CHANGING HANDS

GHANA WRITERS ‘ANANSE PRIZE FOR LITERATURE’ AWARD STORY

Michael Osei Agyapong

 

The first time the note changed hands, it was, among other notes, a ‘token’ offered to pacify the law. And it didn’t fail in this purpose.

It happened this way;

Imaa Ablah had died. Hers was a death that would have required spiritual interrogation, but for her age, which seemed to be a good reason for her strange manner of demise. After all, old age came hand-in-hand with death and so the manner of her death, however questionable could have ageing as a satisfactory answer.

Imaa Ablah had never known her age. She however knew that when the monthly redness had stopped showing up, the independence winner whose forehead was more prominent to her than his vision had just been brought into the country from Engrasi. It was a hazy piece of information but enough to say that Imaa Ablah was, at least, ninety-four years when she died.                     

She lived with Kossi, the garden boy, in a small house that she had toiled to build by her own sweat in Lomé. All her children, and indeed all of her family, were in neighbouring Ghana. She knew that they had created good lives for themselves and she had yearned to join them, to spend the rest of her life among family, but she couldn’t bring herself to leave her house. To leave without the house was like leaving without her soul. It was the house she had built with the raw energy that only a heart-wrenching experience of divorce could supply. She had built that house as a brick-by-brick replacement for her husband; proof that she could live without a man. And in this very house she had brought up four strong sons.

On the day she died, Imaa Ablah had been sitting hunched over a bowl of gummy fufu with soup as green as algae, taking turns with Kossi to reach into the bowl. Kossi talked as they ate, telling Imaa about anything and everything. He talked about how dry cassava had become, wondered aloud about the preference of the chickens for egesting droppings to laying eggs, and surmised that Mother Nature must have been ageing to the neglect of her children.                      

Imaa only nodded to every remark and gave her characteristic “Mmmmmm”. It sounded like a cross between a sigh and a snore. It was less a response to Kossi’s babbling than an affirmation of life. Imaa was afraid that a silent atmosphere would allow death to sneak up on her and steal her away. She had ordered Kossi to always keep her ears busy. She needed desperately to maintain her grip on life. And life was living talking people. Kossi had become a chatterbox. He talked from dawn to dusk. And when Imaa finally retired each day, he would leave the wireless on to sustain the chatter.

Kossi was describing the blueprint of a big church that was going to be built in the middle of town. He proudly told Imaa that his help had been sought as a labourer to raise up the edifice. Imaa had supported her chin on her left palm and was staring Kossi in the face, listening. Her left eye was fixed on his face and her right eye was buzzing about its socket in a figure of eight pattern, as it was wont to doing. She let out the expected, “Mmmmmm”. Her life was still about her.

Kossi knew he was going to see the old woman through another day. Or was it the reverse? He had never been a man whose opinion mattered. No one had ever listened to his views, let alone to comment on them. Born on a refuse dump, he had grown up as refuse, an expert at menial labour, doing the oddest jobs for sustenance. But Imaa took him into her home. She called him garden boy, but he saw himself more as a caretaker. He loved the old woman dearly. She boosted his self-esteem and made him feel like a capable human. She listened to him, responded to his comments. She needed him. She made him feel special. Imaa gave him life.           

Kossi never finished describing the beautiful architectural feat that was going to be accomplished in Lomé. Mid-sentence, it happened, with much swiftness and efficiency. Like a felled tree, the supporting left hand dropped, and Imaa’s head came down, her face plopping into the bowl of soup. Imaa was dead. 

In the days to come, Kossi’s greatest preoccupation was how to transport Imaa’s body back to Wusutaa, her hometown in Ghana, for burial. The problem wasn’t how to do it, but how to make the most out of the situation. He had suddenly become aware that the source of his livelihood was gone and he had no savings to run on. He also knew quite acutely that the death of Imaa meant that he also had no place to lay his head.

When Imaa’s impertinent children sent him money to go through the legal channels to facilitate transport of the body, Kossi pocketed a fat chunk of the money and initiated his plan. He knew of the ‘body movers’, a group of mini-bus drivers who were willing to transport corpses as passengers. They all shared a common disregard for ghosts and a healthy appetite for good money. These were qualities Kossi was alacritous to exploit.                                                           

The deal had been made. On the arranged day, the mini-bus moved with exactly thirteen passengers, one conductor and one driver. They had made sure to keep to the passenger limit so as not to draw unnecessary attention. Each row of seats took three passengers. Kossi found himself on the last row sitting next to an unwary young woman with a prominent goitre and eyes the size of ostrich eggs. Kossi looked calm in a large smock and a cap. He desperately needed an air of respect about him, all the better to put godly fear into some customs officials in case things went awry. To Kossi’s left sat the cold corpse.

They had dressed her in a colourful kaba and conspicuous head-wrapper that covered much of her face, with dangling earrings to match; the more flamboyant, the more sprightly she looked, the better to make her look alive. All this was done after they had given her a good bath and applied a generous amount of perfume to eliminate any ill-mannered whiff.

Kossi was pleased with the journey so far. They had crossed the Aflao-Lomé border without incident and were gently vibrating along the road. Kossi was careful to keep his eyes away from Imaa. He didn’t want to see her displeasure. A man had to survive.                              

The police checkpoint appeared in the middle of the road. Two policemen manned it. They wasted no time in flagging the bus to a stop. Kossi’s heartbeat picked up momentum. He watched as one of them walked over to the driver and exchanged words. The policeman walked across the front of the car to examine the stickers on the windshield and then requested that the boot be opened. He came with the driver to the back of the car, just behind the dead crone’s seat. Kossi froze, as still as the corpse and prayed for safe passage.

“Alright, echeck like everything be okay. Make the passengers get don”, the policeman said in pidgin English.

The driver protested, “Lef the passengers. Them tire.”

“We for inspect the car from top to bottom”, the policeman said firmly.

The driver announced that everyone had to get down. He caught Kossi’s eye. Kossi hoped it wasn’t fear that he had seen in the driver’s eyes. He was the pro in this business. His fear was eroding Kossi’s courage. Kossi followed the rest of the passengers out of the bus, leaving Imaa behind.

The policeman took another peak into the bus and asked “Why Olady they tap. Make she get don.” 

The lie came easily to Kossi, “Olady make very sick, she no fit walk saf”.

“Ehn?” The policeman exclaimed and walked around the bus to Imaa’s window. Kossi followed at his heels as the driver tried to calm the impatient passengers. Kossi suppressed a rising urge to make a run for it.

The policeman observed Imaa. Her neck was slightly angled and her eyes were fixed on the back of the seat in front of her. “Them say you be sick Olady. How are you today?” He asked. Kossi wondered whether the policeman was asking out of concern. He dreaded the pending moment when the expected answer will fail to come and the policeman will notice the obvious.

But Imaa answered. Like a dream in reality, the sigh-snore escaped from the throat of the corpse. Imaa said “Mmmmmm”. The policeman took that as a cue to leave her alone. He said “Sorry Olady” and walked back to the driver. It took Kossi all he had not to break into a run. The ghost of Imaa had, for an instant, visited.

It was at that precise moment that the second policeman got up and annunciated unashamedly that the driver led his passengers to ‘fulfill tradition’ and move along their journey. The passengers took the opportunity to express their disdain at the corrupt ways of the police but eventually, everyone contributed a note or two. Kossi shuffled through the money in his pocket and added a two thousand cedi note to the collection.                                                             

Straightening all the notes and putting them together neatly, the driver transferred the bribe into the hands of the second policeman and shook hands with him, noting the officer’s unusually tough, leathery palms with stiffened fingers.

The two thousand cedi note had changed hands. It had moved into the hands of Sergeant Angelo Amaglo. Sergeant Amaglo would have kept the note a little longer if he had learnt to exercise a bit of sophrosyne. But since that was one of the many virtues he had refused to practice, he lost the note to a thief.

This is what happened;

Sergeant Amaglo described himself as the man who had married a Yokozuna. When he had tied the knot with Mawusi in the Aflao court, he had never imagined that a day would come when Mawusi would grow wider in girth than in height, or that Mawusi would become a resident controlling monster in his own home. He looked at his right hand. It had healed quite well but it had lost much of its flexibility. The skin of his right hand up to his wrist had the complexion and texture of a toad’s skin.

He had woken up one morning with his hand cooking in boiling water. Mawusi had dipped his hand into scalding water as he slept as payback for offending her the night before. She had stood by to hold his hand secure in the water to prevent him from drawing it back when he woke up. It took all his strength to free his hand from the strong grip of an Ewe woman who had built muscle from making Banku on a weekly basis.                                                                                  

Such a blood-thirsty, vengeful spirit had no place in the life of a woman but Mawusi was possessed. Sergeant Amaglo was a weak man. He had taken up the job of a policeman because he was too lazy to farm like his father and too scared to go fishing on the unpredictable sea, and not because he wanted to fight crime. He didn’t have the strength to contend with the obnoxious spirit of his wife, unless he drank hard liquor.                                                                         

Every day, after work, he’d visit the blue kiosk of Aunty Araba, the Fante woman who had come to sell hearty ale for the hearts of ailing Ewe men. It was quite pitiable though that the therapeutic effects of the ale were fleeting. This evening, Sergeant Amaglo walked towards the pub, emboldened by his full pocket. His intention was to down a dose of ale that will grant him lasting peace of mind.

He drank till he felt the contents of his stomach rise up to meet his mouth. He tried to stop it by clutching and pressing on his own neck. But he couldn’t beat the strength of retching; he vomited all over his table. His head felt too heavy all of a sudden. He couldn’t hold it up. He allowed it to drop gradually till his right cheek made contact with the goo on the surface of the table and remained. Sergeant Amaglo slept in a slimy pool of his own vomit, too heavily drank to appreciate his environment.

Aunty Araba was so angry, she ordered her macho son to throw him out, but not until he had paid every pesewa. Ebo Macho, pushed his hand into the drunken man’s pocket and counted out his debt, then he stashed the remainder into Sergeant Amaglo’s breast-pocket, lifted him by the scruff off his neck and threw him outside the pub. Sergeant Amaglo did not see any of this; he was in a deep sleep.  
He woke up to a slap from hands as coarse as a concrete floor. He felt woozy. Fuzzy figures loomed before his eyes. “Are you ghosts or shadows?” He said in Ewe.

“We are your pallbearers,” his wife retorted. “Foolish man!” She held him by the right ear and pulled him to his feet. Sergeant Amaglo was still not sure of what was happening around him. He knew he was being dragged by the ear, but by whom or to where, he had no idea and he didn’t care. Strong liquor numbed his senses. Strong liquor gave him peace of mind.

Sergeant Amaglo followed his wife like a lamb. He never saw that his wife had brought their seven-year-old son along to see him disgraced. Neither did he see that his wife had removed the money stashed into his breast-pocket. Nor had he seen that a two thousand cedi note had fallen from the stash his wife had taken and a keen-eyed boy had followed the note as it fell to the ground and promptly put it into his pocket.
That evening, the note had been passed from father to son. It would become the son’s prized possession but only for a night. He didn’t lose it the same way he got it but he lost it all the same.

It so happened that;

Pius Amaglo had an irritable nose. His nose wept at the slightest provocation. Dust, flowers, beddings, animals, they all made his nose weep. It was because of him that his mother had killed Paulina to prepare soup against his father’s protests. Paulina was the cat Dada had bought to prowl the house to rid it of rodents and reptiles. His mum had named the cat Paulina after her rival at the marketplace. Paulina was the person his mother hated the most in the world and the cat had become the object of her hatred.

Paulina, the cat, received at least a kick a day from Mama Mawusi. Once, Mama Mawusi had blamed Paulina for stealing some fish and chased the unfortunate cat round town to bludgeon it with a fufu pestle. Pius had been the fish thief.  He never confessed it to his mother. When Sergeant Amaglo had caught his son hiding in a corner of the house eating the fish, he begged his son to share it with him. His wife had been serving him food without protein.                     

Mama Mawusi killed Paulina the instant she realised that it could be the cause of her son’s teary nose. She promised her son that eating soup scented with Paulina will heal his nose issues. But his nose still wept.

His mother forced him to carry two neatly ironed handkerchiefs to school every day. The one in his right pocket was for wiping his face and the one in the left was for sneezing and blowing his nose.

Pius took the Apian way to school every day. It was a long dusty road, which ran straight till it stopped short in front of his school. As Pius walked this morning, he thought of the two thousand cedi note, which he had buried deep inside his pocket. It was in the left pocket under the handkerchief meant for sneezing.

Yesterday, he had waited till Mama and Dada had stopped fighting and everyone had gone to bed. Then he had lighted a candle and examined the note. He liked the silver line that ran across its face, the fishermen figures, the slanting bridge, its texture and its smell. It was his very own note. He had only been allowed to handle coins. This evening he had found real money.            

He had decided to make this note his own. He was going to sign his own signature over the one that was labelled ‘Governor’. He took out a blue ballpoint pen. He had nicked this pen from a senior in school. He wasn’t allowed to use pens yet, only pencils. Pencils produced only one boring colour and the drawings he made from them could clean easily. He had stolen a pen for himself and he was proud that he had good use for it. He had been practicing this signature for some time now. He had seen Dada and his teacher sign signatures. He was going to sign one too. He stretched out the note and made a semblance of a signature on it. He was very proud of his signature. Then he put out the candle and slept.

As Pius walked along the road, a car drove past. Dust soared into the air and assaulted his nostrils. Pius drew up a big sneeze and as his mother had taught him, quickly removed his handkerchief to meet the sneeze. A big ‘Haaaachooouuu’ ruffled the dusty air and vigorous nose-blowing activity followed. When Pius returned the handkerchief neatly folded back into his left pocket, he noticed that the inner material of his pocket hang loosely outside and the money was gone.

The money was gone for years, lost to hands. It took an unlikely hero to rescue it back into the world of changing hands.

The geophagic peregrine walked his day’s worth of miles. If he had not given up his wits some years back, he would have known that he had travelled on foot from Ouagadougou along the White Volta, crossing into Ghana, his journey taking him further and further towards the coast. The reality his mind perceived was vastly different from the untarred, pot-holed road he was following. In his mind’s eye, he was walking down heaven’s road towards Peter’s gate. The only problem was that the gate seemed to take a step backward anytime he got closer.                          

So he walked on. Anytime he felt the pangs of hunger, he would move to the side of the road where the earth was moist and loose, scoop soil into his hand and eat sweet sweet soil. He particularly loved the loamy soil, which seemed to be a mixture of all the other types of soil. But here he found only clay, a little too sticky for his liking.

He found a good spot and began to dig. He stuffed scoops of soil into his mouth. He felt something papery between his teeth. He had put a coarse piece of paper into his mouth unintentionally. He removed it and stretched it out. He carefully cleaned it on his trousers. It was a two thousand cedi note. He folded it neatly and put it into his pocket. Then he walked many more miles towards Accra.

When Hajia Memuna, the roasted plantain seller, had set up that morning, she had never imagined that a madman would come buying. She had just served one customer when her 15-year-old daughter had tapped her shoulder to gain her attention and motioned for her to look to her right side. A madman had stretched a hand towards her, holding money. She panicked, what was she to do? She wondered which unfortunate person had dropped their money for the madman to pick up.

It was her daughter who acted. She quickly wrapped some of the plantain in a fold of paper and gave it to the madman who collected it in exchange for the money.                                   

The madman took the food calmly and walked away. In the corner of Hajia’s eyes, she saw him sit by the road and spread the plantain on the ground. He began to rub the plantain in dust. Then he smiled widely and began to eat. Hajia didn’t puke. She wasn’t disgusted. She was just marveled. It was a blessing. If a madman had actually brought money to buy food, then more money will come her way.

After that incident, Hajia’s daily set up was never complete without the ritual of straightening out the madman’s note on the table with a stone on it to prevent it from flying with the wind. The note had become her lucky charm to draw customers. She made it a point never to give it out as change, and she had warned her daughter to abide by this.

One day Hajia had a precipitous bout of diarrhoea that warranted a sprint into some nearby bushes to find relief. Asiah, Hajia’s daughter had to do the selling in Hajia’s absence. This wasn’t an arrangement that suited her. Her mother’s customers were annoying, querulous people. This was a residential part of town and the customers demanded the treatment that only a five star restaurant could offer.  They even wanted roasted plantain deliveries and Hajia Memuna had bought a cell phone for that purpose. Asiah didn’t have the patience to entertain such nonsense with her mother away, albeit for only a few minutes.

A taxi driver pulled in by the plantain stand. “Lady, quickly give me plantain thousand cedis,” he requested.

“It’s not ready!” Asiah said sullenly.

“My friend, I am in a hurry o. My special customer is waiting for me. Where is your mother?” the driver asked impatiently.

“I said it’s not ready…ah!” Asiah retorted.                                                                          

As though the driver had not heard her, he threw a five thousand cedi note through his window at Asiah. “Take this and give me plantain, quick. And add the change.”

That is what Asiah hated the most; the people in cars didn’t even have the courtesy to alight to buy in a civilized manner. They would rather throw the money out their windows and expect her to stoop and pick them. Asiah was brimming with anger. She just removed a thousand cedis worth of uncooked plantain off the grill, wrapped it in paper and deliberately dropped the hot food on the driver’s laps.

“Ei, my God! You want to burn me alive!” The driver exclaimed. “The next time I pass by, I’ll report you to your mother. Now give me my change”.                                                               

Asiah looked into the change can and realized that she didn’t have enough to give the driver her full change. She wasn’t ready to go pleading. She took her mother’s lucky charm and added it to make the full change. The driver snatched it from her hands and sped off.                   

The money went with him to pick up the passenger, an anorexic Ukrainian who was returning to her country.

The money joined a flight, but it wasn’t to Ukraine. Its trajectory ended up in Norway in this manner;

When Miss Svitlana Petrenko had been safely driven to the Kotoka International Airport in time for her flight, she paid the fare and demanded change. Joo Boye, the taxi driver hesitated. He wondered why these white people were so wicked. Why collect change of a currency that she wouldn’t have need of in Ukraine? After all, with news that permeated the airwaves of a re-domination, whatever that meant, the currency was going to change. He behaved as though he hadn’t heard her.

She requested for the change a second time as he unloaded her baggage from her vehicle. Joo Boye sighed and squeezed out some change for her. It included a dirty, weather-beaten two thousand cedi note. An enthusiastic porter who was bobbing on the soles of his feet like he was standing on springs almost pushed his trolley into Svitlana and requested her permission to wheel her luggage into the airport.

She chucked the dirtiest of the change she had just been given into the porter’s hands and nodded. She watched him force her bags into the trolley. When the packing was done, the porter gripped the handle of the trolley, made a sound in his throat like the revving of an engine (Joo Boye and Svitlana exchanged glances) and charged at full throttle into the airport, still clutching the note so that Svitlana had to break into a trot to keep up. “Wait up”, she shouted after him in her thick accent.

The porter cast an eye backward and motioned to Svitlana to keep up. At that precise moment, a huge young man, dragging a bag behind him with a jacket hanging on his left arm and charging like a bull across the departure hall collided with the porter’s trolley. The pain that went through the bull-man’s legs sent him sprawling to the ground. The porter, having received such an abrupt breaking force went flying over the trolley and onto the young man. The trolley fell on its side liberating its contents. Together, they were a hodgepodge of bags, ladies’ clothing, lingerie, jackets and skin.

When the young man had managed to disentangle himself from the porter, eager to dissociate himself from such a ridiculous spectacle, he gave the porter a glare of contempt, picked up his jacket and bag and hurriedly walked off, not wasting a second glance at the scene he had left behind.  
At the immigration checkpoint, he was obliged to empty his pockets. Kwasi Dolloway reached for his phone and his wallet because that’s all he expected to find. But he also found a dirty two thousand cedi note he knew he hadn’t put there. He pondered its origin. His inkling was to drop the note, but he wasn’t sure whether intentionally dropping money on the floor constituted littering. He was a gentleman and he had just made a fool of himself a few minutes previously. He had to be more careful. Eventually, when he had boarded flight AK 565 to Norway, the note was nested safely in his pocket.

In the years to come, the young man had grown into Prof Kwasi Dolloway, Master of Philosophy in the United World Colleges, Flekke, Norway. He was a self-actualized man. He had a spacious office, which housed a collection of curious items from around the globe. He had picked up a lamp from Arabia, which sat on his desk ready to spew out a genie. A formalin-preserved viper skin from India hung on the wall behind him. Standing like a guard was an armour of the gothic ages, which was said to have been used by Tanausis himself. Every bit of his office space reeked of a part of the world. Collecting had become his preoccupation. He had never married and life was somewhat boring. His most prized collectible, however was a note that had found him by chance. He had pinned the note flat to his desk. It reminded him of his country. He had never returned. He had even naturalized in this cold land. 
At present, he was waiting for a student. The first time he noticed this student in his class, Prof Dolloway knew deep within his soul that the student was from his country. He arranged a private audience with the young man. He wanted to mentor him, like a father would a son. As it was, he was starting a family of sorts.

The young man walked into the office. He was a jolly lad, always with a big smile. His presence was warm. He had the aroma of home. They sat down and talked in his office, sharing hearty laughs.

The first time the student had entered the office; he had seen the note stretched on the old professor’s desk. Nostalgia gripped his neck. He longed to examine it, just to be sure. But he didn’t know how Prof Dolloway would react.

Today, he made his request and Prof Dolloway granted it without a moment’s thought. The student took the note and felt it between his fingers. He knew it. It was a two thousand cedi note. He found the silver lining on the face, dulled by the years. The fishermen still held their net in the sea, the Adomi Bridge stood in its slant, and he could see faint pen marks around the governor’s signature.  

Tears welled up the young man’s eyes. He didn’t want the professor to see him cry but he couldn’t erect embankments fast enough. The tears coursed down his face in rivulets. He remembered a home in which he had grown, domestically turbulent but a home all the same. He remembered parents who shared a common love for him but not for each other. He remembered a policeman-father who had shot his wife to death and committed suicide afterward.                       

Pius Amaglo pocketed the note without a word and walked out, his face a mess of tears and phlegm.

End

 

Michael Osei Agyapong is a medical doctor with a passion for expressed words in all of its forms. He has dabbled in poetry, plays, prose and pretty much everything writing. He is also a content creator for www.threesixtygh.com, a platform for showcasing African innovation. He manages the blog www.eyestouchedbydew.wordpress.com where he experiments with writing. For Michael, writing brings a joy that is akin to that of a mother’s after she has brought forth a child. Writing is creation, birthing, producing life and he hopes to do it forever.

 

 

 

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