They did what?!
A story by Ronke Luke
College Chapel Church
My father's vigil
They did what?!
Laughter interrupted the tears. Grief lightened for a moment. Puzzlement added new contortions to my face already crumpled by crying. I had heard most of the stories of my father’s feats retold by this point of his vigil. At least versions of the stories. They were funny but also familiar. Hearing them told again by his friends at this sad time was soothing. Tales of dad swimming to school. Although he seemingly left home clothed in his school uniform, I never figured out what he did with his uniform before he plunged into the water. Or dad riding his bicycle that had no brakes around Freetown. Pedestrians fled as he careened down King St - a steep hill that pedestrians and cars alike strained to ascend. At the bottom of King St., veering left and right to avoid collision with cars and people, dad brought the bike to a halt with his feet. I always wondered about his shoes when I heard the tales of the bike. African children don’t get lots of shoes, so roughhousing one’s shoes like this was certainly reckless. But stories of my dad’s youth all conveyed him as popular and incautious.
Then came Uncle Teddy (I think it was him).
He started with, “I remember our student days in England.”
My father and his contemporaries started many of their tales like this. With time and place. Setting up for the yarn. This one would be in the fifties.
Uncle Teddy continued “... when Egerton, Desmond and Brady represented Sierra Leone at the Olympics.”
Egerton was my father, who we were eulogizing. Desmond, his surviving brother. Brady, was Bradman, rest-in-peace, their long-departed cousin.
“Government of Sierra Leone didn’t select them. In fact, Government of Sierra Leone didn’t have a team” Uncle Teddy continued his voice rising, a smile on his face. “So Egerton, Desmond, and Brady decided to go on their own.” Uncle Teddy was now laughing. “A three-man team to represent Sierra Leone. Just like that!”
What? I’d never heard this story before.
“Desmond was the athlete. Brady, the manager and Egerton, team doctor.”
My father’s contemporaries, transported back in time by the memory or their image of the trio, burst into boisterous laughter. Were they in on the lark? They nodded vigorously or shook heads in surprise, either way concurring it was a thing that dad would do.
The rest of us first let out an audible “what!” as we looked around the pews, astonished at the audaciousness of what we’d just heard. Then we laughed too. Hesitantly.
In his stride, Uncle Teddy elaborated how this three-man team had assembled itself. “Desmond had been a brilliant student athlete, of course. Breaking records. The first school boy in England to clear six feet in high jump. So he was the athlete. Egerton, studying medicine, naturally was team doctor. And Brady was studying law, so he was the manager. The three musketeers. They marched in the opening ceremony and all,” laughed Uncle Teddy. After the Olympics escapade, the three travelled around Europe, he continued. I don’t remember anything else he said or how he concluded his tribute. His first story had been so fantastical it blotted out the rest.
Several days after we’d buried dad
I brought up the topic with Uncle Desmond as we sat in his living room. Me on the sofa. He, in his favourite armchair, across from the TV.
“At the vigil, what was Uncle Teddy talking about you and dad going to the Olympics?
My uncle chuckled. His eyes twinkled. “He said that?” he asked.
Wasn't he there? Didn't he hear it?
“Yes, in the tributes. That’s the first I heard that story,” I shook my head at him, forehead creased, eyebrows closer to my hairline, hands raised, upturned, open in the universal questioning gesture. “What was that about?”
He never replied as more family arrived and the conversation changed.
Eight years later in Maryland, USA
I was with Uncle Desmond in his hotel room. We’d been chit chatting, watching TV and nibbling on snacks. I broached the topic again.
“So Uncle Desmond. Back to dad’s vigil and Uncle Teddy’s tribute about you, Dad and Brady going to the Olympics?”
“Ah hmmm” he replied.
“So? Did it happen?”
“Er, yes, sort of” he replied lazily as he continued watching TV.
“The three of you went to the Olympics!”
“Was the Commonwealth Games,” Desmond clarified, turning to look at me, a smile across his face.
Well, Commonwealth Games brought their escapade down a notch, but it was still an utterly crazy story I had to get to the bottom of.
“Yes. The three of us went.” His eyes twinkled.
“As a team representing Sierra Leone.”
“Yes,” Desmond replied, matter-of-factly.
“What!?” I was dumbfounded. “Really!? How?”
“Well,” he replied in his lazy drawl, part laughing. “The Commonwealth Games was coming. We didn’t know whether Sierra Leone was sending a team,” he shrugged. “So, ahhh, your father, Brady and I, decided to go as the team.”
“Just like that!?”
“Yes,” he laughed. “Why not?”
“Had you been training to compete at the Commonwealth Games?”
It seemed so casual. My dad, his brother and cousin, all college students in England, on a whim decided to go to the Commonwealth Games because, maybe, no official team was going. The sheer chutzpah!
“So without much training or preparation you arrived at the games and registered?” I pressed.
“Said you were the Sierra Leone team. Just three people and that was it?”
“Yes.” He was laughing again. “There were others there.”
“And you competed?”
I was staring at my uncle dumbfounded. “In what events?”
“High jump and long jump.”
Of course. He had excelled in these disciplines in school and at Oxford.
“Wow! Just like that?” I stared at my Uncle, eyes wide, mouth agape, head shaking.
“Yes.” Desmond seemed tickled by my amazement. His eyes twinkled. He laughed. He seemed both pleased at my reaction and his memory of the uproarious lark.
I didn’t get to ask how it all turned out. The sound of a key card jostling in the hotel room door interrupted our conversation. His wife had returned.
In the ensuing years, I promised myself, next time I see Desmond that was one conversation I needed to finish with him. I needed to get to the end of the story.
Alas, fate robbed me of the chance when news came that fateful Saturday late in February. Desmond had suddenly departed this life. Heart attack it turned out.
And as the tributes poured in for him, I thought again about the trio at the Commonwealth Games. Dad, Desmond and Bradman. They were all gone now. No one left to ask. This time I googled it. And there it was. Desmond E. F. Luke listed amongst the participants for high jump and long jump at the 1958 Commonwealth Games in Cardiff. He didn’t make the podium. Far from it. But the fantastical story behind his appearance alone made up for the feet and inches between him and the medalists.
- End -
copyright 2021 Ronke Luke
What's your craziest caper?
Have you done anything audacious? Or know someone who has?
24 Hours to Life
A story by Ronke Luke
------------ Lifestyles of the rich and famous -------------
Manu paced his living room, rubbing his left temple, as he spoke on his phone.
“We’re set. Yes, the signing ceremony is tomorrow. 12 noon.” Manu listened for a brief moment. “Okay,” he replied. “I’ll be there. You be there,” he said and hung up.
The old digital clock on the book shelf blinked 10:07 am.
He scanned the poorly furnished living room. Threadbare sofa on a faded carpet. “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” played on his old TV. Manu smiled. Tomorrow, he’d have his entre into that world, well the African-version of it. The health minister, for whom he worked, would sign a fifty million dollar Ebola-related deal. With that signature, Manu knew he’d be half way to a million dollars. Untraceable, uncut diamonds in a small bag. His payoff for steering the health supplies deal to a preferred consortium. Manu shivered involuntarily as he thought of that much money in his pocket.
---------- I'll be fine ---------
“Manu!” his wife, Jenneh, called as she walked into the room. “How you feeling?”
“Head still hurts,” he replied, turning to face her. “Bloody malaria.”
“They did blood test?” Jenneh asked. He’d had a 7 am appointment at a local clinic. Then he'd been to his office. Tying up loose ends of the deal.
“Yes. Waste of time,” Manu replied. “I only went there because of you. I’m taking malaria pills. I’ll be fine.”
“After Ebola, you know the deal. Blood test for everyone who goes to a clinic,” Jenneh said.
“That thing cannot come back,” she muttered as she left the room.
-------- The gift that keeps on giving ---------
But Manu had heard her. He couldn’t tell her that Ebola was his pay-day.
Yes, it was mercenary. But why should the big shots and politically-connected be the only ones to prosper? He was a good civil servant. So close to power, he had seen those tied to the health-industrial-complex make millions during the epidemic, and after wards. Now it was his turn.
Ebola had ended a few years ago, but it was the gift that kept on giving. Governments simply characterized everything as post-Ebola preventive health programs and money still flowed. As Deputy Chief of Staff to the Minister of Health, Manu had engineered his cut of a massive medical supplies contract.
He lay down on the old sofa and closed his eyes. His left temple throbbed.
---------- Wait! What? ---------
Brrrrrrr. Brrrrrrr. Brrrrrrr.
“Hello.” Manu sounded like a man who had been startled awake. “Hey! Dr. Travor,” he said as he rubbed the sleep out of his eyes. He glanced at the clock. It was 11:26 am.
I must have been tired.
“Manu. I’ll be straight.” Dr. Travor said. “Your results are EVD-positive.”
“What!” Manu bolted upright and swung his sock-clad feet onto the thin carpet.
“Positive Ebola.” Dr. Travor reiterated.
“Wait. Wait.” Manu stuttered.
“You know all blood samples are tested for Ebola,” Dr. Travor reminded him. “It’s part of the African Ebola monitoring program that the Health Ministry participates in.”
Manu knew the program well. It was an easy decision for the country to participate as the program was donor-funded. More importantly, it involved enough procurement to cream off a little so lots of people got paid. With large orders, a fraction of one percent added up. Soon it was big money.
“I see all confidential results before they are sent to King’s Memorial Hospital. You know they run the national Ebola monitoring center,” Dr. Travor continued.
“So what are you saying?” Manu snapped. “Wha…”
“Listen Manu,” Dr. Travor interrupted. “You’re Ebola-positive. I’ve held back your results to be discreet,” she explained. “But you need to check into King’s Memorial today. Go into quarantine there.”
Manu was silent. His mind raced.
Ebola! Where? How?
He squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed his left temple that now seemed to thunder in his head.
“Manu! Meet me at Kings Memorial in an hour,” Dr. Travor continued sharply “I will supervise your admission.” Softening her voice to sooth his fears, she added “There are new treatments. 100% successful when started within 24 hours. It’s not like during the epidemic.” Then her voice quickened, “But you must get to hospital immediately. I’m on my way there.” She hung up. It was 11:43 am.
Manu’s mind reeled.
------- Why risk it? --------
On his old TV, he noticed that Lifestyles was over. Instead, Manu saw a contestant on “Millionaire” blow $400,00 with her final answer instead of walking away. She was so close to $500,000. Manu shook his head at the TV. The contestant was crestfallen.
Why risk it? Why not walk away?
--------This job's not helping -------
Manu snapped to when he heard his wife.
“Who called?” Jenneh asked.
In that moment, he decided what he’d do.
“The Minister’s secretary. They leave tonight for his district,” he replied, steadying his voice. Showing no fear, he continued, “I have to join them.”
“This government job isn’t helping us, Manu!” Jenneh scolded. “Long, erratic hours. Little money. You’re Deputy Chief of Staff. A waste of time.”
“This job will deliver. Be patient.” Manu's voice was steady.
He looked at the clock. 12:03 pm. He left the room quickly to pack his overnight bag.
Mentally, he went over his plan.
100% successful treatment he repeated in his mind.
Manu steeled himself. He had to stretch his next 24 hours. He was so close to the life that teased on TV. He would elude Kings hospital and Dr. Travor by checking into a hotel tonight. He needed to attend the signing ceremony at noon tomorrow. Those uncut stones would pay for any type of treatment. He’d take his chances that he’d give death the slip tonight.
# The End #
copyright 2017 - 2021 Ronke Luke
This story was inspired by news reports of irregularities in contracting and procurement during the Ebola epidemic in West Africa and in the US and UK during the global coronavirus pandemic. I wrote the first version in 2017. Tweaked it again in 2018. In late 2020, deep into coronavirus lockdown, I dusted off the article again. This time I finished it.
What is the most self-serving thing, you've observed or heard of during the coronavirus pandemic? Or during a large-scale catastrophic event?
A Place in the Palace
A story by Ronke Luke
Ever had one of those days that you plan to spend out and about doing nothing particularly strenuous, in pursuit of something pleasant, when all of a sudden – BAM!, you’re jolted out of your daydream into an unwelcome reality?
I had one of those days.
It was summer, in the 90s. I was in Memphis, TN. With time on my hands and no plans, I decided to visit the Pink Palace - a mansion turned museum. It was once owned by Clarence Saunders, a self-made tycoon, who, in the 1923 stock market crash, lost his fortune and with it the pink mansion he was building. In a nod to Mr. Saunders’ life changing innovation – the self-service grocery store - the Pink Palace holds a replica of his first Piggly Wiggly store; precursor to the modern supermarket.
But it’s the Pink Palace’s other artifacts that shattered my idle wandering. But I didn’t know any of this when I decided a museum visit was a perfect way to while away that day.
The replica Piggly Wiggly store was small (maybe the size of a 7-Eleven) and quaint. It had been a radical departure from the norm when it opened. Instead of handing over a shopping list to a clerk behind a counter who dutifully got your goods while you twiddled your thumbs; in the Piggly Wiggly you picked up a basket and selected your goods yourself. In return for carrying your own load and not being waited on, Mr. Saunders offered lower prices. An incentive he correctly thought would be sufficient to lure the masses to his store. A turnstile and clever floor plan forced eager shoppers in one direction, passing all items on offer and ending with an enticing selection of impulse buys such as sweets at the check-out. The birth of the modern day supermarket and those terrible teasers at the cash register.
The Piggly Wiggly replica store was a delightful step back into the past yet a fully recognizable cousin to today’s supermarkets. Mr. Saunders would be tickled to know that his marketing insight - low prices and the feel of a treasure hunt – prevails in bargain and discount stores today.
The store was a great find for a relaxed outing. Educational and inspirational.
What triggers the “Ah-ha!” moment that brings forth the twist on an existing offering or conjures up something new like Mr. Sanunders’ store.
Lost in these thoughts, I ambled out of the replica store towards the museum’s other exhibits. I don’t recall how many exhibit halls I went into after the Piggly Wiggly, or much of what I saw until I sauntered into a small hall. I peered absentmindedly into a glass case and there is was. Lit up by lights placed to show the contents to their best, the miniature thing registered as familiar but unremarkable at first. Then I read the exhibit tag.
Shrunken human head
Jolted out of my idle curiosity, I gasp and recoiled.
I stepped back to the case. The gruesome little thing pulled me in.
No bigger than a doll’s head, it sat there staring back at me with beady black eyes; probably glass but real enough. The caramel colored skin looked leathery. The features were proportionate to the size. Like a head bonsai.
What unfortunate decision had the head’s owner made that had brought him to this misfortune.
The head did not reveal gender, but I thought it belonged to a “he”. Cultural bias maybe.
I looked again. This time, the eyes repelled me. I turned abruptly and fled for the exit. My mind whirled.
Had he known the people who had shrunk his head? How does one shrink a head anyway? What journey does a shrunken human head take before it ends up in a museum?
I was lost in these racing thoughts as I rounded the exhibit hall exit and collided heavily with a custodian.
“Argh!” the custodian cried steadying himself.
“Sorry! So sorry,” I gushed as I snapped out of my haze. “Are you okay? Really sorry,” I rushed on as the man hadn’t said anything.
Hopefully, I haven’t hurt him and he isn’t annoyed.
“Where are you from?” he asked when he spoke; his voice more curious than angry.
Phew! Personal confrontation averted.
“Sierra Leone,” I replied trying to keep my voice light. “It’s in West Africa.”
“Oh!” the custodian replied, his voice higher and excited. “You could be in there!” he exclaimed pointing to the exhibit hall that housed the shrunken head!
“Uh Oh!” I gasped. I wheeled on my heels and scurried for the Pink Palace door!
- The End -
© 2017 – 2019, Ronke Luke
What's the most shocking thing you've seen at a museum?
Ever had an outing that ended up being more shocking than fun?
Mr. James! It’s You?
a story by Ronke Luke
March - April
It was barely 10:02 am on a March morning and Mr. James was hot. Not because of the three-piece suit with white shirt and narrow black tie he wore. Not because the air conditioners in the hallway spouted warm air. No. The heat searing his thinking and speeding his heartbeat, had started as irritation 23 minutes into his wait on a hard, wooden chair outside Mrs. Samuels’ office at the bank. Fed up with waiting, a creeping mild annoyance had lit a slow burning fire in his chest that smoldered as he watched people come and go from Mrs. Samuels’ office. They all ignored him. Mr. James heard time ticking away on the wall clock across from him. Every stroke of the passing minutes, compressed the tension and raised the temperature in his chest. Mrs. Samuels hadn’t beaconed him.
Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock
Now 47 minutes into his endless wait, Mr. James tried to speak with Mrs. Samuels’ clerk. How much longer? Instead, the clerk brushed him off and walked away. Mr. James, stood mouth ajar, in the hallway. As he watched the clerk disappear around the corner, heat burst through Mr. James’ tightening chest, parched his throat, clenched his jaw, and exploded in his brain, pushing out all but a single thought: He was going to see Mrs. Samuels. Now.
Mr. James! It’s You?
He reached for the handle, as Mrs. Samuels’ office door swung open. Two visitors exited thanking her profusely. Mr. James did not wait to be invited. He strode into the windowless office. Fluorescent light bounced off the wide formica desk that dominated the space.
He didn’t miss the large bronze desk name plate that announced the office occupant in black lettering: Mrs. Victoria Samuels, Division Director Banking Operations. A mechanical hum from the air conditioner filled Mr. James’ ears. Engulfed in his own personal heatwave, he didn’t feel the cooler air.
Mrs. Samuels looked up at him over the rim of her glasses perched on her chubby cheeks. The oversized executive chair dwarfed her so the high back extended six inches above her head. No recognition flashed in her eyes.
Mr. James stood across from her large desk between the two black leather visitors chairs. “Mrs. Samuels,” he said extending his hand. “Jeremiah James. I remember you from years ago when you worked for Thomas. You both helped with my banking.”
“Oh! Mr. James! Jeremiah James!” Mrs. Samuels replied in wide-eyed surprise, planting her fat palms on the desk to steady herself as her shawl slipped down her shoulders. “Is it you? Jeremiah James?” she continued pointing at him with her stubby left index finger.
“Yes, it’s me,” Mr. James replied smiling. Pleased that Mrs. Samuels recognized his name, he felt the heat retreat from his head. His outstretched hand waited in mid air for hers.
“Really? Mr. James! We heard you’d died!”
“Died?” Mr. James’ smile abruptly froze. His heart skipped a beat, as he took a step back.
“Yes. Died! Years back.” Mrs. Samuels leaned forward, her neck straining upwards to Mr. James, as she gripped her chair’s arm rests. “It’s you?”
“Of course, it’s me,” Mr. James replied pointing at himself with his once extended hand, his voice a notch higher. “Don’t you see me standing in front of you?”
How can I help you?
“Yes. Yes. I’m just surprised,” Mrs. Samuels said collecting herself. She pushed her glasses up her nose, straightened the name plate on her desk, and leaned back in her chair. “Ehhmm. Yes. Yes. How can I help you?”
Mr. James produced his bank book from his jacket pocket and handed it to Mrs. Samuels. “I’d like to withdraw funds from my account.”
Mrs. Samuels took the dark green bank book and flicked through its pages. Entries of deposits and withdrawals in black and blue ink flashed by.
I haven’t seen one of these books in years.
“This account is dormant, Sir,” she said looking back up at Mr. James, handing him back the small book.
“Dormant?” He shivered involuntarily. For an instant, the room blurred; everything was out of focus. He squeezed his eyes shut. The drone from the air conditioning sounded louder.
“Yes. We shifted to bank cards many years ago. If you don’t have a card, your account is likely dormant. Why didn’t you get a card?”
“Because I’m retired in America now. No one wrote me about getting a card. I didn’t get a letter.”
Letter! Why is he talking about letters?
“Mr. James, have you got a letter mailed from Sierra Leone since you have been in America?
He knows Sierra Leone’s postal service has long stopped working.
“We had posters here in the bank,” Mrs. Samuels continued waving her heavy arm around her office. “And put announcements in every local paper for three months. Plus, we sent emails. Do we have your email?”
Mr. James didn’t reply.
Mrs. Samuels broke the awkward silence. “You’ll have to come back in a week.”
“A week!” Mr. James reached for the back of the guest chair to steady himself. Shock sent a hot bolt through his chest. “I need money for my lunch appointment today and my stay on this trip. The money in this account.”
“Ah! Mr. James. You’ve come from America. You didn’t bring dollars?”
“Why should I? My retirement goes in here?” he said waving his bank book.
“You have no dollars?”
“I have fifty.”
“Ah ha! Fifty is okay. I’ll take you to the foreign exchange counter.”
Mrs. Samuels made small talk while they walked. Pleasantries about his well-being, his visit to Freetown, his family. It took less than 15 minutes to change the $50 into local currency. Recognizing Mr. James’ surprise at the pile of money, Mrs. Samuels lent him a black tote bag to carry the bundles of notes.
“Next week,” she smiled as they shook hands.
Was Martin right?
Mr. James hailed a taxi to Crown Bakery. His ride wasn’t pleasant. Squeezed in the back with two other passengers, he clutched his bag of money. Smoke from the front seat passenger’s cigarette wafted back towards him. After a decade in “smoking-prohibited” America, this ordinarily, would have annoyed him, but Mr. James was preoccupied. As he replayed his experience at the bank, his son Martin’s voice rang in his head.
I told you so.
Martin had told him not to bother with the bank. A waste of time Dad, he’d argued. “Just take enough dollars in cash,” Martin had said as Mr. James searched for his old bank book. He had countered “I have money in this account. Plus, my retirement is paid there every month. Why should I travel with a lot of cash?”
As the taxi edged its way through heavy traffic in late morning sun, the conversation flooded back to Mr. James’ consciousness blocking out all the sounds of the busy city.
“You’ll just waste your time in that bank, Dad. Compared to dollars, how much retirement money do you have in that account?” Martin had scoffed. “Admit it. Very little.”
That riled Mr. James. “I earned a top civil service salary.”
“In leones, not dollars,” Martin reminded him.
“Nine years I’ve been here in New Jersey, every month money has gone into this account in Freetown,” Mr. James had continued pointing at his bank book. “That’s good money.”
Martin had countered, “Dad nobody knows you there anymore. Trust me, when you show up with dollars, people in that bank will be more interested in talking with you.”
In the end, against Martin’s advice, Mr. James had traveled from America with less than five hundred dollars in cash. He had taken only $50 when he left for the bank this morning.
That $50 had given him easy access to the bag of spending money he clutched in his lap, while a decade of retirement payments were locked in the bank book sitting in his suit pocket.
Hmmm! Martin was right?
He shut down that thought immediately.
Next week everything will be sorted.
You believe that?
Mr. James’ lunch with his old friend Kofi was not satisfying. They had been work colleagues. Kofi at the Ministry of Works. Mr. James at the Public Works Department. They had risen through the civil service ranks and retired within two years of each other.
Crown Bakery’s food was tasty and Kofi was still good company. But Mr. James couldn’t shake Kofi’s reaction to his experience at the bank that morning.
“Dormant account? You believe that?”
“What do you mean?” Mr. James asked.
“They’d declared you were dead! Yet your retirement’s still being paid. Think about it.”
Mr. James fell silent for a minute. “Mrs. Samuels knows me. You remember her, don’t you? She assured me next week.”
“Hhmm! Don’t tell them you’re only here for five weeks. You’ll get nothing out of them.”
Mr. James changed the subject. “Let’s have another drink.”
Back and Forth. Next Week
Mr. James’ trip to the bank the following week was futile. Mrs. Samuels and her boss were out for the rest of the week. Gone to a conference.
No one else can help with dormant accounts the clerk had said.
When he returned in the third week Mrs. Samuels introduced him to the banking operations manager, Jeffrey, a charming man, known to wear slim cut suits, with colorful ties and handkerchiefs that matched. Jeffrey flashed a warm smile as he explained that some of the dormant account records had been computerized. He could check for Mr. James’ account. “Unfortunately, I can’t do so right this moment. It’s a different system and I’m heading to a meeting.” Jeffrey wrote down the account number. “Check back next tomorrow,” he told Mr. James. “What time?” Mr. James didn’t want a repeat of Mrs. Samuels. “Any time,” Jeffrey replied. “I’m always here.”
Jeffrey was out when Mr. James returned two days later. No one could say whether Mr. James’ account had been found.
Over beers with Kofi at a road side pub, Mr. James bemoaned the seeming incompetence of the bank. “Back in our day, things worked in this country,” he complained.
“Don’t think this back and forth with you and the bank is a coincidence,” Kofi offered.
Recognizing his friend’s puzzlement, Kofi clarified his point “There’s often a plan behind the seemingly random chaos here.”
More Back and Forth. Next Week
Mr. James finally caught up with Jeffrey the following week. Unfortunately, Mr. James’ account wasn’t computerized so the records division would have to search the paper archives. But they were in storage. Jeffrey called the records manager, Titus Nichols, who told them “We’ll need some time. Come back later this week.”
Kofi’s words echoed in Mr. James’ head. You’ll get nothing out of them.
Titus Nichols was apologetic when Mr. James returned. The wrong set of records had been retrieved from storage. He wasn’t sure if the records inventory system was messed up or the clerks made a mistake. “But, I’m happy your request has allowed the bank identify this problem,” Titus Nichols said to Mr. James' chagrin. “Don’t worry, we’ll sort it out immediately.”
Immediately! It’s already been three weeks.
“Good news,” Titus, the records manager told Mr. James when he returned in the fourth week. “We located the right archive box. The paper records will be transferred from storage soon. By the end of next week everything will be reviewed.”
“End of next week!” Mr. James spluttered. “Next week, I’ll be gone.”
“Oh!” Titus hesitated for a moment. “We can look when you come back.”
“We need to look now.” Mr. James told Titus before he went in search of Mrs. Samuels.
She's Division Director. She’ll get these people to hurry up.
He found her in her office.
“Ah! You’re leaving so soon?” Mrs. Samuels responded after Mr. James explained his distress. “Maybe we should wait on the archive search until your next trip?” she suggested.
Mr. James shuddered. His temples pulsed.
“Anyway, you’ll have dollars when you go back to America. Really no need to worry then about this old account,” Mrs. Samuels smiled.
Martin’s words rang in Mr. James’ ears. I told you so.
Ever been given the run around where you have a feeling you're being had?
© 2017 – 2019, Ronke Luke
Air, Land and Sea
A Story by Ronke Luke
My husband would have forbidden it!
Freetown, October 2010
“This your country! Hhmm! If I’d known it was this kind of journey, I don’t think I’d have come. If my husband knew, he’d have forbidden me,” Mrs. Dr. Adeyemi said to me.
We’d just sat at a table on the terrace of a beach hotel in Freetown. I was looking for a waiter.
I snapped towards her. “Forbidden? Really?”
Too many servants. Not enough trolleys
“Listen! It was important for me to be in Sierra Leone at this West African College of Physicians conference. But the airport! Aiy!" Mrs. Dr. Adeyemi exclaimed. "I came out of baggage claim and all these people rushed me. Whoosh! You know what they were saying?”
She didn’t wait for me to ask.
“‘Mummy, can you leave the dollar for your servant? What about the dollar? Any small thing for your servant?’ Think about it. He hasn’t done anything for me, but he’s my servant. It was so surprising. It threw me off. I was so relieved to see Moses.”
“Moses?” I asked.
“The gentleman who met me at the airport. He was so good. Without him, it would have been rather sticky for me. He shooed away the swarming lot. Go. Go.”
I laughed. I could see the scene. “Hey the hustle is always on. You’re lucky. Those guys used to be
inside baggage claim. At least they’ve cleared them out of there.”
Mrs. Dr.’s eyes widened. “What! Inside? Baggage claim would have been terrible with that lot.”
“Actually, it was,” I agreed.
“There were no trolleys. Which airport doesn’t have trolleys?”
I shrugged. “There are never enough.”
Me and Mammy Wata don't mix!
“I was struggling with my suitcases and bags when Moses rescued me from these fellows. I expected the car was nearby. Then he told me about water taxi!”
“Yes. You have to cross.”
“Exactly! Water taxi? I asked Moses again thinking I hadn’t heard right the first time. My heart went vhoop.” Mrs. Dr. Adeyemi demonstrated the “vhoop.” A sharp downward gesture from the chest. I smiled.
“You’re smiling? There’s no sea where I’m from in Nigeria. Me and Mammy Wata don’t mix!”
I laughed. “Yes, oh! Mammy Wata.”
Mammy Wata. The temptress who seduces and tricks her way all along West Africa. Folklore suggests she’s often after men and children, but who’s to say she hasn’t gotten a woman or two. Often, she claims her victims permanently to her watery abode. Those who get away are changed forever. I didn’t suggest to Mrs. Dr. that Mammy Wata appears less interested in women.
“You’re laughing?” She raised an eyebrow at me. “Water doesn’t play.”
Ferry? What Ferry?
“But Moses took you to the ferry, right?”
“Well he took me, yes you could say. We took the public bus. Really! They need a better bus.”
“Tight?” I asked.
“We were like sardines. That’s a small bus. Look at me.” She swooped her hands over her body from head to knees. Mrs. Dr. Adeyemi was a well-proportioned, sufficiently endowed African woman. Many African men would be pleased with her.
“All this, eh!” she said circling her torso with her right hand. “They made me squeeze next to this man. A child couldn’t fit there! I had to lean forward so my shoulders would be free. Moses sat in front. But he’s slim so wasn’t too bad for him. Twenty minutes ride. Phew! Hot! Moses passed me a newspaper so I could fan myself. So thoughtful of him.”
“Yes, the bus ride to the ferry can be a mess,” I agreed.
“You say ferry! When we arrived at the terminal there was indeed a ferry. A big vessel that gave me a bit of comfort. You know like Boeing 737 is better than propeller plane? Then I hear ‘water taxi to the left’ and people going in another direction. Ah! I look but don’t see much. Just this small boat.” Mrs. Dr. shows me the boat’s tininess with her hands. “So, I’m still looking for another ferry to match the big sea that’s all around me. Then Moses takes my arm and tells me this small boat is the water taxi. Can you believe? My heart goes vhoop-vhoop. Double vhoop.”
I was looking at Mrs. Dr. Adeyemi intently.
“Moses saw my face. The shock. He starts assuring me it’s only 30 minutes to cross. Thirty minutes in this big sea! I can’t even see land on the other side.”
“It’s not the open ocean, like out there,” I say pointing at the sea beyond the terrace. The Atlantic Ocean shimmered in the late afternoon sun. Gentle waves lapped the coastline. “It’s a bay or something that you cross from the airport.”
Mrs. Dr. dismissed my clarification as a distinction with no difference. “It was all big open water to me.”
A Leap and a prayer
“I gripped Moses’ arm as we walked to the boat steps. It’s wet. I’m afraid I’m going to fall. My heart was pounding, my head was all confused. We’re waiting in line, I see the boat going lower as people board. Like it’s sinking.”
“No,” I interject. “The boat’s not sinking. How can you see that it’s going lower?”
“I tell you. I’m looking at a mark on the boat. People entering, it’s going lower,” Mrs. Dr. Adeyemi insists. “The boat attendant reached out to guide me on board. I grabbed his hand with my right. I’m still gripping Moses with my left,” she says and stands. “You should see me.” Mrs. Dr. Adeyemi stretches her hands to show her strained stance between the two men. “Like this.” We both laugh.
“When I stepped on the boat it wobbled. Oh! Oh!” she says doing a stutter step. “I grabbed the attendant! I think I jumped! He caught and carried me onto the boat. I hear, Moses saying ‘Madam, everything is alright.’”
“You jumped!” I exclaimed. “No? Really!”
“Once I steady myself, I looked for Moses. Then he tells me he is going back to the airport. Says he has to meet passengers on Air France. ‘Madam, I’m waiting until your boat leaves. You’ll be fine’, he says. Can you believe?”
“Huh!” I replied. “I thought greeters cross with passengers to Freetown.”
“You would think that with the name Moses, he would deliver me over the water. No?”
The allegory wasn’t lost on me. I bobbed my head. She may have deemed it agreement.
“But the boat attendant was so good,” Mrs. Dr. continued. “He helped me inside the cabin. It’s so small. Should I sit in front? In the back? You know? I can feel the boat moving. Up and down in the sea. Oh boy! I just sat down. When they give us the life jacket my first thought is why? But you know, it’s right. Safety first. But look at me. The life jacket is so small. It’s like a bib. Really.”
“A bib!” I exclaimed. We both laughed.
“Well they should have different sizes. The man next to me by the window was nice. I jumped when the engine started. He calmed me. The boat went backwards first. I didn’t know boats could reverse. Then we turned. Everything was quiet. Then suddenly,” she claps. CLACK! I jump. “The boat kicked forward. It leaped! I lurched forward,” she continued.
I jerked backwards as Mrs. Dr. suddenly leaned over the table at me to demonstrate.
“ ‘It’s okay. It’s okay’ the man sitting by me is trying to calm me,” she continued. “The engines were roaring. You need earplugs in that thing.”
“The smaller boats are noisier,” I agreed.
“Conversation was impossible. Although, I was praying so I wouldn’t have been talking, anyway. The gentleman next to me, even though he looked calm, I noticed he was counting rosary beads. So, I know he was also praying!”
“Yes. I pray too with the boats,” I confessed. “Didn’t as a child on the ferry. But today on the boats, we cross with God.”
“My goodness. I couldn’t see anything out the window. Just sea. The boat is going fast. But you can feel the waves. Up. Down. Up. Down. Then we hit one. A big wave. It pushes us up. Seriously, we’re airborne. I’m sure. Then the boat slammed down.” BAMM! I jumped as she hit the table.
“My heart is pounding,” Mrs. Dr. continued. “Vhoop, vhoop, vhoop, vhoop! I grabbed the rosary from the man’s hand.”
I stared at her wide-eyed. “You did? No! The waves aren't bad now. It's October. Better than the rains.”
And then we arrived!
“It can be worse?” Mrs. Dr. Adeyemi gasped. “Oh! I won’t come here in rainy season. When the engine cut and the boat slowed, I thought ‘oh, oh! We’re stranded!’ All I can see is water. Nothing. Just water. But we’d arrived! Amazing. I’ll admit, 30 minutes went quicker than I expected.”
“Yes, it goes fast.”
“When we landed here in Aberdeen, I was so relieved. ‘Alleluia Jesus!’ I said.” Mrs. Dr. stood and raised her hands above her head. “The boat attendant laughed. He said ‘Madam, I told you it would be okay.’ He was very nice. But the boat is still bobbing. I was happy to get off.”
“Everyone’s happy to get off,” I chuckled.
“Thank You Jesus!" I proclaimed as soon as I stepped on land. "People are looking at me. I don't care. It's the first time for me in this country. First time with water taxi. Alleluia!”
“Well you’re here now. Finally in Freetown. You’ll have a good time,” I beamed.
“Freetown.” Mrs. Dr. Adeyemi shook her head. “The only place I have visited where to get there you go by air, land and sea!”
“Had never thought of it that way,” I mused. “Hhmm. True. Let’s order drinks.”
- The End -
Ever had an unexpected travel experience? Ever been a first time traveler to Freetown?
© 2017 – 2019, Ronke Luke
Ugh! This Tiny Car
A Story by Ronke Luke
“What are you writing? The Epistle from Luke?” Mr. Campbell snorted as he snatched up my test. I had no time to raise my pen.
I recovered after a moment of stunned silence to reply in wide-eyed shock, “Uhmm. I was answering the questions.”
Mr. Campbell towered over me.
“Answering? You’re writing a book,” he retorted looking at my test, flipping the pages over the stapled edge.
I caught a glimpse of the page where my writing veered suddenly into a sharp-angled blue ink scratch to the edge of the page. Evidence of the snatch.
“I had reached the second to last page,” I offered looking up at Mr. Campbell. His erect bearing, courtesy of a stint in the British army, suggested he wasn’t a man to trifle with.
“I didn’t use all the space for the questions I answered.”
“Ehhhh,” Mr. Campbell replied, waving the sheaf of papers, “You’re writing too much. Look at this question about the traffic signs,” he said poking the paper with his right index finger, “you’ve written so much.”
“I answered the question for each sign.”
“You should just put Stop Sign. Roundabout. Simple,” Mr. Campbell explained pointing at the question.
“No. You wrote ‘This sign means a roundabout ahead’”
Mr. Campbell recognized my confusion as he stared down at me.
“All are sentences,” he clarified. “I don’t have time to read all that.”
I was even more confused.
There was no way at eighteen I would take a government test and not write in sentences. Nothing in my schooling or my parents’ expectations had prepared me to be so audacious. Now my sentences had annoyed the man who held sway over my fate.
I rubbed the left side of my forehead, eyes squint, nose wrinkled. It was a tricky moment. My swirling mind managed to organize one thought.
“Okay. I’ll finish the rest without sentences,” I blurted.
“Finish?” Mr. Campbell looked at this watch. “I don’t have time for that. Let’s go.” He bent, picked up a brown wrapped package leaning against the leg of his desk and headed for the door.
My watch showed it was just before 9:45 am.
I scurried after him.
Mr. Campbell stopped in the parking lot. “Which one is yours?” He didn’t look to see if I was behind him.
“The blue one,” I replied catching up.
“Ugh! This tiny car.”
“It’s a mini.”
“I know what it is,” he said shooting me a sharp look. “I need to be comfortable,” he informed me standing ramrod straight.
Best not reply.
I headed for my mini.
This isn’t going so well. First the sentences. Now he hates my car.
I looked around for my driving teacher, Mr. Dumbuya. I’ll be out here he had said as I went in to take my driver's license written test. Now he was nowhere to be seen.
I got into my mini and waited. Mr. Campbell made the mistake I expected. He was tall. Getting into a mini feet first doesn’t work easily for those unaccustomed to the car.
“Uhm. It’s better if you sit and swing your legs in.”
“Just sit, turn and fold yourself in.”
“Fold myself? That’s ridiculous!”
I didn’t reply. He folded himself anyway.
“You have petrol?”
“Err. Yes. A full tank.”
“Good. Let’s go,” Mr. Campbell ordered.
Turn Here! Where?
I left the Vehicle Examiner’s compound and eased the car into traffic on the main road. The mini didn’t have a radio. Conversation was usually the entertainment when I drove with others. But I wasn’t starting any conversation with Mr. Campbell. Silence filled the air between us. We drove for a while.
Fifteen miles per hours.
I shot a glance at Mr. Campbell. He seemed comfortable. Arm bent, elbow out the window. Shades on.
“Faster,” he said.
20 miles per hour.
25 miles per hour.
I couldn’t drive very fast. We were in the East End of Freetown. The narrow streets were flanked by city blocks bursting with activity. Most buildings had retail space at ground level. Some sold goods - food, household wares, clothing, fabric, car parts, building materials and everything else. Others sold fun in bars, arcades and restaurants. In between, from narrow store fronts tailors, cobblers, barbers and hairdressers sold style. Churches and mosques muscled space between the commerce and vice to offer salvation to souls.
Above the stores, living space rose into the sky. Modest buildings had one or two storeys above the retail level. Others towered over their neighbors; three, four or more storeys of apartments or rooms for rent. Many shop owners lived above their stores so they rose early and stayed late or sent family members to man the store.
Everyday, thousands of people poured out of the residential quarters to make or seek a living. More came from other parts of Freetown drawn by the East End’s competitive prices.
Pavements between shop fronts and the streets had long been usurped for commerce. Store owners displayed their wares outside their doors to entice passing customers. Street vendors erected their market stalls higgedly-piggedly, between store walls and the street’s edge. Pedestrians and visitors darted between the road and the pavement as they picked their way through the humanity going about daily life and street vendors who slowed the flow sufficiently to cajole passersby to look.
Traffic was always heavy. I had no idea what the speed limit was. But it didn’t matter. No one was going anywhere fast on the packed narrow streets. Drivers honked often. It was a shorthand way of shouting at pedestrians. The stores were open. The people and sounds of the East End filled the streets. I wasn’t exceeding 40 miles per hour regardless of Mr. Campbell’s command. I’d driven in the East End often enough, but it wasn’t my regular beat. Pedestrians and vehicles were equal hazards to me.
“Turn right here”
We were virtually at the turning, I made a hard right turn at the end of the block, nearly clipping a peanut vendor’s tray.
“Aayyyyy!” the vendor shouted.
“Noh for sell dae,” Mr. Campbell shouted back.
You shouldn’t be selling there.
I shot him a glance. He caught my eye.
“You think you’re a race driver?”
Best not reply. Good thing I’m driving a mini. Larger car and that tray would have gone flying.
Lucky for me no one was crossing as I turned. We didn’t drive very far down the road.
I stopped by a restaurant.
Mr. Campbell put the brown package on the back seat. “Wait for me.”
I sat double parked for a while forcing vehicles to maneuver around me. Out of nowhere locals approached, some banging on the top of my car or sticking a head in the passenger side, to admonish my parking.
“You park bad!”
You’re badly parked!
“Noh park yah!”
Don’t park here!
“Nar for moof oh!”
You should move!
Fearing I’d annoy the locals, I found a parking spot a few doors down. I waited standing by my car facing the restaurant so I wouldn’t miss Mr. Campbell. The morning sun was hot. I was getting annoyed. Finally, nearly 20 minutes after he got out, Mr. Campbell walked back towards me, wiping his hands and mouth with a napkin.
He’d stopped for breakfast!
“Let’s go,” he said as he folded himself back into my car. “Turn, we’re going back the way we came.”
He smelled of fried food. Plantains. Maybe fish? I was irritated.
I could have gone in for a drink. Instead, my car now smells like a fry up.
I did a three point turn, headed back to the main street and eased into traffic. We drove on, making our way down a one way street.
A few blocks down, Mr. Campbell told me to park in front of a blue store. There was no parking. I drove on. As I passed a large parked truck, I noticed there was small space between the truck and a car parked in front of it. I decided to go for it. A quick check in my rear view mirror. Fortune was with me. There was a gap in the following traffic. I braked suddenly, shifted quickly into reverse, steered hard to the right, angled and backed into the space. One sweet move.
We didn't have seat belts. Somewhere after the braking as he lurched and between my angled turn as he recovered Mr. Campbell exclaimed, “what are you doing?”
“Yes. Parking here,” I replied as I slipped my mini into the space. My dad was a rakish driver. My mother matched his speed and skill without the sizzle. I wanted to drive like my parents.
“You think you’re a race car driver?”
“No. Just good at parking,” I quipped, pleased with my slick driving.
“Really! You kids think that because you have cars you can do anything?”
Right there. He’d touched the issue. Teenagers like me getting drivers’ licenses was highly unusual in Sierra Leone. I didn’t know what the legal driving age was. But my mother had decided that my older brother and I should learn to drive. We were happy to oblige. It meant more freedom especially going to parties at night. Maybe having our own transportation after midnight meant more safety and peace of mind for our parents. My brother and I didn’t ask. My mother’s mini was at my disposal once I got my license. Now my fate lay in the hands of a one time army man, who I’d steadily annoyed all morning.
“Uhmm! We’re lucky to get this convenient space so close to where you’re going,” I offered quickly feigning humility suddenly worried my cockiness might annoy him.
“How can I get out? It’s tight,” Mr. Campbell admonished. There wasn’t much space between the passenger door and a street vendor’s stall.
“Moof you pan!” I yelled at the vendor.
Move your tray!
The vendor hissed but cleared a space.
I searched Mr. Campbell's face. Was he annoyed?
“Wait for me,” he said as he squeezed out of the car.
Aren’t there Rules against this?
This time he returned with groceries. Three regular plastic bags of food and personal items that he placed on the back seat next to the wrapped package. “Let’s go,” he ordered. We made three more stops. First to make an appointment. Mr. Campbell didn’t get out. “Just the person I’m coming to see,” he said to a man smoking outside an office. Leaning out of the mini’s window, Mr. Campbell confirmed with the man a meeting for later in the week. Next he dropped off the brown wrapped package.
After the shopping and before the appointment, I realized, I’m his transport for his errands.
Isn’t there some rule against this?
Where else? How much longer? He’s wasting my petrol.
Last stop was for cold drinks. Mr. Campbell didn’t offer me one. I didn’t dare ask.
Along the way I had navigated three- and four-way stops, yielded to traffic, traversed a roundabout, obeyed other road signs, eased in and out of traffic and made left turns.
You want to argue with me?
Finally, we arrived back to the Vehicle Examiner’s compound. I helped carry his shopping bags. Once in the office my annoyance gave way to worry. “Can I finish?” I asked pointing at the written test.
“No. I don’t have time for that.”
“But I didn’t use up the entire allotted time?” I protested.
“You want to argue with me?”
Mr. Campbell set about paperwork. I waited at the desk replaying the morning in my mind. It wasn't good. He disliked everything. My sentences. My car. He didn’t like my parking and doesn’t approve of teenagers driving.
My Epistle that he had snatched away two hours earlier sat by him on the table. I stared at it.
If he reads it he’ll see I know the answers.
Finally, he stood, paused then strode over to me, his bearing erect, my fate in his hands. He handed me a sheet turned face down. We both held on to it for a moment. I hesitated briefly after he let go. My heart had picked up. Heat rose up my chest. I turned the sheet over. Test Results - Passed.
I jumped up. The warmth in my chest exploded like a star burst. Happiness. “I thought you'd fail me.”
Mr. Campbell laughed. “Well, with your moves, reverse parking and everything, you can drive in the East End. So you can drive in the rest of Freetown.” Pointing at my unfinished written test, “I don’t need to read your Epistle.”
“Thank you! Thank you Sir!”
I shook his extended hand.
“Greet your father.”
Huh? He knows my dad? I didn't ask.
"Yes, sir," I replied as I skipped out the door.
My tiny car waited. New freedoms beaconed.
- The End -
© 2017 – 2019, Ronke Luke
Remember your driver's test?
A story by Ronke Luke
Freetown, Sierra Leone.
The eighties. We’re teenagers.
Life is pretty good. Our job is not to fail in school, to obey spoken, and unspoken, household rules, and, most-importantly, not disgrace the family name. The spoken rules are clear. The unspoken ones we only discover when we run afoul of them. Parental prerogative apparently. We keep our end of the deal…reasonably well, limiting chastising to occasional failure in class and breach of some rule. As long as the family name is not besmirched, we appropriate the right to push for more freedoms. Pressure to keep up with the cool kids. In our teenage years, the most important freedom is going to parties at night. The music, the drinks, the dancing, the fun. Everything is better in the soft breeze and low lights of the African night.
A party invite is a promise of a magical time. But the excitement of a fun-filled night is tempered by the tension of getting our father to yes. No easy feat. By our mid-teens we need two “yeses.” First for permission to go. But the second, more difficult yes, is for approval to come home on our own by taxi.
At fifteen and sixteen we’re in no man’s land, locked in a tango with dad. It’s a tango we know well - every step to the first yes. Every turn and swivel to the second. It could take days to get both. Pushing too hard for the second yes, might jeopardize the first one. Dropping the right names of others going to the party and coming home by cab is our go-to tactic; names of friends dad knows hoping to end the tango in our favor.
A double-edged sword. My father, apparently, made his own inquiries about the parties, starting with the names we sprinkled into our petition for permission. This frightful practice I only discovered in my adulthood.
After twists, turns and a torturous wait, finally, victory when our father wags his finger at us and sternly demands “Be home by 12.”
Twelve? Midnight! What horror! The party will just be getting going at that hour.
We try to bargain for more time. “Dad? Uhmm. Err. Can we come home at 1?” A.M. that is.
“One? What? 12 midnight! Understand?” he glowers at us.
“Yes Dad.” We scurry away before he rescinds permission.
There is no way we’ll be back at midnight. Absolutely not.
We take our lumps for missing curfew. It’s only breaking a household rule.
A plane flight. A few hours down the coast.
Lagos is brasher than Freetown. The parties flashier. The music more current. Records released in the U.K. or U.S. are in Lagos before they’re in Freetown.
Party invites arrive. We're the new kids in town. The tango to yes with relatives and parents for permission to go is the same as Freetown. But the dance ends there. They query how we're going and returning, with keen interest on return plans.
“Don’t come home until tomorrow morning,” is my uncle’s stern warning, fingers wagging at us.
Eyes dart to my dad.
My father registers our surprise. “You understand,” he asks sharply.
“Yes,” we respond solemnly.
Leave home late. Stay out till dawn! Very Cool! No problem keeping this household rule.
The difference? Armed robbers.
We didn’t care. We loved going to Nigeria. All the rules expanded there.
© 2017 – 2019, Ronke Luke
Christmas makes everything alright
A story by Ronke Luke
Africa taught you something
You’re jolted awake. Groping to your right you hit the alarm’s off button. Silence. The red lights of the cheap digital clock pierce the darkness. 5.45 am. You have to get up. But you don’t.
Details of today seep into your thoughts. It’s Wednesday. First lecture is early. 7:30 am. Organic chemistry. Thank goodness! Though the lecture is in a foreign language, you can follow because your African education prepared you well for first year university physics, chemistry and mathematics. It’s everything else that Africa didn’t prepare you for. All the things you must sort out alone now that you’ve taken your first steps into the world.
First the weather. It’s December. Cold. Dark. Your first Christmas away from home. The thing you miss most is caroling. You think of the groups of singers going door-to-door singing carols in the warmth of the African night. This year, 1986, you’re experiencing your first winter. It’s a shock to your African blood. You don’t yet know how to be warm in winter. You wrote your family about the bone chilling cold. They write you asking whether it’s colder than harmattan? Really! A bad harmattan morning is a brisk autumn day. Your family means well. But they’ve only seen winter in movies so have no clue.
You don’t have the right clothing. But you don’t yet know how to shop for winter coats and boots. Plus your stipend doesn’t go very far after rent, food and transportation, so you can’t afford good winter clothes even if you knew what to buy. But you’ve figured out layers. That helps. But how do you get your toes and hands to stay warm? Doubling up on socks doesn’t work. You’re saving for better boots next year but that doesn’t help you this year. Your toes and fingers are warm in bed right now. How to keep them like this all day?
I've never heard this. Or seen it on TV!
You can’t solve the clothing conundrum so your mind drifts to class. So big! There must be 200 students in the lecture hall. Maybe more? So many people. You weren’t a shy person in Africa. But here in Germany you’ve drawn inwards. You observe. There’s the language. But you learned to speak German well enough to follow chemistry lectures and make small talk with strangers. But for the first time you’re experiencing race and gender questions. It’s a complicated brew. Being an African in Germany has its problems; but Germans and African men have figured out how to negotiate these. But being a African woman studying engineering seems to flummox most. So everyday you steel yourself for some version of the conversation.
German Person: “Where you from? What are you doing here?”
These are questions Germans ask every foreigner. So equal treatment here.
You: “Sierra Leone. It’s in West Africa. Studying engineering.”
You’ve learned to add West Africa as hardly anyone has heard of the place. With the continental locator, some know enough to ask if it's close to Cameroon. Seems every German has met a Cameroonian. Location established, the conversation continues.
“Engineering! Really! That’s so hard."
You don't know yet whether engineering is hard or not, because your African schooling makes first year science and mathematics reasonable. The laws of physics are the same in any language. So you reply, "It's alright."
So far so good. African men deal with these questions too. But now you tense. Waiting for it. The observation lands with the same incredulity.
"I’ve never heard of African women studying engineering.”
“Well you’ve met me.”
“I’ve never seen that on TV or read about that.”
“Your father is in the government? A minister?”
This is common assumption if responses don’t fit knowledge accrued from German TV or reading materials
“Uhm. No. I got a scholarship.”
“Really! You must be clever then.”
“When you finish your studies will you leave Germany?”
This is a common question Germans ask all foreigners.
“That is good. You must go and help your country. It will be better for you there than here.”
No ambiguity here about Germans’ views of Africans emigrating.
It’s a tedious conversation. You’re an anthropological discovery. But there’s nothing you can do. At the start of each conversation you hope that it will be different. Most are not. So you try to disengage as quickly and politely as possible. Today, you really don’t want to deal with it.
You’ve been in Germany seven months. It will be a long five years if the conversation doesn’t change. You shudder at that thought and pull your blanket up over your chin. You’re nice and warm.
Eureka! Cakes and carols
Your mind drifts to tonight. The girls on your dormitory floor have invited you to join them at the Christkindlemarkt. You perk up at that thought. You’ve seen the the Christmas market lights from the distance on your way home from university. It looks like a sparkling wonderland. The strains of familiar carols drift from the market. You sing along quietly in English. The smells of baked goods delight your nostrils. Your mouth waters. You would give anything to have a taste. German cakes and confectionary are wonderful. But you don't yet have the courage to go alone. You don’t want to deal with the cold and the tedious conversation. But tonight you’ll go. The girls tell you that gluehwein is the best thing about the Christmas market. Mulled wine on a cold winter night will warm your bones they say. Cakes, wine and carols. Sounds delightful. You smile.
You toss off your covers and spring out of bed. 6:02 am. Today will be a good day. Thanks to Christmas, it'll be alright.
© 2017 – 2019, Ronke Luke
Is there Water in your Jail?
a story by Ronke Luke
What a Day!
A cold shower in Africa never felt so good. Geena stood, eyes closed, face upturned, towards the rush of water that swept the red dust off her body. What a day, she thought.
Air-conditioned Jeep is better
Geena and James had arrived in Monrovia just before 5 pm. The receptionist had swept a disapproving look over them as they walked across the lobby.
Hhmm! Poor white people.
“Welcome to the Crystal Hotel” she said. “I hope you had a good trip?”
There are two types of white travelers in Africa; those who travel in air-conditioned comfort, wearing brand-name outdoor fashion, and the others. Geena and James belonged to the others. Geena had noticed the receptionist’s disapproving look. We must be a sight.
They were. Geena was a cheerful plump brunette. Dismissive about fashion, comfort was her thing. The large-floral-patterned, cotton, sleeveless dress she wore was an ill choice. It added phantom pounds she didn’t need. Geena carried herself easily, her legs and heart didn’t labor under her weight. She and James wore sandals. He wore his with socks. His yellow, green and orange African print shirt clashed with Geena’s dress. The pockets on his cargo shorts bulged with all the essential stuff he thought best carried on his person rather than in luggage. At five feet ten James was taller than Geena, but her width erased his height advantage when they stood side-by-side. He had shed pounds in Africa from the heat and walking. Geena’s pounds seemed resistant, but she wasn’t gaining weight so she didn’t fret about it.
“Exhausting trip,” Geena said smiling at the receptionist. “We’re glad our taxi made it here. Seven hours over land from Sierra Leone in that thing deserves some type of medal. Can’t wait to take a shower.”
“Oh! You’ve come from Sierra Leone.” The receptionist looked past them as she said “Welcome to Liberia.”
James followed the receptionist’s gaze to the beat-up taxi still parked at the front entrance. “Amazing thing,” he said. “Remarkable we didn’t breakdown! Hats off to the mechanics.”
“Air-conditioned jeep is better you know,” the receptionist offered.
“Well we’re here,” Geena said. “Looking forward to my first visit to Monrovia.”
There was no highway connecting the two countries. Instead the trip was along narrow unpaved laterite roads. The terrain changed often from patches of smooth surface to bumpy, stone-riddled roads that couldn’t be traversed with great speed. By western standards, their taxi wasn’t road worthy. But African mechanics kept jalopies running. Only essential parts - breaks, gears, clutch and the likes - needed. Manual hand signals substituted for indicators once they stopped working. Expensive items, think shock absorbers, weren’t replaced. So, every bump or hard turn in the road rattled their bones. There was no air-conditioning either. Geena and James faced the full blast of tropical heat and red laterite dust the tires kicked up. By the time they walked into the Crystal Hotel lobby, their dust-covered bodies ached and glistened with red-tinged sweat.
A Room with a View
Check-in wasn’t quick. The receptionist busied herself with nothing.
Why hurry for people who wouldn’t tip.
She shifted through a stack of papers searching for Geena and James’s reservation. James was patient. Geena cleared her throat and suggested the receptionist look again.
“Ah! Here’s your reservation. Hhmm.”
“What?” James asked.
“Your room is street facing.” The receptionist shuffled through more papers. “Let me check our availability. Ah! I can get you a beach-facing room facing for $15 fee. I really suggest it” she said smiling at James.
“Sure,” he replied.
“Fee?” Geena asked.
The receptionist ignored the question. James didn’t suspect the ruse.
“Great! I’ll make the upgrade.” The receptionist avoided eye contact with Geena as she took the $15 and handed the room keys to James. “Room 315. Enjoy your stay.”
James was happy to get the beach-side room. Geena was happier the elevator worked so they didn’t have to lug their luggage up three floors.
The room was clean with all the basic amenities expected at a mid-tier African hotel. Geena and James had decided to travel as much as they could during their time in Africa. Like any twenty-something year olds their budget was tight, but hotels were their little luxury on these trips. They couldn’t afford air-conditioned travel, but rented taxis because they were quicker than buses. Sinking into a comfortable hotel bed after a bone-rattling trip was reward for the soul. It was also part of James’ personal security strategy as a westerner in Africa. He figured mid-market hotels would be safer than budget accommodations.
Geena was a white African; third generation South African. She didn’t always agree with James’s cautions about safety in Africa. Although she was about 13 when her family left in protest of apartheid, she had remained deeply connected to the continent that first shaped her childhood. Finally, giving in to her yearning, she dropped out of her PhD in Canada and returned to Africa to find herself. She had met James during an impromptu visit to Sierra Leone and stayed.
James loved being in Africa but he didn’t agree with Geena’s blanket views that they were safe everywhere simply because they were good human beings. As much as they’d try to get the most local experience, he wouldn’t compromise on where they stayed. Crystal Hotel fit the bill.
James crossed the room to the window. “Great view of the beach! Upgrade was worth it”
“Upgrade seemed dodgy.” Geena commented as she joined James taking in the view of the beach. “I can’t wait to take a dip tomorrow.”
“Sleep in. Mark won’t be pick us up until afternoon,” James said. “Looking forward to seeing him again.”
Geena headed for the bathroom. “Shower time.”
James thoughts drifted to Mark. They had gone to college together. After graduation, James had gone to Sierra Leone with the Peace Corps; Mark to Monrovia.
Oh! You did not ask
“What! Damn!” came a shout from the bathroom. James turned. Geena stood, still fully-clothed, in the bathroom door.
“I can’t believe this!”
James looked at her with a quizzical expression.
She stormed out of the room, took the stairs in twos to the lobby. It was faster than by lift.
“There’s no water in our room!” he heard Geena shout as he arrived in the lobby.
The receptionist arranged a neutral look on her face: “Oh! Yes. The city shut off the water to this area.”
“You didn’t tell us this when we checked in.”
“You did not ask madam.”
“What? I expect a hotel to have water. Why would I ask?”
“I don’t know,” the receptionist replied. “Maybe you want to wash?”
Geena shut her eyes and took a deep breath. James now stood at her side.
“When. Will. The water. Come. Back. On?” she asked struggling to remain calm as she re-opened her eyes.
“I don’t know, Madam. Sometime today. That, I can say for certain.”
Geena turned to James “Oh come on! Let’s go to the beach.”
The receptionist shrugged. White people.
You can’t do that!
Annoyance propelled Geena’s stocky legs, sweeping her over the sand. “Moron,” she muttered. Her heart did double time to her legs as her head thundered with murderous thoughts of the receptionist. Stupid woman. I could have slapped her. Should have slapped her.
“Wait! Wait Geena. What are you doing?”
She finally turned and waited for James, head cocked to the right. Her generous bosom rose and fell to her still rapid breathing. She patted her left chest with her fleshy right hand urging her heart to return to its resting beat. Her brain, conditioned to keeping up with Geena, rushed blood to her head to keep her from keeling over. She had no spells of lightheadedness.
“What are you doing?” James repeated once he caught up.
“I’m going to wash this red dust off me in the Atlantic Ocean. That’s what I’m going to do,” she replied matter-of-factly as though he’d asked a silly question
“You can’t do that! Salt water and dust? You’ll have a sticky mess on your skin. Let’s call Mark. I’m sure we can shower at his place.”
I could arrest you!
“Hey! Hey!” came a shout from Geena’s left. “Hey!” They ignored it while they argued about the merits of rinsing off in the sea.
“You! Hey you!” the voice got sharper. Suddenly the shouting burst into their awareness. Geena and James turned immediately to see whence the shouting originated.
Two men stomped through sand towards them. Police or a para-military Geena concluded as she took in their uniforms. Not green fatigues so she dismissed army or military. They look ridiculous the way they are walking Geena thought. Who marches through sand? James stiffened. Geena turned to squarely face the men who were now within six feet. Her cotton dress fluttered in the evening breeze.
“What are you doing here?” bellowed the first security men waving his automatic rifle in a sweeping movement taking in the sand and sea. AK-47, Geena thought as she followed the gun’s arc.
“What is your name?” demanded the second security officer as he glared at James.
“James Crawley.” James’ steady voice did not belie his nervousness. A run in with African security was not on his bucket list. How could he prove who they were? Their passports were in Room 315. Geena had not replied, he noticed.
“Why are you breaking curfew?” the first security officer barked at them.
“Curfew?” James replied.
“Yes. Curfew!” the first security officer shouted. “Starting at 6 pm! Now it is 6:17 pm!” he said waving his watch.
“I can arrest you now, now!” the second officer interjected, pointing his left index figure at them in rhythm with the words “now.”
“The jail is not far,” the first security officer added waving his AK-47 in a direction ahead of him, somewhere behind Geena. “Right behind here is the jail.”
James stood, conscious to avoid sudden moves, paying keen attention as befits any encounter with men carrying automatic rifles. Geena shifted her weight to her left leg, and planted her dust-coated hand on plump left hip. James cringed. “Don’t move,” he hissed under his breath. Geena twisted her thick waist to the right as she followed the rifle over her right shoulder in the general direction the officer pointed.
“Is there water in your jail?” Geena asked looking back at the officer, while she waved her right thumb over her shoulder.
“What?” replied the first security man.
“Is there water in your jail?”
James' jaw tightened, his mouth dried. We’re done. Who asks such a question?
“Of course, there is water in the jail!” came the reply.
“Right!” replied Geena. “Arrest me! Right now. Let’s go!” She wheeled around on her chunky right leg and started off in search of the jail.
Stupefied, the three men stood rooted where she left them.
No one spoke. They watched Geena as she powered away. Her pace belied her plumpness.
The second security man recovered first. “What kind of woman is this?” he shouted at James, waving his semi-automatic rifle at Geena.
James shrugged. Without replying he turned to follow Geena. “Wait! “Geena wait!”
The two security men ran behind “Hey! You! Hey! Hey! Wait! Hey You!! Wait!”
Geena stopped and turned. Her chest heaved as she caught her breath waiting for them to catch up. She lit into the security men. “Look, I’ve just travelled seven hours by road from Sierra Leone. I’m tired and dirty. All I want is a shower. The hotel has no water. So, I was going to rinse in the sea. You come and interrupt. You want to arrest me? Fine. Let’s go! I can shower in your jail.”
Not interested in any reply, Geena started to turn.
The security man lunged and grabbed her left arm, his fingers digging into the fleshy triceps. “Madam! You cannot go to jail to have a shower. I am taking you back to your hotel. Let’s go!”
“Which is your hotel?”
“Crystal” James offered.
Still holding her arm, the security man steered Geena her towards the Crystal Hotel.
Yes Sir! Of course!
The receptionist stiffened as Geena and James returned escorted by police.
Poor white people now with police problems. More hassle tonight.
“Good evening officer, Sir! How can I help you?” the receptionist said feigning nonchalance.
“Do you have water in this hotel?” The security man’s tone suggested trouble depending on the nature of her reply.
“Oh, yes Sir! Of course, we have water in this hotel!” She did not add that the water had come back on less than 10 minutes before.
“See madam, of course there is water at the hotel. Why would you want to shower in the jail?”
Geena glared at the receptionist.
Now in full civic-duty mode, the security men offered cheerily “Madam, you should have a shower at the hotel tonight. Rest. Tomorrow you can fully enjoy the beach!”
Geena turned her glare on the two security men. “What?”
“Thank you, officers!” James replied as he hurried Geena towards the elevator.
© 2017 – 2019, Ronke Luke
Bustin’ Loose in Yellow Pants
A story by Ronke Luke
In the decade immediately following independence, West African fathers in the British colonial mold were not warm and fuzzy. At their most extreme they were austere. At their most liberal they showed inconsistent flashes of personality and affection. To their offspring, particularly the very young, they could be rather scary. Unlike their mothers’ spontaneous joy, colonial-mold fathers typically showed their affections on schedule; greetings by the time of day that the children must initiate.
“Good morning, Sir,” or to the more liberal father, “Good morning dad,” must first be said by the children before the reply is given “Good morning.” If he was in a chatty mood, it was followed with “How are you?” or “You sleep well?” Likewise, a greeting in the afternoon might get further query from the father such as “How was school?” and in the evening “Have you done your homework?” African children answered these questions with the briefest answers noting that sentences were needed where these were possible.
“Have you done your homework?”
“Yes, Sir” is the answer to the austere father. “Yes, dad” to the more liberal type
“How was school?”
“School was good Sir.” Or “It was fine dad.” Full sentence noted. A simple “good” or “fine” was not appropriate and could prompt a scolding for not speaking properly.
A liberal dad might accompany the short exchange with a rustle of the hair or a tap on the head or shoulder. Whether these little touches of affection occurred, was not predictable.
But, scheduled emotional interaction was good. It meant that everything was normal. An emotional exchange that occurred off schedule was typically of the disciplinary kind. A shouting or a spanking. In the case of troublesome adolescent sons a whipping or even a bout of fighting! Children learned the differences, though they could not always avoid the activities that prompted their fathers’ unscheduled outbursts. This was when their mothers’ refuge was swiftly sought.
Sunday's rituals could torture …
In Freetown, Sundays followed different emotional rituals from Monday-to-Friday’s questions about school and homework. It was not uncommon in the evenings for a family to pile into the father’s car and set off to either visit family or friends, go on a scenic drive or head to the beach within the capital city. The drive to the destination – at a slow pace - was part of the experience. As families drove along, they could easily pick out other families engaged in the same ritual. Children in the back. Father and mother in front. Dads drove deliberately. There was no fear of grossly exceeding the speed limit. The slow pace heightened the tension for children as they were never sure exactly where this Sunday evening trip might end.
… or Delight
Visiting the beach was always the preferred option for children. Families invariably ended up somewhere the children could play on the sand or in the gardens of a club house. They could have quantities and types of food and drink unlike anything they had at home during the week. A whole bottle of Coke or Fanta per child was unheard of at home. Likewise, an exotic drink like Chapman or an ice cream bar were out of the question. But at the beach, it was all within reach. Unlike at home when children had to eat what was provided – like it or not- the beach meant children could choose their meals. Burgers and fries, or battered fish and chips, fancy sandwiches were all possibilities if a child could only make up his or her mind. Everything about Sunday evening at the beach promised to delight a little child and entertain even the most disenchanted teenager.
A few hours enveloped by night breeze off the ocean did wonders for everyone’s mood. But from a child’s perspective, this time had the most pronounced effect on fathers, who were more affectionate; cheering their children’s games or propping them on their laps to chat briefly before their offspring squirmed off to continue their play. Most shocking, sometimes children overheard their fathers happily telling other adults of their successes at school or in other pursuits. How does he know so much about me when we hardly talk children always wondered? But no one dared ask. Somehow, he was an all knowing father. A child could hide nothing. It took a while to work out how fathers came to their information but for the intervening years until that mystery was resolved, African children preferred to steer clear of their dads. Sunday fun at the beach ended about 9 pm. Reluctantly, children headed home hoping the drive took as long as possible to prolong the magic.
Later that evening “good night dad” could easily be followed by a father actually sitting and chatting with his young child.
“Did you have a good time tonight?”
“Yes, dad. I had fun.”
“Good. Good. Well good night.”
“Good night dad.”
Monday morning it was back to affection on schedule.
My dad was a medical doctor. He tended towards the liberal end of the spectrum. Not the most liberal. Monday to Friday communication was limited. But on Saturday and Sunday he exhibited sufficient impromptu flashes of affection towards us that suggested that maybe, just maybe, he wasn’t so scary. He took us on his rounds to the hospital when he visited patients in the evening or on weekends. Sometimes we visited his friends and family after the hospital. We watched with fascination from a child’s safe distance as our dad socialized with his friends. He would be relaxed and funny. They would tease each other and laugh at jokes and fun memories of the past. We were amazed at his changed demeanor.
A Stylin’ Man
My father wore clothes well. He was tall; his physique still hinted at this athletic youth. He typically wore a suit to work and all events that occurred at a church. Unlike austere colonial-mold fathers, who mostly wore black suits with white shirts, my father’s suits were in a broader color palette – black, blue, grey, brown, beige. The interesting cuts and fabrics suggested a large wardrobe. The possibilities expanded even further as he had dress shirts and ties in a wide range of colors. In between work and events at churches, my father wore African fabric shirts, including the type Mandela made famous, with neutral-colored slacks or a French suit. Only dads of liberal disposition wore French suits. Its closest cousin is the Nehru suit. A jacket and trousers made of the same suiting fabric. Unlike the Nehru jacket that always has a stand collar and outer pockets, the French suit could have a regular collar, a stand collar or even be collarless. It could be worn in formal or casual settings. My dad had incredible collection of these suits. I remember, in particular, a white French suit. It was collarless, long sleeved. The concealed buttons and pockets made the front and sides of the jacket smooth. Paired with white pants, the suit was sleek. A handkerchief in the left breast pocket added a burst of color. Dad looked sharp in that suit. As children we recognized the association of dad’s clothing with the occasions of our lives. It was all very routine.
But then one weekend morning – I don’t remember if Saturday or Sunday – dad came down the stairs wearing canary yellow pants, a camp shirt in shades of green and wrap around gold-rimmed sun glasses! He looked like he’d stepped out of a fashion magazine. We sat looking at him eyes wide, mouths ajar. Who was this? He smiled at us, waved his hand indicating we should follow him and said “Come on! We’re going to the beach.”
We leapt up squealing, running after our father. We had been oblivious to our parents’ preparations, but apparently someone was throwing a beach party and we were going for the day. This wasn’t at the usual beaches where we spent Sunday night supper. This was the beach outside the city, down the peninsular; un-spoilt and pristine. It required at least an hour at normal driving pace but it was worth the effort getting there. The drive to the beach with my dad in his GQ outfit was even more jaw dropping than his fashion transformation. The man turned into a speed demon! He floored the accelerator, hit the horn, overtaking every car ahead of us that didn’t get out of the way. Forget seatbelts. They didn’t exist when we were children. We squealed with excitement laced with terror, at seeming near misses, as dad, at breakneck speed, wove in and out of traffic all the way down a two lane road until he swerved into a parking spot when we arrived. It was an adrenaline rush to match the recklessness of the man’s behavior. But what did we know then.
And the day at the beach was unlike any other. There was lots of food and drinks. With the exception of a ban on alcohol, no one limited what we children could eat or drink. Adults laughed and joked, interacted with each other and behaved in ways we’d never seen them before. Our fathers were very loose and laid back – quite unlike their typical selves. Adults and children, changed into bathing suits, frolicked in the sand or splashed in the ocean’s edge. Those who could swim went further out. And that day in the sea, we had the closest, most personal interaction with our father. Squatting down until his body was beneath the sea, he said “hop on” pointing to his back. In turns, arms around his neck, holding on tight as we laughed, he swam away from the water’s edge mimicking a boat giving us a ride. All of a sudden, he would disappear under the water’s surface and we’d slip off his back, laughter quickly turning to shrieking. Then he suddenly swooped back around and caught us from behind as we frantically wondered where he had gone. All was well again. We would laugh and clamber onto his back again. At times he’d make us doggy paddle towards him but we never caught up as he kept moving backwards. Just when we’d start to panic, he would swim towards us. Eventually, we’d hop on his back and he’d swim back to shore. It was so much fun.
Late in the afternoon as the sun started to fade, the party ended. It had been a day of merriment. We changed back into our clothes, dad into his yellow pants, and headed for home. The drive home was as crazy as the one getting there. This time our fathers raced each other; unleashing their inner Formula 1 selves! Our mother probably urged him to drive carefully, but we children bounced up and down in the back seat, laughing and waving as we passed someone we knew. If someone overtook us, we’d urge dad “Faster, faster.” He laughed and sometimes responded. It was exhilarating. We were oblivious to the obvious danger. Our dad was a daredevil. Invincible. Who could stop him now?
Dad was chatty that night
“Good night dad”
“You enjoy the beach? You have fun?”
“Yes, dad. It was great! I had fun”
“Good. Good. Sleep tight.”
Then came a ruffle of one’s hair
So much affection! So out of character, but the whole day had up-ended perceptions.
We went to bed exhausted and happy.
Reset to Clark Kent
The next day, like hitting the reset button, it was back to affection on schedule. But the outing to the beach remained a treasured memory and a glimpse into a man who, in those yellow pants, transformed into the coolest wild dad we knew.
We never knew when he’d next pull on those yellow trousers. But when he did, it meant only one thing: we’re going to the beach! Like Clark Kent into Superman, those yellow pants turned him into Super dad bustin’ loose of that colonial mold. We were in for a riotous time of sun, sand and fun.
© 2017 – 2019, Ronke Luke
We’re Africans. Grew up in West Africa. We like telling stories. It's just part of life. Anywhere West Africans gather they spin yarns that keep the audience riveted.