May 23



If you are bringing up children and you become aware that they are seriously  interested in something – no matter how uninterested in it you are yourself – help them to acquire a prowess in it if you can. That interest will eventually transfer itself to you, if you allow it. And the probability is that you will more than enjoy it.

 I was never interested in martial arts – beyond cheering Bruce Lee on when he dealt with crooks such as “The Big Boss” or the iron-fisted monster of a murderer in “Enter The Dragon”.

Yet when my kids became interested in Taekwondo and began to take lessons in it at the Ghana International School in Accra, I gave them all the encouragement I could. This was not easy – they had to be taken to the venue and brought back in the evening, when all one wanted to do was to put one’s feet up with a glass of something cold at hand, and watch a video or two.

But the encouragement paid off – one of them nearly went to an international a tournament in Seoul, with the trip being cancelled, however, because it was in the early eighties, and things happened – or didn’t happen – for reasons that no-one ever got to know or understand..

For me, the funniest thing that happened with that whole Taekwondo business was that one day, when I tried playfully to hit the youngest of them – then only about ten years old – because he had done something I considered naughty, I could not do it! The guy effortlessly parried every single blow I aimed at him! He looked at me impishly as if he was daring me to bring on some more! I had to give up! At which, I suppose, he said “Ki-herp!” in his head and bowed mischievously to himself.

I realised, with secret delight, that he would, from then on, never need any physical protection whatsoever from anyone else, no matter how ‘big’ his would-be assailant was. Not for him the plaintive litany for which little boys were known: “I shall go and tell my father!” or “You wait! My elder brother will get you!” No. Just – “Bring it on, man!” What? At ten years of age?

Simultaneously as the taekwondo was going on, I was told that some of their friends  used to go to Burma Camp to ride horses, and could I….?

What? Burma Camp?   Horses?  For the offspring of a bush man like me? The only horses I knew of were those spoken about by a “Chorus” in Shakespeare:

Think, when we talk of horses,

That you see them

Printing their proud hoofs

I’ the receiving earth….

But it was as good as an order. So, to Burma Camp I went; to the Riding School that trained horses for army officers to sit on to command national parades. Horses that were past parade duties were not destroyed but used to teach young officers how to ride, preparatory to their commanding parades themselves on horseback. The children of army officers were also taught to ride, as were a small number of civilian kids. Two of my boys got in.

The riding lessons took only about an hour or two in the afternoon. But sitting around doing nothing while my kids were doing high kinks in the fenced training ground made me extremely nervous. Suppose one of them fell and was trampled upon by the horse? Suppose one was thrown? Suppose… suppose?

The NCOs in charge were excellent psychologists and one of them who had noticed my nervous disposition  came to me and said, “Sah, why don’t you too come along and learn how to ride? Then you would get to know the horses and you wouldn’t be afraid of something bad happening to your boys!”

That made a lot of sense to me. But – oh my God! — me on a horse? How could I ever live it down if the story got told at Asiakwa that I had obtained a gammy leg because I had fallen off a horse? How would all those friends some of whose actions  I’d sneered at as being “bourgeois”, take it if they got to know I was into such pursuits as horse-riding? 

But that was the least of it. The complications came when I realised that it meant kitting myself in  a pair of knee-length boots, plus a riding hat! I felt absolutely ridiculous when I put these on. But it was either that or breaking my fingernails down to the bone with sheer nervousness whilst I sat waiting  for the boys to finish their riding lessons. There was no choice, really, was there? 

I got on a horse. Or rather horses, for if you went and someone had taken a horse that you’d got used to, or particularly  fancied, you got whichever horse it was that was available. Thus, I got to know that horses had personalities as distinct as those in humans. There was a horse called “Dagomba” who wouldn’t move, no matter how hard you kicked it! There was another which turned its head and bit you on the knee if you kicked it too hard. In between, there were horses like “Do good” which were perfectly happy to be ridden, but these were always taken, of course.


One other horse had the habit of stopping to eat leaves from trees when we went “hacking” into the bush. I suppose he thought he was a giraffe born in the wrong body! Anyway, you would kick him and kick him and kick him  — GBOO! GBOO”! – with you boot. But he wouldn’t stir a muscle  until he  had satisfied himself. If by then, the other riders had gone ahead by about 500 yards, he didn’t care! You’d have to gallop hard to catch up with them, and if you had only learnt how to “canter” and not yet learnt how to gallop, you’d have to learn how to gallop by force. It was no joke hanging on for dear life whilst the horse raced  to rejoin the convoy that he had deliberately allowed to leave him behind. One could almost see the horse laughing to himself as he said, “You were kicking me because you wanted me to go with the others. Okay — I am ready to go now! So let’s go!” I didn’t know that one could pant whilst trying to stay on a horse that was going fast. I had a lot to learn very very quickly. 

If I thought this horse was a rascal, I didn’t know what was lurking in those stables. There was another one that I never dared to ride, but which my elder boy could not have enough of. This was a horse that was at the very end of the behaviour spectrum,  and should never have been let loose on humans. He wasn’t just mischievous. He wasn’t merely a vagabond. He was wicked! Damn wicked. And his handlers at the Riding School, knowing what he could do,  had named him  appropriately as ”Lucifer”! 

This horse behaved as if it had seen the horses that were used for rodeo shows in movies and wanted to beat them at their own game. And this boy of mine found Lucifer such a great challenge that against all advice, he would often go and ride him. In trying to save myself from my nerves, I had in fact jumped from the frying-pan into the fire, for now, I was only a few feet away, close at hand on the same turf in the riding pen, when Lucifer was trying to ram my son against the fence railings! Or jump the fence altogether with my son on nits back!  The boys in our group were always daring each other, beyond the earshot of us  adults,  to ride Lucifer, and one day, when I was absent, my son actually rode Lucifer in a gymkhana (horse game) no less! When I learnt of this, I died a thousand times. In absentia! I mean, what would his mother have said to me if he had been hurt? I was supposed to be there to look after him for God’s sake, wasn’t I?

Fortunately, nothing untoward ever happened to any of us, apart from the odd falling-off, which was accepted as a perfectly normal thing in riding. We all managed to master the rudiments of the game. And to begin to love riding. The soldiers used to take us into the bush to do some hacking. We would ride in the bush, cross a stream (of which more later) and then cross the tarred part of the Accra-Nungua road and ride on to Labadi beach. 

As soon as the horses saw the sand on Labadi beach, something went “click” in their heads, and they began to race, unbidden! It needed great skill and nerves of steel to steer them though the coconut palms that were all over the beach. But again, thankfully, we never had an accident. Some of the horses loved to rush into the sea straightaway and joyfully immerse themselves in it. How you stayed on their backs as they were doing this was none of their business. The best thing was to alight quickly, hold the reins and allow the horse to lie on its back in the water, and roll about kicking its legs in the air, through the waves.

Because of such adventures, it was always with great relief that we rode safely back to the camp. For a reason regarding which your guess is as good as mine,  all  the horses broke into a fierce gallop when they saw their stables. Something went ”click”  in their heads once more, and they began to race one another. We would do our best to slow them down and take them to their individual stables. But it wasn’t an easy task. When we’d handed them to their stable lads, we would  troop into the seargeant’s mess and look for a cool drink.

The soldiers who ran the riding school at that time were very good-humoured and it was quite a joy sitting there sipping a beer with them and listening to them relax and tell stories.  I gradually realised that beneath their bonhomie, they were full of tricks. They had a horse called “Leo” which didn’t like to go across water.. Without telling me this, they gave me Leo to ride one day, while we were going to hack to the Labadi beach.Our path lay across a stream!

When we came to the stream we formed a single line and began to  go across. Unsuspecting, I followed the others in single file into the water. As soon as Leo reached the middle of the stream, where the water  was at its deepest, he just leaned back  without warning and sat in the water! I was, of course, thrown into the stream.

I heard everyone laughing. Of course,  Leo’s propensity to take a dip in the water uninvited was well known by our riding instructors and in fact had been eagerly anticipatedby trhem! But I, who knew nothing of it,  was so surprised I could have had a heart attack right there! What? A horse could do this? I got up, all flustered, took hold of the reins  and laboriously tried to pull Leo out of the water. But he lay in it unconcerned.  After a great deal of huffing and puffing, I managed to get him. out of the water and wearily climb on to the bank of the stream, dripping with water. The other riders had lined up, watching the two of us pitting our wits against each other. Rider and horse? It was rather a case of horse and rider, I thought!

Once on the opposite bank, I tried to get the water out of my boots, while, at the same time holding hard on to Leo to prevent him from going back into the water, as he was threatening to do every second by looking back and shaking his tail wildly. Exasperated  and wet as I was, I must have cut a most pathetic figure, I thought. For I could see that everyone was in stitches and hiding their faces from me – including my own two sons! I’ve never felt so humiliated in my life! But I later got to learn that this was a trick they used Leo to  play on every new rider. That still didn’t make me feel any better. Yet I couldn’t show my anger plainly — my kids needed to learn a stoical attitude from me!

While trying self-consciously to deal with my discomfiture, I heard the leader of the ride, who had offered me no help whatsoever, pour zsalt into my wounds by saying, “Sah, as for riding, sah, if you are riding and you fell, sah, your fine is twelve bottles of beer, sah. One carton, sah!”

Everybody laughed at this. I was to be punished for having been ejected into the water? Oh, so that was why they hadn’t put the boys too  through the water initiation? There was a fine to pay! How could they have bought twelve bottles of beer? I was literally  the ‘fall guy’. Right?

But  buying the beer was the least of my concerns right then. How would my kids describe the scene of Leo throwing me into the stream to their mum, when we got back home? Was I going to be the laughing stock of the day in my own home as well?

For some reason, the boys didn’t breathe a word of it to my resident dictator. Was the reason that were we already developing an esprit de corps between ourselves?  I swear I appreciated their reticence very much indeed.

The soldiers, for their part, were nothing but the gentlest of creatures when we began quaffing the beer I had been made to buy. No-one refewrred to my misadveture with Leo. As we sat and drank, they told me one of the funniest stories I have ever heard, about class behaviour in Ghana. Again, Leo was to feature hugely in that.


(To be contd)


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