The Long Ride Back Home

Before their departure from Bolgatanga’s lorry station Abure had told his son, Sando, that they would be on the road for only two days. But the journey was now in its third day, and from hushed conversations Sando overheard between the driver’s mate and other disgruntled passengers, they still had at least another day of travel before they reached Kumasi, the big city down south.

The M.A.N. Diesel-headed lorry was packed with sheep, yams, goats, guinea fowl, cows, bags of millet, bales of hand-woven fugu fabric, and about two dozen humans. The lorry’s long rectangular hull, divided in two sections contained the beasts in one, while the food, human, and merchandize cargos were held in the other. With little room below, about half of the passengers had to perch on the food cargo—their heads extending beyond the lorry’s wooden frame, in danger of being tossed to the ground any time the driver dodged a pot hole.

The lorry traveled at donkey-trot pace. To make matters worse, the driver stopped at every village along the Bolgatanga-Kumasi highway, to either off-load or replenish his human and animal cargos. Sometimes the driver would disappear for hours, visiting a relative or a mistress, as some of the passengers insinuated. Some of the passengers would roam about the town or village to buy food. Others would bring down their animals, so they could graze in roadside bushes and to also defecate before they loaded them back onto the vehicle. There were three other boys and a girl in the lorry who were about Sando’s age, and Sando had hoped he and they would perhaps form a friendship and play together; but all the kids acted as if they had sworn a vow of silence.
Between his chest and his raised knee Sando clutched a rubber bag that contained his only possessions: two worn out obroniwawu T-shirts, a sleep cloth, a pair of hole-in-the-knee khaki trousers, a straw hat, and a cache of creative, handmade playthings that included his favorite and most valuable belonging—the catapult he used for hunting small rodents and birds. The catapult, a gift from his maternal grandfather when Sando turned nine, was a testament of the old man’s confidence in Sando’s hunting ability. Sando’s marksmanship, the accuracy with which he nailed grass cutters was so superb the grandfather nicknamed Sando “the shooting wonder of the savannah.” Many times during the trip, Sando fingered the contents one by one, to make sure the catapult was exactly where he had put it when he had packed up the bag.
The air in the lorry was laden with the putrid smell of cow dung, the incessant high-pitched quack of guinea fowl, the odor of unwashed human bodies, the acrid, sustained stench of oozes from open, untreated cutlass wounds the passengers had suffered back on their village farms, and finally, the odious and murderous reek of hunger. Shortly after the lorry had left the station, a bitter, sour, and nauseating taste rose from the linings of Sando’s colicky intestines. It made its way up his throat and then to his tongue, where it lodged throughout the journey.

Barely two years before this, Abure had taken Alaraba, Sando’s older sister by three years, to Kumasi, where she worked in the household of one of the city’s richest men. At least that was Abure’s claim. Abure had also told Sando and his mother that the rich man Alaraba worked for had been so impressed by her diligence that he had enrolled her in a night school, to learn how to read and write. Whether this was true or not, Sando had no means of knowing, as both he and his mother had not heard from Alaraba herself since she was taken away.

Sando was one of thirteen children Abure had sired among five women. Like his father, Sando was short and wiry, though where the boy was as perky and nimble as a gazelle, the father was as slow as a tortoise, and when in conversation blinked slowly, like one who had seen a witch in broad daylight. Sando, as if to make up for not inheriting his father’s blinking-eye syndrome, stammered when he spoke.

Sando’s father had never married any of his children’s mothers. The tradition of his Frafra people, a largely animist population with few Christians and Muslims among them, demanded from a potential suitor a dowry of four hefty cows and a lump sum of money before one was given a wife. A perpetual lazy bone to begin with, Abure certainly didn’t have the means to afford even a cow’s leg, let alone four bulls. He, like many men in the Frafra north, relied on the alternative, concubine arrangement, which conveniently suited Abure’s amorphous lifestyle. He came to the women, impregnated them, and left. But as soon as the children reached the ages of ten or eleven, Abure returned and snatched them from their mothers. He took them down south, to work as house servants. With the monthly wages Abure collected for the children’s labor, he purchased mosquito coils and bicycle spare parts, which he sold up north for much bigger profits. With such neat arrangement Abure couldn’t have asked for more from the god of his ancestors, to whom he now and then offered libations for lifting him out of the perpetual destitution in the north.

Five days after Sando and his father had set off from Bolgatanga, the lorry crawled into a parking slot at the infamous Kumasi Kejetia Lorry Park. As Sando and his father meandered their way through the city’s humongous central market—where they delivered Abure’s guinea fowls to his customers—the young boy fantasized living in one of the multistory buildings he had seen from the lorry’s top when they drove into the city. A real concrete and block house with real aluminum roofing sheets and glass windows and real doors and a mattress for me to sleep on.
Sando imagined his first three days in this sequence: Day One—take a bath, eat and sleep; Day Two—visit his sister; Day Three—go with his father to find a placement for him at the local elementary school, a promise Abure had made to the boy and his mother. What both mother and son didn’t know was that Abure had months ago made a promise to a Kumasi Muslim man named Abdul, that he would get him a good workerboy next time he traveled up north. “Babu Shakka,” Abure had sworn. “In Allah’s name, I will bring you a veryvery obedient and hard-working boy. And this one is my very own son.”

Like most men on Zongo Street, Abdul had multiple wives. Though Islamic shari-ah allowed Muslim men to take up to four wives, Abdul, cognizant of his limited means, had married just three. With as many as a dozen and a half children from his three wives and with no real vocation––other than being a dillali for pawned goods transactions on the street––Abdul himself was desperate for a househelp that could serve the dual purpose of servant and income-generator in one. Moreover, Abdul’s second wife, Asanata, had been nagging him for a servant, to help with the family’s increasing chores.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you!” Abdul beamed when Abure appeared at his door mouth with Sando. “This must be the son you promised me, ko?”

“Babu shakka,” answered Abure in the affirmative. He inhaled his perpetual smoke pipe as deeply as if his very life depended on it.
“He looks like you, ko?” said Abdul.

“Babu Shakka. And I promise you he will work wellwell for you and your wife and your family.”

After a period of sustained bargaining for Sando’s services, the two men agreed on seventy cedis per month, and Abure demanded that Abdul paid the first three months upfront. The haggling was carried out in Hausa, a tongue in which the father spoke only in adulterated pidgin, and of which Sando understood just a handful. Abure looked at his son and grinned, exposing his tobacco-stained teeth. Though confused, Sando bowed his head, unwittingly acquiescing to the deal between the men. In less than five hours of Sando’s arrival in Kumasi, the transaction of leasing him into bondage had concluded. Sando was further confused, saddened even; the whole transaction reminded him of another that had transpired just an hour ago in the market, in which his father and his customers had haggled for the price of his guinea fowl.
Perhaps Abure had sensed that Sando was no fool after all, and that the son may have understood what was unraveling. He drew Sando aside and whispered to him: “You will start school in a few months, boy, when school reopens. But first you have to work to raise the money for the fees, you hear me so?” Sando did what was expected of an obedient son and nodded, though by now he had began to develop a deep mistrust of his father. Abure left a few minutes later, promising he would take Sando to see his sister “when I return in two months time.”

Barely seconds after Abure had left the vizier’s house, Asanata, Abdul’s second wife, handed Sando a sleeping mat, and guided him to one of the two rooms in the zaure—a long and narrow passageway that led to the house’s open courtyard. Aside from being used for storage, the zaure room assigned to Sando also served as the mess hall for boys in the compound. It was there they took naps in the afternoon, played games, and took refuge at night when they ran afoul of their parents.
Sando looked around the darkly lit room in apprehensive fear. He untied the rubber bag and pulled out his catapult. He did a thorough inspection of the contraption, then slid it in the front pocket of his khaki trousers. He tied the bag, which later became his pillow, and placed it next to the mat. As Sando sat still on the floor, he heard Asanata screaming, “Sando! Hey, Sando! Saaandooo!” Sando answered, “A, A, Anti,” and dashed out of the room into the courtyard, responding to the call for what was the first of a million errands he would run for the Abduls and other families in the compound.

The vizier’s house was a rectangular behemoth with more than thirty rooms, three open kitchens, and half a dozen chicken coops. Not counting the Abduls, the house contained eleven other nuclear families, and a total of eighty-three inhabitants. And very soon after Sando’s arrival, his name was on everybody’s lips. “Go buy me this, Sando.” “Sando, go and wash my clothes.” “Here, Sando, take these shoes and polish them.” “Sando go climb the tree and fetch us some mangoes.” He was ordered left and right by the old and the young alike. “Sando, you bastard, didn’t you hear me call you?” the rascals would bark. Poor Sando would dash toward his commander with a “Sosososorry, Papa” or “Sosososorry, Anti.” As his father had instructed, Sando called every female “Anti” and every male “Papa”, no matter their age.

Sando’s day started as early as the first cock crow. His immediate set of tasks included sweeping Asanata’s verandah, filling up the hundred-gallon drum in front of her quarters with water he fetched from the public tap outside the house, washing and sanitizing the sheep’s pen, and finally feeding the animals their breakfast of salted plantain peel and water. Then it was time for Sando to start a charcoal fire, boil bath water for Asanata and her three children, before he set off to buy koko da kose for the family’s breakfast. No porridge and beancake for Sando; he was given the surplus, hardened tuo from the previous night. And on the many occasions that Asanata didn’t have any suppie for him, she would casually say, “There is no food for you this morning.” To this, Sando would nod and bow his head.

At mid-morning Sando washed the family’s dirty linens, polished their dusty shoes, and ironed their wrinkled garments. By the time he was done with these chores, around one o’clock, Asanata had already bottled her biyan-tankwa for Sando to take to the market square, where he hawked the ginger brew until sundown. This business brought in a decent income to Asanata––enough to buy food ingredients for the family’s supper and to pay for Sando’s monthly wage.

Sando’s only free time came after lissha, when the families had completed the final obligatory Muslim worship, and had gathered in little clusters in front of their verandahs to eat supper. Sando and the other worker boys and worker girls in the compound ate only after their masters and mistresses had finished eating. Sando accepted whatever portion was given to him with gratitude and retreated to the zaure, where he ate in silence. The food was never enough for him, so he topped it with lots of water, and also with the crumbs he sometimes got from other families—their way of compensation for the many errands Sando ran for them.

Sando worked all day and every day, and was unofficially allowed only two free days in a year: the day of the Feast of Ramadan and the day of the Feast of Sacrifice, the two major Muslim holidays. And only on those days was Sando left in relative peace. He would sit in the zaure room as the streetfolks began the festival of eating, dancing, and gift-giving that marked the end of the monthlong Ramadan fasting, and would also do the same during the Feast of Sacrifice, when the city’s Muslim residents slaughtered thousands of cattle, sheep, and goats, to mark the end of the pilgrimage to Mecca. When would his own eternal fast and sacrifice end? Sando wondered during those festive days, as music and laughter poured in through the window.

Sando was lying in the zaure room on the day of his third Feast of Sacrifice at the vizier’s house when three boys barged in and quickly locked the door behind them.

“Bend down,” said Asim, the oldest of the gang.

“Whawhawha . . . what now?” asked Sando. He was accustomed to all sorts of pranks and bullying from the compound boys, especially when he returned late from their errands. But Sando didn’t remember running afoul of any of the boys lately. He asked again, “Whawhawha, what have I done, now?”

“I say bend down,” came Asim’s menacing response, followed by a knuckle to Sando’s head.

Confused, Sando laughed, but still refused to do Asim’s bidding.
“Habahaba . . . haba, whawhawhat . . . what have I done thithithi . . . this time, hah, hah?” asked Sando, who tried to laugh his way out of his predicament.

“I say bend down!” Asim said, and slapped Sando on the head again. He instructed the other boys to hold Sando’s arms, and before the poor worker boy knew what was happening, the boys had pulled his half-torn knickers down to his knees. Sando put up a struggle and managed to free himself from their grip.

“Whawhawha . . . what is allall, all this now? I don’t like this o!” sputtered Sando. The boys suddenly burst into laughter. But it took Sando a few seconds to realize that they were mocking his koteboto, which was an object of derision and even contempt on Zongo Street. “He is koteboto, he is koteboto,” they hissed and giggled. Sando quickly covered his nakedness with his open palms.

“Now turn,” Asim said angrily, as if the discovery of Sando’s uncircumcised penis had further incensed his ire. He grabbed Sando’s arm, then twisted it violently. Sando succumbed and lay on his belly. With his nose touching the floor, Sando blew dust into the air, only for him to inhale it again.

Asim quickly climbed on top of the servant boy, his erection blindly seeking the mouth of Sando’s anus. Sando tried to move his body sideways, to thwart Asim’s efforts, but he was overwhelmed by the other boys’ grip on his arms and legs. Powerless, Sando gave up and could only imagine himself a lamb being sacrificed to Allah. A violent pain shot through Sando’s body as Asim forced his way through. Sando screamed wildly, but nobody outside heard his cry. A commotion much more important to the compound of the vizier’s house was taking place then: a cow being led to the slaughter pit had somehow managed to set itself free. The beast ran amok, knocking down everything and everyone in its path, while the hysterical housefolks ran helter skelter for their lives. The compound was filled with the moos and bleating of the other soon-to-be-sacrificed animals who—in their exclamations—appeared to encourage the aberrant cow to elude its pursuers.

Though Asim and his cohorts were oblivious to what was exactly taking place outside, the loud noises certainly encouraged them to carry on.
“Haba, haba, please. Whawha, what have I done? I bebe, beg you, now,” Sando pleaded, as the pain exploded. Asim continued, gasping with each stroke, while the two boys—amid suppressed laughter—hissed, “I-mishi! I-mishi!”, urging him to give Sando some more.

Who Sando had been before this encounter was now light years in the past. Personally, Sando had hardly thought about sex. He would sit and listen quietly whenever the boys in the compound chatted about their adolescent fantasies and boasted the number of girls they had bedded. In his present agony he wondered if women, when penetrated by men, suffered the same pain he was experiencing. Sando had heard that Kokobiro, the transvestite chop bar owner on Yalwa Street, slept with men at night, and Sando had often wondered how a man could sleep with a fellow man. How could anybody enjoy this ordeal? Why are they doing this to me? Though Sando’s body convulsed in shock, he feared he might put himself in even worse trouble if he shouted for help. Master would likely take the boys’ words over mine, he thought. And, besides, wasn’t a servant to obey? Always. He thought of his father’s whip and of the distant possibility of school.

After a couple of minutes or so, Asim pulled away from Sando’s rear. He was all sweaty and gasping for breath. Calm had also been restored to the vizier’s house’s compound. The defiant cow had been apprehended, but not until it had dragged its chasers all the way to Zerikyi Road and had triumphantly knocked over the tables and food trays of many vendors and hawkers along its way. The captors flogged the crazy cow as they dragged it back to the house, in blind retaliation of the pain it had put them through. Also, the two dozen or so cattle, goats, and sheep slated for sacrifice had all been silenced by the fawa’s blade. The zaure and the large porch outside were smeared with blood as young adults carried the animals into the courtyard, where they were skinned and hanged out to dry in the sun.

With little noise coming from outside, the boys thought it wise to leave, lest they be caught if Sando screamed again. They snuck out of the room, and left Sando curled up on the dusty straw mat. Sweat poured from every pore. His breathing, short and irregular, prevented him from crying. He made an attempt to get up, but his backside hurt so badly he slumped back onto the floor. The sharp, burning sensation around his anus was followed by an oozing down his thighs. He rubbed his fingers on his skin and lifted his hands to the light. What Sando saw was a mixture of blood and a watery, milky fluid, which dripped from him the way water escapes a faulty tap. With a rag he found on the floor, Sando wiped off the mess, and with his backside still on the floor, he slowly managed to put on his knickers.

The following day was the festival’s “meat distributing day,” when the dried meat of the sacrificed animals was shared among family members and friends and poor folks in the community. Sando was given a few pieces of beef and the innards of a goat, which he spent hours cleaning, to get rid of the feces hidden in the animal’s intestines. Later that day, as Sando joyfully made himself a pot of stew with his share, Asim and the two boys approached him. “Let me tell you,’ said Asim. “If you dare open your mouth about what we did, the whole street would know about your koteboto.” Sando swore he would not say a word to anybody. But the boys, assured that Sando would keep his word, raped him several times more, taking turns with each encounter. They stopped only when Asim, who was sixteen, got his first girlfriend. At one point, Sando considered waylaying his assailants near the football park and attacking them with his catapult. But he backed out in the end, afraid that his most-prized possession may be confiscated if he used it in that manner.

Then in the eighth year of Sando’s arrival in Kumasi, a group of military officers toppled the country’s government. The revolt that ensued after the coup d’état was very popular among the nation’s poor masses, who chanted: LET THE BLOOD FLOW! The blood of the small elite class that had oppressed, and made destitute of, the nation’s majority. Sando, nineteen at the time, took advantage of the four-month-long chaotic and “freedom for the masses” euphoria that swept the nation. He fled the vizier’s house.

Sando relocated to the Asawasi market, to the east of the city. There he found work as kayaye and also as errand boy for the rich cola-nut merchants. Very soon Sando was making four times more than his father had made on his behalf. But freedom, as they say, has its perils. Before long, Sando fell into bad company at the market, where he slept in big storage rooms with other migrant workers, in whose midst existed many miscreants. He took to drinking pito, a favorite among his fellow northerners. This locally produced brandy heralded an ecstatic, if delusional, period for “the worker boy from the vizier’s house,” as he was sometimes called. Sando truly felt that the revolution that followed the coup d’état, for better or for worse, and for all the killings and public floggings of citizens, was waged to free people like him, to give them back their lives—to restore their collective dignity.

Yet, for all of Sando’s newly acquired autonomy, sex eluded him to his grave. Apart from what happened at the vizier’s house, Sando never had any real sexual encounter––not even the prostitutes on whom he wasted some of his hard earned income. He came very close to fulfilling this desire, once, when Suraju––Zongo Street’s notorious swindler and drinkard, connected him with a woman at Efie Nkwanta, the old whorehouse on Bompata Road. But, the girl fled the room naked on seeing Sando’s koteboto, considered ill omen by the city’s prostitutes.
When Sando turned twenty-one, he developed a peculiar, if mysterious disease. It started with a few boils on his left thigh, but within ten days of the appearance of the first boil, Sando looked like a giant boil himself; the affliction now covered his buttocks, legs, and upper body. His face, body, and legs swelled as if he was being pumped daily with a toxic liquid. The boils would break open, releasing a mire that attracted flies to his body. Tormented by this unknown malady, and with no place in the city to call home, Sando headed for the only refuge he knew—the vizier’s house. After their initial anger and the curses shot at him for running away from them, Abdul and Assanata, fearful of the karmaic implications of turning away a human in dire need of help, had a change of heart. They pleaded with other folks in the compound to allow Sando the usage of the zaure room. The housefolks agreed, and emptied the room of the bags of maize and konkonti they had in storage. Soon afterward they and their children avoided the room altogether.

A decade after his arrival in Kumasi, Sando had yet to set eyes on his sister. And as for Abure, the last time Sando saw him was when the father trekked to the Asawasi market not long after Sando’s escape from the vizier’s house. The father tried then to convince Sando to come with him back to Zuarungu, promising to make him partner in a farm he had started. Sando had flatly refused the offer, and had boldly reminded his father of his many deceptions. Powerless against a now grown Sando, Abure had departed in shame. Sando drank himself to stupor that night, a celebration of the fact that for the first time in his life he had mustered enough strength and courage to say “No.”

A decade after his arrival in Kumasi, Sando had lost all but only one of the original possessions contained in the little rubber bag he had carried into the city. The catapult. It remained the only surviving link between Sando and his mother and his two sisters and his grandfather and his village. Though Sando never used the catapult in Kumasi, it always imbued him with the hope that he would one day return home to Zuarungu––to the Savannah and its exotic birds; to the lizards he and his childhood friends chased and shot with their catapults; to the nocturnal calls of the black cricket, who at dusk emerges from its hiding place under the logs and burrows to sing and celebrate its mere survival for yet another night. It was in such dreamlike state that Sando’s hopes dissipated into the reality of his death as he slept one night in the zaure room. In his final seconds, Sando believed he was embarking on a journey, a rather long one, back to Zuarungu. And unlike the rickety, smelly lorry that had a decade earlier brought him to the city, he, this time, traveled in luxury, held aloft by white-feathered angels, who sang the songs of his childhood as they accompanied him, the shooting wonder of the Savannah, on his long ride back home.