As young as I was, I knew everything would change when we reached Accra. I knew not what to expect when the vehicle was speeding through the muddy road from the village called Israel, where I stayed for some months with my mother and the man I knew then as my father. So I stayed quiet throughout the journey to Accra. Even my ‘father’s’ mother was alarmed. She repeatedly asked me why I was quiet, with no words to express how I felt, I kept quiet. She bought some roasted yams and gave me some. I was very thankful, for I was very hungry; I ate as hurriedly as a child of five could. Then we reached Accra, Lapaz to be precise.
Everything seemed new to me. The structure of the house was not the same as our family house in Obo Kwahu where I had spent most of my life with my maternal grandmother. (In Obo, our house was built with blocks. It was a nice self contained house with pink tiles in the living room.) . Neither was it like the one in Israel, which was built of mud. This house was built with wood; it had a very spacious compound and a very tall block fenced wall with two big trees situated in the middle of the compound. I looked around and saw a small wooden structure situated near the fenced wall that was opposite the two wooden buildings, then looked right to see another small wooden structure, for that, I immediately knew it was a bathroom because someone was coming out of it with an empty bucket and had only a piece of cloth tied around her chest down. Suddenly, I missed my maternal grandmother and my mother and ‘father’. Without having to rest, my grandmother who asked me to call her Nana introduced me to the people we met at home. They were about seven. One was ‘turning fufu’ while a fat tall man who had only four teeth was pounding it. There were about three people eating and one lady seeing to the soup and stews. The one who had just finished bathing stopped in front of me and observed me keenly. I later learnt that Nana was a chop bar operator. Then I was asked to pound some palm nuts which I did obediently. After that, I was given some ‘banku’ to eat. I ate hungrily. Before long, I felt like easing myself. But I was so shy to ask where the latrine was. I felt that easing one’s self was a sin and it was also shameful to tell people whom you barely knew that you felt like doing it. So I kept quiet and was bidden to wash the dishes. The plates were many and they kept bringing more. Before I knew what was happening I had defecated on myself.
I never liked Nana much, but my fear and dislike for her increased that very day. She gave me the beatings of my life. Amidst shouts that I was too old to be doing that and asking me repeatedly if I didn’t see the small wooden structure close to the wall just opposite the rooms. After I had calmed a bit, I was given water and soap and was asked to take a bath and wash my clothes. Most of the people assembled pitied me. For aside the fact that I was merely five, I looked younger than my age. I actually am naturally skinny and of average height so I guess I was a sympathetic sight. I did as I was told amidst tears and wishing to go back to the village or to my maternal grandmother. After I had washed down and washed my clothes, I went back to finish washing the dishes. After the food got finished and the customers were gone, which seemed like a long time, I was shown to a room, since there was no mat for me, Nana gave me some big rubber to lay on the bare floor and sleep. Later, she brought me some cover cloth which I was very thankful for because it was very cold and I could feel the cold from the rubber I was lying on which was plastered on the bare cemented floor. I was thankful that at least I had a place to hide my shameful face and also, I had a bit of time of undisturbed peace throughout the night.
As I lay there, I saw through the dark Nana going to sleep on the bed. After some time, I saw a tall and healthy man going to lie by her side. I kept quiet and wished that I was not noticed. I prayed silently for I was taught to be very prayerful as that could save me when I’m going through hard times. The night seemed short, for just when sleep was most sweet, I heard my name being shouted together with ‘lazy girl’ as its qualifier. Before I could open my eyes, water was being poured on me. I got up as quickly as I could for it was cold. I didn’t know the time but I saw that it was still dark. I was told I had to follow some neighbours to fetch water as water was scarce in the area. I was given a small bucket and I followed the grownups to fetch water for the house. The place was a bit far, and there was a standing pipe where people cued for the water. I realized later that I was to fetch water not only for the house, but for the chop bar too.
When it was about 9am, when I felt like my legs would break, I was called to brush my teeth and take my bath. After that I was called by Nana to meet her husband who they all called ‘Oluu’; short form of old man. He was handsome and seemed strict to me. But when he took my hands, I felt he was friendly and that I liked him better than Nana. Then Nana asked me to go and continue fetching water until the barrel was full, then I could come for my food. But Oluu confirmed my thought that he was friendly and good by asking Nana to give me some food first. I ate and after resting for sometime continued with fetching the water. By now, I was very used to the continuous growth of the population in the house. I knew that Nana had two sons staying with her and some close relatives of hers, a man and some women. That was a Saturday.
On Sunday, I didn’t go to church because I had no presentable clothes, as Nana called it, to wear. But I thought otherwise, for I had some clothes which my maternal grandmother bought, and they were beautiful. I fetched water for the house. Some using some to bath while others used some to wash their clothes, it was obviously not enough as the bucket I was using was small, so some of the grownups who couldn’t wait joined me to fetch the water. The chop bar was to operate in the afternoon since it was a Sunday. Although I was sad that I couldn’t go to church, I was relieved that after all, I had time alone to stay at home after the barrel becomes full without anyone shouting at me or threatening to beat me. But I was wrong, apparently, church closed before I could fill the barrel to the brim.
Then I heard:
“Hey Tawia! Why haven’t you finished filling the barrel?
Were you crawling or what?
I’ll not tolerate that timid character you inherited from your mother.
I was made to do more chores after finishing with filling the barrel. I then learnt that I was all alone in my own world.
On Monday, it was worse, Oluu was not there to feel my hunger so I was told to finish filling the barrel and come for food. But as I fetched the water, it was being used, so I never got anywhere. I actually felt that I had been sold to work. And so I worked tirelessly and cried when I could because that was my only consolation. I had no friend, I knew no one and I was consistently insulted and told I was ugly. I was beaten when I did what I’d not been told, or when I was seen to be doing things in a very slow manner.
With time, I became used to seeing children going to school while I worked. I got a friend whom I was told was my cousin, my ‘father’s’ half brother’s daughter. Her name was Eno. Her father was abroad and they lived close to where I used to fetch the water. She fed me every morning so the weak feeling of hunger every morning vanished from my life. I cared less whether I’ll fetch water all day or not. I looked skinnier by the day, and my clothes kept tearing apart. With time, I had no panties to wear. I was now six years old. Oluu had mercy on me and volunteered to teach me at home, he was a teacher. I was very thankful for this because I liked schooling very much. I grew fond of him and was thankful anytime he called me to come to the room for the classes. This was because all the house chores seized for me.
Eno started giving me money because their school was changed for them. So I used some to buy food and saved some. One day, on my way from an errand, I heard a commotion and so I run quickly to see what was happening. Lo and behold, the polythene containing my clothes was outside and Nana was holding a cane. She seeing me and aiming at me was spontaneous. Before I could ascertain what was happening, most of the inhabitants of the house started calling me a thief. Nobody asked me to explain, so I received the canes with aches within my heart and body. By now, I was still not used to the spanking. My body was always full of sores for my skin is naturally very soft. Oluu was not there so when he came, my charge was put before him. He called me:
“Tawia, kneel down.” Oluu said, and I obeyed.
“Tell me why you stole your grandmother’s money. Tell me everything.
I did not steal any money Oluu. Eno gave it to me. She gives me money to buy food most mornings and so I saved some” I said timidly
“She is lying. I saw ten cedis in her bag. Where in God’s name will she get such an amount of money from? This girl is really poisonous. Look at her ugly face, ‘osasaafo, ose nie ose’ ”
Nana said. But Oluu did not mind her and sent for Eno.
Nana as usual was shouting on top of her voice insisting that I was lying. Eno also confirmed that it was true. Nana, accused Eno of being a bad girl by siding with me. She also threatened to tell her mother, which she did. So Eno’s help ceased too. I felt lonelier than before.
Sleeping with Nana also became a bit horrible for me. I was accused of being a witch just because I yawned loudly one night. Nana in the morning called for all who could come to watch me and told all assembled of how she supposedly caught me red handed trying to fly to my witch camp. According to her, I was calling her name since she was my target for the night but God, opened her ears and she heard it and caught me red handed. All efforts made by Oluu to say that I was merely yawning fell on deaf ears. People hooted and cursed at me as few watched sympathetically whiles Nana continuously slapped me with her hands. When Oluu couldn’t help it any longer;
“Leave the poor girl alone. You’ll kill her. What is this attitude for?”
Then he tore me from her grip but Nana had not finished with me and added Oluu.
“Eh, so Tawia, you have ended up bewitching my husband as well, haven’t you? And you foolish man, you don’t know when you’re spoiling a witch.”
Oluu on his part did not know how to bandy words with Nana, so he kept quiet and sent me to the room and asked me to calm down, which I gradually did.
On one occasion, I heard Oluu trying to advise Nana to feed me properly as I looked horrible by the day, but Nana only got offended and insulted him very well. Then Oluu insisted that I be allowed to go to church. So he took me to church every Sunday. With time, all the Sunday school teachers became my friends. They continually commended Nana, who was a women’s fellowship leader for having an intelligent girl like me for a grandchild. I took church activities very seriously; sometimes my Sunday school teachers would come and ask for permission for me to join in activities like bible quizzes, singing and drama, which Nana reluctantly permitted. I grew prayerful by the day, hoping that my situation would change in the near future. With time, people asked me to pray for them for one sickness or another and they confessed afterwards that they were healed. Nana became very alarmed with this and forbade me from praying for anyone or to ever participate in any church activity. Oluu tried to change her mind but she was adamant. She gave some more excuses as to why I could not attend church even on Sundays which included; I had no decent clothes to go to church with, thereby embarrassing her with my appearance and there’s nobody at home who will prepare the things for the chop bar. In the end, I stopped attending church once again. But I continued to pray though I had but only a New Testament bible. With time, the chop bar business collapsed.
I was very grateful to the lord because the “too much fetching of water” stopped. So for some time, although I did all the chores in the house, sweeping, fetching water, cleaning, doing the dishes, and running errands for the house, I had some time to rest.
Nana got ashamed one day when I took off my clothes to bath and a church friend of hers saw my one and only panty. It was torn in front and looked very faint due to too much washing. I heard the woman commenting on it and asking Nana to take very good care of me as I looked like an uncared for child. After the woman left, I received another bout of lashes for disgracing her. But the next day, she came home with a panty seller when she went to collect money from her debtors. She asked the woman to give me two of the panties on credit as those owing her refused to pay her that day. This panty seller came there week after week but Nana will run to the room and tell us to tell her that she is not in. one day we all heard the bell of the panty seller, Nana hurriedly ran to the room and warned us to tell her she wasn’t around;
“Children, where is your grandmother? The panty seller asked.
She is gone to the market” I said
“She’s gone to meet someone” Isaac; the son of Nana’s friend said
“No she’s gone to fetch water” I said
“No, she’s going to buy me some food” Isaac said.
In the end, the panty seller deduced that Nana was in the room and told her that:
“You can keep the money you cunning old woman.
I know what you do to those who owe you.
I know of course that you’re in that room.
It is money but it is not that much.
So you can keep it.
Only God will judge you.”
I felt very bad. For I knew what Nana made me do was a sin against God. But I dared not utter a word. She never came to the house again.
Meanwhile, Nana had a new business. Buying and selling fresh fish. She brought one of her grandsons to stay with us, his name was Yaw. I was thankful for the company but soon, I saw that he could do anything he wanted without any reproach. And I was always responsible for all his misdeeds. I remember having to receive one of those beatings because he decided to play with a knife and got wounded. Nana blamed me for it and I never understood why, knowing that Yaw was stronger and older than I was and if I happened to get on his nerves, he could beat me to a pulp.
There was not much to do but I couldn’t go to our neighbour’s house to watch television. I tried that on two occasions and got seriously thrashed. So I kept to my part of the house without venturing out unless I was sent. Yaw on his part tried everything in his power sometimes to frame me up, so Nana could beat me and he succeeded mostly.
The fresh fish business also collapsed and Nana resorted to making Yaw and I sell ‘krobonko’. This is a green fruit, longer and bigger than a cucumber with sharp lines around it. This fruit is of no use to many. When it dries, people use it as a sponge. In its raw state, some use it in place of garden eggs. Nana will sack me to sell the rest even if it is dark before coming home when I happen to come home with some of the ‘krobonko’. But Yaw could sell one and go to the park to play football, then spend the money and come home to tell Nana that the money got lost and people did not buy it. She’ll simply say that Yaw was a bad boy and ask him to go and eat. With time, people started buying my ‘krobonko’ for sympathy. They wondered why I hawked even in the evenings when most children were sleeping. But I usually said nothing, fearing that Nana had spies around who could report to her and put me into trouble.
Then one day, my maternal grandmother, whom I called Nana Adwoa came to Accra to visit me. She wept when she saw me. But I pretended as though I did not recognize her, partly because I felt she was part of my woes. Had she not connived with my parents to sell me to Nana? Then I heard her quarreling with Nana. I was sent on an errand immediately. When I came back, she was gone. That day, sleep eluded me, I cried silently in my sleep and before I knew what was happening, I had urinated on myself. My cloth was used to tie my head and children in other houses were called to hoot at me. I felt very embarrassed but I knew I was wrong to do that so I cried quietly and washed my clothes and cover cloth after that ordeal.
I received the greatest shock of my life when Nana asked me to go and have my bath as Oluu was sending me to school. All my tears turned into joy.
On my first day at school, I felt lost. The school; a Presbyterian school, was a very big school. The primary school was farther apart from the Junior Secondary School. I was taken to class one. But I saw to my disappointment that I knew virtually everything that the teacher was teaching. Oluu was the class two teacher so my class teacher told Oluu about this. He still insisted that I remained in class one. By this time, I was about eight years old. When I reached class two, most people in the school knew me because I was very intelligent. Oluu kept teaching me at home, even some of the class five pupils could not compete with me. At home, it was the same old story. I did many house chores and the little time I had, I was taught by Oluu.
Now, Nana was selling baf loaf. One day, on my way to school, I went to look for counters at a bar which was situated by the road side. Then I saw a fifty cedi note on the floor. I gave it to the bar tender who said it must be for one of the people who came to the bar the previous night and asked me to keep it. I gave it to Oluu, who said he would use it to feed me. He did feed me for months. But I later learnt that he used that money to buy a kente cloth and fed me with his own money. I cared less. I wouldn’t have said anything even if he had asked me to give it to him without promising anything. I liked him very much.
On my way from school one day, I saw that we had company. Then Nana told me that my parents are back from the village. I received this news with indifference. Then I saw my mother pounding ‘fufu’. I greeted her and went to change my clothes (which was house attire). I heard later that she and my ‘father’ were to settle in Accra for greener pastures. So my mother will sell some of the baf loaf while my ‘father’ looks for some work. By now, my mother had one more child in addition to the one I knew in the village. That one had grown almost like me. I knew that I was the third born and that I had two sisters before me though I didn’t know them. My mother looked like an angel. She was very fair, had a long jelly hair and a pointed nose. She was fairly tall and looked like a very quiet lady. I tried to marry her with the mother I knew in the village. That one was quiet and fair as this one, but I never thought she was as beautiful as this one.
Her staying with us made no difference. She could not defend me even when someone was molesting me. Actually, she herself was molested many times that I sometimes felt sorry for her. Nana was always on her case, it’s either her cooking was bad or some chores had not been done or she was a fool. But my ‘father’ was a bit stronger; he was always defending my mother to no avail. My baby brother was very fat. So people started calling my mother ‘obolo maame’ meaning the mother of a big child. Every morning, my mother would wash her sieve and fill it with the loaves Nana will give her, and then she will strap Kwabena on her back and go for hawking. I learnt then that everybody had his or her own problem. I had mine and my parents had theirs. So there was no need expecting someone to protect me.
One day, Nana Adwoa came for a visit and brought me three dresses. I was the happiest girl alive. It was a long time since I had worn beautiful clothes. I tried each one of them to see if they fitted. They fitted perfectly. Then my mother went to put them in her bag which was in Nana’s room, for we all slept on a mat in that same room. The next day, she gave me one to wear to church. The next Sunday, my mother searched and searched for the other two dresses but could not find them. Then she came to tell Nana, who insulted her that she was slow and foolish and so she would not find them. Nana herself got up and went in search of the missing dresses but could not find them. Eventually, we came to the conclusion that the dresses were either not put in her bag and someone had mistakenly taken it somewhere or some thief came for them. I did not cry. I wasn’t even surprised because I had gotten used to the fact that my story was always different from the others. So I made do with the one for church services. That dress was a straight dress, white with red flowers with buttons from top to bottom in front.
The pressure in that house had become too much for my parents so they decided to find their own place. It was a year after my dress incidence. Then we heard that some of Nana’s relatives were coming to visit her from the village. One fine Saturday, as my parents were getting ready to go tidy up their new place and I washing one saucepan, I heard people shouting ‘here they come, here they are’. Then we saw a woman coming with two girls. Those two girls each had one of my dresses on. Those who saw my dresses when Nana Adwoa brought them were awe struck.
My mother being who she was; quiet and humble, looked at me sympathetically, without a word. I always felt that she did not like me. I couldn’t put my fingers on what kept us apart, but I felt my mother always felt distant from me. But she seemed genuinely sorry for my plight. I looked on for a while and continued with my chore. By now, I’d become used to swallowing every bit of maltreatment and making it generate into bitterness within. And my nearness to God sagged with each hurt.
AMOAFOWAA SEFA CECILIA