“YAA AMPONSAA GYAWARE!” by CAMERON DUODU
It was one of the very first gramophone records I ever listened to. It was called Yaa Amponsaa
And it told the story of a very beautiful woman whom Sam, the best singer of the time (I think it was the late 1940s) wanted very badly. He lamented that he could not approach her because she was a married woman.
This is how Sam serenaded Yaa Amponsaa’s beauty:
“Her neck is like that of a pumpkin!” (In Fanti: ne kon tse de adenkum!)
“The hair on her head is like silk strings!” (Ne tsri nwi tse de srekye ahoma!”)
And he urged her “to get divorced” so that they could “become lovers!” (Gyae aware ma yentwe mpena!)
That wasn’t much of a proposal from Sam, was it? He wasn’t offering to marry her after she got divorced, but rather to become her lover. Why did he make her an offer that was patently inferior to the status she already enjoyed?
I have often wondered why Sam did that, and it has occurred to me that he knew something not many men are aware of. When a woman divorces her husband because she has entered into a relationship with another man who is not her husband, the guilt and partial regret associated with divorce creates an aura of its own which makes the new relationship far more thrilling than marriage.
So, Sam was inviting Yaa Amponsaa to enter such a relationship with him, in order to enjoy such a sweet romance as she’d never believed possible. And with his nice voice, he no doubt thought she’d demur — such is the vanity that gets hold of men when they are in love. I mean hiw many men would succeed in love iof they were to adopt a practical approach to the enterprise? “Are my legs not too thin? What will she say when she discovers the big scar on my ankle that is usually hidden?” If men asked themselves such questions, many a lovely woman would stay unwooed and unwed!
Anyway, many people are aware of the delicious state of affairs between a man and woman by an illicit love affair and I know a woman who was so enamoured of the idea that she named her beer parlour “Gyaware”.
I don’t know whether she gave that name to her place because she wanted to encourage illicit love affairs to take place there. Or whether nit was her way of teasing the adulterous couples she saw there. But I did see quite a few supposedly married guys come there with women who were not their wives. So, whether she intended it or not, she was definitely providing a safe locus for promoting such affairs.
Now, although I describe the woman’s establishment as a beer-parlour, it was, actually,only an empty space under a mango tree that stood in front of her house. She’d arranged a few chairs under the shade of the mango tree and a very select clientele – never more than five of six persons – used to gather there of an afternoon and exchange gossip, as they sipped their beer. And bestowed affectionate smiles upon their companions of t the opposite sex. A cynic would have enjoyed the scene, for he wouldjhave known that those nice smiles would be replaced with resentful glares as the months passed and other people occupied the place in their partner’s heart that they once filled — right up to the brim!.
Because of the fact that Gyaware had a licensing issue, the routine there was weird: one went to sit under the mango tree. But one didn’t ”order” anything. If there were customers there already, one chatted to them and – waited.
After some minutes had elapsed, a young lady would bring a tray with either a chilled Club beer or a Star, or a Gulder on it – depending on one’s known preference. Hence, the transaction was disguised to look like the customers were merely “guests” of the lady, to whom she served drinks as she pleased. For all any “outsider” knew, it was just friends having a pre-arranged “Bring-your-own-bottle” party.
Now, at one stage, the place assumed great significance in the lives of its customers, because the clueless military government that was in power at the time suddenly made it impossible for the breweries to obtain adequate import licences to bring in the inputs they needed for brewing beer.
The situation gave birth to a phenomenon called kalabule, whereby the salesmen of the breweries, instead of selling beer direct to the breweries’ customers of long standing, sold their product to their friends and relatives, and the friends and relatives of their friends and relatives.
The secret “donations” made to salesman by this myriad of grateful middlemen enabled some to become very rich, for they could literally dictate the price at which they wanted to sell. Pieces of paper called “chits” signed by salesmen changed hands at lightning speed; and each time a new owner acquired such a “chit”, a little mark-up was added to the normal price of the beer. No-one complained: there was an understanding between buyer and seller that these were the market prices of the day and that the so-called “controlled price” was a theoretical figure that existed in the mind of some military “Commissioner” (as Ministers were called).
However, despite the willingness of buyer and seller to transact business according to the market price of the day, anyone caught selling above the “controlled price” could be brutalised and prosecuted, and his goods seized. All of which made beer-drinking almost a cult thing — a silent trade with its own esoteric signs and observances, which if neglected, would mean a thirsty afternoon. Gyaware, who had connections, managed to satisfy her customers, but sometimes even she went dry. .
Of course,all this intrigue was possible because in the humid heat of Accra, there are times when a thirsty beer-addict will pay almost anything to get a beer. The longing for beer merely epitomised a large number of frustrations that dogged most people’s lives. There was a shortage of petrol; soap, toothpaste, milk and sugar, and toilet rolls! Certain men could only tolerate these shortages by downing a pint of chilled beer. And that was the most difficult to find! Talk about a creature chasing its own tail!
I can’t describe the lengths to which my friends and I sometimes went in search of beer. We went to clubs of which were not members, taking the risk of being humiliated by being denied admission or service. I personally got to know that there were bars in Accra with such quaint names as “Sapporo” and “The Other Place”. And “Kalamazoo Shake Your Head”
!I once suffered the humiliation of sitting for an hour, without any good result, in the living room of a lady classmate of mine whose husband was a major beer distributor. Every minute I spent at the place brought me self-reproach, for I could have married her, and she knew it! Now, she was showing me that if I “didn’t marry her, someone else had married her!” (This sentiment later became the theme of a hit number by one of our more famous songsters).
What made the economic situation more galling for us was that whereas beer and other things were not being imported in adequate numbers, we suspected that the soldiers who ruled us were using our scarce foreign exchange to give import licences to their girl-friends to import things like VW Golf cars! The public vented their anger on any woman seen driving a VW Golf. Such women were called Fa-wo-to-begye (“come-for-it-with-your-
We at the “Gyaware” club were not above telling salacious stories to one another about the ”whorish” socio-economic system.
“Have you heard the latest ”Hilton’? Someone would ask. (“Hiltons” were stories that were manufactured about Africa by certain foreign correspondents who spent all day drinking at the Hilton Hotel in Nairobi and wrote stories about places they had never been to, such as the Congo or Sudan. Nairobi is one of the few cities in Africa where white people can enjoy a climate similar to what obtains in the Northern hemisphere during the summer months, you see, and so many “Africa Correspondents” made it their base. And they enjoyed the place so much that they sometimes manufactured stories from there — which gained credence amongst themselves because they corroborated one another’s inventions — something thatwas not too difficuclt to do when a deadline relentlessly approached and one didn’t want to be beaten to the game by one’s drinking companions! For surely, the next day, a cablegram would arrive, asking one why one had not reported the story that had made a “big splash” in a rival paper, datelined “NAIROBI” !.
“Colonel so-and-so has built a four-bedroom mansion for the beautiful wife of Mr such-and-such, who used to be a big Minister in the deposed Government!”
“Who told you that?”
”Why do you think the husband has been kept in prison for so long while others in the same position as himself have been released?”
”Hmmm! Well, have you heard?”
“They say the head of state visits a fetish priestess secretly every Thursday! He fears a counter-coup! As a result, the priestess has become the largest distributor of cement in the country although she can neither rad nor write!”
”Have you heard?”
(GUY LOWERS HIS VOICE) “Our First Lady wanted to go to Makola Market one day, but her driver was not around because he had been sent on another errand. She then threw a tantrum and called the Department of State Protocol and gave them a tongue-lashing.
”Madam, I am sorry, but there is no serviceable car available…. Oh, please wait a minute … Madam, I am told there is one car left. “
”Well, send it? What are you waiting for?”
“It will be on its way, Madam! !”
“And do you know what the car was? The state ceremonial Mercedes 600 used to carry visiting heads of state!”
“She went to Makola Market with that?”
“Yes! And the market women booed her! and called a bush woman”
“They told her to go and look for her husband’s Yaa Amponsaah – before she lost the use of that car!”
“Someone even quipped that “You can take the woman out of Makola, but you can’t take Makola out of the woman!”