Below is the first chapter of Kabu Okai-Davies’ upcoming “book of memory”, The Archaeology of Memory.
The streets of Adabraka are patterned in straight lines that crisscross each other in parallel formation, signifying a hidden plan to announce the establishment of this township. Behind these arranged streets lie a labyrinth of human secrets that forms the silent arrangement of my memory of home. Like the colorful threads of a Kente cloth, the vicinity of Adabraka impressed upon me the tapestry of its hidden patterns; as though woven out of the magical fabric of the past. Though a new suburb of Accra, Adabraka has an unwritten history reaching back to mythical times of memory. Muslim merchants form the North, wrapped in their dignified robes and royal turbans, would trek southwards to sell their merchandise, long before Gold Coast was founded.
Adabraka evolved at an intersection where the moon points its silver gaze directly towards the earth. As the night glistens in a blue, silvery glow, the merchants would arrive by midnight, set camp, and await the dawn to start trading their wares. They brought items of exotic curiosity, Islamic scrolls and prayer beads, wooden crafts and leather made goods, cola and tiger nuts; including cattle, goats, sheep, millet and yams to sell to the buyers from the coast. Here the traders, merchants and buyers would meet at this intersection – now called Adabraka Market – to trade. The buyers ask for a bargain and negotiate prices with the sellers, by appealing to each other, “ada-braka,” they say, asking for better terms of trade. “Oh, Ada-braka? I have already reduced the price,” the merchant will say. “Please, come down, your price is too high,” says the buyer. The buyer haggles, cajoles and sweet-talks the merchant, using seductive words to persuade the merchant to reduce the price. Then the buyer either agrees to the merchant’s terms or the negotiation goes on and on till the mutually acceptable price is reached and the transaction is completed. Oral thespians claim the word has Arabic origins, al baraka, for blessings, “if you bring down the price, Allah will bless you,” the buyer says; and that is how the place became, “Adabraka.”
Living in distant lands far away from home, the mythology of Adabraka reveals itself through a menagerie of invisible compositions that requires that I relive my memory of its streets in dreams, to retain any knowledge of home in the distant realms of exile. In my recollection of things, Adabraka was laid out in a benevolent fluidity of lines as though they were designed to measure the length and breathe of Accra, to determine how the constellation independence and Ghana’s future would play itself out in its infinite distances, beyond the scope of our own understanding. This was all done before Ghana was born.
We arrived at Adabraka in the bemused hours of an early December night, on Christmas Eve. I remember it so clearly like a nostalgic poem that refuses to leave after it visits at night. If there was an autumn season in Africa, I would have described the feeling of waking up the following morning as a place bereft of all its leaves, just before winter. But here, the season was ablaze with desire, garnished with secret delights, dreaming in their collective sleep, our expected arrival into their fold.
The following day, I woke up early to survey the neighborhood from behind the railing of the veranda, where we had moved upstairs. The street in front of our house was empty, the Christmas Eve’s celebration and festivities had continued into the early hours of the morning. Everyone I suppose was still asleep, emptying out in their coupling beds the accumulated passions from the night before. When they awoke by mid morning on Christmas Day, the neighbors appeared surprised to see that our house was now occupied by our family. They stared, casting ambiguous glances as though beguiled at the sight of our presence as the new occupants of the house.
They looked on with collective curiosity, conniving against our presence at first, before clearing the mist of their bewildered looks with welcoming smiles. Behind the masks of curiosity they were whispering inquisitive questions to each other about our arrival behind enquiring glances. I could see the neighbors from where they stood in front of the houses that lined both sides of the street that morning. I was equally alert in my curiosity, in reciprocal wonder, asking myself why the neighbors were looking at us, but mother intervened, “they are happy to see us,” she said. Her assurance arrested my concerns as a precocious lad, wondering with vigilance, about the way the neighbors seem to be engrossed in examining our presence that morning.
Mother had already assumed the position of Head Mistress at the elementary school that stood across the Northern end of the street. She pointed out the school to me, standing on the balcony. “See, over there is the school where I work and next to it is a church,” she said, as she waved back her greetings to some of the neighbors. I became thrilled by an imaginary sense of familiarity as though that morning was indeed, the memory of a day I already knew in a previous life. The street – our street – was laid out like a mat across the floor of the earth, a long carpet leading towards imaginary mansions and to distant places that excited and ignited in me an avalanche of expectations.
There were a few people, mostly older women and children, dressed up in traditional garb, adorned with colorful scarves on their way to the church, to attend Christmas service. The children trailed along in bright pleated skirts and polished shoes, returning quick furtive glances back at me. I sat there enjoying the alluring moment of private bliss, aware of the somnolent silence that had filled the house. The rest of the family still exhausted from the journey the night before, choosing to remain in their beds in the early hours of the morning.
My other cousins, who had come to stay with us, were lulling within the luxury of their sleep. But I had stayed awake, drifting in between periods of short sleep, listening to the cacophony of noises that filled the night. The nocturnal world outside was alive, filled with the creaking sounds of human movement while I lay in bed beside my baby brother. I heard confused intonations calling to each other, men screaming in drunken voices, argumentative in tone and later on a gang of thronging voices singing Christmas Carols went along the street. All the orchestra of noises kept me awake amid the royal sounds of mother’s snoring.
In the middle of the night, I imagined myself venturing into the labyrinth of the unseen realms of human habitation, transformed into a penile creature, tip-toeing my way through dark corners; exploring deeper and deeper into places where adults succumbed to the sensations of human temptation. Somehow I knew from references made by mother, that there were nooks in dirty dens, where people yielded to the debauchery of the night, in inaccessible places only familiar to its patrons. It was Christmas Eve, I thought and I knew that adults exhausted themselves with the agitated activities of making merry, intoxicated on hard liquor, bubbly and fizzy drinks, flooded in beer; amid a cloud of cigarette smoke and other substances that I could only imagine.
Through the prism of these thoughts, I became absorbed by the creaking and screeching sounds of the cats and the wild barking of dogs, as though terrified by the presence of alien beings prowling the night. “These dogs and cats,” mother had once said, “can see ghosts at night.” And that thought stayed with me as I tried to conjure up images of apparitions roaming the night, the streets emptied of human life. By the time the roosters started to crow and the chickens crackling at the arrival of dawn, I was already awake in expectant delight of what lay ahead in the day. That first morning, I went around exploring the house and ended up on the balcony, where everything on the streets appeared indulgent. It felt like an invitation into another realm, glimmering with new adventures.
Adabraka was my new world. It welcomed me with a sense of make belief, like an arcade of things that would illuminate my dreams; which will spice and colour my memory of home for the rest of my life.
“Willie, there you are,” mother said, “I was wondering where you were. You seem to have found your way around the house already. This is our new home now. Do you like it?” She had come looking for me and found me seating by the banisters observing the streets. I saw her waving back at the older man standing across the street, with a towel around his waist, chest and feet exposed. She said something in Ga that I did not understand. But I was able to surmise by the wave of her hand that it was an exchange of greetings.
Suddenly I realized my sense of smell had sharpened by the inordinate change of location. I could sense the redolence of multiple scents, as though the smell of alcohol from the night before had fermented the earth in a mixture of mangoes, oranges and peanut butter soup that had remained open from the night before. It was the scent of perfume mixed with sweat and cigarette smoke that enveloped the atmosphere in the distance.
In the repertoire of smells within the scented air, I could smell imported candy now rancid, steamed by the heat of yesterday’s scorching sun. There was also the scent of chocolate in the air, mixed with the lingering aroma of fire crackers that lit the night on our arrival. In this assemblage of smells, the air reeked of rotten onions, mixed with garlic and ginger and other spices in the open sphere, as though neglected to decay; like festering wide fruits, still hanging on trees in the forest of my imagination. I retreated into the house, to survey the other parts of our new residence, built by grandpa the year before. Everything was new, you could still smell the scent of paint from weeks before and the place felt spacious for a child to run about. There was another porch in the back facing the outhouse, with ringed railings behind the kitchen and a front veranda leading down to an outdoor stairway, an egress into an open compound. Next to the house was an outhouse, a self contained building adjacent to the main house where we now lived upstairs. The house was majestic in its own right even though there was no running water, we still felt happy and excited that we will be living in a new house; in a neighborhood where the houses looked arranged like shops on an empty market street, selling invisible curiosities to entice a child like me.
I sneaked back into the house, awash with the excitement of discovery and a sense of triumph. I had captured the dazzling exterior sphere that provided many suggestive ideas for adventure in the distant future. I must grow older, I thought, to explore the configurations of these extended spaces, grand homes, tall houses and vacant places that bewitched my imagination. Mother came out again, looking for me. I seem to have escaped her reach on the first day of our arrival. She appeared on the other side of the house, where I was looking outward into the vast expanses of the neighborhood.
Our two-storey house made it possible for me to see overhead, the many low detached houses that filled the vast spaces into the horizon. I could see the green tops of mango trees, the green leafs of banana and plantain trees scattered about and when mother saw me looking around, she told me, “our next door neighbors are Lebanese; they own the bakery downstairs,” she said; pointing at the sky blue colored house next to ours. “Over there is Mr. Reindolf’s house and he owns the candy factory near Liberty Avenue. On the other side towards the main road are the car fitters. I hear they will be leaving soon, because the land has been sold to a Lebanese builder, Mr. Palma, to build a five storey building next to ours,” she said. Five-storey building, I thought. It appeared in my mind as though it was going to be a skyscraper.
Mother appeared light headed, filled with a secret spirit of confidence in her gait, thrilled by her sense of newly found independence. She was now free from the watchful gaze of grandpa and the prying empathy of family members. She had lived all her life under grandpa’s parentage and patronage as a treasured daughter. Though this house was one of grandpa’s many mansions, Mother felt free to be in a house where she could determine how things shaped up in her life.
This feeling of freedom coincided with Christmas, and she felt born again within a fresh breeze of personal joy. I recognized a dazzling smile dancing across her parted lips and her bright eyes spread an expectant glow over her face. The aroma of self-worth injected a new skip into her step as she paced the living room. I could see her imagining how she could redesign a future for herself, for me and my brother as a single parent. She seemed to have recovered from the wounds of a failed marriage to my step-father and the transient affair with my father. We were now a family of three, living in Ghana in the aftermath of our return from England the year before.
My younger brother was just a baby, born in February of that same year. And now, Mother was more determined than ever, to forge for herself a better meaning of life away from the shadow of her lost dream of being married and living in a happy home. Now she must reinvent for herself a different kind of happiness.
“Ehe… Adabraka, Hmmm…” she murmured, smiling; as though aware of an invisible listener, an intermediary of sorts, conspiring with her to fulfill her new intention to live fiercely independent, a woman in control of her fate. Mother appeared radiant, possessed by a spirit of attractive possibilities, ready to wake up the rest of the family to start the earnest preparations to welcome the Christmas day.
Original image: Rod Waddington via Flickr