Obruni (excerpt)

Obruni (excerpt)
by Delali Ayivor

You came to Ghana to help people but everywhere you go people seem to be doing things for you. It's been a week and you've barely lifted a finger, only watched others work to get your water for your shower, pick the ripest plantain for your dinner, wake up early to sweep the path of dirt outside your room. You ask Kofi if you are going to be doing any work in Tamale but he is busy with the girl, putting his arm behind her back and cushioning her body from the shudder of the vehicle.

"Don't worry about it, Obruni," he says absently. "We'll get around to the work." This lack of responsibility seems to be common of Kofi's personality.  You learned this quickly, on your first night, when, instead of letting you unpack and rest, he took you on an all night bender to a local chop bar (soup shop). You'd spent the whole night staring miserably into glass after glass of lukewarm beer while sucked the marrow from soup bones, flicking his tongue out theatrically for a girl across the room. Sighing, you dig your hand into your pocket and reach for you anti-malarial pills.

"The medicine will make you sicker than the malaria," Kofi laughs, snatching the foil packet from your hand. You protest as best you can but he just smirks.  "Just stay away from the witch doctor's hut Obruni, you'll be fine."

Then you arrive in Tamale, the capital of what is simply known as the Northern Region of Ghana. It isn't much to look at, especially compared to the sites you'd seen on your way up from the capital - waterfalls and forests. The village you're staying in now is little more than a cluster of huts surrounded by some sparse woods. There is a river that runs brown water about a fifteen minute walk away. The whole thing looks like an infomercial for the National Children's Fund and you find yourself wondering exactly how far forty cents a day would go here. Then the sun goes down and you realize why you are here.

Before Ghana you had never seen the stars. You'd looked at the night sky before, wondered abstractly about the hugeness of it all. But nothing compared to running through the tall grass, collapsing into soft earth and breathing in a blanket of silver.
 
***

Before Ghana you'd never danced. And apparently you'd never seen anyone dance either. Your second night in Tamale a party is thrown in your honor. It is an all day affair. Sometime shortly after dawn Kofi comes to your room, the bottom story of an unfinished two story house. As Kofi had explained to you the day before, most Ghanaians will put all their savings into a house and if they run out of money before they can finish the build they just abandon it until they make more money. As a result, your room is the only concrete house in the village, surrounded on all sides by huts. They have saved the best for you, the obruni, the white man.

"Wake up Obruni!" Kofi says, poking his head in the doorway. He is wearing a sleeveless green shirt made of  a rough hewn fabric and little black hairs curl out of the neckline. He tells you that you are going to pick plantains and yams then peel them for frying. "Tonight we make kelewele," he says, licking his lips. "This is going to be a feast. Enough to make you obolo!"

"Obolo?"

"Fat-fat." And then he's off again, laughing so hard his shoulders brush the bottoms of his rounded earlobes.

Hours later he's still at it while you sit peeling. The plantains are easier than the stubborn root vegetable so Kofi gives you a pile of plantains and a machete. You look over to see him caressing the burlap hide of a yam. It's in between his legs and he's smiling evocatively. Watching him is a girl. Not the one from the tro-tro but one who is equally beautiful. She looks shocked at Kofi's actions and hides her face behind a head full of long, skinny braids.

"I'm thirsty," you say to Kofi, breaking into his seduction.

"Ah," he says. "I was wondering when you were going to say that! I'll get some Kasapreko." He's up and moving towards his hut before you can even ask him what the hell Kasapreko is. He returns with a cloudy glass bottle full of a clear liquid. The label depicts a cocoa bean split in half, a cow bell, and a dark man laughing uproariously. The print job is bad so the lines depicting the man's wrinkles are thick and off center. Still, you are intrigued. Kofi takes a swig from the bottle and smacks his lips together, then tilts his head back and grins, the face he's making matching almost exactly the face of the man on the bottle. If this is indicative of what Kasapreko can do to a man you are almost certain that you want to try it.

After a couple more swigs of Kasapreko the peeling of plantains does not seem such a hardship. The time flies and next thing you know it is the party. Kofi has the girl from earlier in the day sitting on his lap. You have changed into a bubu, which is really just a long bolt of fabric you've wrapped around yourself. You don't really know how it's staying on. The Kasapreko made your fingers bulky and awkward and despite Kofi's best attempts, you were unable to learn to clothe yourself properly. But right now this doesn't matter to you. Everyone is around the fire, sitting on stools and eating. Your head is bobbing to the sound of the drums being played to your left and you have your fifth agouti kabob in your hand. Then the women begin to dance. They all seem to have the ability to lift and separate parts of their anatomy then make them move independently. You watch in fascination as a group of five girls pump their arms back and forth while lowering their butts closer to the ground.

"Agbada!" yells Kofi. "My favorite." You don't doubt it for a second. All your dance experience, shamefacedly shifting from foot to foot after two or three beers, seems so paltry in the face of this. You get up, attempt to get a feel for the beat. Maybe it is the Kasapreko but the truth is you aren't sure what takes hold of you as you start to dance. All you know is the beat of your heart matches the drum. You pump your arms and lower your ass to the ground, swiveling your head from side to side as you do so. "Obruni!" chant the villagers. "Obruni!" You will never be so proud of anything you've accomplished in your whole life until the next day when Kofi tells you that the agbada is only for girls.

 

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