Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Giving unto Caesar

This post was written largely in response to AB's comment about the last post. Perhaps I do not make my meaning clear or perhaps the situation is not appreciable in an abstract context. So this post is meant to make the purpose and meaning of the last post clearer.

I was brought up saying a million thank yous a week. My parents demanded and still do a sign of appreciation or gratitude for every gesture, every gift, however minute. They used to say that just because they bore me didn't mean they owed me. It is, as a result, part of my expectation that my actions receive a sign of appreciation from its beneficiary.

A rich father ought to leave his wealth to his only child. He ought to, but if he chose so, he could leave it to his cat. A macho man who sees a thug punching a young girl ought to come to her rescue. Nothing stops him, however, from keeping on his journey. The truth is that just because a person ought to do something doesn't mean that they will or even that they can.

Vodafone is running a promotion the grand prize of which is a million USD, a fully furnished Trasaaco house, and a 4 x 4 with a driver for a year- no mean prize that. Being a Vodafone subscriber, I have registered to participate and why not, I could use a million bucks. Law school even in GH ain't cheap.

Let's suppose that you too were a Vodafone subscriber participating in the promo, as was your unemployed brother. Let's suppose again that the omnipotent computer at GHhana Telecom picks your number as the grand prize winner. But you are out of the country on a week long business trip and they are unable to reach you. So as per the terms of the promo, another number is picked and it happens to be your brother's and you get home just in time to share in the good news. You in fact did not need the million dollars; you have a good job and are rising steadily, unlike your brother who could use a few coins to jingle in his pockets. Yet if you can say your joy at your brother's luck will be so complete as not to admit one shard of disappointment, then you are truly noble; an exceptional being. I think though that you will not find many of your ilk to hang out with.

When I say that my elder sister's conduct has inspired respect, I say it with utter sincerity, and I do not reference it to her feelings, or even inclinations, merely to her actions. Even my friends were to a mild extent irritated with me for getting married and pregnant in one tidy blow. Their mothers all griped about them not having done the same. "Look at Mammie eh." One mother asked me to talk to her daughter to emulate me in the presence of said daughter. Being a disinterested party at that wedding, I was in able to see how awkward the silly comments that she couldn't put down as deserved were making the situation for the elder sister.

I feel then that my elder sister's genuine pleasure on that occasion is not a thing to be taken lightly or for granted. I only regret that I assumed, rather than appreciated, her being that way. And my assumption was right. But I honour her that she was both capable and willing to do that which she ought to have been able to do. She would not have been the first person not to. We all fail at some point to do that which we ought and sometimes, its not because we don't want to its because we can't.

It is not for nothing that we, Akans, say nyimpa ye adze a ose ayeyi. When a person does a good thing -reason or obligation notwithstanding- he deserves praise. My sister did as she ought and it was a good thing. It is meet then that I should honour her.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

True Colours

I have acquired a new and profound respect for my elder sister. I see her in a very different light or more to the point from a very new perspective and it has sown in me a a deep admiration for ‘me nua panyin.’

As I have mentioned earlier, my sister and I had a rocky relationship until only very recently. Much of the friction and angst of this relationship was because we are just very dissimilar. Our positions on most issues are so different that some abrasion is almost inevitable. The maturity that comes with age, childbirth and sojourning has led to a softening on both sides and a friendship that I must confess is nice to have.

Yesterday I attended a traditional wedding. The second child was getting married and the first who is older than my sister is single. There seemed to be great esteem for Esi that she could so celebrate Ewurekua’s good fortune when she herself remained unmarried at the dangerous age of 34. There was also unspoken consolation. The weight of that pity was palpable and I admired Nana Esi greatly for being able to keep her smile sincere the entire ceremony. Even I was smoldering under the pressure of it. Someone actually said to her that if her sister had children and she didn’t, it didn’t matter. Her sister’s children were hers too.

My wedding and the days preceding it came to mind. Many times someone who had just been informed I was to marry would accuse me of jumping the queue. Someone even asked my father in surprise ‘ah, Kwaku you are allowing this? The first born hasn’t married yet. How can the second born do that?’ All of us were miffed by such stupid comments. My father came up with many a sarcastic gem in response to these statements.

Later my sisters and I would discuss this or that person’s idiocy, talking like that. Never once did I, through in my wedding prep haze, see, even sense, the pressure that pity/outrage put on her. I didn’t feel it. It disappoints me that I didn’t for I am usually quite perceptive. I didn’t get even a whiff of it then. But I certainly felt it yesterday.

I wonder how Nana truly felt when she had to tell others of my marriage. It is to her eternal credit that all my memories of her in that period were of her happiness and excitement at my blessing. And she worked hard to help make the day special. I wish I had had the wisdom to see clearly exactly the magnitude of the gift she had given me. I would have been more appreciative.

When her reticence would have been most understandable, there was none. I do not know how she felt. Maybe she was just mildly irritated by the comments, maybe deeply so. Maybe she wept inside or maybe she was dismissive of them as they deserve. I thank her for not letting that mar my occasion. I wish I had been sensitive enough to be more than just irked.

It is amazing the clarity of your vision when the scales fall off. Many years we fought over the most trifling of things; who put what where, whose fault what was and who wasn’t being nice. It is ironic indeed and a rousing ovation to her that I should learn so great a lesson on magnanimity of spirit from my sister with whom I have had the most self-centred disagreements. Nana mbo! Both for the spirit and for the lesson, me da ase pii

Friday, August 14, 2009

Out Of The Hands of Babes

Kindergarten cop! That’s the name of the movie. Remember that? The one in which the cop becomes a teacher for some flaky reason or other. It was rather fanciful I recall, I may be wrong. It is to the only Schwarnegger movie I've enjoyed. Anyhow, the reason I’ve been thinking about Kindergarten Cop is that there was one line that stuck with me verbatim. That scene where he asks the children what their parents do for a living and the twins say ‘our mom says our dad is a real sex machine’.

It was a cautionary tale to be careful what we say around children. They mayn’t understand but they can certainly repeat. Now I don’t just think its funny; I relate to it. I had my own ‘real sex machine moment’ recently.

Kofi was in a meeting with his carpenters on our porch. They were accounting for the monies he had given them and everyone was rather serious and focused. I was taking a shower. Vin was sleeping, Dovie was in our room playing. I came out of my shower whistling happily. Dovie had left the room I noticed as I got a move on with my primping. Towel dry, deodorant, body lotion and then I turned to the bed for the panties I had taken out to wear. They were nowhere to be found but I could have sworn I had taken out a mint green pair and put them on the bed. Never mind, I shrugged, pulled out another pair and went back to dressing up.

Finally, satisfied with the day’s look I came out of the bedroom. From the sound of it, Kofi was taking a call in the driveway and Dovie had gone out to the patio. I went to fetch him so he wouldn’t bother the carpenters. I stepped onto the porch and there was Dovie waving his hands around, talking gibberish and wearing around his neck my mint green panties. He was also holding out to one of them something he wanted him to have. It turned out to be a pink pair of panties, mine naturally. I have no idea where he got them from.

The poor carpenter, embarrassed to his very core, was trying to get him to at least put his hand down and take the pieto out of his face. ‘Thank you, Dovie, good boy, take it to Mummy’ he said. ‘Gye’ Dovie replied.

He was even more embarrassed yet relieved that I happened outside at that particular moment. Me, I was mortified. Why would any son of mine want to hand a carpenter my underwear? A pink one too no less. ‘Hey Dovie bra’ I called sternly. ‘Na’ he said, which in doviespeech means ‘no’ and rans off. We spent a few annoying moments running around the porch, he and I, and looking ever sillier.

Eventually, I caught the little brat. I took him indoors and regained possession of my underwear. He is only a baby, not even two. i couldn't smak for that. but my inclination to smile at him after that stunt was considerably diminished. The little bum didn’t so much as fake a repentant expression. He just went blithely on with his play. Very ‘o well. If I can’t have your pieto, lets see, what about your hard drive?’ Ugh!! There are times when I want nothing more than to give him a crisp spanking or yell at him. But I know it wouldn’t be fair. He was just being his age and gender.

I took a deep breath, exhaled audibly and sweetly said ‘Darling why don’t you go and play with Papa’. As he will come to recognize in time, the more I want to smack him unfairly the more saccharine the ‘go away’ is. That one was baklava sweet. God I could have killed him.

In the end I composed myself, as one must when she has no choice, and went back out to the porch and the carpenters. ‘Gentlemen’ I said, ‘how are you this morning?’ ‘Fine Madam’. ‘Good, glad to hear that.’ I put a book on the table for Kofi that he didn’t need and exited quickly, but regally, I like to think. I’ve avoided them since. I can’t wait till they finish here and move on. They should hurry up with their work and go and position themselves on somebody else’s porch. Damn Peeping Toms!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Those Lovely Family Visits.

Kofi likes to visit members of his extended family. And he likes to do so spontaneously. We live within fifteen minutes of about eight of his aunts/great aunts. And they love it when they get to catch up with the next generation. This is all very good except for one thing: he likes to take Dovene with him and he likes to grab the boy in whatever state he is in and off they go. When I am around for these spur-of-the-moment trips, I insist on changing Dovie’s clothes and making sure he looks nice. Kofi always grumbles about me wasting time and spoiling the fun. ‘He’s going to his grandmother’s house’ he says, ‘its his home. He doesn’t need to get dressed up.’

That’s what he thinks. Doesn’t he know that every woman is judged by her child’s appearance? If he leaves our home looking ragged and goes out with his Dad, people will snort at what an untidy, dirty woman his mother must be. There may be the casually critical comment. ‘Mammie really shouldn’t let him do that, you know’. If the people he has loved and looked up to all his life, think ill of the son he adores and takes pride in, it won’t be long before he starts, like them, to see how its my fault he is not what they expect him to be and soon that will become a source of tension between us.

Kofi doesn’t realize it, but even how he himself dresses reflects on my womanhood. Is his shirt crumpled? His shoes unpolished? That could only mean one of two things: his wife is a slob or the marriage is on the rocks. The number of times and places he and I have indulged in public displays of affection rule out B as the choice and make A the obvious answer.

It is rather a leap, this conclusion, and in my younger days, I argued the responsibility of the individual for his appearance and cleared the wife of any complicity in the event of her husband dressing poorly. These days, I can see how that theory came to be. I am not necessarily in agreement with it. But I do see the how of it.

Here’s a typical the-wife-who-cares-makes–an-input scenario: Kofi is going to a function. I am lying on the bed as he dresses. He goes to the wardrobe and picks out a pair of pants he wants to wear. He puts them on and goes back to pick a shirt. “Mmmm!” I say in tones of disappointed surprise, as he starts to pull it over his head. ‘Mmmm, this one dze, change it ai. These posh pants and this shirt… I beg’ He defends his choice and I respond, ‘ah well. As for me I don’t like it but if you do… ah. [shrug].Its your body to clothe as you please.’ He then wears the shirt a minute longer, turns around a time or two in the mirror and takes it off. ‘Yeaah. This one is nice’ I say admiringly, when he changes it.

I recollect an occasion my father wanted to go to a funeral in a black shirt. It was a nice black shirt, really quite posh. ‘Ah! A proper Ashanti man going to a funeral in a shirt? O no!! This one die…tsk tsk tsk’ my mother said. “The shirt won’t change my Ashantiness’, my father replied. ‘It may not change it, but does it reflect it? Why, are you not from the heart of Ashantiland? Ah!! Anyway, this is Accra, we are not too particular here. I suppose it won’t matter what you wear’ Daddy did not wear the shirt. ‘Your mother is doing ‘abeisem’ and won’t let me wear my new shirt’ he said grumpily to us as he left in his cloth. So I guess its not unreasonable to presume that the man’s wife’s tastes are skewed or she doesn’t give a toss, if he’s not looking good.

To save my reputation, I play ‘our mother killjoy’ and pause every impromptu outing to attire the young gentleman properly. I make a conscious effort for him not to look dressed up. I like to encourage them to think that they were just hanging out on the sofa, and out of the blue, Kofi shouted to me in the back, ‘baby, we’re going to drop in on grandma’ and off they went.

My mother liked frills, I did not. I recall feeling foolish at many a ‘casual dropping in’ that were made in frilly dresses no little girl wears at home-you know the kind with lace in front and puffed sleeves. I always felt it made it seem like the ‘casual’ visit was actually a really big deal to us and that we prepped for it, a thing which remains to date in my mind, uncool. I made a solemn oath to myself not to do that to my children. Of course with boys, that a breeze to achieve. T-shirt and a nice pair of jeans and its an impromptu visit.

Kofi has no reason to be nervous about how his son looks. He is with his family. I do. I am an in-law; a relatively new one at that. I am still on trial. My in-laws are very nice and obviously like me which makes it a whole lot easier. But I still put in quite a bit of effort. I feel I have to; to keep them impressed with me.
I sigh with relief at the end of every visit that went well. My son did not throw tantrums and make me look lax with discipline or break an expensive glass piece and embarrass me or refuse to be sociable and force me to make apologetic explanations. We have passed this test. I am still a good mother. For a little while- until the next test- I remain ‘that lovely girl’ their son married.

There being no rest for the wicked, I don’t get to relax when we go to my family. Here too I stand before the jury, albeit a more forgiving one. Am I really a daughter to be proud of? Or am I disgracing them before their in-laws? Am I passing on the values the family holds important or am I raising a brat? All these piercing questions will be answered by how my children look and how they behave. As I am of their flesh and blood, neither my mother’s eight siblings nor their partners, nor my father’s numerous cousins will hesitate to tell me precisely what they think of me and my brood.

Surprisingly- or perhaps not- this does not make it a strain on my nerves to visit them. After all what are they going to do? Ex-communicate me because my kids broke their rare 18th century Ashanti pot? They shouldn’t have invited me; they knew I had a baby, or they should have put it away. The worst they can do, really, is to cluck disapprovingly. While I try to impress them with my motherhood mastery, it is more to earn compliments than it is to prevent disapproval. Clucks are not exactly fearsome things.

I enjoy time spent with our families. I usually come away from these encounters with a warm flush inside. Its nice to be surrounded by your own people, to feel part of a unit bigger than ourselves and to be reminded that ours is just a small branch of a large, sturdy, tested tree. It is nice also that thus far our children always draw compliments for us both from my family and from Kofi’s. Even so, I am looking forward to the day when I no longer need to try, or when I don’t care to.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Final Authority

The final authority in Ghana, it turns out, is the husband. His jurisdiction stretches from all matters domestic, through country/town of residence, past his partner’s career decisions, dipping into the places she frequents, all the way down to her choice of clothes. He is a powerful man, the Ghanaian husband.

I use the authority mine wields in society shamelessly. If I don’t want my children to do something, I declare that their father doesn’t approve. The reason why we don’t eat Ghanaian food often is that my husband doesn’t want to. The fact that I’ve never really eaten palm oil on an everyday basis in the last 15 years is never mentioned.

I wore my hair natural and short –secondary school- style on my wedding day. For weeks before the day my mother harangued me that it was not a nice enough hairstyle to wear for my wedding. One morning she tried to draw my father into it on her side. Eventually, Daddy responded, ‘maybe it is appealing to her husband’s eyes’. That ended it. Mummy responded grudgingly, ‘ah well’ and not another word was uttered about it.

I’ve airily passed off short skirts and plunging necklines as Kofi’s preference so many times, it is now an autopilot response. That always decides the matter and all objections are visibly swallowed. It amuses me so. And I must confess; occasionally I don such a garment for the express purpose of watching words stick in a disapproving craw.

This week I tried something, hoping it fell within the mandate of the Husband Regime – and it did! I called a domestic assistants’ agency I’ve used before. They asked in the most politically correct terms if I had religious or tribalistic prejudices I wished to indulge and I answered no. So I met and interviewed a young Muslim woman. Though I wasn’t impressed with her, I accepted her because I needed someone urgently and told her to come the next day. But later that evening, I rethought the decision; I wasn’t impressed and my instincts told me she wouldn’t stay. I found her too socially active to enjoy the restrictive life of a housekeeper and too money conscious to think it worth it.

I called the agency manager and told her untruthfully, that I couldn’t accept the girl because my husband was not comfortable with a housekeeper of a different religious inclination. She was most understanding and told me not to be apologetic. If my husband didn’t want her in his house, that was that then. Another would have to be found.

Because it works so well, I can’t decide whether every other woman is doing as I am, or if truly marriage in the older generation’s perspective and context does indeed swear the husband into such power. I don’t know many married women who are my peers. So I can’t compare notes or testify whether they also hold the husband’s authority to be so decisive. I receive a lot of advice- admonishment too- from older women, usually acquaintances of my family. (It never ceases to amaze me how people of such casual connection feel entitled to counsel or reprimand me about how we have chosen to live our marriage.) Whatever the nature of the suggestion, Kofi’s support of my method invalidates it.

Sometimes- as in the case of the rejected girl, - I feel bad about carelessly dragging Kofi’s social respectability through the mud. In that instance, particularly because he is not religiously agitated in any way. When I mention it to him, he is not upset. He has asked me once if I realize that judgment is passed on him as a result of my buck passing. I said yes, and explained that it was shorter, easier and often more likely to secure cooperation than patiently explaining or defending myself. He said nothing and appears to have accepted it as the price of being a factor always to consider in my social universe. Or so it seems to me.

And factor to consider he is. Among the tedious details of being a married woman here is the weight of being constantly conscious of your husband’s image. Everything I do reflects on him. How I danced at the club last night can be a source of embarrassment. The ring I don’t wear has sparked plenty of speculation. And oh, did I accept a drink from a man? What a horror that could be. I don’t think it egregious under those circumstances to borrow his influence every now and then to wrest some slack from a dogging community for myself.

I wonder if divorce rates will be up when our generation is in their thirties. It wouldn’t surprise me. What a burden! To wake up suddenly in a terror zone where you no longer count. Just because you got married, your husband’s feelings and your children’s ‘good’, as interpreted by the society, are the ruling forces of your life. Your interests, preferences and pains, are snorted at and you are expected to ‘toughen up’. Meanwhile across the gulf, is your husband. Society can see no wrong in him. He is free to indulge his every whim, in fact he is encouraged. If said whim comes with details, he can pass them on to his wife to sort it out. After all what else would she do with her time but bemoan her state.

Every now and then I feel a twinge that gives me pause. I am getting my way by assigning it to Kofi but I’m also giving the impression that our marriage works the way theirs do. Instinctively, I want to dispel that notion, set people straight. We have a marriage that actually aims to make us both happy. Our marriage cares about me too ok. But then I’d have their tongues wagging on my case again. It annoys me to appear to have fallen in line after being all my life a militant youth. It annoys me more, though, to live on the defensive and I’m not sure that it is a point worth fighting the system to prove. It is a slur on my insurgent reputation. But I can’t beat them, so I’ve joined them and it’s a shame but it works.