The dusty drought breaks, and so does housemaid Charlotte’s resistance when a footballer comes a-courting. . .
A POWERFUL rainstorm lasting no more than an hour finally washed away the Harmattan, the great wind-borne wave of dust that sweeps south from the Sahara turning streets into rivers of mud that plunged into storm drains already choked with rubbish.
The rain came not a moment too soon. Objects change shape in the moisture vacuum: you awake to discover the front door won’t open or the wardrobe doors won’t close. Gaps start to appear in heavy wooden gates. Kwame Ansafo-Mensah was once heard swearing in disbelief when he discovered the glued-on bumper of his car lying next to the vehicle like discarded underwear.
Charlotte was in her room in the servants’ quarters of the Yeboah household when the rain began tapping on the aluminium roof. She barely had time to pull the washing off the line and drag it into the kitchen before the deluge began. She feels alone as she stands watching the first rain for almost two months. Quite alone, even though she knows the old lady will be in her room, the old man in his and their Daughter Who Never Left Home will be somewhere about. The Yeboahs’ other children flew away with their families once Christmas had been packed away. Now the house feels somehow abandoned.
Her first six months in Accra have been disappointing, a far cry from the glamorous lifestyle she’d hoped for. Indeed, rather closer to the grinding frustration and near-poverty she thought she’d left behind in her village near Tamale. The Yeboahs are less wealthy than the size of their house would suggest and they rarely pay her on time. Things are tight. Her mother’s mantra had always been “be content”, as if dissatisfaction were merely a state of mind and not the result of unsatisfactory circumstance. But Charlotte is not her mother. She has seen the way that life and men will make a victim of you, given the chance. So she remains restless, on the lookout for opportunity and determined to improve her lot.
In the gloom, Charlotte’s phone lights up and a familiar name appears on the display; Kweku is a ‘zongo boy’ from the nearby slum who visits her neighbourhood to play football in the park next to the Lawyer’s House. He has been worrying Charlotte for weeks with his sly, joyful eyes.
When she finally replies he complains that “you never answer my calls, it’s as if you don’t love me any more”, to which she responds irritably that she never did love him, etcetera. But by the time the exchange is finished Kweku has managed to arrange a meeting outside the Yeboah house in a few hours’ time. This, she has carelessly revealed, is her evening off.
As Charlotte works through her routine chores, she grows less inclined to make the date. But how? She could simply stay in the house, but then he might ring the bell and that would be a disaster. What if she couldn’t get rid of him? The cantankerous Mrs Yeboah could easily dismiss her for that, and she isn’t ready to leave her job just yet.
On the one hand, Charlotte feels trapped. On the other, she has met few people outside the household since coming to North Legon, and it might be pleasant to get out for a while. And so she eventually finds herself face to face with a grinning Kweku and they walk down the red, laterite road towards the zongo.
Sometimes, cleaning the guest bedroom on the top floor, Charlotte catches a glimpse of the zongo through the window but the hazy, grey sprawl of cement buildings stretching out to the bottom of the Aburi hills holds no fascination for her. A mosque rises up in the middle. Annoyingly, it’s call to prayer wakes Charlotte every morning at four.
Today, the hubbub of the tro-tro drivers proclaiming destinations as they compete to fill their buses at the depot mingles with the twittering of the birds and renders their shouts indistinct.
“Lapaz! Lapaz! Lapaz! Lapaz!”
“ Circle! Circle! Circle!”
The first stop on Kweku’s tour is a small cabin on the edge of the neighbourhood, surrounded by plantain trees. Outside is a row of four wheelbarrows belonging to men who earn a living carrying wares and produce to and from the market. One of the men is steadily feeding coins into an elderly fruit machine that sits on a purpose-built shelf beside a beaded curtain that serves as an entrance to the sort of drinking spot that inhabit the busy byways . Inside are two tables and a small kiosk where a shaven-headed girl no older than fourteen dispenses gin bitters and loose cigarettes. A television in the corner shows a riotous Nigerian comedy, but no one is laughing.
“This is the ‘3:16’,” Kweku announces proudly, nodding in the direction of the shebeen with a Biblical chapter and verse for a name. “It is owned by my mother and me and one day it will be mine, but I won’t need it.”
“Oh?” Charlotte raises a quizzical eyebrow.
“Because I am a football player!” Charlotte regards Kweku for a moment, not knowing whether to scorn or admire. Does he really believe he could earn a living playing football?
The character of the streets changes as they walk. Gone are the large plots with huge front gardens of mango trees and tropical flowers. Now they pass square, fortress-like houses with foul-smelling canals at the ends of rows, some with small shops in front with religious slogans for names such as ‘God Be Merciful’ (a beauty salon) and an electrical repair shop called ‘God’s Time is Best’.
They pass a larger plot whose front gate stands open. The house is built around a courtyard with a small, perfect square of grass. On a chair beneath an almond tree, a large old man sits eating a bowl of soup. Young children play and a woman pounds fufu next to him. The old man stares at the passing couple and Kweku greets him. The old man nods, almost imperceptibly.
“That is the Zongo Chief,” says Kweku quietly, explaining: “If you should need something or have trouble…”
They reach a corner where Kweku recently saw some boys catch a robber and drive a nail into his forehead. He would like to tell Charlotte but restrains himself, fearing her disgust. Little does he know that Charlotte had once witnessed a similar event in her own respectable neighbourhood.
Soon they are in the market proper, the road between the stalls narrowing as people crowd through. Sunglasses, fruit, sandals, padlocks, Samsung phones, money traders. . . a huge enclosure of livestock, mainly goats and sheep, are fed grass by their minders whose children play in the dust nearby. But Kweku doesn’t take Charlotte into the market. Instead they head for a three-storey building with a security guard. People stream out of its doors bearing branded shopping bags full of electrical appliances, televisions in boxes, children’s toys; all manner of objects. At the entrance, Charlotte is told to leave her bag at the security desk. Kweku’s excited agitation signals that they have reached the jewel in the tour’s crown.
“This,” he announces proudly, “is Melcom!” For almost an hour he shows Charlotte around the store, pausing at the end of each aisle to give her time to take it all in. Charlotte is deeply impressed. This place has everything! The bottom floor sells large electricals and sports equipment, the middle floor stocks homeware and small electricals, including a whole aisle of electric irons. On the top floor are furniture and soft furnishings. Charlotte marvels at the size of a black leather sofa. In her mind an image begins to grow: a palatial house with all of these beautiful items in it. Her home.
“Can we buy something?” she gasps, then, sensing she has embarrassed him with the question, hurries to correct herself. “Perhaps when you are a famous footballer you will buy me the whole store?”
“Of course. When you are my wife!”
“Hey chale! [mate!], she laughs. “Your wife now? I’ll be your agent!”
When the excitement of Melcom subsides, Kweku takes Charlotte to see his home. A team of orange football shirts and shorts hangs on the line and chickens peck and scratch near the front door. The house itself is dark and foreboding.
“My father was a professor at Legon University,” he says, quietly. “My mother is inside.”
“Can I meet her?” “Yes,” says Kweku, then hesitates before adding: “But not today. Let me escort you home.”
They reach the Yeboahs’ gate just in time. It is 6pm exactly and the Daughter Who Never Left Home has begun to lock up the compound. As a maid, Charlotte doesn’t have a key; if she misses the curfew she must ring the bell, and it is always a long story from there. Kweku catches her hand and smiles, looking deeply into her eyes as the gate clanks open. She watches him walk away.”Hmph,” says the Daughter and both women find themselves laughing uncontrollably.
The garden is still fresh from the rain as Charlotte makes her way to her quarters. How can some people be so unrealistically ambitious, she asks herself, while others are so limited? Maybe somewhere between “be content” and “follow your dreams” lies happiness. Was it possible to do both, or must she choose just one?
On the wall outside the window, a lizard munches a violet. Perhaps he would prefer to eat dragonfly, but in the spirit of the day he enjoys what is available. Charlotte yawns and looks at her phone. Kweku has messaged hire via Whatsapp to say he is home safe. She smiles and begins to drift off to sleep, breathing in the clean, warm air.
There would be no more rain in North Legon for two months now, not until the real wet season begins.
TIMOTHY J.BANKS, a former West End chef, moved his family to Accra in Ghana where his wife, Eleanor, has started a small bakery and sandwich shop. When not writing his novel, Tim helps out