Incident on the Way to Bakoy Market

Ayesha Harruna Attah

Artwork by Ellen Blom

We went mad after the transition. The Doctor had given up his military regime and was now president of our democratic country, but everyone knows a zebra never changes its stripes. In my household, we were going through our own changes: Kojo was away for the first time at a boarding school controlled by the same bloodthirsty thieves who ruled the country, Theo was stuck in a hole at the ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Atsu, a meek girl from the village, had just started working for us. Me? I was wondering how long I had to live.

Either the madness seeped in from the outside, or it was a latent virus in each of us, waiting for the right moment to unleash its deadly nucleic acid. I know exactly when it hit me. It was the day I was shopping for my annual Christmas party, which was a week away.

I was driving to the Bakoy Market to get the party items. A hot harmattan afternoon, the sky was shaded with grey dust, and congestion was relentless. The traffic lights weren't working, not a single policeman stood in sight, and taxis and minivans cut in and out of tiny impossible spaces. I inched my car forward.

As I sat there, a migraine wormed its way from the left part of my skull to the right, jabbing electrically at my brain as it crept along. A ball of light had formed in my peripheral vision. Nausea. Cars on the road went out of focus and street hawkers grew into a fuzzy giant. Honks and screaming voices behind me increased in volume.

"Foolish woman, move your car!" somebody yelled. I thought the rage was good, even though I didn't want it directed at me. Our collective anger, held back for the seventeen years of Saturday's dictatorship, was finally erupting. People could now say whatever they wanted without the fear of getting caned by the Saturday Boys, or the fear of disappearing.

A man selling torches and Christmas lights walked by me. The yellow of his shirt turned cream then white, and his head grew oblong. I closed my eyes to shut out the dizzying images. The next thing I felt was my body jerking away from the steering wheel.

Slowly, sensation inched from the tips of my fingers into the rest of my body. My muscles felt as if someone was pulling them like rubber bands.

A crowd grew fast. Sellers, other drivers, gathered by my car.

"Lady, are you drunk?" a man asked.

Another in ripped shorts approached me, hands on his head, mouth hanging wide open. I wasn't given time to think.

"Ei, madam, you've killed me!" he wailed. "My boss will finish me today. I don't have money! I still haven't paid my children's school fees. Now look at this."

I was confused, only beginning to realize what had happened.

"You know you did this," he said. "You all saw. She did this."

I dragged myself out of the car and accidentally pushed a woman selling oranges as I tried to steady myself. I walked closer to the man's car and felt the crowd following me. His bumper was slightly dented in the middle. My car was barely scratched.

"Oh, this isn't that bad," I said.

"Not for you, it's not. Please, madam, how are you solving this problem?"

I really couldn't part with my money. It was to be used as follows: four broilers, a sack of rice, a gallon of oil. The change was to be handed to Atsu to buy fresh vegetables and fruit a few days before the party. Money was tight—Theo didn't seem to be fighting harder for more respect at the ministry, and at work I was dealing with crooks who were telling me palm oil production had gone down and prices had shot up so I had already cut back on the usual party luxuries: catered food, hired musicians, decorations that lit up the whole street. If I parted with even a tenth of the money, something would not get bought.

"How much do you need?" I asked. Behind us the traffic had doubled in size. "Should we move off to the side?"

"Unless I go to the mechanic, how will I know, madam? Tell me what you're giving me."

"Five hundred kowrys?" We'd probably have to skimp on tomatoes, garlic, and ginger.

"Madam, it's not good."

"Let's move our cars so those people can go," I said.

"She wants to run!" said a rough voice.

"Okay," I said. "Six?" My headache still lurked, but at least the nausea had left. He shook his head; he must have thought I'd be an easy target. But I wasn't about to get cheated out of my Christmas party. I said: "Fine, I'll give you my house number." I opened my purse and rummaged through it for my business card. I scribbled on the card with the Duell and Co. logo on it and stretched out my hand. "Tomorrow tell your boss to call me and I'll settle this with him."

He looked at the crowd, and I followed his gaze. Lustful for their approval, he waited.

"Take it!" a woman shouted.

"No! She's cheating you!" said another.

"Will you get for someone to just dash you six hundred kowrys? Someone is giving you money. Take it!"

"Don't take it!"

Their voices were rising, chanting, thrumming along with my headache. They wanted me to pay. But I was the wrong person, I'd have liked to say to them. The person they should harass was up on the hill in the distance, the one who had made us poorer with oppression. Not me.

"Two thousand," he said.

"Massa," I said, and laughed. "I don't even have half of that to give you. Let your boss call me."

"Kai!" someone shouted. "Lies! She wants to get you into trouble."

"Take her car!"

To this crowd, this is what I was: a cushy job, a nice four-by-four, a well-fed family, children in private schools, a maid, education abroad, money to take vacations, expensive diseases. I was spoiled and entitled and could pay my way out of any situation, and they were going to make me pay! I was no different from the Doctor. They grew into one giant monster and marched forward, ready to chew me up.

My pride was fuel for their anger. I needed to fight back differently. I found myself lowering my knees to the ground. I palmed my left hand in my right and said, "Massa, I beg you. All I have is six hundred. You can call me tomorrow and I'll get you four hundred more." My voice actually shook as I dug out the notes from my bag.

He snatched them from my hand and stomped off, leaving me with the hungry crowd. Jaundiced or alcohol-reddened eyes (depending on who you were looking at) swiveled from the departing man to me. They wouldn't stop staring, and I fixed my gaze on the girl carrying the pyramid of oranges. I couldn't tell if she pitied or envied me. Shaken, I got back into my car and willed myself to drive to the Bakoy Market.