I maintained the habit of an early morning walk, during my last visit to Accra five years ago. It’s refreshing, for the vigor of the exercise, the peeks at innocent, expectant faces stepping out of night into day, the serenity of the daybreak and countless other ways. Occasionally of course, I meet someone whose grumpiness, or very gait suggests he’d much rather have nothing to do with the day, except life goes on without his permission. I varied my route as often as I could, for a fresh experience. Indeed, I took a new one on the particular morning I write about in this post.
It was six in the morning and I planned to walk south through the Police Barracks opposite the Veterinary Hospital, cross the Ring Road East at Allure Spa in The City and head westward into the Osu district. I intended to turn north eastwards there, in a circuitous route through Labone, to return to my residence. This route offered the promise of just that sort of early morning thrill.
A car drove past and stopped in front of a a familiar house, as I entered the Osu district. The house is situated along Okodan Road, behind the Veterinary Hospital. My old friend Ashitey’s father owned and lived in it. He had long since died and I wondered if Ashitey now lived there, or if any of the residents might know his whereabouts. I interrupted the lady who disembarked from the car, just as she was about to push the gate open and ask, “Good morning to you, do you know Ashitey, by any chance? He lived here with his father many years ago. He and I started school together, but I haven’t seen him since those early years.”
“Well, no, I’m a visitor here,” she answered then hesitated, “Why don’t you come with me and ask the one I’m here to see?”
“Oh, all right then.” That’s how I got to meet Ashitey’s sister at six-fifteen in the morning. The security guard ushered us into the lobby of the house and went upstairs to notify her of our arrival. She came down the spiral staircase, gorgeously clad in a colorful cotton top, white pants and white high heel sandals. The top was sewn in the Ghanaian kaba style. I thought to myself that her short hair and dangling earring hoops were just right for the outfit she’d chosen, then wondered if I’d be received with much courtesy, seeing that she was all ready to go, at that early hour. She made the final turn on the spiral staircase to face us and then it struck me that I’d met her before. I couldn’t recall where, or what her name was in that instant, but I knew the face; the bold eyes, those modestly manicured eyebrows, the well formed lips and fair complexion. She had an engaging mix of openness and modesty.
“Good morning,” she said cheery and personalized the greeting by making eye contact with us in turns. The visitor had a file with her, which they proceeded to browse, with intermittent comments from Ashitey’s sister. She concluded the review after some three minutes by giving direction on what to do next.
At that point the visitor said with some deference, “This gentleman asked about someone you may know.”
“Oh, I’m terribly sorry, I assumed you were together. How’s Dedei doing? You know of course that she and I are cousins. I heard you’d all gone to Canada.”
Oh dear, I thought, I’m more obvious than I assumed; my confusion must be showing like the day break. “Dedei’s doing very well. She expects to come back by the end of the year. Listen, I was taking a walk through the neighbourhood and stopped to ask about Ashitey. He and I started in Achimota Primary School back in 1959 and I haven’t seen him since we left there. He must be your brother, right?” She nodded, but before she had a chance to speak, I continued, “Is he in town? Can I reach him easily?”
“Ashitey’s son lives right next to us, but he himself lives in Kanda. I can give you his number, if you wish.”
“That’ll be great, thanks.”
She read Ashitey’s number to me from her phone and then asked, “So are you visiting, or have you come ahead of Dedei and the children?”
“I’m visiting. I came for the burial of my brother, in fact.”
“You mean your brother Martey’s dead? I didn’t know that. When did that happen?”
“I’m afraid so. He died on Boxing Day. We had to put off the funeral until this month, to allow sufficient time for all his children to be present during the burial.”
“I’m so sorry about your loss. Do extend my condolences to your sister too.”
“I will and you have a great day.”
So who am not I related to in this town? Only yesterday I’d walked into a supermarket in the Accra Mall, to pick up a few supplies and was star struck when I run into Mr. Justice V.C.R.A.C. Crabbe in one of the aisles. Can’t imagine how I did it, but under that toxic combination of excitement and confusion, I approached the elegantly graying, retired supreme court judge. “Sir, I think you had a very illustrious career and I’m a great fan of yours.” Good grief.
“Why, thank you and what’s your name?”
“I’m Martei, Martei Markwei.”
“Oh, might you be in some way related to G.L.M.K. Markwei, who died a few years ago?”
“He was a cousin.”
“My daughter married his son Daniel. I visited them in the US three months ago.”
“Mm, I see it’s a small world.”
The middle aged lady with the judge turned from the shelves and asked, to my surprise, “How’s Dedei? Is she back too?”
“Oh dear, it doesn’t get better. She’s doing very well and no, she isn’t back; I came alone on this visit.”
The judge leaned towards me and said with a nod, “Take it from me, the world is shrinking and very fast.” He turned to his companion, “Won’t you introduce yourself?”
“No,” she replied and muttered something to him about my mother.
I wished them well and escaped to the bakery aisle. It seemed a safe enough sanctuary for the moment, in a fast shrinking world.
Ashitey was pleasantly surprised, when I called him as I left his sister. After asking about my late mother, who he knew quite well, he mentioned that he was in the hotel business in partnership with his son and would be delighted to host me for a brunch in their hotel any day. I assured him I’d take him up on that once I’d settled my itinerary for the rest of my visit, which is exactly what I did two days later. I went north to the Madina district early in the morning to borrow my sister’s car, so I could have brunch with my old friend and make all the stops I’d scheduled for the day also. I dropped her in the University of Ghana, where she lectures and, for conscience’s sake, filled her gas tank at the next fuel station, before driving towards the Osu district to meet Ashitey.
I decided to make a detour through Cantonments, as I came to the 37th Military Hospital intersection, in the hope that I might avoid the snail paced morning traffic and while at it, evade the taxi drivers and mini-bus operators who operate from the hub there. They’re a law unto themselves and a pain I didn’t want to inflict on myself that early in the day. So, I turned east onto the dual carriageway Giffard Road and then south onto the single carriageway Second Circular Road. There was a long and static queue of cars in the opposite lane, as is usual at ten in the morning.
As I drove past the policeman directing traffic in the junction where the Cantonments Post Office stands, I heard a decidedly offensive sound which has become all too common in the city these days. It was the blare of a siren, or bully-horn, as I like to call it. The offending party appeared in a moment. It was a garbage truck heading directly towards me in my lane and against the flow of traffic, presumably because the evacuation of garbage requires emergency response these days. Flailing arms protruded from the truck and directed me to yield by turning onto the road’s shoulder. I stopped in my track and slid the gear shift lever into parking position. The driver of the garbage truck was furious. He blared his horn, put out his head and, in concert with his crew of three, gave me … well in Accra we don’t give the finger, we give all five fingers, together with choice words which aren’t admissible in polite company. The cursing continued for perhaps a minute, or two. I didn’t hear the words themselves thankfully, because I’d rolled up the windows, turned the air conditioner on and had the radio tuned in to a local FM station. I really couldn’t make much of the broadcast on the radio. The exchanges didn’t exactly qualify for a discussion, but rather, a trading of insults. Still, it served a useful purpose in the instant. I was comfortable, distracted and could wait the road rage out. I was in no rush. There was a policeman within walking distance behind me; a peace officer whose business that morning included resolving problems which impede traffic flow. Let’s see how he’d earn his keep in this circumstance.
The queue in the opposite lane started rolling along again and one of the drivers stalled to let the garbage truck ease back into it. That was disappointing to me, to put it mildly. I’d hoped for somewhat more drama. I noticed that the obliging driver too had taken offence at my conduct. He gave me the fingers, as he drove bye. Knowing attitudes in the city, I imagined him thinking, “Why are you being so difficult? How unreasonable can people be? Garbage collectors are trying to do their job and you want to put them in trouble? Some people are just too-know.”* I was delighted to be an aggravation to him too.
I looked in the rearview mirror at the garbage gang bullies and noticed one of the crew members holding his clenched fist to his mouth, the way one does to restrain a cough; except he wasn’t coughing. It was an expression of regret, or embarrassment. He appeared to have directed his rage at someone familiar; someone he might be deferential towards, in the normal course of life. Don’t rage at me in Accra; you may embarrass yourself. ©
* Too-know: Ghanaian slang for a smart alec.