I wrote this for the anthology Mother, edited by Kwasi Gyan-Apenteng and published in 2014. I am sharing it in full for the first time outside the book, in honour of the woman we call Auntie Esi “Chopbar”, one person I can’t stop loving enough.
My mum has always been a petty trader, as far as I can remember. She tells me she was a pupil teacher before her marriage to my Dad. In my lifetime, she has sold plantain at the Mallam Atta market, cooked and sold red red (a popular Ghanaian dish of fried ripe plantain and beans – aboboi- with red palm oil), made and sold ice cream in cups (the ice cream was called ‘Abele Walls’, made from a solution of milk powder, frozen in a cup with a stick stuck in it), made banku which I helped hawk, following a co-tenant, who carried her fried fish, from Kotobabi through Ebony down to Dzoworlu close to the former Meat Marketing Board where The Dome chapel is now located and where we turned onto the rail-line, trekking into areas that have now become prime areas; run a chop bar selling fufu, banku, and kokonte, both in Kotobabi (Accra) and Wasa Akropong, my hometown, where my parents moved to in 1989. Indeed, in my hometown, she is popularly called Auntie Esi Chop Bar! Today, in 2014, my mum runs a small shop where she sells items ranging from spices through uncooked rice to bottled oil; a very hard-working woman who hasn’t taken a single vacation, as far as I remember.
Indeed, in my recollections of my infancy, growing up in Kotobabi, my experience of the 1979 AFRC coup was running from school to the house having been told that my mum had been arrested from her stall at the SWAG park, Abavanna Down, where she sold her red red. My fear that day of never seeing my mum again stayed with me for a long time.
I was eight years when my little sister was born, and, in a way, I could say she wasn’t expected! So, to all intents and purposes, I was my mum’s last born. I recall being teased by our co-tenants in our compound house that I had been dethroned! Yε tu wo adeε so, they teased.
Together with my driver-dad, my parents brought up eight children, four males and four females, in Kotobabi, a suburb of Accra. We grew up in a three-room rented apartment, in a compound house. Three rooms, because there was the main bedroom, which was used by my parents and the younger kids, who slept on mats on the floor; the second room, which was a combined sitting room with a bed on one side (my eldest brother used this), and which served as a bedroom during the night, when the chairs and tables were packed at one side to make room for mats and mattresses to be put on the floor for sleeping on. The third room was a kitchen space, but it was used to keep other stuff like water drums, and served as the storeroom as well. And don’t have the image of a kitchen with fridge, cabinets, electrical cooker, et cetera. Just think kitchen space! Nine other families lived in the compound house, and we all shared the same utilities – bathhouse, toilets, water pipe, etc. It was great fun living in this house and growing up in Kotobabi. We had the bare essentials, but were brought up to feel proud and content with what we owned.
As a last baby, I am told (and I recall faintly) that it took a long time to wean me off breast-milk. I am told I used to wait by the wayside for my mum and when I saw her approaching the house, I would prepare a stook for her to sit so I could get my evening helping from the milk factory!
So the bond between son and mum was very strong. However, it was tough love. As an ex-soldier, my dad was reputed to have such a strong blow that he hardly used it. I don’t recall him ever beating me. That responsibility was mum’s. But she did it with love. When it came to discipline, just a look or a shout from dad was enough to turn an executioner into meek man.
In the year 1986, I passed the Common Entrance Examination, and gained admission into Ghana National College, Cape Coast, for my secondary school education. And, in 1989, my dad retired from UAC and my parents moved to our holy village of Wasa Akropong. There, mum resumed her chop bar business and dad, after a few years being a driver for the local rural bank, lost his job, and had to take on menial jobs, combined with farming, to supplement the efforts of my wonderful mum.
Going through secondary school and later through the University was not easy as far as funds were concerned. At one point, my parents had about five of us in school, at various stages and they found it difficult going.
Mum never relented and from my viewpoint, her responsibilities towards the family increased. Not once did I see her exhibit disrespect towards my dad.
I could write volumes about the sacrifices they made, especially during my University days, and when the whole policy of cost sharing began. And these sacrifices are the ones I saw and observed. I am certain there were many others I had no idea of. According to Francis Bacon, ‘The joys of parents are secret, and so are their griefs and fears.’ But my parents held on and supported me, and I graduated. My graduation congregation was a joy both for me and my family, especially my parents, and as I walked towards the dais to receive my congratulatory handshake and a dummy of my certificate, their shouts were distinctly deafening (shouts of ‘Olu, Olu!’, as I am called by my family), and I rejoiced as they rejoiced with me.
In their marriage, my parents had their own share of disagreements and fights. When the disagreement was really heavy when we were growing up in Kotobabi, mum would take some time off and go to visit her village. In her absence, my late big brother (nicknamed Joe Base) would take over the cooking and running of the home. By the time mum returned, usually in a fortnight, my dad would have been so contrite, not least from the chobo that Joe Base indulged in!
In the difficult times of the marriage, she threatened many times to divorce. She kept moving her timelines; first it was when I finished secondary school, then it was when my little sister finished secondary school…what didn’t move was the ingrained priority of her children and family.
And this extended to others too. In second book, Through the Gates of Thought, I recounted one great lesson she taught me.
I finished my sixth form education at Ghana National College in June 1993, and came to Accra, the capital city of Ghana, to be with my siblings at Kotobabi. Whilst enjoying the break after a hectic time taking exams, I had a request from Amenfiman Secondary School (Amenss), the only secondary school in my holy village of Wasa Akropong, to come and help with vacation classes (tuition) for their O level students who were preparing for their exams the next year. I obliged with pleasure. I have a passion for teaching.
Having taught during the vacation, from August till October, I stayed on and got the opportunity to do my national service at the same school from November 1993 till December 1994, teaching Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics and Core Science.
When the national service period started, I was joined at the school by new service personnel – Dadzie (Gabot), Ammah (Sir Sawyerr), Amankattah (Makey), Bessah (Uncle Bee), amongst others. We also had some personnel in Wasa Akropong, who were not in Amenss. Most of these guys had grown up in urban cities and had no experience of rural life. So it was a whole different experience, a cultural shock and adjustment in most cases.
My friends in Amenss and I had a wonderful time, though in part this was due to the kindness of my mum. My mum was operating a local chopbar then in Wasa Akropong, that served traditional Ghanaian dishes – fufu, banku, kokonte (in secondary school, we gave it the scientific name ‘black calatus’!) with light soup and groundnut soup, with choice of mutton, fish and bush meat (game). Twice a day, the three service personnel – Gabot, Sawyerr and Makey – and I (sometimes joined by Bessah) would troop to her chopbar, and help ourselves to some food, for free. In the evening, either we went to my parents’ house to eat or food is sent to our lodging. We used to joke that we ate six times a day, because we had both breakfast and lunch in the school and were supplied supper as well! This wonderful treatment from my mum caused Gabot to make his most famous statement: “Ekurase yε dε!” loosely translated as “Village life is good!” This practice continued daily for almost ten months.
Growing up, I observed my mum extend such kindness to many strangers, even to this day. Her philosophy, when I once queried her about her reasons, was that if she extended kindness to someone’s child who was living in an alien land, the same courtesy would be extended to her child when the situation is reversed. By her example, Mama taught us to be kind to others, especially strangers. John Billings advised that in order ‘to bring up a child in the way he should go, [you need to] travel that way yourself once in a while’. Mama travelled that way all the time.
In the Twi language, we have a proverb: “Yε obi deε yie, na wonso wo deε ayε yie”, meaning “If you treat someone else’s property well, yours will prosper as well.”
When I had the request to contribute to this anthology (in December 2013), I was spending the Christmas holidays in Lagos with my wife and our children, and it was a great honour to be able to take mum with us: her first time of flying. My heart swelled with pride when my siblings called from both Ghana and the States to tease her about how she found flying! I smiled as she recounted the feeling of seeing clouds below the plane!
My joy was fuller because this is a woman who gives so much, yet when she is given little in return, she embarrasses you by thanking you so profusely! Her home in Wasa Akropong is full of her grandchildren, and she works daily even today to keep them happy and satisfied.
If I am grounded today, if I remember my roots, if I respect my fellowman, if I am focused on hard work and making a mark in my society, I owe it in no small part to this gift that God gave to me as a mother. And if I had to choose again, Madam Elizabeth Somiah, affectionately called Maame Esi Chopbar, will definitely still get my vote.
I love you very much, mum. Happy Mother’s Day.