I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.
The music we heard on our radios that morning was nothing new to our ears; it was what the soldiers played whenever they make a coup. The brassy, instrumental military music had been playing since dawn, and every now and then a deep male voice interrupted with the same announcement: “Fellow countrymen and women. The New Ghana Proletariat Revolutionary Council, N.G.P.R.C., is now in full control of the Castle and the radio stations in all nine regional capitals. We advise everybody to remain calm and to stay tuned for a speech. By the Leader of the Revolution. At ten o’clock.”
It was the first time we had heard the word, and it sounded more serious than the coup d’état we were used to. At five to ten, the music stopped abruptly. It was followed by what sounded like an argument or scuffle in the background. Everything and everybody—even the lizards that roamed the street’s crevices bobbing their heads wantonly—froze. “Good morning, comrades, countrymen and women.” The new leader’s voice, loud and hoarse, shook the tiny speakers of our transistor radios. “My name is Sergeant Francis Wilberforce. I am speaking on behalf of the New Ghana Proletariat Revolutionary Council.” We immediately noticed how different his tongue was from ours. He sounded like someone who had lived overseas for a long long time. His blɛ, some even swore, was a true English man’s English.
“We seized power in order to give it back to you, the people,” the new leader continued, his voice awe-inspiring and uplifting. “We seized power in order to correct the injustices that have taken place in this country since independence. Education is not meant for only one tribe, affluence is not created for only one section of the population. The wealth of the nation must be shared and distributed equally among all our citizens. We will apply every military might at our disposal to stamp out the kalabule that has infested the moral fiber of this country, to usher in a new era of probity and accountability!”
Listening to his angry speech one could have sworn by the Quran that Sergeant Leader, the name we instantly gave the new head of state, was sent by Allah himself to rescue us. To lift up Zongo Street from its poverty, to give us the opportunities other tribes enjoyed, to buy some respect for us and all the common folks in this land. The speech lasted not more than six minutes and, before concluding, the Sergeant Leader explained that some anti-revolution soldiers were trying to stage a coup to counter his “Uprising,” and that in order to stabilize the situation, a six-to-six curfew had to be imposed nationwide, “Until further notice.”
Wallahi, this man is a man of action, we cried. A man of the people!
“The Soviet people themselves orchestrated this revolution, and they handpicked this new leader,” commented Mr. Rafiq at Gado’s barbershop, where a small crowd had gathered to listen to the speech. The barbershop was the hangout for booklong types like Mr. Rafik and Dr. Azeez. They spent half the day reading the newspapers and listening to GBC, BBC, and Voice of America, and then wasted the other half challenging each other’s views and punditting to whoever cared to listen. And in true fashion Dr. Azeez didn’t even allow the air to blow over Mr. Rafik’s statement before he countered, “You got it all wrong, Mr. Man. The white people of England, and not the Russians, are the ones in charge of this mutiny. The British people are coming back to colonize us all over again, and I here”—the doctor placed an open palm on his chest—”fully support the move.”
Himself Gado Barber didn’t grant any opinion. He was a serious man, and quite notorious for his mood swings. As the shop’s crowd grew, Gado—tall, lanky with a slight back hump that was more a result of how he bent his extraordinary long upper body—rose from the lone barber’s chair and announced a haircut moratorium. “Not until we know the state of affairs in this land,” he declared. “These are grim times.” He returned to his chair, tilted his head toward the shop’s raindamaged plywood ceiling, and in solemn silence twisted his thick mustache.
Right then, an out-of-towner squeezed himself into the shop’s center and proceeded to ask for a trim. “Are you so stupid you don’t realize the gravity of this day?” yelled Gado. He chased out the baff led customer, waving a pair of scissors in the air. “Idiot, I’ll cut off your ear, not your hair!” he screamed amid a cacophony of laughter. He would have done it, too: Gado had been known to give a bloody ear to kids who wouldn’t sit still during a haircut.
Across the street at Mallam Sile’s teashop, the mood was lighter. The children, enjoying an automatic holiday from the Catholic school and the madrassa, milled about the shop’s entrance. They were excited, in the way small pikins are when things, good or bad, happen to people. Sile’s adult patrons, however, had worried looks on their faces as they sipped their hot beverages. The dwarfish teaseller, known to readily engage in idle chatter, was noticeably silent, his mind obviously on the morning’s upheaval.
In the mosque’s yard, meanwhile, Mallam Imran, the self-appointed spiritualist, addressed a small gathering of his talibai and the mendicants that patrolled the compound. “This so-called ravalushan was revealed to me in the wahai I received last night, but I predict it will not last,” swore the boka in his usual, softspoken manner. “By Allah’s grace I give it maximum” he paused, fixed his eyes on the cloudy skies, then added, “four weeks, Insha Allah!” His listeners quietly shook their heads up and down in the devotional manner of religious supplicants.
The main road was suddenly filled with people, who after listening to the speech in their houses came outside to see what a revolution looked like. Our two resident lunatics, Ee Hey and Mr. Brenya, were there, too, at their regular spots by the palace assembly shed, carrying on with their antics. Ee Hey, the giant, thongwearing lunatic was deeply engaged in his favorite pastime: he laughed deliriously at the sounds from the stereo speakers of a nearby pirate music store. The other mad man, Mr. Brenya—who for twenty-seven years had neatly kept and read the same newspaper articles—stood at akimbo position murmuring vocabulary words to himself. Typically Mr. Brenya hardly said a word to anybody, except when he challenged passersby to a word-definition contest, the passion that consumed his life. “I know English pass the Englishman himself,” he often boasted. Ee Hey and Mr. Brenya didn’t only entertain us; they protected the street at night from vandals and petty thieves, who walked on at the sight of these men. But that February morning was not a day for humor. By the harshness of the morning’s rising heat and the discordant sound of the white man’s music we felt that the tranquil, naive state of our lives was about to be altered in a way and manner we couldn’t have ever imagined.
As we mulled over Sergeant Leader’s speech, wondering what it all meant for our poor lot, a loud roar erupted from the five corners of the city. Soon, a massive, jubilant crowd that numbered into the thousands came marching toward our street. Taxi and trotro drivers bleated their horns. Women took off their veils and waved them in the air. “Power to the people!” they chanted and stamped and kicked their feet in the air, creating a cloud of dust. “Yay, a luta! Yay, a luta continua!” the marchers wailed. Half-naked children galloped behind the throng. We joined the demo people and sang their songs of protest though the real meaning of the words and lyrics weren’t clear to a great number of us. We railed and wailed. Against disenfranchisement. Against Kleptocracy. Against Tribalism. Against Capitalism. Against Nepotism. Hastily assembled, crooked placards screamed: Down With Corruption. Revolt Of The Masses! We No Go Sit Down Make Dem Cheat Us Everyday!
We loitered for hours at Justice Park, where the march ended. And with all the singing and dancing that went on it seemed to everybody that a rally was about to begin. We would discover later on that the demo was not organized by any person or group in particular; it sprung from the spontaneous giddiness that had followed Sergeant Leader’s speech.
By late afternoon the city’s food hawkers and drink vendors—always on the lookout for large gatherings—had planted their carts and trays all around the park’s perimeter. Tricksters, magicians, aphrodisiac peddlers, quack gonorrhea doctors, and box-cinema operators had all got wind of the “rally,” and they, too, had set up shop with their rickety umbrellas. The dust from all these activities, coupled with the harmattan smog, created a dense, bleary atmosphere. And amidst the heightened state of celebration, we lost track of the rhythm of our inner clocks. The intoxicating beat and comforting words of the songs of struggle drowned out the cautious drumbeat of old that had for generations guided our actions. We only came to our senses when somebody from our street shouted in Hausa, “Curfir yakai!” One look at the Prempeh Assembly Hall clock—it was ten to—and we borrowed the gazelle’s legs, disappearing in no time. Others in the crowd immediately understood their folly, too, and joined us in flight. A great stampede ensued. Luckily for us, Zongo Street was only 500 meters from the park, and we made it into the safety of our compounds before the siren. But the story was not the same for the marchers from Ash Town, A.E.B., Asafo, and Bantama.
At the strike of six, hundreds of gun-carrying soldiers—it appeared that they had all the while lain in wait in nearby alleys—descended on the marchers. People ran helter-skelter into compounds in which they knew nobody. We sheltered those that managed to escape, and gave them mats to sleep in our courtyards. The unfortunate ones who couldn’t escape would for the rest of their lives rue that day. Through the cracks in our windows, we saw them being beaten to the ground, mercilessly, as if they were prey. With crude batons. With gun barrels. With metal-toed boots. Some were even shot dead. The dusk air was filled with the wailings of trapped victims, the screams of soldiers, the cracking sound of bullets, the thud of objects to body and body to ground.
Deep into the night gunshots and mortar shells rang and boomed from distances across the city. By daylight, more than fifty people were dead, at least that was the figure told us by Mansa BBC, the eminent rumor monger of Zongo Street. Sources from other neighborhoods pegged the total dead at thirty. But since none of the newspapers made mention of the march or the attack we had no way of knowing the actual number of people killed on the first night of the revolution.
We quickly became accustomed to the new way of life under the curfew. We and our sheep, goats, chickens, and ducks locked ourselves in our compounds well before the dreaded siren. Young children cornered their grandparents to spin one Gizo tale after another until sleep-time. Meanwhile Sergeant Leader and his people created new laws every day. We gathered around our radios every morning, to listen to new rules, which always ended with the warning that, “All citizens must comply with the new directives. Or face the consequences.”
Then came the introduction of the People’s Vigilance Committees. The PVCs, we were told, were created to facilitate a neighborhood-by-neighborhood discussion about a new thing they called “Grassroots Democracy,” a term not even Mr. Rafik and Dr. Azeez could explain properly. Mr. Rafik posited that the “Grassroots” had something to do with Sergeant Leader’s effort to make Ghana produce its own food and stop importing from overseas. Dr. Azeez’s explanation for the term was much fuzzier, but we were confident that his was closer to the truth. “It means every man is going to be a farmer, and is allowed only one hoe and only one wife and only one vote,” he chimed. When asked to define the new phenomenon English maverick Mr. Brenya simply said, “Dem all crazy,” finally betraying the authoritative command he was known for on matters of the Queen’s language. But no sooner had the PVCs been formed than it became clear that the main mission of its members was to spy on and root out the Against People, the Enemies of the Revolution.
“Snakes in the grass, that’s what they are, those PBC ravalushan boys,” said Mansa BBC.
The inauguration of the Zongo Street PVC ushered in an era of social upheaval in our small community. Respect for the elders, a sacred practice in our Hausa Islamic culture, quickly disappeared among some youth, who felt it was time the old folks realize the changing zaman. If the song changes, the dance, too, must change, they asserted.
Soldiers in armored vehicles, carrying heavy firearms, went from house to house in the city proper, and from store to store at Central Market, searching for kalabule goods and the people who hoarded them. “Operation Clean House,” it was called. Shop owners locked their doors. Trading came to a halt across the city, causing a scarcity of provisions and foodstuff we had never seen before. A spell of hunger and suffering threatened to erode whatever little dignity we had left. And so consumed were we with our struggles that the disappearance of Ee Hey and Mr. Brenya didn’t come to our notice until a week after it had happened. It never occurred to us that mad folks, too, were bound by the laws of the revolution. We never saw Ee Hey again. Mr. Brenya eventually returned to us, but never was he the affable wordsmith we had known. His face bore a sad expression, unsmiling, foreboding.
On the day we discovered that our beloved lunatics had been abducted the remaining bit of jollity in our lives evaporated into the dense fog of the revolution. Even Hamda One, the latrine man and the so-called Laughing Hyena of Zongo Street—who, despite his horrendous vocation and low social class, was the most cheerful person in the neighborhood—lost his sense of humor. He avoided eye contact with people and sped on, the latrine bucket precariously balanced on his head. For weeks, not a single laugh was heard on Zongo Street, not even from the children, who are usually immune to such absurd realities.
For a stretch of time Zongo Street was spared from the carnage of the revolution. Not a single house was bombed—instant justice was meted out to the landlords in whose houses kalabule goods were found. And nobody, other than the two madmen, had been abducted by soldiers from Gondar Barracks. Baba Ila—the only truly rich person on Zongo Street—was a God-fearing merchant who imported stockfish and other dried goods from Nigeria and the Ivory Coast. Assured in our minds that he was not in harm’s way, we discreetly supported the assault on the city’s wealthy folk, on whose head Sergeant Leader placed the blame for the poverty of folks like us and for all of the country’s economic and social problems. We watched in tacit silence as soldiers lined up businessmen, market women and ordinary citizens, stripped them naked and flogged their backs and buttocks in the market square.
Then at exactly six-thirty a.m. on the 4th of May, five lorries packed with abongo men descended upon our street like seasonal locusts. There must have been a hundred of them, armed heavily with machine guns, rifles, and grenades that hung loosely from their waistbands. A number of the soldiers stood at intervals along the street’s perimeter, while the rest trotted into Baba Ila’s compound, a modern three-story concrete building with a penthouse on the top floor.
We abandoned our morning chores and gathered in alleys and rooftops to catch a glimpse of the operation. Baba Ila—dark-skinned, muscular and middleaged—was escorted out of his compound. He was clad in white cotton underwear, his wide, hairy chest naked. He looked weary and disoriented. Chin lowered, lips moving—as if in prayer.
The abongo men carted box-loads of imported stockfish, sardines, corned beef, and other dried goods from the house and stacked them in a pile out on the street. They broke into the storefronts of the building and emptied them of all their merchandise. There was a provision store, a textile retail outlet, and a rice wholesaler; and even though none of these businesses were Baba Ila’s, he was still charged with “hoarding and smuggling.”
The soldiers formed a ring around the merchant. One slapped him across the face, another kicked his groin, and a third, coming from behind, struck him on the head with a gun barrel. A gash on Baba Ila’s head spewed blood, a dark bulb appeared around his left eye, shutting it completely. He was on all fours at this point, but that didn’t stop his assailants from hitting him. “Get up, if you no wan’ die!” a soldier shouted. Baba Ila made an attempt to stand, but swiftly fell on his back. His head hit the ground with a thud. “Kalabule man, we go kill you today!” they shouted with each kick of their boots.
Women clutched their bosoms and slapped their ample thighs and cried hysterically. The men just froze in frightful silence. We longed to approach the soldiers and vouch for Baba Ila’s integrity. To say to them, Look, this Baba has never engaged in kalabule, and many of the poor folks on this street depend on him for their evening meals. But who were we to approach a red-eyed soldier during those hot days of the revolution?
Suddenly, what we had dreaded all along happened. A soldier smashed a Star beer bottle from which he had just finished drinking. Using a large piece of the broken glass, he began to scrape off Baba Ila’s hair. They called it baban soja, the “designer” haircut the military gave to people in their custody. Blood was everywhere on the merchant’s body. Next, the soldiers opened tins of sardine and corned beef and tore open boxes of raw stock fish. “Eat everything now, now,” they barked. Baba Ila pushed the food into his mouth and ate until he began to choke. He coughed a guttural cough and vomited all over himself. That appeared to anger the soldiers, who started a fresh assault on him. They grabbed his lifeless-looking body and tossed it into one of the lorries as if he were a sack of rice. They formed a human chain, and within fifteen minutes they had filled their trucks with all the seized merchandise. Then, with a combination of dexterity and showmanship, the abongo men leapt onto the moving lorries, fired shots into the air, and sped off, leaving behind a cloud of red dust and a trail of sorrow and tears on Zongo Street.
Some say the owl is an animal of darkness. Others say it is an animal of vision. On the day following Baba Ila’s abduction, a white owl appeared on Zongo Street. The bird sat comfortably for more than five minutes on a limb of the goji tree near the mosque, and not even once did it blink or turn its head in the usual, shy manner of owls. Instead, the bird stared right back at those who accidentally caught its eyes. Mallam Imran swore, this time by the grave of the Prophet himself, that the owl had revealed the destiny of the whole nation to him. “This time he is leaving us for sure,” the boka said. “By Allah, we will not wake up with himnext week.”
“Keep talking nonsense,” sneered BBC. “Far as I know, Sargey Leader is Allah’s kwammander. And he here to stay.”
As if what happened to Baba Ila wasn’t enough to test our faith and scar our collective psyche, we woke up to more commotion one morning. We saw Hamda One, the latrine man, pacing up and down the street, with the usual bucket of feces on his head. He burst out into laughter anytime he made eye contact with folks, breaking the unofficial taboo that had, for weeks, kept us from smiling. Mansa BBC remarked, “The carrion stew he been eating all these years at Mallam Bawa’s pito bar done finally moved into his brain.”
Clearly there was something alarming, perhaps even sinister, in the way Hamda One carried himself that morning. The more we listened to the sound of his laughter the more we became convinced that it didn’t come from his body alone. Those nearby looked reproachfully at the latrine man, as if with his mirth he had committed a grave sin. These reproaches, however, did nothing to deter Hamda One. His laughter, a series of loud, high-pitched “hee-hee-hee” sounds, resembled the spotted hyena’s, whose laughter carries dire meaning to its listeners. The latrine man seemed defiant—confrontational, even— as if provoking us to look at him. To smell our own excrement. He swayed his upper body, causing the feces to spill onto the ground. “Useless man, carry your shit, go somewhere else,” several voices yelled at once. But he became even more animated and started a song in his Frafra language, a tongue none of us Hausa folks understood. His words and syllables, a litany of polyphonic phrases, sounded ominous. That morning, not a single heart on Zongo Street was unmoved. Even the booklong folks at Gado’s barbershop, whose scorn for the latrine man was unsurpassed, showed some compassion toward him.
Eventually the spilled excrement found its way into Hamda One’s mouth. The hysterical laughter gave way to a series of violent, ricocheting coughs. By now, almost all of the bucket’s content was on the ground. With palm-covered mouths and noses we stared. Hamda One laughed and coughed until his body couldn’t take it any longer. He collapsed in a heap and died instantly. His smeared face, mouth agape in midlaughter, was the last we saw of the latrine man.
It was as if the spirits that had for several weeks stifled our laughter had suddenly decided to relieve us of our suffering; we could not make eye contact without bursting into teary laughter. Mallam Imran issued a fatwa for every adult to observe a three-day fast, “to ward off the evil forces that are bent on destroying this community.” Nobody paid attention to the boka, not even the mendicants, who were, by this time, more preoccupied with finding something to eat than following an edict that could starve them to death.
With the owl’s visit still on our minds, with the fear of hunger and the brutality of the soldiers overwhelming us, with the fate of Baba Ila still unknown, with the smoke from recently bombed houses choking our lungs, with the grotesque end of Hamda One unexplained, with the stench of feces still fresh in our noses, with the chants of “A luta continua!” and “Let the blood flow!” ruling the air in the town proper, we retreated to our compounds and reverted to our go-to mantra in times of crisis: Insha Allah!
Mohammed Naseehu Ali is the author of The Prophet of Zongo Street (Amistad/HarperCollins, 2005). He lives in Brooklyn.
I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.