She said she was 432 years old! We laughed till we rolled off our chairs. But this old woman was right in her own way. She had been using the traditional annual festivals of her ethnic group to count the years. These festivals occur in cycles of 40 days and so a year of 365 days has no meaning whatsoever to her. The laugh, after all, was on us, not on her. Read on…
I encountered the three old ladies at Koforidua, capital of Ghana’s Eastern Region. I had gone there with a friend, Ansah, in pursuit of an affair of the heart. In order to present myself to the girl of my dreams, Afia Amanoah, as a worthy suitor, I had invested an enormous amount of money in a shirt called “Doctor” sold at the UTC store at Asiakwa, my home town — 27 miles from Koforidua.
The “Doctor” shirt was like nothing I had ever seen before. Even on the dark shelves of the UTC store, the shirts were the whitest imaginable. In one’s hands, they shone through the cellophane wrapping like rays of sunlight. Even today, after all the money I have spent buying what seems like billions of shirts, I can’t say I have ever seen anything whiter than a “Doctor” shirt. Its whiteness was peculiar — it had a faint suggestion of bluishness to it, as if a very tiny amount of that mysterious stuff we used to brighten our whites, “Delstree Blue”, had been applied to the whitening process.
Fascinated by the way they shone, I used to just go and stand at UTC and look and look and look at them. The shopkeeper must have thought I was a queer fellow, just staring and staring at a mere shirt like that. But not only were the “Doctor” shirts celestially white, they also had stiff necks, or collars!
I can hear you ask:
“Were you a reverend minister?”
“Were you a ballroom dancer?”
“In that case, what was the use of a stiff neck to you?”
By asking that question, you have exposed yourself as someone who does not understand style; fashion doesn’t interest you; you don’t grasp the idea of being a guy.
A guy wanted to be distinctive. He wanted to wear something unique that no one else in his immediate group also wore. So, to wear an impossibly white “Doctor” shirt would please a guy immensely. But if it also sported a stiff neck to boot — which held the collar impossibly high and almost tightly around the neck — it would give the guy double marks by way of status; or what is known these days as “respect” or “street cred”.
You see, if you have money, someone needs to tell others about it before your rich status can be acknowledged. But if you wear something like a “Doctor” shirt, you immediately made a statement about your taste. In effect you say to your group - and the world at large — “See me Lakayana with my spear!” (Apologies to the Oxford English Reader.)
Yeah. You were saying, without uttering a single word, “Hey, you others, you think you are some guys, don’t you? Well, this is my shirt. It is white. Bloody white. I challenge you to wear anything as white as that. You can’t? Of course you can’t! Hey, let me tell you something else. It’s also got a stiff neck! Where’s yours? I bet even if you had the money, you wouldn’t have it in you to recognise and acquire a nice thing like it, right? Mobetumi me? (Can you [match] me?) Yet you call yourselves guys. Ha!”
A “Doctor” shirt cost one pound and five shillings. Now, in those days, one of the jobs open to most school leavers in our group was that of a pupil teacher — someone who had a Standard Seven certificate but had received no teacher training. It paid seven pounds per month. Even an “FA” (Field Assistant with the same Standard Seven certificate and employed by the Cocoa Rehabilitation or “CR” department) earned under ten pounds. So, for anyone in our group to spend one pound five on a single shirt, was unimaginable. I mean, it could pay an FA’s rent for a whole month. No, one wouldn’t spend all that money on a single shirt. Unless, of course, one was a super guy.
Well, I unloaded all my savings and acquired a “Doctor” shirt as soon as it became practicable for me to do so. The first person I showed it to was Ansah. But instead of expressing appreciation for my “coup”, his manner towards me changed imperceptibly.
I even learnt about his impending trip to Koforidua in a round-about way. Someone said something about doing it “on Monday” and then said, “Oh, but, Ansah, you won’t be back by then, will you?” Upon which Ansah replied, “Oh yes, I shall be back.”
Ah? So Ansah was going to Koforidua at the weekend? Why hadn’t he told me? What about all the plans I thought he and I had made about me going with him to see the beautiful Amanoah?
“Is it true you are going to Koforidua at the weekend?” I asked in shock.
“Yes.” he answered.
“But… but…? Can I come with you?” I blurted out, with my heart in my mouth.
“If you like”, he said.
This wasn’t encouraging. I had bought my “Doctor” shirt with Amanoah precisely in mind. The day I would wear it to see her would be the day she would open her arms to me, I had fantasised. And now, the guy upon whom the whole entire enterprise depended said I could go with him “if I liked”?
I have heard it said that men in love think with their waists, not their heads. That’s why I decided to go with Ansah, whether he liked it or not. After all, what was his use, really? Merely to get me into the presence of Amanoah. As soon as she saw me, she would be swept off her feet, and Ansah and his jealousy would be toast. Kai!
Indeed, when we got to Koforidua, Ansah deserted me in pursuit of a romantic assignation of his own. He left me in the care of his mother and vanished. His mother was very nice, however, and I was describing life in my own town, in reply to her searching questions, when three old relatives of hers entered the house. They were talking animatedly even as they made their entrance. They came and sat near us, and my friend’s mother introduced me. The oldest among them smiled at me when she heard where I came from and said: “If you come from there, then your eyes are open!”
This pleased me immensely. I had heard old women from our town say the same thing to egg us youngsters on to be on our best behaviour when we travelled outside. But to hear it from the lips of a complete stranger enhanced my sense of pride about my origins.
I later learnt that it was usually old Asantes who spoke like that about my town. The reason lay very deep in the past: one very brave chief of our town had once tried to unite our nation, Akyem Abuakwa, with neighbouring Asante, to end the internecine wars between our two kingdoms. He paid for this with his head, but Asantes had always respected his descendants.
After the nice compliment the old lady had paid me, her companions felt free to speak in my presence:
“Life is funny, isn’t it? How can Kwasi, whom I took out of his mother’s womb with my own two hands, have come to die before me?”
“It is witchcraft that did it”.
“Yes — they always select the most useful man in your family and eat him.”
“How old was he?”
“Kwasi? His mother had not yet reached the age of puberty when the mfriwansa [the 1918 influenza epidemic that killed thousands around the world] came.”
“Ho, so you don’t know how old Kwasi was?”
“No! Do you?”
“Of course. He was… he was… (she begins to count on her fingers as her lips move wordlessly) … three hundred and eighty years old.”
“Hahahaha! How possible?”
“He was three hundred and eighty years old.”
“Why, was he Methuselah?
“Methuselah! If you’d come with us to the Matalis (Methodist) church, you’d know things like that. Well, our priest told us that Methuselah grew to be nine hundred and sixty-nine years old.”
“Yes — it is in the Bible, so it is true.”
“If that is the case, then why couldn’t Kwasi too have grown to the age of this your Matusa-whan-whan? Can you name a single person whom Kwasi ever offended? I mean, compare him to Yaw. Yaw won’t work. He gets drunk on akpeteshie [Ghana's version of killer illicit brew, allegedly distilled from palm wine, rusty nails, carbide and Omo soap powder). And when he asks you for money to buy sikaleet [cigarettes] and you say you haven’t got any, he retorts, “But you have money to buy evil-smelling tawa [leaf tobacco] to smoke!” Yet that skunk is still alive…”
“Okay, okay: if Kwasi was three hundred and eighty years old, then how old are you yourself?
The old lady was taken aback. Then she began to count slowly on her fingers again, as her lips moved silently: “I am four hundred and thirty-two years old”, she announced finally.
I burst out laughing and had to run away. Fortunately, the old lady’s companions were also yelling and falling about themselves laughing, so no one noticed me. As I ran, I heard one of them say, “If you are four hundred and thirty-two years old, then you are truly Methuselah’s grand-daughter!” And they laughed and laughed and laughed.
Pondering the old lady’s queer numerology later, I stumbled upon the truth: she had, of course, been using the traditional annual festivals of her ethnic group — such as Odwira or Adae — to count the years. These festivals occur in cycles of forty days and so a year of 365 days has no meaning whatsoever for an old lady of that age group. The laugh, after all, was on us, not on her.