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Opinions of Saturday, 12 December 2009

Columnist: Appiah, Papa

Yes Sir Master! - Worries of a Diasporan Brother

It was Christmas day in 2008. I woke up to an eerie silence, only interrupted by the sizzling sound of the electric milk van that served fresh milk, to my neighbour. Through the window I could just about glimpse the flakes of snow, rendering a certain solemnity to the morning and capturing in my mind’s eye, images of reindeers and winter wonderland I had seen on Christmas cards. I turned round and looked at the beautiful woman who lay besides me, who was yet to recover from the exertions of the night before, when we had been at a party organised by a friend of mine with a surplus to declare.

It had been as parties always are in this country. In Ghana, adult parties were for adults. You left the kids at home, in the care of Aunt Efua, Araba the maidservant or with the wife of Mr Alhassan next door and went out to have fun. In this country, you went with the kids, who would run up and down the stairs with other children, as you tried to engage in some adult conversation. Every now and again, one of them would barge in crying, having been hit by Mr Ampah’s son. A stifling sense of unease would hang in the air as you consoled your kid and tried to make excuses for the son-of-a-bitch who had hit him.

“Oh don’t worry Mr Ampah, you know how kids are” You would say.

When in actual fact, what you really wanted to say was something akin to;

“If you don’t talk to that stupid son of yours, I’m going to kick him in his little bum”

Then, just as you were silently gloating about how well-behaved your children were compared to Mr Ampah’s, you cringe as your son would come in, and right in front of everyone, pick fried fish from the tray with his left hand. It would then be Mr Ampah’s turn to do the patronizing, as you tried to scold your poor son:

“You know the culture in this country” he would attempt “quite different from what we are used to.”

There would be a civilized general discussion about the difficulty in bringing up kids in a foreign land where concepts of discipline are different, and to what extent we should insist on imparting our own cultural values to our kids. So for instance, while I may scold my son for using the left hand to pick food, once he goes to school, and sees everybody else doing just that, he is left wondering what all the fuss was about.

Inevitably, there would be a mention of how the Indian kids, even when born in this country, spoke their mother tongue and were steeped deep in their parents’ culture. Fair enough, but the Indians often live in their own close- knit communities with grandparents, aunties and friends. They have their own shops and often their own schools. What happens when the closest interaction between your kids and anyone else, apart from when they go to school, is with a Brazilian childminder? On and on we would go, and all because of my son’s troublesome left hand.

A Ghanaian party, as far as I am concerned, should be for Ghanaians. I do not mind the odd hungry Nigerian or Zimbabwean, or the foreign partner of a Ghanaian. But this is an opportunity for one to really relax amongst one’s own kin, discuss NPP and NDC, Hearts and Kotoko, insult or praise Rawlings and Kuffour, listen to successful, and often not so successful immigration stories, and exaggerate perceived racist attitudes towards us at work. You do not expect to spend the evening explaining the recipe for groundnut soup to two English blokes from work the host had invited. Good riddance when they soon made their excuses and left. They could not have been having much fun.

The food had not been bad at all. There had been an assorted array of the best of Ghanaian culinary skill on show. There was waakye and banku and jollof and ripe plantain and beans. My only disappointment was that there had been no mposuo (pepper soup). How can you not have mposuo, prepared with a good helping of slightly smelly pieces of goat intestine and skin, at a Christmas party? And I wondered whose clever idea it had been to bring some of those wrapped paper that English people tug on at Christmas parties, when a piece of paper with a joke would fall out, and is read to everybody? The obvious lack of spontaneity in this meaningless activity was as unghanaian as could be.

Soon, the dancing had begun. For that, one needed a louder volume of music. Anytime the volume was raised, however, our host would come in and turn it down. He soon explained that the neighbours were not very friendly, and he did not want anyone calling the police. We all understood, but it was very sad indeed. We danced to Amakye Dede, Daddy Lumba, Kojo Antwi and Ben Brako, sprinkled occasionally with Ofori Amponsah, Daasebre Dwamena and Samini. We forcefully resisted a young nurse who had recently returned from Ghana with some of those CDs by Aunty Atta or Sister Esi featuring ABC or QYZ. While we danced, the kids snored away in different corners within the house, exhausted from the vigorous activity, and oblivious of the music and merry-making.

“Merry Christmas, my dear”

The shuffling around the room had woken up my wife

“Merry Christmas” I said

I hugged my dear wife and promised, that by the same day next year, we would definitely have moved the building project back home forward beyond her wildest imagination. I promised to continue to love her with all my heart. I reassured her, that through all my shortcomings and apparent careless joviality, I really appreciated how lucky I was to have a woman, as beautiful and as sensible as she was. We exchanged gifts and then went to wake up the kids, who tore down the stairs to open the parcels Santa had left under the Christmas tree. I think they got a playstation whatever, which they spent the rest of the day playing. My wife and I would watch them, eyes glued to a TV screen, and fingers pounding away at controls. We would then look in the windows to see the snow, and there would not be a single soul in sight. We looked at all the food around that we literally had to beg the boys to eat.

How could we blame them for not being enthusiastic about the fried chicken? They had been eating chicken all year round. And what about the biscuits, and cakes, and chocolates? Big deal. We were overcome by an overwhelming feeling of sympathy for our boys. Had they really ever experienced Christmas? That exhilarating feeling when Dad returned from work on Christmas Eve with the chicken to be slaughtered. Often, this would be the first chicken we would be eating the whole year. Sometimes, these wise chickens, sensing imminent danger, would manage to escape, when we would all happily chase it round the neighbourhood and down the fields till the eventual triumphant capture. We would watch as Uncle Ebo stepped on the chicken’s legs and slashed its throat and join in as Mum poured boiling water unto it and plucked the feathers. Meanwhile, Araba would be roasting the groundnuts for the soup in a pan with a layer of hot sand at the bottom. If you were nice to her, you could get a few nuts as a gesture of goodwill in this festive season.

Displayed proudly in the sitting room, would be the box of Piccadilly biscuits Dad would have bought. We would go and stand by it, taking in its aroma and salivating at the prospect of the handful we would be getting the following day. Every now and again, we would steal into the bed room and quickly try on, yet again, the Christmas clothes that would have been purchased for us. Outside, we would join all the kids in the neighbourhood in the moonlight, as we ran around with miniature fireworks. Away in the distance, the thumping drums of the Apostolic Church would reverberate in the warm night air, further fuelling our intense anticipation.

You were woken on Christmas morning by the smell of steaming chicken as the soup was prepared before we went to church - that unique smell of chicken, that for some reason, one can never obtain in Europe. It could merely have been the fact that we ate chicken so rarely, that it so powerfully aroused our olfactory senses, but that smell of steaming chicken was as much a part of the Christmas experience as anything else.

When the big Christmas fufu came, we would eat quickly, wiping and licking all the traces of soup from our bowls. We would eat our portion of chicken but leave the bones to chew later, when we would be meeting our friends next door to compare notes. We would dress in our Christmas clothes, complete with paper hats and spectacles, and join other kids to walk round, sending good tidings to friends and relatives in the neighbourhood.

The highlight of the day would be a visit to Nana Awotwe. Nana Kwamena Awotwe was a great grandfather of mine who had been to the war and subsequently managed a retail shop till he retired. They said Nana Awotwe was a wicked man. Every morning, he would make for himself a cup of Milo, add a freshly baked loaf of bread dripping with melting margarine, and go to sit on a balcony overlooking the family compound. What he would say is better told in Fante. Loosely translated, he would say;

“Rich men are enjoying, poor men are suffering

“Look at Kwesi Atta (a nephew of his), he has not been able to afford any food this morning”

As I grew up, I came to understand, that Kwamena Awotwe was actually a good man who could barely tolerate those of his relatives who wanted to depend on his pension. On Christmas day, he would serve us each a bottle of Fanta and tell us again, the same old story he had told every Christmas as far back as I could remember;

“Truth is important” he would say, “I was the only man our white commander trusted in the war

“Work very hard, for hard work never killed anyone

“Remember, wherever you’ll be and whatever you may be doing,

“That Yes Sir Master, never spoil work”

Good old Nana Awotwe. May his soul rest in perfect peace. We looked again at our boys, as they sat alone in the corner, eyes glued to the TV, frantically punching away at their playstation controls.......... What a life!

Wishing you all a Merry Christmas

Papa Appiah