Dr. John Kenneth Mensah

Senior Lecturer


Dept: Chemistry
Chemistry Department
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KNUST
Kumasi, Ghana

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The Final Goodbye 2/3

Plans conceived in subterfuge seldom announce itself with fanfare. As the bulk of the titillating bawdiness of his uncle’s secret plans were just about to kick-in, he had an awkward feeling that things were off. He came to believe strongly that no bond of affection bound him to the family unit and that the only prevailing link seems to be a frivolous familial obligation that also doubles as a sole motivator for group identity and group dynamics. In what he later considered as a pure act of spite, family members would often join hands and say a prayer without his inclusion in the circle of petitioners. That act deepened his sense of estrangement. He is no religious identity but he reasoned it would have been a sign of camaraderie and a gesture of goodwill to have included him in supplications to a God who is everybody’s adjudicator.

With passing days, the relentless stream of questions from family members about his shipped cargo irritated him. In his mind, the non-existing “cargo” has become a sort of cringe-worthy embarrassment that kept on recurring anytime family members hinted obliquely about it. His prevaricating on the “cargo issues” could not stem the tide of inquiry. Questions such as when exactly was it due in town; how large was the cargo and what is in it for them were not only unanswerable but his attempts at answers always generated clear inconsistent threads when juxtaposed against his earlier story-lines. He has to think of a final decisive way to get out of this lie. After all, he has survived the hustle of Europe for 30 years. It’s now time to dust-off his survival tool-kit and deploy some of the shelved tricks he has under his sleeve into active operation. The “run-around” will be a perfect recipe. The “run around” simply creates reasonable doubts of truthfulness to sustain the fleeting lie that property was shipped from overseas.

Word has spread through the grapevine among the community of like-minded Burghers that he has planned to give his extended-family the “run-around” and adherents to the cause should be helpful in any way possible as he struggles to attain some decency; as he fights to restore some sliver of dignity and as he scrambles to achieve a bit of personal space away from unreasonable expectations of success imputed on him by his family members. When the party of family-hired laborers/loaders and family members arrived at Krofokrom in the hired Kia truck, Kofi was ready for the mission of obfuscation.

“Oh finally you came over! I’ve been expecting you! Man! You really took your time! I’m aware you are looking for your personal items that were shipped along with mine in the Maersk container. I think the truck took it to Kwame’s place at Adiebeba.”

When they got to Adiebeba, Kwame was succinct.

“Your property is among Kwadwo’s things that were offloaded at Dichemso.”

At Dichemso, Kwadwo then pointed them to Yaw at Kenyase. Three successive offloading errors of valuable Euro-laden property cannot be accidental. The message was clear to the exhausted and irritated family members: he brought no personal properties home. He came home empty-handed and that, to them, is not only contemptuous but sacrilegious as well. After a 30-year uninterrupted stretch in the midst of plenty in Europe, he has no refrigerator, no TV, no King-size bed and no home-entertainment system to bring home to endear them. The thought of this singular deprivation and the reflection on the deception tactics he employed to hide this ugly reality infuriated the family. The incensed family members raised their collective fingers and wagged them at him and cursed and swore at him in the streets of Dichemso before curious onlookers and, then paradoxically, they convulsed in an inexplicable paroxysm of laughter that brought comic relief to bystanders. That scene was the most humiliating experience in his adult life. He lost his cool at their public display of anger, at their gestures of open disrespect and ridicule and along with the loss of face and the loss of reputation he belligerently gave them “the finger.” The “finger” gesture confused his adversaries because they didn’t understand its import. They only grasped the import of the gesture, later, when he repeated the raised middle finger of contempt with a scream of “fuck all of you. To every one of you fools, your mother’s vagina. Fuck off.”

On the scale of socially insensitive behavior that is perpetrated by “Burghers,” the “run-around” is just a silly prank that is supposed to barely move the needle of the emotional meter of locals. Its import is just to politely tell over-zealous property-hungry family, through non-verbal means, that there are no property to dish out and none to fight over. But in his relatives’ reckoning, the loss of money from the hired truck and from the paid hired laborers, the loss of their fragile and shaky trust in him, and the gestured as well as the verbal insult were all taken together with a grain of salt.

“What a waste,” they screamed in exhilaration. “God, he brought nothing home,” they shook their collective heads in disbelief and shrugged their collective shoulders in resignation.

“You’ve made us borrow money to rent this truck and hire laborers, and if you think you won’t pay for that, think again; don’t fool with us, we will make sure you pay for it. That I tell you, you will pay for it. What a hopeless man.”

They reverted to the colloquial form of the local language that has more powerful expressive words to convey their strong visceral anger and to express their enthusiastic ridicule.

“To exist in Ghana without basic assets and life’s necessities is bad enough. But to pretend you have them and to send us on a wild goose chase for one is just beyond the pale. Where is your dignity?” thundered his uncle.

“My dignity is embedded in my dignified refusal to surrender to your unreasonable expectations of success. Money doesn’t grow on trees over there for us to just climb-up to stuff our pockets. You work for it! You work too damned hard for it, if you don’t know.” He barked back.

“Why is my expectation of you unreasonable? Haven’t others come back with tons of such stuff? Where are yours?” His uncle snapped back.

“Let me tell you what happened. If you have any decency, you’ll drop this issue after hearing this. After years of living in plenty in Europe you lose perspective and become complacent, and are no longer interested in saving money and no longer burdened by the broad idea of rebuilding Africa. You also lose interest in and are no longer motivated by the grand notion of repatriating your hard-earned savings to a family relative you barely know and hardly trust in your homeland. So drop it.” But his emotional intensity blurred the meaning of his words and distorted the import of his explanations and, ultimately, the solemnity of his message.

With that nasty confrontation, his uncle has ushered in an era, previously unacknowledged but now overt, of judging the human value of family members by the depth and the breadth of their material possessions. Material embodiments now took center stage and became a by-word for ones’ position in the familial hierarchy and its pecking order. One can foresee future circumstances in which family members will be compelled to acquire material possessions just to secure the admiration of its head and approval of other leaders of note.

And that internecine strife also ushered in a culture of silence; a time of non-verbal communication; a kind of silent language developed on a “need to use” basis. The aftermath of the conflict steered in an epochal era where spoken words were barred in inter-personal communication with each other. All subsequent communications were with barely perceptible gestures that were often too difficult for both parties to comprehend. Sometimes communication was via mind-reading and at other times through some form of telepathy. Through it all, the non-verbal agreement that existed between them says: stay out of each other’s way. Each side behaved as if the other party did not exist or was not physically and bodily present in the same house. He got out of the way of the collective family and they stayed away from him. Consequently, both parties were emotionally inaccessible to convey their feelings of regret about the deteriorating inter-personal relationship. Both parties subsequently shirked with disdain their individual roles in sustaining a functioning family unit. And then, inexorably, all familial relationships of consequence were forthwith curtailed. And thus, his tenuous hope of rapprochement with the family members ended.

*******

Burial ceremony is an end of life ritual that brings a symbolic cessation to all of one’s life’s inherent conflicts. But his uncle was unrelenting in his zeal for control even after the end of the burial ceremony that was patterned after his decisions and his decisions only. His uncle accosted him publicly and railed about his lack of proper Ghanaian etiquette with a miscellany of complaints that can be categorized as taunts. It is the odd nature of slander that it is often delivered with incisive prose and expressed with usually high confidence. Slander also offers perpetrators the reasoned confidence that it will stall the progress of its target victims long enough for them to catch up with them financially, materially and emotionally. As his uncle spewed out, in a fashion reminiscent of a poetry recital, a series of accusations all precipitated by spite, and all filled with acerbic prose, he felt powerless to counter his assault.

“We were draped in black cover cloth signifying deep mourning. You wore a black jeans and a black T-shirt with that gleaming gold chain. Grisly. A cavalier attitude towards the mourning of your mother! We are more Ghanaian than you.” He thundered.

“We eat our fufu with our fingers. You chose to use a spoon to eat fufu. Ghastly. We are more Ghanaian than you.” He roared.

“We swallow our fufu in morsels, you pretend it’s a piece of junk food that you bit into and chewed down your throat. Appalling. We are more Ghanaian than you.” He bellowed.

“We bawled our eyes out and let all our emotions hang out during the burial. You walked around with your head bowed and pretended to show some alien form of dignity in mourning a mother you failed to support financially. Atrocious. We are more Ghanaian than you.” He sneered.

“We eat “ampese,” “koobi” and “kontomire” for breakfast. You chose orange juice and milk with cornflakes for breakfast. Dreadful. We are more Ghanaian than you.” He boomed.

“We perspire a lot because of the heat of the hot sun and so we take a bath at least once every day for cleanliness. You haven’t taken a bath in more than three day, opting to just spray yourself with that strongly scented perfume of yours. Disgusting. We are more Ghanaian than you.

We Ghanaians shave our arm-pits for hygiene. Your arm-pits are the virgin forest of hair straight and curly. Can’t you smell the offensive ordor mingled with that perfume smell that is emanating from your bushy armpit? Repulsive. We are more Ghanaian than you.”

 “You haven’t contributed in a meaningful practical way for the advancement of this family. Outrageous. If you understand what I mean,” he roared with anger in his eyes.

“But I have been paying for the food for the entire family since I showed up and you think that’s not enough of an input of communal love and shared obligation and of collective sacrifice” he growled back.

“Others come from overseas and do more than just pay for the family dinner. If you had come along with your White wife, at least, she would have given us some money for our keep to alleviate our pathetic existence here in Ghana.”

“I don’t know what others did to earn that money you talk about so often but I busted my damned ass damned hard to get the money for this funeral. And I am tired and can’t deal with all the “Kwaku Ananse” that creeps up surreptitiously in you and some Ghanaians of like-mindedness when they meet a Burgher. Since I came over, most of the people I have met say they are my long-lost friend and they will proceed in public to enthusiastically wax nostalgic, peddle profound misery to inspire unfathomable pity and then ask me to open my wallet. The only exception to this ridiculous rule is the woman now old, who still sells oranges down the street, at the place, where the old milestone used to be. That old woman still gives me her oranges for free because she still remembers my childhood with fondness. God, she is a difference maker. Damn it all, I can’t deal with this pressure to please others anymore; can’t deal with our cultural sanction of begging as a form of remuneration; can’t deal with this cultural endorsement of the triumph of meanness. Burgher this! And Burgher that! is way too much for me to handle.”

“Like I just said, other people’s nephews return from Europe to put-up mansions and ride in expensive cars. You brought a few cloths, two shoes that require the constant services of a shoe-shine boy and that unavoidable glittering gold-chain. That’s all you have to show for your trip to Europe and a long Methuselah-like 30 year stay in Holland that I funded with the sweat from my own brow. You haven’t even paid me my travel money back yet.”

“Just I like I also said, I don’t know how they get that wealth in the time that they acquire it. But I work two jobs and yet live from pay-check to pay-check in Europe. You want to know what I think; it’s almost impossible to acquire that much wealth legally and honestly in the time that you say they do.”

His uncle’s joy was his anguish but he survived this confrontation admirably by tuning his uncle’s words out as noise and focussing instead on whether or not he will lose his job when he returns to Holland. Engaging his uncle in ad hominem attack and defense will be an unproductive endeavour. Throughout this ordeal he never lost his unrelenting zeal to identify as Ghanaian.

*******

His uncle’s version of Ghanaian masculinity is based on toughness and meanness and he wasn’t done yet in the practical demonstration of this philosophy of manhood. At the regular caucus of the men, he laid out his next plan.

“I have instructed the little boys to follow him around and sniffle and break into a gaggle of laughter anytime he talks to somebody about his European experience.”

“Burgher is broke, Burgher is penniless, and Burgher is financially weak. Burgher has no assets” is their nice short ditty they are supposed to whisper under their breath.

And the boys were dutiful as they bawled their little rhyme incessantly whenever they purposely crossed paths with him in the streets of the little town.

His ability to maintain his resilience in the face of varied hostilities then angered his uncle who summoned him to a personal impromptu meeting. His uncle still has some arrows in his quiver. He understood that whatever reasoning that has precipitated his uncle’s call for a meeting was directed against him and will not inure to his benefit. But he was obligated to answer out of respect for his uncle’s role as the patriarch of the family. Once again, his uncle’s unrelenting views on familial responsibility were as unyielding as his desire for absolute control of family affairs.

“Your nieces and nephews are rather at home instead of being in school. We can’t afford their tuition/school fees. Please help us with their school fees.”

“But I am short on money now. I don’t have it. I just don’t have it.”

The naughty boys were summoned once again. This time, they camped out behind the window of his room in the hot afternoon sun bearing cans, plastic gallons and aluminium pans. They drummed and sang their little ditty with flourish.

“Burgher doesn’t take care of family. Burgher is a miser. Burgher is mean.”

The chorus resounded and the song went on until he was forced by its enduring annoying lyrics to leave his room for town. While in town, the irritating ditty kept on ringing in his ears. As hard as he tried, he couldn’t shake the persistent lyrics loose all day from his mind.

The ebb of the intense heat of the sun’s rays belied the surge of his one-sided tussle with his uncle. Sunsets are usually accompanied by fresh news. At sunset his uncle strode in majestically with fury in its wake and with two of his children, both unemployed young university graduates, in tow. Before a gathering of cowed family members, his uncle literally ordered him, to take the two men along with him to Holland when he departs.

“I paid for your emigration to Holland when it was needed and when it was considered by the family to be necessary for the long-term prosperity of this family. It’s your turn now to keep this family tradition going till perpetuity,” his uncle calmly but forcefully stated his goal.

As the rest of the family murmured in bewilderment, he attempted to explain his refusal to take his two nephews along with him to Europe. By conveniently ignoring the fact that visa restrictions are so tough that there is little room to steer their successful migration, there was little room to manoeuvre with any logical, reasonable and sufficiently convincing argument about the justness of his decision. After a frantic scrambling of his brain, he settled on his uncle’s own platitudes about the uniqueness of the Ghanaian nativity; about the “exceptionalism” of their nephew’s “Ghanaian-ness.”

“My advice for them is to stay in Ghana. Ghana is pleasant. Ghana is less stressful. Ghana offers better future prospects for them now than Holland do.”

“What? How so!?” His perplexed uncle asked in astonishment.

“Things are not really rosy over there.” He stated calmly.

“If things are that bad, why are you going back? Like I’ve been saying, you’re a selfish man. Your side of the family takes care only of itself and no one else. You are a mean selfish man.”

“I am sorry but….”

“Go and drown yourself in the lake, you selfish fool.”

His refusal to take his nephews to Europe exacerbated an already volatile situation. That afternoon the notorious boys paid their customary visit with an unusually harsh and acrimonious tone as they comfortable perched themselves very close to his window and sang a variation of their old ditty:

“Burgher is mean. Burgher seeks only his own interest. When Burgher dies no family will show up for his funeral because Burgher failed to take care of family when he could. Our forefathers say that the man who eats alone shits and dies alone. So no family will waste their energy, time and resources to claim his corpse when Burgher dies.”

He was unprepared for this emotive line of reasoning in the lyrics of the boys and it caught him off-guard. As he left the room with the quickness of an antelope, he was trailed by the lingering piercing sound of the boys’ shrill voices and by the endurance of its annoying ditty. The song reverberated and echoed off the walls of his mother’s empty room. He quickly tiptoed towards the local drinking bar, where he sought escape from reality and drowned his sorrows with the gurgling answer of a bottle of locally-brewed gin euphemistically called “VC-10.” As he staggered home drunk he was heard repeatedly whispering, almost like a mantra, the word “Easy! Easy!”

*******

Thanks for the company and goodbye everyone.

JKM

 

Continue on 3/3

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