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!
The first time I became aware my breasts were a problem, I was running up the stairs to my teacher’s flat. I was in middle school, bra-less. She watched me panting and said, “Your chest just keeps expanding and expanding. When is the rest of your body going to catch up?” I looked down in confusion at my bosom. I hadn’t noticed any expansion, just that I had breasts with big nipples that always seemed to be in the way, and feeling them had become a habit.
I was unconscious of playing with them. I’d be talking to a friend, and she’d draw my attention to my chest. There I was, one hand on each breast, brushing the nipples up and down. I’d stop, laughing at myself. I didn’t realize how entrenched the habit had become until the day I found myself standing on stage during a debate with Mfantsipim Boys Secondary School. I was giving a rebuttal to an issue when my friend at the back of the assembly hall caught my eye. She stood flapping her wrists madly, eyes bulging out. As I raised my brows, she pointed at my chest and beat her breasts. I looked. My fingers were moving on my nipples in full view of the audience. I dropped my hands and continued talking as if nothing was the matter.
I didn’t touch my breasts because they felt particularly good. I touched them the way I’d absentmindedly play with a pen on a desk while listening to the teacher. When I started growing breasts, no one at home paid attention to me. No one bought me a bra, and I didn’t long for one. I liked being unbound. As a child, I hated clothes.
Many times, I ran around the house in my drawers, and when it rained, I would run outside and feel the rain trickle down my lashes. The water would flow over my chest and into my drawers. I would squeal while my mother shouted helplessly for me to come inside. At night, I slept with only a sheet over me, no night gown. When my breasts developed ,I considered them just another part of my body to be freed from clothes. It wasn’t until I was fifteen that my father suddenly decided I should wear a bra. I didn’t understand what the fuss was about, but I complied for peace sake.
I hated harnessing a part of my body for no reason I could understand. In our house, no one talked about sex. I attended a girls’ boarding school, and though I had a boyfriend for the holidays, he wasn’t eager to get into my drawers. I felt safe with men. What’s more, growing up in small towns, women with bare breasts were ubiquitous. My big sisters wore bras to lift their droopy breasts and I assumed that was the only reason for restraining them. I hated pulling off my bra to discover the imprint of seams on my breasts. I would scratch and rub, feeling sorry for them.
Now a full-grown adult, I loathe constricting my breasts as if they are something to be ashamed of. I imagine that if I were a man, I would hate having to harness my testicles. I’d let them swing freely. I can’t imagine the heat generated, the sweat and the urge to scratch.
I’ve tried to respect society’s sensibilities by wearing a bra, but my nipples remain visible. Shortly after college, on my birthday, a man asked me to dinner. Weeks before, he had interviewed me for a job I didn’t get for lack of qualification, but I bore no grudge. Over lemon chicken, he asked me if I had been nervous during the interview. I said yes and asked why. He laughed and said, “Your nipples tightened.” I laughed too. I felt no shame and we moved on to other subjects. However, when years later a Christian school secretary remarked on my pokey nipples, I took to flattening them with sellotape before wearing a bra. Peeling off the tapes hurt and made my eyes water. I would stare at my nipples that looked ashy, rubbing and rubbing until they felt better.
Today I sometimes get fed up and discard my bra. Fellow women nudge me, asking why I don’t wear one, usually with a look of disapproval. For church and formal events, depending on my attire, I wear it. Recently, on an evening out with my friends, I wore a strapless jumpsuit that precluded a bra. I was going to tape my nipples down as usual, but in my rush to get out of the house, I forgot.
At the club, I sat at the table, unwilling to get up and dance because someone might see my nipples. While others thrilled to the afrobeat, I remained glued to my seat, saying I just didn’t want to dance. When I finally confided in one friend that it was because my nipples were showing, she said, “It’s okay. Aren’t they part of your body?” I smiled with relief and let loose on the dance floor. I shouldn’t have been filled with shame, but society has shaped women that way.
Two years ago at Wimbledon, Serena Williams wore a high neck dress with ruffles, a demure affair different from her usual flamboyant style. And yet fellow women attacked her pokey nipples despite her firm bra. In 2013, when the US women’s soccer team won the world cup, Brandi Chastain ripped off her jersey and sank to her knees on the field. She got roasted over it, though no nipples poked out and her breasts were fully covered. At this year’s US Open tennis, Alizet Cornet wore a sports bra that covered her small breasts completely, no nipples to speak of, and yet she got fined for changing her top on court when she was about to serve and realized it was on the wrong way. Paradoxically, no one complains about the track and field ladies wearing what looks like panties and bras. Thank God.
I applaud the tennis federation for reversing the penalty. Women spectators get treated to Federer’s hairy torso and Nadal’s rippling muscles. It’s okay for men to display edible, lentil-size nipples. Men everywhere bare their chests. Women don’t complain. No one finds it offensive for men to be semi-nude.
I’m not advocating that men cover themselves. Au contraire, I’m all for people feeling free in the bodies God gave them. Vivre le corps, say I. What I don’t get is why a woman’s body is adored and feared, despised and desired, savored by babies and chastised by the self-appointed breast police, why a woman can’t be free in her body without society condemning her.
Spintex Road, just before the East Legon under bridge tunnel, a police barrier appears. I barely have time to come to a complete stop before an armed policeman raps loudly at my window with his knuckles. When I press the button to lower the glass, he says brusquely, “Water for my throat,” as if I should know what he means.
“I beg your pardon?”
“It’s Friday, I need water for my throat.”
It takes a minute for me to get that he wants me to give him money for Friday night drinks. Ahead, I notice other armed policemen poking their heads into car windows, demanding throat-wetting cedis. I try not to scowl.
“Water for your throat?” I ask. “I don’t have any money for my throat either.” Inside, I’m scared. It’s a little after ten pm. I’m a woman driving alone. What if he decides to arrest me? He straightens up and gruffly motions for me to proceed.As I pull away, my heart hammers.
I never expected to fear the police in Ghana, unlike America where one never knew which trigger-happy cop was confronting you. What is remarkable is that Ghanaian policemen feel no shame asking you for money to go drinking. It is the height of lawlessness. Why would we want to be guarded by inebriated policemen, even figuratively speaking? They couldn’t request money to pay their kids’ school fees? It would still be illegal, don’t get me wrong. It’s the choice of words I find brazen, even if they don’t actually mean to go drinking on duty.
If you think this happened because I came home late, think again. My next encounter occurred the very next day at 9 pm, same location. I dimmed my lights, came to a stop. It was the same threatening knock on my window, followed by a water-for-my-throat demand. This time I said, “I need water for my throat too. Would you kindly give me something?” He scowled and let me go.
Changing my itinerary hasn’t helped. At 8:30 pm I ran into another barricade at East Legon., off Mensah Woods. This time, the policeman smiled his request, “Please, Madam, a little something for water for my throat.”
“Sorry, not today,” I said, grateful I didn’t feel fear this time. Still, it was irritating.
At the T junction between Garden Street and Boundary Rd, policemen are a permanent presence in broad daylight. There can be as many as six at that tiny intersection. They could be elsewhere solving problems or catching criminals, but no, they salute and grin in a servile manner as you stop for traffic. They make eating motions at you like beggars. Other times, they approach your window to let you know they are the ones keeping your neighborhood safe oo, heh, heh, heh, while they wait for you to fumble in your purse for money to drop into their palms, heh, heh, heh, tank you sah, God bless you sah!
I have an abiding hatred for bribes and refuse to pay, though it feels a lot better when they ask nicely and not demand. Citizens shouldn’t have to fear intimidation from the police. They shouldn’t be harassed for living. Does this happen everywhere, or is it mainly at East Legon?
About a week ago, I was napping when the phone’s ringing jerked me up. It was Auntie A, my 73-year-old landlady. Her voice was snappy, urgent: “Are you at home? Come to the gate, I need your support.”
I dragged my feet, annoyed at having been yanked out of sleep. When I got there, I saw men armed with pick axes, chiseling a hole at the base of the wall next door. She said our neighbor’s wall had blocked the drainage, which is what had caused previous flooding.
“If he shows up with his gun, you must leave,” she added.
A gun? I stared at her.
She was the first person to move into the neighborhood. Built her house, had drainage installed. Male neighbor bought the land next door and built his house over drainage. Then he had marital issues. Wife confided in Auntie A, Auntie A advised. Wife did the stupid thing: told her husband. Man got mad, decided to block her property’s access to drain. She had her laborers reopen drain. He got madder, punched her to the ground. Her daughter got involved. He pulled a gun. They went to court. Court ruled Man couldn’t block her gutter. He seemingly complied, so she did the good neighborly thing. Invited him to her birthday party, do I remember him? We drank, we ate, we danced, do I not remember? I had a vague recollection of a portly, ugly dude.
So, on this day, she asked her laborers to clear drain in anticipation of the rains, because last year, her house got flooded up to chest level, lots of stuff ruined. That was when she discovered Man had blocked the drain, using concrete and iron rods under the wall. Incensed, she got her laborers to open drain, using pick axes to chisel at the concrete. Called now-divorced Wife, Wife called Man, hence Auntie A’s request for support from me, repeating, “I want you to leave if he pulls out his gun.” Well, I wasn’t about to leave her alone to face a man with a gun. Obviously, inviting the non-gentleman to her party hadn’t softened his stance.
Then her daughter showed up with some AMA officials to deal with the situation and suggested we go inside. Just as well. The man showed up. With two policemen. Without his gun though.
The policemen suggested a meeting at the police station. I refused to go. Auntie A remained with me while the daughter joined the group to drive to the police station. That’s when things turned ugly. Not only had the man pulled a gun on Aunt A in the past, he had also called the daughter a prostitute. The girl had been burning with rage, sharpening her tongue, itching for an opportunity to cut him to pieces, so when he started shooting his mouth again, she shouted, “Your penis is dead, that’s why your wife left you! Go way you!”
Neighbors heard it. Houseboys. Security men. Man got apoplectic with rage. He frothed at the mouth. He slapped his chest and vowed to the police that he didn’t care if they threw him in prison, but he would never allow Auntie A access to the drain. He said that calling his penis dead was the ultimate sacrilege. The police talked and talked to no avail. After all, this was East Legon, the neighborhood of the rich, so the police acted cowardly. Man said other people’s sewage ran under his land, and he would allow everyone else’s, except Auntie A’s. He printed don’t-touch-my-wall posters and hammered them on the wall. Then he ordered his men to pour sand into our side of the drain and packed his car against the wall. Finally, he brought a truckload of gravel and dumped it along the walls. Auntie A filed an emergency suit, and summons were posted on the wall. The bailiff was dispatched to serve Man. Man refuses to open gate and has threatened his servants with dire retribution if they open the gate.
After the downpour, I was about to go to Max Mart when I realized I was trapped. The compound was so flooded that water partially submerged someone’s car. Only an SUV could get out. My Honda Civic couldn’t make it. Auntie A’s flower shop was a lake. She brought out a pump to pump the water and drain it via a hose directed at the street. The pump droned all night until morning when I woke up and luckily discovered I could get out.
I pray the neighbors settle this once and for all in court on Monday. I hope they can get over whose vagina is used and whose penis is dead, but I doubt that will happen. Man has politicians in his pocket. Each side refuses to apologize for the insults. Daughter is willing to swear she has proof positive the penis is dead. Someone has suggested producing video evidence of the man’s functioning genitals.
One thing is certain, never call into question the viability of an Asante man’s penis. He will sooner face death than be humiliated that way. Meanwhile I am considering getting a kayak and parking my car outside the next time it pours.
I wonder if Man is considering a visit to Adbul’s Herbal Center at America House, East Legon?
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.