The assault on your senses. The oven-hot heat. The dampness. The sickly-sweet smell of flowers, of something deeply tropical. That’s what hits you when you step off the plane. Then you enter the air-conditioned lounge and you think, ah yes!
No hassle at immigration, if you have your papers in order. No intimidation at customs. Of course, there’s bound to be that sly official who gives you the longing look, eyeing your bulging suitcases in hopes of catching you with commercial goods. That way he/she can extract a “gift” from you while smiling with benevolence. If you stand your ground, the smile wilts to a sigh. Shoulders drooping, they let you go.
When you step outside, no men converge on you to grab your suitcases in their determination to earn tips; progress! You get into a taxi with joy, and then you notice the bluish smoke and oil smell from the exhaust of vehicles and you wonder, how is everyone not dead from lung cancer? Perhaps it’s the casual attitude, the belief that life is in God’s hands, the belief that nothing is a big deal. Whatever the case, you might be tempted to fear breathing this fetid air for the rest of your life. Don’t run away. Be a part of the solution. Because here’s the thing, your blackness is not an offence. No one grabs her purse tighter due to the vicinity of your blackness. No one flees from a shopping aisle because you’ve entered the same space. In fact, you’ll get tired of the madaming and sirring. Besides, where in America can you go to a clubhouse and strangers buy you fried yam, fish, drinks, and offer to drive you home?
That’s what it feels like to return to Ghana, this pampering, this belonging. Sure, it’s the honeymoon phase, but who cares? Just spray your legs and arms with the insecticide you must always carry with you. Stretch out your legs, sip on your passion-mango juice, savor the spicy kyinkyinga (grilled grass-fed beef), and laugh at jokes. You are home, baby!
When someone told me Ebony had died, my response was a meh, “Who is she?” Then the person pointed out she’d sung most of my favorite songs, songs I thought were crooned by a man with a contralto voice. Shocked, I hightailed it to YouTube to watch her videos. Sponsor, detailing the disillusionment arising from having a sugar daddy, is my favorite, followed by Maame Hwɛ (Mama, look). The latter is particularly haunting, an illustration of the perils of online relationships with strangers. Other songs featured her in full sensual mode, twerking (Hustle) or lounging under a sultry sun, intoning the addictive power of passion (Poison). She displayed a sensuality that was at once rampant and innocent, like the near-child she was. Twenty-one years old. Now gone.
Shortly after the accident, the tongues began flapping: She was too wild. Her parents were to blame for being too permissive. What was she doing at 10 pm on the road, etc., etc., and, as the French would say, et patati, et patataa. Fascinated by the controversy she stirred, the journalist in me went into research mode. I dug into her life as much as I could. The picture that emerged was quite different from the gossip. It was one of good-nature, fun, and depth.
It speaks to Ebony’s character that she had a wonderfully close relationship with her parents, especially her father. She was bubbly, child-like with them, hugging, sitting on their laps, just happy to be alive. At the height of her popularity, having won so many awards, she could have become arrogant and rebellious. She could have distanced herself from family. She could have been living on her own, all hoity-toity. Instead, she chose to be nurtured and sheltered under the umbrella of family. She shared her wealth. It is this family support that probably kept her confident and secure, thus preventing her from falling prey to unscrupulous men.
People ignored the didactic nature of her lyrics (written by her songwriter) and assumed she was singing about herself. She didn’t have a sugar daddy. She never left home to live with a stranger she met online. Even more remarkable, she didn’t have a boyfriend, not that it would have been wrong. It certainly wasn’t for lack of male admiration. Not only did she not have a boyfriend, to the best of available knowledge, she wasn’t sleeping with any of her business associates, nor was she linked romantically to any of them. Rather than vilify her, we should praise her for her independence, her loving nature and, above all, her amazing voice.
In Africa, and perhaps the world over, there is an assumption that a woman who is sensual and free-spirited is automatically promiscuous. It’s a fallacy. Independent-minded, sexy women like Ebony tend to be romantic and love deeply. They are frank, don’t play games and give themselves only if they want to, because of a genuine attraction or love. When they do, they hold nothing back. Demure women may appear goody-goody, chaste on the outside, but they are more likely to be seduced by men they don’t want. Some can be easily manipulated. They are sometimes hypocritical. Someone like Ebony is unlikely to sleep with a man for money, or do it under pressure.
The Ebonys of this world are more complex than people give them credit for. They are often highly intelligent. Although she didn’t pursue higher education, sources say she was a quick learner, a woman of above average intelligence. At times, she was a nerdy girl sans makeup, sporting humongous glasses on her nose, warning people to listen to their mother. Other times, well, she appeared to be wearing little more than cobwebs, her lithe figure on display. No doubt, she dripped with sensuality. But she was also vulnerable. Had she lived, I would have feared for her. I would have liked to whisper in her ears to be careful. She was far too trusting of the world, something women issued from loving parents can be guilty of. She risked getting her heart broken. She risked making mistakes. She risked her reputation, formed by a projected notion of who people thought she was.
It’s cruel that people have attacked her parents for allowing her the freedom to express herself. Her parents knew her better than anyone else, and they knew she wasn’t a tart. She was unique. Whatever their perceived shortcomings, they did the best they knew how.
I am crushed by Ebony’s death, but thankfully, her music endures. She was a star who shared her light with us for a short time, but what a treasure trove she left. She lived more in her short life than many live in decades. I take consolation in the fact that she died at the height of her trust, exuberance and courage, something the world might have dimmed in her. And contrary to what people thought, she was a woman of deep faith and trust in God. She wasn’t contemptuous. She wasn’t promiscuous. She wasn’t a bad girl. She wasn’t a saint either. A brave, secure and insightful man could have loved and be loved by her. Only brave and secure men can handle the Ebonys of this world. Thankfully, those men exist. To them, Ebonys will give their all.
Okay, I’m peeved. More than slightly. Ghanaians, when will you stop this nonsensical self-imposed colonialism?
During my tenure as International Specialist for the U.S. Foreign Agricultural Service, some American teachers and I visited an elementary school in Ghana. I was appalled to learn that new students, we’re talking six-year-olds, had to be able to communicate well in English before being accepted into a good school. The result of this stupid practice is that the younger generation can’t speak their native language anymore. Parents want to get their children into the best schools, so right from birth, they speak English to them. This is wrong on many levels.
One of the fallacies of education is that a child will get confused learning two or three languages a time. Because I bought into it, my American-born children couldn’t speak Fanti, my native language, for many years. Even now, they speak it poorly. While it is true that children mix up languages when learning more than one at a time, they sort them out by the time they are five or even earlier. At four years old, I spoke Yoruba, Asante Twi and English. By fourteen, I spoke two additional Twi dialects and Ga.
Children whose parents speak their native language to them grow up naturally bilingual, and develop stronger thinking skills, not less. My Czech friend spoke Czech to her kids; now the children are bilingual and excelled in school. My aunt in Virginia spoke Fanti to her children. They grew up speaking English and Fanti, and have done exceedingly well. These are children growing up in America. So why is it that those g rowing up in Ghana can’t speak their own language? What a travesty!
What is even more troubling is that some of these Ghanaian parents can’t speak English well. I’m talking about those who didn’t even make it to high school, who speak a halting English replete with faulty grammar. They raise children who say things like, “He have came and took my book.” This actually makes the teacher’s job harder. It’s like trying to mold cement after it has hardened. Fortunately, the children, especially if they go on to the university, learn to speak English well, but then they can’t have any meaningful conversation with their parents!
There’s nothing sadder than not being able to have a deep conversation or share jokes with one’s parents. Ghanaians are humorous and sprinkle their language with proverbs. A lot of wit is lost in translation. Children who can’t communicate with their parents end up despising them, which leads to conflict. Even sadder than that is the loss of culture, something parents pass on to their children. Ghanaians have a rich culture, from the naming ceremony when a child is born, the outdooring at three months when the child is celebrated in the community, puberty rites, etc., etc. How are these going to be conducted? Oh, sure, in English, but so much is missed.
It is important to know one’s language well. Language defines a people, whether you’re American or Ghanaian or both. Bottom line, learn your language well; it’s your heritage. People need to have a good understanding of their culture so they can cut out what is unwholesome while embracing newer ideas. That’s how we grow as human beings. So Ghanaians, stop demanding English before enrollment. Stop teaching your children that their language is inferior and hence their culture is inferior. Embrace the best of both cultures. Colonialism is over.
She turns the glare of her slit eyes on me. “What do you want me to do? If we don’t burn it, this place would be nasty.”
I cast my eyes along the road. There’s not a single trash can in sight. Only twenty yards down from us, another roasted plantain seller waits on a customer. Once called Kofi Brokeman, roasted plantain with groundnuts is no longer a meal for the poor. Lagos Avenue in affluent East Legon is dotted with women roasting away. Nowhere to put their trash.
I turn to Dodzi. “Don’t you wish the government would put rubbish bins on the street?”
Both women snort. “Ghana government?!”
Dodzi gives me a side glance full of scorn. “They should put rubbish bins where? No one cares, tweaa! Go to Kasewa. There are mountains of rubbish everywhere. Right by the rubbish heaps, they sell foodstuffs. Trᴐtrᴐ drivers drop and pick up passengers right in front of a mountain of rubbish. Kai! It’s true. So, we do what we can. We sweep and burn the rubbish because there’s nowhere else to put them.”
My words dry up. What can I say? I should be attacking Accra City Council or something, not her.
“What about these,” I say, pointing at a carton full of plantain skins to my right. “Why aren’t you burning them?”
“Those? We sell them at Medina market. They use them to make alata sɛmena. The black soap, you know. They burn them and cook the ash.”
Her friend chimes in. “It’s a long process of boiling and cooling and until the soap rises to the surface. You can smell it.”
“I can show you how to do it if you like.” Dodzi says. Then she turns indignant. “That soap, I grew up with it. We always made our own soap. Now, they, they, they, they say we should use Dove, Lux, stuff from foreign lands. Our soap makes your skin feel good and young. Our food is better too! Look at you, looking so young. It’s because you’re eating roasted plantain and groundnuts, Ghana food. You’ve got fresh blood! Ghana food is good for you. I’m sure you’ve got a boyfriend. I’m sure all these young men are chasing you. Someone is fucking you, no?”
I’m spared a response, because at that precise moment, she spots a young man strolling past. He is clicking a pair of tiny scissors. “Herh!” she calls. “Come cut my nails for me.”
“Who is that?” I ask.
“He cuts nails. That’s his business.”
What do you know, an ambulatory mani-pedicurist! He swivels round and steps behind the plantain stand. Dodzi sits like a lady riding side saddle on a horse. She can roast her plantains and peel off groundnut skins at the same time, filling tiny plastic envelopes with the peeled nuts. Her bare feet hang down, and the pedicurist goes to work. He’s from the north, with the tribal marks of a Frafra though he communicates in Hausa.
“Where are the leaves for the apklɛ?” Dodzi’s friend asks. Dodzi points at an aluminum bowl. The friend picks up the bowl and begins separating the leaves from the stems. Then she turns to me. “Do you know akplɛ?”
“Sure, I do. Is it not like banku, only with more cassava?”
“Aha, you see?” Dodzi says. “Some people don’t know, just because it’s Ewe food. We are all one Ghana, with slight differences.”
“It’s true,” I answer. “So how much for the pedicure?”
Her friend jumps in. “One cedi.”
One cedi! Less than 25 American cents. Dodzi laughs at my expression. “Yeah, you can go to the salon for a pedicure where they put your feet in warm water and do all kinds of fancy stuff. Me? I don’t have time for that. I can paint my own nails when I get home. I don’t need to pay 20/30 cedis when I can get my nails cut for one cedi and not waste time.”
“She has to go home and cook for her family,” the friend says. “She’s going to make soup with the leaves to go with the akplɛ. She doesn’t have time for salons. That’s why I’m helping her.”
“No, this pedicure is great,” I say. “Look, he’s even got his soap for cleaning the nails. Wow.”
Nail clippings settle on the ground near my feet. I ask if they are going to sweep them and burn them. A look of horror overtakes Dodzi. “Sweep them and throw them away? My nails? No, no, no!”
“Ah, Sister, don’t you know? Human nails are powerful. You never know what people are going to do with them. I’m taking them home to burn or bury.”
I’m confused. “What will people do with them?”
“They can do medicine. Ei, hmm. You don’t know! Maybe someone is jealous of you. She takes your nails to the medicine man, and next thing you know, you’re dead. Or your belly gets swollen with rotten intestines.”
“Let me tell you,” the friend says, “even your soiled menstrual pads can be used.”
“Yes!” Dodzi says. “Do you know people steal those from your rubbish bin? Hmm, I had a neighbor. Ah, she kept noticing that any time she woke up, her rubbish was scattered on the ground, like someone used a stick to poke and separate them. And yet when she collected them, she would notice that not a single used pad was to be found. Her neighbor was stealing her used pads to use them for medicine.”
“You don’t know? They put water on it to redeem your blood, then they take it to the medicine man to make juju and either sabotage your business or kill you. Ei, let me tell you. I even know someone who would stalk her enemy at the hairdresser’s to get her hair. Make sure you collect your bits of hair when you go to the salon.”
I nod in shock.
“Don’t let them keep your nails. And watch out for your pads.”
“Erm…thanks.” I don’t want to tell her about my hysterectomy. Who knows where that conversation would lead to? “So, where do you get the paper you use to wrap plantain in?”
“Medina market. You can get anything from Medina—Hey, MTN!” She’s looking at a lady sitting under a large red umbrella selling phone cards. “Bring me ten cedis’ credit.”
I marvel at how Dodzi multitasks: roasting plantains, serving customers, prepping for dinner, getting her nails done and keeping up with the competition.
“There are so many of you roasting plantain,” I say. “Don’t you worry about not getting enough business?”
She smiles confidently. “No, there’s enough for us. God provides for us all. They have their customers; I have mine. Like you. You come back, don’t you?”
“I do,” I say, smiling wickedly. “Even though your plantain wedges are thinner than others!”
Her tongs hang in the air. She looks betrayed. “You bought from someone else? What?”
“Well, erm, sometimes I have to. If I can’t fight the traffic to get here. But you’re my favorite!”
She smiles and shrugs, turning over a plantain. “Anyway, I can’t envy anyone. My customers always come back.” She picks up a stick and pokes at the coal.
I know I will always come back. She’s sassy and witty. And she’s my friend.
At 9:30 a.m, Dodzi has already roasted wedges of plantain arranged in a pyramid, the thin ends converging upwards. Her face glistens with sweat. She perches on the table that supports the rusty enamel pot of smoldering charcoal, using tongs to turn over the plantains. Usually her eyes hold a sardonic grin but when she sees me slow down in my car, she breaks into delight, displaying even teeth I envy.
I pull over. She jumps down to come for my order, but I wave her back, motioning I’m getting out. Before my car arrived from America, I used to walk to her plantain stand, taking my time to point out which ones I wanted, sometimes eating there. Now, I’ve become one of those enclosed in an air-conditioned car, waiting for a seller to approach my window and fill my order before driving off. I’ve missed the leisure of relating.
Dodzi says something in Ewe to her younger helper and they both smile. I suspect she said I’ve come to visit this time. My purse slung over my shoulder, I cross the gutter and make my way to the bench behind her roofed stand. We exchange greetings. She’s well; I’m well. I sigh with contentment. The breeze is so tingly.
I’ve thought of writing about her and even prepared questions on my phone but have never found the time. Now I ask her if I can take her picture and probe into her business. She rolls her eyes and snorts. “People are always coming to ask us questions. Newspaper people, Legon students, asking all sorts of questions. We don’t know what they want with us.” She darts a suspicious look at me. “What are you going to do with my picture?”
“I want to write a blog about you,” I say.
“What is a blog?” She throws her hands up, shaking her head. “I don’t want trouble!”
“Oh, just an online article. Something I write for fun.” She’s still suspicious, so I pull out my phone and open my blog. “See?”
Somehow, she gets the idea that it’s only in America and relaxes, flipping plantains over. I feel a smidgen of guilt for not telling her I have readers the world over.
“Should I give you the usual?” she asks.
“Yes,” I say. “Two cedis, and one-cedi groundnuts.” In the glove compartment of my car, some nuts from the previous day nestle in their clear plastic envelope the size of a deck of cards, but I want to give her business. She hands me two hot plantains wrapped in paper. They are just the way I like them: not too ripe. I settle down to munch and talk, looking round me. I’m not sure how to proceed. The questions I’ve prepared suddenly seem artificial:
How much do you make in a day?
Enough, she answers without looking at me. She has no time for that kind of silliness. A suited customer awaits in a car. She rushes to the window to take his order, then she serves him, wrapping four cuts of plantains in paper before slipping all into a blue plastic bag. After delivery, she smiles at the man and waves him off.
“You still serve in plastic?” I ask when she returns to her perch on the table.
She sighs. “Yes, I told you before, they won’t take the plantains without plastic. I hear on the radio; they tell us plastic with hot food is dangerous, but if I don’t give them plastic, they ask me if I take them for bush people. Look at them, educated people wearing suits in their cars and they want plastic. What can I do? I have to serve them in plastic or they will go to someone else. I wish they were like you. It would save me money. I have to buy these plastic bags that might kill my customers.” Her smile is bitter, sardonic again.
As she’s talking, a friend of hers from the other side dodges the Lagos Avenue traffic and dashes over, smiling at me. “Ei, Mommy, you have come to visit us again.”
I give her a half smile. Mommy. It’s a politeness thing that makes me feel ancient. I loathe it.
“Ei, is that your car?” she asks. “I remember you complaining about dusty taxis, haha.”
“She’s complaining about plastic again,” Dodzi says, wiping her hands in her blue apron.
“Hmm, Mommy, as for die, we will all die. It’s in God’s hands.”
“That’s what’s wrong with this country,” I say with heat. “We take no responsibility for our lives. We say, Oh, God is in control, so we don’t need to change our toxic behavior, we don’t need to take care of ourselves!”
“That’s why we go to church,” the friend says. “When it’s your time to die, you die. But you go to heaven.”
I snort. “Yeah, church is fine, that’s why pastors have so much power. People are so full of “God is in control” that pastors are the ones in control. No wonder they take people’s money and impregnate their women.”
The friend gives me a tolerant smile and turns to Dodzi, but Dodzi smiles contemptuously.
“Sister, I agree with you,” she says. “Let me tell you, I know this pastor. He prays for women who can’t have children and when the children are born they all look like him, ha! He fucks the women, that’s what. I am no fool. I know what is going on, but people are afraid of pastors so men let them chop their wives, ha!” Her laughter is full of scorn.
I’m impressed. Usually the not so educated aren’t this irreverent. As we’re talking, her younger helper sweeps around us. I’m about to ask Dodzi more questions about pastors when I notice her starting a fire about ten yards from us.
I turn to Dodzi, pointing. “Is she burning the rubbish?”
“Yes.” She goes on flipping plantains, the perfect arches of her brows serene. She squeezes a plantain to see if it’s cooked through, then wipes her hand on her apron. A customer awaits. She serves quickly, asking the lady to have a nice day.
I eye the gray smoke rising into the air, then I note that on a long table near us, sachets of pure water are stacked in an ice cooler, as well as soda.
Although you and I met only yesterday while buying dresses, I’m surprised you asked me to help you snag a man who could give you money. Just because I play tennis with men doesn’t mean I hold any sway over them. When I told you they were mostly married, you shrugged, gave me a coy smile and said you just wanted someone to take care of you. And yet you have a boyfriend, a man who is good to you, who is pursuing a Master’s degree while working. I have difficulty making sense of this.
I bought one blouse and one dress. You, my dear, took twelve, seven of which you asked the seller to hold for you. Even those you took home, you didn’t pay for. You intend to pay in installments. Why saddle yourself with debt at your age? That beautiful dress you were wearing that you said was second-hand at only ten cedis was far more beautiful than any of the ones you picked yesterday. If you didn’t go around announcing it was second-hand, no one would know.
It’s not because I’m a returnee from America that I don’t understand. In America, people buy second-hand clothes from yard sales, thrift or consignment stores too. You bet I have. Rich people have done it. But to a more pressing question: why do you need twelve dresses at a go? Don’t you know that today’s fashion will soon be replaced by another? Whom are you trying to compete with? Keeping up with your friends? The Kardarshians?
It’s true there are girls in America who become sugar babies to sugar daddies that bankroll them, though the practice isn’t as widespread as it is here in Ghana. And yes, American girls have more financial opportunities than their Ghanaian counterparts. But I did graduate from the university of Ghana. To my knowledge, neither I nor any of my close friends chose to let older men shoot their sperm into us for the sake of money.
When I was a student—yeah, roll your eyes at me—I had few clothes. I wore mostly baggy sweats and jeans. I wore eternally messy braids that begged to be redone. In spite of that, I always had the love of a guy, one who wanted all of me forever. You have that man. He may not know that you intend to betray him, but you do. Can you sleep with another man and continue to deceive your boyfriend? Is your beauty (and you are stunning!) not enough? Why do you need to keep acquiring things that won’t even last?
Let me tell you about the married man who craves a sugar baby: he will not love you. You are a sweet to be eaten. Nada más. Nothing more. You might entertain the notion that he’ll leave his wife for you. He might even promise, but he won’t. I don’t think you understand how deeply men can be attached to their wives. Even when the love wanes or turns to bitterness, something holds them to their marriage, be it the kids, family members or society. Oh, the man might be infatuated and flattered, showing off your curves to his friends, trying to resurrect his failing libido, but there’s something far deeper than physical appearance and youth that bind men to their life-partners. Chasing girls is just another sport, a hunting for trophies.
Sure, you might think you won’t get involved emotionally, but, unless you have a heart of wood, chances are you will. When you do, he’ll likely tire of you and move on to the next girl. And it will ruin your relationship with that unsuspecting fine man of yours who wants to marry you. (By the way, if you don’t care for him, do the honest thing and leave him to find someone else.) Yeah, I know, there are exceptions where a man throws off all responsibility for a young girl, but that’s rare. He’ll give you enough just enough to keep you dangling while he has it both ways, while you pine away. (Besides, why should he treat you any better when he suspects you’re in it for the money?)
Here’s the thing, it’s not entirely men’s fault for being selfish. It’s also the fault of the women who allow themselves to be used that way. Of course, there’s the scenario where a woman meets a married man and falls for him. While that carries its own headaches and ideally should be avoided, at least the relationship begins with a genuine attraction, as opposed to this mercenary, ATM-man hunting. Besides, buying clothes for a girl is roasted plantain money for men of means.
A man who cares for you will invest in your future, which involves more than money. It means him being there for you when you’re ill, when an emergency befalls you, when you need a shoulder to cry on. It means him having a stake in your ambition or life goal. You don’t want to settle for crumbs of his heart and time when you could have the reasonable whole. A man who cares for you will expect the same from you, not your crumbs.
I hope you heed my words. I hope you stop competing to wear the most expensive and latest fashion. I hope you and your man build something together, assuming there’s genuine love between you. I hope he stands by you too. I wish you nothing but happiness, and a truly fulfilling relationship. If I should bump into you again, I hope you’ll give me a genuine smile, one devoid of greed and machinations.
My friend Denise visited me in Virginia one day. She had a feminine condition caused by an overproduction of that necessary hormone, estrogen. The doctor’s solution was to prescribe birth control pills. However, the pills came with a warning. They might cause cancer of the uterus or breast. You’ve got it. Everything is bad for us and might kill us. It doesn’t matter if you live in Ghana or America.
The air we breathe is charged with pollutants that might just cause cancer of the nostrils and lungs. Is it any wonder that Michael Jackson supposedly spent $150,000 on an oxygen capsule? A British magazine reported that the dea was to take naps in it so he could breathe in pure oxygen. That way he would live to be 150 years old. Bless his dearly departed soul.
Our water source contains lead and contaminants, so we dump in Chlorine to kill germs, but that same chlorine might cause cancer. Therefore, we buy filters to remove the lead and chlorine. In the process, essential minerals are filtered out, which might lead to disease and ultimately death. What are we to do?
Food is the biggest source of death-causing carcinogens. Now, some Ghanaians love their Corn Flakes. You open a box to discover a substance whose only connection to corn is the name it bears. Somewhere in America, they take good, wholesome corn and grind it until it forfeits its very soul. Then,, after they have flattened and singed it into an awesome crisp, they fortify it with 45 vitamins and minerals. Only heaven knows what those vitamins do once they hit your system.
Step into a pharmacy in America and the assortment of vitamins will make you dizzy. Alfalfa 1000, Centrum 21 (more complete from A to Z), Beta carotene, Charcoal tablets, charcoal! Each bottle is compounded with substances like Dicarbon Phosphate and Sodium Molybate. What in God’s name is that? All this so that we don’t die.
Did you know that anti-perspirant deodorant can provoke breast cancer in women, which is one of the leading causes of female deaths? Or that the cavity-preventing fluoride in our toothpaste can adversely affect our liver function? Sure, we could go back to the chewing stick that can reach recesses that even the toothbrush can’t reach, but that could lead to heaven knows what.
What about the clothes we wear? Believe it or not, some scientists say they are bad for us. The chemicals used in dyes can cause cancer. Undergarments can lead to urinary tract diseases and yeast infections. I don’t know why Adam and Eve had to complain about their nakedness. They are responsible for all this woe on humanity. Constricting ties, bras—it’s endless. Don’t you feel like Macbeth with the good angel and bad angel on your shoulders? Do this, don’t do that, yes, no, yesnoyesnoyesno…
We’ve gone completely crazy. Mankind refuses to accept the truth. Ever since the beginning of time, we have been destined to die. Life is an incurable disease. It is a terminal illness. No one is going to come out alive. We are all going to die, even if we managed to live to be 150 years old. (Who wants to live that long, anyway?) And here’s the thing, even people of spiritual faith aren’t in a hurry to get to heaven. We want very much to cling to life on this earth.
So how do we not die? When I visited Edinburgh, I was struck by the centuries old cathedrals and gothic architecture. The people who build them are gone, but their works endure. Pierre L’Enfant, the man who designed Washington D.C. with its spectacular bridges is dead, but his work remains. Kwame Nkrumah is gone, but his countless achievements endure. Mother Theresa lives on through the many lives she saved and touched. Shakespeare and Achebe live in our libraries. You see, speaking in purely secular terms, the only way to defy mortality is to leave something of yourself behind. Anne Frank, whose diary is a marvelous literary feat for a teenager, wrote: “I don’t want to have lived in vain like most people. I want to be useful or bring enjoyment to all people, even those I’ve never met. I want to go on living even after my death!”
Indeed, she lives on in her book, in the narration of her story as you climb up the narrow stairs and slip behind the bookcase into the space she and her family hid from the Nazis.
Are you a secret writer? Write a book, a blog, anything. Are you an artist? Draw. Paint. Sculpt. Are you a philanthropist at heart? Do something for humanity. It doesn’t have to be big. You can do something for the people who live around you. It can be as simple as the man at the Accra Lawn Tennis Club who showed me such uncommon courtesy and warmed my heart to such a degree that even today, I smile when I remember him. It can be as little as living in the heart of the old woman next door, the one you helped carry bags. It can be as big as the school you built. Your path to immortality can be as big or as little as you need it to be, so long as you find fulfilment in it.
By all means, swallow 1000 grams of Alfalfa if you want to. Eat well. Exercise. Do whatever makes you feel better about your body. But remember, no matter what you do, this body is going to fertilize the earth one day. The only way not to die is to leave something of yourself behind, something good for those who will come after you.
I was in a taxi driving by Osu cemetery in Accra when I saw three men fumble with the front of their trousers. They ambled to the cemetery wall and soon, various shades of yellow springs arched from their organs. They did this while chatting and laughing, the dearly departed be damned. That was ten years ago.
Today, while Ghanaians have internet in their homes and houses worthy of HGTV are springing up at the speed of binary fission, men still pull out their penises to urinate anywhere they please. They let go freely by the roadside, whether said road leads to the airport or runs by the president’s residence. They do this comfortably, head turned to the side, observing the goings-on around them. They might pee with glazed eyes or check out their wet maps on the wall. Then they shake, tuck in and go on their merry way, no toilet paper required. They love walls in particular. There is something primal, dog-like the way they stand and aim, leaving a darkened image of a mountain. When you first arrive in Ghana, it’s shocking. It is off-putting. Why demystify the sexual organ?
A man once chose to urinate while leaning on my friend’s car. As I approached to get in, I had to tell him to move before he did. He didn’t pause the flow; he just shifted three feet from me and continued to pee, his head cocked to one side, pure bliss of release on his face. When I asked a male friend why men did this, he said, “It is painful to control. When you have to go, you have to go.” He was very surprised when I pointed out that women suffered the same pain but had to hold it until we could find a bathroom.
I have witnessed men yell at a desperate woman for peeing on the side of the road and exposing her bottom. Whereas the buttocks cover a large surface area and are not as easily hidden by the hand the way a man holds his penis, which of the two scenarios represent greater nakedness? The bottom or the penis? What will men say if everywhere you passed, a woman squatted, letting down a steam of urine?
Of course, women have the peculiar challenge of having to spread their legs open. On long-distance trips far from public restrooms they have no choice but to wander deeper into the woods to wee-wee so as not to expose their derriere. They have to spread wide apart to prevent sputtering their legs. Then, in the absence of toilet paper, they have to resort to bouncing up and down. For these reasons and the sheer awkwardness of the situation, women have nothing to prove by partaking in this behavior, unless they are about to burst a bladder.
This freedom to hoist out one’s penis and handle it isn’t limited to urination. I attended a play and watched two men, playing the roles of camera crew, fiddling with the frontal part of their trousers. Named Scratch One and Two, one obsessively scratched the designated penis area or where the testicles would be. Each time, the audience giggled. Scratch Two tucked his hand into his pants and let it remain there while the other hand fumbled for equipment. All this was perfectly fine, even amusing, even to be celebrated, though I did hear a couple of “this is too much” muttering. Even so, no one would reproach a man for a little public fondling.
The Ghanaian man is totally comfortable with his penis. If he sees a beautiful girl who arouses him, he finds no problem “weighing” his penis, which consists of quick “cuppings.” He can be talking to you and suddenly feel an urge to scratch or weigh. This freedom originates in childhood. A male child may touch himself anytime he pleases. When he starts to experience erections, there’s pride that everything is functioning well. A female child, on the other hand, is considered the repository of virtue and may not be curious. Let a girl’s hand stray near her genitals out of curiosity and her hand is swatted away by parents, or someone puts pepper in her vagina. In villages and even in towns, the practice of smearing pepper or ginger in a girl’s vagina continues. Girls raised this way get the message that sexual pleasure or rights are reserved for men. This leads to future frigidity in marriage, which might promote infidelity. Shouldn’t girls be afforded the same right to get to know their bodies? This attitude translates into unreasonable expectations in adulthood.
When a man’s woman is away on a trip, or the man goes on an extended business trip, he may sleep with another woman. “It’s a physiological need” is a phrase oft repeated. Does the woman not have a physiological need for sex? In fact, a woman peaks sexually around age forty, which is when her husband is likely to be waning. She could cheat too, but isn’t supposed to, though as I write this, I am aware that some women now cheat rampantly. If she is caught, she has to endure public shaming and condemnation, unlike a man. One thing does occur to me though: in a society where a man’s sexual organ and sexuality is glorified, rape is more likely to occur and excused. A girl is likely to allow things done to her that she shouldn’t, because she has learned she doesn’t matter.
If a man becomes aroused, I’m told, it’s very difficult for him to control himself; in fact, it hurts. Well, let it be known that sexual women experience the same “pain.” So why are women in general burdened with moral responsibility and, at the same time, expected to satisfy their men at every turn? I know, I know; someone has to hold society together. So, why shouldn’t both sexes bear the moral responsibility of holding society together? I welcome your thoughts.