I encountered the three old ladies at Koforidua. I had gone there with a good friend, Ansah, in pursuit of an affair of the heart that made me bristle with excitement..
For the adventure, I'd bought a white “Doctor” shirt, whose beauty was like nothing I'd ever seen before. The shirt's whiteness had a faint suggestion of bluishness to it, you know, as if a tiny bit of “Delstree Blue”, had been used in whitening it.
I was also madly attracted to the “Doctor” shirt because – it sported a -- stiff neck!.
I can hear you ask:
“Were you a reverend minister?”
“Were you a professional ballroom dancer?”
“In that case, what was the use of a stiff neck to you?”
The answer is this: a proper “guy” (such as I thought I was at age 18) needed to be distinctive. Some guys dress in “uniform” and can be typecast because of their "hoodie" or iconic jeans. But someone at the height of narcissistic youthfulness could seize on anything – such as an impossibly white “Doctor” shirt – and use it to stake his claim to stylishness. If the shirt sported a “stiff neck” to boot — which held the collar impossibly high right up to the neck — it earned the guy more marks. “Respect”, what? “Street cred”? You bet!
If one wore a “Doctor” shirt, one immediately made a statement, in effect, saying to the world — “See me Lakayana with my spear!” (Apologies to the Oxford English Reader).
Yeah. One was saying, “Hey, you others, Mobetumi me? (Can you [match] me?) You dare call yourselves guys? Ha!”
This display of vanity on my part had cost a lit of money, of course: a “Doctor” shirt cost one pound and five shillings! Yet, in those days, one of the jobs open to most school leavers in our group, that of a pupil teacher or even that of an “FA” (Field Assistant” employed by the Cocoa Rehabilitation or “CR” department) fetched just a little more than ten pounds. So, to spend one pound five on a single shirt, was – er – er quite guy! I mean, it could pay someone's rent at Asiakwa for a whole month (for instance).
Well, I unloaded my savings and acquired the“Doctor” shirt. The first person I showed it to was Ansah, whose taste (I thought) wasn't too far from mine. But instead of expressing admiration for what in bad French I called my “coup de dresse”, his manner rather became decidedly cold towards me!
He became so reticent that although I had confided my wish to go with him to Koforidua to him long ago, I had to learn about his impending trip there in a round-about way. Someone said something about “on Monday” and then said, “Oh, but, Ansah, you won’t be back, will you?” Upon which Ansah had replied, “Oh yes, I shall!"
What? So Ansah was going to Koforidua and hadn't told me? What about all the plans I thought he and I had hatched about me going with him to see the beautiful Afia? All right, maybe I had done all the talking about the "gal" I was pining for. But he hadn't shown anything other than acquiescence?
I thought the best thing was to put the question bluntly to him: I asked: “Is it true you are going to Koforidua at the weekend?”
“Yes.” he answered.“But… but…? Well, can I still come with you?”
“If you like”, he said.
“If I liked?” That wasn’t encouraging. I had bought my “Doctor”shirt with Afiah in mind as my wooing target. The day I would wear it to see her would be the day she would open her arms to me (I had been fantasising) And now, the key to the whole enterprise was saying I could go with him “if I liked”?
It was too late for me to withdraw, however, and I buried my pride and went with Ansah. His manner did not improve and when we got to Koforidua, he deserted me in pursuit of what he said was a romantic assignation of his own, involving a girl called Adwoa Grace.. He left me in the care of his mother and vanished.
Fortunately, his mother turned out to be a very kind woman and we rapped a lot as she fed me and asked me searching questions.
Three old relatives of hers visited her as we sat talking. The oldest among them smiled at me when she heard I came from Asiakwa.
“Osiakwani,wani abue!” she volunteered. (If you come from Asiakwa, then your eyes are open! -- i.e. "you know the world well”)
Now, I had heard old women from our town say the same thing, to egg us youngsters on to be on our best behaviour when we met strangers. But I'd always regarded it as a rather cheap bit of self-praise, and to hear it now from the lips of a complete stranger enhanced was a different thing altogether. My sense of pride about my origins knew no bounds. At least, Ansah had done me one favour an Asante old lady had proved to me that my own old ladies at home weren't all barmy.
You see, it was usually very old Asantes who spoke like that about my town. They knew that in the deep past: one very brave chief of our town had once attempted to unite Akyem Abuakwa back with Asante, to end our internecine warfare. He had paid for this with his head, but he earned the eternal respect of the Asantes for his descendants. Indeed, many of the the Asiakwa royals were brought up at Barekese in Asante, and there was a talking drum at the Asiakwa palace that was given to one of our chiefs by an ancient Asantehene, which, when played during a military engagement between Akyem and Asante, said “Pini do!” [Move away!]
The old ladies thus felt I was not a potentially hostile "stranger" and talked freely in my presence as if I wasn't even there.
“Death is terrible, isn’t it? How can Kwasi Poku, whom I took out of the womb with my own two hands, die before me?”
“It is witchcraft that did it”.
“How old was he?”
“Kwasi? His mother had not yet reached the age of puberty when the mfriwansa[the 1918 influenza epidemic that killed thousands around the world] came.”
He must have been … (she begins to count on her fingers as her lips moved in silence) three hundred and eighty years old.”
“Why, was he Methuselah?
“Methuselah! Our church pastor told us from the Bible that Methuselah grew to be nine hundred and sixty-nine years old.”
“If that is the case, then what prevents Kwasi too from growing to over three hundred – like this your Matusa-whan-whan?”
"But Methusaleh was a holy man. Kwasi Poku, on the other hand, had girl friends all over the place!"
They all laughed.
“If Kwasi, who was young, died at the age of three hundred and eighty years, then how old are you yourself?"
“Me?” [She pauses and moves her lips silently] "I am four hundred and thirty-two years old”, she announces finally.
I burst out laughing and had to run away, covering my mouth. As I ran, I heard one of them say, “If you are four hundred and thirty-two years old, then you are truly Methuselah’s grand-daughter!” And they laughed and laughed.
Thinking about the old lady’s strange approach to numerology, I suddenly stumbled upon the fact that she had, of course, been using the traditional annual festivals of her people — such as Odwira or Adae— to count the years. These festivals occur in recurring cycles, usually of forty days. So she had no practical use for a “year” of 365 days, of course. When a person died, the celebration of his funeral occurred in eight days time; then forty days. And so on. What then was a year of 365 days?.
I realised that the old people thought about the world in the same way Albert Einstein did -- it was all a matter of relativity!
Since the Sun's rays (for instance) reach us on earth a good eight minutes after they leave the Sun, can we say with any certainty that “The Sun is shining NOW?”When was "Now" (if it was eight minutes late?
No wonder I hated maths in school. So confusing, no? Wait until you get to "light years" and the distance between the earth and the stars!
Maths? I am outahere!