CHRISTMAS EVE saw me reach the age of – by my own calculation (that is, technically speaking) – exactly twelve years and seven months old.
So I “rounded up” the numbers and thought of myself as being thirteen years old.
Why not? When you are young, you want to “mature” quickly. But if only you knew, you'd realise that when you became old, you would want your years to be reduced, not added to! Poor thing, young thing!
Well, since I was 13 (to myself, at least) I decided that it was time to take the bull by the horns (pardon the cliché!) and find out, at last, what it was like to get drunk. Ah, forget scruples – whatever happened, I would one day find out, wouldn't I? So why not now that I felt such a strong desire to (pardon the cliché one more time, please!) “make the leap”?
My excitement at the idea was enhanced by a new proposition that my inner self made to me – why not get rid of my virginity at the same time? Then – sorry but youthful self-examination tends to consist largely of clichés one had heard beforehand – I would kill two birds with one stone! Yes, I was supposed to wait until certain physiological changes had taken place in my body – you know, changes like the spasmodic growth of pubic hair in the correct and the unimpeded retraction – or rollback – of the foreskin, for instance.
This last exercise was extremely painful – unless one's body was ready for it. Indeed, the warning against forcing the change came in language so quaint that I have not heard it from anyone else since my mother used it to describe what would happen to me if I did not wait for the right time: she said: “wobewᴐre mme!” Ah? I was too shy to ask her what it meant, but guessed that it meant you would rupture your male organ in some horrible sort of way if you didn't wait for the changes to it to occur naturally.
But all that could wait. First things first, and the first thing was the matter of getting drunk.
I didn't need to ask where to go and buy a drink. Very often, I had had to wait in a car or truck while the older members of our vehicle-driving community (made up of drivers and drivers' mates and the apprentices of drivers' mates) went into a certain house into which they wouldn't allow me to follow them. They usually came back, after a while, with red-rimmed eyes. And they would chat incessantly, laughing uproariously all the time about things that didn't seem too funny to me!
The house belonged to a woman known only as “Maame Afia”. Those she welcomed there were only people she trusted. She would ask them what they wanted and go into an inner room to bring it. She never displayed anything whatsoever in her sitting area, that suggested that it served as a bar. You see, the drink she sold there – akpeteshie – was “illicit gin”, a “smuggled” product.
The colonial Government of the Gold Coast had made it illegal for anyone to produce akpeteshie because, (the Government claimed) the ingredients used in brewing it were “harmful” to humans. (These ingredients were said to include carbide, washing soap and copper wire.) But although they could be technically described as unfit for human consumption, certain Gold Coasters had discovered that if they were mixed in the correct quantities and distilled (with a pure palm-wine base) they cancelled out any harmful chemicals that each substance contained in its pure, unrefined state!
And what a drink the distilled end-product was: almost one hundred percent proof alcohol, no less! Our white masters maligned the drink as a poisonous substance that could cause all manner of diseases. But go to any village and ask and someone would be pointed out to you who consumed akpeteshie for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Guys like that walked the streets in a very strange way, and often broke into song, with their mouths emitting sounds that appeared to be produced by a choir with only one member in it: I mean the single voice of one of those akpeteshie-drunkmen could produce soprano in one minute and accompany it with “tenor-bass” in the next. But no-one dreamt of taking them to a hospital, especially a mental hospital (which was feared almost as much as a graveyard in most of our villages!) “He's been taken to the asylum?” his or her fellow villagers would murmur. “Then write him off – he's finished!”.
But – and this was widely suspected – the real reason for the ban on akpeteshie was that, as disclosed above, it delivered about three or four times the punch of those fanciful imported “spirits”, known as mmorϽsa (“whiteman's drinks”) such as “dry gin”, “schnapps”, brandy and “whisky”. As for whiteman's “wine”, it didn't come into the equation at all, whether it was red or white.
These imported drinks were only sold in shops “licensed to sell “wine and spirits”, and cost about twenty times the price of akpeteshie. Yet, those who knew about drinks said they produced only about a quarter (if that) of the effect to be expected from akpeteshie! Because the whitemen's “spirits” couldn't compete with akpeteshie, the Government banned the production of akpeteshie. But people have ignored the ban from years immemorial and drunk akpeteshie in secret (where necessary). But, as Ghanaians who had common sense expected, there are still thousands, if not millions of akpeteshie drinkers left alive and apparently in good health, going about their business in Ghana!
Of course, people can become ill if they overdo it. But then, doesn't that apply even to relatively mild drinks like wine and beer? Or the sugary “soft” drinks that have been killing our children's teeth? If you will pardon the cliché (one more time!) “Too much of everything is bad”, isn't it?
The hypocritical position of the Colonial Government – masking its real reason for banning akpeteshie at the time was one of the reasons why laws made according to whitemen's philosophy – as against our customary laws, are often despised and ignored. These whiteman's laws almost always had an ulterior motive, other than that for which they were ostensibly enacted.
Well, I walked to Maame Afia's place.
And I said to her, “Maame Afia, please give me one tot!”
And she said, “But you didn't bring an empty bottle?”
And I said, “I am not taking it away!”
She said, “You want to drink it?”
She looked me up and down. In a village-like ours, everyone knows everything about everybody, and she probably remembered the very day on which I was born, to a tee.
But good trader that she was, she assumed an attitude of commercially-dictated unconcern, and said nothing.
She poured me the drink.
A “tot” was in a small glass which could take about a thumb's size of liquid, if measured.
I paid three-pence for the tot.
And I took the drink from Maame Afia's hands.
And I placed the glass on my lips.
I closed my eyes.
I gulped down the drink in one go (as I had been primed to do!).
I felt a sharp pain in my throat – as if I had lit a fire in there!
I felt more fire inside my gut – when the drink reached down there!
Frightened, I opened my eyes.
I looked round me.
Everything was as before.
I said to myself, “Ho, so is that all?”
I said “Thank you!” to Maame Afia.
I stepped outside and began to walk homewards.
I had hardly taken ten steps when things began to change in a dramatic manner.
Instead of me walking up the road towards my house, it looked as if it was the road that was coming towards me!
The ground too did not stay down but began to come upwards to meet me!
When I moved my foot to step on the road, it took a long timer to touch solid ground!
I stopped and had to meander my way slowly, step by measured step, past both the up-rushing ground and the oncoming road!
It was as if I was being pushed in all directions at once!
I don't think I have ever concentrated on doing anything as hard as I concentrated on walking step-by-step safely home that day.
My mind was full of fear: suppose I fell down? How I would I explain it if I got hurt on falling down? I imagined it would be the scandal of the year!
So, adopting an extra-careful gait, I walked, or more accurately, I 'swam-crawled' step by step towards home, going sideways now to avoid an onrushing bit of road and standing still later to allow the up-pushing bits of road to pass by, on their way skywards.
I managed to get home in about ten minutes! (Normally, I would have reached home from Maame Afia's house in just two or three minutes!)
I went into the bedroom I shared with my siblings, stretched my mat on the floor and tried to lie on it. But the ground was going round and round impatiently waiting for me.
I fell heavily on the mat. I heard a bump as I fell on it, but fortunately, I met the ground with my flat chest and saved my forehead from being bruised.
Normally, my feet lay on the mat when I slept. Now, case, my feet lay half on the ground and half on the mat, with the rest of my body protruding from my cover cloth.
I passed out for what I think was a good ten hours, By the time I woke up from my drunken stupor, it was well past 3 a.m. My head was aching like hell but fortunately, I couldn't hear the noise of crackers and fireworks, which should have been coming from the streets to try and split my head in two!
There was also no singing in the streets.
Twenty-fourth Night had sailed unobserved past me – into history!
It was now Christmas Day!
What was I to say when everyone asked – and trust me, they would ask! -- about what had happened to me on 24th Night so that no-one had seen me at all on the jubilating streets?