The MMT buses from Cape Coast to Kumasi run on time. Luggage is weighed and ticketed; seats fill up from the back; and flip down seats are added into the aisle space. The teenager sitting next to Lucy borrows her novel, Arrows of Rain, and reads it as fast as he can. Failing to finish it before they arrive, he gives the book back without a word. The bus stop in Kumasi is packed and chaotic. Vendors saunter gracefully, balance baskets on their heads containing small plastic packets of water, sweets, crisps, plantain chips, cashews and toenail clippers. The centre of the marketplace has been shifted temporarily while a new bus station is built. Lucy and Ben take a cab to the Presbyterian boarding house where they will stay for a few dollars in spartan rooms that at least have a creaky fan and mosquito nets.
The Ashanti capital is quiet by night. The bars are filled with fans intently watching the African Cup of Nations. Roars breach the peace when The Black Stars threaten to score against the Super Eagles. It is humid and the rain comes down in thick silver sheets. Lucy and Ben sit on the wooden balcony, each holding a cold, sweating bottle of Star. Ben’s never been to Africa before and is excited, drinking enthusiastically and talking with every stranger that he meets. He stumbles to bed with his dependable erection and tries to make love to Lucy on the rickety single bed under the mosquito net, giving up when, hot and bothered, she pushes him off shortly before he slumps asleep, fully clothed.
The next morning begins with scrambled eggs on white bread with optional chilli from a chop stall on the road and hot chocolatey Milo to still the stomach before it’s 30 degrees in the shade. The young couple explore museums, craft centres and the famous Ashanti metalworks. They watch men weaving Kente, and skim through the huge market that has spilled onto the now defunct railway track. The black market forex operators seem dubious in their cages, but the traders greet them happily. “Eti sen?” “Ah ye,” they have learnt to reply, although the supplementary greetings escape them. Dried spatchcocked grasscutters grimace at the two of them walking among goats’ heads, giant snails and live chickens, endless voluptuous vegetables ‒ tomatoes, chillies, cassava, potatoes, yams, egusi, spinach, pumpkin leaves ‒ all swarming with flies in the heat. Old market women sit, legs spread in a V shape in front of them, moving their eyes away from the camera and gruffly gesturing that Lucy not take their picture. One man leaps up, grinning, wearing a Led Zeppelin t-shirt. Arms outstretched, he asks Lucy to take his picture and show it in London. Her old Nikon SLR clicks its shutter and his quest for fame is satisfied.
Lucy’s strappy low-cut top requires ample sunscreen for her pale Celtic skin; she shares some factor 30 cream (Sahara-tested) with a curious woman who also wishes to apply it to her face and arms that, cocoa-coloured, do not blister in the scorching sun as Lucy’s do.
After wandering through the muti market, sinister with its dried leaves from Benin and Burkina Faso, eagle skulls and powders guarded by herbalists who with their stern gaze offer them no encouragement, Lucy and Ben climb the hill to the Ashanti palace and stop for cold Guinnesses, fufu and groundnut stew in a cafe. There, they meet Margaret, a friendly, curvaceous woman in a red wrapper who is happy to sit with them and share their drinks. They can hear drumming in the distance, and she tells Lucy that one of her relatives has died. They give her their condolences and she warns them to be careful as the other woman in the cafe is a witch.
The death is of a distant cousin and Margaret is wearing the customary red print cloth and will go to the funeral after one last drink. “You must come,” she says, forcefully, with a smile. They protest, thanking her and try to explain that in their culture, at home, they do not attend strangers’ funerals and would feel uncomfortable doing so, assuming she has asked them out of politeness. Margaret pouts and asks for another bottle of what turns out to be super-strength Guinness. The witch stares at them, and they buy her a bottle too.
“Weddings” says Lucy, “are more open and welcoming in England than funerals.”
“But weddings are private. I wouldn’t invite you to a wedding.” Margaret swiftly ends that topic.
“So, ehe, you are coming to see the body?” Margaret asks again. Lucy starts to panic – she doesn’t want to see a dead body but can see that it’s starting to seem disrespectful, so again she tries to explain how they don’t tend to view bodies at funerals at home and especially would not expect to see the body unless they were close relatives. Margaret sighs and says, “Yes but you are coming.” The intonation in her question may be an order. Lucy looks at the alleged witch, who says nothing, eyes bloodshot and decorated with black kohl. Ben shifts uncomfortably in his seat, leans back and sinks down to hide behind the brown bottles stacking up on the table.
When the witch gets up to use the bathroom Margaret whispers that she is a widow and is believed to have killed her husband. Lucy grimaces. Her own mother is a widow and she knows that even in the South London suburbs where she grew up, the social death, the ostracization of families who suffer such losses can be devastating, leading to an isolation that can be cruel even if borne partly out of English awkwardness; fear of not knowing what to say. She feels sorry for the widow sitting quietly in blue and tries not to think of her as a witch. Margaret asks for their address before they leave, something so many Ghanaians have done that they give it away without thinking.
In the end, they agree to see the body, partly to stop standing the whole bar rounds of beer they can’t afford. Margaret leads the couple past a throng of people all dressed in crimson red and black wrappers with Adinkra patterns printed in black tied at the waist or chest. Holding large umbrellas bearing carved wooden totems, the mourners cluster under trees trying to escape the midday heat. On entering the funerary building, they trip into a white room filled with aunts, sisters, mothers, wives and grandmothers who sit on white plastic chairs lining the walls surrounding the body of the man who has died. He is covered in a white sheet that leaves his torso bare. An old man, his flesh has sunk in the heat like brown clay thrown and spun for a pot that has begun to wilt in the sun. He must be rapidly decomposing in the heat. Lucy hopes there is no smell. His eyes are closed. They greet every woman, shaking each hand offered and trying to remain stoic although the whole experience is bizarre and humbling. They are underdressed in t-shirts and flip-flops but their condolences are accepted unremarked and the process assumes a veneer of normality as they escape the room and file into the courtyard with the other guests.
There, they meet another of Margaret’s cousins who is wearing huge, silver, plastic Elvis sunglasses and turns out to be from Morden in South London, near where Lucy grew up. He is excited to tell all who will listen that he knows Brixton where these visitors are from, his status rising with every exclamation of familiarity. Everyone here is a relative of some sort to the Prempeh line and many have travelled long distances to be here. The drumming continues and reaches a crescendo and when they see a glimmer of gold, Margaret indicates that the Asantehene has arrived. A dais is set up underneath a canopy outside and the chiefs surround the area with their colourful totemic umbrellas raised up high, each sporting tassels and a carved figure in the centre denoting from which clan the bearer originates.
Laughing loudly the homeboy from Morden suggests they join the palm wine queue at the Asantehene’s feet. They agree but Lucy is told she mustn’t drink the palm wine as it is only for men. She can just walk up and curtsey or bow before the Ashanti king. Lucy is put out, but manages to quashes her rage. Ben is offered the calabash and takes a sip to much hilarity and applause. The king nods in acceptance of their honky greeting and deference.
Quite drunk by now with heavy stomachs – fufu lines the gut like concrete – Ben and Lucy sweat in the heat. Standing another round of Guinness back at the bar they ask Margaret how long the funeral will take before the body is buried. “All night we will sing and then at dawn we will carry the body to be buried.”
After dinner, Ben’s libido takes its toll and as fumbling and groping at funerals isn’t appropriate and they are still young and frisky and besotted, they make their excuses. They vanish into the indigo night, the eyes of a maligned widow on their backs and mortality, with the moon, rising fast on their heels.
Three months later, they get a letter from the widow her asking for money for her two fatherless children. The letter is forgotten that day, just as Lucy’s Masters dissertation falls by the wayside, as the twin towers fall and they are transfixed by the unimaginable catastrophe replaying on the small screen like a bad dream cycle, the hallucinations of a palm wine drunkard, ‘til late into the night.
About the Writer:
Dr. Lizzy Attree is the co-founder of the Mabati-Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature. She has a PhD from SOAS, University of London and Blood on the Page her collection of interviews with the first African writers to write about HIV and AIDS from Zimbabwe and South Africa was published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010. She is a Director on the board of Short Story Day Africa and was the Director of the Caine Prize from 2014-2018. She also sits on the board of Writivism, which is part of the Centre for African Cultural Excellence (CACE). In 2015 she taught African Literature at Kings College London and will teach World Literature at Richmond, the American International University in London in the autumn. She has just completed an Arts Council funded project on African footballers at Chelsea and Arsenal and published the associated anthology of poems Thinking Outside the Penalty Box with the Poetry Society.