, but it didn't happen often.
John Henrik Clarke, the great African-American history maker/historian, once defined a civilization as a place where people were civil to each other. There, that was the hook of Susan's place. We were a civilization and I haven't been in an atmosphere like that since I left her place.
Susan is the person responsible for me meeting Tom Appenteng, for acting as the Atsiame in my dealings with Tom, for helping me become the roommate of a rich rich man’s son with a four bedroom house in Kanda. Tom Appenteng is a novel, at least. And quite possibly three novels. Someday, perhaps, someone will be responsible for that task.
I'll be too old and slackheaded to do the work. But hopefully, someone will.
Kanda is yet another section of Accra. It's off of King Road, just past the GBC studios. And from there it can only be called Kanda. In that rare, incomprehensible way that certain sectors of cities can be identified by certain intangible characteristics, Kanda is Kanda. I felt more privileged in Kanda than anywhere else I ever lived artistically. I was sharing a large house with a compatible spirit (he was over there in his section and I was in mine), we lived in a large compound that was filled with young legs and arms to save us, and, as a bonus, there were four gorgeous Ghanaian women/girls to stare at as they performed their daily tasks.
The women/girls were Tom’s nieces. It made for a complex set of circumstances. Tom, you see, was the result of a mating between his Dad (an Ashanti man) and an Irish woman. The other issue (from his rich father) were from African women.
I think he had eight or eleven wives, and children from all of them. Which means that Torn, a kind of Londoner in drag, was the uncle of a number of authentic Ghanaian people.
No problem. He simply accepted his "uncle" status without attaching responsibilities. And I was his honored guest/renter, privileged to watch the beautiful women wash clothes, do spontaneous dance steps, have animated conversations and listen to a Twi that sounded like birds singing.
Kanda was five o'clock in the evening, sipping that vitally interesting second bottle of ABC at the outdoor bar, “across the road," with Tom, watching many thousands of bats swarm out of wherever, to begin an evening of doing whatever bats do after dark. During this time frame, I was writing a series of human interest pieces for "The Ghanaian Voice," Mr. Dan K. Atsah, Thankyouplease. The pieces dovetailed with life in Kanda, Accra, Ghana.
All I had to do was describe, honestly, what an African American writer male felt like to be in Accra, Ghana, West Africa. I never experienced anything close to a "writer's block" during the course of the series, or beyond. I was in a writer's paradise.
On an evening, I would sit on my lovely little porch, right there under the hugely flowering Magnolia tree, notebook in my lap, and scribble to my heart's content, if the lights were on. Kanda was layers upon layers of interests. If I felt adventurous, I could walk up a dirt road, turn a corner and find myself in the center of a neighborhood mini marketplace, or standing in front of a home that looked like a South American dictator's palace. Kanda seemed to be filled with supernatural people; the woman who strolled the back roads, her body caked with white flour. I was told she might be fulfilling some sort of religious obligation.
The small small couple (they were "normally” shaped, they just seemed to be miniatures) who strolled around at dawn. No one seemed to know where they lived, who they were, what they did for a living, nothing.
They seemed to glow, to have an aura about them, and they were always smiling. It's easy to slip over the border, from Kanda to Nima; the whole vibe changes.
Nima is Muslim, more or less. But beyond that it always made me think of the word "medieval," maybe it was because there were so many Old Testament looking men strolling around. And the Arabicized Ghanaians, in their floating garments. I never felt good about strolling through Nima. I couldn't get the idea of female circumcision out of my mind. It was a real consideration, despite a law passed to discourage the practice.
Nima was at its best for me during the month of Ramadan. During the course of any day of that month, going through Nina, it was quite easy to see the effects of serious believing. The men and women (but especially the men) looked as though they were suffering from an invisible burden on their backs. Their cheeks were caved in from fasting (in a place where people are not overfed ordinarily; to fast...) and many of them had a look in their eyes that was either a sign of desperation or sheer fanaticism.
And then night came and the holiday started. The street stalls, kiosks would be selling food, the devout would seem to stagger from one party to another (rumors consistently suggested that many of the Faithful swallowed Guinness Stout after sundown, for its “nutritional value") and the sounds of Arabicized drumming and singing could be heard as far as Kanda. From Nima to Adabraka, from the devout to the profane Adabraka, especially the neighborhood bordering Kwame Nkrumah Circle, was where the action was.
The Kilimanjaro, the Joy Joint, Eddie's Place, Esther's and dozens of other clubs were linked to a chain that was artfully designed to grant the pleasure seeker his/her just desserts. The basic number was body peddling and they did it with gusto, but with a Ghanaian gusto, that is to say, in a reserved, and rather proper fashion.
The Kilimanjaro will serve as an excellent example. Friday night, 'round about 10:00 P.M. (things slow down remarkably in Accra, after 9:30 10:00 P.M., the majority of the citizens are still simply working stiffs, not into partying for money), in the maw of the Kilimanjaro. The music is loud, crunching, the sound is a musical whip for the sexually entrepreneurial, as well as the famished. The fluttering lights that are trying to strobe seem to be glued to the gorgeous faces of a half dozen beautiful village girls who have come to the city to see themselves, to try to make money for the care and feeding of the folks back home.
The beautiful village girls have done everything imaginable to make themselves ugly, that is to say "attractive" to the men who will purchase the. They sit, four to a table, sipping endless glasses of draught beer, lips smeared with unbecoming lipstick, charcoal cheeks reddened with European cheek redness, hair smashed, fried, broiled and bent or be wigged, awkward dresses squeezed onto their lush, kinky-fufu fed bodies.
And the sexually famished, mostly European, because they are the only ones who can afford casual sin, fluster about, trying to decide which one of the salesladies will best fit their fantasies. A casual note: large blonde men seem to gravitate to small black women with big asses. Wonder why? Arriving at Jamestown from Adabraka is like firing a slingshot backwards, or, as the Lukumi people say it, "hitting a bird with a stone fired yesterday.” Jamestown was always a special place for my mine, in Ghana. First off, it made me think of the Near Westside of Chicago, circa 1950 something. And that would be enough to create the vibe mindset for a gigantic mound of stuff.
It was the most ragged section of Ghana that I'd ever been exposed to. That was an element. But there was something else happening. The place was deeper. There were no tourist designer haunts, no place that catered to anything but local tastes. If you went to Jamestown, there were no "lifeguards," you were in Jamestown period.
It was dilapidated, it created instant strength or weakness, it stank, but the people were splendid examples of what an individual was supposed to be and the Ga they spoke seemed to hint at a sense of rhythm that could only be approximated by African American jazz. My friends in Osu, Ga speakers, thought it interesting that a non Ga speaker felt drawn to the Ga of Jamestown.
"They are not speaking the correct Ga.”
"But the Parisians are not speaking the ‘correct’ French.”
But all of this was placed on a sideboard by Panafest '94. Locally, Panafest '94 was labeled "Panaflop '94,” and the reasons were fairly obvious to anyone who makes any effort to understand media hype, popular tastes and designer notions. Panafest was not hyped. There were taxi drivers who thought that it was an African American family gathering, that they decided to do "in Ghana here.” No real attempt was made to involve the average Ghanaian. If it's not going to be done at the same level that a local soccer team is going to be promoted, then... what's that?
The government, no doubt, had ideas notions, about what they thought Panafest should mean, but their ideas notions, were badly articulated. It (Panafest) didn't make a lot of sense at all, 'til that night they had a ritual event in Jamestown. The announcement came in lower case letters in the local newspapers, buried in the middle of page five. The words, to this effect, said, "At 2:00 A.M. the spiritual chiefs, the biggest chiefs, will have a ceremony, asking the Gods for their forgiveness, for the Ghanaian/West African participation in the Trans Atlantic slave trade.”
The African American community in Ghana hustled down to Jamestown. We didn’t want to be late for this event! It was the first time any of us could recall that any Ghanaian (or perhaps any West African) had made a public acknowledgment of the African participation in the Atlantic slave business. It was an important acknowledgment, the decoding read - “forgive us, forgive our ancestors for selling our brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers to the White people.”
Jamestown at 2:00 A.M., on a well lit soccer field, at least five thousand Ghanaians, many African Americans, in attendance. The chiefs made their appearance, durbar style, and the business of the evening proceeded. Speeches were made that caused many of us to cry. It was the first time we had heard a responsible collection of Elders, Chiefs, say, in effect, "Forgive us for what we did.”
The speeches went on for a time, as African events usually do, and finally we came to the most important part, the blood sacrifice, the Ebo, as it's called in Yoruba. A large, well muscled, unruly bull was trotted onto the field, well handled by two bullhandlers who definitely knew their stuff. They made a great impression on all of us, using the lengths of rope on the bull to control him. The effect was that of seeing two men controlling a huge force with strings. And then a white sheep, which required much less control.
The blood sacrifice indicated the level of pain that the Africans felt for their participation in the slave business, and the depth of their desire to be forgiven. When blood is shed, for whatever the reason, we know that the most precious commodity on earth is being utilized.
I don't feel that all of the Ghanaians were in sync with what was happening. It was a bit like Panafest itself, not enough information had been given out. (Sadly, a great deal of information about the Diaspora is missing from Ghanaian history books. I think this is the greatest reason for their ignorance concerning us.)
African Americans are equally ignorant in many cases, because our Eurocentrically oriented educational institutions have not made any great efforts to inform us. In both cases a greater effort should be made to bridge the gap. There were drummers and people having fun which boxed out a lot of the solemnity but also betrayed the gravity of the event. However, there were enough people there who clearly understood what was happening and why they were there. You could tell from the expressions on their faces.
The bull was "hogtied," his throat cut with what they call in Ghana, a cutlass. The blood that gushed from the bull’s throat was collected in a large basin and the presiding priest, a man dressed in white clothes, scooped hands full of blood into his month and "sprayed" the earth, three times.
I had a good seat, my vision is good and I was totally sober. The priest then scooped/ladled the blood from the basin up into the air. I saw huge clots of bull's blood flung out over the crowd, in several directions.
We were dodging the blood, afraid of being drenched, but it never reached us. The blood was sucked from the air above our heads as though a huge mouth was sucking it in. I saw this and no one had to explain that the Gods had accepted the sacrifice. After the bull was sacrificed, the sheep was sacrificed.
The ritualistic importance was there, but it was almost anti-climactic. I made it my business to edge as close as possible to the priest who had performed the blood spraying and blood throwing. I still find it unbelievable that his white clothes didn't have a speck of blood on them. How could anyone scoop his hands into a basin of blood and not be bloodied? Spray blood from his mouth to the ground and not be bloodied?
And what kept the blood from drenching the crowd, from splashing all over us? Later, I was told that this same person had walked into the sea, during a ceremony, years before, and walked back out dangling two fish in his hands. The so called supernatural can be quite natural in Ghana, at times. We were led by the priest and his “congregation" through the dark, rutted roads of Jamestown, to another site, where speeches and events would continue. En route, I took a hard look at a hard place. Many people were sleeping by the side of the road, because that's where they lived and the place stank, the way poverty stinks the world over. Now, at 4:00 A.M. or so, at the new site, more speeches were made, libations poured. I studied the profile of the priest who had performed the earlier ceremony.
He wore a white head cloth and a white straw hat over that. And he wore a white, fringed skirt over his white pants. He wore a pair of white men's shoes but I couldn't say for certain that he was a man or a woman. It finally ended at dawn. I felt cleansed by what had happened (a similar even/ceremony was staged at Cape Coast on the same day). As I walked through the dawn streaked streets of Jamestown, listening to the ocean lap at the beach on my left, I cried for all the souls who would never know the peace that I felt.
Nungua is in the opposite direction from Jamestown, in many, many ways. From the dark and bloody ground of people seeking redemption, to the clear air and soft ocean breezes is about a thirty minute taxi ride on Labadi Road. Nungua. How did I wind up in Nungua for most of a glorious year? I'll have to use my fingers and toes for this capsule chronology.
I had decided to go to Ghana many months before the LAPD tried to beat Rodney King to death. Los Angeles was still smoking as the British Airways jet took off from LAX.
From May, 1992 to September, 1992, I boarded with this dysfunctional couple (African-American) in that wonderful section of Accra called Osu. After five brutal months listening to the man of the house cuss his wife out, under the influence of one beer too many, I left.
From September, 1992 to December, 1992, I lived in a cell in the Fair Gardens Hotel, directly across the road from the Trade Fair Centre in Labadi. I have to call the room a cell because that's what it most closely resembled. A narrow bed with a thick foam rubber mattress, a small table, a chair and a wardrobe dresser.
If it hadn't been for the window that gave me a view I wouldn't have been able to stay there. The window was my television, my movie screen, my pictures of Ghana. In the afternoon, children played soccer, always interesting and frequently fun to watch, especially when the little ones imitated the big ones.
On Saturday mornings, official wash days, the window fairly exploded with colors from the clothes spread on the clothesline across the way. And every evening, when the call to prayer came from the nearby mosque, I watched figures move across the football field like religious ghosts.
My room in the Fair Gardens (nicknamed Mosquito Heaven by the cognoscenti) was my hell and my heaven for the four months I lived there. I had episodes of malaria in the Fair Gardens that made me dump buckets of water on my body in bed. During the course of one evening, with my foam mattress completely soaked from my attempts to cool my fever, I had the feeling that I was boiling in a foam rubber pot.
I was saved by becoming a tenant/roommate of Tom Appenteng’s in Kanda. I'm make a wide swing here.
From January '93 to May '93, the groove in Kanda. But the jog was up. I had pushed a two month visa into a year's stay. It was time to return to the land of the Big P.X. Five months later (after an incredibly interesting stay in John Outterbridge's studio), I returned to Ghana. I had to, that's how homesick I was. Tom had promised me that he would rent his place to me when I returned. But neither one of us had counted on him going bonkers and going back to England, which is what he did. Well, instead of a four bedroom house in Kanda, I would up with an apartment within an apartment in Roman Ridge, from September '93 April ‘94. (It's a friend passing a word to a friend that secures a place in Accra, the space is crowded.)
Roman Ridge might be considered "upscale.” It has a number of embassies scattered about (The Iranian, Japanese, Brazilian, Italian and Ethiopians were with strolling distance) and several slabs of concrete that are called government subsidized housing.
The family I was turned onto (or that was turned on to me) consisted of a single mother with a huge, jealous boyfriend, a juvenile-15 years old delinquent son, a seductive 12 year old daughter and a semi maid with sticky fingers. The household squirmed with schemes and scams. There was never a weekend when someone didn't put in an appearance; the gold salesman, the woman selling the most gorgeous African cloth I‘ve ever seen, people offering hayrides in the sky, relatives.
I suspect the household, and specifically the lady of the house was quite disappointed with my failure to produce money spontaneously.
Greedy, conniving people. The boyfriend was always sneaking into my room to use my deodorant, cologne and toothpaste. The lady of the house was either borrowing money from me (or stealing stuff being mailed to me via her post office box). The son was attempting to borrow whatever he could borrow.
"May I wear your shirt today?”
The daughter was making an effort to push her budding breasts under my uninterested hands. The semi maid, Ama, was taking sexual naps in my bed with her latest boyfriend whenever I stayed away longer than an hour and then a completely larcenous brother put in an appearance.
I fled. I feel fortunate that I wasn't poisoned and my body parts sold for juju work. That’s a real item of business in Ghana.
I'm making a wide swing here. To Nungua.
Nungua, May, 1992, to January, 1995. How did I come to meet JaJa Bakari? No matter. He'll always be considered a fairy tale good genie in my book. He was the brother who offered me refuge from the vulturous people in Roman Ridge.
"Well, I'll be going out of the country next week but my man Kalo will be there, you can move in anytime.”
A spacious, four bedroom house, surrounded by a half acre of ground, cooled by an ocean breeze that found its way up the hill every day.
JaJa had his things to do and I had a novel to write. We were ideal roommates....
The five hundred page novel I wrote during the nine months we shared a house is called "The Snake.” Sometimes, when I seriously think back on it, "The Snake" seems to have written itself. It seems that way because of the frequency of the malaria episodes.
One night will always remain in my mind. I had had a really good writing evening, one of those times when it seems that twenty pages of well written novel flows from the ballpoint tip with only the slightest guidance from the ballpoint's jockey. I closed the notebook and strolled out onto the balcony to look at the distant lights that seemed to flutter like fireflies. Gorgeous Ghanaian night, a blood warm breeze from the ocean, the sound of a woman laughing ... drifting by.
I felt uneasy and I couldn't figure out why. I had eaten a wonderful vegetable fruit meal earlier. I had just received a check for thousands of cedis and my Capoeira class at Mr. T's was not only making me feel incredibly healthy, but was also giving me a little extra ABC beer money. I stared in the direction of the ocean, trying to recall the plot of an Indian film entitled "Distant Thunder.” The title of the film began to take on a life of its own after an hour. I couldn't get the “Distant Thunder" out of my head.
The distant thunder that was pounding my brain was no film, it was the hard attack of one of the worst malaria episodes I'd ever had. I didn't have any pills and it was too late for the pharmacy. I had to survive the night. Demons roared in my head that night -- small men with steel pointed boots kicked at my temples from the inside, and the pain intensified by the hour. I muffled my screams in my pillow. And I prayed. I prayed to every form of deity I could remember -- Esu, Obatala, Jesus, Allah, Buddha, Khrisna, everybody. None of them could help me. I started to jump off the balcony a dozen times but I had to rule that out because I knew it wasn't high enough for me to kill myself. I know I went insane for a period of time during that night. There was no other way to cope with the pain.
I felt long ribbons of screaming slip out of my throat, but I wasn't making a sound. The pounding inside my head had stolen my voice, I was shaking/trembling/freezing/melting from the pain.
The blue light of dawn hurt my eyes, but I began to feel that I would be able to make it.
I did make it, stuffed full of chloroquine pills and a couple other kinds of medicine. And I continued writing the next day. "The Snake" would not wait. Nine creative months in Nungua, under JaJa's root, a good time. JaJa is an unusual man, a brother who made it up from the streets of Detroit to get a degree in law from Berkeley University, and managed to pass the Ghanaian Bar to become the only African American qualified to practice law in Ghana.
Somewhere along the way he lost his right eye and became a vegetarian and a Muslim. The loss of his eye, his vegetarianism and his belief in Islam, simply added layers to his fascinating character.
In December, 1994, JaJa had a lady come into his life, into his house, and it was quite obvious that she and I were incompatible. What do you do when you discover that you can’t get along with your friend's woman? (In addition, I could detect a jealous streak in JaJa that was as long as my belt). You grab your hat, that's what you do.
I split on December 30th. It seemed to be very important to be in my own space at the beginning of the New Year. (I was having a neat little house built in a compound at Palm Wine Junction, but that was going Ghana slow. However, the contractor promised me that they would be finished in about a week. Ha!)
The Grace Jones Hotel in deepest Labadi was supposed to be a four day layover. It became a four month hangover because of the Christian crook name Ocansey. Never will forget OCANSEY - "I love Jesus.”“Do not be annoyed. We will be finished building your house within two more days."
He kept saying that so often that I almost began to believe him. Well, I wanted to at any rate. So, now, there we were, in the Grace Jones Hotel, Grace and I, waiting for our little palace to be plastered.
Grace and I had gotten to know each other when I lived in the crazyhouse of the African-American couple in Osu, back in 1992. We had become friends and lovers during my "incarceration" in the Fair Gardens Hotel, and she had visited me, nursed me and loved me through my time with Tom Appenteng, Marilyn Amponsah and family, and JaJa Bakari.
We were going to spend our lives together, beginning in the Grace Jones Hotel. Mr. Nai rented us the deluxe suite, the room with the shower. My friend, the taxi driver, Mr. Kwame Asiedu, had turned me on to the Grace Jones. "It’ll only be a matter of days before your house is finished.”
We had no real understanding of what the Grace Jones Hotel was really about until the first weekend settled in on us. It was a charming little fast foods sex house, rooms for rent by the half hour. (That might give you some idea of the attitude many Ghanaian males have about the act of love.)
Entrance, with a neat little bar to the side, where drinks wore sold through a window facing the dirt road, and a tavern courtyard behind a six foot high wall. Our room faced the tavern-courtyard, and it was cool.
In the U.S., in similar circumstances, say, a Figueroa Street motel with a drinking spot, it would have been a very bad situation. The Grace Jones was cool. A classy selection of ladies cruised the courtyard, the sudden lovers did their abbreviated thing without any sound, the music was ethnically interesting, not too loud, and the whole thing was short circuited at 10.00 P.M. or so. The Ghanaian party types will always have my vote for being the most intelligent, the quietest, most enjoyable people I've ever known to drink and enjoy themselves.
Many evenings I would come "home" to find the tables in the courtyard loaded with drinks and surrounded by drinkers, but no one, not in the four months we were there, ever got too loud and rowdy.
Same thing with the people who were renting rooms to the left, right, and across from us. One would think that people who were sharing so little time together would've been a wee bit more vocal, but they weren't.
I attributed the quiet way of doing things to the fact that we lived so closely together. It was in a sense, a way of protecting the other person’s privacy, and vice versa; it was the proper etiquette.
Four months is a nice slice of time for two people to spend together in one room, even with a shower. It wasn't a huge room and, aside from the curtain that opened out onto the courtyard (which we kept closed), it wasn't a particularly interesting room.
I wrote, sitting in a low slung chair, balancing my notebook on my lap while Grace sewed, or did whatever she did. And we got to know each other better than I've ever known another woman. Maybe it had something to do with the barriers we had to break through. The language barrier, as everyone knows, is a serious cloak for a collection of other barriers. Grace's English was her second language and she didn't do badly with it, but I often had doubts about how well I was being understood, whenever we got into any form of esoterica.
We tried to give me a little Twi to tongue on, but I gave up on it after two weeks. I think Ghanaian languages have to be learned when you're young and your ears are still fresh. But it didn't really seem to matter that much, our linguistic conundrums. We seemed to say an awful lot just staring at each other. I often floated above the scene, giving my mind new camera angles. The man is 58, the woman is 28. She's from a village town called Sunyani and he's from the concrete slave vessel called Chicago.
She is Ghanaian Christian, he believes in what is popularly called Santeria or, as some P.R. master in the African race calls it, The Religion.
She is slow, slow to dress, slow to anger, slow. He is not slow.
He has dealt with racism. She barely understands what it means.
He has been married three times, officially, and lived, marriedly, with several other women.
She has had one almost boyfriend in her life, prior to him.
He has done the do, gone to the orgies, used the drugs, unstoppered thousands of bottles, been infected by the socio maladies of a place that she can only imagine from watching the lies on t.v.
They are a caring, loving couple. One day, pressured by the need to come up with four thousand cedis every day, to pay for our room, and certain that the roof das on our house at Palm Wine Junction, we broke out of the Grace Jones Hotel.
Nothing flashy about the move, just doing what was necessary. If we had stayed another day in the Grace Jones, it would have made us rent peons for the rest of the year. Ocansey, the Christian crook construction man, had me paying him little extra bits of money to do “just this other little something,” while I was paying Mr. Nai his daily dose. I was paying money in two different directions and we still didn’t have a place of our own.
As time moved on, Ocansey lied and said that he would cover our hotel bill if his construction crew overran a certain date. They overran by a marathon length. The kind of head trip that makes grown men break down in Ghana, and everywhere else that this kind of beauromadness goes on.
We were in our own place, finally. Strangely, only a few things needed to be done after we took possession.
(I wonder if Mr. Nai worked out something with Ocansey. Maybe Ocansey would do a slow up to give Mr. Nai a chance to collect more cedis and, quite possibly, they could do a neat daily split.
That's what happens when you become involved with those kinds of people, paranoia is localized.)
We didn't have much furniture to bring in (the 'fridge, the bed, desk, chairs, pots 'n pans) but we were in our own place. It was the first time I had a home I could call my own and I was puffed up with pride. There were so many things to be done. But first, an indoor toilet. After the toilet, a television, and nice curtains. We began to make plans for our marriage.
It had been raining all day and it was still raining at midnight. The rain sounded like thousands of tennis balls being racqueted on the roof. I had a manageable episode of malaria.
I reached over the side of the bed to touch the cool floor and was surprised to feel the wetness. Maybe it meant that my fever was going away. Wetness? I leaned up to see that the floor was covered with water and rising; we were being flooded. It took about ten seconds for us to tie the mattress into a roll, cinch it the way you cinch a horse saddle and retreat to the kitchen, to stand on the kitchen table, in water up to our necks.
I've never felt calmer in my life. Is this what Death is like? We stood on our tippy toes, floating a bit watching the flood waters wash through our compound from our kitchen window.
It became very clear to me, that night, why our ancestors worshiped natural forces. The rain was no longer a blizzard, just a merciless downpour, a God. And the roar of the thunder, with an occasional flash of lightening, was a truly humbling experience. If the water rose above our heads we would drown after a while, very simple. I had flashes of Chinese criminals from another time, who were handcuffed, a stout rope placed around their necks and standing on a large cake of ice in a cage, on a warm day.
We talked, surprisingly small talk, made plans for our future together, listened to people stranded on their front porches scream at God, call to the gods, pray aloud. I cannot ever imagine that I will experience another night like that in my life. Aside from that during the course of the night, my malaria evaporated.
I had to reason that standing on a table, with tepid flood water up to my neck was the healing factor. And eventually the water was slowly leveled by drainage and the rain slowing down to a weird series of sprinkles. We were not going to drown after all.
In Los Angeles, I stood on the balcony of the 7th floor apartment, trembling slightly. Was the malaria still with me? No, just a bit of chilly air on the back of my neck. But it wasn't only the air. There were memories, flashbacks of the long night we spent in the flood water.
Back in the U.S. now (September 1995), wading through the bureaucracy to rescue Grace, the woman I want to spend my life with. The waters of the bureaucracy are as deep and murky as the flood waters were, but no matter, we've learned the art of surviving without surrendering.
Accra comes to me from so many directions, in so many ways. There is always the dreamlike quality that accompanies any thoughts I have about the place. The afternoons I spent sitting on the second floor balcony of Watos in Central Accra, the "downtown" section, just across the way from the main post Office, drinking beer and staring at the masses of people swirling through the roundabout. So many people, an African people, glittering with life, blazing with color, each person doing two, three, four things at the same time.
See the mother selling smoked fish from a large, round wooden platter on her head, bargaining with another woman about the bananas she's selling, while she carries on a sidebar conversation with a girlfriend and nurses her baby simultaneously. The swirling of the masses in the roundabout are indications of a rhythm that could not be found anywhere else on earth. There are moments when the rhythm seems to be so far off that it will never find the One again, yet it does miraculously.
There are so many stories, rhythms, that it becomes intoxicating to even try to focus on just one; the naked woman walking through the collection of stories, people... is she mad? fulfilling a religious obligation? or am I hallucinating? A miniature dance drum ensemble (I count six) gracefully performs for the river of people who pass around them. They give five minute performances on the pavement that would put any of the well known, so called National companies, to shame. They are so good that even poor people throw a few cedis in their direction. Men pull loads in the broiling sun that would force a donkey to collapse in his tracks. Women carry children on their backs and mountains on their heads. People dribble the effects of diarrhea behind them, all of us have malaria and radio announcements warn us of the Cholera.
Grotesque cripples, people with body deforming diseases, all kinds of beggars inhabit the roundabout.I feel a dreamlike film settle over my consciousness as I think about what I did while I was there, the moments of exhilaration and depression. The exhilaration might stem from the flavor of a well made kenkey or palm nut stew, or the wonderful atmosphere of a great funeral. The depressions were always stimulated by the sight of small boys and girls working adult days, and poor adults acting as watchmen and gatekeepers for the wealthy. The wholesale corruption ("dash") and inefficiency were bonus factors in the mix.
Accra, the glazed ocean over there, hopes, dreams, woven with beautifully brownished black faces, wearing jungles of color around their hips. Men, brothers, filled with the blood of my fathers and mothers, Accra, a place that will always be my home.
Dreamtime in Ghana
From Florence to Imperial...
The smoke was still spiraling up into the sulfite caked clouds of the Los Angeles Basin, the residuals of the Rodney King whipping riots, as 'SC circled out to sea and made a u turn east for the trip to the Motherland, May 6, 1992.
We lived at palm Wine Junction in Labadi, around the corner from everything. I used to get up about 8:00 A.M. every morning, two hours after most of the people living in our compound, and walk a half mile to the Ghana Trade Fair Center to take a shit. This was before we had our own personal indoor toilet/shower put in.
I had a double/hidden agenda. I wanted to rid myself of the fufu/kenkey fish and pepper that I had eaten the night before. For some esoteric reason, it seemed extremely important that I clean myself of yesterday's stuff, before I began to sample the magic of the day. After the crap, in a far corner of the Trade Fair Center's bowels, I did my Capoeira workout. I'm sure I will never feel that sense of wellness again. Perhaps, as usual, I was a day or two past my latest episode of severe malaria, punctuated by curative Chloroquine tabs and four brutal shots in the ass at the local maternity clinic. Down to the proper body weight and having the agility granted with the weight loss made me feel supergood. Just being alive” after a malaria attack made me feel supergood. I was in Ghana about a month before I had malaria the first time. It was the malaria, more than anything else, that caused this to be called "Dreamtime.” I never knew anything about malaria before I went to live in Ghana.
Malaria had always been a mysterious tropical ailment that caused Englishmen to give up their will to conquer all of West Africa, or a sickness accompanied by sitar music in one of Satyajit Ray's films. The mosquito that vomited into my bloodstream, that first time, introduced me to one of the world's most horrible experiences. It's the intimacy of the experience, the personal fever, the personal chills, the pounding headaches, the aching joints, the weakness, the hallucinations. No one could possibly feel this sick but me. After a few dozen bouts with the monster, I could predict its coming. But I could never prevent it. I took the anti malaria tabs and all that, but they only seemed to delay the experience. It seems, for some gruesome reason, some people are going to have malaria, no matter what they do to prevent it. Maybe we are simply the malaria prone people.
After a year of malaria attacks I found myself capable of going into the heart of the matter. I wanted to die, and I did, for fifteen minutes one night. On another occasion, I climbed into a celestial swing that gently pushed me from the horizon to the sky. I was overwhelme6 with the joy of the rush that swept through my being as the soft winds seemed to glisten inside myself. I was the bell of a beautiful horn, gleaming, brassy, starting the world with incredibly atonal music. Drums polyrhymed my temples as I tried to keep an accent in mind, a One that was going to keep me sane.
When it got too bad, I did some celestial hiking, floating over rocky places as I stared down at grandparents I'd never known. Grotesque images made me scream silently, I think. Under the influence of the malaria I felt my blood boil, freeze, coagulate. In between the triphammer kicks of the little men wearing steel toed boots trying to kick their way out of my forehead, I felt the total calm that exists in the eye of a hurricane.
Add self pity to the mix and we have the ingredients for a potentially suicidal situation. I asked myself and I asked others "why not commit suicide when this stuff gets this bad?"
”Some do,” someone told me. I wanted to, before the malaria caused me to have temporary amnesia.
“The Third World," that's the designation that Chairman Mao Tze Tung is supposed to have given for that huge cauldron of colored people who are living substandard lives. I would call it Another World.
It is Another World, and therein, everything is topsy turvy. And, without a doubt, it is the people in Another World who make it what it is. The people are fantastic, gorgeous, wonderful, beautiful, intelligent, stupid, all of the things that people are everywhere, except that the coloring of Another world gives them a more vivid cast.
Another World is where everyone seems to accept the unusual as usual. There is no consistent pattern to any of the bureaucratic frames of reference, no way of knowing which way the wind will be blowing, from day to day. Sometimes the people who would most benefit from cheating won't cheat. But at other times, they may become rapacious. It may have less to do with the economy than with the emotional vibe. I can close my eyes and hear the drums playing in Nungua and Kokrobile. I can smell the rotted rat shit stench from the roadside drain gutters in Osu, the deadly funk of ol' Jamestown, the red light district of Adabraka, where big butt Ester lives.
A glistening sunlight flickers through the trees, dappling the long walk home in Roman Ridge, creating hot and cool spots inches from each other. I pause, thirsty, broke, to have a well chilled bottle of ABC on credit in Herman's Tropical Hut Bar. I walk from Betty's Shalizar Bar in Osu, to Susan Amegashie Ashi's Montessori School in LaBone, where a well chilled bottle of Star beer is waiting or will be called for.
Kanda and thousands of bats circling the sky above King Road at 5:15 P.M. And finally, Labadi, where a piece of my soul was chipped away one wet night. I can close my eyes and hear NaNa's voice, that strange, musical cackling that she spoke in, coated with a heavy chocolate veil of compassion, love and concern.
Dear KoJo Yankah, the brother who gave me the opportunity to write and direct the "Inspector Bediako" detective series, a first for Ghanaian, and maybe for West African history. How many times have I been given the opportunity to write and direct a television show in America? Without even showing a glamourous resume.
Susan Amegashie, before and after she became Ashi, a visionary and the sweetest hearted human being in Accra, unless you mess with her.
Betty Adule Kotey, my savior on so many occasions I lost count. Betty, the woman who pulled me through gates that were locked and chained by malaria; the beautiful person who fed me and talked with so much logic that some of what she said still makes sense. Brother Kwame, the cynical taxi driver, who gave me hours of rides and shared my prayers.
"The check is in the mail....”
Grace Hlovor, the philosopher-maid, who clearly understood who she was and where her place was, and where my place was.
"Everyone wants to be something they are not or something they think they should be. I only want to be what I am, a maid. I'm satisfied with that.”
Oscar Provencal, the Actor. Never could see Oscar being anything other than an actor, with his deeply dramatic voice. Akosua Abdallah, also an actress, and a gorgeous woman, the essence of femininity, swathed in her diaphanous gowns and robes. As Salaam Alaikum.
Pastor Betty, the Iyalosa Tanina Shongobumnis’s double in Ghana. It would be hard to believe that two people could be so much alike and live in two different parts of the world. I never saw Pastor Betty without thinking of the Iyalosa.
They parade across the back of my brain, a stream of warm figures, JaJa, my Osu Capoeira Group, Lina, ahhhh, Lina, the pixie headed White girl who woke me up to the possibilities of White people behaving in a civilized way.
Victor, the Shotokan gentleman who studied Capoeira Regional with me, from Sierra Leone. Jan, the German from Hamburg, via Rio de Janeiro and who only knows where else? Doris, the charming bar owner in the Fair Gardens Hotel, who had only two bottles to pour from and made a profit from each one of them.
And always Grace, my love. If I had had any notion that it was going to be such a problem for us to be reunited in America, I would have stayed in Ghana. The sun, blisters, fungus, okro stew at twilight, small, important pleasures, made larger by the circumstances. Walking again. Where? Maybe it doesn't matter. Maybe the important thing is to walk and think. Walking and thinking in Accra requires yogic concentration. Without thinking you may walk too far, or if you are thinking, you might not walk far enough, but it is inevitable to walk, unless someone is driving you or you are driving yourself.
Accra is one of the great walking cities in the world. It is possible to walk from the ocean to Burkino Faso. Or from Jamestown to Kwame Nkrumah Circle without stumbling across one obstacle. Well, to be absolutely honest, it may not be quite that easy. A number of things may occur; the riptide of human waves may be an impediment, the thousands of people swarming from place to place, without the synchronized choreography of a school of fish or a flock of geese.
There are moments, times when it seems that every individual is going in his/her individual direction. The thing to do is go with the flow, wherever it's going and return to the private journey later. The sun may be the catalyst for disorientation, forcing the purposeful hiker to pause for bottles of ABC en route to wherever he/she might be going. Gripping sights might arrest the unwary walker with the intensity of their effects; the leper woman with a hole where her nose used to be. The thousands of cripples, crippled in ways that are seldom seen in the "developed countries." People with limbs that look like spider legs, with movements to match. Sad baby faces with eyes that have seen so much misery that they can't become any older, they only die and hope to be reborn. Legions of beggars, madmen and women.
Who will ever forget the sight of the young women who walked east and west on the beach, back and forth, mile after mile, day and night, totally naked, totally insane? What happened to her? Did she drown? And the insane couple who found each other in Labadi, who ripped live chickens into manageable pieces and ate them? It doesn't pay to think a lot about what you may see, if there is a time frame involved. An hour's walk in Accra may last a week, a week a month, a month a year, a year a lifetime. The seasons change slowly, strangely, in Accra. Sometimes it's raining, sometimes it's hot and dry, and then there are in between times filled with the stuff that no season is made of. No please, it may never be possible to get where you’re going in Accra, but maybe that's the point of walking.
From Imperial to Compton Station ...
The Accra Girls Secondary School writing class will have to remain my plum description of unrequited love.
I still can't identify the demonic impulse that provoked me to go into the school and offer my services.
My inclination could probably be considered perverse, depending on whose point of view is considered. Personally, it seems to be the most intelligent way to get to know a large number of beautiful young women at one time. A completely collapsible educational system was the conclusion I reached, after two sessions. Mrs. Gartey, this gorgeous, chocolate skinned woman with the most kissable looking mouth in the world, was my "faculty liaison," but I only saw her for brief, lust filled chats, every now and then.
So, I'm granted total access to fifty gorgeous African females, aged fifteen to eighteen. And most of them are virgins... virgins.. virgins physically, mentally, socially, ideologically. Virginal in every sense that you could think of a young woman being a virgin. No one asked me for a resume, a copy of my degree, teaching certificate, nothing. I was an African-American who showed up one day and said "I'd like to teach a creative writing class here."
A completely collapsible educational system. I could have been some kind of Jack the Ripper. I wasn’t, I couldn't be. I could only do the class and voyeur. There we were, in some off room in the system, fifty yards from the girl's dorms on the other side of the graveled road. How many days did I hurry to get to school a half hour forty five minutes early? Just to fold my arms on the window ledge and casually adore some of the most feminine women I have ever seen.
They strolled, ran, skipped, slouched, paraded in and out of the dorm dressed in wrap around lapa towels, white sheets (in emergencies), and a variety of slips. I never knew that women's underslips were considered decent cover for outdoor wear. There were days when it seemed that the world was filled with pouting nipples, spitting out at my eyes from the top halves of these glittering underslips.
And my students, "my girls" I called them, were coming from these very same dorms. A half dozen times I tried to match up the image of the beautifully undressed girl (that I had just seen from the window) with the green checked skirt and starched white blouse sitting in front of me. I never made the correct match up. They seemed to become different people with each change of clothes, but they were all beautiful. Some of them were West African heavy, not fat, but heavy from solid meals with kenkey, banku and dende.
Many of them were thin, almost too thin I thought, dealing with the nutritional deficiencies of their school cafeteria, but they were all beautiful.
They didn't know anything about reefer rum wine beer sex soaked nights, the kinds of decadence that most high school students in America take for granted. Or dirty pictures. They were fascinated, and I'm sure they thought I was lying, when I talked about the behavior of the young people in our schools.
“Sah, even the young Blacks behave this way also?"
It took two weeks and four class sessions to answer that question. They forced me, with the plainest of their innocence, to stay away from the glib, the slick, the simplistic.
There was no doubt in anybody's mind, after a full month, that I adored them. And it was clear that they felt the same way about me. Such sweet love. We did it with our eyes melting, our voices softly seeking the answer, serious respect.
I had designs on three of the eighteen year olds, but a reasonable discussion with myself over a cold ABC gave me the conclusions that I needed. So, what would happen? I would make love with them, one by one, and it would be joyous. And then what? I was definitely not prepared to play "sugah daddy." And I couldn't really imagine what life would be like trying to explain who Bird, Diz, Coltrane, Miles and Billie had been, amongst other things.
Fatima, Mabel and Esi. They rotated our deeply felt conversations so cleverly I'm inclined to believe that they must have put a schedule together. The conversation took place after class was over and never lasted for less than an hour. Fatima was the most mature, in terms of vision and physiology. She had eyes like a doe in heat and gave me a lot to think about. "I cawn't stand it, sah, I really cawn' t. Why must you persist in tawlking to me as though I were a child? I am not a child. I can certainly assure you of that. And I do know what goes on between men and women.”
I closed my eyes a lot whenever I talked ("tawlked") to Fatima. Number one, I was terribly tempted to stop her from talking by kissing her. Number two, I was utterly fascinated by the rich sound of this Ghanaian-British accent (no pidgin in Ghana for some reason, not like Nigeria) coming from the mouth of an eighteen year old from the Volta region.
My arguments against doing what we both wanted to do were decidedly weak, but supplied just enough barricade for us to prevent ourselves from crawling over. During the course of one of our final discussions, a few weeks before the end of the term, we fell into each other’s arms and cried passionately.
Mabel was more determined than Fatima, but a bit too romantic to be taken seriously.
"why don't you confess, sah, confess that it's me you love?"
(I could never stop them from calling me “sah,” not even when we discussed condoms, diaphragms, pills, birth control. "Yessah.")
"But, Mabel, how can you say I love you? I’ve never said anything like that.”
“You don't have to say it, sah, I can feel it."
Esi made me feel vulnerable because she looked so vulnerable. She was quite short and very stacked and she knew quite well how to use her height, or my height, to her best advantage.
For example, she never failed to have the top two buttons of her blouse open whenever we talked. And she had a breathless way of making these two rich brownskinned orbs of soft flesh palpitate to make her point.
“I know that you care about the other girls much more than you care about me, sah. But that's not important. What is important to me, sah, is that you know I love you and I always will.”
No need to lie about it, these protestations of affection from these three young ladies directly, and others indirectly, certainly did a lot to boost my ego. But it was like empty calories. They weren’t women and I needed a woman.
Weirdly, I became acutely aware of that need, surrounded by all of these gorgeous girl women.
They were becoming women but they had not arrived yet, and that kept me honest. I kept my distance.
I often think about "my girls" and I'm sure they must think of me. I'm proud to say that I never had to ask any of them if she still respected me the morning after.