A pocket full of Cedi’s
Finding myself alone in Kumasi, one afternoon when the rest of the group were resting, I had two choices, put my feet up and snooze away the afternoon or go and explore. I figured that I probably wouldn’t be back in Ashante again, so why waste an afternoon, when I only had five left. I scrawled a note for my travelling friend,
Gone to the market to buy a fat pig,
Home again, home again jig-a-d-jig
and set off, the hotel doorman rushed to ask if I needed anything,
‘Would you like someone to collect shopping for you Mummy’? If it’s possible to be impish and solicitous as the same time, that’s what his face displayed.
‘No-no, I’m fine, which way to Kejetia, can you point me?
‘Is a confusing place, better go with someone’, he said, ‘let me call a guide.’
I hesitated for just a few seconds, then seeing the market three or four hundred metres away, ‘I see it now, thank you’, and dashed away before he could ‘help’ me any further.
I was bluffing of course, in the very pit of my tummy, I felt a tiny bit vulnerable. I was stared at. I was ‘hello’d continuously, and I still had to find a way across the road which became busier the further I walked from the hotel. Busier and more stagnant, alternating between lanes, with an overwhelming stench of diesel and sweaty bodies, mine included. I stood back, waiting for a chance to cross the road, watching as pedestrians bravely dashed through gaps, as if they were aiming for a winning goal in a cup final.
I felt the softest flutter on my hand, and a reflex made me stuff it into my jeans pocket to check where I’d put a bundle of a hundred Cedis. A plump woman reprimanded the deep brown skinned girl standing between us, who only wanted to feel if my skin was the same. The mother wore a wrapper and matching boubou in bold printed fabric and had a baby, whose face was all eyes, on her left hip. The girl reminded me of myself as a child, I smiled at them and the woman must have guessed my road crossing dilemma, because without stopping her phone call, she gestured with her shoulder that I should follow her. We crossed diagonally dipping and diving, both racing and in slow motion, and we made it to the other side. Panting from holding my breath, I turned to thank her, but I’d already lost her to the market.
I’d only been walking for twenty minutes, but already I felt myself dehydrating and I scanned the nearest stalls for something cool and refreshing . I could see bicycle tyres, mobile phone cases, umbrellas lots of Rolex watches and Chanel bags, but nothing to drink, until a couple of teenage girls came towards me drinking coconut juice straight from the nut.
‘Hi, can you tell me where I can buy this please’? they giggled and gestured, making me feel silly in the way that only teenage girls can. I was already glowing red so they wouldn’t notice my blush, and never mind, I watched as a boy chopped the top of a nut with a blade that would take his hand off in a flash if he misjudged by an inch. It was the best few pence I’d ever spent.
I walked with purpose, less people called to me that way, but I skimmed every stall at the same time. I knew what I wanted, but didn’t have a clue if it would be in a packet or a box. Everywhere was different, but everywhere was the same. Chickens, dead and alive, mobiles, Apple of course, CD’s and DVD’s, genuine Italian handbags, crocodile shoes, mountains of yam stacked up like breeze blocks and probably almost as dense to cut through.
I soon realised the area I was in wasn’t right, snake skins were draped over roughly hewn wooden cages containing live chicken, the layer below had piles of small undefined creatures, some like giant rats, others more like squirrels, gutted and with bared teeth intact. I turned to retrace my steps, but got it wrong, mesmerised by the sights, I’d broken my own golden rule, take note of things on the way.
The strangest were the heads of lots of small monkeys, stacked up like the red onions on an opposite stall. The eyes were closed and they still had teeth and skin, brown and shrunken, a lot like the salt fish that was on every market street in Africa. Presumably it was preserved in the same way. One for the cooking pot, the other for some bizarre voodoo practice.
I passed row after row of fetish items, it made me feel increasingly anxious and even though I was greeted with smiles everywhere, I briefly wondered what I was doing on my own. I turned away quickly when I came across some young men arguing in Asante, time to move on, my search for shea was getting nowhere and the argument was getting ferocious. I didn’t notice the shiny metal until my feet slid sideways and I very nearly fell. The railway line led off into the distance, and people were walking all over it, perhaps they were hoping to reinstate the service, anything is possible in Ghana.
A flash of the brightest colour caught my eye, a middle-aged lady dressed in the finest Kente cloth stood beside me.
‘Hello young lady, are you looking for something, I am Celestine Ahimah and I’m sure I can help. I was educated at Oxford University and worked in London for ten years, now tell me all about yourself’, she was clearly very proud of her 1960’s BBC English. She locked her arm in mine, marched me off, and didn’t stop talking for a moment.
‘Shea butter, do you know where I can get some? All I’ve seen is Chinese imports, dried up lizards and monkeys.’
‘Come along now follow me quickly,’ she shooed away one man selling ‘designer sunglasses and another selling Mackeson. I was tempted to linger when I smelt fried plantains, but Celestine wasn’t having any of it.
‘Ori, that’s what you want, and this is the best, she pointed at a rusty, charred dustbin that looked like it should have been discarded a century ago. I peered in, at a pile of grey grease, it was pickled with nut shell, yes, it was the real thing, raw and totally unprocessed. Celestine looked at me, her expression one of anticipation. I didn’t know what to say, ‘Uh how can I get it home?’
They pulled a meat cleaver from under the table and set about hacking into the bin, ‘This much? More?’
‘That will last you three years if you use it everyday’ said Celestine, ‘fifteen Cedi.’
My market day was over, I left a very happy Gilly, with a bag full of Women’s gold.
Kumasi market is the biggest in west Africa, it sprawls over a vast area, confusing for the outsider. I was there in 2007 and have never forgotten the experience. I wrote this for my writing group.