Opinions Wed, 27 Dec 2017

A recollection of yuletides lost

There was quite a bit of noisy merry-making in my neighbourhood in Accra on 24th Night 2017.

I noted this with approval, for, during Christmas celebrations Many many years ago, the “boom!” ­of toy-guns and what we ignorantly called “rockets” [firecrackers] reverberated throughout the night.

Yes – people worked all the year round for money (unlike today, when some people want to obtain money without working hard for it) and when the year was about to end, they spent some of that money to make a din – in Appreciation of the fact that God had been kind enough to spare them to meet yet another fresh year which Father Time had summoned round, for their use on Planet Earth.

Enjoyment, enjoyment, enjoyment– that's what 24th Night portended.

Of course, nostalgia unfailingly invites us to enrich the alleged glories of our own past celebrations and play down the joys of today's festivities. This is because, as psychologists and sociologists have detected, there is a trait in human nature called “one-upmanship”, haven't they? It's this that often leads us to believe that our experiences are endowed with an intrinsic quality beside which the recollections of other people are – well – trashy!

Not that our glorification of our memories is totally without cause. For instance, can you recollect the first time you tasted akpeteshie? Mine occurred 24th Night! It was done to summon the courage to try and lose my virginity with a young lady called Amma B! Playmates had told me that akpeteshie made one “strong” and I accepted their advice. Needless to say, the akpeteshie made me unable to walk without inviting the earth move upwards, towards the direction of my head. I barely made it home – where deep slumber took over my mind and body and ended all thoughts of a potential romantic encounter completely academic.

That sort of memory is, of course, often censored when we compare our recollections of times past to those of others, for, as the old saying bluntly puts it, “You not like the taste in the back areas of your teeth, but hey! – that's the only place you've got that you can lick!” (Wo se akyi nny3 wo d3 a, 3ho ara na wotafre!)

So there! We gloat. But we mock others who do the same.

Let me acknowledge one thing, though: I can't see how today's youngsters cope with things like Christmas celebrations. I have been in many shops at Christmas time and been thoroughly frustrated because I couldn't buy the younger members of my family any presents that they could conceivably appreciate.

I mean, I say to myself: “Ah, that looks good! But, wait!

When I went there the other day, did I not notice that he's got one? Oh God!

He'd take one look at it, say thank you politely with the tips of his teeth, and throw it – on to his heap of unwanted “presents” that keep cluttering his room!”

So, what I often do is to give the child money and say – with unashamed and utter defeatism – “Look, only you know best what you would really like to have. So, take this money and get it for yourself!”

I thus resort to my people's ancient wisdom, which teaches us that “Paapaa mu ka y3 f3re na nso ahoto wom!” [Plain-speaking doesn't come easy, but it does result in peace of mind.”]

In my time, though, the idea of being given money to order something to be delivered, that had caught one's fancy by virtue of the ubiquitous online “information overload”, would have been as quixotic as suggesting that a man would be able one day to walk on the surface of the moon without falling off!

Well, the setup in my boyhood was like this: Until one reached the age of six years or over, one only got a piece of wax-print cloth (about one square meter in size] during Christmas – and that was it.

But we loved it. The smell of the new cloth was like some very nice, understated perfume. Because of its nice smell, we would be reluctant to wear the new cloth too often (as the smell vanished the moment the cloth was washed!) How we longed for a second new cloth so that after the Christmas festivities, we could still fetch a sweet-smelling, new cloth, and flaunt it – even on an “ordinary” day.

Well, the cloth, and if one was lucky, perhaps a new school uniform (deliberately “fashioned” to be “oversized” so that it could last for two years, instead of one!) constituted the upper limit of what one could realistically expect for Christmas.

Oh, all right – there might be a few “gem” biscuits. Counted into one's fingers, as care was taken to give each child the same quantity. There might also be some “wape” [toffee.] But those would-be extras, not to be counted upon.

Chicken-groundnut-soup on Christmas Day itself was also almost always guaranteed.

But whatever our gift status had been, we would hit the one main street of our village, and dance up and down the length of it, on 24th Night.

Yes, one was saddened to discover that one's playmates had things like kako [cork-bullet toy-guns] and “rockets” that made a huge bang! With muted sadness, one nevertheless enjoyed the noise they made.

Those of us unable to spend money on noise-making appliances often constructed our own! One of the most ingenious was to find a padlock key with a hole in it, fill the hole with phosphorus and powder (scraped off a matchstick and the sides of the matchbox) and then find a strong nail that could fit into the hole in the key.

One then attached the key to the nail with a string. All that was needed now was a stone or a piece of strong wood. One inserted the nail into the key and knocked the nail's head very hard against the stone or wood. “BANG”! Would come a loud sound of a most delectable nature. The loudness of the bang depended on the size of the key and the amount of “shot” one had been able to insert into the hole of the key.

The delight one obtained from this action, which proved that one's was a practical scientist of the highest order, knew no bounds. Sometimes, depending on the strength of the explosion, the key split upon being turned into a cannon turret, and burn one's fingers, or even mildly singe parts of one's face. But hey, no risk, no gain.

Because I anticipated humiliation at the hands of playmates whose antics on the street I could not match, I used to go round my uncles' homes, in the hope that one of them might retrieve a forgotten toy-gun or something similar from a chop box that he had kept from his childhood. I had been surprised with such gifts before, and who knows? Hope being eternal, I might just get something. When they said 'No', I would leave, crestfallen. But this feeling didn't last long, for I knew they were telling me the absolute truth.

In fact, there were three particular uncles whose love for me made my existence meaningful to me. They always provided me with the affection my father couldn't lavish on me (because I wasn't his only boy but one of many.) When I was with my uncles, I was their centre of attention, and this gave me a very good feeling.

My favourite was called Wofa Kwadwo A'ade, a soft-spoken and deceptively gentle person who had a temper like tinder and lit it when there was justification for giving vent to that temper. He saved my life one day: he hailed from Nsutem, four or five miles from my town.

The river Supong

In this village, the River Supong, which was only a small stream at Asiakwa, grew very big this place, especially, during the rainy season.

Well, one day, as we were crossing a bridge over it when I saw the head of a little boy I knew bopping up and down in the river beneath us. It was a hot day, and as soon as we crossed the bridge, I put my cloth down, ready to join the little boy in the river. My uncle shouted at me, “No! Kwadwo! Kwasi Kom knows how to swim! I learnt the lesson, then, that there are some skills that must be acquired through a learning process before one could sensibly use them. I also understood the saying that one must “travel and see!” If I had never left Asiakwa for Nsutem, I would never have known that a tiny boy could brave the waters of a flooded Supon River, while I could not – although I was taller than him by far!!

It was this same uncle who inducted me into the joys of catching bush rats (okusie). (Please note that bush rats are a species that's different from city rats, which are, basically, huge mice (nkura). In the forest areas, bush rats only eat palm nuts and cassava, not rubbish – as city rats do. So, we classify bush rats as edible (though not every household uses them. value them as meat. Of course, those who don't know the difference between the species of rodents we have in Ghana, often insult “bush people” for eating rats.

This is how we caught bush rats: first, we would carry out “spotting” work, whereby we would stake out where the rats had made-holes that led to their underground nests. We would then block all of the holes that served as entrances to the nets with stones, sticks and leaves. Save for one hole.

We would leave that one only partially blocked, set leaves alight at its front-end, and make absolutely sure that the smoke from the fire, if stoked, would travel deep into the rat-hole and “smoke out” its occupant(s).

Unable to breathe, the rat would run hard and break to the surface. If it was not downed with a club, it would end up in the jaws of a very good hunting-dog that we had brought along.

Uncle Kwadwo A'ade had a dog whose ability to catch escaping rats was a marvel to see. Hunting game this way was a completely novel experience to me, for my own father preferred setting traps to catch game, or – even more glamorously – hunting game with a shotgun or double-barrelled gun.

Using a dog as a “banker” in rat-catching was particularly interesting to me, for there were elements in the art that aroused my child's curiosity. How did the dog learn to be so alert that if the rat ran past us and was making its escape, the dog would chase it, outrun it and catch and choke it death with its teeth?

Why didn't the dog try to eat the rat when it had it in its jaws but allow us to take it from its mouth? How could dogs be so tame and obedient to man, and yet retain their hunting ability and catch game when the occasion demanded it?

Another uncle of mine, Wofa Kofi Korieh, specialised in catching birds alive. He once managed to catch an apatupr? [a bird that sings very loudly in the early morning] and put it in a cage in front of the door to his sleeping quarters.

I used to go and sit by the bird each morning, enjoying its singing. I am sure it was not “singing” at all but was crying its heart out, calling for help from its brothers and sisters who flew about in total freedom in the neem trees on which they perched only a few yards from our houses. I used to hope that one or two of them would have pity on the caged bird and try to come to its aid – and thereby give me a chance to catch it. But the apatupr3 is one of the craftiest birds in existence (which is, no doubt, why it has survived for so long in its habitats that are always to be found near human settlements.) Of course, my hope of ever catching one remained a pipe-dream.

My third uncle was called Wofa Kwaku Temeng. He was also very gifted and educated. He took me into completely different realms of knowledge about life.

More about him later.
Columnist: Cameron Duodu