A large crowd had already formed, waiting impatiently in the courtyard while the owner finished his morning meal in a nearby spot. The unbearable glare of the sun punished them as they stood surrounded by yellow plastics containers. Once filled with litres of cooking oil, they had now become the emblem of the city’s chronic water problem.
The crowd were divided into young children accompanied by their siblings on the first trip of many to fetch water for their homes. Relishing the chance to escape less adventurous household chores they played carelessly in the heat, circling each other in an endless run of games and mischief under the disapproving eye of the carriers from the neighboring town. These professionals in water collection had come with mini carriages thatched with wood to transport their goods. Collecting at a small profit, they would barely make enough to justify the effort of dragging 10 gallons of water across a busy highway.
Kwabena formed part of the small group of drivers who would spent their mornings cleaning their taxis before returning them to waiting owners. They gathered under the safe shade of the mango tree. Still one of them wrapped a tattered white rag around his head to keep himself cool, while a steady stream of sweat forced the others to constantly wipe their brows with checkered handkerchiefs. Preoccupied by a heated discussion over the rising water price they, barely noticed that the line had doubled in length and their wait had extended to over an hour.
‘It can never be one cedi’ said Obolo uncertainly, looking drearily into the dusty drive way.
‘My brother I’m telling you, I was here just two days ago. He has raised the price.’ replied Fifi, Kwabena’s cousin, who shook his head in mock disbelief.
‘He’s an idiot if he thinks that people will pay it.’ said the man with the head rag angrily adjusting the white folds of cloth.
‘But how can we pay… one cedi a bucket.. how many times can we fetch at that price?’
‘Do you think he cares about the times you come to fetch? Look at the crowd.’ Kwabena added sharply . He would rather spend 5 cedis than waste an hour and a half at the water pump.
‘Is it the crowd Kwabena? Or the fool selling water as though he were a criminal. 1 cedi for what? I will rather walk to Tema than pay this money again. I need four trips!’ Said Obolo stroking his belly thoughtfully.
‘Then you must eat less banku and grilled tilapia. My friend you will soon fall down with this your gargantuan stomach.’ Said Fifii mimicking the shape of an expanding waistline.
The men laughed.
‘So we are forced to choose between water or food. What a country!’ Said the group elder Nana solemnly when the laughed died down. But they pretended not to hear. The old man had voiced a shame that they preferred to disguise, for what could they do about the price of water?
In the court yard, the children continued to play obliviously, careless of whether the water seller came in two hours or four. They skidded in the dust with joy until their knees were colored crimson.
The sudden trickle of water prompted the crowd to surge forward until the last remnants of a line had disappeared. Children stopped their games to hustle for space where containers shifted competitively for ground, raised voices soon drowned out the sounds of flowing water as people became restless for their share.
Kwabena’s irritation grew as the time passed, each minute counted as time lost to the list of duties to take care of in his busy working Saturday. He had not tended to his wife Abena and his youngest child Kofi. Their only son, needed medicine for a fever that had kept them all without sleep the previous night. Nothing could be done until he picked his wages from his boss and that all depended on dropping off a car clean enough to gleam.
Kwabena arrived in Accra over 20 years ago. Then he was a young man from a small village just outside of Kumasi. He was led to the city by a dream of money. The fantasy of Accra has long been peddled like a relentless myth only growing by generation. The Kumasi youth fed on it like so many of the young all over the country, nourishing their ambitions and hopes for the future. In Accra, all was possible.
The city had simply consumed him, the struggle for survival absorbing too much of him leaving little for him to contribute to village life. The stream of demands from relatives relegated too easily by the immediacy of basic necessities. The fight for a home in Accra lasted two long years with Kwabena forced to sleep outside in between shop containers before finding shelter in an unfinished building on the outskirts of Medina.
By chance he met a friend who worked in the household of a Lebanese family who were looking for a fitter for an old Jag. Mr Ali, his Lebanese boss had come from a handful of settlers who had arrived in Ghana before the British arrived. Four generations on they lived in a plush neighborhood on the outskirts of East Legon.
Kwabena worked fastidiously turning an aged engine into a purring machine. After a year of being disappointed, Mr. Ali was so thrilled by Kwabena’s abilities. He kept Kwabena around to fine tune his other cars until a dispute with a junior driver gave Kwabena the perfect opportunity. Soon, he was tasked with dropping relatives off at the airport and carrying out delivery errands across town. Increasingly he worked more closely with the business side of Mr. Ali’s affairs, handling cash deliveries and taking care of his Ghanaian clients with gifts of foreign liquor and expensive fabric for theirs mistresses.
It was as though by a miracle that Kwabena’s 350 cedis lasted the month. Still the last week would take him down to the last 10 cedis and today was the last day before his wages arrived. As he exchanged his coins for a bucket of water, Kwabena calculated how much he would have left for powder soap to wash the car. For a moment he panicked realizing that petrol would have to be bought and money to buy medicine for the child. Ten cedis would not stretch that far. But he then remembered that he had received a tip from one of his deliveries yesterday, a two cedi note that would spare him the embarrassment of asking his wife.
There was little room for unplanned expenses but a sick child could not be budgeted for anymore than a funeral. Explaining to his wife, Abena, why he couldn’t send enough money for the burial of her eldest sister was a pointless task. For her it was like refusing to buy water to bathe and suffering the stench. She had warned him that because of his pennilessness it would be years before she could stand the shame of visiting her relatives in the village. Still the truth was plain. Either she would send 200 Ghana cedis home and their son would stay away from school for the term, or the roof would continue to drain rain water into their home, or they would not buy gas for the stove. The list was endless.
He wanted to remind her that he would also have to call his Uncle and tell him that his plan to buy new tools for their farm would have to wait, but it was a project founded on a loan that he had not had the courage to mention.
Each month brought a new dilemma for Kwabena who had no other option but to find faith to continue. His salary was too low for him to raise his family in comfort but too high for him to turn away his relatives in the village who depended on him to sustain them. In fact, he never looked back on his decision to leave for the capital as a mistake despite the distance between him and those he left behind that journeys home could never bridge.
The heat pursued him as he returned to his morning’s labor. Dipping his sponge in the cool foamed water he looked up around at his surroundings avoiding the gaze of passers-by.
It was a quiet day and the patter of the neighborhood was subdued by the burden of the weather. Beside the alleyways that gated a maze of over-crowded compound houses, mothers nursed their children in the shade while young men played a calculated game of draughts next to a lotto stall decorated with numbers scribbled in white chalk.
At last Kwabena reached where he had parked his master’s car. Despite being covered with the dirt of the city, it still looked worthy of the attention of passers by, a fancy 4 wheel drive painted in emerald green with cream leather seats immersed in comfort. A digital dashboard graced the driver’s side.
Kwabena busily wiped the contours of the car with a full sponge, then carefully caressed its curves with a damp cloth, attentively scanning the surface for any lapses.
Unaware of the irony of washing a 40,000 dollar car on a road with an open gutter, Kwabena shifted sides leaning his body against the window panes to reach the roof of the car. Soon, the sparkling chassis gleamed in the searing sun that shone at its peak, glaring in an unbroken sky. His vest soaked in the warm water that dripped onto the littered ground below, covered with black rubber bags and the remnants of food wrappers long discarded.
The stream of rubbish scattered beside the roadside used to enrage him but now Kwabena barely noticed. It only saddened him sometimes that his children who were born into this place would know nothing else. They would never experience the beauty of his village landscape that he played in as a boy. The freshness of the clear air the lush forestry or the pure water of the surrounding streams. It was this ideal that his wife Abena still craved for. In truth she had never forgiven him for his lie of city grandeur that had enticed her to follow him to Accra. After 12 years she was still searching for the fantasy of Accra that he had boldly painted for her. Even though, he would have to pay her to swap her urban life for the grinding poverty of her home town.
Nearing the lane towards the compound house where his family lived, Kwabena passed a row of newly constructed rooms barely larger than the size of an airing cupboard. Beside a door yet to be hinged two children with belongings packed in rubber bags that weighed heavily on their heads waited for their mother and aunt who were quarreling over a three cedis taxi fare. Their eyes turned to the ground as he passed them, looking into the empty rooms he wondered when the others would arrive and whether they would join his people in the queue for water.
The veranda of his own home was covered by the smoke of the coal pot, his wife had prepared banku for the evening meal. Hoping she had not forgotten he would prefer rice for midday, Kwabena waited at the door for a moment before entering, trying to gage Abena’s mood. Her expression was placid as she moved into the shade of the hall gathering a heaped spoon of pounded yam while balancing their son on her lap.
His fever had run high through the night leading his mother to fret until the early hours of the morning. Abena had bathed him with the remaining bucket of water from the bottom of the drum before he quietened, but his skin still burned until morning. It was only in the last hours that her quiet prayers were answered and the worst appeared to subside. To her relief his appetite returned but a faintness in his eyes that remained that unnerved her.
‘Have you prepared my own?”
Abena barely raised her head. She resented his obvious question. Was she a lazy wife who would prepare her child’s food and leave her husband with nothing? It was as though he was provoking her. And after all he was the one who had made promises he had not known how to keep.
‘Yes.’ She said simply, landing the spoon in Kojo’s mouth.
‘Woman will you not talk?’
‘Please don’t worry me I’m feeding our child’
Abena ignored him and searched for a cloth to wipe Kojo’s face.
‘My wife.’ Kwabena pleaded.
‘I have heard you’
‘I will bring you something, don’t concern yourself.’ Kwabena replied reminded of the things he had forgotten to buy for her.
‘Yes I have heard this bring you something many times. It is not only the coconut. The other items are on the list on the side table. Pick it on your way going.’
Kwabena resented having to be talked to like a small boy by his own wife. It was at times like this that he wished that he were one of those husbands who fought to be the master of their house. As he collected his plate from the kitchen, he was met by a memory of his father. He had a way of commanding his mother in ways that would instill an instant fear. His word was final in a house of women who hardly raised a whisper.
But in his heart Kwabena knew that he could never lead such a household, and in fairness to Abena her expectations sprung from the natural foundation that their marriage was based on. After all was said and done, he would provide for her. Her service to him was tied to his ability to cater to her and their household needs.
His burden wasn not shared by his niece, Maa Efia, who spent her money recklessly on whatever pleased her. Countless numbers of second hand shoes and handbags plus collections of hair extensions from abroad made up the untidy pile of belongings stuffed into the corner of the hall where she slept, tucked beside a student mattress tattered and faded with age. Since her expenses dwarfed her tiny salary there was little to contribute to the running of their home. In turn his niece made sure to keep the cost of her lodging down by eating out of the house and sparing her aunt the burden of additional daily chores.
When she arrived ten long years ago, Maa Efia came with nothing but a black polythene bag stuffed with little but a few belongings hastily packed by her mother, too excited with the prospect of her only daughter being sent to the city to care for how she would survive there with only a pair of trousers, a torn singlet and a half worn pair of slippers. Never mind, she had told her daughter, her uncle would buy her a new wardrobe when she arrived for he had plenty of money for new things. It was certain he would spoil her with relish.
Kwabena spent weeks trying to persuade his wife that the look on his niece’s face was not disappointment but a longing for her old village life and the family and friends she had left behind. He was patient when the young girl asked naively for American rice and eggs instead of servings of light soup and gari they ate without fresh but broken dried fish, the cheaper kind from the market that Maa Efia’s mother avoided. But her sour face continued until the second month and then a hostile third where Abena beat her constantly and the girl cried until she slept on most nights. On the others she would steal Kwabena’s mobile to make calls to her school friends leaving him without credit to call his boss. The only thing that seemed to appease her were sweets and chocolates from the corner shops, which Kwabena could easily afford for her until Abena’s resentment was stirred too far and Maa Efia was stripped of them.
In the years that passed, their resilient niece had grown more and more indifferent to them. Maa Efia assumed the illusion of independence, earning her own upkeep with a job in a boutique in town. She had become a virtual tenant or a house guest without the burden of responsibility that her guardians shared. They had long stopped complaining about her absence at family gatherings and her disappearance at functions where she was expected to serve.
Guiltily Kwabena remembered how rarely he had scolded his wife about keeping up her own duties. The floors never gathered dust even at the height of the harmattan, his food prepared with care and his children fed, bathed and clothed without complaint. It shamed him that his money could rarely meet Abena’s desires, that she would ask and often wait in vain. His daily struggle to provide for them appeared endless but he had nothing else to do but blindly strive in hope for the future and the careless possibility of tomorrow.
Kwabena felt the vibration of his mobile phone. It would be Mr. Ali checking his route in case he could make a collection. He answered obediently, taking instructions with little response.
Already thinking of what route to take to avoid the thick deluge of city traffic.
After greedily eating his plate of rice, Kwabena grabbed the car keys and walked towards the door, looking back at his family simply to regard them. Without his wife noticing, Kwabena coyly slipped the list into his pocket and left.
Abena stroked her child’s head tenderly. Fearful of fever, she dipped her hand in the basin of cool water beside them and patted his head as he wailed tiredly.
Image by Mike Norton via Flickr
About the Author:
Joan Nimarkoh was born in London in 1983. She graduated from Leeds University with a BA in Political Studies followed by a Master’s degree in International Development from the School of Oriental and Africa Studies, University of London.
After working in the public and not-for-profit sector in the UK, Joan moved to Accra in 2009 to take up a position with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization at the Regional Office for Africa, where she currently work as a Policy Consultant.
Joan enjoys writing stories that depict social conflict and the politics of development. She is also interested in issues relating to common heritage and ancestry.
Joan also works as a development journalist, writing articles for The Africa Report, Financial Nigeria and Pambazuka Press.
She is married with two children.