By Mafoya Dossoumon
Fufu with palm nut soup and grasscutter, jollof rice with fried plantain and chicken, nothing stops hunger. It lurks, never far away. When he was sixteen years old, Kwame nearly succumbed to hunger. It was a mighty battle. Father had not been paid for many months. Kwame is away, in school. His chop box is empty. The reliable supply of pocket-money and provisions had trickled to a stop. The past two weeks, Kwame survived on gari soakings – no milk, no sugar. On that fateful day, his belly had seen no food – only water.
It was a hot afternoon, dry leaves on scorched earth. The standing fan forces air to the couch. The world outside is eerily mute. The occasional honking from cars on a nearby road breaks a deafening silence. A bright light filters through the wire mesh window screen. Kwame leaves the couch to adjust the curtain. He smiles, pleased with his good taste: Mother would be proud. He had painstakingly selected the adinkra laden batik material adorning the windows. The courtyard is deserted. Even Mr. Kofi, the big bellied neighbour has retreated to his room.
Beads of sweat trickle down Kwame’s cheeks. He yawns. At such moments, he regrets leaving Accra and the joys of central air-condition in Father’s house. He is the fanciful one, Mother said. Adolescence only accentuated his eagerness to explore worlds beyond the family nest. At the meeting where his parents finally agreed to his insistent pleas, Kwame’s father said: “You are a responsible young man. I trust you. You may go to Takoradi for school.” Kwame wishes those words would saunter back to Father’s mouth.
He sprawls on the floor, in front of the television. TV3 broadcasts yet another never-ending, soporific Bollywood melodrama. A wide-eyed maiden dances, covered in embroidered red sari with gold trim. Her hips undulate as snakes to the rhythm of Hindi music. Kwame dozes off, awakens to an insistent pressure on his bladder, and staggers out the door to the communal toilet. Clumsily, he whips out his manhood, urine rushes out. With eyes closed, mouth open, he examines cobwebs decorating the concrete ceiling. It is so hot, he muses. Flashing lights, loud thump, everything is black. He wakes in Mr. Kofi’s lap. “Everything is alright. You fainted in the bathroom,” Mr. Kofi says. It takes a minute to fully grasp reality. That day, Kwame knew: hunger kills.
Those days are gone. Now, Kwame works for an international oil conglomerate and shares a two bedroom apartment with Hasan. Large amounts of black gold are rumoured off the coast. Prospecting companies swarm the twin cities of Sekondi and Takoradi. Wave after wave of migrants arrive with hopes of being employed by one of the foreign oil companies. Hasan left his beloved Burkina Faso, land of honest people, to seek fortune in this new frontier. Many migrants lured to Takoradi, with dreams of becoming oil workers, struggle to find work. A large chunk of jobs goes to workers brought to Ghana by foreign oil companies.
Kwame and Hasan are the lucky ones. After work, they share food and gossip about Hasan’s latest conquests. Once, Hasan ushered a girl to his room, emerged at dawn. From his bedroom across the living area, Kwame heard muffled huffing and puffing, as Hasan pounded away. “You are out of shape. You were making all kinds of noises. Was that you moaning?” Kwame teased.
Tonight is different: Hasan is restless. “Chaley, what dey happen?” Kwame asks. “I dey hung waa.” Hasan need not say more. Everything is as clear as water from a freshly dug borehole. Halfway through the month, Hasan is broke. In his world, money is an infinite commodity to be lavished on his many conquests. Reality, mere fly to be swatted, differs. Kwame knows that hunger kills. He earnestly offers to sponsor the night’s trip to the nearest food joint. A smile spreads on Hasan’s face. They set off, two hungry souls.
“All is well,” an ominous name, references a perpetual state of well-being or paraphrases full belly speak. It is part of a constellation, a phenomenon spreading in the twin cities. Dotted around neighbourhoods, food joints appear overnight, fusing with the urban landscape. “All is well” is made of two conjoined containers – metal boxes recycled from a cargo ship. Covered in blue hues, the containers are lit with multicoloured fluorescent bulbs. The whole contraption appears otherworldly – left behind by aliens. It is a magnet, a watering hole for Takoradi inhabitants.
Not long after Hasan and Kwame sit at a long, made in China, plastic table, they are joined by two girls. Hasan strikes up a lively conversation but Kwame is reserved and intrigued. He stops eating, his neglected plate a witness to lost appetite. While Hasan entertains one, the other girl notices Kwame’s half emptied plate. Pointing at it, she crows: “Are you going to eat the rest?” Kwame shakes his head left to right. Without any further protocol, she grabs a spoon and gobbles his leftover. She looks Kwame dead in the eye and proclaims with a look of satisfaction: “I was hungry!” Her white teeth glow like meteors. Kwame is hypnotized. The rest of the night is a blur: small talk, hearty laughs, and exchange of telephone numbers.
They have daily intercourse, swap amorous messages. His phone’s inbox is choked with the coiling thread of their texts. She awakens fire in him. When his phone buzzes, he wonders: Is it her? She is a refugee from next door, lives with a man of God, two hours away. She sings, nearly won a televised competition before the war that prematurely ended her singing and university careers. 2004. It was that time when Cote d’Ivoire took on the French army. From the seat of power in the south, winged chariots carried death to the rebellious north. Balls of fire rained on French soldiers, sending nine warriors to their graves. The domino effect: an American missionary killed; French civilians sacked; and hundreds of Ivoirians butchered at Hotel Ivoire. It was televised. “France re-imposing Ivorian calm” screams a BBC headline. Refugees stream into Ghana. Uncertain of their fate, Takoradi is their first oasis.
His phone buzzes: “The French want to steal our oil but Gbagbo will not allow it.”
“I need to see you again,” he replies.
Kwame could care less about the French or Gbagbo’s intentions. His eyes wander, looking to rest upon her. She sends directions to the residence of the man of God. They set a date and Kwame sets off with Hasan in tow.
It has been weeks since their paths crossed. She wears a maroon coloured dress. It clings to her svelte frame. Her exuberance is gone. Misery layers her face. She loves to party, the man of God says she is loose. She wears what she wears, the man of God says what she wears is too short. Friends visit, the man of God says fornication is abomination. She is a bad influence on his daughters. Her parents sent her to him – a man of God. He is doing her a favour. Her guardian torments her: “He wants to control me. He wants to choose what I wear. Can you imagine? Not me. I am 19 years old so I dress for 19. I will wear long skirts when I am 40.” She is unhappy, has nowhere to go. The man of God is her only acquaintance.
The visit takes an unexpected turn, shifting between awkward silences and reassuring words. Kwame is distressed. Hasan is unusually subdued. They sit on wooden benches on the porch, at the mercy of mosquitoes. She apologizes. The man of God does not entertain strangers in his well-appointed living room. A cool evening breeze intermittently envelops them, stealing her smile. It is late; she walks them to the bus station. Rare street lamps pierce the darkness. Kwame breaks the silence.
“You promised to sing for me.”
“You want me to sing? Right here, in the middle of the street?”
Reluctantly, Francis Cabrel’s “L’encre de tes yeux,” she sings. It is love at first song. Her melancholic voice, her soul, a moment etched on his heart.
Weeks later, she still echoes in the furthest corners of Kwame’s mind. They see each other as often as possible. He pensively hums “L’encre de tes yeux.” A knock on the door snaps him out of reverie. Today, she wears dark denims. Beneath her open-necked blouse, her cleavage hugging chemisette is lacy. Hasan cracks wry jokes about her sudden assiduity, winks, and remembers work awaiting him. Kwame’s instinct is to hold her against his chest. Instead, he offers a meek handshake. When they are apart, he misses her, longs for her. When they are together, he is weak, lacks words. She is mystifying and near, warm and cautious, sees beyond the newness, the certainty of their attraction. She is at once loquacious and circumspect, steers conversations, and interrogates: “How many girlfriends do you have?” Time is not to be wasted on banalities, she implies with a sweet grin.
Kwame feels inadequate, loves her too much, and wishes to be with her in the moment but his reveries when they are apart keep extending into the now of her presence. He desires a natural flow between them but this proves unattainable. He is overwhelmed. “Let’s go for a walk,” he suggests. They head to “Like This Like That,” the bar at the end of the cul-de-sac, on Kwame’s street. They sit, he across from her at the farthest table from the entrance, alone in semi-darkness. She is quiet and expectant. He senses that this is the perfect moment. He tells her the only words worth saying: “No one makes me feel the way I feel when I am with you.” In her eyes, he sees understanding; his words have meaning. He takes his chances, leans in: their first kiss is long, passionate, and French. Time froze.
The day she left, Kwame knew that love kills. Along came a snake, it bit. Fate’s icy hands ripped his heart from his chest, still pumping blood. Things moved with lightening speed following “Like This Like That.” Kwame floats on a cloud. Everything is brand new, alive. The fire in his bosom rages, unquenchable. His footsteps are as delicate as the steps of an adowa dancer. He moves – glides through people, buildings, and neighbourhoods. The seller at the street corner where he performs his daily morning ritual of downing sizzling hot millet flour porridge is puzzled. “Sir, you are not yourself,” she says. Kwame grins, adjusts his tie, and orders another serving of koose. He never drinks his Hausa koko without a double serving of his favourite bean ball.
The sun kisses his face. Standing at the street corner, calabash full of steaming Hausa koko in hand, he closes his eyes and inhales the morning’s freshness. Takoradi bustles with activity, cars swish by, too close for comfort. Life is beautiful, love is sweet. At work, he is summoned to his supervisor’s office. He is to attend a seminar on oil prospecting in the capital city. He is excited at the opportunity but unnerved by the inconvenience. This is the time to cultivate his young love, time to water the seed planted at “All is well.” He calls her.
“I am going to Accra for a week. My boss wants me to attend a workshop.”
“I want you to stay at my place while I am gone.”
There is a long pause at the end of the line. Finally, she utters: “I’ll move in. But, don’t get any ideas. You don’t own me. Je suis une femme libre.” Kwame acquiesces. Une femme libre… The words linger. When she speaks French, it’s enchanting, he wants more. The night she moves in, they have sex. Their bodies catch fire, pulsate with life. The rubbing together of organs, the chemical inter-reactions, and the voluptuousness meander to a shore-less lake. They sit curled up against each other, their posture a devout prayer, surrender to, and worship of, each other. Kwame walks on air. His week in Accra is spent making love to her in the secret confines of his imagination, yearning to return to her waiting arms. The journey back is the longest of his young years, miles after miles separating him from his lover.
“Welcome my brother, how was Accra?” Hasan greets. “I need to tell you something. Let’s go to my room.” Kwame is intrigued by the conspiratorial tone. “I no want cause any problems but you be my brother. I for tell you what I saw.” Kwame frowns. “Some guy visit your chick chaw. He dey drive one green BMW 5 series. Chaley, the guy be loaded. I no dey talk say your woman dey cheat but you be my brother, you for know. ” Kwame doesn’t know what to think. He is overcome with jealousy, suspicion, and confusion at the same time. He thanks Hasan and heads to his room, dazed by mixed emotions. He drops to the bed. His lover is somewhere in the city. He is alone, the room feels hollow. He wonders: “Who is this mystery guy in the green BMW?” He is exhausted from the long drive, from seeking answers to the many questions on his mind. He fights to stay awake long enough to confront his lover when she returns. Sleep eventually visits his body. A reel of translucent question marks plays in his dream. A green snake slithers in the forest of question marks, fangs out, ready to strike. Kwame wakes, terrified, sweat pouring from every pore. Afternoon had ceded the universe to evening, the sun had set. He is alone in the dark. “I must stop this guy before he seduces my lover.” Kwame is determined to fight for her but he must first confront her. He trusts that there is a simple explanation for the guy in the green car. At the same time, he can’t suppress the creeping doubt that seeps into his consciousness. With guilt, he rummages through his love’s belongings. He hates to violate her privacy but he needs proof of any unfaithfulness. He finds a piece of paper in a side pocket of one of her suitcases.
Forget your man, come with me.
Let’s go to Kokrobite beach together.
We’ll walk in the white sand and hold hands.
We’ll kiss, who cares what people think?
Let’s hold hands, sin together.
All I want, need is you.
Forget your man, I am sleepless at night.
I miss you more than I could have believed.
I squeal with pain when I miss you, I die a little.
The few months we spent together were pure bliss.
I understand why you chose him over me.
I was prepared to let you go but still I miss you.
Forget your man, I know you love me.
My dear Nadège, I can’t suffer in silence.
I compose this letter to you in a moment of weakness.
I am human, desperate for your touch.
I cannot make you choose me over your man but I can make the choice difficult.
Forgive me for the intrusion.
Forget your man, come with me.
Our love is taboo but I can’t live without love.
Kwame is thunderstruck by a sudden realization: they are lovers. Flashes of “All is well,” she was there. Then, he was preoccupied with Nadège, barely paid any attention to Araba. She was there, engaged in animated conversation with Hasan. Did she write this letter? He neatly folds it, puts it back in the side pocket. When you look for something, you usually find it. Kwame is unsure what he found. He waits until they retire to bed to broach the subject of the guy with the green car, the snake he saw in his dream.
“Who is the guy who visited you when I was away?”
“He is just a friend. I told you that you don’t own me. I make friends with who I want.”
“I cannot stop you from making friends but I can stop you from entertaining them at my place. I don’t like that guy and I don’t want him here.”
She pokes him; “are you jealous?”
“No, I just don’t like that guy.”
“There is nothing going on between us.”
Kwame turns and faces her, holds her face tenderly between his hands. “I did something I shouldn’t have done. I’ll tell you only if you forgive me.”
“OK, what is it?”
“I went through your stuff and found a letter from Araba.”
She turns away from him. They lie down in complete silence, alone with their own thoughts. When she finally turns to him, her eyes are moist.
“The letter is from Araba. We were lovers. I broke up with her to be with you. It was painful, still is. We love each other. I have my reasons for choosing to be with you. As for the guy who visited me when you were in Accra, his name is Ohene. I met him the first week I arrived in Takoradi. He is a visa connection man. We went to the British embassy today to collect my UK visa. I am going abroad.”
Her words have the sound of finality. She is full of elusive mysteries. At such moments, when he is certain of having discerned her contours, she reveals new spaces beyond unearthed borders. No greater mistake has he made than to imagine that newly discovered facets of her are the last. In moments of certainty, she reveals new angles, possibilities. Perhaps, if he blinks, then dozes, his universe will return from impending tragedy. Does one live life through unrequited love or in fear of it? Surely, she is a manifestation of a past debt made human to torture him. Is love so difficult as to constantly move reality in the wrong direction? His love is forever, firm, on solid ground. Her love is for-never, shifting, always melting away. She is quicksand, sucks him in the harder he tries to gain a firm grip. Perhaps, his musings will fend off the meaning of her words as they slowly sink into his consciousness.
“Did you hear what I said?” She snaps him out of his reverie.
“Yes. You are going abroad. I’ll go with you to the airport. Who knows, I may join you in the UK one day.”
He is an actor, being brave, holding on to hope that he can bend fate to his will. He doesn’t betray any heartbreak. He is certain that he loves her but uncertain of her love. With timid entreaty, he holds her. She reciprocates his embrace.
At the airport, they hug for a long time. Kotoka International Airport sees as many hugs and kisses as the wedding hall at Christ the King Catholic church. Commuters pay them no mind; some smile, acknowledging the familiar onslaught of emotions when a loved one travels. She breaks away: “There is something you need to know. I chose you long before you made your move. I needed you to save me from the man of God. Your love is not enough to keep me here. I am sorry. Forget me.”
Kotoka is not big enough to contain his pain. Tears swell inside his eyes. He looks away, defeated. He hates her self-assurance. He hates the very qualities that had drawn him to her. As she fades behind the immigration counter, Kwame runs. He bolts out of the airport, oblivious to the puzzled look of onlookers. He heads south, runs, turns left toward the Airport By-Pass road. The street hawkers gawk at this well dressed mad man, mumbling things, running from an imaginary pursuer. He takes a slight left onto the Airport By-Pass road, stops in front of the imposing Ministry of Defence to catch his breath. The sentry barks: “No loitering!” Kwame walks on. Fate had seduced him only to thrust a dagger in his heart. He hails a taxi. “Where to?” The driver, face creased by many years, scrutinizes his passenger in the rear view mirror. “Kwame Nkrumah Circle,” Kwame whispers.
From the back seat of the taxi, Accra unfurls before him. The colourful city is dulled by his mournful disposition. They go down Liberation Road, join Independence Avenue, and enter Castle Road. A series of haggard buildings stare at him: Ridge Hospital, Accra Psychiatric Hospital, Holy Spirit Cathedral, reminders of stark reality. He seeks solace but Accra, its streets, its vibrancy, and its warm people fail to console. As they make a right onto Kojo Thompson Road, the driver clears his throat.
“So, tell me about your problem. I know when a passenger is preoccupied. I read faces.”
“She is gone. My lover went abroad today. She told me to forget her.”
“I am sorry. If I may ask, how did you guys meet? ”
“I met her one night in Takoradi. She is a refugee from Cote d’Ivoire.”
“How long have you been together?”
“About a year.”
“In my fifty years, I’ve seen this happen over and over again,” the driver says, “and it will keep happening. The problem with Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, and other African countries is that the government chops all the money. You change governments, and it’s the same thing, just different thieves at the top. Our leaders are worth billions while people starve. Your woman fled Cote d’Ivoire because she had no choice. She leaves Ghana and you because there are better opportunities abroad.”
Kwame welcomes the distraction of an unsolicited conversation.
“How come Ghana is better off than Cote d’Ivoire?”
“It’s simple. In Cote d’Ivoire, there is no law. It was always whatever Houphouët-Boigny said. That was the law of the land. And that is how it has been even after Houphouët-Boigny. It’s called the strongman syndrome, Africans oppressing fellow Africans. The white man, at least he gives the black man an opportunity. These so-called leaders hate fellow Africans worse than the white man. Our very own Osagyefo was the only exception. Did you know he gave Ghana’s gold to African leaders who were fighting for independence?”
“Then, there is the problem of religion. Africans are cursed because of juju. People worship false gods and this has been a curse on our countries. Me, I am a practicing Catholic, and I want nothing to do with juju. It is one of the reasons for our political, economic, and cultural degradation. If you believe in juju, you believe nothing can be achieved without the gods. Have you seen how irrational and fatalistic our people are? How can you build the future when your life depends on the will of the gods? As for me, Jesus is my saviour.”
Kwame sees glaring contradictions but indulges the old man’s rant. They turn onto Akasanoma Road. His thoughts wander back to love lost.
“I once drove a British tourist from Kotoka who found it very hard to believe that there is any spiritual power in juju. Let me tell you: I have seen the power of juju many times with my own eyes. Juju is very powerful. Don’t joke with it. It is evil and holds real power over people. God forbid any juju man sets his evil eyes on me and my family. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.” He piously crosses himself.
“Maybe a juju man can put a curse on someone for me,” Kwame wonders aloud. “My son, stay away from juju.” The old man warns, slapping the steering wheel. “Jesus is the way.” They reach Barclays Bank Ghana at Kwame Nkrumah Circle. Kwame pays his fare, alights. The old man leans forward: “Stay strong my son. Women are like honey. You taste their sweetness and you want more.”
Kwame wants more. He tasted honey. It left a bitter aftertaste. His quivering bosom swells with sadness. No longer can he hold the ocean of tears. There, at Kwame Nkrumah Circle, Kwame stood and wept. Tears crash on his face, wave after wave, as on Labadi beach’s shore. He walks, grieves his lost love, heads northeast on Ring Road Central toward BusyInternet. Pedestrians, street hawkers, and cars mingle. Kwame Nkrumah Circle crawls with people. He bumps into them. They yell at him. Cars stream by, honking to clear a path. “Forget me,” she said. Kwame cannot forget. Her fading silhouette plays on his mind, a broken record. Fate is cruel to snatch his soul the moment he found her. Kwame will not forget. He will mourn until they reunite. What is fate but a wild beast to be tamed?
He crosses the three lanes of Ring Road Central, in front of BusyInternet. In the last lane, a rickety, white trotro speeds; a phrase is inscribed on its rear in bright yellow letters. His eyes trail the fast-moving minivan. He squints, tries to find meaning to the yellow letters, steps onto the lane. With screeching brakes and horrified cries, he is knocked into the air. On a slow, dreamy fall to earth, the distant bright yellow letters reveal their meaning: all is well.
Mafoya is the author of African Expectations.