The following is a chapter from Kabu Okai-Davies’ upcoming “book of memory”, The Archaeology of Memory.
By the age of ten my awareness of myself and the reality of living in Adabraka had taken hold of me and a transcending understanding of things, real and surreal, had settled within my consciousness. I was growing into the early stages of boyhood and everything around me unfolded within the dreamy alchemy of life. I woke up every morning embracing the warm presence of a loving mother, fast growing younger brother and the ensemble of family members who thronged in and out of our lives. The neighborhood appeared to be flourishing with the birth of more children and the coupling lives of young lovers spiced the whispers amongst the adults. Adabraka appeared to be awakening to a new reckless sense of freedom, eager to squander its liberties; submitting its will to the intoxicating culture of hedonism and tribalism, drumming and dancing through the unmeasured spectrum of time.
I learnt to listen to an inner tune within the magical mind of my dreams. It helped me situate myself beyond the louder noises of each day. The sounds of midnight drumming, funeral dirges being played over loudspeakers and the quarrelsome voices of women, mixed with the insulting howls of angry neighbors, fills the air like a cacophony as I documented each day within the trilogy of memory. At night I would hear the drunkards practicing poetry and repeating tongue twisters. I paid deep attention to their debates on the meaning of riddles, while speaking with strange inflections as though they had reinvented the English language. It was through an idiom of speaking, a lexicon of strange sounding words crafted to bend the vocabulary of life to their drunken will. It was their way of explaining to strangers the glimpses of metaphysical insight and spiritual awareness they claimed to have gained from being drunk. Life at that age was like an allegory within a cityscape of imaginary beings.
Secretly I began to see and pay attention to things most people took for granted. I invented imaginary ways to register in my mental notebooks, the things I heard that seemed to be passing remarks made by adults. Everything stayed with me, forming a secret archive in the vault of memory. Slowly the hidden secrets that defined the lives of the people on our street, gradually and shockingly started to reveal themselves in surprising ways that I had failed to understand from the start. But with further reflection and keen listening, I managed to compose meaning out of the everyday occurrences, however bizarre and unexpected they might appear. I witnessed episodes of unexpected outburst of anger and the pregnancy of girls caused by the seductive hands of older men. There were also the dramatic breakdowns of marriages, following a husband’s affair and the burdensome toils that defined the lives of the indentured girls from the villages who lived in silence, like sad apparitions from a mysterious past.
The first of such incidents happened one Friday morning. The previous night had been exceptionally hot and humid. The Easter holidays had witnessed the scorching glare of the sun for almost a week and then it rained, turning the immovable air into a cauldron of heat, making the night unbearably steamy.
Most of the elders had stayed out late, chatting away through the hot night, reminiscing about the bygone days when the city of Accra had no lights but lived by the silver glow of the full moon. Mother stayed outside behind the kitchen, cooling off with a handheld fan, which she also used as a means to ward off the buzzing mosquitoes earnestly prowling for blood. Occasionally she would assume a meditative pose, reflective and still, looking upwards, as though engaged in a silent conversation with the moon. We the children milled around, playing hide and seek and all sorts of childish games to while away time.
“Stop running around, it is too hot to be playing like that,” mother said, but we ignored her pleas, asking us to be calm.
The humidity and heat felt as though it had held the vicinity hostage to an inexplicable and secret ransom. Everything stood still, time stalled in a somnolent rendition of nothingness. The heat suffocated our thoughts and the vicinity surrendered its will to the whims of the heat. We felt trapped and it was of no use going out as the air stood still without any evidence or hope of any night breeze drifting through the streets. Some of our elder cousins and their friends in the neighborhood decided to walk all the way to the beach to find the breeze and cooler salty waters, swimming at its edges to sooth their overheated bodies. They came back home past midnight to the relief of their parents. “The devil wakes up the sea at night, and too often, people drown to feed the demons at play in the lower depths of the ocean,” we were told. “Don’t go swimming at sea at night. Only the fishermen, initiated in the ways of the sea gods, have the privilege to tempt their fate at the hand of the sea.”
It was almost dawn when the neighbors slowly started drifting off the street into their homes, to catch some sleep before morning. By then the air had received a coolant from the sea. But this did not last for long. The neighbors I imagined had woken from the stirring and scuffling sounds that had started early in the morning. I was woken up suddenly by the dissonance of desperate voices and commotion, wailing voices, agonizing screams, pleading howls, and loud calls.
“Stop, Mr. Tailor, stop, stop, it is enough,” women in despair cried out. Then I heard a woman, screaming, “The devil is busy this morning. Jesus…Stop this.”
I rushed out of bed, curious to find out what was the matter and went straight to the verandah towards the direction of the crying voices and saw mother leaning over the rails waving her hand, screaming as well. The tenants in the house across were gathered on the street, seized by an urgency that indicated to me something dreadful was about to happen or was happening.
“Mr. Tailor, stop, you are hurting him,” Mother wailed.
“Call Mr. Amartey to stop this,” the woman yelled.
“Don’t kill him. Do not spill your own blood,” a woman standing by made a desperate plea to Mr. Tailor, grabbing him in her futile attempt to stop the beating.
For the first time I heard words in other Ghanaian languages which I could not understand; distressing words which carried a feeling of impending doom. They were utterances about possession by evil, demonic spirits, and phrases that linked the devil to what was happening. It evoked in my imagination visions of disaster, death and the possibility of something of apocalyptic proportions happening. I pushed my way forward, and wedged myself next to mother and lifted myself and stood on my toes, like a ballet dancer, but instead of dancing to the swan song of a performance, I was confronted with the horrible sight of Mr. Tailor bashing his apprentice on the ground.
Blow after blow, he kept hitting his apprentice Tieko Tailor, who lay there on the ground in distress, helplessly bleeding from the merciless pounding fist of his master, right there in the middle of the street. The call for help was heard by the men in the neighborhood and they rushed out to the scene. Two stronger men came out of bed, almost naked expect for their under pants or shorts, and they held Mr. Tailor by the arm, lifted him up with force and dragged him away from Tieko Tailor who lay there in a hapless state as though crucified to the ground. The men escorted Mr. Tailor away from his victim and the women went towards Tieko Tailor who was bleeding profusely in the mouth and nose.
“What were you trying to do, kill him?” the men asked Mr. Tailor.
“What exactly did he do that you are beating him so badly this morning?” another said.
“This is not good Mr. Tailor,” a woman watching yelled out.
“What did Tieko do to provoke such anger in you?”One of the men asked.
“Only the devil makes a man do such a thing to his own son,” I heard another person say. The ensemble of ranting voices yelled out at Mr. Tailor, protesting his actions and the manner in which he chose to punish his son for whatever he might have done wrong that morning. Mr. Tailor was now panting as though possessed by an uncontrollable spirit of great fury. He was foaming at the mouth and the blood of his victim had stained his well pressed and clean white shirt. He was sweating and with greater force, yanked himself out, to free himself from the grip of the two men who were restraining him from returning to attach his son. Then Mr. Tailor, fuming with rage, spat out towards his wounded son, the blood stained foaming phlegm and saliva that had built up in his mouth; an ill tempered and disgusting sight to watch.
“Rush him to the hospital,” my mother screamed out to the gathered crowd below. The women grabbed Tieko while another woman brought a bucket of water, and tried to wash off the blood.
“Put some salt in the water,” mother yelled out. The younger girl standing near the scene rushed to the outdoor kitchen and returned in a hurry with a small bowl of rock salt. The chaos and commotion of screaming voices had now aroused the curiosity of the whole neighborhood and groups of inquisitive bystanders gathered around to investigate. I looked on with a disturbed heart, wondering why a man would be so incensed that he would beat his own son with such force and anger, without caring whether it would lead to his victim’s death.
Anger has a language of its own; it expresses itself in inexplicable ways that transforms the personality of whoever it possesses. The people who had gathered around, claimed that Mr. Tailor had been possessed by an evil spirit, causing him to lose control of his usually steady and composed persona. He spoke as though overtaken by demonic spirits, as he rattled out profane words, speaking as though in tongues, in an irate manner filled with the fire and fury of evil that frightened me. He pulled out a fresh handkerchief from his pocket and smacked it through the air, to release it from its folded pattern, then proceeded to clean his face and white shirt stained with the blood of Tieko Tailor.
Somewhere in the dark room of my mind, I was processing the snapshots of what I had observed, storing them in the photographic archive of memories, intending to someday excavate them and show them to the world. We were all astonished and the distressed cries of the women were relayed throughout the adjoining streets of our neighborhood. I stood there on the balcony, perturbed and frightened by the explosive outburst of Mr. Tailor’s volcanic temper, which had caused him to spill his son’s blood.
A familiar man standing at the junction hailed a taxi, which drove through the crowds and stopped next to Tieko’s body. The men lifted him off the ground and placed him on to the back seat of the taxi. Two women and another man accompanied him to the hospital. The taxi hooted its horn all the way into the distance like an ambulance, speeding off to Ridge Hospital, the nearest community hospital in Adabraka. After the taxi left people began to disperse but those who remained gathered around to piece together snippets of what led Mr. Tailor to beat his son so mercilessly. As I listened, observing the state of distress that had seized the neighborhood in the morning, I came to conclusions which I still believe form the substance of what had transpired.
Tieko Tailor was not Mr. Tailor’s real son; “he adopted him as a little boy and cared for him like his own son, because his wife could not conceive children for him. You see, I have known Mr. Tailor for a long time. He is a man with a devilish temper hidden behind a self-controlling calm disposition. But if provoked, he can become a wild beast,” I heard someone say. The gossipers explained that Mr. Tailor was over-bearing in his disciplinarian approach to tailoring and he wanted his adopted son to emulate his way of being. But Tieko was coming into his own and building a coterie of clients amongst his peers and young men of his own age, who wanted to dress in new fashionable ways, contrary to Mr. Tailor’s outdated style of making clothes. He was old fashioned and had apprenticed in the archaic methods of tailoring, where he slaved for years under the lordship of his master and learnt how to sew the hard way. Those days were defined by social elitism, an imported notion of aristocracy and class snobbery amongst those who wore suits and imitated the English or London tailing styles. It was a colonial disposition reflected in the tailoring methods and attitude of the masters, who trained their team of apprentices to paddle the sewing machine and specialized in tailoring for the well off in Accra.
After Ghana’s Independence, Mr. Tailor gathered his life savings and aided by family support, he managed to buy his own sewing machine and rented a kiosk to start his enterprise as a tailor. While mother was the seamstress on the street, Mr. Tailor was the tailor on the other side of the house. Coming to think about it, his real name was not Mr. Tailor, but we all called him “Mr. Tailor” the same way we called the mechanics next door by “Mr. Fitter,” or “Papa Carpenter,” or “Mr. Driver,” and in the case of mother, “Auntie Teacher.”
At night when the heavy weight of silence was replacing the loud noises of the evening, you could hear Mr. Tailor’s sewing machine’s mechanical rhythm, a whirling tune that was music to my ears. At night the lights in the kiosk would be on as he and his son worked away making new trousers, putting finishing touches to new suits or mending shirts that a client may be coming to pick up the following day. They were very busy especially in the lead up to Christmas or at the beginning of the school year. When I grow up, I will like to be a tailor, I thought.
But the way Mr. Tailor assaulted his son caused an invisible hand to smack the thought out of my mind. I awoke to the terror of blood oozing out of Tieko’s mouth and I knew I would rather be an artist than grow up to be a tailor. Later that afternoon, Tieko was brought back with stitches to his head and the upper part of his lips, and a bandage around his left arm.
The sympathetic eyes of the neighbors followed him into the house and everyone who saw him bandaged up and iodine administered on his arms and on his face, felt responsible for not intervening sooner.
The distorted reality of that morning had broken the routine and ritual of life as I had become accustomed to. It happened in a way that would scar the innocent vision I held within myself as a boy until that day. Nothing appeared the same again. Before then, I could handle the sight of seeing grownups stupidly drunk, urinating on the street or walking home in the rain singing a lonely dirge about lost dreams, romantic regrets and failed marriages or the death of a loved one. I loved to hear men in love whistling at night in gratitude for their fortune and though I was scared to see the dead body of the old man being carried away to the mortuary, seeing a father hit his son so hard to the point of profuse bleeding disturbed the mythological balance that held the opposite polar worlds of imaginative dreaming and the surreal realms of reality together in my mind. I was stunned, and even though my brother and I had our two pairs of suits sewn by Mr. Tailor, for the first time in my life, I became afraid of him.
I remember the methodical way in which he had taken our measurements and the occasional visits to his kiosks for fitting exercises to make sure the suit fitted us well. All of that sense of awe and admiration I had for Mr. Tailor vanished and I started to look at him more carefully, with an observant awareness as though he was a man hiding a demonic anger behind the mask of his immaculately spotless and well ironed white shirt, clean cut straight pants and neatly polished black shoes.
I stopped going into the kiosk where I used to spend time fantasizing about the day I would grow up and become an apprentice to this profession of tailoring. Meanwhile, the rumor mill kept churning out tales about what actually happened that day.
Weeks after the incident, fragments of rumors leaked out, seeping through the grapevine and everyone put together different versions of the incident. We got to know that Mr. Tailor had confronted Tieko Tailor many times about the fact that he was engaging in his own tailoring enterprise in his absence. Tieko kept denying it, but the truth was that, after Mr. Tailor went home after work, Tieko would stay up very late into the early hours of the morning, sewing for his friends who paid him secretly for his services.
Tieko lived in the kiosk and his father expected him to sleep and rest at night, awake the next day, refreshed and ready to work on the urgent work before him. But Tieko would be dozing by day but awake at night. He was making mistakes and sewing zigzag patterns when he was under pressure to finish his tasks. Occasionally, we would hear Mr. Tailor screaming at Tieko, angrily urging his son to focus his attention on what he was doing.
“Why are you sleeping, Eh? Wake up. Didn’t you sleep last night?” Mr. Tailor would ask, but Tieko would deny his father’s claims until that fateful morning when he came and saw money on the cutting table and unassigned work half done and Tieko fast asleep, when he should have been awake and ready to work.
“Whose money is this? Where did you get it from? Why do you have these clothes on the cutting table?” Mr. Tailor asked in fury, convinced that this was evidence of his suspicions.
“No, it is nothing?” Tieko said.
“What do you mean it is nothing? This is a lot of money, where did you get it from?” Mr. Tailor asked.
“I am keeping it for someone,” Tieko mumbled, without anything in particular to say to explain why he had all that money on the cutting table.
Tieko tried to deny any knowledge about the source of the money, but started scrambling for the money to hide it away. It was too late. The beating started with a slap, then a punch. Tieko tried to fight back, but then he was over powered by the fierce blows administered at him by his father. Tieko tried to run out of the kiosk, but staggered before he stumbled and fell from the shock of the blow to the back of his head. On the ground, Mr. Tailor grabbed Tieko by the neck and registered further blows to his son’s head and Tieko surrendered, completely overpowered.
All I could see was the blood and the hapless way in which Tieko lay there, incapable of defending himself from the raging power of his father’s blows. He was hit again and again. Mr. Tailor struck Tieko in the chest and stomach with his feet repeatedly and anyhow he could as Tieko lay helplessly on the ground. Then he dragged his son into the middle of the street and continued to hit his face. I imagined him with an invisible knife, stabbing his son to death, as Tieko lay there, at times in a fetal position, or prostrated in pain, reeling and bleeding from the atrocities of his father’s fists and kicks.
“Someone is being killed,” the cry rang out, but Mr. Tailor ignored the cries asking him to stop assaulting his son.
“Are you trying to put me into debt, Eh? Don’t you know I have to pay for the electricity, the threads and feed you and you decide to steal money from me? Eh? Eh? Eh? I will kill you before you steal from me. Do you know how much I suffered to become a tailor, Eh?” Mr. Tailor ranted, punctuating every statement with a blow, bashing his son in the face and around the neck, a brutish punishment for what I thought was not an offence.
Mr. Tailor appeared to be beating Tieko as though he was beating out the memory of suffering and humiliation he had endured while learning to become a tailor. The idea of discovering that his adopted son was making money on the side insulted his intelligence and beating Tieko was revenge for his long held resentment of his former master for the pain he went through to become a professional tailor.
“You think I don’t know you were running a secret business behind my back? Do you know how I suffered and what I went through to become a tailor? Eh? I was humiliated, I was abused; I worked like a slave before I got my freedom. And you decide to steal from me?” he screamed while he pounded his fist into his son’s face.
Days after the fight, Mr. Tailor slowly began to avoid eye contact with mother. The neighbors stopped exchanging their usual morning greeting with him and everyone around began to look at him with suspicion. He looked as though he felt exposed and naked, and was now covering himself in an invisible garment of silence to mask his regret for what he did. His respectable frame that once exuded the aura of respectability and decorum slowly deteriorated and shrunk in size, making him look like a discarded rag.
I lost my sense of awe of him. All of the respect I had for him was shattered. He started to avoid everyone as though a sinister veil had spooled over his well-tailored persona. He began to appear disheveled and scattered.
Soon the rumor began to spread that Mr. Tailor had also beaten his wife in an equally violent manner and there might be something more to his change in personality beyond the fact that he thought his son was stealing from him.
Months passed and by the end of the year, Mr. Tailor stopped coming to the kiosk. The neighbors stopped asking about him and rather the name Mr. Tailor was transferred to Tieko, who by the time we became teenagers, was now the new “Mr. Tailor” in the neighborhood. He took over the tailoring business in the area and soon his clients multiplied. He tore down the wooden kiosk and built a workshop where he hired more boys to help him with his increasing work load; sewing late into the night to meet the demands for new suits, jackets, bell-bottomed pants and the men’s outfits that became the fashion and style of a new generation now taking over the streets of Adabraka.
As I look back today from Australia where I now live, I realize that it was the change in the fashion of the seventies that altered everything. The street map of Accra had lost its uniform pattern and the sprawling city was spreading out in many unplanned directions, like the trouble tributaries of a haunted river. I was then a teenager and it showed in the way our generation dressed, as though intent on rebelling against all tradition; strutting our new sense of freedom and fashion on the streets; imagining we were walking the boulevards of other countries. In a bizarre way, the past made more sense than any possibility of imagining a future for Ghana. So we kept dreaming of the day we would travel beyond our known world, to live somewhere less troubled and more glamorous in Europe, Canada, America or Australia; away from the quandary of uncertainty we were facing in the latter years of that decade.
Image: DzidekLasek via Pixabay.com