A misunderstanding erupts between a daughter and her Ghanaian father when she returned home after studying in the United States of America. A tale of disappointment.
The Mensahs clinked their glasses inside the lonely Wudaakye Food Joint at Mamprobi in Accra that had been scarred by the weather. The occasion? Their only daughter, Nana Yaa had been awarded a $180,000 scholarship to pursue her degree programme at the Pan-American University located in popular Chicago in the United States of America. The roof of the restaurant had many holes, the ceiling festooned with cobwebs and the soft yellow painting had been stained through rubbing of soiled shoulders and hands. The stained tiled floor had also removed one after the other as though on cue, further marring the beauty of the cafeteria that once held the beauty of the community.
There was a general atmosphere of shabbiness and neglect about the restaurant. But sankofa hadn’t yet proven to be a bad concept, so many of the residents had made it a ritual to eat there with their families, at least once a week and told their children many tales about the place.
The Mensahs were the only family there. There was also one twenty-something-man there who was sweating over a bowl of fufu and pepper soup. He would occasionally wipe his brow and nose with the back of his left hand. He had been swarmed by flies and would shout ‘Haiii’before sweeping over the bowl with his hand, mechanically. During one such proceeding, he caught Mr Mensah’s gaze and nodding in acknowledgement, he disengaged and shifted his eyes back to the unaccomplished mission before him.
Mr Mensah nodded back, and lifting his glass, he said: ‘To the God of our fathers who appoints and never disappoints, I thank you for this favour and many more that are on their own paths to my household.’
His only daughter, Nana Yaa had opened her eyes before he shouted an ‘Amen’ that echoed hollowly in the room.
He turned toward her and placing his hand on her left shoulder, he whispered, ‘Your mother and I are going to miss you when you finally leave and so are your siblings.’
Meanwhile, all that he ever received from his wife, Esi Konamah was a nod here and there. Uncharacteristically, she had been quiet the better part of the celebration and when it was her turn to speak, she was brief. She feigned a smile, which was soon swallowed by tears. Moved by sympathy more than embarrassment, their eight-year-old son, Kwame offered her his handkerchief.
Another smile bubbled on her lips after she had taken the handkerchief, and wiping the water from her face, she mouthed ‘thank you’ repeatedly as though she was apologizing for what had just happened. She had now become the subject of attention. Everyone had turned to look at her.
Mr Mensah raised the bottle of beer that had been halved through continuous sipping, to his lips, and said, ‘ehuh? We are listening.’
Every word that left her mouth was carefully chosen and each one of them exposed her emotional frailty.
‘We all have our destinies to fulfil and under no circumstances must we allow anyone the privilege to serve as the greatest obstacle. Not our parents, not our siblings and not anyone,’ she said after she had returned the handkerchief to her son.
‘We don’t have much in terms of money but we continue to pray to God for little miracles and big advantages,’she continued in a charged atmosphere. Ama had tears welled-up in her eyes ready to course down her cheeks. She cleaned them with the back of her hand. Guilty that she was the reason her daughter was crying; Mrs Mensah rustled to hug Nana Yaa.
‘My prayer is that God will guard and guide and elevate you to your station in life,’she added, fighting back her own tears.
After wrestling with his own emotion during the speech, Mr Mensah thanked his wife for her impassioned message and advised her children to remember their background. ‘Ours is a family of modest means, so always know where you first started. Don’t despise where you come from,’he said.
Three waitresses approached their table holding bowls of Jollofrice and tomato stew. When they neared them, they placed the food on the table and offered to serve, but Mr Mensah politely shooed them away with, ‘We’ll do that ourselves. Thank you.’
They hustled out of sight one after the other, mumbling ‘thank you, too’ in turn. The task then fell on Mrs Mensah who seized the opportunity to dish up the last meal to her beloved husband, yet-to-be borgadaughter and her two ever nosy and noisy boys. The chatter reduced after the food had been served and they each ate in silence, with occasional laughter here and there over Nana Yaa’s jokes.
After the lunch, the family spent the rest of the day at home packing the clothes and other belongings of Nana Yaa, fittingly, into a small travelling bag that was bought at the Katamanto market in Accra. Mrs Mensah, uncontrollably, blinked her moistened eyes anytime her daughter looked at her. Tears forced their way out between her eyelashes anytime she thought about her daughter leaving the family to the US. She was somehow happy Nana Yaa was on her way to fulfilling her childhood dream to study in the so-called Land of Opportunities. But she would be away from home for the next four years or more and that made her sick and sad in the heart.
She was fond of her daughter and could not afford to be without her for a day or two. How about four years? A lump developed inside her throat when she thought about the years her daughter was going to spend in the foreign country. Sometimes, she acted as if she was contented with the whole arrangement, and at other times she acted as if she would die if Nana Yaa left.
Some members of the extended family travelled from Akyem Asene to Accra to bid Nana Yaa farewell on the day she was scheduled to leave. Opanyin Asare, who was the head of the Mensah clan, poured libation to the ancestors and called on them to ferry their daughter to her destination in ‘in one piece and not pieces.’
Clutching the bottle of the London Dry Gin with both hands, he said, ‘Let her not go to the white man’s land and come and order us about as Samuel Sarfo is doing to her parents. Our fathers and mothers in the spirit of the dead, guide her and bring her home the way we groomed her or better.’The family members stared hard at him, not because of the statement he had made, but that the story of borga Samuel Sarfo was well-known throughout the community. It was a tale of disappointment, a situation that drove his parents to commit suicide after he had abandoned them for their ‘incessant nagging’ over his attitude toward the custom and religion of his people. Sarfo had to finally leave the community when it became evident that no one was ready to associate with him, including his relatives. When Opanyin Asare was done with the traditional ceremony, he assured her granddaughter that ‘Our ancestors will forever be your guide. They will not let you through away our culture and religion.’
Nana Yaa didn’t know the appropriate response to give and because she didn’t want to sound stupid and foreign, she managed an ‘Amen’that caused his grandfather to fix a gaze at her as though he was searching for her soul. With a clouded face caused by Yaa’s response, Opanyin Asare filled his glass with the remainder of the foreign gin, and in between sips, he cautioned his granddaughter not to ‘lose her way in America.’
She couldn’t afford to smile, so she nodded three times during the pauses that punctuated his grandfather’s statement as though they were enough to assure him that she would be fine in the white man’s land.
Her flight took off at exactly 1:30 p.m. and mid-air, the only things that were visible to anyone watching the plane on the ground were the red, gold, green colours of Ghana Airways. Nana Yaa was later to be proud to have had a piece of the pride of Africa after the domestic airline collapsed over mismanagement and debts.
A female flight attendant whose breast tag identified her as Akosua Frimpongmaa barked some directives to the passengers and soon sanity prevailed in the plane. Sitting by the window, Nana Yaa felt lonely. She thought about her mother and the tears she had shed over her trip and felt sad for her because she was going to be away for four years or more. She reached into her handbag and took out Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apartand buried her nose in it. She wolfed the content the better part of the journey.
Mr and Mrs Mensah journeyed home from the busy Kotoka International Airport in absolute silence. It was only when Mr Mensah had eased the vehicle into their compound that his wife summoned a few words.
‘I will miss our daughter,’ she said but that was not enough to elicit a response from his husband who didn’t want to encourage her, knowing how emotional she could be at a point.
Their two sons could not join them to the airport because they had an exam on that day. When they returned from school, Mrs Mensah briefed them about what happened and conveyed Yaa’s parting message to them.
‘She asked me to tell you two to be on your best behaviour and for you to learn really hard to join her later in the States,’she said.
The younger of the two boys, Paa Yaw asked two questions, which she responded. But when no one was asking any more questions, she went to the kitchen to prepare the evening meal.
It had been two years and seven months since their daughter left for the US in pursuit of her undergraduate degree in Sociology and Political Science. Nana Yaa had been in constant touch with the family in the first two years but the rest had been terrible and her parents had been worried, all the more, about it. They could not reach her and letters sent to her US address were returned with a big red stamp that read: ‘Mail Not Delivered.’
Nana Yaa had changed residence after her second year but somehow, she decided against furnishing her family with the new address. She had been wary of the prying eyes of her parents who would want to know the details of her life in the US.
‘What have you been up to my daughter?’Mrs Mensah would ask her while wanting to know if she had gotten for herself a ‘caring boy lover.’
Yaa would feign a laugh by way of rushing the conversation but there was no way hiding her dislike for such attitudes. The few years she spent in the supposed Free World had made her independent and she cherished that freedom. She owed no special responsibility to anyone with what ‘I say or how I say it’, she would tell herself. She could say what she wanted and decide if any man was worth her time. When it came to relationships, she had been shabby in her handling of many of the men who came rapping, confidently, at her door.
The last of the four men she had refused to date on campus was a Nigerian who would preach about his fancy cars and his family’s estates in Ibadan that he said were stately and more picturesque than most buildings in Washington.
‘Architects from the US put up those mansions in Nigeria and my father made them rich,’he would boast.
Ike Ebube was his name. A nice chap loved by almost all the ladies he met for the first time. They fell for him, like mangoes during the harmattan and he would lull them to sleep with his many tales about riches. He was short, chubby and loud. If riches had anything to do with one’s stomach size, then he was richer than Bill Gates. And Warren Buffet. Aliko Dangote of Nigeria. Or Papa Kwesi Nduom of Ghana.
His misery was that this tall, coffee lady from the first sub-Saharan African nation to sever colonial ties with the British in 1957, had ignored his romantic overtures. He hated her with a passion for the way she made him look, especially in front of his peers.
‘Ebube, or whatever you call yourself, I know you are the toast of campus but trust me when I tell you, I have no interest in dating a braggart at this time. At least not now,’she was blunt with him inside the Alphard Restaurant where he had taken her for lunch.
Her voice was loud enough to elicit a stare from some students who were sitting two tables away. Embarrassed by what she had done, Nana Yaa lowered her head and whistled, ‘I’m sorry but I still stand by my position.’
That was the last time she ever heard from Ebube, although occasionally, her girlfriends with whom she traded gossips, would tell her about his misadventures. They would laugh and wash him down with red wine. She had been happy with her life and savoured every moment as a single lady, exercising great authority over the men she went out with both on campus and outside. But she was at her weakest when she met Adjunct Economics Professor at the school’s library by name John Blair. She had visited the library to finish off a book and he was there to conduct a research ahead of his only lecture for the day, when they met. She fell for him and he, too, for her. A ‘coincidental love’she had described it to her girlfriends later.
‘Charming star May I join you?’were the words that won for Blair Nana Yaa’s friendship and later love. She looked up and seeing him, she responded, ‘Yes, you can.’
Somehow she had been enthralled by his stature and appearance. Blair was tall and white in every sense. He carried a small flask that held a liquid he would gulp every five minutes. He always knew when the time was up to take that substance and Yaa was distracted because she tried to man her own watch to prove her creepy theory that he needed whatever the flask carried to stay alive. But when he hustled off to a nearby water dispenser to refill the flask, she realized what the man had been drinking all this while was nothing close to what she had thought. She was later to tell him about the library experience when they first had sex in his apartment.
‘What are you studying?’Blair asked after he had returned from the dispenser, but before she could say anything, he added, ‘May I see the book you’re reading?’
Nana Yaa stopped reading and after broadening her face with a smile, she said: ‘Sociology and Political Science Major.’
She then proceeded to lift the book she had been reading for him to learn of the title and name of the author. Blair inched his head forward and read slowly: ‘The Man Who Cried I Am by John A. Williams.’
Also, somewhere on the table was the book The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born by Ayi Kwei Armah that had been left there by a student majoring in literature who had been asked to devour the novel ahead of their mid-semester exams.
When he had resumed his seat, Blair said the novel by the African American is, ‘a good book, although it’s bad for a section of the population.’
He told her why Williams’ third novel had received rave reviews because of what critics described as a fictional racist plot. ‘I’m not African-American, but I believe in their cause,’he said patronizingly.
‘I’m not African-American either. I’m a Ghanaian,’she startled him, freezing Blair’s thought. He didn’t know what to say next but realizing what her response had possibly done, she intervened. ‘But that’s fine because African-American and Africans share the same ancestry, Africa.’
After sitting in silence that lasted minutes, he rose to leave. He gave her his card and explained he had a 4:30 pm class to attend. Holding out his hand, which she took gladly, he said, ‘Do not forget to get in touch and we will talk more about novels.’
She replied ‘OK’ and went back to her reading.
The two met three days later and arranged to meet off campus after classes. That day Yaa went to Blair’s house and the two had their first sex together.
That relationship, unlike the rest before it, lasted only seven months. She walked away after she had accused Blair of wanting to control her life. She had asked to be allowed to enjoy her portion of the freedom that everyone else was entitled to in the universe. But he had been domineering, she complained.
‘I didn’t negotiate for this relationship that drives me crazy every single day,’she told him after they had squared off over matters such as time of visit, companies she kept and arrangement of things in his bedroom.
Nana Yaa had evolved as a political activist who had participated in many high profile protests over the imperialistic tendencies of the US and Britain. When she ran for the President of the radical movement, African and African-American Students’ Association (AAASA), in her third year, she beat her two other opponents. The story was carried by a local newspaper, Chicago Times with the sensational headline, ‘It’s Her –Ghana’s Nana Yaa elected President of radical AAASA.’
She was reviled in the community because of her opposition to some actions of the US administration and the Illinois Governor. She had authored several publications against the government’s handling of issues affecting the minority population in the US. She readily signed up for the group in her second year and soon graduated to become an active member who was instrumental in the campaign against the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the US and its allies.
‘We cannot afford to have the US and its cronies meddling in the governance of any independent country in the world,’the group’s outgoing president, Juba Naziru had cautioned at the handing over attended by leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), some local politicians and the Dean of the African and Latin American Studies Department.
The Illinois Governor, Rajio Hackson had rejected the invitation to attend the ceremony live on television. He had blacklisted the group because it helped his opponents to kick against his housing programme – a project critics said would disadvantage the blacks and Hispanics.
Nana Yaa knew the job she had offered to do would make biting demands on her time but she was all prepared for it. Her programme of study had exposed her to the works of many civil rights activists whose works she had read, including Rosa Park, preacher Martin Luther King Junior, Medgar Evers, radical Malcolm X, Ella Baker, Bayard Rustin, Ruby Bridges, Roy Wilkins and a host of others whose sweat and blood, she could confidently say were to be credited for the little freedom enjoyed by the blacks in America.
But she had been more fascinated to learn that before Rosa Park defied segregation laws by refusing to give away her seat to a white passenger on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in the heat of the civil rights agitation, fifteen-year-old Claudette Colvin was first to assert her rights. Yaa consumed every piece of information she found on the teenager and that heightened her admiration for the little girl.
Her first task as AAASA president was to recruit more students of colour into the Association. It was a task she had taken seriously. Many native Africans and African-Americans had turned down numerous invitations to join AAASA because of what they explained was its radical posturing. Kojo Yeboah, a Ghanaian in his second year, had told Yaa her involvement in the group would make her an outcast in Ghana if she ever returned.
Sounding more like a senior brother than a colleague, he told her,‘The ideas of the group won’t make you a better woman. At best, it will scar your reputation before men and your family.’
But she cared less, and she didn’t hide that from him when she said, ‘I have found my true-self since joining this group. It was surely hidden somewhere but I know who I am now.’
Kojo blushed and muttered to himself, ‘At least I tried talking you out of this revolutionary madness.’
Nonetheless, AAASA prospered under Nana Yaa who, through political evangelism, increased its membership from 120 to 500. She saved her successor the difficult job of bussing non-members to protest grounds as had been the convention when the membership was not that significant.
When she handed over five months to her final exams and six months before her graduation, the Association was adjudged by the campus newspaper as the most successful group on campus for 2003.
It was a month to exams that Nana Yaa wrote to her parents, partly explaining her long silence and partly telling them she would head home immediately after her graduation.
‘I miss home. Home sweet home,’ she wrote in the letter and asked if her parents would attend her graduation. ‘I need your answer ASAP.’
Mr Mensah read the letter to the family during dinner. Christened clown extraordinaire, Nana Yaa would have cracked a half-baked joke that would get his parents and other siblings cackling and guffawing. She had been missed. Greatly. And although her letters had filled the void, the long silence and the numerous undelivered letters had worsened their grief.
The next day, Mr Mensah replied to her letter and drove to the Accra General Post Office to have it posted to America.
My lovely daughter:
We received your letter with great joy and a feeling of pure satisfaction after we had great difficulties getting in touch with you.
We thank our God and ancestors that you are in good shape. We’re also fine here in Ghana, although the economy hadn’t been that great to throughout jobs for the teeming unemployed graduates.
You know I’ve always cautioned you against trusting politicians. Seriously, they’re not to be trusted and one would be the loser if you put your trust in them.
They are all the same, as it is often said in Ghana. They’ll promise you heaven when they’re in desperate thirst for power only to offer you the same hardship the government was offering you -sometimes worst.
We’ll need you discard our style of politicking if we are to prosper and develop as a nation. I need you to guide our people with your new found knowledge and experience. I cannot say enough how much we miss you.
Surprise, surprise, surprise…your mother and I have resolved to attend your graduation. We’ll update you on any development.
The letter arrived ten days later while she was preparing to take her final paper. She didn’t bother to read it because she felt her parents would not attend the ceremony as they had done to her in Ghana.
Mr and Mrs Mensah didn’t attend her graduation at both the junior and senior high schools. They had offered one excuse after the other.
‘I wasn’t given an off day as I had requested,’her father explained. On her part, Mrs Mensah said, ‘My boss phoned to see me when I had dressed to come.’
She had been sorely disappointed that her family couldn’t make it to those milestones in her life when she needed someone around her. Nana Yaa had cried in response to the excuses offered by her parents. Somehow, she found the strength to forgive them after they had promised never to repeat such attitude going forward.
But the past assurances had done nothing to convince her to continue to rely on her parents and because she did not like to be disappointed, she abandoned the letter on her bed. It used to be the first thing she saw when she woke up until her fury grew and she added it to the dozens of unread letters in her drawer. That was the last time she ever saw the letter and ever communicated with her parents.
Mr and Mrs Mensah had hoped to hear from their daughter but a month after they had replied to her letter, she had not gotten back to them about preparations for the graduation. They sent another letter to her asking, ‘what was going on?’but they never got any response.
In the letter to her parents, Nana Yaa did not give them her new telephone number. The only contact they had of her was the address and since their letters had not been responded to, they second-guessed its authenticity.
Mrs Mensah was first to raise the alarm.
‘How are we sure the address we have is correct?’she asked her husband who appeared too confused to string a complete sentence.
He felt their daughter was simply avoiding them but he couldn’t tell his wife, for fear of breaking her heart.
Months after completion, Nana Yaa applied for a job at a law firm few meters away from her rented apartment. After a series of tortuous screening and face-to-face interview, she didn’t make it to the list of top ten potential employees. She was later to settle on a Political Affairs Coordinator position at American Democratic Network, a small think-tank institution that had been conducting research into political situations in struggling nations across the world.
She and three other new employees were trained for three-weeks by a team of experts led by Thomas Hacks, a seasoned lawyer with Powers & Powers Chambers. When the management of the think-tank was satisfied with her readiness for the job, she was asked to start work, a news that pleased her.
Her office, small with only a table and chair, was nestled between the Network’s Executive Director’s office and that of the Director of Training and Research, who expressed interest in her when she was three months on the job. Sam Joshua, an African-American, was tall and broad-chested. He had a light skin and had a broad charming smile. And although he had been in the organization for less than two years, he was the most loved by all the workers, especially the women.
So it happened that eight months after she was proposed to, Nana Yaa said, ‘yes’ to Joshua and the two went to a bar and grill joint in town to celebrate after work.
‘I didn’t see it coming,’Joshua couldn’t hide his excitement. ‘I thought you’d flatly say no. Why did it take you that long to accept?’he had asked perplexed.
But Yaa chose to smile with an occasional laughter. When she had cleared her throat of mucus that had massed up, she said, ‘I wanted to confirm a few things before saying yes.’
An excited Joshua partially rose from the chair to kiss her before she continued with her response. A waiter walked in wielding the menu in his hand and placed each in front of them.
‘What would you like to take first, water or wine?’
Joshua’s reaction was to look at Yaa who was as confused as he was. They giggled and chorused, ‘wine.’
They buried themselves in the moment of their making when the waiter left with the first order. They had their wine in minutes after which the second order was taken and the waiter hobbled off to attend to them.
Their love blossomed for months before she found out that Blair had been cheating on her with one of her colleagues, Anita Samine, a Hispanic with a charming personality. She had not been disappointed as he had thought. She was just surprised Blair was not a gentleman as she had believed all along.
‘Men will always be men allowing their lust to lead them astray.’
Five years after her graduation and four years, seven months as an employee of the Institute, Nana Yaa initiated contacts with her parents. One afternoon after work, she told herself, ‘I need to go home. I miss my family.’
When she phoned her mother two days later, Mrs Mensah advised her to come home since she could find any job of her liking in Ghana. She had been hesitant initially but later when she was told one of her brothers had been killed in a case of hit and run, she began packing. She had screamed when her father delivered the news and dropped on the floor with a thud over the matter. She had cried the rest of the day.
Her flight touched down at quarter past 11 in the evening when most areas in Accra had gone to sleep. It was only Kotoka International Airport that appeared active at that time with sleepy-eyed staff and taxi drivers busily attending to passengers. Even inside the airport, activities there were not like those in the day.
She sighed when she exited the building that had been going through several facelifts for over ten years, with no end in sight. A driver in an African wear approached and offered to take her to her destination.
Seeing him she beamed and asked, ‘How much is the journey from this place to Mamprobi?’
He tried to reach for her luggage but she stopped him.
‘Not that expensive. See, I charge moderate fares in this place. GHS80 will do,’the driver said.
She chuckled and started toward another driver who had opened the trunk of his taxi for her luggage.
‘My lady let me put your luggage here,’the second driver motioned her toward the car trunk but the short man interjected.
He held Yaa’s hand and asked how much she was willing to offer. ‘It’s business, so you get to quote your price,’ he said displeased with the other driver’s action.
Turning to face him, she said, ‘I won’t pay more thanGHS50.’
GHS50 was the agreed fare.
It had been two years since Nana Yaa returned to Ghana but if there was anything that had shot a blood of regret into her body over her decision, it was the constant misunderstanding between she and Mr Mensah. She had fought certain orders of her father and had told him to respect her right to speak.
‘Children have rights, too,’she told her father months after their trouble had started. ‘You can’t continue to treat me like a child.’
Mrs Mensah had often served as the mediator, calming the tempers of both husband and daughter. ‘Yaa this is not America, so you have to behave,’she would say to her daughter when it appeared she was in the wrong. At another time, she sounded tired of her husband and would tell him to respect their daughter as an adult. She would often stand sentry between them to moderate the movement of their hands.
Mr Mensah was not ready to accept any compromises from anyone, so he warned his daughter, ‘You obey my orders under my roof or you get your own roof and bossy yourself there.’
When the tension between them had shown no sign of improvement, he issued the final warning to his daughter, ‘You can’t do what you want in my H-O-U-S-E. If you are not ready to respect my orders, you can leave.’
But unknown to him, Nana Yaa had been expecting this to happen. On that day, she had foamed with rage and having had enough of her father’s constant nagging, she stormed out of the house, after telling him, ‘You can only take away my freedom of speech after I am dead. You can have your house.’
She left home that very moment without a proper ‘goodbye’ to her parents and brother. At least that was the last time her parents and brother ever saw her. She returned two years later to attend her father’s funeral when he died of cardiac arrest.
Sankofa– A term used when one goes back for something [behavior, policy] that is useful for the future.
Borga– Someone who has been in overseas before.
Kwabena Brakopowers is a journalist, novelist and essayist whose works focus on politics, migration, social situation, economic and environmental issues. He spends his time writing either in Accra or Monrovia, where he calls his second home. He could be reached at Brakomen@outlook.comor visit www.brakopowers.com to read about him.