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.
“Does the trash contain plastic?
“Yes,” she says, still not looking at me.
“But burning plastic is so bad! You know that!”
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.
“Does the trash contain plastic?”
“Yes,” she says, still not looking at me.
To be continued.
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.
A fellow woman