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Accra

Arthur Musah

8 There were many that wooed you; it was the British that stayed. People say the colonizers could not make the sounds to pronounce your name. So they taught you their language, awed you with spellings until your head felt woozy with their adaptation: Accra. Accra, Accra, Accra, you hushed to yourself, and you forgot about Nkran.

*  *  *

The day we finished senior secondary school we built a bonfire and shed our blue-and-brown uniforms into the flames. We flung into the fire the notebooks we had been digesting for months before the national exams. Their leaves flapped as they flew into the hottest parts of the blaze and, watching them, we felt avenged.

“There’s more sleep after death” had become a comfort phrase among my classmates as we prepped for our big finals. We had muttered it to ourselves, to each other as we collapsed after many nights with little sleep. We would shock a dozer awake with a cup of iced-water and then mollify him with, “It’s for your own good; more sleep after death.”

Death came. And went. And we were faced with two years of free time, sleep time. Thanks to the universities having closed down for a whole year not so long before, we had more than enough time to sleep while we waited for the backlog of qualified candidates to be absorbed into the tertiary education system. Sleep, sleep, sleep we did. Until the boredom of sleeping too much showed in our fattened faces. A few of my schoolmates helped to run their family shops. Some who had no hopes of doing well enough in the exams to continue schooling learned trades—mostly, they learned to make furniture.

I knew what I wanted most to do with my two years. I wanted to come see you. I wanted to meet you, Accra.

*  *  *

Ma was feeding corn to the free-range chickens from the verandah when I announced that I was thinking of taking a trip to the capital.

“Accra? To do what?” she exclaimed.

“I feel idle. There’s nothing to do at home,” I said, and for emphasis I picked up a pebble and threw it at the head of the Agama lizard perched on a large rock in the afternoon sun.

“But you have no business in Accra either. We don’t even have relatives there. Where will you stay?”

“I’ll think of something.”

“And the money? You know our budget can’t support tourism.”

“I know, I know. I’ll come up with something to take care of that too.”

Pops was lying on a jute sack under a rusty piece of junk that used to be a Volkswagen Beetle. He spent entire afternoons tinkering with its belly. The plan was to fix the car and sell it. “How about reviving the garden in the backyard?” he said. “That’s something you could do. Remember how good the okra soup tasted when we cooked it with fresh vegetables from our own garden? It would be nice if someone with more time on their hands could bring it back to life.”

“The last time I tried that the worms destroyed my cabbage and the pepper fruits never showed because the insects wouldn’t let the leaves grow. I’m not wasting my efforts on that garden again,” I tried to argue, but now that I knew Pops favored the opposing side there was no chance I’d get anywhere.

“I told you not to plant those funny foreign vegetables. Okra would have given you a decent yield in spite of the pests,” Ma said.

“Can’t I just go see the capital? I’ve hardly been out of this stupid town and it’s becoming insane!”

A quietness followed my outburst; even the chickens stopped clucking and tilted their heads in alarm briefly.

Then Pops popped his head out from under the Beetle. “Just wait a little, boy. I’ll fix this beauty and we can tour the whole country together. We’ll think of it as a test drive before we sell it off,” he said.

*  *  *

They elope to marry you; the young ones, the strong ones. And you lead them on. Come, you say, let’s make our fortune together.

See that Mercedes cruising by? You think that within its air-conditioned insides that man remembers his days of riding home in a rickety trotro?

Don’t worry; the barrows you wheel will be Toyotas tomorrow.

Isn’t it sweet to be young and strong and so in love that the drip-dripping from the holes in the roof, which you thought was so unbearable back in your hometown, now sounds like a serenade?

*  *  *

Innocent was anything but innocent. He was the one who’d had the most girls in secondary school. Hotheaded, he wouldn’t let Mr. Quainoo touch him with his cane of discipline that time in school when he was caught with Aisha. “Sir, I’m old. Too old for this kin’ thing. No way you go take that hit me. No!” He’d looked the assistant headteacher in the eye and said in forbidden pidgin.

He heard about a way to make quick money in the capital and left for Accra before finishing secondary school, without so much as a word to his mother and father. We, his schoolmates, had to piece together information about his whereabouts to relieve them of their worry. Later we heard stories of how things had turned bad for Innocent. Once, we heard he had turned to hawking rolls of toilet paper to passengers stuck in traffic jams in the streets of the capital.

I didn’t want to come to you that way, Accra. I thought hard to find a better way, but it was fruitless. Until one afternoon I bought five hundred cedis worth of roasted ripe plantains and the seller wrapped them in the previous day’s Daily Graphic. That’s how I found the teaching job. Then all that was left to do was to convince Ma and Pops that I would be good with children, that I’d love to teach them to write Myself and to recite times-tables.

*  *  *

Wasn’t there a time when you were not so important, when the nation’s jewels did not rest so naturally, with so much grace, upon your head? Cape Coast, further west along the shore from you, was capital before you. How did you snatch the seat of power from your sister? Tell me, so I can answer Mansa’s “Teacher, why is Accra our capital?” and Ato’s “Did Cape Coast behave badly and that’s why Accra got the post?” and Ayiba’s “Sir, why do we need a capital city at all?” Tell me so I can feed the eager eight-year-old faces of my students at St. Paul’s Primary while they are still hungry for history.

*  *  *

That nose you’ve grown! That pointed nose turned up in such un-Ghanaian fashion. You learned quickly to introduce yourself to a new acquaintance in proper English and to recoil in horror and disgust when the response you got was phrased in Ga or Dagaare or Twi or Ewe. How skillfully you articulate the syllable Yuck! But never, never do I hear you spit out Kai!

*  *  *

When I was a pupil in primary school, our teachers made us walk the grounds of the school and pick up litter if they caught us speaking a Ghanaian language instead of English. Some of us learned the lesson quickly and laughed at our classmates who were less adept at English and slow to drop their native tongues. Oh how funny it was to see them get what their slow brains deserved: rubbish for speaking rubbish! Ha!

I have decided not to enforce the school’s “no vernacular” rule, even though it’s one of my responsibilities as a teacher. I have decided not to cripple the fluid sounds of the many local languages my students speak. They will learn English, but not at the expense of making their mother tongues grow silent.

*  *  *

The night before I left home to come to you, Ma said to me at supper, “You don’t have to go if you don’t want to.” Pops only looked up from his food briefly, said nothing.

“I want to. It will be fun. I’ll be making some money. For once someone else will be calling me Teacher and Sir.”

“I’ll be checking the mail regularly for the dough, don’t forget that, bro,” Nsaw smirked.

Later, my brother watched his own personal TV—the old family set he had appropriated for his bedroom when Pops bought a bigger-screen version for the sitting room the week before. The rest of us sat too quietly in front of the larger screen, which still looked out of place. The sound of the new TV seemed too loud. I picked up the remote and turned the volume down.

“You don’t know the place. It is Accra,” Ma said as I sat back down.

“I’ve always wanted to go.”

“How do you know you’ll like it?”

“I don’t know that I’ll like it.”

“It’s a big place.”

“That’s what I’ve heard. I want to see it for myself.”

“Sleep early,” Pops advised, “So you can wake up and catch the State Transport.”

“I will in a minute.”

The dated American sitcom did not draw too many laughs that night, and I gladly rose to turn in when it ended. “Can I always come back home?” I asked.

“You can always come back home,” Pops said.

*  *  *

Your expanse, Accra! Since the day I entered your space, in my seat by the window in the State Transport bus, I have been in awe of you. Small clusters of concrete and laterite buildings amid elephant grasses; some humble hills; the satellite dish, its size captivating on that first sighting. As we drew closer to your center, you grew denser, busier, more populated, and the rocking bodies of sleeping passengers in the bus began to awaken as if stirred by your growing presence. I marveled at the power that was drawing all of us to you.

The bus crept slowly through the viscous traffic pouring into the city. Roadside hawkers shoved their goods through the open windows of the bus, enticing us to buy. Everyone on the bus yielded to the temptation and bought some snack or iced water in plastic sachets or a fat loaf of bread as a gift for the relatives. There was no suppressing the smile that spread across my face as I sat and sucked on a pungent orange with its skin teased off decoratively by a sharp knife and an artistic hand. I was here. In Accra.

For two weeks I wandered through the city, through the many townships merged together, into you, Accra. I hopped from minibus to minibus, just going places, not caring to save on the cheap trotro fare. I went to your markets for the hum of trading and the smells of wares and the dramas of small thieves fleeing only to be caught. I walked in the center of the city, on the concrete pavements lining the dustless roads. And the buildings were larger in real life than the small giants I was used to seeing on the GTV News. I went to the mausoleums and the squares, which preserve the physical and ethereal remains of our leaders in the fight for independence. I went to the sea. It blew air against my face that was flavored with salt. I gaped at the deceptively gentle water; the same water that brought the colonizing enchanters who renamed you.

Accra. Exciting, beautiful, beautiful! Like the water hyacinth of the White Volta and the Black Volta that pour into the Volta Lake. You spread unchecked, selfish, spoiled. You ate up your neighbors Osu, La, Ashiaman, Amasaman, let out hardly a belch and are yawning from hunger again.

But who cares? Why should anyone be bothered that the sack of your rotund belly is still distending? Some children have healthy appetites, that’s all.

*  *  *

One day at Makola market, while a couple of shoeshine boys fought over which one would replace the worn-out soles of my sandals, I spotted Innocent pushing a battered wheelbarrow. He was grinning hard and fast-talking to a woman clad in an elaborately embroidered agbada. She ignored him and every now and then added something new to the massive load of shopping he carted after her.

I almost called out to him, but he was too far away and at his business. I watched him appear and disappear as he made his way through the throng of shoppers, hawkers, and the kaya folk to whom his wheelbarrow and sweat now made him kin. His shirt was browner than I had ever seen it after an afternoon game of soccer in school, but a hint of the original blue was still visible beneath the brown. I recognized that school-shirt blue. Then the market crowd swallowed him up.

*  *  *

Maybe someday some stranger will read you a story. A story about a hunter who wandered into an unusual place while tracking an elusive antelope or setting traps for grasscutters. He found himself at the top of a green hill, from where he could see over the stalks of the elephant grasses. And when he looked up and out he was startled to see a people so numerous on the seashore that he thought for a moment they were nkrane, the black ants he had detoured a hundred strides before. So he called the land that the ant people settled on Nkran. It will be a shame when you pick up your jaw—dropped in amazement—and exclaim at the story’s finale, “What an absolutely wonderful tale!” in an accent that is only a sad likeness of the storyteller’s.

*  *  *

The leak in the roof is almost quiet now. Drops collecting in the plastic bowl by my bed come several minutes apart now. Only the mosquitoes won’t go until I sleep their feasting away.

I’m lying here, in your arms, wrapped in a blanket of humid air you insist on having though it’s much too warm. It’s been four months. The rain that just passed was welcome. I wish it could have stayed longer. The rain did make it cooler, just a little, and for that I’m thankful. Who would miss a fan in Accra if there was always a night rain? In the center of the dark ceiling I can see the darker knob of my missing fan.

Each night I have to remind myself like this. Accra, you are the heart of my beautiful country and you are my door to the world. That’s why I came. <

Arthur Musah is from Ghana and is pursuing a bachelor of science degree at MIT.

Originally published in the December 2003/January 2004 issue of Boston Review



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