It was still dark, but I knew it was about 3 a.m. Not that I had a watch; no, I had learnt to tell the time from the skies and the sounds around. I had been awoken by one of those giant mosquitoes who looked so gigantic you’d think they had been reared. Their breeding grounds were only a few metres from my bedfloor, the gutters whose waters were so dark one could be tempted to believe the colour of water was black. I saw, nay heard, another mosquito coming towards me. As I drove it away with all the force that my feeble arm could muster, and my three-months-no-touch-water sleeping cloth could stand, I turned to look at my fellow inhabitants of that floor of residence, each sleeping on his bed. Did I say bed? Actually, they were sleeping on mats or, to be precise, clothes that had dual purposes – worn during the day, and slept on during the night. I was no exception. I really envied those who could sleep so soundly in that environment. They seemed to have developed rubber skins that were impermeable, at least with respect to the proboscis of the sucking insect. These skins appear immune to cold, heat, ants, and a myriad of harsh conditions. Pure adaptations, I reasoned.
I sat up well, and scratched my body. The city was still very much asleep, but sleep had eluded me. I stood up, stretched, and yawned. ‘Hmm, what fatigue.’ You couldn’t sleep on a cloth, on such a floor, and expect to feel like a king when you woke up. My body was aching real bad, as if I had been given a good thrashing. I walked to our backyard and washed my mouth and face, and a chewing stick quickly found its way into my mouth. As I chewed, sitting on my cloth-turned-mat, recapping my life and how I ended up in that place was almost automatic…
I really missed Moseaso, that quiet village where I was born; well, that is where I grew up to find myself living. I found myself living with a family of six, including the parents, and, of course, excluding me. Because I was the outsider. No one needed to tell me, I realised that myself. Kojo Nkrabeah was the name I responded to.
Village folks! They were always ready to tell you what you always wanted to know, even when you had not asked for any such information. Maame Akyea was particularly good at that; it was her talent, her gift. She, it was, who told me about my parents, my siblings, and how come I ended up in Opanyin Akrumah’s house.
She told me my parents had lived in Moseaso and had two other children apart from me. Opanyin Akrumah had been my Dad’s bosom friend, and both were farmers. Maame Akyea even showed me the location of my Dad’s farm, which farm was then being managed by the Abusua. Her story had it that my parents had travelled to Dadieso with my older siblings for a funeral, and to visit some relatives. I had been left behind with my cousin, and Nanaa, my grandmother who was then visiting. On their way back, the wato nkyene they were travelling on was involved in an accident. None of the passengers survived. My parents and siblings extinguished by one act of fate. I was about two years then, the old woman added. Naana collapsed upon hearing the tragic news; she didn’t live long after that.
My extended family, I was told, took over everything my hardworking parents had toiled to own, everything except me. The farms, the houses, everything. I was sent to live with my maternal Grandma. I nearly forgot to add this piece of classified information Maame Akyea whispered into my ears, telling me not to tell any one else. Please don’t repeat it to anyone else too, please. She said the whole village believed, and she the strongest, that it was Opanyin Akrumah who killed my father, that the accident was not natural. She said they suspected Opanyin Akrumah did so because my Dad posed a threat to him as he (my Dad) was becoming influential in the village, and Opanyin Akrumah was one who couldn’t countenance the sight of anyone as powerful as he was, or becoming so. He really loved power, absolute power.
After my grandma’s death, when I was about five years of age, I happened to be sent to live with Opanyin Akrumah, partly because he wanted to give the impression that he loved my father so much so as to take his only child. Another reason, and my most plausible, really, was that no one else would have anything to do with me. Did the elders not say that only the son of a living king who can call himself a prince?
My life in that house was an endless chain of hardships. As far as I could remember, no one showed me even an iota of love. That led me to suspect I wasn’t a son of the house; Eno Akyea’s story confirmed my fears. I was made to do every donko job in the house. “Nkrabeaaaaaah!!” and I must respond with the speed of the lightning that struck the coconut tree near Papa Aboraw’s house during the great rain. Else, a beating became my portion.
The children of the house lived like royals. Even the children treated me like the trash that Zoomlion loves to remove; especially Akosua, who was two years older than I was, and the eldest of them all. She didn’t even know how to cook, tweah! Their mother was worse, I feared her. She was always quick to remind me that I was a public liability and that but for their benevolence, I would have been long dead. Well, it no doubt was kind of them to take me into their home, but it certainly was act of kindness that had to be paid for, in the currency of suffering, toil and torture. I knew no happiness, no joy, just a monotone of desolation. The only lull in this unending desert of bleakness were the times I spent at school and the evenings I managed to sneak from the house to Eno Akyea’s for stories about my family. How I enjoyed those stories, they were more enjoyable than the Ananse stories I heard. I used to dream about my lost family a lot. I dreamt of a peaceful home, loving parents and siblings…
“Kojo…Kay darling. How do you feel this morning?”
“I feel great, Mama.”
“Come over and let me whisper something into your ears.”
“Ei, Mama, what is it? Please tell me now, pleaassse!”
“Hehe, Mama, don’t do that oo, haha.”
“Guess what Kay…I have a surprise for you! Dada has just brought you a brand new bicycle!”
“That’s not all! For your birthday, he is taking you to Accra, the big city! Oh Kay, Happy birthday!”
One thing no one had the power to take away from me was my freedom to dream, but certainly the key to bring those wonderful scenes and conditions in my daily dreams into reality were locked away. It was a sequence. Dream, be happy, think it is real and boom! – back to reality.
“Nkrabeah, where did you put the shoes I asked you to polish?”
“I put them in your bedroom.”
“What! You gave you permission to enter my bedroom?”
“You asked me to take them there when I am done.”
“Stupid boy! Who said you could enter my room with your dirty, smelly body!”
I hated Akosua with all my heart. And I feared her, because she was capable of concocting stories like a skilled village gossip, stories that her parents believed, so real yet so fictitious. Each of those stories either got me into trouble or extricated her from her many escapades. She was just like her mother. She was a spoilt, lazy girl; never wanting to do anything for herself, sending me on useless errands. My greatest dream then was to beat her up mercilessly. Until I could run away from the village, I dared not. I swallowed my hurt, and her nonsense, and waited for that time to come.
The city was waking up. I could smell the aroma of Sulley Maame’s waakye. It was a characteristic smell, and each of the boys could distil it even when twenty cooks were all cooking waakye at the same time. And each of us also knew that the aroma and the actual taste of Sulley Maame’s waakye never converged. It was a standing joke that all the goodness of the waakye escaped in the aroma that got to us. You paid for the aroma, and not the taste. The aroma promised heaven and delivered, okay not hell, but close to that.
Yet every morning, we jostled for space to buy the waakye. It was cheap and we were allowed to sign the wall, that is buy on credit. For trusted clients, Sulley Maame had a book in which she put a slash against the client’s name for each day you bought on credit, redeemable within a month. For salaried workers, the debt was paid at moon die, the end of the month. For those of us hustlers, there was a limit beyond which no signing was done until the outstanding arrears was cleared. It was a good arrangement which compensated well for the tasteless food.
“Kay, I am done with the bucket, you can take your bath now.”
My fellow street boys called me Kay, for Kwaku. I dropped “Nkrabeah” the moment I left Moseaso, it roused too many bad memories.
There were two buckets used for bathing, and it was first-wake-first-use basis. I walked to the back of the building. It was still dark, so I had to walk carefully. Because we bathed in the open, we needed to finish before the sun came up. I opened the tap and filled up the bucket with water. The owner of the store in front of which we slept provided the water as part of the rent. To ensure that only those who were paid up had access to the water, our headman (elected by us as his contact) had the key to the padlock used to secure the lock on the tap. Within minutes, I was done. The next person was waiting for the bucket.
Akwasi Poku brought the news. Akilipee was back from the big city and even his language and walking had changed. Kwame Nsuamoah was his real name, but even in school, he had dreams of leaving Moseaso for the high life.
He wore baggy jeans, which where held in place with a belt the width of a crocodile matchet, and a buckle as huge as an orange, the shape of a mask. on the front of his big T-shirt, he had the inscription “Accra Boyz are Blezzed”. On his feet, he had oversized boots which we saw in the films shown in the Sadisco hotel. And he had money to spend, lots.
“Nkrabeah, you have to come to the big city. I tell you, Moseaso is so dull! How do you guys even survive in this hell of a place?” He said the last sentence in the same way Mr. Brown, the white man who worked in the Adensu Mines, spoke.
I was impressed with the phrase, “hell of a place”. It sounded sophisticated and Akwasi and I exchanged looks, he seemed impressed too.
We were sitting on the tree trunk which had been lying by the Ehyire river ever since we were young. The only time I could sneak from the house was in the afternoon, when I fetched water to fill the plastic drums and pans. We were close to Christmas. Christmas was also the time for the Onum festival, which brought most of the indigenes of Moseaso back home to visit family and enjoy the peace and tranquity of the village.
“The big city has nice things we dreamt about when we were in school. Within one week of arriving there, I got a job in the factory of a white man called Mr. Darlington Griffiths.”
Even the name of Akilipee’s boss impressed us. Akilipee had been away for two years, and he said he was a driver in the factory. A driver in only two years! Whilst in the same period, I was slaving in Moseaso, not knowing what the future held for me. A plan began to form in my mind.
Opanyin Nemi was our local rich man. He had four trucks, called W’ato Nkyeni that left the village every morning to four destinations – Kumasi, Takoradi, Asankragwa and Enchi – and returned at night. You miss his trucks and you would have to walk to the main road, which was about five miles out. Getting a vehicle even from there wasn’t assured. His trucks were recognised by the inscription in front and at the back, Time Changes and Dεbi Asεm, respectively.
My first hurdle was how to get out of the house without raising any suspicions. That was tough, because even though I woke up at 3 am to start sweeping, cleaning and scrubbing, I usually got started my trips to the river around 5:30 am to fetch water. The W’ato Nkyeni for Takoradi started loading at 4:30 am, and could be full quickly, especially on Mondays, the day I had selected. My second worry was how to avoid Opanyin Nemi. He didn’t trust his drivers very much and usually went on trips with them, with his bag to collect the fares himself. With his cars plying four routes, my prayer was that he would not be on the Takoradi route on the D-day. Being a good friend of my Wofa Akrumah, he was sure to enquire from me where I was going and to report back even if I convinced him with a lie. Worse case, he could turn me back home. I prayed for the first time in many years. I had written God off; there was no way He could be alive or a caring one, and watch unconcerned whilst I suffered; and why did He not prevent my parents’ demise?
Fate was favourable that day. Opanyin Akrumah’s oldest sister, who lived in Ankosia, fell during a heavy downpour in her village and Wofa had to rush there the same dawn that I had planned to leave Moseaso. A week before D-day, I had sent the tiny bundle of personal belongings to Poku’s house, and so it played into my plans so well when I had to accompany Opanyin Akrumah to the station to join the truck going to Kumasi. I smiled when I saw Mr. Nemi still infront of the truck; Wofa joined him. I said a silent prayer, God must be waking up now, I remember thinking.
I didn’t return home. Poku and I sat at the back of the truck, careful not to attract attention. Freedom beckoned, yet we bottled our excitement, fearful that it could easily be only a dream if anyone found out what we were doing. As the vehicle turned around the bend over the little bridge that crossed the stream behind the Omanhene’s palace, under the bamboo trees under which we had played many games in happier times, away from Moseaso, towards Adaamaso and freedom, I took one last backward glance and held back a stray tear – my emotions were ambivalent.
Akilipee met us at the Neoplan Station in Circle, we got to Accra just as it was getting dark. Akilipee had told us how to get onto a Neoplan bus in Takoradi; fortunately, the station in Takoradi wasn’t far from the last stop for the Moseaso bus. It was a happy re-union, Poku and I beaming with smiles. We were in the promised land, finally.
We were overwhelmed by the size of Akili’s house – it was even bigger than the Moseaso Omanhene’s palace, which was the biggest mansion we had ever seen. The space in front of the mansion was about half the size of the RC Middle School ‘A’ school park. There were three big cars parked in the compound. When we entered the house, Poku turned to look at me. Our thoughts might have converged. Paradise existed on earth, in Ghana, and Akili was its annointed prophet. But we wondered whether the mansion was really for our friend. When we mustered courage and asked him, Akili hesistated for a split second before informing us that the house was for his boss, who had travelled out of the country, so he was taking care of it for awhile. We didn’t care one bit – it was heaven.
Akili would usually spend the day with us and go for his night duties at the factory. For the first two weeks, we knew only bliss. Akili had all the films we used to watch at Sadisco, Opanyin Koduah’s hotel. Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow, I Trust my Leg, Shakkar, Drunken Master, Bruce Lee, all our favorite Chinese and Indian films. We watch all of them again. And more. We looked forward to Akili’s return in the mornings, because we were eager to start work in the factory and our friend said he was working on it. Even though we were having a free time in his house, we didn’t want to overstretch his benevolence. He insisted that he didn’t mind.
I went over to join the queue at Sulley Maame’s and was soon sitting on the bench, my waakye in a plastic bowl, interspersed with coloured gari and spagetti (popularly called taalia); a roll of wele and a small piece of fish completed the assembly. My shoe shine box sat safely by my feet, the working day had began for me.
When Akilipee told us that we were to start working the next day, we were excited. We hadn’t come to Accra to watch the sea (which we were yet to see anyway); we wanted to get rich just as Akili, Poku and I having decided that Akili may be hiding his real wealth from us. We were to start on the evening shift as well, Akili informed us.
D-Day and we were ready by 7pm. We joined Akili in his Toyota Pickup, wearing the same overalls he wore for work. Dark blue overalls.
After my breakfast, I set off from the waakye spot, and took the road towards Maxwell Hotel. Turning right, I made it past Alewa’s house. Alewa was my regular customer but he was away that week. I headed towards Ebony. An hour later, I had served only three people; it wasn’t a good morning.
Akili told us we were going to see the Shift Supervisor for safety induction before we could begin work. Akili turned onto an untarred road and stopped infront of a shed by the roadside. About four men climbed onto the back of the pickup and a heavyset man appeared by the side of the car. He motioned us to get out. It was the Shift Supervisor.
I heard someone calling ‘Shine, shine’ and I turned. When I saw the person calling me, my heart missed a beat.
When we got out of the pickup truck, Poku and I exchanged glances. Is this the factory supervisor, we thought.
“Are these the new guys who are joining us, Scorpion?”
“Yes Boss,” Akilipee responded.
“Have you briefed them about today’s operation?”
“No Boss, they only know they are starting the factory work today, on night shift.”
“Good, let’s get this shift started then!”
I immediately knew Poku and I were in trouble. We had been lured by Akilipee into robbery and this was to be our onboarding operation. We hit the first house, and when the fire exchange with the police began, the contents of my stomach got the relief they had been seeking since we first encountered the Boss. I also found my voice, and started screaming and running, and running…
I ended up days later on the street. I still can’t recollect how I survived after escaping the crossfire. I didn’t see Akwasi Poku again, and was afraid that Akilipee and his gang would come looking for me. I lived in fear for months and tried to move away as far as possible from the house we hit on. Being a stranger in Accra meant I really didn’t know where I was moving to. After months of moving from place to place, I settled in Alajo, sleeping infront of the shop. To survive, I learnt the art of shining shoes.
I knew I had drifted to a new territory that morning. When I saw the security man who had called for a shoe shine boy, I froze. A moment’s hesitation and recognition dawned on both sides.
“You! You were one of them!”
He was the guy at the gate who had let us into that house we went to rob, as Akili had become friends with him a few weeks before the operation, as part of the modus operandi.
I turned, and ran, again.
I miss Moseaso. I have become a fugitive in this false promised land. I write these concluding words from the Neoplan station. I am returning to Moseaso. Our elders say that when the bow snaps, it goes back to its roots. I am returning to Moseaso. I know not what the future holds, but at least, I can stop running in Moseaso. My roots in Moseaso still remain a memento in my memory, I shall return to caress this memory and take it from there.