A 2007 recipient of Ghana’s ACRAG award for poetry and literary advocacy, Nii Ayikwei Parkes is the author of the acclaimed hybrid novel, Tail of the Blue Bird. He also writes plays, radio documentaries and stories for children. Nii Ayikwei was selected as one of Africa's 39 most promising authors of the new generation for the World Book Capital Africa 39 Project. He runs the Creative Writing course at AUCC in Accra, Ghana.
Because the soles of our shoes cannot be allowed to wear unchallenged, we stand at the corner near Ma Lizzie's bakery, while Gyasi hammers curved metal heel protectors that look like horseshoes onto their clean elastomer surfaces. We know the shoes have elastomer soles because in school one of the rich boys bragged about his leather soles and another boy, a joker and genius footballer called Abebrese, took off his own battered shoes and countered, “Well, mine are elastomer. When you have a longer word than that come back and brag.”
Our shoes are black, with rounded fronts like the nose of the plane they came from as a parcel from Mama, who works in a hospital in Eltham, London, while studying for an advanced midwifery certificate. Mine are two sizes smaller than my older brother's—except for that, they are identical, although his, like mine, are two sizes too big. This is why they need protection; they are forward-looking shoes, we are meant to grow into them, they speculate on our constant elongation into manhood.
“We have the new ones some,” Gyasi informs Da casually, as he hammers the final horseshoe onto Yaw's sole. “The kind we put at the front of the sole.” He points to emphasize. “They are good paa.”
From the corner of my eye, I see Yaw grimace, as though imagining the extra noise he will make when walking down the hallways in school.
Da's hands tighten on our shoulders, which means that he is thinking about it, weighing the shoe-lifespan benefits against the cost. He turns to me. “Kojo, what do you think?”
I shrug. It doesn't really matter since almost everyone at school has heel protectors and the hallways are a constant percussion of chaos anyway.
“I think it's a great idea,” says Da, taking off his own shoes to hand to Gyasi to upgrade, his socked feet etching striated footprints in the red dust road.
Yaw doesn't say a word as we walk back home. We have all become quieter. We queue to buy bread on Tuesdays, we queue for cooking oil and maize once a month, we trek to Food Distribution Corporation in the industrial area with chits when we hear they have a new consignment of rice. These are all contemplative activities. People smile in the queues, but they don't laugh. When you only eat once a day, you save your energy for the very best laughs. That's what Yaw told me two days ago when we were in our bedroom reading. That made me laugh.
Da walks about three paces ahead of us, occasionally saying something over his shoulder to keep our spirits up. He has been doing this since he called us to an early morning meeting to explain to us that the only way he could promise to feed us every day was if we only had one meal a day. We were not surprised. All our friends at school were already eating one meal a day. Da had held out longer than most families and we were sure he'd done it by eating less himself.
We can't tell him that we supplement our evening meal by foraging for wild fruits in the vicinity of our school at break times. We are not even sure what we are eating. We trust the friends who tell us they are edible, but we still nibble at the edges of these bright sweet and sour mysteries, wait a few seconds for our bodies to accept them before we devour them. Our friends come from all over the country, some are from farming and hunting villages—this is how they know things that we don't. Once, after school, six of us—including Abebrese, the joker—went out with catapults and killed three pigeons. We wrapped them in akokobesa leaves, cooked them in the ground whole, their feathers giving off smoke that made us cough, until they came out smelling like heaven. Abebrese said we should have taken out the gall bladders before cooking them, but Yaw said pigeons don't have gall bladders. Still, the flesh was bitter around the stomachs of the birds, but we ate them anyway—even their heads.
We can't tell Da these things. He is a proud man.
His thin frame loses detail as the sun sets. He has a small, brown pouch under his left armpit that we call Ali Baba because he manages to extract unusual treasures from it. Like the chit from his boss that allowed him to collect two whole dressed chickens a couple weeks earlier. His lanky silhouette, left arm immobile, darkening before our eyes, is the shape we are meant to grow into. I hope my outline will not be as lonely. We don't know when Mama is coming back.
As we near the still-green hedge that surrounds our home, Yaw speaks. “I can't even do Michael Jackson moves with my shoes. My feet slip all the time.”
I laugh. I have seen him trying. It's like watching a grasshopper dancing with horseshoes.
Da is silent. He pauses briefly before swinging open the wooden gate that marks the only break in the rectangle of our hedge. His head drops.
I stop laughing. I think I have laughed too much.
When we step off the sand of the path onto the linoleum tiles of the veranda, our shoes click in time and Da clicks his fingers. He transforms into a spinning, jumping machine. We have never seen him like this. He is making music with his feet, with a smile as wide as the one on the wedding picture that dominates our living room. He looks off-balance because he is still holding Ali Baba in place with his left arm while his right arm is all over the place. When he stops, he is out of breath.
“Yaw.” He puts his arm around my brother. “You can still tap dance. I will teach you. Chale, these new protectors are great!”
He puts Ali Baba beside him on the low wall of the veranda and motions for us to sit with him. “After the second world war, when I was a few years younger than you are now—I think, seven—an American soldier from New York came to live not far from us, by your grandma's house in Tudu. He saw me dancing in the street and called me. For one year, he taught me this kind of dance. He used to make me dance barefoot in front of his friends. Have I told you about the Nicholas brothers?” Da jumps off the wall. “I have a tape.”
Da has a collection of Betamax video tapes with no labels. The Betamax player was a gift from his boss and we are not allowed to touch it. Da says if your boss is always giving you gifts, it is a sign that you are not being paid what you are worth. However, the Betamax player is rare. The tapes are from a childhood friend of Da's who is also an accountant but lives in Chattanooga in America.
So we sit and watch the Nicholas brothers for an hour or so and then Da teaches us the basic tap steps. I can tell even Yaw is happy. We forget we are hungry.
. . .
Some weeks later, Da returns from work and triumphantly produces from Ali Baba a white, green, and black card that says “The First Shampoo Hair Show '83.”
Yaw makes the kind of face that only an eleven-year-old can make. “Don't you think it's odd that people should be thinking about shampoo in the middle of a drought?”
Da shakes his head. “We are lucky to have these for free. Other people are paying 350 cedis per family for entry.” He opens the double-fold card to the page where, above a row of green stars, a swirl of blue ink, an ebullient scrawl, announces “Free Refreshment.” Da has that big wedding smile again.
I feel my stomach move with the kind of anticipation I felt after the coup d'état, when we all cleaned the streets as though preparing to lay the foundations of a new country. Nobody expected the drought then.
“Fixed rules and dogma cannot apply successfully to all this diversity. Short hair, long hair, hard lines, soft lines—these are scarcely philosophies...” Yaw has taken the card from Da. He can't hold back his laughter as he reads the introduction text. “They are no more than part of the artist's infinite variety of choice...”
Da smiles. “You are laughing now, but that's the best meal you'll have until Christmas. We are not going for our hair.”
“But this sounds like an art show. Are you sure there will be real food there?”
“This ticket is from your auntie Sally. She knows the organizers.”
“Auntie Sally?” Yaw holds his head.
Auntie Sally is Mama's sister, but she is not known for her thoughtfulness. She only turns up on our doorstep when she needs something. Da says Mama's family has lived in Accra for three generations; none of them goes to the village anymore, so one of them was bound to become that way.
“What did she want?” Yaw and I ask at the same time.
Da laughs in spite of himself. “Nothing.”
Yaw raises both eyebrows. “Da?”
“OK. She wanted to know how I got the chicken. She couldn't take the invitation back when I told her it was a gift from my boss.”
We roll around laughing and I know this is one of the very best laughs, and that Yaw means it. Sometimes we don't mind it's just the three of us. Yaw and I have cooked yam with egg stew and Da is back from work to eat with us. We miss Mama, but we are fine. She would be proud of us.
When the morning of the hair show arrives, we rise early to do our chores. On Saturdays we scrub all the floors. I clean the toilet bowl by hand with a worn boot brush that has lost all the blue paint that gave it vibrancy before, and Yaw cleans the mildew growing on the grout between the bathroom tiles before coaxing the whole room into a shine. We keep the Vim cleaning powder in the corridor so we can both reach it. We do the louvre blades last, taking them out of their aluminum frames just as the sun is rising. We have hated Saturdays since the drought began—less food and more dust seems a cruel trick of fate—but today we are happy. We ferry the louvre blades outside and sit on the verandah steps, soapy water sloshing between us. When Yaw chuckles, I know he is thinking about Auntie Sally, and I chuckle too, leaning to bump his shoulder with mine.
Da wakes up humming the calypso song that Lord Kitchener wrote for our independence day, and we join him to drink last-day tea, which is reassuringly tasteless, meaning that Da will take out a new teabag tomorrow. He gives us dry biscuits, pale and perfect, with the last-day tea, leaving a teaspoon's worth of thick jaara at the bottom of our cups to finish breakfast with.
After all this, it is still only 9:00 a.m. and the First Shampoo Hair Show starts at 4:00 p.m. We have to curb our anticipation somehow. Da turns the radio on and, after some announcements informing us of gifts of yellow corn and sunflower oil from the West and Food Aid from the UN, we hear Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings talking about perseverance and change and believing in better days coming. His voice fades into the background, but it is a comfort to us to know that someone cares enough about our hunger to ask us to persevere. And we see him on TV in the evenings; he is even thinner than Da. If better days don't come, the adults will disappear first, their shadows will swallow them, and then we will be sucked into the vacuum they leave behind.
Yaw grabs a book from the bookshelf and goes to read in bed. I stand outside and stare at lizards loping back and forth in the hazy boundary between the blinding sunlight and the shadows cast by our hedge. Da taught us how to start fires using sunrays and a magnifying glass, and I find myself wondering what lizards taste like, or chameleons. What color do chameleons turn when cooked? I head to the bedroom as well, take a cowboy comic from under my pillow, and get lost in the Midwest.
Da wakes us up at 2:30 p.m. to get ready. Normally, to get to the Accra Technical Training Centre, where the show is, we would drive through Industrial Area to Kwame Nkrumah Circle and up the Ring Road to Kokomlemle, but Da's car is low on petrol so we have to use a route with more downs than ups. That way, Da cuts the engine when the car is going downhill, puts the gear in neutral, and releases the handbrake. We glide.
Gliding actually feels better than driving because you feel you are winning something back from the world, but it is slow and you have to know the city well. Instead of going via Kwame Nkrumah Circle, we turn off between Tesano and Industrial Area, cross over the Nsawam Road into Alajo, via Kotobabi and New Town to glide downhill through Nima to Kokomlemle.
Da flashes his card at the gate and we are inside. There are hairdressers trimming and styling hair and a handful of pioneering customers are sporting Jheri curls, which is the new craze. All the stalls, banners, bunting, and posters are green and white, like the invitation card. It's like a paper, fabric, and plastic jungle. I remember that it is Christmas Day in eight days. That is why Da's chickens are still mocking us with their featherless wings from the depths of our freezer.
By 5:30 p.m., we have seen every hairstyle twice. We try to look interested, but Yaw and I have our noses tuned for food and even Da's eyes are keen as a leopard's as we lope back and forth between the school buildings and the show area, our heels and toes clicking each time we encounter concrete.
Da points at a poster. “Look, they have entertainment later.”
“Is there a poster for the refreshments?” Yaw says.
Eventually, Da asks a green and white clad attendant where he can find Auntie Sally.
“I don't think she's here,” he says, “but check that building.”
The nail on his index finger is too long, but we follow the path it suggests and come to a small, square building, painted white with black, wooden windows—and a door—in sharp contrast. Like our house, it is encircled by a hedge with a gap that serves as the entrance. As we walk through the gap, I hear a guitar and the gentle thump of a djembe drum. The guitar stops and starts one note, then a pause, then again.
Da knocks on the door with the flesh of his fingertips.
A woman with a severely coiffed perm opens it wide, with a smile. “Can I help?”
Da pops his head round the door. “Is Sally Amankwah here?”
“No, I think—”
Before she can finish, Da points at the buffet table in the middle of the room. I feel a rumble in my belly before the aromas register, as though my stomach has become more perceptive than the rest of me.
“Are those the refreshments?” Da asks, eyes fixed on the mounds of rice, gari fɔtɔ, roast chicken, fried fish, and salad distributed artfully on the sturdy wood table. We know this is what we have made our pilgrimage for.
“Are you performers?” asks the lady. “This is for the performers.”
A moment passes, like the gap of silence after a baby falls before it starts bawling. The room darkens behind the woman, flushed by the phenomenon of sunset. I take one step back but Yaw steps forward—beyond Da—and nods. “We are dancers.”
Yaw jumps with his percussive shoes and replicates Fayard Nicholas's smile perfectly. Da claps and leads with an opening sequence. Yaw copies him and I follow, past the bemused woman into the room. And we dance, turning to silhouettes. We dance to settle our stomachs.