“YAW, what's is it like to get drunk?” I asked Yaw Charles.
He was about ten years older than me. But more important, he had worked for five years or more as a “taxi-mate” in Accra. So we all called him “wabr3” (someone considered to be a “tired” or very “experienced” person. Surely, he could tutor me about the important things in life? Like – you know – girls. Or drink.
What I really wanted to ask him about was how to “pull” a girl; and if you managed to get one, how you went about “doing it”. You see, in our circles, everyone talked about “doing it” with a girl, but no-one ever spelled out in detail, what “doing it” entailed. One was just supposed to know, when the time came! Well, I wasn't going to disgrace myself “when the time came”. No, I would get the cbr3foc [“tired”] Yawto stop being shy and tell me. But I would start with the “drink” issue, which wasn't quite so laden with esoteric notions of secrecy.
Now, when I say Yaw was experienced, I am not kidding. I mean – he smoked cigarettes,for instance. Or, to be exact, he smoked cigarette-ends: what he called a “piece”. These were the throw-away butts of cigarettes which real smokers had discarded. It was feared that such “pieces” could cause those who smoked them to contract tuberculosis. But “tough” guys like Yaw Charles didn't care. Such derring-do ventures of his added to his standing as an “experienced” person. Me, I picked up any “piece” I found on the streets and took it to him. He unfailingly expressed his gratitude for these “pieces”.
In deciding to ask him about getting drunk, I was taking a risk, for I'd never in fact seen him drunk. But for no reason at all, other than sheer hero-worship, I imagined he would know what getting drunk was like. For a 12-year-old like me, the world of drink was full of mystery. You saw people sitting at a palm-wine bar drinking all day. They would tell stories and laugh and laugh and laugh. But as time wore on, these same people would engage in hot arguments that led to their shouting at each other., or even calling each other names. Nevertheless, no matter how acrimonious their encounter might be, they would always go back to the palm wine bar the next day , and drink and drink and laugh. What in the drink made them behave with such careless unconcern about the contradictory manner in which they conducted themselves? It almost became an obsession with me to find out!
Yaw Charles pondered my question. Then he said, “Small” [for “Small Boy”, the pet name by which he addressed me] “Small – as for drink, no-one can tell you what it does until you have taken it yourself. I could say you would be made happier than you were before you drank a calabash of palm-wine. But not everyone stops at one calabash of palm-wine. Some go on and on and on, until they like the stuff so much that it turns them into a nuisance to everyone else.
“Even a tiny amount of drink can drive some people morose. They would remember that they had lost their mother, or father, or wife, brother or or good friend. Some may even cry. When you hear singing coming from a palm-wine bar, it's usually someone who's remembering the dead, and has got one or two friends to join him. It's not that difficult, because almost everyone carries a secret sorrow with him, which is only skin-deep and can be scooped up with a little palm-wine.
“But the worst effect of drink is to make people quarrelsome because, maybe, the remembrance of their secret sorrows has aroused aggressive instincts in them. For instance, I know a chap who will drink palm wine, get drunk and stagger home, and then tell his wife that the food she had taken trouble to prepare for him was “not delicious enough!”
“Not sweet enough, eh?” the wife would ask sar5castically. “And how much money did you give me to cook that nice meal you were expecting, eh?”
“I gave you one shilling [the equivalent of maybe One Cedi in today's money!] and if my mother were alive, she would be able to make me a better soup with it than you!”
“Your mother, eh? Why don't you go to the cemetery and bring her back? Do you know how much money your father gave her to make you that soup that was so “delicious”?
Yaw Charles paused at this and his face took on a cunning look. He continued: “This question from the woman would be a trap, but the drunk man wouldn't know. So he would boast that as for his father, he had so much money that 'he could give my mother enough money to make a soup that four other women combined could not have made!'”
“The the woman would look at the man scornfully and say: “So you think the measly one shilling you gave me....”
“At this stage, the man would most probably beat up his wife for being insolent and making him remember the deaths of his mother and father; or for being an ungrateful witch who not only didn't allow him to earn enough money to buy the things he wanted, like a new cloth, but also, despised the value of a full one shilling, which could buy three calabashes of palm-wine.
“Now, if the man touched his wife, she would immediately pack her pots and pans [known as nkuku-ne-nkaka in onomatopoeic imitation of the sound they made during the packing process] and go back to her family home. However, on the very next day, the man, after the drink had worn off, would go and beg the woman's father and mother to intercede on his behalf to come back to his house! “It was the drink!” he would bashfully confess”.
This wasn't the sort of thing I wanted Yaw Charles to say at all! I wanted him to say that taking a drink was an adventurous thing – almost like going to Accra to watch films in which you could hear the film stars talk! I wanted to hear, as well as see, the big film stars of the period – Roy Rogers, Buster Crabbe, Bob Steele and Tarzan – at the “talking cinemas” in Accra, such as Cinema Palace and Opera. For in those days, the only cinema we saw was brought to our town in a smoky, rickety truck by a fellow called Ataa Joe. We did laugh heartily at the Charlie Chaplin “short”comedies his machine showed, but we longed to be able to see the “talking films” we had heard so much about from the lucky people like Yaw Charles who had experienced the fruits of advanced technology. Such as talking films!
(TO BE CONTINUED)