I encountered the three old lady at Koforidua. I had gone there with a good friend, Ansah, in pursuit of an affair of the heart.

For the adventure, I’d bought a white “Doctor” shirt, which was like nothing I’d ever seen before. The shirt’s whiteness was had a faint suggestion of bluishness to it, you know, as if a tiny bit of “Delstree Blue”, had been used in whitening it.

I was also madly attracted to the “Doctor” shirt because – it also had a stiff neck.

I can hear you ask:

“Were you a reverend minister?”

Answer: “No!”

“Were you a ballroom dancer?”

Answer: “No!”

“In that case, what was the use of a stiff neck to you?”

The answer is this: a proper “guy” (such as I thought I was) needed to be distinctive. Some guys dress in “uniform” and can be typecast. But someone narcissistic could seize on anything – such as an impossibly white “Doctor” shirt – to stake his claim to stylishness. If the shirt sported a “stiff neck” to boot — which held the collar impossibly high right up to the neck — it earned the guy more marks. “Respect”, what? “Street cred”? You bet!

If one wore a “Doctor” shirt, one immediately made a statement, in effect, saying to the world — “See me Lakayana with my spear!” (Apologies to the Oxford English Reader)

Yeah. One was saying, “Hey, you others, Mobetumi me? (Can you [match] me?) You call yourselves guys? Ha!”

This display of vanity cost money, of course: a “Doctor” shirt cost one pound and five shillings! Yet, in those days, one of the jobs open to most school leavers in our group was that of a pupil teacher or an “FA” (Field Assistant” employed by the Cocoa Rehabilitation or “CR” department). But neither job fetched more than ten pounds. So, to spend one pound five on a single shirt, was – er – er quite guy! I mean, it could pay rent for a whole month.

Well, I unloaded my savings and acquired a “Doctor” shirt. The first person I showed it to was Ansah, whose taste (I thought) wasn’t too far from mine. But instead of expressing appreciation for my “coup de dresse”, his manner became decidedly cold towards me!

He became so reticent that although I had confided my wish to go with him to Koforidua to him long ago, I had to learn about his impending trip there in a round-about way. Someone said something about “on Monday” and then said, “Oh, but, Ansah, you won’t be back, will you?” Upon which Ansah had replied, “Oh yes.”

What? So Ansah was going to Koforidua? 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 Afia for whom I was pining?

“Is it true you are going to Koforidua at the weekend?” I asked in shock.

“Yes.” he answered.

“But… but…? Well, can I still come with you?”

“If you like”, he said.

“If I liked?” That wasn’t encouraging. I had bought my “Doctor” shirt with Afiah 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 been fantasising) And now, the key to the whole entire enterprise was saying I could go with him “if I liked”?

It was too late for me to withdraw, however, and I buried my pride and went with Ansah. His manner did not improve and when we got to Koforidua, he deserted me in pursuit of a romantic assignation of his own. He left me in the care of his mother and vanished. But his mother was a very kind woman and we rapped a lot as she asked me searching questions.

Three old relatives of hers visited her as we were talking. The oldest among them smiled at me when she heard I came from Asiakwa. “Osiakwani, wani abue!” she said. (If you come from Asiakwa, then your eyes are open!”)

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 met strangers. But to hear it now from the lips of a complete stranger enhanced my sense of pride about my origins.

It was usually very old Asantes who spoke like that about my town. They knew that in the deep past: one very brave chief of our town had once tried to unite Akyem Abuakwa back with Asante, to end our internecine wars. He had paid for this with his head, but he earned the eternal respect of the Asantes for his descendants. Indeed, the Asiakwa palace had a talking drum, given to one of our chiefs by an ancient Asantehene, which, when played during a military confrontation between Akyem and Asante, said “Pini do!” [Move away! We are your friends!]

The old ladies thus felt free to speak in my presence and went on as if I wasn’t even there: “Death is terrible, isn’t it? How can Kwasi Poku, whom I took out of the womb with my own two hands, die before me?”

“It is witchcraft that did it”.

“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.”

“He must have been … (she begins to count on her fingers) three hundred and eighty years old.”



“Why, was he Methuselah?

Matu-whan? (Methu-who?)

“Methuselah! Our church pastor told us that Methuselah grew to be nine hundred and sixty-nine years old.”

“If that is the case, then what prevents Kwasi too from growing to over three hundred – like this your Matusa-whan-whan?”

“If Kwasi, who was young, died at the age of was three hundred and eighty years, then how old are you yourself?

“Me?” [She pauses and moves her lips silently] I am four hundred and thirty-two years old”, she announced finally.

I burst out laughing and had to run away, covering my mouth. 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.

Thinking about the old lady’s queer relationship to numerology, I stumbled upon the fact that she had, of course, been using the traditional annual festivals of her people — such as Odwira or Adae — to count the years. These festivals occur in cycles of forty days. So she has no use for a “year” of 365 days.

It was probably all a matter of relativity as found in mathematics. Since the Sun’s rays, for instance, reach us on earth a good eight minutes after they leave the Sun, can we say with any certainty that “The Sun is shining NOW?”

No wonder I hated maths in school. So confusing, no?



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