My grandmother used to live in a flat at Asylum Down in the early 80s. The building was dark with shallow stairs made of brittle concrete that produced the sensation of walking on sandpaper as you ascended them. Having been most likely constructed during the colonial era, there was no indoor plumbing. It was therefore incumbent upon my grandmother to give my sister and I a bath in her metal basin in the flat’s corridor and after we’d eased ourselves in a chamber pot, to dump our waste into a pit latrine that sat about 30 yards away from the apartment building.
I felt this was a terrible inconvenience for my attentive grandmother whom I loved dearly, so one day I decided I would be a “big girl” and use the toilet at the latrine as I’d seen her do before. I was shocked by my encounter with wood, stone and excrement. The stench of ten thousand rectal evacuations hit me with the strength of a provoked bull as I opened the door. I was scared. It also didn’t help to have a team of Asylum Down area boys were hooting outside of the latrine as I tried in vain to take a dump. I thought maybe if I stayed in there long enough, they would lose interest and go away? But boys are such a tenacious species. When I couldn’t stand the olfactory assault any longer, I threw the wooden door open and sprinted past my tormentors. My buttocks itched something fierce because I’d neglected to bring toilet paper to wipe with and foolishly sat on the seat with no barrier. Needless to say, I’ve never been to a latrine since.
Still, I loved that flat. It never occurred to me that the inhabitants of Asylum Down were “poor”. In my juvenile mind, they had all the creature comforts to make life a delight. There was a kenkey seller who patrolled the neighborhood every morning at dawn; down the road there was a salon painted with magical powder-blue paint where women sat and laughed and gossiped; the kids never had to go to school and spent their days kicking around a grimy brown football or playing high jump with a structure made of palm tree branches. How could life be better? The crown jewel of this splendor was the massive iron gate that separated my uncle Kwaku Banker’s two-story home from the humble dwelling places of the rest of the area’s common folk.
Though we were only at Asylum Down for a short while, a number of events I experienced in those few months left an indelible impression on me as a girl: As a Ghanaian girl, specifically. It was in those months that I witnessed my first and only killer bee attack. A swarm had flown into the city, stinging terrified inhabitants with abandon. From her bedroom window, my grandmother watched men and women scream and scurry through the streets with an almost amused look on her face. I begged her to bring her head into the window and shut it, lest she be stung and die, but she ignored me. In a cruel twist of irony, a rogue bee flew through the window and stung me on my belly. Grandma expertly removed the stinger and I sat in the corner afterward and left that old magical, untouchable woman to her own devices until the swarm disappeared and the commotion dissipated.
A few weeks later, I was standing on the balcony looking at the kids playing in the dirt when I heard a thunderous shout… like a crowd roaring at a soccer match. All the boys went running in the direction of the noise and then disappeared into a throng of Asylum Down residents who were responsible for the noise. In the center of this mass of black humanity was a man who was ducking and trying to cover his face. His eyes were swollen and blood seeped from his forehead.
I asked my grandmother if I could go down and see what had happened.
“No,” she said sternly.
My grandmother was never stern with me, so her tone took me aback. I ignored my injured feelings and watched stone-faced as the young man was continuously beaten by the furious crowd and eventually saved by a passing police officer with a rifle who locked him in a vulcanizer’s shed for his own safety until a car could come and take him away. A neighbor came to report what happened to my grandmother, who mmmm’d and aaahhh’d with understanding as the story unfolded.
“What happened, Grandma?”
“The man was a thief,” she replied simply.
“What did he steal?”
She pointed to the web of line that the community used throughout the week. “He took someone’s shirt from the clothesline.”
She didn’t seem bothered at all. Why wasn’t she bothered? It was just a shirt; a ratty old shirt! What was it with Ghanaians that made them want to hit people so much? How was this “justice”? This was a part of my culture that caused me great anxiety and anger, frankly. (I had recently become acquainted with the cane.) Nevertheless, the dark side of my young self hoped that one person in particular would find herself on the receiving end of this brand of justice – and she lived behind Uncle Kwaku Banker’s iron gate.
All of my father’s close relations and friends bore appellations that were related to their profession or occupation. “Uncle Kwaku Banker” was obviously a banker. Likewise “Uncle Lawyer” was a lawyer (I didn’t discover his real name until I was 16), and so on. Kwaku Banker lived a good life by anyone’s standards and was always giggling. I found his presence comforting, but I never got the sense that his wife appreciated him half as much as the rest of us did. I suppose that’s why she tried to poison him with the help of her son in 2002. Uncle Kwaku’s wife – Mary – was a yellow woman with a yellow jehri curl. She was fat and short and looked like a butterball; but unlike butter, she was bitter and she was mean. My God, was she mean.
The couple had two sons, one in diapers and the other barely out of his toddler years. Auntie Mary (and I hated to call her “aunt”) insisted that I play with them when I came over to visit. But there are only so many blocks and games of ring-around-the-rosy a 7 year-old girl can play before she gets bored. Fortunately, Uncle Kwaku Banker and Auntie Mary had a girl living with them who was just about my age. I asked if I could play with her.
“No,” she said frostily. “You can play with my children.”
I just stared at her. Sensing that she had caused some offense, she immediately turned to sugar and asked if I wanted something to drink.
“Do you want some mineral?”
My eyes lit up and I nodded enthusiastically. I had just been introduced to Muscatella and was hoping they had some in the fridge.
Auntie Mary shouted for the girl to bring me a drink, which she quickly did…on a tray with a glass covered in white lace. To have someone my own age serving me made me really uncomfortable.
Soon, Mary announced she had to leave but that I was welcome to stay and walk across the street back to my grandmother when I was ready. She gave some instructions to the girl, gathered her bag, and roared out of the gate in her car.
Finally! The shrew was gone and I could play with someone my own age.
I asked the girl if she wanted to play. She explained in halting English that she couldn’t play because she had to work. Well, I understood that. It was like at home: you can’t go outside until you clean up your room, right? It only made sense that I help my new friend with her chores so that we could get on with the business of play. So I helped her dust, sweep (and horribly I confess, because I couldn’t work those peculiar Ghana brooms) and clean the kitchen. I was scraping a pot of something white – perhaps burnt banku, I don’t recall – and regaling her with a story about my life in America when we heard the gate open and Mary’s car pull in. A look of terror clouded the girl’s face. And suddenly, Mary’s fat frame filled the kitchen doorway. For some reason, she did not like what she saw.
She began screeching in vernacular. The young girl’s voice turned into a high-pitched whine. I was bewildered. What was going on?
Finally, Mary told me I had to leave. I objected, telling her that I was trying to help the girl with her work so we play and we weren’t done yet. I could see the rage simmering beneath her yellow skin. It was turning her face red. My new friend quietly walked me to the gate, where I cheerily informed her that I’d see her later so that we could play. She shut the gate without a word and padded back into the house where she was met with slaps.
You could hear her screams from the road. They echoed off the walls in that massive house. They pierced the air. They went on for an eternity.
And yet, none of the passersby on the road hearing them seemed bothered at all. Why weren’t they bothered by the sound of a little girl shrieking in anguish? Was this not the same group of people who flocked together to thrash a man for stealing a shirt? Was a little girl’s life therefore worth less than a secondhand clothing item? In my part of Africa, it would seem so.
That was over 30 years ago and in that time, our attitudes towards the worth of the life of Ghanaian women and girls have shifted very little. It’s estimated that 1 in 3 women experience physical abuse at the hands of their partners according to one study. This study does not include the results of the thousands of domestic workers who are routinely raped, sexually molested and physically assaulted by both male and female employers in the name of “discipline”. I wonder, how does inserting raw pepper into a 12-year-old girl’s vagina correct behavior, or slapping an employee with hot pizza increase employee productivity? These are just a few of the sick ways Ghanaian women’s bodies are maligned day after day.
As I write this, local boxing champion Braimah Isaac Kamoko (Bukom Banku) is reported to have offered his niece 400 cedis (about $103) to have sex with him. She refused 1) because it’s her right to and 2) because that’s her uncle. His response for being rebuffed was to punch her in the face repeatedly and to throw feces at her house. When her friend intervened, he beat her up to. Mr. Kamoko then dared her to go to the police, stating that it would come to nothing. Allegedly, he’s been physically and sexually abusing boys and girls in his community with impunity for years. He is now walking free, not even brought in for questioning. This fact is just as much a judgment against him as it is against those who profess to be upholders of the law. Where are the police in this matter, and can they be bought as Kamoko alleges?
We often assume that the perpetrators of abuse are illiterate boogeymen who operate in the shadows, skillfully avoiding the law. That’s the percevied “face” of an abuser. Nothing could be further from the truth. The worst perpetrators of abuse in the country operate in full view of the public. They are often respected members of our society and protected by power and privilege, and they exercise their sense of entitlement by preying on the weak and unworthy… who are more often than not women and girls.
It is this attitude that allows men like Bukom Banku and Peterpan CEO Young Gyu Lee to have the confidence to violate women without a second thought. Similarly, former MP Nelson Baani exhibited no perplexity when he proposed that women who cheat on their husbands be stoned or hanged for the act. It is this attitude that assured Mary – and the uncountable women of privilege like her – that she was justified in what I am sure was continued abuse of my once young friend.
After all, it’s not like it we’re talking about shirt from a clothesline, right? It’s just a replaceable girl.
I implore you: if you see abuse, don’t turn a blind eye to it. Don’t be culpable. Speak up and save a life.