Below is another chapter from Kabu Okai-Davies’ upcoming “book of memory”, The Archaeology of Memory.
As I grew up in Adabraka or should I say, as Adabraka grew on me, I began to lose that intoxicating sense of bliss that possessed me in the early months after our arrival. I began to realize that something was lost in the aroma of innocence that enveloped the air the year before. It felt as though the spirit of optimism and excitement I knew as a child had been liquidated and a secret feeling of cynicism amongst the grownups had settled over the streets. People spoke in whispers, they woke up at dawn to listen to the radio and there was a hushed aura of uncertainty hovering over the vicinity.
“They said people are being arrested,” Mother whispered to Sister Ella, my older cousin, living with her family in the adjoining rooms across the hall. “People are trying to kill him,” Mother said. Who is the him? I wondered.
“That is why they are arresting people,” Mother added.
“They came for Nii Amartey in the midnight. Did you hear the commotion?” Sister Ella asked, in a controlled tone, as if she was frightened by her own words.
“Yes, I heard it all,” Mother said. The street lay sleeping when they came for him in the desolate hours of the night. Mother tried to describe what happened in intonations of terror attached to fragments of patched words, as though speaking in another language which she had devised for herself. She murmured her version of what happened to Sister Ella and mimed the rest to explain the panic that seized the tenants and the families who lived in the big house across from ours. I tried to reassemble in my child’s mind the clattering of words to compose the meaning of this announcement of alarm that has seized the neighborhood at that hour of night, just before dawn.
“These days you cannot say what you think, they will arrest you,” Sister Ella said.
Who are the they? The they arresting people, I thought. Something in me began to hanker for a new realization and understanding of the mysterious things going on in the secret realm of the adult world.
That morning, I went outside to play with one of the boys across the street. That was when he told me, “they’ve arrested my father. They’ve taken him to prison.” I wondered why they are arresting people, but lacked the vocabulary to question with discipline the meaning behind the derisive discussions that the older boys and the adults in the vicinity were having amongst themselves.
Something beyond my ability to grasp the meaning of what was going on, unsettled my chest. My breathing became pained, requiring extra effort to absorb air into my lungs. The humidity felt heavy and overburdened with despair, making me feel as though I had a lump in my lungs. Mother felt it was because of my asthma and insisted that I rest to settle my breathing. But it was because of the unsettling feeling of dread that had seized the imagination of the adults that found its residue in my chest. The adults around did not realize that they all sounded disdainful and mockingly sarcastic at the same time when they gathered to discuss the nature of the mysterious crisis in the country. It all sounded like a terrible joke, continuously failing to elicit laughter.
At the same time there was a foreboding tone to their utterances and I observed that people avoided looking at each other. Was it a scandal about secret loyalties betrayed? Besides I had started to notice that Mother appeared exhausted at the end of each day and felt it was my duty to rescue her from the mystery of things that seem to be entangled within the knots of her thoughts. My concern for Mother became linked to an equally potent desire to understand why the streets of Adabraka appeared to be held hostage to the surrealism of an unseen terror and dread. It was at this moment of subconscious awareness that I woke up one morning, aroused by the hurried movements of the adults in the house, that I became aware that it was the voice of the President on the air.
The voice felt haunted, harsh and prophetic; referring to ponderous things about enemies and Party disloyalty, opposition and tragic consequences to befall Africa, and so on and so forth. Life had become an echoing memory of blasphemy and we the children drifting behind the shadows of the regimented parody of fear that occupied the streets, as if we did not exist. The adult world had become paralyzed by a spreading anathema that kept changing with the silent fabric of the night. The once bright glow of the night gave way to a shimmering dark blanket of despair, blocking our view of the silvery glaze of the moon.
At such moments of unhappiness, the streets become empty. Sometimes it rained, thunderstorms came without warning and the gale of desolation swept aside any of the remaining sentiments of euphoria for freedom and independence that had seized the imagination of the nation a few years before. The winds drifted through the night, like whistling currents of air as though a solemn flute was being played to warn us of the coming of something more ominous than an assassination.
It would be a guillotine act to dismember our nation’s loyalties to its founder. All the promises of Independence had now disintegrated into splinter groups of contested opinions clamoring for something indefinable. Everything was like a lamentation; only the drunkards at night, woefully staggering on their way to sleep, had the capability to chuckle at the meaning of the cumbersome discourse and its antecedents that transpired amongst the adults. It was that voice, broadcasting at dawn, that made me realize that it was the reason why the adults were rushing towards the radio box; to listen to the rhetoric of warnings at such an early hour. Reality had become dematerialized, and it all appeared unreal when I came out to observe Mother and her kin, clamoring to hinge each other onto every word that the voice uttered. The voice resonated with an omnipotent presence, evoking terror in the hearts of its listeners.
I saw Sister Ella, her husband whom we called Uncle Joseph, Mother and the other cousins caught in their individual soliloquies, filling in the gaps of their wonderings and the misunderstandings that had possessed their minds. They each took pains to speak in solitary tones about this private discourse with the voice emanating from the radio. That was when I knew that there had been an assassination attempt on the life of the President.
“Right now everyone has to be careful. You never know who is a spy, even our own children can tell on us and next thing you know, you are gone,” Sister Ella said.
“That is why Young Pioneers in the schools is giving me headaches,” Mother murmured. There was a halted silence. Sister Ella’s husband cleared his throat and shuffled his feet back into their bedroom, saying nothing. I stood at the edge of our door, the curtain wrapped around my little body. The rest stood still weighted down by the seriousness of the moment.
“How long do you think it will take before they release Mr. Amartey?” Sister Ella asked in a loud whisper.
“Only God knows,” Mother said. Mother came towards me.
“Oh, you are awake, Willie. Let’s get back to bed,” she said and led me by the head, back into the bed room. I could feel the palpitation in her touch over my head and I knew that she was not at ease.
That morning as we prepared for the routine of the day, the whole story about Nii Amartey was revealed to me in disconnected phrases that filled the whispered conversations taking place around the house and at the dinner table.
He had returned to the Gold Coast from Burma a veteran of the colonial army, filled with great expectations after serving in the Second World War. But the post-War period became years of frustrated dreams and the ex-service men decided to march to the Christiansburg Castle to present their demands to the British government. The demonstration turned violent when a British officer fired at the marching veterans. The city of Accra reacted to the shooting and death of some of the veterans by rioting. The country descended into anarchy. It was a chaotic response by the masses, who resorted to looting foreign owned shops belonging to Lebanese and the Syrians, and indeed British owned department stores.
Nii Amartey witnessed the shooting of his fellow soldiers, and that became his motivation to join the anti-colonial struggle. Soon he had emerged as an organizer for the Convention People’s Party and was reported to have become a close confidant and comrade of its leader, organizing amongst the Ga people in Accra to free the Gold Coast from Colonial Rule. “He was one of those who led the procession to release Nkrumah from prison to become Head of Government business, after the colonial government arrested him for agitating and leading a strike. Now Nkrumah is putting his own people in prison. Isn’t that something?” Uncle Joseph said in a detached and unaffected tone. Sister Ella’s husband, a teacher of Agricultural Sciences at the Teachers College by day, at night he would appear on state television to give a broadcast on agricultural news in the country.
Nii Amertey was not a tall man, but very stout, with prominent tribal marks on his face and the gap in his front teeth. This added to his force of personality that made him appear to be a man of prodigious powers and a giant in my eyes. He exuded with energy and he walked briskly in and out of the house every day to and from the city. I would look at him from a distance through the gaps in-between the banisters, trying to figure him out. He was the man I first saw standing in front of his house in front of ours the first day of our arrival, whom Mother greeted. A few weeks later, after I had become friends with his sons, I would go to the house and he would occasionally smile at me, acknowledging my presence whenever I went to play with his boys. I was in awe of him because he had a very loud booming voice that had the power to echo across the whole street especially when he was “drunk from drinking his whisky,” as he was fond of doing, especially on the weekends.
During the week, he would wake up very early and stand in front of his house, his big towel around his waist, draping all the way to his feet. His muscled chest in open view, totally indifferent to the opinion of others, he would stand in front of his house reading the newspapers while exchanging greetings with the neighbors who were on their way to work early in the morning.
“I don’t think he can read,” Mother once remarked, “he just looks at the pictures and makes up the story from what he already knows from hearing about it and witnessing it, because he is a member of the Party.” Then she added. “He stands there as if he owns the street and expects everyone to greet him on their way to work every morning, because he thinks he is the Emperor of Adabraka Street.” Then Sister Ella would laugh and rattle a few words about Nii Amartey, “aka, Dade, man of steel, Greater Accra chief organizer for Kwame Nkrumah, fearless man who moves the masses”.
These words of appellation and praise accompanied the rhetoric linked to the discussions about his name and his life. Sometimes I would hear the older boys and the men in the neighborhood gathered at the very spot where he usually stands, to remember him, in their composition of myths and legends about the life of Mr. Nii Amartey. The men would reenact how Nii Amartey behaved whenever he got drunk. In a reckless fit of displaced anger, he would scream out to the consternation of everyone in the vicinity, “without me Kwame Nkrumah would not be where he is. If it wasn’t for the fact that I didn’t go to school, I would be a Minister of State by now. We were the ones who gave Ghana independence, now we are being called traitors. I don’t care what people say, I fear no one,” he would say, drunk.
Hours later, after he is spent from his drunkenness, yelping out his disgruntled feelings in the most profane and vulgar words, he would become small in stature as he struggled to stand on his feet. He would wedge himself against the pillar of the wall next to the entrance of his house. Then suddenly he would bust out and start singing lamentable songs of disappointment to synthesize his glorious and gallant memories of the past and his fears of the ominous things yet to come. This tragic descent into self-pity ended up (with him) drowning himself in a pool of is mysterious sorrows. His family and tenants in his house would avoid him as he singularly performed this unreal performance in open view of the whole neighborhood. I was startled to see a man of his stature openly lamenting before an invisible audience of sympathizers. It was a display of his disappointment with the direction in which the country was heading that caused him to make his unrestrained remarks against Nkrumah.
Such subversive remarks “against the founder of the nation” led to suspicion swelling around him, that he might have been part of the plot to assassinate the President. But he was not one of the plotters. In fact he was a fanatical supporter of the one whom he called “my redeemer, my friend, my leader, why has thou forsaken your people and spend your time in foreign lands, seeking the accolades of strangers?” He would bellow out his words amid his torrent of lamentations.
So when he was arrested, it elicited a feeling of bewilderment amongst those who knew he was a loyalist. Others were not surprised because so many Party officials were already being arrested as traitors. Anyway, he happened to be one of the suspects and was arrested that night and driven off to an unknown location for his subversive activities against the Chairman of the Party.
“What would you do if the people you trust are trying to kill you?”One of my older cousins asked.
“I don’t think Nii Amartey is an assassin,” Mother said.
In his absence the neighborhood felt empty. In the mornings on their way to work, the neighbors would steal hurried and furtive glances at the spot where he normally stood, as though they were expecting him to materialize to exchange greetings with them out of habit. But he was not there. He was in prison. The longer we waited for his return, the deeper it felt as if the country was descending into a cauldron of emptiness. Something was amiss, as if an invisible hand was harvesting people in secret; to expend them on the sacrificial altars of our lost freedoms. The street was sinking under our feet, weighed down by the voice that dominated the psyche of the nation. An invisible gale of resentment and frustration was blowing across the country.
The sky revealed ominous signs of coming thunderstorms, the clouds appeared trembling, pregnant with a different kind of prophecy to devastate the land. Something menacing was brewing in the laboratory of our national psyche, predictable yet unutterable. And so the adults waited for news about when he would return. Mother would whisper back at me in a tone filled with frustration when I make unreasonable demands for milk or not having enough butter on my bread.
“This is the only can of milk left. Don’t you know there are shortages everywhere? If things continue like this, very soon we will become like the Chinese, wearing the same uniform and eating the same food,” she said. Her harsh tone heightened my awareness of the inexplicable things going on in our lives. Everything felt as if a shimming net of unhappiness had covered the perception of the adults.
Something felt displaced. I began to believe that a cosmic force had shifted the positions of the houses that lined the streets. The lamentable feeling was swallowing our voices, it was sniffing out of our lungs everything that was fresh and fulfilling in life. My hunger for maternal affection intensified and I clung on to my mother in a desperate need for her attention and love.
At night while she was fast asleep, I would lay there next to my baby brother, awake, floating in an insomniac realm of fantasy, inventing for myself magical powers by which to solve all the problems of the adult world, and thinking about the many possibilities of what might happen to Nii Amartey within the solitary confinement of prison life. I imagined that it was a mysterious hand that had snuffed him out of our midst, leaving behind a void, to be filled by grief. In the meantime, the neighbors labored in patience, waiting for the day they would witness his return from prison. Unconsciously, our collective awareness of his absence created a bond amongst the parents, the tenants and families in the vicinity as we waited in silence the homecoming of the uncrowned and un-anointed Emperor of Adabraka street.
Image: Grafitti by Brent M. via Flickr