I was supposed to go to Morning Star School, but I didn’t get gain admittance. I can’t remember if the fees were too high or I bombed the entrance exam or if they just didn’t have room for one more student… I just remember the sense of relief I had when we walked away from the wrought iron gates and my parents told us we wouldn’t be going to school there.
I couldn’t have been more pleased. I had just come to Accra from Ohio, and Morning Star didn’t look anything like Garfield Elementary. The playground sucked. That was all that mattered to me.
So my siblings and I spent another week content at play in our lodgings at what was once Ringway Hotel (which is now nothing more than a ruin, last I checked), scrambling over the mighty wooden elephants in the lobby and making polite requests for fried eggs and excellent sugar bread from the cook. And then suddenly, it happened: my parents announced that they had found another school for us.
“Soul Clinic International,” my mother said.
My sister and I burst into a fit of obnoxious laughter.
“What is it? A hospital for your soul?”
*giggle, giggle, giggle*
“Yeah… what kinda name is that?!”
*har, har, har!!!*
My parents let us have our fun and then drove us up to the untarred parking lot of what was to become our new school. We met with Mrs. MacCaughley, who was a Black American. I don’t know why this comforted me. The woman never smiled and made no pretense of showing me any favoritism, but I felt more secure knowing there was an American on the premises. I was then led to a classroom where I was to take my placement exam. I had just left third grade in America and naturally assumed I would be moving on to fourth. The entrance exam proved I wasn’t ready. I knew what a + and – sign were… but what was this x all over my paper?
I repeated my grade.
I had fleeting memories of what it was like to live in Ghana from earlier visits my family had taken. The pleasant sort of childhood memories that one associates with travel – like eating a mango for the first time or seeing a lizard scurry past you in pursuit of a moth – made up the bulk of my expectations for a now permanent life in Ghana. Soul Clinic showed me that those idyllic moments were relics of the past. I was quickly thrown into the fray and would soon learn what it meant to be a child – a girl child in particular – in Rawlings’ Ghana.
The first thing I had to do was learn to shut my mouth. As you can imagine, this was particularly difficult. Only by the grace of God and seven fairies did I manage to not say anything to get me into too much trouble. There were soldiers in those days looking for anyone critical of the regime. If I said anything out of turn, my dad could have been punished for it. And then there was danger that loose lips brought in the class room. Some of my teachers routinely gave out misinformation in class. (I knew this, because I had the benefit of several years’ instruction in NBC’s after school specials.) But I quickly learned that even if a teacher was unquestionably inaccurate in any regard, it was not my place as a student to bring that error to his/her attention, let alone correct them. That was suicide.
Second, I had to come to terms with physical punishment. No teacher had ever struck me before, and my parents only spanked us for the most grievous offenses, like lying or stealing or running into the middle of the street in traffic. Suddenly I was being hit for everything; wrong answers on a test, taking an object with my left hand, not paying my school fees on time. There were days I wished I could march my parents up to the school and demand that my teacher lash THEM. I could not help that my fees hadn’t been paid!
Third, I had to accept my limitations as a girl. This was by far the hardest.
Soul Clinic would teach me that there were hard and fast gender roles which informed the rules that governed our society. This was not peculiar to Soul Clinic alone, of course. It was the way things were done nationally – like assembly and marching to class. Every primary school student marched to class. For me, there was no better way to start the day than with a song. That’s one thing Garfield Elementary didn’t have.
We were very fortunate because we had a “marching band”, which comprised of three boys, two drum sticks and a one drum. They pounded out rhythms that set the pace for our little stamping feet. Everyone admired the marching band, and one boy in particular was considered the best drummer in the whole school. I wanted in. Desperately.
“But you can’t drum,” said Prince. (Remember him?)
“Yes I can!” I shot back. I knew I could. In the 80’s girls could do anything. Punky Brewster had proven that.
Prince chuckled condescendingly.
“No, you can’t, Malaka. You’re a girl… AND you’re too soft.”
Fortunately, by this time, I had lost my crush on Prince and he was just a friend whom I was free to tease. I’m sure I deserved his denouncement. I was such a jerk in those days. Still, the fact that he said I couldn’t play the drums because I was a girl really stung. What nonsense!
My class was filled with bright girls, who were special in their own right. There was Peggy Baah, whom we dubbed “Iron Lady” because she NEVER cried, no matter how hard the teacher lashed her. There was Nicole Klugeson, who was considered the prettiest and smartest girl in all of third grade. She had shoulder length permed hair and blue berry juice dark skin. And then there was Kate Nartey.
Kate Nartey was the poster African child. She had short hair, big eyes, and skinny legs. In fact, she had skinny everything. She was nimble. Everything she did was quick. When she knew the answer to a question, her hand shot up faster than everyone else’s. When she walked, it was with a purpose. When she swept the compound, it was with lightning efficiency. Kate was always quiet, but you always knew when Kate was there. She just had an energy about her.
Kate was the only girl that the boys allowed to play football with. The rest of us were relegated to skipping rope or ampe. I used to watch with awe as she skirted past boy after boy with the football connected to her feet. Kate was good at every sport – basketball, volley ball (we had an imaginary net, delineated by a chalk line in the ground), high jump – it didn’t matter; Kate could do it.
So what came next should not have surprised me.
The following term, after that fruitless conversation I’d had with Prince, we all lined up for assembly and prepared to march as usual, once all the announcements had been given. One of the senior girls called out the song we were to sing and the marching band boys departed from their ranks and got ready to drum. Something didn’t look right though… there was a girl up there holding the sticks.
There were whispers all over the various classes. “Ei!” “Whoa” and a couple of phrases in Ga. I don’t know about any other girl that day, but my heart leapt. I marched a little harder, sang a little louder, and felt a lot better about my day. Oh guys, I wish you could have seen her. Her spindly arms were in perfect position, and she stood like a tiny marble statue, eyes trained on her drum. It was as if she didn’t dare look around in case she missed a beat and ruined the moment for every girl there. Because indeed, that’s what it was: a moment for us girls. It was a moment that proved that ability has nothing to do with gender, but with giving people an opportunity to prove their metal if you just give them the right arena.
I know I didn’t deserve to play that drum, but if anyone did, it was Kate Nartey.