At many places like Asiakwa, my home town in good old Ghana (once called the Gold Coast), there were no government jobs to be had. The tankaase (sanitary inspector) for instance, was imported. Anyway, who at Asiakwa could find long hose and a khaki uniform to wear? We laughed at those who wore it, instead. Almost everyone in our town tried their hand at all sorts of things. The women pounded fufu in the market and sold it to strangers, or they sold kokonte (made from dried cassava dough) or kenkey.
One man, with a rather unusual name, “Kofi Paper” (no-one dared ask him how he got that name, but it is probable that he was born in the year that paper money was introduced into our country), went out of Asiakwa and learnt how to grind corn with a corn mill. He did this before he had money to buy such a machine oh! Eventually, he did find the money to buy one. His relatives must have got tired of his whining about having qualified to grind corn and having no machine to grind corn. So they found the money for him to buy the machine. They probably used their cocoa farms as collateral for a loan that they negotiated for him.
The man’s corn mill was a beautiful machine, with a long belt that ran outside his workshop and was kept in place by a stone. As school children, we used to go and stand by the machine to see how it worked. Despite the smoke it emitted, and its loud toh-toh-toh sound, we enjoyed standing by it and staring at it. The freshly ground corn dough smelt very nice to us. It looked so beautifully smooth – nothing like what you got by pounding corn with a pestle in a mortar. Even if you didn’t like kenkey or banku or akple (the main meals which the milled corn was used to prepare), the smell of that corn dough gave you an appetite for them.
Around the same time, another young man went to Pokuase Pig Farm, near “far-away Accra”, to learn how to breed pigs. And he came back and built himself a nice little farm two miles from town, where he kept about three or four pigs. They looked so nice to us – we had never seen pigs that looked clean, but these pink fellahs of his were huge by local standards and they looked as if you could allow them into your living room. We kids had a total sensation of disconnect when we compared them to the pigs we knew, which were small by comparison and which ran “wild” in the streets, eating anything they found. We used to go and stand outside the wire mesh behind which the Pokuase pigs lay, munching specially prepared food and grunting in a contented fashion, and stare and stare at them.
I don’t know who could afford to buy the man’s pigs, or what their meat tasted like. But school children often went there on “excursion” and he gave them lectures about what he had learnt at Pokuase. Unfortunately, he didn’t appear to have studied the market for pork in the area properly before setting up the business, and he couldn’t make the farm self-propagate, as he had hoped it would. Soon, only the pig-house he had built remained. Empty. It was sad to see the forlorn building standing there useless – a grim lesson in what happens when you go into a business enthusiastically, without first studying its chances of success.
But the man who took the prize for ingenuity – and emptied our pockets doing that – was called Awe. He brought to town a gambling machine that he had contrived from the parts of disassembled torchlights. He had ingenuously reconstituted the parts into a boxed contraption with torchlight bulbs fixed around it, that were numbered from 1 to 12. When he pressed the “starter” (torchlight switch), the bulbs would – magically to us – begin to light up one after the other. You paid a penny and chose a number, and if the bulb at the number you had chosen stayed alight whilst all the others had “quenched” (or “dummed”), then you had won.
You got sixpence for winning, which means that for every round, Awe pocketed sixpence. He would never press the starter until he had a full house of 12 bets. It was annoying hanging around waiting when there weren’t enough betters. Sometimes, to relieve the boredom, Awe betted against himself. He became quite rich by relieving us of our lunch money and he bought a very beautiful Riley bicycle, which he sometimes allowed us to hire – at one penny for five minutes. I am sure he got the money for the Riley from his cocoa-buying business, but to us kids, the refusal of our bodies to put on weight was all due to his taking the food from our mouths. We got our revenge by making fun of his unusual Twi accent. “Number Three – ebaasa na wodie!” (It’s Number Three that has won.) “Number five – anum na wodie!” (It’s Number Five that has won.) Six became asia; eight became awochie; seven, aason; nine, aakron; ten, iidu; until he got to 12, which became iidu abien.
We had enough good manners not to laugh in his face, and I am sure he never caught on that we sometimes paid money more to hear him announce the winning numbers than in any real expectation of winning. If you both won and also got
entertained, then you thought you had been very lucky. Do such guys still exist in our villages? He was our cinema and our lotto seller rolled into one. Another person brought us a different gambling machine – a crude version of the pinball machine. It had numbers enclosed in a semicircle of nails hammered into a board, with “obstacles” hammered in between the numbered holes, so that your ball couldn’t have an easy entry into the holes. Whoever got the hole with the largest number won about sixpence or a shilling. There used to be fights at this game, for if someone’s ball was trying to enter a hole and failed, and you had, before that, bumped into the machine – even by accident – he would say it was you who had made him lose. Deliberately.
There was also a man called Kwaku Wusu, who opened a shop that sold almost everything, including Cascara Sagrada (a very bitter potion for stomach aches and other ailments). Its alleged potency lay entirely in the fact that it tasted so awful and simultaneously also smelt so horrible that no-one could believe that if it had no power to heal, such an awful concoction would be inflicted on human beings. And, of course, that was a self-fulfilling prophecy: because people expected it to work, it worked. Kwaku Wusu also sold castor oil. This was normally a nasty-tasting laxative, but it was also used by pregnant women who had begun to experience signs of delivery, as an “aid” to the delivery process.
I know a woman who, as soon as the birth pangs began, brought out money she had saved for the purpose and then sent one of her kids and instructed him: “Go and buy me castor.” “If they haven’t got any, can I buy laxative tablets?”, the son asked. “No, buy only castor. Agya Kwaku Wusu will definitely have some.” And he had. The lady would drink it and it would work for her. She had nine safe deliveries altogether, with no midwife or any hospital assistance whatsoever. All on castor oil. But for other people, the mere sight of the slimy liquid that was castor oil would make them want to vomit. Others felt sick as soon as they smelt castor oil. Kwaku Wusu also smuggled the cure-all antibiotic M & B (May and Baker) tablets. They were not supposed to be sold without prescription, but Agya Wusu sold to you under the counter if he thought you were a safe person to sell smuggled goods to. Belief in M & B was so strong that it healed almost any illness.
That was not the only thing Kwaku Wusu smuggled. Whisky, brandy and gin from “French line” (Togo) also featured on his list, but to us kids, we “saw none” of those things. We only spoke about them to each other in whispers. Kolynos toothpaste. The preferred dental cleaner of the educated people, who no longer used tweapea (chewing sticks). The fantastic thing about tweapea was that its taste was bitter, but after you had chewed it, water tasted sweet in your mouth when you drank it. We eschewed this wonderful gift of nature, which also strengthened our teeth because it was quite tough to chew, and adopted tooth brushes and toothpaste, that ate away our gums as we used them. One day, Kwaku Wusu thought he would put a sign board in front of his shop. But being mean, he didn’t want to employ a professional sign-writer to do it for him. He bought a can of paint and a brush, and wrote what he thought was his name on the board: “K Olusu” instead of “K Owusu”. No-one corrected him, for he would never reduce his prices for anyone. So “K Olusu” it remained. The fact that I remember such a small detail to this day tells you how much fun we school kids had with that sign.