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

Serving Suggestions (cont’d)

“Listen, Awo, I can explain.”

She looked up through the fog of her anger and pride, and realized the once rugged lines of her husband’s face had blurred since she had stopped seeing him, so focused was she on enhancing herself.

“Listen to what, Elorm? I can’t believe you. Did you forget? Have we not been planning this anniversary celebration for the past two weeks?”

“I said I could explain.”  That familiar knife-like sharpness had found its way into his voice the way it did every time Awo tried to confront him with her temper and her incessant demands.

“Go ahead and explain then, I’d love to hear how I’m over-reacting and how there is a perfectly logical reason for why my feelings are not valid. Go on! I know what this is about. It’s not my fault I don’t make you feel like a ‘real man,’ that your male ego can’t take you being ‘Mr. Awo’-”

“I’m fed up of having these arguments with you. It’s like if I don’t act exactly the way you want, with everything according to your specifications, then you have one of these tantrums. And then come your excuses, and your promises- and I know we’re supposed to lean on each other but I’m tired Awo, and-“

His eyes narrowed. “Wait, what did you just say? Mr Awo? Do you really think this is what it’s about? If anyone here has an ego it’s you, my dear wife. You manipulate me with your tears, and you think you can back-pedal and blame our problems on me being a typical African man, on me being unavailable, too logical, on all manner of things! After the miscarriage, you said you didn’t want to try again because you couldn’t afford to give up on your career, and I supported you. I have always been your biggest fan. I would do anything for you, but it never seems like enough. Enough! It’s time you took responsibility for our problems and not just our triumphs.”

“You know what?” he added bitterly. “Don’t bother, I’m fed up of your hard-fragi, Jekyll and Hyde act. Keep your emotions and your selfishness too.” He turned towards the door.

She was so stunned by this monologue that all she could do was watch his retreating back, already missing the broad shoulders that had held her up like that brick wall to the cross, after long days in the kitchens, at times when it had seemed like her own spine had been turned into jelly. His harsh words hung in the space right above her head, like smoke refusing to disperse after a pot had been left too long on the fire.

“Elorm wait! Wait, please I didn’t mean to…”

He turned back with a look that belonged to a total stranger. He reached into his pocket and retrieved an envelope which he slid across the countertop. “I wish you had just listened. This time I really did have an explanation.”

He was gone. Awo continued to sit just like her mother had done years before. Her meal, ice-cold and long-forgotten, also sat before her, silently taunting her. Who said she was above mediocrity? She had failed. Once open, the envelope revealed just how her pride and her desire to control had helped to unravel her marriage. Two tickets for a luxury getaway to Thailand. She had been dying to visit and dropped hints at every opportunity. She got up and picked up her car keys and her white chef’s jacket. She attached the gold pin to her chest and smoothed it down. It declared in embossed capital letters, “Awo Ayi, Head Chef”. A long shift at the hotel awaited her.

 

Serving Suggestions

For the 4 and a half people who have been waiting for me to post new work, I apologize. I’ve actually been writing  but haven’t been too happy with the results which explains my disappearance for the past month. But I’m back 🙂 and I hope you enjoy! 

She sat staring at the plate of food in front of her. Only half an hour ago steam had risen from it with its characteristic slowness, seductively daring the diner to resist. Now, it was no more than a congealed mass of over-cooked tomato paste sitting next to sticky rice. She almost let out a laugh when she thought about how much she had in common with this rejected meal, a mere substitute, left to simmer too long only to grow cold waiting to be consumed, better yet, devoured by a certain someone’s hunger. Awo had this curious habit of thinking of life in terms of food metaphors, creating analogies that were sometimes humorous but mostly inappropriate for the gravity of the current situation. Perhaps it was one of the many symptoms of her job as the head chef of one of the most prestigious hotels in Accra. With every day she spent controlling her staff with her infamous bellow; “Is that clear?” and sending out sumptuous meals with finesse, she felt as though she was laughing in the faces of all those who had slapped their knees and doubled over with laughter, mocking her career choices.

“You? A woman as a head chef? How? It’s not possible, we all know men make the best chefs!”

“But I thought a woman’s place was in the kitchen? How ironic, that cooking is the domain of the lady of the house until it becomes a high-paying job with all the perks, only then does it become a legitimate activity and not a wifely duty…”

“My friend please spare us your feminist nonsense! Your parents sent you abroad to go and read aaah you came back to cook for the same big men who run the system you want to insult…”

Awo looked down at her dismal lunch and wondered what an award-winning chef was doing eating like a college student. The exquisite steak she had prepared some hours earlier, lovingly rubbing the meat with spices and tending to it so it would emerge from the oven just the way he liked it (“No blood oozing out like your posh hotel guests please I like my meat well cooked!”) was stewing in the bin, still releasing it’s aroma into the air. Ever since she had watched her perfect mother lay out impeccable meals night after night, hands folded primly in her starched lap waiting for her father, meals at which he rarely deigned to show his face, she vowed to herself never to let a man dictate her actions in that way. Never to descend into the murky abyss of depression covered up by family’s hushed reassurances,

“Sister Monica is just tired, not crazy! Imagine looking after all these children and a husband, in that big house! Hmm in fact she is trying…”

Never to wait for anything. Never to curb the force of the tidal wave that was her ambition, breaking gently instead at the feet of her lord and master, washing them carefully and dutifully. Never to put her goals on the back-burner in order to complement another and allow him to bask in the glory and praise of those around while she sank deeper and deeper into oblivion. Always a palette-teaser and never the main meal.

She smiled to herself; surely this was a problem. Thinking of food at time like this, when the draughts of separation and misunderstanding were ripping through her carefully constructed marital home. She did not even afford herself the leeway of wondering what she had done to deserve this, or how she had arrived at this point. That was for weak people who did not want to claim their share in their own unhappiness, choosing instead to point fingers at “circumstance”. Awo, the booklong, had achieved the enviable feat of embodying the modern Ghanaian woman trifecta, educated and beautiful with an unmatched recipe for jollof rice. She had never given anyone the chance to raise her virtues above their underserving head as a trophy, an offering to failed manhood and family expectations. She had been notorious among the male population of her secondary school for being rude and unwilling to accept their romantic advances, a fact which branded her automatically as frigid and strange.

“See am oh! Notin give am saf!”

She wore her supposed strangeness like a badge of honor, debating with teachers while others kept silent and buried herself in books; encyclopedias, outdated chemistry textbooks, cookbooks, which probably explains why no one was surprised when she announced that she was abandoning her chemical engineering degree to take a job as a chef in a French restaurant. Nor were they surprised when she rose through the ranks of the best restaurants in town, eventually assuming the head chef position at the Regal Palm Hotel, making her the youngest and only female to do so. No one expected anything less from her, and the rumors swirling about her painting her as a snobbish shrew settled after her marriage to a certain executive at one of Accra’s leading advertising firms.

“Hmm maybe she was expecting ooh…no wonder they did it so quickly!”

“Yes ooh and I heard no traditional marriage too! Not even a single bottle of Schnapps!”

Awo remembered this same day ten years ago, or maybe it had been ten lifetimes, and how little she had cared about all the wisps of gossip floating about town, only just eluding her ears. They had been ecstatic. Their modest ceremony had been conducted beneath a stoic cross held up by aged brick, the same eternal symbol that had borne witness to both their baptisms. The reception was a never-ending blur of envelopes of money and suffocating hugs in the ample bosoms of old aunts. They were so eager for it to come to an end so they could be alone. Their craving for one another set the tone for their marriage, and their first few years were spent in this suspended state of wanting but never having their fill. One could argue that this was not the healthiest foundation for a long-lasting union; after all, a candle burns brightly for a brief moment before melting down to an unrecognizable version of its former self.

And today, she sat in her spotless kitchen, an unfortunate replica of the mother she resented and whose fate she had tried desperately to avoid. She believed that she was nothing like that wan shadow of a woman who smiled emptily at her emotionally abusive husband, receiving his subliminal blows while keeping his house pristine. She did not belong to that army of women kitted out with vapid facial expressions and a baby on the hip who she had always looked upon with disgust. As far as she was concerned, they were to blame for all their marital woes as they lacked the guts to leave, settling instead for a life of bakery and mediocrity. She knew she deserved so much better than that. How dare this man reduce her to the ranks of such weaklings? And yet…true love doesn’t keep a record of wrongs, it endures every circumstance. And yet…wasn’t humility one of the fruits of the spirit? Several Bible verses flashed through her mind, but it had been years since she left Sunday school and they were no longer as clear as they had once been. And yet…she was alone on her wedding anniversary, with a home-cooked meal which would soon begin to rot in the garbage just like her disintegrating self-esteem.

Then, the unmistakable clink” of keys on the kitchen counter, and a familiar shadow darkened her outlook.

(to be continued)

-Special acknowledgement goes to my dear friend Aba Quagrainie for the pidgin consultation. 🙂 

Cancers that attach to beautiful flowers

Her lithe beauty was both incongruous but yet strangely at home as she picked her way through the crowded marketplace, expertly and delicately sidestepping rotten pieces of fruit squashed into the dirt. The well-to-do housewives visiting the market left their air-conditioned cocoons for brief periods of time in search of items they couldn’t find on supermarket shelves lined with imported goods. Their wealth seemed to ooze crudely from their overly moisturized pores as they lifted their spotless kaftans quickly and roughly out of the reach of the grasping hands of children begging for coins and the eager grips of market-women desperate to make a sale. She, on the other hand, elegantly extricated herself and flashed her flawless smile in apology. It was almost as if she knew that others couldn’t resist her, even though regrettably there wasn’t enough of her charm to go around. She paused every so often as she wound her way through the market, taking a deep whiff of Asana’s spices and agreeing with Aunty Vida on how ripe and juicy her tomatoes were this season.

She lugged her basket bursting with produce back to the waiting 4×4, and unless you were watching excruciatingly close, you would probably have missed the slightly uneven edge to her gait, and the exhausted puff of air she expelled as she heaved her wares finally into the boot of her car. She sat back against the cool leather and inhaled the new car smell that still clung to the car’s interior. She had come home from her final (and probably most stressful) semester at Stanford to find the sleek Mercedes resting in the driveway like a blinding white birthday cake awaiting the cutting. It was more so a lure, a bribe to stay at home and continue pursuing her medical career rather than returning to the States which she had grown to call home over the past couple of years. She declined to drive it at first, what would she look like, a “small girl” cruising the streets in a “big man’s” car?

She stared tiredly at her reflection in her rearview mirror. How could people fail to notice that she was slowly fading; her rich cocoa skin had this persistent grey tinge that couldn’t be banished with the oiliest of shea butter creams. Her parents were of course aware of her “unfortunate” illness, which is how they chose to conceal her terminal condition whenever a relative asked after her. They explained away her frequent hospital stays as weekend getaways to their home in Aburi, and excused her promptly from her dinner parties the minute they saw the vague glassy look invade her eyes and a slight gag following every bite of food.The irony of her situation left a bitter taste lingering in her mouth. Her dream to be an oncologist wavered in front of her like the air vibrating immediately above burning tarmac on another humid afternoon in Accra. “Cancer patients? Isn’t that going to be too depressing?” How could she explain to people that studying to be an oncologist would be like having the ultimate playbook to defeat an opposing team with one crucial page missing? She had all the flashcards and cheat sheets (one page only!) to pass any exam. Yet, the tumors raging along her spine did not answer favorably to the doctor’s neatly laid out strategies to conquer her illness. Medicine, the noblest profession according to her parents, had been foiled for the final time. Her dazzling smile was feeble now as she looked down at the tissue soaked with her coughed-up blood. She pushed the car into gear and maneuvered onto the busy street. Hers was a beautiful decay, perfect teeth and all.

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…)

This is Bliss

They stared at each other desperately across the room with its low ceiling, ant tracks concealed as best as they could be with Vim, steel wool and a lick of cream paint. Maybe the ache they felt pulsing in the depths of the abdomen was their profound longing for one another, or maybe it was the pangs of long drawn-out hunger after a whole morning of stiff formalities exchanged between families that at the very least were pretending to be cordial to each other. The number of bottles of Schnapps and rolls of gaudy fabric had no effect whatsoever on the feelings that had flourished and exploded between them after years and years of Skype calls, and text messages with the odd renditions of human faces that passed for emoticons, and siting on that bench after school far past closing time.

Like young couples are prone to do, they felt that they had revolutionized what it meant to be in love. This was the real deal, no Hollywood blockbuster featuring what’s-her-face and Ryan Gosling, nor stilted Nigerian movie, nor exaggerated romance novel could capture the depth of their devotion to each other. Theirs was that perfect and slightly annoying type of relationship that did not stomach grudges for long, to the dismay of onlookers eagerly awaiting its downfall. Their souls sang in the same dialect, and…

They were yanked out of this romantic philosophizing by the yells of joy being forced out of well-wishers with the promise of a hefty takeaway pack at the end of the ceremony, enough food for tonight’s dinner. All thoughts of souls and hearts fitting together like the last two puzzle pieces you thought you had lost at the bottom of the box vanished in a cheeky puff of air, replaced by the reality of the heat weighing heavy under the canopies outside and the itchy material of the imported lace aggravating the skin. Anonymous aunties with large expanses of bosoms swathed in kente swayed and danced as they sang the praises of the couple and wished health and many children on them.

-This lady did not just pray for ten children and ten more. What do I look like???  

-Haha but we agreed remember? 😉

Her favorite aunties shot deadly looks to the elder who attempted to pour libation in honour of the ancestors in a very Christian house, and with that the rituals came to a rather anti-climactic end. The pastor recited a limp prayer as damp as the collar that lay against his neck as though seeking shade from his protruding jaw, and all the guests rose with a unified sigh of relief as they headed straight for the table laden with food.

The Pen Would Always Find Her

She cut her teeth on Cry the Beloved Country, and Maya Angelou’s defiant biography nursed her growing pains.  Matilda and What Katy Did were quickly discarded for more irreverent works. She craved writing that didn’t feel safe and homely, writing that was definitely inappropriate for a girl her age. Her appetite for books was insatiable, and yet, it grew to become a natural part of her being. Devouring books for breakfast, or in the car on the long commute home, or on the toilet before bed, where everyday occurrences for her. She laughed a raucous, daring laugh with Sula and played with the children in Anita Desai’s luscious garden in the balmy Indian sunset.  She was never really curled up in an old armchair in a small house on a dusty street somewhere in Accra; she was watching in awe as the owner of the plantation controlled Liana so effortlessly and mean-spiritedly, and she wept when Pecola finally found her blue eyes.

So how did she get here? How did she reach this place where she constantly asked herself, “What would Sula do?” She looked at her feeble reflection in the window flecked with the unseasonal December rain. The smudged louver blades created a disjointed reflection that appeared to shake its head slowly in disgust at its sorry excuse for an owner. Sula, who she was convinced was her more powerful alter ego (sort of like Sasha Fierce, but a lot more reckless), would most certainly disapprove of her apathy. Writing was supposed to be a release; her private getaway to a flawless white beach with water that was such a striking shade of blue it hurt the eyes in a single glance. Maybe her protagonist would have piercing blue eyes? A little black girl with blue eyes and an unruly bush perched in the center of her head? How obvious. Tell me again how you’re the new age lovechild of Toni Morrison and Virginia Woolf? Doesn’t that just make you crazy with a hint of soul? Writing was both her fountain of youth and her kryptonite, and yet she sat twiddling her proverbial thumbs idly in front of a blank white screen, with the specters of Yaa Asantewaa and the long forgotten ancestral mothers glaring down at her with eyes ablaze, “What a disgrace! We thought you would be strong like us!”

Clearly delusional, she slammed her state-of-the-art laptop shut. It had been a gift from her publishers after the signing of her very first contract and she remembered the uninviting cold of its metal surface as she rubbed her hands back and forth over its cover, feigning a benevolent smile as she attempted to choke back tears of fright, and regret, and “Did I make the right choice?” She blinked furiously in the non-existent glare of the naked overhead bulb, attempting to fight those same salty tears that lurked behind her eyelids, threatening to burst forth with a vengeance the minute someone uttered the word “deadline” or “Pulitzer”. The computer hummed and came to a slow halt, and in the silence that followed she confronted her empty future like she had done a hundred times before. The engagement called off in favor of the good little wife freshly called to the Ghana bar. Ghana Barbie: fully equipped with an innocuous smile, crisply pressed black robes and dainty wig, and an unbelievably fine-tuned recipe for groundnut soup (batteries not included.) But of course she’s only going to the chambers twice a week, twins on the way after all! The relatives clucking with disappointment, jowls quivering in shame as they hash out what a waste of a scholarship she had turned into. A dozen missed calls and text alerts flashing on her phone screen like the feverish strobe lights in some sick adaptation of her life, Quentin Tarantino style. Only this time, instead of a heroine squeezed into a bright yellow bodysuit, she felt about as invincible as the sickly gecko crawling on the once- turquoise wall of the childhood room she still called home. She answered the landline with a resounding sigh, “Yes, I am serious about this writing thing…”