June 3, 2010

Then and Now: A Morning in the Life

Sydney, Australia:

8 a.m. I dried my hair with a ten-speed salon dryer and rolled it into Velcro rollers for added oomph after taking a long, hot shower.  All made up, shoulder bag clasped under my arm, I marched out of the house dressed in a suit and high heels, clacking along the footpath to the bus stop. Neither the old lady walking her poodle nor the young man huffing along in the latest aero-dynamic jogging ensemble said hello when we passed each other. Rounding the corner, I approached the dozen passengers standing strategically, like pieces on a chess board, willing the bus to stop in front of them. When the bus finally arrived four minutes late, we each jostled for position, squeezing out all others ever so politely—using briefcases for leverage. No one made eye contact and no one acknowledged each other; only ‘weirdos’ said hello to strangers on the bus. 

Cape Coast, Ghana: 3.30 a.m.

Cock-a-doodle-doo crows the damned rooster, no doubt chuffed to be a rooster. I hold my watch up to the moonlight. It's not bloody daylight for another two hours, I think, kicking the mosquito net over my feet.  In this pre-dawn darkness I hear the foot steps and the quiet murmurs of people trudging along the dirt track beside the house; the coolest time of the ‘day’, a good time to start work.

A chain of cock-a-doodle-doos suddenly echo around the neighbourhood like talking drums. In my half-sleep delirium I imagine the roosters crowing in my father’s voice: ‘Cockadoodle-twooooo more hours fellas, look at all those lazy buggers still sleeping,’ Damn roosters. I have visions of pinging them with the security man’s sling shot and fall asleep thinking the whole crowing at sunrise thing is a myth.

I awake again around six a.m. For a few minutes light creeps across the bedroom wall like an animal stalking its prey. And then, as if the chase is on, the sun shoots up and away, and light floods every surface.
We’re a ‘stone’s throw’ from the equator, as Ghanaians would say; one minute it’s dark, the next it’s light, every day, three-hundred and sixty-five days a year.

I sit up and notice that several new bites have appeared on my legs overnight even though I sleep under a net. Malarial bites are rumoured not to itch. These tiny red dots do not itch. I decide not to think about malaria now. Most Ghanaians have a fairly laissez faire attitude towards the whole thing. ‘Oh, it is just like catching a cold.’ Malaria shmalaria I think and get up and clip the mosquito net over my bed.

Geckoes scatter across the glass window slats when I pad into the kitchen. I cut off a couple of hunks of bread and toast them on a small fry-pan over an old gas stove with only two working burners.

Next, I take a ‘shower'. That is, I let a trickle of water drip over my body from a rusted shower head. There is no hot water. It is too hot for hot water anyway. So, first, I splash the trickle over my shoulders, chest and legs. Then I turn the tap off. I take a bar of soap and lather up all over, peering out the bathroom window at the dirt track where kids in uniform trudge by on their way to school.

If it’s one of the two days a week I wash my hair, I’ll use a bucket instead of the trickle (I’m tempted to grow dreadlocks). Then I turn the trickle on and do the shower hokey pokey – moving one body part after another under the drip, taking turns to wash the soap off. I have to remind myself not to swallow water from the tap – that’s just asking for trouble. I manage to use a tenth of a bucket of water during these washes, saving that which drips off me to throw over whichever vegetable Appiah is growing; now, it’s maize. My hair dries in ten minutes, curling into ringlets in the humidity. No more whiz-bang dryer or Velcro rollers for this obruni.

The sensation of squeaky clean skin, a luxury, lasts for the hour I potter about the house before stepping outside into the ninety-nine percent humidity.

 “Good morning/how are you?/I’m fine/thank you,” chorus the women and men, legs spread apart in the dirt, breaking rocks with rocks to earn a pittance of a living, when I walk out the front gate at eight-thirty.

“Good morning,” I reply, once more in awe of their cheerfulness in the face of endless, sweaty labor and no prospect of an easier life anytime soon. 

“Good morning,” greets the man walking past in suit and tie, swinging his briefcase, headed to an office in Elmina, probably.

“Good morning,” I reply.

“Fine,” smiles the lady carrying small pastries in a glass case on her head.

“Fine,” I reply, smiling. The baby wrapped on her back bounces in time to her footsteps, head lolling backwards. He’s fast asleep.

I stand at the junction in the morning glare and do “the hitchhiker,” pointing towards the Atlantic Ocean just over the rise. My aim is to get to the office by nine o’clock. I’m hopeful. You’ve got to be hopeful—there ain’t much else to latch onto when it comes to transport in Ghana.

A share taxi pulls over. I squeeze in the back seat next to two fat market ladies cradling baskets of smelly, silver fish on their laps.

“Good morning,” the three passengers and the driver greet me.

“Good morning,” I reply.

It’s fair to say that Ghanaians place great stock in greetings. A simple rule is to do so when you enter a room or a vehicle, and always return a greeting, wherever you are. 

Different lives. Different mornings.

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