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Today, many tarred roads lead to my grandmother’s house in the Accra suburb of East Legon, a sprawling neighborhood of mini and monstrous mansions with bougainvillea bushes spilling over the high walls that surround them, hinting at what the homes and families are like on the inside. But in 1990 when my parents sent me from Queens, New York to school in Ghana—my first time back since my mother presented me to the family as a baby—there was only one road, and it was not tarred. Back then, Shiashie Road was a red, rock-studded dirt road, littered with black pellets of goat booboo. And it certainly did not have a gleaming road sign to identify it. Cratered by the cars and pick-up trucks that had powered over it on rainy days, naked to the sun that blistered above it, Shiashie Road took me to physical and invisible places. Literally, Shiashie Road led me to East Legon Junction with its intersection of fast-zooming cars and trotros that could take me into town, but it also put me on the road to connecting with Ghana and identifying myself as a Ghanaian.

Before my return to Ghana, my imagination of the country of my parents’ birth was a hodgepodge of the old photos I had seen of my young parents with their high afros and higher platforms, and the news coverage of the famine in Ethiopia. The bloated belly children on the news, too weak from hunger to swat away the flies that settled on them, contradicted the wistful picture Mommy and Daddy painted of the Ghana they had left behind. No matter how many times my father told the story of the ignorant white man who sat next to him on his flight to America and asked him if he lived in a tree—Daddy answered with a sarcastic yes, right next to the tree then-Ambassador Shirley Temple lived in—for whatever reason, the negative images on the news and the ignorant assumptions were more convincing to me than the positive ones my parents put forth. I was thoroughly embarrassed to be African.

It didn’t help that at school, the kids who knew I was African called me an “African Booty Scratcher”. At home, I desperately wished our dinner table was covered with steaming plates of Hot Pockets, meatloaf, Uncle Ben’s Rice, and all the other American meals advertised on TV instead of the kenkey, banku, or fufu my mother prepared. It mortified me when my parents spoke Fanti in public, and there was also the matter of my African first name. In the right accent, “Nana” could sound like a nickname for “Nan” or “Anna”, but there was no Anglicizing “Ekua”. I will never forget, one Christmas, my mother printed up cards for me to distribute to friends with my full name on it. I fastidiously blacked out my middle name before dropping the cards into the envelopes I would hand out the next day.

So when my parents decided I should attend secondary school in Ghana, I imagined all sorts of things about what was waiting at the other end of the flight. I expected the chaotic airport scene of porters rushing at me with their trolleys, but I was not expecting the shiny sedans parked around the airport waiting to collect the arriving passengers. The paradox continued outside the airport. Posh hotels and restaurants dotted the tarred road on the way to my grandmother’s house… and then the tarred highway abruptly ended as we turned onto Shiashie Road. As we bumped on the short road to Grandma’s, I peered out of my window at the village of Shiashie, a small collection of mud and cement homes topped with sheets of corrugated iron. But then we turned again, and we were in East Legon, with its barbwire-trimmed walls and the huge homes that stood behind them.

Those first few weeks, I did not know what to make of Ghana. In my walks around East Legon the walled-off homes yielded no clues, nor did my rides around the neighborhood which included a French School and a crèche, not too far from the University of Ghana. But in the village of Shiashie, I got an Akwaaba to explore the place my parents had left so many years ago, and now left me in; and a welcome to find my place in it. Unlike in East Legon, there were no walls encasing Shiashie’s homes, no gilded gates monogrammed with the homeowners’ initials for gatemen to swing open when residents returned from work, school, market, or holidays. The lives of Shiashie’s citizens, from their morning ablutions, through their daily hustles, to what they cooked for supper played out in the open for everyone—for me—to see.

As I cut through the grid of homes that made up Shiashie, passing under flags of clothes that had been hung out to dry, averting my eyes from women and children bathing out in the open, and smiling at diners as they tucked into their lunchtime spreads of kenkey and fish or rice and stew, I could practice my broken Twi and Ga without fear of the smirks I got from the members of Grandma’s household. “Enye hwee,” No big deal, I could assure the mother chastising her child for not giving me enough space to pass by on the way to the salon.

“Ofane, in sumo relaxer, enye?” Please, I’d like a relaxer, how much? I could practice my bargaining skill on the fem-trepreneur in her shadowy red kiosk, steeling myself to talk her down from her initial quote as I had watched my grandmother, aunties, and uncles do at the market. And when I sat in the dusty salon chair, dropping my head back over a sink with no running water, I could see that the pail of water being used to rinse the burning sodium hydroxide cream from my scalp was just as effective as the flow of the tap, albeit a tad messier.

In those moments, as I made the short walk back to Grandma’s, rollers in my hair, my wet t-shirt drying almost instantly under the searing sun, I marveled at the distance people created between East Legon and Shiashie by labeling the latter a “village”. When I told people I lived in East Legon they would simultaneously raise their eyebrows and turn down the corners of their mouths— Ghanaian for you must be monied—but in reality, there was not that much difference. The same cumulus cloud of dust doused the houses of Shiashie and the walls of East Legon as trucks and cars maneuvered the dirt roads that snaked around them.

Sure, the people of Shiashie bathed at an open outdoor tap, splashing the suds from their bodies with bright colored pails, but in East Legon, in the privacy of our tiled baths with a bidet standing steps away from the bathtub, we were taking a bucket bath too—the unpredictable water flow and low water pressure made the fancy showerhead just for show in all but the wealthiest of homes. In the same way, while candles and kerosene lamps lit up the night for Shiashie residents all the time, in Grandma’s house we kept candles and kerosene lamps at the ready too, for the random, yet consistent Lights Off that would abruptly plunge us into silent darkness. Some East Legonians had generators that would power on, but on those opaque black nights I would not see any light for miles.

But even with those walks into Shiashie, and those brushes with the people, those glimpses into their lives, those observations of Ghanaian classism, I was still ignorant about what Ghana was truly about. At that point, I had only been in Ghana for a month and, like a tourist, as much as I had seen, there was still so much more that only time and deeper interactions would reveal.

Over the course of the three years I spent in Ghana I learnt more about Shiashie and the people who lived in it. Those were three years of driving from East Legon through Shiashie for the two-hour journey to secondary school in Ghana’s Central Region, returning months later for the Easter and Christmas breaks; three years of walks to Shiashie to buy freshly-skinned oranges or bread still warm and squishy from the oven, or to get my hair done, my jeans patched, the thong of my chalewote slippers fixed… but it was the day my Grandmother opened our home in East Legon to Shiashie residents looking for a place to house their church that I began my most meaningful encounter.

It was Christmas Break and I was home from school when a knock on our gate interrupted the stillness of the hot afternoon. My uncle and I were watching an old rerun of BET’s Video Soul; the knock forced Uncle to leave his perch on the couch next to the whirring fan and move outside to the scorching heat to release the latch on the gate. There was a woman at the head of a small group, "Please, is Madam in?" she asked.

Uncle came inside to get Grandma where she was squinting at the big print of her bigger Bible, a silver teapot-style thermos of tea keeping her favorite beverage warm beside her. Grandma straightened her bubu, allowing the rainbow of fabric to settle around her petite heft before sliding her feet into her slippers to greet her visitors, leading them towards the plastic chairs under the cashew fruit tree.

The spokeswoman stepped forward from the group. The two women sat under the shade as the visitor introduced herself. She was a friend of the seamstress in Shiashie that sewed things for Grandma. She knew that behind our walls, the construction of Grandma's house was as slow as the money coming in to finish it; could she, could they—just until the house was finished, use the large compound that stood empty while we were at church on Sunday mornings to hold service for their own church?

From the kitchen window I watched the proceedings under the cashew tree, wondering what my grandmother was discussing with these visitors. When she came in moments later, Grandma announced that we would be hosting church, and cited a scripture—Acts 16:14-15—in which a woman had opened her home up to the disciples. Grandma added that since it was always a squeeze in our one car to make the trip to our church in neighboring Tema, I would worship with these people on Sundays from now on.

My uncle giggled at the pronouncement—just before Grandma told him that he too would be staying behind. I made a face. It was one thing to walk to and through Shiashie, but it was another, entirely, to let the people of Shiashie into our incomplete home, the home that seemed grander behind its wall, gate and bougainvillea bushes. And what…? Was our house a church now? The thought of this exposure mortified me. It turned out that I had enjoyed the invisible wall that made me—the American girl who lived in East Legon—separate from the people of Shiashie, as much as everybody else.

That first Sunday the small group of 15 or so worshipers appeared outside our gate. Grandma locked up the house, gave Uncle the key and left us to have church with them. Wearing their Sunday best, the group filed in and sat on the mix of plastic and foldout chairs they had delivered and arranged into a circle during the week. An eloquent man stepped forward from the group and began to lead us in praise and worship.

The clapping started, followed by the call-and-response of praise songs.

"Ose ye!"

"Ye! Ye!"

"Ahenfohene oriba-oh, amenyina bo n'ose!"

“The King of Kings is coming, everyone shout, Ose!"

So far it felt like Grandma's church except for the fact that we were outdoors, and at our house.
Then the sermon began, in the preacher's grammatically flawed English. My eyes searched for my Uncle’s, as I tried to stay focused and not succumb to laughter. Shortly after the service ended and the group had left, Grandma beeped her car horn at the gate. We ran to open it and she drove in with my other uncle and aunt in tow. Settling into the kitchen, she asked us how church went. "The same, except for the gbas," I decided. Stirring her tea on the small side table beside her, she nodded. Grandma had known there would be no real difference.

The next Sunday, I did not notice the gbas as much. By the end of Christmas Break, I welcomed the fact that I did not have to wake up early or even shower for church. The service was coming to me. Another interesting result of the Shiashie church: now, during the week, when I ventured out into the village, I actually knew some of the people I passed. "Etisen?" How are you? They would ask me as I stopped to buy an orange from them, or waved in their direction on the way to get my hair washed. They had no physical walls before, but now the invisible ones had also come down.

Twenty years later, Shiashie Road has been smoothed over with black tar. Many of the roadside businesses have moved to the Junction near the buzzing lorry stop, not too far from the tourist magnet market at Tetteh Quarshie Circle. Ironically, the road has walled Shiashie in, isolating it from anyone who would normally shortcut through the maze of mud and cement homes to get to the junction. The tarred road is smoother, quicker, and easier on shoes if you are on foot, even if you do have to dodge the vehicles zipping past in both directions.

Other roads have been tarred too. Today, depending on where you are coming from, Shiashie Road is no longer the most convenient way to get to Grandma's house. But when we do take that road, I can't help but peer through my window and shake my head at the clueless, 12-year-old me, audaciously marching through this community with daring curiosity, and then slowly connecting with the people of Shiashie, with Ghana, and with myself. That metamorphosis started in this village, when I was forced to open my gate and let the people of Shiashie in on what was going on inside my walls. Gbas and all, I realized that behind the walls and the gates, all God’s children were the same.

Nana Brew-Hammond

Nana Ekua Brew Hammond
is a Ghanaian writer. Her debut novel, Powder Necklace is now available on Amazon.


Nana Brew Hammond

Nama Brew-Hammond

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