The Splendor of Mrs. Sonaike

If all marriages started out with an engagement like Big Nan’s, no one would ever get divorced.

‘Big Nan’ is my nickname for one of my oldest and closest friends, Nana Koranteng; because she does everything big: House real big, cars real big, grades real big and now wedding real big. I’ve always known that Nana comes from a royal family, but you’d never suspect it because she’s so very humble.

When I pulled up to her house, it was a sea of BMWs, Land Rovers, Range Rovers, and a hundred other indistinguishable shiny black cars. Two very uncompromising men in dark suits stood guard at the gate. They looked at me unsmilingly.

“Good afternoon,” I said.

“Do you have your invitation?” one asked me, not returning my greeting.

I quickly pulled it out and watched the pair of them look for my name on the guest list with no success. I was certain they were going to bounce me (from the gate of one of my best friends’ house!) and I’d be left to find my way back to Adenta in a taxi with my two kids in tow. Two minutes after standing at the gate, they found it. Akos, Nana’s big sister met me at the driveway and informed me Nana was up in her room, feeling really nervous.

“Then I must go crack some jokes to loosen her up!” I proclaimed. It suddenly occurred to me that Mamissa (this really, really crazy girl that is part of our group of five fast friends) was already up there doing the job of bride/wedding jester.

“You remember the way don’t you?” asked Akos.

“Yep!”

I found Nana up in her room, looking resplendent and regal in plum and raspberry color kente. She had a gold ornament in her hair and was decorated with beads the like of which I’d personally never seen. I said my hellos to everyone in the room and informed her that her guards at the gate nearly sent me home. She furrowed her forehead and seemed further distressed. I wasn’t helping much. So I reintroduced my kids before they could scatter everything in her room and worsen her mood. Nana loves kids. I looked around the room, thinking it felt really small. Much smaller than the last time I was there as a teen. Before parties we’d huddle around her mirror to put on make up and afterwards 3 or 4 of us would sleep on her twin sized bed and fight for sheets and space. Yesterday, the whole crew was back in that room 18 years later watching our girl get married.

Part of Ghanaian tradition is that the bride must wait in house until she’s called out to join the festivities. The groom waits outside the compound of the house until he’s called in as well. Each is heralded by their respective family’s okyeame (spokesperson), drums and/or a piece of music of their choice and surrounded by a gaggle of friends and family who escort them to the wedding festivities. I would joined Nana as she danced her way to meet nanaanum, but Mamissa bullied me into holding her video camera so that I could catch her on tape dancing and swaying in Nana’s bridal procession to the beat of massive fromtom frontom drums. Nothing had changed from the time we were all 14. Nana looked simply amazing, gracefully doing adowa dance steps she had just learned 30 minutes early.

Hmmm. These Nigerians.

Before her arrival to the court yard, they brought tings paaaa! There is no other ways for me to describe it. To honor the bride’s family, the groom’s family will generally come bearing gifts. A crate of minerals (soda); a few bottles of gin; a few envelopes of money. By the time I dashed outside to get a glimpse of their offering after someone shouted “the Nigerians are coming!” I’d missed half of the show. Women clad in he most amazing purple jewel toned fabrics danced in unison behind suitcases upon suitcases of gifts. A stack of parcels wrapped in vibrant orange paper were ferried in by at least 4 young men. A 3 man team of percussionists heralded the family’s arrival. When all had gone silent, the informed Nana’s family that they had come with “so many gifts and pound sterling”.

“As you can see,” said their spokesperson, “your daughter will not lack. She will be well taken care of in the Soniake home. She will go from glory to glory.”

I’d frikkin’ say so.

Uncle Paul smiled broadly.

Ohhh, and Afolibi! – her groom. When he was summoned, he danced with vim and vigor of a 10,000 man marching band. His feet screamed joy, his eyes shone in delight, the posture of his very back was arched in gleeful expectation. He swung his pale blue garments like a king celebrating victory. He danced like I imagine David might have danced before the Lord. He was coming to claim his bride!

After the clergy from both countries led us in a prayer and a hymn sung to Jesoss (Nigeria)/ Jezess (Ghana), they blessed the engagement ring and Afolabi spoke a few words.

“Nana, I promise to love and care for you; and I promise to work hard to support you, and to support everything you do.”

Nana smiled the broadest and sweetest of smiles. If you had a fine-behind velvety chocolate man looking you dead in your eye making you promises in the poshest of British accents, you’d be smiling too. I looked at all the women in the crowd, and indeed we were all grins. Yes, we were ‘jealous’. I wanted to get on a plane and remarry my husband all over again.

Rap to me the way Afolabi rapped to Nana! I’d say.

As they kissed quickly, we all shouted “Eiii!!!”. The Nigerian okyeame teased them making smooching sounds. Eh mweh mweh mweh mweh!, she puckered into the microphone. The pair of them ignored us, and seemed oblivious to the presence of the 300 people gathered on the lawn as they embraced each other like long lost friends. He hugged her like a man hugs a cool drink after walking in the heat for days.

Day 2

Yes, there is a day 2, because not only were these two Africans getting married, but two African royals!

The next day they were married in church at Christ the King. Their nuptials were presided over by an Irish priest with a Ghanaian accent – with hilarious local jokes.

Let that sink in for a moment.

I was late arriving, but got seated just in time to hear them exchange vows. I was immediately informed that there were no ushers, and I would be joining a vigilante team to collect an offering. This was the day I had burned my dress in the post I mentioned recently. Still, I was proud to be an official “money getter” at one of my best friends’ weddings. I was amazed as a flood of 20 and 50 cedi bills filled my basket. I prayed such anointing would fall on me! (God, I dey wait ohhh…)

“Did you steal any of the money?” Mamissa asked me.

“Nah. Not today.”

Those who had flown in from abroad were ferried (in a chartered air conditioned BUS) to La Palm for the reception. And what a reception. No attention to detail or luxury was spared.  Each table sparkled with the finest crystal and silver. And my God…the food. I mean, what did you want to drink? They had it. And what did you want to eat?!? They had it! Prawns, chicken, beef, plantain, feta cheese, plump tomatoes, the best jollof rice ever boiled and seasoned known to man…they had it!

Again, I was given another post as an official guest seater; and I performed my duties with pride…in my burned green dress.

Nana Henewa, Kemi and Mamissa looked like Grecian goddesses in their green toga inspired dresses as they danced into the reception hall; but it was Nana who stole the show. Never one who could claim the gift of dance, she kicked it old school and twirled her bouquet around her head. She was breath taking in her iridescent white dress, but she needs to take lessons from her hubby. He danced in like he was auditioning for the lead role in Breakin’: Electric Boogaloo.

No reception is complete with a boisterous MC, who after cracking a few jokes informed us we would soon be cutting into their “immaculately configured cake”. Before we were served, Mamissa gave a lovely toast to the bride and groom. As she told her version of how she and Nana met, I recalled that I had met Nana first and Mam stole her from me. That bully. In her toast, Henewa called Nana “the most selfish person she knows”. She was devastated as the whole reception laughed uproariously. Of course we all knew that she meant ‘selfless’, but while the rest of were briefly amused by her Freudian slip, she grieved over it for most of the evening. She so desperately wanted to honor our friend properly.

And then this Afolabi again.

After feting his family and celebrating their many achievements, he redirected his speech to address how he had met and courted Nana. He completed his monologue by turning to Nana, looking her in her eyes and saying resolutely:

I came,

I saw,

I conquered!!! we shouted in completion.

He shook his head.

And I was surely conquered, he finished in the most soothing baritone I’ve heard to date.

The whole room erupted into wicked applause.

“Heeeeeyyyy!!!!”, we screamed.

From the opposite side of my table I heard an obviously impressed man (who otherwise also had a very British accent) say “Chaley, I no hear some before oh!”

We danced until their was sweat and champagne on the dance floor and the DJ played the last song.

“Thank you for staying out so late Malaka, especially with a 3 month old baby at home,” said Nana. “You’ve forced oh!”

“C’mon girl. You know I love you more than my kids. I’ve known you longer.”

My dear Big Nan: Love real big, smile real big, and in a few years, I’m sure a really (really) big family crawling with ten adrini little Soniake’s. Like I said, if all couples started off like these two, there would be no divorce. Their success will not as a result of all the stuff (although as a guest I certainly enjoyed it) but in the quiet but confident way Afo showed us all that he loves my dear friend, and in the quiet way that shes willing to let him.

Sweat, Ice Water, Sleep

It’s hot in this country. I sweat. I drink loads of water. I have trouble sleeping.

Today marks a week I’ve been in Ghana. I have to confess, I didn’t think I was going to make it. By day 4, I was ready to tuck tail and run back home to Atlanta. I had several factors leading me to concede defeat: 1) My eldest was just not adjusting to the change well, and spent every waking moment since we got off the plane (literally) saying she wanted to go back to Atlanta. 2) I still can’t figure out how to get from town to my dad’s house. 3) I forgot, ever so briefly, my role as a child to African parents. That lapse in memory led to stony silence and 4 days of personal discomfort for my part. And 4) I missed my husband terribly – more than I expected to in such a short span of time.

But this blog isn’t about the sad/negative stuff. Who wants to read about that anyways? You’ve got your own issues. Why don’t you take your mind off all that and let me tell you a tale of 6 cities merged into one: Accra the megatropolis.

Accra has its own soundtrack, and it’s the same one that has been left on repeat for donkey years. To every conversation, there will be background noise consisting of swallows, roosters, crying children, the rumble of a taxi or a trotro and some woman screeching a gospel hymn in soprano when she is clearly an alto. The sound track to Adenta (a town that forms part of Accra’s megatropolis where we live now) is slightly more unique, however.

Every night, a pack of feral dogs fights outside my father’s gate. They snarl, yip and eventually end their fight with a chorus of mournful howls. Other dogs in the area of course join in the refrain. As I lay in bed, I imagine the fight must have ended with one dog viscously eating the other. An hour later, a family of bull frogs croaks until about dawn. Then, the resident cock crows the signal that it’s time to wake up. Someone outside begins to sweep the street with a stiff broom. It is at this time that the local malaam will make his call to prayer. A torrential flood of Allahu Akbar!!‘s fills the air. Not to be outdone, a pastor at one of the 15 or so churches that dots the road to our house will preach non-stop from noon to midnight over his megaphone. All sorts of prayers permeate the air, and depending on your fancy, you can find and join a congregation harassing God or pleading with Him to hear and entertain their supplications. Ghanaians don’t really just talk to God. He is either revered and approached softly, or advanced upon like a volcano that must be shouted at/over to be heard. It doesn’t matter though. God is still ignoring them. The roads are still bad, the politicians are still corrupt, and many people still have their visa applications to come to Amrika bounced on a daily basis. It’s sad, but kinda funny.

A man from Akropong lives in the house just behind ours. This man must–as a matter of need – eat fufu every day, twice a day. So great is that need that several of his house help have run away over the course of the years. Pounding fufu is back breaking, painful work. There is a reason that it is reserved for special occasions, like Thanksgiving turkey or Christmas duck. Even now as I type, a rhythmic dum dum dum interrupts me.

Getting through this week has been difficult, as I said, because I’ve had to relearn many things since my last visit. Unlike all my other returnee friends who have a gaggle of maids and drivers to attend to their every need, it’s just me, my dad and my kids at home trying to muddle through our days and night together. The first domestic challenge I faced in that week was ironing.

I don’t where all these irons in Ghana come from:- Korea, China, Singapore – who knows? – but they all have one thing in common. They have two settings, namely OFF and MELT YOUR GARMENT. In preparation for a wedding I was attending, I actually melted my lace dress, even though the setting on the iron was set on low steam.  I watched in horror as a sticky goo where my neckline used to be lay before me on the ironing board. I was confused as to how that was even possible, but I wore the dress anyway, and hoped that my American blubber would cover the singed fabric.

Next is negotiating the gate to our house. If I ever am successful in reaching this gate after venturing out for a day in town, access to my house will be denied me for 10 minutes or more. The gate is padlocked to keep out intruders. That’s not a problem. The problem lies in attempting to open said gate with a rusty key fitted into a rusty lock. My dad has an endless supply of WD 40, but it doesn’t make a difference. Something about the melding Ghana’s air and metal is just conducive to rusting. In the moments spent trying to enter my house, I will cough incessantly as my lungs are cloaked with gray smoke as someone begins burning trash. Someone is always burning trash in these parts.

Lord, please don’t let me forget TV. TV in Accra is hilarious. Every morning, politicians get on the air to pontificate and tell a gaggle of lies. They then accuse the opposing party of lying as well. The only bit of useful and pragmatic information I’ve seen on tele has come from the mouth of a Nigerian educator, and they (as a nation) are supposed to have the reputation for corruption and lying. The soap operas are still the same as well. All the scripts are over acted, the value of an actress still lies in how quickly she can produce visible tears, and the sound and picture quality is atrocious. But there are subtitles for all pieces done strictly in local vernacular. That’s a nice touch.

This week, things are looking a lot more positive and I’m beginning to generate amusement in watching my people instead of despair. Like the man at a reception I attended who was decked in a ¾ length suit that was clearly too large for him (the hem of the coat rested below his knee), who accosted a waitress ferrying savory bits of food around on a tray and made her stand still while he popped whole bits into his mouth, never pausing to chew. Hmmm…proof that a fine suit does not make a ‘gentro man’ out of you!

Sights that are familiar to me are a wonder to my four year daughter. She proclaimed just two days ago that she wants to learn how to carry things on her head so she can sell them in the middle of the street. Her grandfather and I got a big chuckle out of this. Silly girl. That will never (ever) happen. My friends have all been laughing at me since I announced that I want to go to South Africa to teach. Can you imagine their guffaws if I one day inform them that my college educated girl is a yoyi seller at the airport?

A small girl shouts “Oooo shame!” to her compatriot. Her shrill interjection into the steady humdrum makes me smile inwardly.

Next week, I go to check out jobs. I hear people in Ghana don’t like to pay for work. I would say this isn’t true, but I still haven’t been paid for an article I sent to a magazine months ago. It’s no sweat though. Akwaaba to me!

Abusing Crippled Children at Osu Children’s Home

Stop what you’re doing. Get up and get all the old books your kids don’t read anymore. Put them on the kitchen table, your desk, the floor, or where ever you’re reading this blog from. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

Got ‘em? Great.

The night I got into Accra, the very first news story I was confronted with (because news in Ghana is not brought to you – you’re confronted with it) was a story that was broken by Ghana’s premier investigative reporter, Annas Aremu Annas, on the plight of the orphans at Osu Children’s Home. He secretly shot footage of the squalid conditions and the cruel treatment that most of the children endure. In a country that touts itself as ‘the land of a thousand smiles’, they were horrific images to behold and no one was smiling. Crippled children were being drug across concrete floors before being bathed with damp dirty rags that had been sitting out all morning. Infants were left to wail for hours with no one to tend to them. Bereft of love, some of them have turned to sodomy to find some sort of comfort, and this has of course evolved into older children sexually abusing younger ones. It’s a national tragedy, and sadly, I’m certain is not unique.

When I lived in Labone (a suburb of Accra) OSH was literally a stone’s throw away from my house. It’s been years since I lived in the area, but as a kid I recall being struck that I never saw any children playing outside on the compound.

“An orphanage should have swings or something,” I thought in passing. Inside I imagined a world of singing orphans, somersaulting over banisters and dodging the spiteful punishments of a proverbial Mrs. Hanigan. Eventually, OSH faded from my psyche, although I passed it daily. The truth is, these orphans have probably been abused and ignored for decades and until Annas’ shocking revelatory report, very few people gave them a second thought.

To the country’s credit, the public outcry in Ghana has been swift and condemning. A few small groups have even gotten together to sort out what they can do to help the orphanage. There is only one dinosaur of a politician (whose name I will not mention on my blog) who has blasted Annas for his report saying “he should have asked his permission before broadcasting the footage” and that Annas has “disgraced Ghana” by revealing this cruelty. As though our media is censored and the shame not lies with the perpetrators of these evil acts. For my part, I’ve been haunted by then image of a lanky little boy being tossed about by a stone faced male worker while his legs dangled lifelessly behind him. How long has he been treated like this, I wonder?  What thoughts flood that little boys head? Has he been ill treated so long that his heart has become as stony as the face of that uncompassionate man who is charged with his care? What could I even do about it?

The financial needs of OSH are monolithic. Greater than that, they not only need more staff, but a staff that has the temperament to care for several hundred children. Childcare is not an easy job. I have 4 small kids myself and take no joy in the 30 minutes it takes to clean their squirmy little bodies. I can’t imagine having to bathe 60 kids, particularly if I didn’t like my job, or worse, the kids themselves. And this is where many of the wardens at the orphanage find themselves. Overworked, understaffed, and ill suited to this work to begin with.

So again, what could I do to change all this? Nothing. Nothing at all. But what I can do is be a small part of the change that I am certain is coming to the home. I don’t have plenty of money, but what I do have during these 2 months I’ll be in Ghana is plenty of time.

Last night, my two girls begged their grandfather to read them a book. As he stumbled over the words through his bifocals, they sat in rapt attention, offering to turn the pages to find out what happens next. All kids love to be read to. So, I’ll go read to the orphans. Sounds simple enough right? Wrong. There are two problems:

1) I only brought two books from the states, and one of those is The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis (hardly literary fodder for little kids)

and

2) This is Ghana. Nothing is ever simple in Ghana. I’m sure there will be some bureaucratic BS I’ll have to swim through just to spend an hour a week reading to a few desperate kids…Because this is GHANA.

So, reader, would you do me a favor? While I go get on my hip boots and prepare to go beg the OSH administration to allow me to show their charges some kindness, would you get up, go get some kids books (even if the pages are missing and the covers are torn), put them in the mail and send them to:

Malaka Grant

(Mailing info removed because this is now moot, 2013)

Please? You will?

Awww! You’re so sweet. Thank you!

No Chocolate in Ghana?

This morning I woke up with a singular and very simple mission: Get some credits for my phone, buy a bar of Golden Tree chocolate and veg out on the sofa/bed and cackle with my friends while they work.

That mission turned out to be impossible.

I’m accustomed to Ghana being the land of “no”. No water. No electricity. No Jobs. No money in the system. But NO chocolate?? Yeah. Let that sink in. Now come with me as I guide you through the roughest 45 minutes I’ve spent in Ghana so far.

In Ghana, cell phone usage is on a pay per minute plan. You get these little scratch off  tickets, enter the number and you have a new balance. There are 3 billion wireless plans to choose from: MTN, Kasapa, Tico…too many for me to list. My sister bought a Kasapa phone while she was here 2 years ago so that’s the one I use. I’ve never bought minutes for her phone, but it looked simple enough. So off I went this morning to a yellow kiosk boasting all the credit plans on sale.

“Good morning,” I said cheerily. “Can I buy 3 cedis Kasapa please?

The girl with a short perm selling the credits lowered the volume on her radio and turned down her mouth.

“No please. It’s finished.”

I was stunned.

“Finished! Ei. Ok. Do you know where I can get some?”

She pointed down the road.

“At the umbrealla.”

I looked where she was pointing. There was no umbrella.

“You mean where that man in the green shirt is?”

“No. No. The umbrella. This way.”

Now she was waving her hand left to right and right to left – kind of like when the stewardesses on the airplane are pointing at the emergency exits. Basically, she meant keep walking until you figure out what I’m trying to say.

“Okay. Thank you.”

It had just rained this morning, so the potholes in red clay road were full of murky water. My flip flops slurped with every step. On my right, I spied a man sitting at a desk with a tarp on top. His painted sign said he had MTN and Tico.

“Good morning!” I greeted optimistically. “Do you have Kasapa?”

He sucked his teeth and frowned his face in disappointment.

“No. I don’t have some.”

“Oh. Do you know where I can get some?”

His companion pointed me further down the road.

“You can get some at the junction,” his compadre instructed.

I had already been walking for 12 minutes. The sky looked as though the heavens might open up and pour out more rain, and all I wanted to do was get home and make my bloody phone calls.

“The junction!” I cried.

“Oh. This very junction here. Where the tree is.”

The tree was only 100 yards away, so I felt much better. That’s one thing I love about Ghana. If you can’t get something at one stop, go 50 feet in either direction and somebody else will be selling what you need. It’s the same way with churches. I slogged on to the tree.

“Good morning,” I said cautiously. “Do you have Kasapa?”

“Yes.”

I did a little break dance.

“Great! I’d like to buy 3 cedis please.”

He pulled out a bent up scratch off card that had already been scratched. I looked at him quizzically.

“My brother. Let me tell you. If I get home and this card has already been used, I’ll come back oh.”

“Oh! It has not been used. Do you have your mobile?”

I told him I didn’t, it was in the house. In the end, I took him at his word and began the long process of navigating mud, trash and other unforeseeable perils on the red clay road back home. As I walked, all three people I had previously encountered asked if I had “got some of the credits.”

“Yes thank you,” I said.

At the top of the hill, I had a sudden epiphany. I’d have some chocolate as well. I mean, what’s better on a rainy than some chocolate? Some Golden Tree with groundnuts inside would transport me back to my youth. I spied yet another kiosk just passed my dad’s house. By now I’d been walking 25 minutes and was perspiring profusely.

A little boy had been left to mind the store. He asked me in Twi what I’d like to buy. I told him in slanged Twi that I wanted to buy Golden Tree. He looked confused. He said they didn’t have some.

“Heh?” Now I was confused. My eyes darted around his kiosk because I was sure he was wrong. Nothing. I turned and walked to another store front that looked better stocked. The plump middle aged woman who owned the shop took my dashed hopes and ground them into powder.

“Oh. Hmmm. These days, there is no chocolate in town oh,” she said in explanation.

“Why ever not! This is Ghana! We export cocoa!”

She suggested I try another kiosk around the bend. Before I trudged off, she said she would call her friend to make sure she had some. Negative. Her friend said she would not be ordering some until Valentines Day.

This is September.

As it turns out, Ghanaians do not have an appetite for Golden Tree chocolate, and store owners can end up with cases of the stuff in stock for months without a single say. Suddenly, my dad’s request for Snickers made too much sense. Bet you if I sold the bite sized candies from AMERICA at 30 cents a pop I’d have a line around the corner. Ghanaians’ affinity for all things foreign is really troubling sometimes.

By the end of my 45 minute odyssey, I ended up with a 1.5 liter bottle of Coke, some ginger snaps, sweaty thighs, a broken heart, and a promise from the shop keeper that she would see what she could do about getting me some chocolate. I felt like Christopher Columbus. No, I had not ended up in India, but it was the next best thing. I would just pretend the Coke and cookies were Indians even though I was clearly sitting on Native American soil.

Fantasy is a fabulous thing.