For today’s installment of READ LOCAL SUNDAY we feature Springville-based fiction writer Akramah Cofie. His novel-in-progress, “A Fortnight in ’79,” tells the story of Emilia, a woman who refuses to let die her dream of getting an education. It also gives a glimpse of Ghana, in the latter part of the ’70s, as an almost-failed African state.
“I began writing poetry as a hobby,” says Cofie, “and ventured into plays and fiction due to prodding by friends. I haven’t published anything yet.” At 61,000 words, “A Fortnight in ’79” is his first completed novel, from which two chapters are excerpted here.
A Fortnight in ‘79
by Akramah Cofie
Mama Aku was on her way to Mass when she received the letter. She was very delighted. She associated letters with good news. When they were children, they somehow associated letters with affection. Whenever a girl received a letter from a boy, it was assumed it contained words of affection. For most illiterates it was the idea of receiving a letter, not the contents of the letter, that mattered. Telegrams, on the other hand, were “supposed” to contain bad news. There was a story about a woman who had started wailing and rolling on the floor as soon as she was informed she had a telegram about her son who was at a boarding school in Accra. As it turned out, the telegram was informing her that her son had been offered a scholarship to a school in London. Her face beaming despite the tears, she got up and declared, “They made a mistake. Why did they send such good news in a telegram?”
Mama Aku was so eager to know the contents of the letter she decided that church could wait. She went straight to see if Efo Etse was home. The retired school teacher was also preparing to go to church when he saw Mama Aku through his open window. He knew she had never missed early morning Mass since her daughter left for Accra, so he wanted to know why she wasn’t moving in that direction. He was poking his head around the door to see where Mama Aku was going when he heard her ask whether he was home. He quickly pulled his head back and responded that he was in.
After the formal exchange of greetings, she politely asked him to read the letter for her. While Efo Etse was still examining the return address, she anxiously asked whether it contained good or bad news.
“It is either from a lawyer or a lawyer wrote it on someone’s behalf,” he said in Ewe.
“But I don’t know any lawyer in Accra. Do you think Emi is in trouble?” Efo Etse slit the envelope open, took out the letter and looked at the signature.
“It is from your daughter.”
Mama Aku thought she had only one daughter who could write to her from Accra, Emilia. She had another daughter whom she bore when she was only sixteen with a medical student at the University of Ghana. Although she loved and missed her dearly, she felt certain that she could never have any contact with her. She didn’t even know her name. So the daughter on her mind, as she waited for Efo Etse to read the letter, was the one she had with her husband Avorgbedor.
Mama Aku felt guilty about not having been able to send Emilia to Secondary School and wondered whether it had something to do with why she hadn’t heard from her in such a long time: more than four years. In fact, Mama Aku had been nursing the idea of going to Accra to find Emilia. But raising the money to make the journey had not been easy. Moreover, she had vowed, when the law snatched her first daughter from her, that she would never set foot again in Accra which had become for her a symbol of the impotence of poverty. Even in court, where they claimed all are equal, money still reigned.
Indeed, it was her daughter who had written to her. But, it wasn’t the daughter she had expected to hear from. After all these years, the daughter she had with Dr. Dadzie was writing to tell her that she recognized her as her mother and was planning to visit her with her daughter and husband.
“…however, our plans have been suspended as a result of the kidnapping of our daughter, who is also your granddaughter. This is to inform you, nonetheless, that I found out you are my mother, and I think of you all the time. The abduction of my daughter has given me an opportunity to feel what you felt long ago when you were not allowed to take me with you. As sleepless night after sleepless night passes over me, the meaning of the tears you shed so many years ago becomes clearer to me. Mother, at least you now know that I am not dead. Please, let me know that you’re also alive.
Nana Ajoa Quansah (Mrs.)
Efo Etse’s translation of the latter part of the letter had a dramatic effect on Mama Aku. The retired school teacher’s long years of reading letters for the illiterate village folk had caused him to develop a rare talent for conveying the mood of the missives with a clarity that could be missing if the recipient read the letter on his or her own. When he finished his task and turned to look at the woman, she had her hands on her chest and was staring almost lifelessly into space. Tears were trickling down her cheeks but she made absolutely no sound.
Efo Etse could hear the sound of African drums beating to Christian choral music in the distance. He was going to be late for church, but he was willing to wait for Mama Aku to be completely purged of her emotions.
Mahmoud had always liked taking initiative. He had a rough time with his father as a child and had grown up to feel uncomfortable around anyone who did not allow him room to use his brains. His grandfather owned a large herd of cattle, but he also had grandchildren who nearly outnumbered his cattle. Mahmoud and his numerous cousins were supposed to take turns taking the cattle out to graze. He hated the task. One day, when he opted to go play soccer with his friends instead of going with his brothers to tend his grandfather’s cattle, his father whipped him with a leather belt until his whole body was covered with bloody cuts.
Another thing Mahmoud hated was school. Although he did well in all subjects, he didn’t like having to wake up early in order not to be late for school. Furthermore, he hated that teachers whipped you for almost every infraction. You get to school late, you get six lashes. You get one mistake in mental math, you get two lashes. Whenever he could, he hung out with his friends at the Sakasaka Park, riding bicycles at his cousin Abukari’s bicycle rental and repair shop. Whenever the school had a soccer game, however, his friends knew exactly where to find him. Since the teachers liked to feature him in the school’s soccer games, it was easy to extract a promise from them not to punish Mahmoud for truancy.
One day, when Mahmoud was seventeen-years-old, his father heard that he wasn’t going to school. Ahmed was further shocked to find that his son’s truancy had been going on for a long time. He had 15 other children with a lot of issues to worry about. It had never occurred to him to worry about Mahmoud’s schooling since his academic report was always adequate if not stellar. Ahmed felt like he had been outwitted. He felt like a fool, and he didn’t like that. When Mahmoud heard his father call him, he heard something sinister in his voice. He was nervous but he wasn’t scared.
“Why haven’t you been going to school?” Ahmed asked as soon as he thought he had Mahmoud cornered.
“Because I didn’t want to. I hate school.”
Ahmed was too blinded by rage to see this as an opportunity to reason with his son about why school was important. He saw it as further proof of stubbornness and he thought he had what it took to stamp it out–a horse whip known as koboko. Mahmoud was surprised by the first two strikes. When Ahmed raised his hand for a third, his son dove at him head first, throwing him to the ground. The commotion brought Ahmed’s wives and other children out, and the scuffle ended as quickly as it had begun. Mahmoud’s mother, Saadia, dragged her son into her room and shut the door. On the other side, they could still hear Ahmed yelling for his son’s blood.
“Mahmoud, why?” exclaimed his mother. “Why do you want to fight your father? Your own father? What is wrong with you? Who taught you that?”
“I wasn’t trying to fight him,” he cried. “I just didn’t want him to hit me again with that koboko. I don’t want to go to school. What is wrong with that?”
“You don’t know why you have to go to school?”
“I know why I have to go but I don’t have to go every day. I pass all my exams all right.”
At that point, the door flew open.
“Ahmed, please stay outside,” Mahmoud’s mother said sternly. “The boy has sought refuge under his mother’s wings. You know it’s a taboo to continue pursuing someone who has taken refuge.”
“He wants to fight me, his own father. Let him come out here and fight like a man!”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Ahmed. Mahmoud was not trying to fight you. He wants you to talk to him when he is wrong. He doesn’t want you to swing a koboko at him like an animal.”
“Oh, so now I am the one who needs to learn, right? Your son is disrespectful and stubborn, but you jump to his side when I want to discipline him.”
“Mahmoud is seventeen years old. How old were you when you had your first daughter? When your son is old enough to have a child of his own, you also have to treat him with respect.”
As his parents argued, Mahmoud sneaked out of the room and ran out of the house.
He spent that night in his grandfather’s house. The next day, one of his cousins arrived with a truckload of charcoal bound for the South. Ishak lived in Wa. He was part owner of a charcoal making business. They transported a truckload of charcoal to Accra every two weeks. It seemed like a lucrative business, but Mahmoud was not interested in the business. He just saw the truck as a means to get as far away from his father and school as possible. He joined Ishak on the trip, convinced that once there, he would instantly fall in love with Accra.
Mahmoud realized that charcoal was not the only merchandise on the truck. Many of the sacks were not sacks of charcoal at all. They were sacks of marijuana hidden carefully among the sacks of charcoal. They also had kola nuts, shea butter and yams in small quantities for friends and family. It seemed Ishak had a ready market for both the charcoal and the marijuana. They spent their second day in Accra distributing the sacks of charcoal at various markets, while the sacks of marijuana were kept in a house owned by Ishak’s business partner. It was where the truck driver and Ishak stayed whenever they got to Accra. There were five families living in the house as tenants, and Mahmoud later found out that the tenants knew about the sale of marijuana in the house but kept their mouths shut.
When the time came for Mahmoud and Ishak to head back to the North, Mahmoud begged Aziz, the caretaker of the house, to let him stay with him. He promised to work hard and find a place of his own as soon as possible. Ishak tried to persuade his grandson to return back to the North and join him in the charcoal business, but Mahmoud would have none of it. He was happy to be far from his father, and he wanted to keep it that way.
Nii Darku was the grown-up son of one of the tenants in the house Aziz took care of. Nii Darku was not really Mahmoud’s friend. Nii Darku had no friends. He had fans. He was what you might call “an informal teacher.” He could have also been an instigator if he had known he had the power. He had dropped out of Secondary School at Form Three because his mother could not afford to pay his school fees after his father’s death. He once found a job in a textile factory at the Accra North Industrial Area. He started saving up to put himself back in school, but he was laid-off due to shortage of materials. He still hoped to go to school again although he was in his mid-twenties and jobless. He occasionally earned a small fee by running errands and doing minor administrative stuff for illiterates and those who were too busy to do it on their own. His most regular source of income, however, was as a line contractor. Whenever he heard that a shop was about to sell provisions, he would go with a couple of kids to hold spots in the line. He then gave up the spots for a small fee as soon as the sale began.
Nii Darku knew things. He spoke eloquently about everything from technology to politics. He had erected a bench outside the house on which he sat every evening, chatting with, and answering questions from the youth in the area. Mahmoud sat with these people and listened to every conversation, sometimes without even understanding a word since most of the people spoke Ga which was not well-known up north. Though Mahmoud spoke many languages the only southern language he knew was Akan. True, sometimes people spoke Akan or English on the bench, but Ga was predominant. Nii Darku was the only one who could mention school to Mahmoud without infuriating him. They had a connection.
Thus, no alarm bells went off in Mahmoud’s mind when Nii Darku recruited him to take part in a mock kidnapping for a large sum of money. According to Nii Darku, a man wanted to play a prank on his friend by having his daughter kidnapped. Nii Darku was supposed to recruit two friends to help him. Once Mahmoud had signed on, he suggested Okota, an auto mechanic who had taught him to drive, as the third person.
The three of them were given a house and a car to use until they received the ransom. They were supposed to plan and execute the kidnapping without getting the police involved. Nii Darku was in charge of the planning. Mahmoud’s task was to follow the victim’s mother’s car to ensure that she did not contact the police. He was also supposed to drop ransom notes on the car when necessary without drawing attention to himself. One note informed the victim’s parents of that the kidnapping was a joke and indicated where to get their daughter back. Mahmoud was only supposed to drop that note if his instincts told him that the parents were about to contact law enforcement. Since Okota was a Sunday School teacher at a small church his mother had started, he was charged with babysitting the victim.
Mahmoud was parked about 200 meters away from the Volvo in front of a house. He observed that Ato, the parent who was to pay the ransom, had gotten out of the car without the briefcase he had received at the hospital near the airport. Suddenly, Mahmoud’s knack for taking initiative kicked in. He decided to “modify” the script he’d been given. He waited for a few minutes, got out of the Datsun and walked towards the Volvo. A man emerged from the house, so Mahmoud continued walking past the Volvo without even glancing at it. The man got into a Toyota parked in front of the Volvo and drove away. Mahmoud waited until the Toyota turned the corner, then he turned back towards the Volvo. He could see the briefcase lying on the passenger seat. He tried its door. Unlocked. His heart began to pound. He took a deep breath and lifted the briefcase out of the Volvo.
Then with all the confidence in the world, he walked back to his car and drove away.
© Akramah Cofie, 2017
Born in Ghana in 1966, Akramah Cofie attended St. Thomas Aquinas Secondary School at Osu in Accra and the University of Ghana, Legon, where he was a dance major. He moved to the United States in 2000, lived in Massachusetts, New York, Indiana, and Colorado before relocating to Utah. In New York, he wrote the column “Kwaku, the Undocumented” for the bi-weekly magazine African Abroad. He also writes narrative plays for the BaoBao Festivalin Boulder, Colo. Cofie is currently a student of the University of Utah. He is working on a master’s degree in Education, Culture and Society. He lives in Springville with his wife, Cheryl.