Fiction

Chronicles of a Curfew Foretold: Fiction by Kabu Okai-Davies

african drum

Image: Sola Osofisan

The curfew came like an unannounced visitor. It was an omen neither the gods nor witch-doctors, neither palm readers nor the oracles could have foretold in the exuberance of the day before its arrival. It was announced by mid-morning of New Year’s Eve 1981. At that particular time of year the weather was usually hot, and the humidity seemed to have had an effect on the traffic. It was as if the whole city of Accra had come to a standstill, waiting for something portentous to happen. The poor and dispossessed among us were happy that the dysfunctional government had been overthrown, but the rest of the nation felt it was a trick of the imagination when the new ruler informed everyone via radio that they had to be in bed by six pm. At first it appeared the new government was joking; then the soldiers got serious and arrested a couple who were so much in love that they decided to defy the edict of the state. The lovers met at the end of the road to kiss and hold hands while gazing at the stars. They were arrested by the militia and thrown into jail for a week. That was when the news spread around the country that the new government was really a revolutionary regime and even lovers, polygamists and adulterers who defied the rules would not be tolerated. “It was a Holy War,” the new ruler announced on national radio.

Who could have foretold the second coming of an insurrectionist? No one could, even though there were rumours, whispers and mass hysteria in the air whenever the word ‘coup-plotter’ was uttered. Our nation disdained the corrupt regime and its henchmen who were considered the worst of the political gluttons in Ghana’s history, recklessly squandering the nation’s wealth. They were flaunting their ill-gotten wealth before the populace, and everyone wanted them sacked. Secretly, we in the nation prayed that the revolutionaries would return to redeem the country from the disease of corruption, without realizing we were talking in our sleep. So when the government was overthrown and the first decree was the imposition of a curfew, the nation was baffled into submission.

Somehow, our nation had to choose between going to sleep against its will or face the consequences of revolutionary action. That same ruler, during his short-lived tenure in power, was responsible for the death of the Generals in the army, we thought. Now that he had returned in a second coup, why wouldn’t he massacre anyone who opposed his rule? Word went around that he was determined to rule the country indefinitely, the way most African rulers do. So, many of the men who hadn’t been able to make up their minds about marriage quickly became engaged to their lovers in order to move in together, and avoid meeting at odd hours in the forbidden night.

The polygamists who spent the night visiting their various wives, and the adulterers who thrived as night crawlers visiting the homes of their many mistresses, decided to stay at home and for once were forced to obey the rules of Christian monogamy. Men who were fond of cheating on their wives now had no choice but to stay at home with their families. The whole nation went to bed, and for the first time in the history of the country, men and women lived by the law of love in a time of fear. They copulated every night to defy the silence, the monotony of night and the omen of tyranny. By the end of the year, the maternity wards were overflowing with babies, and a new generation was born who became known as “Curfew’s Children.”

I was not one of them. I was twenty-one when the Holy War was started. Those of us who lived as the sons and daughters of single parents held onto the night by the glow of candlelight. We told each other stories, long tales and myths that led to the birth of our nation, the founding of our family legacy and the journeys our forefathers had taken that had led us to this point of silence and fear. They were stories of years gone by and hope for a day yet to come when the lights would be switched on to re-awaken the nation. Each night was like a long dream on a somnolent journey to nowhere. The silence of a country that is born out of fear is not the kind that is a sign of consent.

For the fear went both ways. The curfew of African history had no dissidents, but the curfew of the government was a cause for dissent. The new revolutionary regime was afraid of a counter-coup and the country was afraid that the revolutionaries, who were armed as part of the military machinery of the state, would use revenge against those who resented their imposed rule. So Ghanaians chose to walk along the path of silence, and found secret ways to voice their dissent against the regime in the form of stories about how Anansi the spider tricked the crow that had a fish in its mouth by compelling it to sing. The crow sang and the fish fell and the spider took the fish. That is what we are going to do to this new government, the wise among the people would say. It will drop its guns without knowing it has lost its grip on power and we will trick it back onto the path towards democracy and free elections. We are a people who love politics. We will do anything for the sake of politics. No one will rule us indefinitely, not even the British, not even the founding father of our nation; the politicians in hiding convinced themselves.

At night we listened to our mother sing the songs that the mouse sang after it had betrayed all the animals of the world; this treason is why, ever since the beginning of time, the cat has been on a hunt to catch the mouse. Those who steal from their own people will be hunted down like mice for the rest of their lives. These stories and tales, woven in the garments of proverbs and parables, kept our nights alive and enabled us to re-imagine ourselves in ways that transcended our fear of the regime and the hunger of the moment. We dreamt of the lost world of our forefathers and their fathers before them, stories about the vanished African past that our mothers told us about. It was a world where fishermen came ashore at dawn with their nets full of fish, and drummed their way into the coastal towns, waking up the whole settlement of village societies to announce their arrival. I learnt early that the drum was the central voice of an African language that was coded in the bloodstream of our lives. The drums would speak to the body, the mind would succumb to the whim of its oratory, and the whole town would follow in procession, dancing to the rhythms of the moment to a place of tranquility and enchantment.

The African drum has its own lexicon and, at a young age, one is made to understand its nuance and to decode the meaning of a story as it is told by a storyteller at night. A story without a song is a report, and a song without a drum is mournful, but even then, there is the hint of a drum throbbing away with subtle rhythms to accompany the story towards its destination in the heart of the listener; a destination invisible to those who do not understand the language of the drum.

There were cities that had no names and invisible towns without chiefs. Hunters, farmers, traders and customers gathered there from dawn to dusk, to exchange their goods and services and speak in different tongues. They all left to return home before midnight, leaving nothing behind for the ghost of the night to feast on. When you leave your wares in the market, the ghost will feast on them, the oracles said, and by dawn the spirit of trade will be dead and no one will buy from you. So the merchants came at dawn to trade, and before night they all carried their wares home for fear that the ghosts of the night might touch them and curse the next day of business with omens of loss. Mother told us stories about midnight festivals of the gods, and horrid tales about the burial of tribal chieftains of the hinterlands. Following their death people who disregarded the spirit of mourning and risked walking about at night were decapitated. Their heads were used as head stones for the dead chief and they acted as ghost servants in the kingdom beyond. Murderous practices of human sacrifice also continued until the British forced them to stop. There were stories of midnight processions where the dead would awake and parade the streets; night crawlers became cursed by mysterious omens and lives were ruined by the curse of the night. Yet those who were initiated in the mysterious ways of the gods and could commune with the dead would roam the night unscathed by the curses of the spirits. So the fishermen would arrive by midnight with their bounty of fish, after battling with the gods of the sea. They celebrated their victorious return by drumming and dancing into the early hours of the day. The drums sounded with a pulsation that caused the soul of the city to levitate in its sleep. We would cuddle each other in bed, dancing in our minds, our hearts throbbing to the beat as we reoriented our collective consciousness and blood to the pounding of the drum, sleeping soundly in our collective silence, listening to the music and heartbeat of Africa in our sleep.

We fed our minds with stories about rituals of tribal rebirth, bathed in imaginary blood sacrifices, participated in fetish incantations, held superstitious beliefs and witnessed in our minds reincarnation of dead spirits through the resurrection of the dead. They were tales about spiritual possession by fetish priests and diviners that were both destructive and fetish; fearful stories that haunted me at night. Yet I desired to hear more, to capture Africa in an oral capsule and preserve it for humanity for centuries to come. Time stood still. The silent night formed a canopy over our youthful minds. We were frightened by ghost stories and tales about human sacrifices, the bewitching of families and the power of witches to cast wicked spells on others, people who had the power to use their senses beyond the realm of our physical world; these told of an Africa that was steeped in the realm of supernatural mysteries of a lost world. Was it this sense of timeless surrealism and inertia which resulted in the collective historic amnesia of the African mind? The stories evoke a sense of thrilling fear, a foreboding of the spirit to avoid the night and retreat into an inner dark age of frightful wonder and nightmare, a deep and lethargic psychic sleep, from which Africa has yet to awake.

I loved those stories told in a lexicon that was authentic and original in its cadence. It was a rhapsody, and Mother would measure her words in doses that mesmerized the mind of a child. They were words that had colour, tonal brilliance and proverbial authority. They were words about words, rich in texture and drawn out of a vocabulary as ancient as time itself, making each word timeless and treasured. Metaphor and irony were woven through a single sentence that stood like a painted narrative on the landscape of the mind. The onomatopoeic nature of the words gave rich tonal and visual life to each utterance that claimed its linguistic source of infinite richness not from Latin, but from the drum. It was intoxicating, a vocabulary of fermented sound,   and we listened to the music of its inner enchantment from its bottomless source. We would drink up all the juicy stories, proverbs, parables, fables and riddles about our past until we were drunk with ecstasy. The more stories we were told the more we wanted. They resonated with a sense of linguistic pride and power and had nuances of their own that could capture the magic of a world that floated in the realm of the imagination and of the vanished past. My awareness of the richness and value of my mother’s language and the many other native tongues of Ghana dawned on me at a later age, when I was not only living far away from Ghana, but when it was too late to go back to the source to obtain the knowledge I needed to make my utterances as a Ghanaian complete with all its rich vocabulary full of native wisdom.

Against my mother’s wishes, I had refused to learn how to read and write in the language of my birth, making her sad because my defiance would make me fail as a chronicler of those tales. ‘How can you tell these stories,’ she would ask me, ‘if you cannot speak and write it in your own mother’s tongue?’ To be honest, I don’t know why I refused to learn how to read and write Ga; probably I was experiencing what I consider to be as my period of cultural and historic displacement. I was more interested in listening to the stories, than in writing them. The evidence of people writing in Ga was not enough to encourage me to learn to write it. The mythology of Africa and the imaginative reality and virtues of its poetic and oral narrative did not resonate with me as a school of original and infinite source of knowledge, the way they do now. And by the time I became a teenager the focus of my imagination had shifted to other things, like girls and African American music. I began to block my mother’s persistent effort to get me to read and write Ga. But I cannot even explain to myself after all these years why I resisted her plea so hard. I failed to comprehend the reality of Africa within a system of thought and learning, beyond its post-colonial turmoil. The stories seemed too superstitious and virulent in their mysterious sequence. I had began to yearn for something else, something beyond Africa, something overseas, foreign; I believed I was in search of something better, more rational and explainable. I had begun to surmise that the curfew of all of our history, plus the curfew imposed by the government, blended perfectly in one long drool, caused by the timeless nature of Africa’s vanished past. While we slept in Africa, haunted by the festering culture of tribal corruption plus the tyrannical nature of African leadership, the great nations of the world who came and continue to come, to conquer, exploit and dispossess us of our lands and natural resources, were striving by day and night to master their destinies.

There were the stories about Ghana, about Africa and then about relatives living in other parts of the world, that kept the night alive and forged a bond between my brother, my mother and myself. And when the tales were over, she would read the Bible and explain the meaning of the parables, and lead us besides still waters in search of psalms to restore our souls. Mother could transform and become Moses leading the Israelites across the Red Sea, and on another day, Joseph and his brothers would emerge out of the wilderness of the imagination and become as real as the light of day. And the darkness of the curfew would vanish from our minds. The candle was the bright light that reflected imagined images on the screen of our minds and set us a-sail on a journey with Noah on his ark. Christ would walk on water, turn water into wine and wake up the dead in one sweeping epic that started with Abraham, the Exodus, Joshua and King Solomon, and went all the way to the crucifixion. These stories were linked to the fate of our country and to the continent. They were metaphoric stories to warn the tyrants of the land of many things yet to come. In my thoughts, Africa was the lost biblical continent, its leaders not knowing what they were doing or where they were going, yet ruthlessly clinging to power, while they blamed the people for having lost their way in the wilderness of time.

If we had not been a people of faith, we would have been driven insane by the darkness and silence of the curfew. There would have been a madness which could have plunged the nation into chaos, civil war, tribal mayhem and self–destruction, as it did in other parts of West Africa. But we endured, by the power of love and through the blessing of storytelling, the magic of the imagination and the miracle of prayers. Everyone called on God for healing, peace and solitude. For yea though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we fear no evil. The apostolic prayers were sent straight to heaven and the nation endured. The curfew became a familiar part of our national life. We expected it, we became used to it and we sneaked our way through life into the long nights of sleep and wonder. Ghanaians were left alone to unravel the mysteries of the night in our own unique way, knowing that Africa as a dark continent was no more a question of the unbearable darkness of its being, but a bewitched sleep within our hearts which compelled its people to sleepwalk their way through history; making the past more relevant than the future. The state-imposed curfew, joined with the psychic sleep of Africa, became our way of repositioning the cosmic clock of history and bending it to our somnolent will.

In those days of curfew and storytelling, I created my own form of defiance, waiting every month for the new moon to appear when I would feed my dreams with images of other climes, of fleeing my country for good in search of light elsewhere. Because, beyond the narratives of despair, my mother also told us stories about imaginary places of human blessing and the benediction of the universe, of human decency and collective prosperity, a biblical place in God’s kingdom of plenty, opulence and joy, where King Solomon presided over an empire of peace and ruled with the wise hand of justice and fairness in a secure land of freedom. Yet, for more than four years, we were forced to sleep like fowls in the land of eagles.

Ghanaians, who now go around the country parading themselves as chiefs of imaginary empires, submitted like cowards to the humiliating curfew of silence and historic somnolence at night. They were not men enough to call themselves kings the way they do now. But like sleeping snakes, they curled up in the undergrowth of fear, sleeping silently, waking up a decade later to proclaim their support for democracy and the new found freedom from fear. Somehow, the fear of the counter-coup slowly vanished. The onset of the curfew gradually receded from six pm to eleven pm. The ruler and his henchmen eventually began to feel confident of their tyrannical grip over the soul of the nation, and when they saw no need to force us into sleep, they completely lifted the curfew and no one bothered to notice. The nation was already used to its long nights of silence and bliss. And every household could boast of a child born out of that cursed curfew, but those of us born before it had grown wiser, anchored to new dreams by casting our thoughts overseas. Others who had no intentions of leaving the country swore to themselves that they would find a way to outwit the government, and seduce the rulers towards the path of free and fair elections. They would allow it to win once or twice, and then eventually vote it out of government and force its supporters to remain in opposition forever. Those long nights were not only a time of dreaming by candlelight, and the creation of new midnight children, but a moment where those who had dreams of some day ruling the country on their own terms, hatched plots that could trick the government as Anansi the spider had done to the crow.

In retrospect, Ghana’s Independence in 1957 and the overthrow of the First Republic in 1966 became excuses for the current political misconduct in Ghana; national irresponsibility and a collective sense of mayhem which led to a national orgy of corruption, nepotism and embezzlement which became known as Kalabule. These were the national vices which gave the insurrectionists and the coup makers the excuse to seize power and impose their curfew of silence over the nation. However, the curfew gave Ghana time to accept the sobering reality of its history and to redefine the meaning of freedom. It compelled us as a nation to reflect on a new course for our history, readjust to a new social and political order and contemplate the formation of a paradigm shift in our nation building. Miraculously, the curfew was an act of collective reappraisal, a chance to learn the meaning of independence, freedom, self-government and sovereignty.

Somehow, with all their fear and loathing of the authoritarian regime of the revolutionaries, Ghanaians settled into a new routine in accepting the violent leader at the helm of the revolution. He was driven by a restless and unrelenting spirit to see justice prevail, to eradicate corruption and to see the spirit of the nation cleansed and the rights of the ordinary people respected. In the mind of the new regime, only with an act of rebirth, a ritual cleansing by firing squad of the military culprits of corruption and the restoration of a moral sense of rectitude, plus social and political discipline, can a nation be born again.

The story about the curfew can only be told through a written narrative, steeped in the poetry of orality. Its chronology would be drab, for the monotony of curfew was not only haunting but mind numbing, were it not told through the poetry of a storyteller. It requires the lyrical magic of a literate scribe set against the metaphor of Africa’s haunted darkness and the mystery of African time. It was a dream within a dream, where men and woman copulated in silence for fear that their groaning might disturb the gods and offend the authorities. Silently, a national orgy was happening on the rainy nights of the middle months of the year, giving birth to a new generation to be known as “Curfew’s Children.”

The intervention of the military, their ruthless revolutionary tactics, uncompromising will to power, their transformation from authoritarian rulers to democratically elected leaders and then their astonishing willingness to let go of their grip on power at the end, convinced the people that Ghana was on the right course, and changed Ghanaian history and the world’s opinion about Ghana for good.

Today as I write this story in 2010, some twenty-nine years after the curfew was first imposed on December 31st 1981, Ghana has become free again from the grip of those who once seized power by force and imposed the curfew. I have lived overseas for twenty-two years since leaving Ghana in 1988, travelling the world on a quest for self-knowledge.

The stories I tell now are the memories of a boy who was born in a golden country where the people fell under the spell of a black star. And even though everyone in the world knows that a black star does not shine at night, we are still hoping against hope that our star will someday shine. After all these years, I am still trying to figure out a way to tell a story that could light the imagination of my people and enable them to see the golden stars at night. A black star does not shine; it is only a political metaphor. Those who believe in the black star are blindfolded on their way into the future. I figured it out during those curfew nights, sitting on the veranda contemplating the universe and the empty streets in front of our house. It is only those who slept in the moment of curfew’s grip who could believe that black stars shine.

This is a story of my life. A story about how I turned my tears into treasures, my sins into salvation, my pain into power, my transgressions into testimonies and my regrets into redemption. My apprenticeship as a storyteller is still in progress. I still have a lot to learn from the chroniclers who have transformed the imagination of the world – from East to West and North to South.

The chronicle of my early life is wrapped in a midnight mirage of moonlight rays over the empty streets of Accra, the city I was born in fifty years ago. Today I live in a city of many circles called Canberra. From this distance I hope that I can remember those nights when silence was a refuge from our national sense of fear. Let my story begin where the journey of my long exile ends. By telling my stories, I am resurrecting my mother’s voice and the many voices that told me long winding tales of family and nation, layered with advice and proverbial sayings, shaping my identity as a Ghanaian against the larger canvas of African history. To my children born of another clime, read these words aloud and hear my voice as if I am a traditional storyteller, telling the story of my life, my ancestors, my country and my continent.

“Once upon a time there was a boy who was born out of a dream, in a golden country, that was named after an ancient African kingdom called: Ghana,” the storyteller started…

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