photo by Carsten ten Brink(CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
kwasida – nkyi kwasi
Nii Ayikwei Parkes
The birds have never stopped singing. If you look you will see that whatever happens the birds will sing their song. In my grandfather’s time the forest was thick thick and higher; we didn’t have to go far to kill a hog. Ah, their spoor began at the edge of the village and the taste of boar meat was like water to us, we ate so much. I remember well. Now they have gone deep deep, the boar. But all things are in Onyame’s wide hands. Only Onyame, the shining one, knows why a goat’s shit is so beautiful. We are not complaining. When I go to forest I can see that the world is wonderful. The birds are all colours colours. Red, sea blue, yellow, some like leaves, some white like fresh calico. What creatures can you not find there? The smallest catch I have ever brought home is adanko. (Ndanko are not hard to catch. Even when they hide, their ears stick up so you can see them. If I created them I would have put their eyes on their pointed ears to keep them safe, but then I wouldn’t be able to catch them. Maybe hunger would consume me. Ah, ndanko. They are fast, but I have many traps. That is a hunter’s life.)
So we are not complaining. The village is good. We are close to the chief’s village and we can take any matters to him. But we have just twelve families so we have no trouble. Apart from Kofi Atta. He is my relative, but before I learned how to wear cloth my mother told me that he would bring heavy matters to us. I remember; my father had brought otwe – antelope – the night before and she was cooking abenkwan.
Yaw Poku, she said, when you are playing with your relative look well ooh.
Yaw Poku! (My mother said things to me twice.) I said look well when you play with Kofi Atta. You hear?
She took my hand and put hot soup in it for me to taste. Then she said, you don’t know that the woman who helped his mother lost his umbilical cord? She shook her head. It is not buried. The boy will bring trouble someday.
So maybe I shouldn’t be surprised, but I forgot. We don’t think of these things. They are like light. In the day there is always light and we don’t think about it, but I, Yaw Poku, am a hunter so light surprises me. I am used to the dimness of forest, the way the light falls on me like incisions from a knife when I move. When I go to forest sound is brighter than light, so light surprises me. The same way I was surprised even though my mother warned me to look well – be careful.
We were at our somewhere when they came. First it was the young woman whose eyes could not rest. Hmm, since you are here let me tell you. The ancestors say that the truth is short but, sεbi, when the tale is bad, then even the truth stretches like a toad run over by a car on those new roads they are building. I, the one who crouches, the one who watches, I, Yaw Poku who has roamed the forests from Atewa to Kade, seen every duiker, hog, cobra and leopard that turns this our earth, I was surprised. But let me tell you the tale before it goes cold. It was my grandfather, Opoku, the one whose hands were never empty, who told me that the tale the English man calls history is mostly lies written in fine dye. This is no such tale. It is said that the wise weaver of webs, Ananse, did not sell speech, so I shall speak. I shall tell the tale.
It was kwasida, nkyi kwasi – just one week before kuru-kwasi, when it would be a taboo, sεbi, to speak of death and funerals. Nawotwe before we were to pour libation for the ones on the other side. I am sure of the day but if you think I’m lying you can check with the Bono, who have kept the days for the Asantehene for centuries.
We were at our somewhere when she came. The one whose eyes would not lie still. I myself was coming from the palm-wine tapper’s hut. (The woman who sells palm wine doesn’t open on kwasida. She went to live in the big city, Accra, for six years and when she came back she refused to work on Sundays. Before she went to the city she used to sell tomatoes at the roadside, but that is another story.) The palm-wine tapper gave me a large calabash of his special and I was going back to my hut when I heard the woman scream like a grasscutter in a trap. I don’t play with my palm wine, no, no, so I went to put it in the corner of my hut, then I came to the tweneboa tree in the village centre.
She was wearing these short short skirts some. Showing her thighs, sεbi, but her legs were like a baby otwe’s front two legs – thiiiin. (It was later that I found out she was some minister’s girlfriend. Hmm. This world is full of wonders.) Her driver was wearing khaki up and down like a colo man and he wanted to hold her still, but the woman was shaking her head and screaming. And there she strengthened herself and ran towards a pale car at the roadside. The driver followed her rear like dust.
When I asked the children, Oforiwaa, Kusi and the twins – Panyin and Kakra, who were playing in the village centre, what happened – they said the cream Benz parked and the woman was following a blue-headed bird (it is true that our village has many beautiful things) when she held her nose. She called her driver and they sniffed the air like dogs until they got to Kofi Atta’s hut. They said Agoo, but nobody answered. Then the driver raised the kεtε and held it up and the woman went inside. That’s when she screamed. It was still morning and the sound made the forest go quiet. But it’s what happened after they left that’s wondrous. It is true. Even the eagle has not seen everything.
The sun was at its highest, sitting hard in the middle of the sky. I was resting on the felled palm by the tweneboa tree, listening to my radio (these days I catch this new Sunrise FM from Koforidua), drinking some of my palm wine and watching the children play when they came. The first car came towards the tree at top speed and screeched to a stop, raising sand like rice husks. There were two aburuburu in the trees. I’m telling you, they flew off, making that sound like pouring water in their throats and flapping wildly as the other cars stopped near the first. It was five cars in all. Police cars. The first car wasn’t even like the police cars you sometimes see. It was a Pinzgauer with a long aerial on top; that’s how I knew it was a big matter. Pinzgauers are what the army use when they go into jungle for training; I have seen them while hunting.
The big man in mufti got down from the Pinzgauer. He was wearing a big black abomu over his jeans and he was eating groundnuts.
Who is in charge here?
The children pointed towards the giant kapok tree beyond Asare’s farm. The chief lives in that village there.
The other policemen had come down from their cars, all in black black. Policemen one, one – nine, in our village on this young day. The one in mufti looked left and right, then I saw him looking behind the tree at my mother’s blue sanyaa basin that I put on top of my hut after she died. I remember she carried water with it until it was full of holes, then she took it to her farm to harvest vegetables until there was just a big hole at the bottom. I put it on top of the grass on my roof so I can see my house from far when I am coming back from forest. When the policeman looked, I looked too. And there he looked at me and pointed.
You, do you speak English?
Ah. I thought this man either doesn’t respect or because, sεbi, I have shaved my hair he can’t see my seventy-four years. Chewing groundnuts while speaking to me! I didn’t say anything. I raised my calabash and drank some of Kwaku Wusu’s palm wine. It was good. Kwaku Wusu is the best tapper in the sixteen villages under our chief and the twelve villages under Nana Afari.
You. The policeman walked towards me, while the children jumped around him. Oforiwaa started singing a ‘Papa Police’ song (that girl is always singing) and clapping. Kusi was standing by the eight policemen in uniform, touching their guns while they tried to push him away. These policemen, they carry guns all the time, everywhere. Even I, a hunter, I put my long gun down on kwasida.
His name is Opanyin Poku, said the twins.
Ah, said the policeman, senior man. He showed his mother’s training and swallowed his groundnuts and put his hands behind him. Opanyin Poku, please, do you speak English?
I smiled and finished my palm wine. Small, small. I go for Nkrumah adult education.
OK, listen. I no get plenty time. I dey house for Accra wey I get call say some woman find something for here wey e dey smell. You know something for the matter?
Ei, the elders say that news is as restless as a bird, but as for this! The woman had come in the morning and it was still morning, afternoon had not yet come, but these policemen were here all the way from Accra, as if there were no policemen in Tafo. I shook my head.
You see the woman?
Oh yes police, I see am. Thiiin woman like so.
The policeman smiled. But you no dey smell anything?
No, I no dey smell anything.
Ah, ah. He turned to look at the other policemen. Do you people smell anything?
Yes Sergeant, it stinks like rotten meat.
Thank you. He turned to me again. And you no dey smell anything?
He shook his head. So where the woman go?
No. Which side she go for here? He raised his arm towards the tweneboa tree.
I pointed at Kofi Atta’s hut.
He brought his hand down to hold the black stick in his abomu. Let’s go.
The other policemen followed him. After a little distance he stopped and turned to me. Opanyin Poku, I beg, make you come some.
I called Kusi to come and get my calabash and radio, put them at the door of my house and tell Mama Aku that I’ll be back later. Then I stood up and walked to join the policemen.
The sargie was trying to send the other children back but they were still singing and refused to leave. He looked at me.
Children, I said. Stop your silliness and go home.
They stopped following the policemen and turned to leave.
Suddenly the sargie clapped. Children, do you smell anything?
No sir, Sergeant. They laughed and ran off.
The sargie frowned and looked at me. Opanyin Poku, why say we all dey smell something wey you people for here no dey smell anything?
I laughed. Sargie, make I talk something for Twi inside?
Oh, Opanyin, no problem.
Then listen Sargie. Sεbi, our village is like a vagina. Those on the inside have no problems with it; those on the outside think it stinks.
The mouth of Kofi Atta’s hut was untidy. There was a heap of bidie near his fireplace and a broken water pot by the door. The obsidian from the water pot was lying under the kεtε like the lost eye of a giant bat. The sargie and the other policemen held their noses and looked at each other. I could see they were scared. Sargie pointed at the kεtε and the tall red policeman raised it. I went inside and all the policemen one, one – nine came inside. None of them thought of holding the kεtε so the sun could come in. As for me, I didn’t care. It was dark but I could see. There was a little space in the grass in Kofi Atta’s roof so some flimsy sun was able to squeeze through like the deep deep forest. I could smell old palm wine. (Kofi Atta liked to store his palm wine until it became bitter and strong.) There was something on Kofi Atta’s kεtε, about the size of a newborn otwe.
Kai, Sargie shouted, It stinks in here. He took a torchlight out of his abomu and switched it on.
And there, all the policemen started shouting. Oh Awurade! Ei Yesu! Asεm bεn ni! which would have made me laugh because they were all speaking English before that, but it’s true that what we saw… it’s not something you see every day. Even I, Yaw Poku. And when fear catches you, it returns you to screaming, your first language.
The thing lying on Kofi Atta’s kεtε was quivering. It was black and shiny, but when the tall red policeman stepped closer it was wansima, about apem apem, thousands. They took off and the hut was filled with their buzzing. I ran towards the wall, but they surrounded the policemen, who stamped around trying to brush them off. I turned and removed the cloth from Kofi Atta’s window-hole and all the wansima left, except for one or two that kept hovering around. The sun entered the room and we all saw what was on the kεtε. It looked like, sεbi, a skinned adanko, but it had no bones and it was red red, like a woman’s monthly troubles.
It’s a dead baby said the tall red policeman.
Sargie shook his head.
Another, dark, but not dark dark, with a gap between his teeth, said: This is not natural.
Sargie stepped back and put his hands in the back pockets of his jeans. All right officers, let us not forget our duties. Mensah?
The tall red one turned to him. Sir?
Cordon off this abode. He turned to me. Opanyin Poku weytin you know about this thing?
Nothing Sargie, I told him. Because truly I was shocked. I was not meant to see what I saw, sεbi. No one without the right powers was supposed to see it. I knew I had to pour libation as soon as possible. All this because of some woman in a short short skirt with thin legs. Ah, the elders did not lie when they said one palm nut spoils the enjoyment of the palm wine. I walked out of Kofi Atta’s hut and stood outside holding my head.
Sargie came outside with all the policemen, leaving the tall red one inside. He took a radio from his abomu and pushed something, then he spoke:
Inspector Donkor, Sergeant reporting. We suspect human remains, sir... We are not sure… With respect, we can’t be sure, sir. We are not qualified… Sorry, sir. Yes, sir, we will try harder… Of course, sir. We can get a pathologist. We’ll try Koforidua… Sir, we will begin interrogation shortly… Yes sir. Yes sir. I’ll update you, sir.
When he finished talking he turned to the men. All right, I want you to split into three groups of two and question everyone, adult, man, woman and child, in this village. Mensah, I want you to guard this hut. Gavu, wait here.
The one with the gap between his teeth said Yes, sir, and the rest went towards the centre of the village.
Sargie put his hand in the pocket of his shirt, removed some groundnuts and started chewing. He turned to me. Yaw Poku, you say you don’t know anything about this?
I looked at him. This young man who had left his training at home, who was calling me Yaw Poku, who had forgotten that I was helping him. Now he wanted to be a big officer so he was speaking to me in English. I wanted to tell him that you do not light a fire under a fruit-bearing tree, but these young people think they invented knowledge so I ignored him.
Do you know who lives here?
He’s called Kofi Atta. I started walking away.
Sargie chased me. Where are you going?
To pour libation.
He laughed and waved towards the mouth of Kofi Atta’s hut. Gavu, let’s move. We’re going to Koforidua.
As I reached the tweneboa tree I saw one of the policemen shaking Asare, the farmer, with his wife and the children watching. These people: policemen, lawyers, ministers, they will never learn; book law and gun power can never teach you how to deal with human beings. We have always had our own ways; remember that the monkey was eating long before the farmer was born. I shook my head and went to get my palm wine.
By the time Sargie came back we were all angry. We had gathered around the tweneboa tree and we refused to answer any of the questions the policemen asked. All of us except the three boys who now live in forest and Oduro, who was with them, watching us from the two prεkεsε trees near Asare’s farm. It was Gawana who suggested that we gather around the tweneboa tree. He said: They are not many; they can’t force us. Truly, he made me happy paa. He will do well that boy. He is in school in Kumasi but he was on holiday. You see, even a schoolboy like him, he didn’t try to speak big English. Gawana is a good boy. He is not really from this village but he is one of us. I’ve told him he could be a good hunter.
His grandfather came here in ‘54. He said he came all the way from Kenya, walking, and jumping on trucks when he had the chance. Kojo Sei translated for him but we didn’t believe any of it. Kojo Sei was known for his stories. The thing was, Gawana was so good-looking, with smooth dark skin, a long head and big eyes. So good-looking that one of the women – my sister’s husband’s mother’s sister’s daughter, Ama Serwaa – fell in love with him. (You know, our women can choose their men as long as their parents agree. Marriage is a family matter.) When he learned Twi he told us that the English man was cutting off their testicles in Kenya so he ran. At first we laughed. Sεbi, what man cuts off another man’s testicles? But he showed us marks on his back where he had been beaten in the street and we started to believe him. We never really asked his name, but we heard Ama Serwaa calling him Gawana. After that we called all his family Gawana. Big Gawana, little Gawana, girl Gawana, boy Gawana and now this young Gawana was one of us. Speaking Twi like the chief’s own son. Standing in front of these policemen and telling them to stop harassing us. Ah, the ancestors knew what they were talking about when they said Abusua yε dom. If your family won’t fight for you, who will? The family is indeed an army.
The man Sargie brought, the pathologis, was drunk. I could tell by the looseness of his eyes. (I’m a regular at the palm-wine hut, so I know drink.) When Sargie found that his men had unearthed no matters from us to tell him, he shouted at them and called them incompetent. He told them to go and sit in their cars, then he went towards Kofi Atta’s hut with the pathologis and the policeman with the gap in his teeth. The village people began to go home. My wife, Aku, was with them, but, you know me, I stayed by the tree to watch. The tall red policeman was still standing at Kofi Atta’s door with a long gun on his shoulder, just like that.
When they came back out Sargie was frowning and asking the pathologis questions. So you can’t say for sure what it is?
No. I deal with dead people. That is not a dead person.
Then what is it?
It could be anything. My guess would be afterbirth, but it seems a little big for that. He coughed and spat on the ground. He wasn’t a healthy man; his spit was the colour of a crushed grasshopper.
You are sure it’s not a dead person?
Officer, it has no bones. People have bones.
Sargie nodded. Excuse me, Doctor, he said. Then he removed his radio, pressed the thing again and started talking:
Inspector Donkor, it’s me… Yes, sir, he’s here… He says possibly afterbirth… No, sir, he’s not sure… Sir, with respect, it is almost night now and there is no evidence of foul play. Why can’t we just drop the case? … I beg your pardon, sir… I’m sorry… Sorry sir. I am not questioning your judgement… Inspector Donkor, I’m very sorry… Yes, I am aware that was the minister’s girlfriend… I trust you, sir. We shall carry on… Oh, the graduate? … I don’t remember his name, sir. I never met him. It was DI Baah who interviewed him… I’ll try, sir. See you in Accra, sir.
He put the radio back in his abomu and walked towards the tweneboa tree. The pathologis followed him with an unsteady walk.
OK. Sargie patted the top of the car at the back. Take the doctor back to his drinking cronies in Koforidua and report at Ring Road tomorrow morning. The rest of you, direct to Accra; no curve, no bend. He signalled the tall red one, who came running.
It was getting dark. We have no electricity, and the sun was red behind my hut. I knew by then my wife would be waiting for me. The police cars started and the children came running out to watch them leave. Oforiwaa started her ‘Papa Police’ song again.
Mensah, Sargie said, you will have to stay here tonight to guard the investigation scene.
I know this is a useless case with all these nobodies, but because it’s the minister’s girlfriend we have to do our best. The inspector thinks he knows someone who can help solve the case. When he comes tomorrow you can come back to Accra.
Yes, Sergeant. He hesitated. Sergeant, he said, scratching his head, no allowance?
The sargie put his hand in his back pocket and took out many notes. He took six 5,000 notes and passed them to the tall red policeman. And there he turned and walked towards the Pinzgauer. The policeman with the gap in his teeth was now sitting in the driver’s seat. He leaned out of the window and asked the sargie: Who is this person the inspector is bringing tomorrow?
Some graduate. The sargie put his hand in his pocket and took some groundnuts. I still can’t believe this fine place stinks so much. They both laughed. And there, Sargie sat down and they started the Pinzgauer. The Sargie didn’t even look at me when they were leaving. (Ei, what has happened to our people?)
We were at our somewhere when they came; first the woman and her driver, then one, one – nine policemen, then a drunk pathologis. And now they had left us with one tall red policeman, a Ga man, I think, and a police car that the children climbed in the evening. And they said the next day a graduate was coming. (I had to tell the chief in the morning.) We waited to see. Man has his plans and the ancestors also have their plans, and sometimes they are not the same. The needs of the earth are greater than the needs of us. We are not complaining. My father and his father before him were hunters; that is what was chosen. My own two sons have not followed me; they have gone to their mother’s family in the south. So I am the last hunter in this village. I have seen all the wonders of the forests and rivers and I have told many of the young men, but they all want to go to the cities and make money. Even the story of how I followed the Densu river; rode it in a dugout canoe learning the birds’ songs as the current carried me down, watched the many-patterned butterflies flutter on the riverbanks, ran my hand in the water like a fish swimming all the way down to the mangroves of the south, where I saw my wife bathing naked in the waters; her buttocks wide and dark, her legs strong and bowed, her beauty greater than a royal python’s. Even that story does not entice them. They say there are beautiful women everywhere now. And I tell them that it is not just about beauty because beauty doesn’t pay debts. But do they listen?
The medicine man, Oduro, can’t find an assistant, and the young ones don’t trust him anymore; they want tablets and he gives them leaves.
Things are not the same. But night had fallen just the same. I had been out too long and it was time to go to my wife. That red policeman was smoking something. I could smell it. If he wanted to stay awake he should have chewed cola; smoke does not keep the eyes open. (Oh, Kofi Atta! Because of you all these people have come to do what they like in our village.) My eyes had seen what the mouth must not speak, but one must not let the sight of death, sεbi, stop one from sleeping, so I went home. Those who have lived know that darkness is only temporary; morning brings its own light.
"kwasida – nkyi kwasi" is the first chapter from the novel Tail of the Blue Bird by Nii Ayikwei Parkes.
You can buy this book on amazon.com with Paperback or Kindle Edition.
Nii Ayikwei Parkes
Nii Ayikwei Parkes is a Ghanaian writer who was born in England in 1974 and raised in Ghana. He is also an editor, socio-cultural commentator and performance poet. A 2007 recipient of Ghana's national ACRAG award for poetry and literary advocacy, and his books of poetry are the Michael Marks Award-shortlisted pamphlet, 'Ballast: a remix' (2009), described in the Guardian as, “An astonishing, powerful remix of history and language” and 'The Makings of You' (2010). 'kwasida - nkyi kwasi' is an excerpt from his debut novel 'Tail of the Blue Bird' (Random House) that was shortlisted for the 2010 Commonwealth Prize. The most recent poetry book is The Geez (Peepal Tree Press, 2020).
His website: http://www.niiparkes.com/