News from North Legon: when the cash trail goes cold


The first clue that something is awry when my wife arrives home from her weekly banking and shopping trip is the absence of bulging market bags.

Briefly, I ignore this. A very hungry three year-old is screaming in my ear for the sachets of Cerelac that ought to be nestling in one of those bags.

“The school hasn’t paid us for the bread rolls,” my wife finally  says, matter-of-factly, having got rid of her own frustrations earlier by chewing the steering wheel in the bank car park.


“They lost our invoice.”

Needless to say, this is not good news. The arrangement is clear: our little bakery bakes hundreds of rolls per week for the boarding school’s pupils. We bake; they pay. Without that payment we can’t buy groceries and pay our overdue bills, let alone run the business next week

Don’t worry, I reassure myself. We still have an ace up our sleeve. I am about to collect my passport from Ghana Immigration, where it has been sitting in a pile awaiting a resident permit for two infuriating months. It will mean I can finally transfer some rental income from a property I own in South Africa, a sum which will be easily enough to pay our bills, buy all the flour my wife needs for her bakery and keep the wolf from the door for a week or two more.

I board a trotro heading for central Accra. A battered van so crowded that I need  to contort my arm like an enraged viper to get change from my pocket, the trotro is a relatively stress-free way to travel if you can keep some element of control of your perspiration.

Sure, every once in a while you’ll see one on it’s side on the motorway verge full of dead and dying but it is that very recklessness that makes for a speedy journey.

The more legs of their route they do, the more passengers they pick up, so the more money they make. Driving alongside them in traffic is stressful and futile. The choked roads of Accra are the trotro driver’s natural habitat. Competing with them is like trying to outswim a shark. But I digress…

Whilst bombing through the traffic in this death wagon I daydream at my leisure, prioritising how I will spend that desperately-needed South Africa money. Not once does it cross my mind that Ghana Immigration won’t have readied my passport for collection.

“You’ll come back. It is not ready.”

The stony-faced official turns and walks away from the counter after delivering this bombshell.

“WHAT?!” Everyone in the office turns to look at me as I stand trembling with horror and rage. “I mean, excuse me. EXCUSE ME!”

The official turns and returns to the counter. I am aware, glancing around at all the military personnel, that this is a moment for a cool head.

“Why is it not ready? This slip says I should collect it today.”

“No, it says you should come back and ‘check’  if it’s ready. It is not ready.”

He departs again with an air of finality and I have to grip the desk for a moment and focus on not exploding.

A minute earlier I had been the master of my own destiny, about to transfer myself three thousand cedis to pay all my bills, keep our business and ensure we have food for the week ahead. Now, once again, I am a pauper at the mercy of events.

I am so angry with life at this moment that I decide to walk the ten miles home to blow off some steam. A familiar face greets me as I approach a drinking spot, the 3:16.

[Those crossword addicts of a Christian tendency will, perhaps, have spotted that ‘3:16’ is Biblical code for the passage in the Book of John: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life”. Like me, however, I suspect that you will fail to see how that verse is in any way a suitable name for a down-at-heel bar in a bad part of town.]

But I digress once more. . . this is where Kwame Ansafo-Mensah sneaks to smoke occasional cigarettes between his office and home. He holds the cigarette between a twisted drinking straw to stop his fingers smelling like tobacco. Afterwards he will eat a mint. I keep meaning to tell my neighbour that Martha is fully aware that he smokes.

“You look terrible,” he smiles.

“Yeah, I think I may have sunstroke.” I feel a little unsteady, and look down at sandalled feet that have chafed badly on the walk. “How are things with you?”

“Pretty average.”

Kwame explains that his car wouldn’t start this morning so he called the mechanic who came and picked it up. The mechanic has since become uncontactable and the car is not at the yard. He sighs. “Trouble is, I filled it up last night.”

We both shake our heads and sigh. Out here you never give a mechanic a car with a full tank. Everyone knows he’ll fix the car in thirty minutes and spend the rest of the day running errands under the guise of “testing the engine”.

I sympathise, feeling slightly better about my own situation, and shamble home to tell my wife the latest setback to our financial prospects.

“WHAT?!” she cries, when I calmly tell her I have no idea when I’ll be getting my passport back. She tells me we will have to borrow more money from her sister.

I want to shout “WHAT?!” again but I simply don’t have the energy. I hate it when we borrow money from my wife’s family.

Instead, I shuffle up the stairs and collapse on the bed. I notice my four-month old daughter is in her cot when she starts crying uncontrollably. It’s time to make her some formula, but we don’t have any.

It is only 11.30am but I have already decided to cancel the remainder of Friday.



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