At first it was a whisper. Then tears started trickling down the faces of the women like droplets into a bucket. Soon many crying voices flooded our street. It was the news about what the sea had done. I was about nine and thought the news was fabricated, veiled as true from an unknown place, where adults kept their secrets. In our part of the world, it is known that the sea whispers at night about mysterious things not yet known. I was too young to know where the grownups hid things that they did not want children to know. I heard the adults mumbling and speaking about something concerning “the hand of the sea.”
“When the sea is hungry, it finds a way to eat,” said a woman walking by. The sunset had left a faint magenta colour in the sky, evidence of the lingering light of the passing day. Then there was the haunted cry of a woman, palpitating with grief. She held firmly to her chest, as though to prevent her breasts from falling off. Others had their arms clutched across their heads as they stood there in shock from the news. A loud wail followed and the whole street became filled with murmurs of distress and sorrow as the neighbors disseminated the news about something pertaining to the sea.
I kept hearing, the hand of the sea seized him. I thought of the sea as if it had a grip and when it took hold of you, it will not let go. The other women stood still, holding their hands across their mouths, as if to stop their lips from uttering words that would aggravate the already dreadful and grievous situation. But then, the men who usually stood by the side of the road, having their evening yarn, while puffing on imported cigarettes, spoke out. They said things in a tone that was intended to indict those who worshipped the sea, in perturbed voices that veiled feelings of anger and frustration. I held my breath, worried that something more ominous than what I could imagine had happened.
“This is the fault of fetish priests who use the sea for ritual sacrifices,” one man said.
“The sea has become evil, that is why I don’t go to the beach these days,” said the other man.
“I know what happened,” said my friend across the street, standing next to his father.
“Keep quiet boy,” his father scolded him. “Hush your mouth, it can happen to anyone,” his father continued as he smacked his son on the head; “stop talking about the sea.” Afterwards a hushed silence fell over the vicinity. I held my breath. It felt as if a blanket of grief had been placed over the air, to suffocate everyone in sight.
As a boy I heard haunted stories about the sea and listened to dark tales and whispered rumours about people who go to the beach to do mysterious things at night or before dawn. The Evangelical and Apostolic churches use the sea for their mass baptism at dawn – like Apostle John did in Biblical times – and the traditional priests and sorcerers perform their fetish ritual sacrifices in the midnight, in desolate places near the rocky parts along the shore. The elders explained that blood sacrifices took place there and a whole cow or at times goats and fowls were given to the sea as a form of appeasement when the sea got angry and refused to allow the many schools of fishes to visit our shores. Rumors about such rituals took on a life of their own when the rotten carcass of a cow was found floating by the shore.
The previous year two boys were found dead, covered in weeds that were not of the sea. It was claimed that the weeds were ritual herbs used by the medicine men, as part of the ceremony of ritual sacrifices. That is why the sea was a forbidden place for all of the young men, who occasionally yearned to go there to swim.
“The sea has done it again,” one of the older boys said, noticing my perplexed look. “These days it is taking lives,” he said. What has the sea done? I wondered. But no one bothered to explain the mystery behind the idea of this “invisible hand of the sea,” that everyone was talking about.
“This is the third time the sea has done it this season,” I heard someone say from behind. “It is that time of the year,” another voice replied. I turned around to find out who said it, but the grownups spoke to each other, completely oblivious of my presence. As though I was not even there, but the older boy standing next to me, just a few months older, added, that “the sea did it. It will do it to you if you are not careful.”
That afternoon, I was standing in front of our house watching the older boys playing gutter-to-gutter, a form of soccer game of dribbling a ball away from an opponent and scoring the ball into the gutter. There is a goal keeper standing between two stone marked points, which were used as a way to demarcate the gaps between two imaginary goal posts. The younger boys took turns playing the ball, while the rest of us milled around and watched, cheering on when a goal is scored. Later that afternoon I saw two men running towards us; they appeared distressed and went straight into Mr. Alottey’s house at the far end of our street. The house was an outhouse, where he lived with his wife and children, hoping to build his dream house on the front yard facing the street. The men went into the compound to deliver the news. Immediately, word spread around very quickly and that is when the older boys stopped playing the ball and started whispering amongst themselves.
Words uttered in secret can occupy unseen spaces to hold the attention of people for days. In this case, it was the words that the two running men had brought from the sea unto our street. Their words held the whole neighborhood ransom to the force of this mysterious news. What the two men said started to spread like a bad scent and the news about what the invisible hand of the sea had done caused the neighborhood to come to a standstill. Other people started coming out of their houses and the neighbors appeared to have been summoned to come out to witness, seized by a dreadful sense of urgency, calling on everyone to pay attention.
“The currents are filled with the wrath of the gods,” one of the women across the street from our house said as she hurried past us, as though she was on her way to rescue someone, her hands folded over her head in grief. “When the gods are upset the sea roars and it is unforgiving,” I heard these words so clearly, I began to imagine the sea in its fury, pounding at the edges of the earth, and the gushing sound of the waves staking their claim as a force mightier than anything on earth. At night our parents told us strange and mysterious stories about the sea and described its immensity in words that evoked mythical images of how the earth used to be before humans appeared on earth. They were fantastic tales about the creation of heaven and earth and the sea lay there like an endless border between the realm of the gods and the land of the living.
“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. The waters, children, has always been the sea,” mother said. “And out of the sea, God created all the creatures of this earth,” she added; and her stories about the sea also conjured imaginary beings that looked like sea dragons and animals that existed in other realms beyond our understanding as children. There was the frequent reference to Mame-Water, the goddess and mother figure of the sea. She was half woman, half fish, almost like a giant whale with human features. These creatures that were described to me as a child left me with a lingering sense of curiosity about what lay beyond the horizon and even though I harbored a great fear of these sea creatures, I longed for the day I could see one of them in real life. By the time I was almost ten, I knew them as mermaids, sea lions and sea monsters. I concluded that, these sea creatures were of a different kind as mythical representations of good luck and at the same time, they could bring ominous things ashore, if humans failed to make sacrifices to the sea and its godlike sea-beasts.
It was also out of the sea that stories about sea elephants were said to have appeared, with sailors who came to change the course of the history of our lands. Many things have come from beyond the horizons, including death. For a long time the sea has been a source of wonderment and the sacred abode of forbidding gods. It was also the sea that gave us the plentiful harvest of different schools of fish, especially herring, snapper and different species of “meat from the sea,” for the coastal people of Africa. The sea was in itself a vast shrine full of spirits that moved and roused the waves when it was in a state of fury and had the power to be calm when the gods were content and at peace with the earth. Only those who had the traditional and ritual power of intercession could commune with the sea and its many gods. It was said that these intercessors where powerful medicine men who were also endowed with the priestly authority to intervene on behalf of mortals, to provide meaning to the mystery of death when it is caused by the sea.
“The sea has given us our blessing and our curse, for it was out of it that the Dutch came in ships bigger than our boats, followed by the people from Lisbon, the Portugi people and then the seafarers, the Engleshi people from Ingland, bearing gifts to disguise their guile,” my aunt once said, speaking in Ga, in connection with a tale about the history of our land. “The sea is the whirlwind of troubles and tribulations,” she added. “It has made us defenseless to the gales of time, now it wants more from us than we can give. When we fail to make sacrifices to the sea, she gets angry and her wrath comes in the form of thunderstorms to devastate the land.”
The sea was both loved and feared. As the whispers about what happened that evening circulated around the neighborhood, I imagined the beasts of the seas as being the culprits in this incident that had caused the death of one of the teenagers on our street. All of these thoughts kept rushing through my mind as I started piecing together the mystery surrounding the death of Adotey. He was called Adotey Allotey, the second son of Mr. Allotey.
Some called him Allotey bibio, the smaller of the two Allotey boys. But there was nothing small about him; he was a defiant and boisterous young man, always speaking his mind, desperately striving to express a sense of freedom, independence, and lived his life in rejection of excuses and any alibis against failure or defeat. He was always challenging boys much older than himself to a friendly fight or wrestling match, some of which turned into serious brawls or a riot and argument on the streets. Sometimes I would hear his older sister Adoley, calling him to stop the wrangling: “Adotey-oooo, stop the fighting,” she would yell out. Adotey would battle the other boys from the adjoining streets, and even if the older boys got the upper hand against him in a fight, Adotey always appeared undeterred and unruffled, and the next day or within the week, he would be embroiled in another brawl.
“The way you like fighting,” mother once told him, “why don’t you become a professional boxer or go into the army, so that whatever demons you have in you that want you to fight all the time can find expression through your training and become like Mohammed Ali and fight or a great soldier to defend our country?” Adotey went to school at the end of the road where mother was the Headmistress. It was easy to notice him in a crowd. He always stood out and appeared destined for something more than his station in life. There was a sense of alertness in his eyes and buoyancy in his gait that caused him to appear as though his eyes glittered with fire, always drunk on some kind of mental stimulant, making him very agile and undeterred by the challenges placed before him in life or in a fight. He was always in a hurry, and very lively, busy in the pursuit of something invisible, that he alone could define for himself. In those days when there were only a few cars on the street, he liked to challenge the younger boys to a playful chase; to find out who could run the fastest from one end of the road to the other. That is, when he was not involved in a fighting contest with someone older than himself. Before mother, he would appear demure, tone down his demeanor, act respectful and coy as if mother’s presence evoked in him the need to be sober.
I took particular notice of Adotey as though he was an older brother in a strange sort of way and because of his eagerness to fight; I assumed that if ever I was in a situation of danger and couldn’t fight for myself, Adotey would magically appear to defend me. But that fateful day, Adotey had taken on a fight with the sea, mightier than his tiny body and the hand of the sea snatched out his life. By night fall, everyone on our street, in shock, knew what exactly had happened, at least through the many third person storytellers who were re-telling how the events of that afternoon had led to Adotey’s death.
They said that Adotey and a couple of friends had gone to the beach that Saturday afternoon for a swim, but just as Adotey couldn’t resist a fight or a challenge, the beach became the ground for a different kind of contest. Adotey had gone to the beach with Nii Armah, Nii Ayitey and Tono. During the very hot days and nights of the year, many of the older boys and Tom-boy girls would trek to the beach to have a swim. That day was a hot day, but not too hot compared to other times. While they were at the beach, a couple of the boys took turns racing each other along the sandy shore. Twice Adotey won and then the bystanders decided to make a wager and the excited observers betted on Adotey, and he won.
The losers were not happy and challenged Adotey to a swimming contest. Instead of refusing, he couldn’t resist and took the bait, removed his shorts and dived into the water. This time it was a swimming race along the beach from one point to the other and though he was gallant in his efforts, Adotey fell way behind the other swimmers. Losing a contest was not in his nature and his pride would not let him come out of the water. He wanted to prove that he could swim and so he swam further away from the shore. He dared them to find out who could swim the furthest, away from the shore. That day the sea appeared to be asleep, as though it was just rolling along, in long white and blue gentle waves, ending up on the bream of the shore. It was easy to swim along the length of the fringes not far inward from where everyone stood to watch the race. To the delight of the bystanders the beach was such a shallow incline it was easy for anyone to wade in and out through the gentle waves, a few meters or more and still feel one’s feet on the bed of the ocean.
For a while it appeared Adotey and the other swimming contestants were walking across the sea and were not particularly at risk of being swept away by the waves. The waves lapped ashore at frequent intervals, gently lashing onto the sands without any possibility of it turning violent for a while. Usually the waves could turn vicious and heavy in its movement like a giant and angry blue whale, meandering its way along the coast, spewing its white foamy venom, in crushing waves, splashing with force along the beaches. But that day everything appeared serene. As they swam further into the ocean, the crowd gathered and tension began to build. In the meanwhile Adotey advanced ahead, swimming further and further away, brave and defiant against all caution. Suddenly the other boys swimming against Adotey began to turn around and started heading back ashore, but Adotey charged forward as though reaching for the horizon. The onlookers could see him smiling whenever he turned around to wave in victory. They cheered and chanted his name, “Adotey, Adotey, Adotey, he has done it, he has won,” the crowd shouted. But then he kept swimming away from view and the cheering crowd began to worry.
“Adotey, come back, you are swimming too far. We know you can swim, come back,” his friends screamed, but Adotey couldn’t hear them. Rather he kept waving his hands in a sign of jubilant vindication. After awhile, everything became still, the people along the shore thought he would start swimming back, now that he had won the contest. But he kept on swimming as the waves became heavy in its sudden movement and even though the waters appeared calm, it had an onerous presence about it, like a deep blue sea cobra, waiting for the right moment to pounce before swallowing its prey. Everyone became frightened that Adotey was now too far gone, and the onlookers estimated that he was more than a mile away, inching his way towards the horizon. Suddenly a huge wave began to build up from the distance. The sea started moving forward like a giant sea creature about to overwhelm its prey.
The waves swelled into huge mounds, twirling and rising upward into a moving ridge of water surging in height, swaying up and down in an undulating pattern, building in momentum like a mountain in motion. The deep blue waters whirled into a submerging valley, a deep water gorge, dark and intense in colour, almost violet in appearance, before it evened out into gentle humps, cascading towards the shore in innocent ripples of white foam that eventually dissolved into the sand. The huge undulating swelling and then the twirling of the sea continued for a while in rapid successions, forming a submarine-like maneuver; looping upwards in giant rising waves, then in an incline, swaying sharply downwards. After the subterfuge of the sea subsided and the pristine blue ocean became unruffled, reflecting the orange glitter of the westward setting sun, as though nothing grievous had happened, everyone held their breath, fearful of what might happen next. Huge ships and fishing tankers could be seen in the distance drifting eastward towards the main harbor in Tema. That is when everyone became silent, frightened, hoping that what they were collectively thinking about had not happened, praying that by some miracle Adotey would resurface, swimming back to shore, propelled forward by the deluge of waves that would eventually settle aground. But nothing of that sort was evident and in its wake Adotey had disappeared from view. Some of the observers standing on the cliff said they saw a tiny speck of an image in the distance and that was the last sighting of Adotey from afar. He had vanished from sight, adrift into the torrent. Only the deep blue sea remained, dancing in silent glee at what it had just done, rendering everyone speechless and powerless. At that instance of awakening that something dangerous had happened, the onlookers began to scramble to the rescue. The fishermen nearby who were mending their nets hardly paid any attention to the racing all afternoon and so when they were called upon to rescue Adotey, they said with indifference, “he is already drowned, if you are lucky, the sea will spit out his body later.”
“If the sea has taken him, then he’s taken. The sea can do that,” one of the fishermen said, completely undisturbed by the fact that someone had drowned. The other boys tried to organize a rescue. They scudded about in desperation, hoping to see him in the distance on a rebound towards the shore. But he had gone too far, and the torrent of the waters had drifted with his body in the surging tidal wave away from view. He had been caught in a silent cyclone of stronger currents much more rapid in movement, from which he could not wade his way out, and just like that, in a matter of seconds, Adotey was gone.
“He has vanished,” the men standing by the shore whispered to each other, baffled.
“The sea has seized another life again,” someone said.
“The sea is mightier than the earth, how much more the tiny body of a human? Those who defy the sea meet their death in the sea,” another voice said.
“He should have turned back just when he defeated the others,” a bystander said in a conclusive tone. “If he is drowned, he is drowned.”
Eventually the other two contestants who had waded out ashore, frightened and shaken by fear, were out of breath, panting and drenched, their eyes reflecting the terror of the moment. When asked what happened, one of them bleated out, “Mame-Water,” he said, “we saw Mame-Water.”
“There is a demon in the sea,” the other swimmer said, choking as he vomited out seawater.
“What about Adotey?” they were asked.
“He kept laughing at us, calling us ‘cowards,’” the first of the returning swimmers said.
It looked as if they had seen the water apparition of death. Adotey, being fearless, chose to defy the demonic force of the sea and challenged it to a duel, at the peril of his life. As the story about Adotey’s drowning was being told by all who knew of it in the neighborhood, I became preoccupied, imagining him being cast adrift by the ocean; his feeble body hopelessly at the mercy of the waves against the twilight sun, glittering over the blue sea, before meeting his death near the grey clouds that met at the edge of the horizon.
A week later, after days of mournful silence, word went around that the remains of Adotey had been found, through the help of the diviners of the sea.
It was said in hushed tones that, apparently, his parents had gone to make sacrifices to the sea, by offering a goat, schnapps, a fowl and a dozen eggs to the fetish priest, besieging the occult clan of sea worshippers to request of the sea to return the remains of their son. “After the sacrifices that midnight, the following day the body washed ashore.” This is how it was whispered around in secret murmurs when the news came that Adotey’s body had come ashore; his skin pale as ash and his eyes gouged out, the sole of his feet peeled off and his palms swollen, his nails and part of his fingers missing. He was still in his under pants and parts of his body appeared blotted and his face disfigured from the shock of death. It was said that his flesh was very tender and sore, with certain parts of his back bitten out, as though the wild sea creatures had tried to chew off the upper part of his arm and sections of his leg, but let go of the body because he was already dead.
After his remains were found, the sea worshipers and their priests performed rituals of atonement on behalf of the deceased, wrapped him up in white sheets of cloth and sent him to the morgue. I heard that he was buried that night as his body and face were too emaciated and his flesh too tender to be laid in state. He had died at the hands of the sea, borne the wrath of the gods, spewed ashore by the wraiths of the sea; three things that had the markings of an ominous death. It was whispered that the public would be cursed to see the remains of a deceased man who went to battle with the sea-gods and lost his life in the act.
A memorial service was held at the Assemblies of God Church, and all the students at the Middle School, extended family members and the whole neighborhood of Adabraka and on our street were present. “Adabraka, has lost one of its gallant sons,” the pastor said. “The lesson of his life warns us to remember that, those who refuse to heed the warnings of their elders meet their untimely fate at the crossroads of life and death.” Adotey was too defiant, everyone remarked and it cost him his life.
For years I thought about Adotey and almost fifty years later, I can still see him standing at the end of the street getting ready to start a race, or in the midst of a brawl, with his shirt off, daring his opponent to venture forward. He was my hero, like many of the tragic figures of Ghana’s history who defied the mandate of the Junta and lost their lives. His death was a watershed point in my awareness of the mystery of life and death. In my heart, I carried memories of him with me on the many journeys that took me around the world. Today, I stand at the south coast of New South Wales at Moruya Bay, contemplating the immensity of the sea. There in the distance, I saw Adotey waving back at me, still smiling, wading in the water, defiant and resilient as ever; defying the mystery of time in my vision of him from the past.
Image: Sebastian Fuss via Flickr