WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO OUR VILLAGE GENIUSES? By CAMERON DUODU
The Ghanaian Times 16th August, 2011
I was extremely sad to read the other day that “galamsey” operators have ruined the Birem River, the source of drinking water at Kyebi, to such an extent that it has become nothing but a muddy stream in the town. All I can ask myself is this: where were the town’s asafo when this was happening?
When I was going to school at Kyebi, there were tough guys in the town who brooked no nonsense. One of them was called Kwaku Ahyia. Another was “Bodybrake”. These two men alone could have chased the galamsey operators out of the town!
They would have got hold of one of them, shaken him from head to foot and given him a couple of slaps and asked him, “Hey, my friend! So as your activities ruin our river, what water do you want us to drink, huh?” And the galamsey fellow would have spread the tale around and the story of Kyebi’s environmental degradation would have ended there and then.
What about the police? People like Kwaku Ahyia did not give a toss about the police. Even when they were pursuing a matter of private justice, they would have settled the matter themselves without worrying about the police. How much more when they were acting on behalf of the larger society? If a policeman came to ask them any question, they would have shot back, “But as for you, haven’t you got eyes to see what these people are doing here?”
The fact is, no-one seems to care about the public welfare in our country any longer. Politics has somehow weaned us off natural justice. When something bad occurs in a locality, the first question politicians ask is, “What is the politics of the area?” Not “what can we do to solve the problem?” Of course, politicians are too blind to realise that if they solved the problems of an area, the people there might appreciate what they had done to such an extent that they would become sympathetic to them henceforth, irrespective of how they had voted in the past.
In this article, I want to highlight some of the ways in which individuals in our villages used to do their tiny bit to help their people. At many places like Asiakwa, my home town, in good old “Gold Coast” days, there were no government jobs to be had.
The tankaase (sanitary inspector) for instance, was imported from another area. The townspeople were wont to laugh at the long hose and khaki uniform of such government officials. Instead of seeking government jobs, almost everyone in our town tried their hand at all sorts of things. The women pounded fufu in the market and sold it to strangers, or they sold kokonte (made from dried cassava dough) or kenkey.
One man, with a rather unusual name, “Kofi Paper” (no-one dared ask him how he got that name, but it is probable that he was born in the year that paper money was introduced into our country), went out of Asiakwa and learnt how to grind corn with a corn-mill. He did this before he had money to buy such a machine oh! Eventually, he did find the money to buy one.
The man’s corn-mill was a beautiful machine, with a long belt that ran outside his workshop and was kept in place by a stone. As school children, we used to go and stand by the machine to see how it worked. Despite the smoke it emitted, and its loud toh-toh-toh sound, we enjoyed standing by it and just staring at it. The freshly ground corn dough smelt very nice.
It looked so beautifully smooth – nothing like what you got by pounding corn with a pestle in a mortar.
Around the same time, another young man went to Pokuase Pig Farm, near “far-away Accra”, to learn how to breed pigs. And he came back and built himself a nice little pig farm two miles from town, where he kept about three or four pigs.
They looked so nice to us – we had never seen pigs that looked clean, but these pink chaps of his were huge by local standards and they looked as if you could allow them into your living room. We used to go and stand outside the wire mesh behind which the Pokuase pigs lay, munching specially prepared food and grunting in a contented fashion, and stare and stare at them. No smells – nothing.
But the man who took the prize for ingenuity – and emptied our pockets doing that – was called Akawe. He brought to town a gambling machine that he had contrived from the parts of disassembled torchlights. He had ingenuously reconstituted the parts into a boxed contraption with torchlight bulbs fixed around it, that were numbered from 1 to 12.
When he pressed the “starter” (torchlight switch), the bulbs would – magically to us – begin to light up one after the other. You paid a penny and chose a number, and if the bulb at the number you had chosen stayed alight whilst all the others had “quenched” (or “dummed”), then you had won.
You got sixpence for winning, which meant that for every round, Akawe pocketed sixpence. He would never press the starter until he had a full house of 12 bets. It was annoying hanging around waiting when there weren’t enough betters. Sometimes, to relieve the boredom, Akawe betted against himself. But that was rare.
Akawe also bought cocoa from farmers: they borrowed money from him when they were broke, with the promise to sell their impending harvests to him. He became quite rich but because he supplied a need, no-one resented his relative richness. Even though he wasn’t a son of the soil, he wouldn’t have dreamt of doing anything like galamsey to cause harm to the health of the people from whom he obtained his livelihood.
We also loved his unusual Twi accent. He would say: “Number Three – ebaasa na wodie!” (It’s Number Three that has won.) “Number five – enum na wodie!” (It’s Number Five that has won.) Six became asia; eight became awochie; seven, aason; nine, aakron; ten, idu; until he got to 12, which became idu abien.
We had enough good manners not to laugh at him to his face, and I am sure he never caught on that we sometimes paid money more to hear him announce the winning numbers than in any real expectation of winning.
Another person brought us a different gambling machine – a crude version of the pinball machine. It had numbers enclosed in a semicircle of nails hammered into a board, with “obstacles” in between the numbered holes, so that your ball couldn’t have an easy entry into any of the holes.
Whoever got the hole with the largest number won sixpence or a shilling. There used to be fights at this game, for if someone’s ball was trying to enter a big-number hole and failed, and you had, before that, bumped into the machine – even by accident – he would say it was you who had caused him to lose. Even a cough could bring someone “bad luck” and cause a fracas!
There was also a man called Kwaku Wusu, who opened a shop that sold almost every odd thing, including a potion called Cascara Sagrada (a very bitter preparation for stomach aches and allegedly, many other ailments). Its alleged potency lay entirely in the fact that it tasted so awful and simultaneously also smelt so horrible that no-one could believe that if it had no power to heal, such an awful concoction would be inflicted on human beings. So its very nature became a self-fulfilling prophecy. For ordinary constipation, Owusu sold something called Proclax, if I remember correctly.
Kwaku Wusu also sold castor oil. This was normally a nasty-tasting laxative, yet it was also used by pregnant women who had begun to experience signs of labour, as an “aid” to the delivery process.
Kwaku Wusu also smuggled the cure-all antibiotic M & B (May and Baker) tablets. They were not supposed to be sold without prescription, but Kwaku Wusu sold it to you under the counter if he thought you were a safe person to sell smuggled goods to. Belief in M & B was so strong that it healed almost any illness. It tasted like dissolved chalk. Terrible.
That was not the only thing Kwaku Wusu smuggled. Whisky, brandy and gin from “French line” (Togo) also featured on his list, but to us kids, we “saw none” of those things. We only spoke about them to each other in whispers. Then, there was Kolynos toothpaste. This was the preferred dental cleaner of the educated people, who no longer used tweapea (chewing sticks).
The fantastic thing about tweapea was that although its taste was quite bitter, yet after you had chewed it, water tasted sweet in your mouth when you drank it. We eschewed this wonderful gift of nature, which also strengthened our teeth because it was quite tough to chew, and adopted tooth-brushes and toothpaste, that ate away our gums as we used them. And then we had to go to dentists!
One day, Kwaku Wusu thought he would put a sign board in front of his shop. But being mean, he didn’t want to employ a professional sign-writer to do it for him. He bought a can of paint and a brush, and wrote what he thought was his name on the board: “K Olusu” instead of “K Owusu”.
No-one corrected him, for he never reduced his prices for anyone. So “K Olusu” it remained.
But since he didn’t know there was anything wrong with the sign, he remained happy. Most of all, it did not prevent him from boarding a truck every Saturday to go to Accra to indulge in his passion – betting on horses at the Accra Race Course. We had another enterprising man who used to go to Accra and Kumasi to watch football matches involving such big clubs as Kotoko and Hearts. He regaled us with stories about the star footballers of the time — Kwaku Duah, James Agyei, Charles Gyamfi, Oscar Gesper, Chris Bryant and others.
One Sunday, he managed to bring brought Great Ashantis and Great Olympics to battle it out on a special football field he had constructed by himself art Asiakwa. Who gave him that idea? It was the biggest event ever to take place in the town and although this man annoyed many people with some of his sharp practices, he will never be forgotten for bringing suich famous clubs to Asiakwa to play. It was the first time I saw Gyamfi in the flesh — also Mohammed Salisu and other famous players.
The guy may have profited financially from the enterprise, but he had that great idea, and backed it with financial risk. His sense of adventure enabled him to entertain his town immensely. We simply do not seem to have people of that spirit any more.