Safe House

There is no home to go to. Where do you think you’re going? Right now you are living in the Western Hemisphere regional branch of a corporation that built itself up on the bodies of people who looked very much like you who were snatched at night, who were dragged from terrified families, that were traded for some schnapps, who learnt to endure because there was no other option. The right side of the sea for you is a place where the same monster breathes down your neck; it’s breath just stinks a little differently.

But there, your 4×4 smells like abroad. It is pristine and you can yell at the driver for leaving oily fingerprints on the steering wheel covered in beige leather just like the rest of the car interior. And you can use that car to roll over the hands and feet of the people on crutches and in wheelchairs reaching to your windows misted over from the condensation of the cold AC meeting the hot glass. You can toss a few coins to the children grabbing at the pockets of your designer jeans as you exit the club, and maybe you’ll donate last year’s clothes to an orphanage knowing that you’ve done your civic duty.

And there you are safe, and the police yes sah and yes madam to your slippery accent and their giant rifles might as well be water guns because they would never dream of turning them on a big somebody like you. There you are safe, and blackness is only remarked upon when your grandma complains you have stayed out in the sun too long, or when the finest girl in the class is the shade of the inside of the palm you will use to try and get a feel of her wavy hair, or when the waiter is rude to you at a luxury resort full of white people turning red in the sun and you will shout at him, spit flying and veins threatening to explode: “Heh do you know who I am???”

Back home you are safe, and you are not a try-too-hard laughing a little louder and sharper because you don’t want to kill the vibe when your white friends are at a house party singing along in unison: “at least a nigger nigger rich” and making sure you hear the R at the end. You will roll that ‘r’ onto the ends of words like “wadur,” and insert them unnecessarily in words like Sakumono– you are safe.

But you don’t know that now you are living in the West African Headquarters of Keeping up Appearances. Your parents will list all your Latin honors when you shuffle into the living room after rolling out of bed at 1pm on a Tuesday and you will threaten to slap the house help for burning a hole through your silk shirt. Or maybe you won’t even speak to her except for a curt “Thank you” with the ends clipped off, at least everything is dignified you see. She has a uniform and has been working for your family for years, and maybe she has kids in the village somewhere but you really don’t know or care, and you definitely didn’t see her crying in the pantry after your father denied her permission to go home and attend to some sick relative.

You are safe, and the driver will warn you to avert your eyes when the neighborhood people are about to burn an armed robber with some old tires and kerosene and you will shake your head and kiss your teeth, why do these people always have to resort to such behavior? And you will flinch when the front pages of Saturday tabloids are covered with the image of dead bodies of people who were only guilty of loving each other in a way that your parents’ Bible does not permit and you know it’s wrong but Ghana is safe, who asked them to display their love in public­–

Now you are safe and you don’t have to let the white girl get away with anything and everything because she’ll cry if you try to point out her privilege– you are in a dive bar and all her friends are hitting you with drunken, slow punches and you know if you don’t leave soon, you won’t be safe because you will definitely be painted as the aggressor and the police will ensure that you don’t make it to the next morning. But now you are safe and this white girl is different and she cares about Africa’s development with a big ‘D’ and she loves black people, until she has a black daughter she is terrified and envious of and will drag a fine toothed comb without water or coconut oil through the same curls you used to admire on the girl that sat in front of you in class. But you are all safe–

And you will wrinkle your nose when the drains are too ripe and there are parts of the city you will never see. The tires of your car cannot roll over un-tarred roads, but they have built in treads for crushing the backs of the people who have been bought and sold, who are still being bought and sold, so you can sit over drinks on Friday night and celebrate how far hard work has brought you.

And you are safe because on your way home the policeman will wave you past the checkpoint with a flash of the torch and his teeth, even though you both know your “something small for the weekend” is what allowed him to ignore your expired license and the Jack Daniels mist hanging around your head. There you are safe, because the only way you will become a hashtag is if you become a local celebrity known for taking girls on dates with the intention of raping them or if you develop an app that is only useful to tourists looking for a good time and Ghanaians who have data bundles and iPhones manufactured wherever it’s cheapest. And the only slur you will know is the average Ghanaian because you are definitely not average you are special and you are safe.

Welcome to Dysfunction

Something is out of joint. This is more than a fog settling on the horizon, something more disturbing than a bad omen. More than the twisted ankle you got that day you tried to grasp the branch just fingertips out of reach. The darkest storm clouds are swirling in the middle of harmattan. Something unnatural has occurred, like a hand reaching beyond the chest and squeezing the heart ever so slightly. The once-eager cadets in their shiny uniforms are offbeat and out of step, gold buttons hanging by a thread on the front of their jackets. Our mothers would say the gods have been angered. Welcome to dysfunction, where the owners of the house are long past the point of keeping up appearances. They have inherited a homestead in ruins, a place haunted by the phantoms of its torrid past. A relic, a shrine to fallen greatness long forgotten, stands in the place where the Atlantic once kissed shores littered with gold dust and “undiscovered” treasures. A view of the past filtered through the longing of sepia-toned lenses is necessary, to demonstrate just how weak the foundations have become.

Welcome to a place where the owners of the house stopped trying generations ago to cover the cracks with lashings of whitewash, whitewash spilled everywhere, whitewash smothered on the curb to demonstrate prosperity and booming bank balances for the visitors. And yet the real heirs to this relic are the ones who suffer. They have become tenants, squatters even, as they watch their protectors sell away what’s left of their inheritance, brick by crumbling brick. Where food once burst forth from the ground, now only weeds and parasites deign to sprout. The owners have carried the juiciest fruit away to foreign lands, only to bring back a glossy product encased with slogans and false hope, promising to transform lives. That new car means an automatic promotion, a house in a gated community, and water that flows all the time and not when it so chooses, (almost as though a petulant child is tampering with the source just to annoy those dreadful people who think they are important because they happen to be taller.) That bar of chocolate and bottle of purified water mean that your hair (also imported) will flow behind you, driven by an invisible fan, as you step into the world of your dreams.

Dreams sold at exorbitant prices, after all…(“Abeg you know petrol has gone higher ooh”). Dreams built on the backs of a few people’s hard work, only for an even smaller select few to enjoy. But what haven’t you already heard? Worry is welded to the faces of everyone you know. Anxiety is a permanent and unwanted houseguest, that relative that promises to leave once they’re back on their feet, but is still there after years of “weighing the best options”. Furrowed foreheads are the latest accessories and a chorus of deep sighs is sweeping across language barriers, and ages, and degrees, and classes. Actually, maybe not classes. Trust is an antiquated abstraction that has been filed away in case a use is found for it somewhere in the distant future. And the house owners pretend to sympathize, but they hide behind inappropriate jokes and poorly timed pep talks, relying on that staple sense of humor to make it through.

You are now entering dysfunction, where the tenants can see the reflection of their distended bellies in the tinted windows of the new toy the owner brought home today. Even the neighbors who used to peek disdainfully through the hedge at those “other people” are now beginning to feel the outrage. Can we break off this shiny metal and turn it into something useful? Burn it to ignite a fire in the deactivated consciences of those who have sat idly while the house continued to crash  around our heads, or those who actively dismantled it, a piece of gravel here, a louver blade there. Now the neighbors and distant relatives are clamoring to be heard. But the landlord’s primary interest is keeping the title deeds clutched tightly to his chest, or balled up in the same fist he uses to shower blows on a populace on their knees. But you see, now, outrage has become a legitimate emotion to express. It has been signed in triplicate and has sat on a civil servant’s desk for six months. It has even been rubber-stamped, notarized, sealed with wax and has obtained all the relevant permits. It has been brought before committees and tribunals and found worthy. It has also been discussed in  ministry offices, barbershops, chop bars, and over brunch at the latest hotspot. It’s official; dysfunction may be here to stay?

All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.

-Animal Farm, George Orwell

The Interview

Trying some prose that is less flowery for once! Enjoy! 🙂

“Listen Quaye, it’s about time you got off that high horse of yours! How dare you refuse your editor’s orders?

“Sir, with all due respect, I don’t think it’s appropriate for us to publicize such an unethical public figure. I mean what about the million dollar scandal…”

Quaye straightened his frayed tie and swallowed rather obviously as he did whenever he felt that he had crossed a line. This nervous habit had been just one item on the laundry list of reasons Adwoa rattled off before packing all her things into the back of a rickety taxi bound for her parent’s house. “And another thing, a journalist? Where are you going in life? I’m sorry Quaye, I just don’t see myself with someone who lacks…ambition.  ” Six months later he received an invitation to the “joyful union” of Adwoa and the son of the newly inducted commissioner of the Bank of Ghana.

“Quaye I’ve heard enough! Ethics this and social justice that! As if you didn’t get this job because your uncle is a big man at GBC. Here’s your assignment, take it or leave it. If you still feel to big for this place, then don’t bother coming back.”

With a barely audible sigh and defeated sag to his shoulders, Quaye walked out of the offices of The Daily Drum, with his editor’s indignant muttering following in his wake.  He bought himself his usual lunch of roast plantain and groundnuts and stood squinting at the traffic that clogged High Street every afternoon without fail.  He knew he would eventually have to climb into his tired Opel and make his way to Movenpick to interview the minister. Maybe it was the overripe plantain that had brought on this strong wave of nausea, or maybe it was the fact that he was heading to a world of overstuffed sofas and overstuffed politicians.

An eager communications student, he vowed never to “sell out”. Writing invigorated him. He loved sharing his story and helping others tell theirs, but he also had a great desire for something more. There had to be more to life than the modest government bungalow that was the extent of his universe. There were certainly many more exciting things than the neat patch of dust that his mother swept carefully every morning, or the larger patch of dust on which he lost many a game of soccer. He was set on a career as an investigative journalist. His passionate young self would have scoffed at him in the present day, toeing his boss’s line in order to keep his mundane job, churning out story after story about the opening of municipal wells in some far-flung district and interviews with one slimy government official after another.

He pulled into the pristine grounds of Movenpick Hotel, the droop of his car bumper matching that in his shoulders. The doormen in their starched linen uniforms looked suspiciously at his threadbare shirt and too-short trousers sweeping at his ankles. Their suspicion quickly turned into disdain and they ignored his shaky “Good afternoon” as he walked past. He bore not one telltale sign of wealth, no driver sitting stiffly in a European car, no girlfriend with voluminous Peruvian weave giggling on his arm, no crisp banknote stuffed in his fist to be slipped discreetly to all the workers who were potential witnesses to an openly secretive affair with a young Legon undergrad.

(To be continued…)