I was born in Sekondi, Ghana in the mid-1950s. The coastal town was twinned to Takoradi and sadly living out the last few years of prosperity as a major transit seaport on the West African flank of the British empire. The period also saw the decline and dwindling fortunes of its high living elite lawyers.
Sekondi and Takoradi were originally Ahanta towns but became predominantly Fantse speaking as a result of the influx of affluent emigres, mostly from Elmina and Cape Coast. As it turned out, these educated elites also came from as far as Freetown in Sierra Leone. Fourah Bay, established in 1847, became a college of choice for African elites across West Africa.
The lower echelons of society even attracted people from further afield – Yoruba and Igbo merchants, popularly called “Chekri” dominated the tertiary sector as petty shop traders. I vaguely remember Fulani horsemen, some excellent singers of Koranic verses, peddling charms and telling fortunes. There was also a constant influx of seamen from the Atlantic coastline that gave the twin city a unique Black Atlantic cosmopolitan ambience rooted in the local Akan culture.
The dawn of Ghana’s independence in 1957 changed everything. A new harbour was constructed in Tema in 1962. Even before then, Ghana’s new model town was gradually taking the shine off Sekondi – Takoradi. Tema, only eighteen miles and much closer to Accra, the capital city was the centre of government business and commerce.
Western Show Boys
Daniel Essuon Gwira, my grandfather, originally from the Gwira Royal household in Elmina, settled in Sekondi and set up a successful legal practice after reading law at Cambridge University in 1910. He was called to the bar at Kings Inn in Dublin, around the same time as William Essuman Gwira Sekyi, his close relative. He is popularly known as “Kobina Sekyi” in the history books.
With the publication of “The Blinkards” in 1915, Kobina Sekyi became the first Ghanaian playwright in English to satirize the blind adaptation of European customs and mannerisms and spoke against the cultural excesses of British colonialism. Kobina Sekyi walked the talk by always dressing in African cloth, even in court. He refused to wear the lawyer’s wig, even at the risk of expulsion from the bar.
Kobina Sekyi later became President of the Aborigines Rights Society, the organisation that advocated for Ghana’s independence before the United Gold Coast Convention (UGCC) and Kwame Nkrumah’s Party, Convention Peoples Party (CPP) that eventually led Ghana to independence in 1957.
My mother, Edwina Ewurafua Gwira (nee Mrs Owusu) was the third child of William Essuman Gwira Sekyi.
She caught the bug for education and creativity early and trained as a teacher at St Monica’s training College in Mampong, Ashanti. She taught for a few years before an opportunity came up to study nursing in the United Kingdom.
During the war years from 1939 and its aftermath, an acute shortage of nurses in the United Kingdom led to a recruitment drive across the British empire. Sponsored by her parents, Ma arrived in London in 1948 and enrolled at Aylesbury Nursing Training College.
Ma – Edwina Owusu. Nee Gwira met and married Edwin Owusu, a law student and spent memorable days in Dublin and London, together with her older brother, Daniel Ebo Gwira, also studying law and Caroline his newly wedded wife.
Back to Ghana
Ma gave birth to Maame Akoto, my older sister in London and returned to Ghana in 1951. She then had two other children – myself (Paa Kwarteng) and Yoofi (Charles)
It is fair to say that the Gwira family, especially my grandmother was not particularly enthused about her daughter’s marriage to a less than financially stable law student. Ma probably made matters worse when on the marriage registration day, she wore cloth printed with traditional symbols that made it clear her right to choose whom she wanted to marry. The symbols are called “Konkonsa ni be br3” ( “Backbiters /gossipers will suffer/don’t prosper”)
She was a natural beauty and once crowned a beauty queen. Same age as Queen Elizabeth of England, she took particular interest in the British royals, especially the queen. Growing up as a child, her mother used to order most of the household items from London stores like Oxendale and Bakers of Kensington. This included fashionably designed dresses made popular by the British royals. Daniel Ebo Gwira, Ma’s oldest brother used to collect the valued items from the Sekondi post office, near the railway Station.
Like her mother, these optics of colonialism did not detract from her deep love for the African culture. She always received visitors at home in her tailored African gowns and headgear. On special occasions, you could trust Ma to step out in the most dashing African designed clothes.
The big Embarrassment at Takoradi Harbour
Ma and Daddy came back from London with literally nothing. The arrival at the harbour told the whole story. Due to lack of communication perhaps, Ma’s parents sent a big truck to Takoradi Harbour, a good 10 miles or so, to meet them and collect their luggage. Apparently, the truck returned with only two or three suitcases. 😳
Grandma was a “sharp tongue” lady who made sure my parents did not forget this embarrassing episode in a hurry. Difficult times followed and the young couple had to move out of the family house and spend time in Accra and Oda. That was where Daddy’s relatives lived, even though he originated from Kumasi and Brekum. They returned to Sekondi but Daddy left again.
Much of my early life revolved around school. Actually, wherever Ma was teaching. Unofficially, I skipped nursery and started primary school when I was about 3 years old. Slightly older, much of my weekends and holidays were spent running around with the boys, mostly from Asafo Street down the hill, from the family house.
Asafo Street was one of Sekondi’s famous miles of tarred road with a public water pump strategically placed at the top end. People had to wait for their turn to pump the water, so petty traders quickly gathered to sell local candy and Kelewele (fried plantain). Popularly called “Pipe Ano”, the spot also became well-known as a meeting place for seasoned gossipers, petty thieves and secret lovers.
Magic of Asafo Street
‘Pipe Ano’s location was strategic. It was at the intersection of Asafo Street and George Street. The Gwira family house stood majestically above it, separating the interpreters of King George’s law in the colony from Asafo Street, the colourful street where poor families eked out a living – as petty shop keepers of all sorts – bus and taxi dressers, washermen and photographers of the elite and others prepared to suspend large chunks of their monthly income on wedding photos.
Asafo Street was the magical world of my childhood, inhabited by fascinating characters living out their dreams in colourful, revolving prisms of life. The people were ever-changing – cobblers dancing in the streets to bicycle and car horns, inebriated ladies telling fortunes, hawkers in intellectual spats with shop owners over customers, retired footballers playing “totals” and “gutter to gutter’ with aspiring youngsters, and boxers knocking out imaginary opponents. There were lots of musicians; good drummers, bad drummers, players of tuneless accordions, crowd-pulling magicians and professional fraudsters.
Dangerous Encounters at European Town
I also have vivid memories of dangerous, near-death encounters that still send shivers down my spine. One particular event gives me constant nightmares. The day wild dogs nearly chewed me up in European Town, the restricted suburb for white colonial civil servants. Most of them had left Ghana by the early 1960s but the place was still out of bounds to most Africans and patrolled by guards with wild dogs. The attraction was mango, sweet juicy mangoes that we felt must not go to waste.
That morning, I slipped out early. As soon as I was out of the family house, I removed my shoes, hid them and raced barefooted down the hill to Asafo Street. Kojo Mensah was waiting with Bashiru at her mother’s provision shop. Maame Alata was Bashiru’s mother. Well, so-called because Alata was an alias for every Nigerian. She was really kind and loved Bashiru to bits even though she knew the rascal frequently stole the sweets in the shop for his friends. My favourites were “black n white”, ‘Husk”, “PK” chewing gum and her specially made toffees from condensed milk. Maame Alata asked if we wanted some bread and margarine but we were gone before she finished serving a customer.
European Town was a few miles away. We climbed the hill and took a detour to get to the mango trees. Bashiru led us and had a great idea to outwit the guards. At the right place, he knelt down in the grass to get a good view of the bungalows, a hundred yards away. He pulled his homemade catapult and shattered a glass window. We laughed on impact, as the guards released their dogs, barking hysterically in the wrong direction. The euphoria did not last. We were in for a nasty surprise.
I heard a loud scream halfway up the mango tree. It could only come from one of the guards. My heart sank when I looked down. A vicious-looking dog was desperately jumping as high as possible to grab my legs.
“Get down!” the guard screamed. I pleaded for mercy but that infuriated him even more. He smacked his dog which then tried to grab my leg by shaking the tree and jumping as high as it could. Kojo Mensah had disappeared. And to think this was all his idea.
Bashiru stood his ground. He had explained before that the dogs were fed once a week to make sure they were hungry enough to chew intruders alive. What followed was incredibly bizarre. Bashiru took out a cramped newspaper from his pocket and threw it in the direction of the dogs. I could vaguely see him through the foliage of trees. The dog under me run away. It went straight to the cramped newspaper, sniffed it and took a huge bite. Then it ran off, howling. The other dog did the same, howling even louder. In a few minutes, they were all gone. The security guard followed them, not exactly sure what had happened.
Back at Asafo Street, Bashiru said the newspaper was soaked in a magical liquid his older brother brought from Lagos. I believed him. He mentioned the name in Yoruba but I was too shaken to remember it.
Bashiru, “Bash” or “Bash Bash!” as we called him after our miraculous escape was born in Sekondi and spoke impeccable Fantse. His two older brothers managed his mother’s sweet stall at the local Rex Cinema. Kojo Mensah and I got free passes to watch our favourite cowboy and Indian films. Kojo Mensah’s father was also well connected. He was the driver for Sekondi Eleven Wise football club, Sekondi’s favourites even though Hassacas Football team, the local rivals spared no effort to beat them each time they locked horns. In those days in Sekondi, there was a famous saying. “If you are not wise, then you are Hassacas!”
Eleven Wise did not always win. During one bad season, they were relegated from the national league, depriving us of free entry to Gyandu Park. To be fair, there was a reprieve – the main gates were opened ten minutes before the final whistle. It was called “free gate” but frankly, that was not good enough for us.
Bashiru came up with an ingenious but highly risky plan. He proposed we make a hole under the stadium wall during the week, cover it nicely and crawl in at the right time. I shook my head in disbelief when he explained but he won me over eventually. It’s very simple, he smiled, the type that makes you wonder how smart you are. The hole would be dug behind one of the goalposts. Once a goal was scored at the opposite post, everybody’s focus would be there. That’s when we crawl in. 😳
Kojo Mensah, ever the sceptic was not convinced but eventually, he agreed. Knowing him, he must have thought about a contingency plan. Bashiru warned him. An escape plan would just not work. Kojo Mensah made faces at us implying we were chickens. He boasted he would be the first to crawl into the stadium. Bash asked him why but he laughed and beat his chest like “King Kong!”, the mythical supergiant in old American movies. The last time we saw King Kong at Rex Cinema, it was kicking down skyscrapers with the back of his hand and punching trucks off the streets of America.
Over a couple of evenings, we dug the hole behind the stadium, close to the lagoon overlooking Gyandu Cinema. It was tough going but we managed because the clay was soft. To cover and conceal it, Bash grabbed some creeping plants from the lagoon. It was close to the first school I attended. On our way home, the day of reckoning was decided – in two weeks time when Hassacas play Kumasi Asante Kotoko, the porcupine warriors, in a crucial match.
Like most things in life, there is always an element of fate that can sabotage the best-laid plans. In this case, the goal must be scored at the opposite end of the stadium. That would depend on who wins the referee’s toss of a coin, at the kick-off. The captain must choose the right side of the pitch. Importantly, his team must not waste time scoring, otherwise, it would turn out a futile exercise. The worst outcome is a goalless match.
Bashiru chose me to secure the best results. I tried it once and it worked. To score a goal I closed my eyes for a few minutes and visualised a positive outcome. For this fluke, Bash named me “Dealer” – the person everyone looks up to for good luck but this was an extraordinary gamble – the kind that could put us out in a bad boys remand prison for a long time! ( How it turned out would be elaborated in my autobiography)
Football was our passion. We formed a football team by recruiting boys of our age group, mostly from Asafo Street. Our stadium was the stony pitch above the family house. I was captain because Bash Bash said so. I kept a special exercise book, nicely decorated with newspaper cuttings of famous Ghanaian footballers of the time – Agrrey Fynn, Baba Yara, Dongo Moro, Osei Kofi, Wilberforce Mfum and Kwasi Owusu of the Bofoakwa Football team.
Golf and Horse Racing. I Say!
Uncle Ebo, my oldest uncle gave me a taste of the social life of the Sekondi social elite. I learnt how to hold a tee at Sekondi Golf Club and enjoyed wonderful days at Takoradi Race Course cheering my favourite horse. I didn’t do well with the binoculars but I soon got hung of it. Ma used to go to the Aden Club at European Town with her siblings and friends. Apparently, Daddy was not too excited about Waltz and foxtrot. Previously, the club had catered exclusively to white colonial civil servants. Come independence, Aden club was transformed into one of the hottest social clubs for Highlife, the sounds of the new Ghana.
Many Rivers to Cross
In the midst of all the excitement, my early childhood was plagued by serious challenges relating to my parents, their marriage and the difficult transition from the United Kingdom back to the Gold Coast.
Ma was determined to start teaching again but could not find a permanent position in Sekondi or Takoradi. The only option was to accept a position outside the twin city. Most well-trained teachers refused to take up teaching appointments in remote villages. Ma said yes and with three children in tow went to teach in isolated villages beyond Takoradi – villages like Hotopo, Apawine and others not on the map.
We all lived in a single room with a kitchen, fetched water from the muddy rivers and used the same dugout latrines as the villagers. There was no electricity, no safe drinking water and other basic amenities. As children, we cried and fell ill frequently but Ma never gave up. We enjoyed other experiences, of course – playing freely in the unspoiled environment and developing social consciousness from an early age. There were many dangers accounting for the high child mortality in these villages. Scorpion and snake bites were also common – and it was always tempting to swim in the rivers, as most of the village children did. This gave Ma near heart attacks whenever I disappeared with my friends.
Looking back, she helped us to broaden our horizons and to better understand, what for most people at the time was the real world – Experiencing it first-hand gave us a humbling spirit and as Ma used to say, “never take anything in life for granted.”
At night, with no electricity – sometimes the lantern would run out of kerosene – she told us amazing stories in the dark, mostly her own stories, emphasizing her life’s vision – “Most things have happened before”. “In spite of the odds, always strive for excellence and dedication always pays off, if not now, definitely in the future. Ma always sounded prophetic and it was clear she drew her strength from powerful spiritual energy.
The joy of teaching
Teaching was a great joy for Ma. In those days, teaching went with immense respect and reverence. Even in the villages where people had little, we always found bundles of foodstuff left at our doorstep. Ma always asked around who put them there but no one seemed to know. Parents would send their children to help with our domestic chores. What she never got over was why the villagers always asked why a nice ‘Akata asia’ (educated lady) was doing in those sort of places.
Ma’s eyes always lit up when she received compliments for her work. She felt a deep sense of satisfaction when children who had ‘passed through her hands’ go on to achieve great things in life. She met many and we were always proud when ‘big people’ we knew thanked her or expressed gratitude for helping shape their lives.
Apart from the villages close to Takoradi, Ma taught in Accra, Kumasi and Tamale, where we continued to learn about the beauty of different cultures and joy from diverse people living together.
Tema. Harbour City
Ma’s final days as a teacher brought us to Tema, during the mid-1960s. It was a model harbour city built from scratch. Tema was connected to Accra, Ghana’s capital by a 20-mile modern motorway – That was when many motorways around the world had not been constructed. Tema transformed into a vibrant cosmopolitan city that attracted people from all walks of life in Ghana and beyond.
Ma taught in a couple of schools and was appointed a headteacher. I first attended Oninku Primary School near the Tema Main Post Office and then Akodwo Middle School. In my second year, I passed the Common Entrance examination and gained admission to Adisadel College. Ma did not let me go so I sat for the Common Entrance again the following year and got admitted to Adisadel. During the year I was in Middle School, I got promoted to standard 7 and sat for the School Leavers Certificate, passing with distinction.
Adisadel College days
I spent 7 years at Adisadel College and sat for my O and A levels. At the interview held at Achimota College in Accra, the headmaster of Adisadel, Orleans Pobee, a benign tyrant made me aware that my father taught him at Adisadel. I was too timid to ask him for any details. Mr Orleans Pobee, AKA Paa Colo was larger than life and intimidating. He certainly was not a person to indulge in what he might think were trivial distractions. Ma later explained that was just before Daddy left for England. It was a known tradition in those days for young scholars to earn extra money teaching at Adisadel before they boarded Elder Dempster at Takoradi Harbour for England.
The exciting days
My days at Adisadel started with excitement from the very first week. Dubbed “Homos Week,” this was an anachronistic public school ritual during which freshers were allowed to be bullied, made to sing profane songs, ridiculed and humiliated – all with the hope that they would be toughened up for college life. The most popular profane song was called “Swinging” (X rated) with salacious calls and responses sung by freshers. We were organised into groups like a choir. A quick audition of voices divided us into those suited for the high pitched notes, as well as the bass parts.
Essay writing was another key feature of Homos week. All freshers were obliged to write – “The last night with my girlfriend”. As it turned out I was told I wrote one of the best stories. The fact of the matter was that I didn’t have a girlfriend or ever did. I was an innocent virgin. Sooner than later, I was reading my salacious story to entertain the seniors.
Love Letter writer
It got me thinking. I could actually earn some extra cash from my creative talent. I had little pocket money and “provisions,” – tins milk and sardines in my “chop” box. It would really help so I secretly started to write love letters for a fee. Some also paid me in kind; tins of sardines and milk.
Tuesday was my busiest day. The letters had to be posted on Wednesday to get to the girls on Friday. The boys would then visit them on Saturday. The girl’s schools in Cape Coast; Wesley Girls High School and Holy Child were run by strict white nuns but the girls were allowed to receive visitors on Saturday afternoons, for a couple of hours..
Aggrey Memorial Secondary School was a mixed school in Cape Coast but it was deemed more prestigious to have a girlfriend in Wesley Girls or Holy Child. The competition for boys was between Adisco boys (Adisadel ) and the equally prestigious Mfanstipim School. During my days, the impression from Wesley Girls was that Adisco boys were really cool because they wrote better love letters.😛
Incidentally, the first letter I wrote professing love to a girl at Wesley Girls ‘bounced’. I later found out a university guy was involved, so maybe I had no chance in the first place. That was a big let down but it sharpened the tools of my trade, so to speak.
The psychology of teenage love
Reflecting on my own middle school experience, it became clear to me that girls of my age group were more mature than the boys in matters of romantic love and relationships – Thanks to, Mills and Boons, romantic novels, and Agony Aunt columns in newspapers. Most of my male friends were complete greenhorns and used very limited “love vocabulary.” I was also a greenhorn but then I used my imagination to impress. My friends would start love letters with phrases like “You’re my oxygen. if you don’t love me, I’ll die” “ My job was to replace such nonsense with some love poetry, well-placed jokes, quotes from music icons and romantic flattery.
Invariably, I had some bad clients. Some boys benefited from my service but refused to pay. I had the perfect antidote and it always worked like magic. I would simply change the name of their sweetheart in the letters. Instead of Dear Mary, I would write Dear Grace. The guys never spotted it. Sometimes I even had to post the letters for them. Come Saturday, I wished them luck as they set off in their immaculate white trousers and shirt. I also sent spies to Wesley Girls to observe.
At Wesley Girls, the boy would write down the name of the girl he has come to see. The girl would be called and they would meet at the assembly hall. Most girls who have received letters with wrong names refused to turn up. The most aggrieved girls would actually keep the boy waiting for the entire duration of visiting time or appear just before it ends, usually with a rude note – “My name is Mary, not Grace, you two-timing, cheat!” My spies would return with graphic details of the encounter. Sometimes too graphic, if not dramatic. Pity there were no camera phones in those days.
When they returned, I was of course very sympathetic. Some of the ‘fiasco’ boys would lie and say they met the girl but were no longer interested. The story would change when I tell them exactly what happened. The die-hards will stick to their stories but most would quietly settle their bills and discuss the next steps.
It was not easy to win back aggrieved sweethearts. I charged extra for those “please love me or I’ll die” letters because it was difficult to explain how Mary became Grace! I mean, if you can’t even get my name right, what hope is there for the relationship? I found out bruised teenage egos were not easy to assuage but with TLC, in my case meaning “Tender loving Communication”, the girls would start coming round after two or three seductive letters. The task was to carefully write nice phrases of regret and flattery, complemented by a ‘hot’ photo of the lover boy. That was the job of Astral, the scholarly looking professional photographer who also did a brisk business in the teenage love business.
Astral had the demeanour of a strict school teacher but was very friendly. He understood his clients very well and proved a true Freudian with his deep appreciation of psycho-analysis. He once told me it was unfair but most boys judged his photos by how well they fared in the love game. To succeed he was ready to go the extra mile and that’s how the Freud in him proved decisive. He would ask innocent questions like “Oh, er, how is she?” From what you say, he would help you pose, smile, look romantic, sorrowful, regretful, or whatever for the right photo. It usually worked. I would also get the right vibe to write the letter. The only problem is that the lady may be so peeved she may not open the letter for weeks! To avoid that, our grieving lover boy would not address the envelope.
Years after college, I was invited to the wedding of one of my bad clients. He never paid his bill on time, so I was obliged to change the name of his girlfriend several times. She was now his wife! At the reception, she was telling me how lucky my friend is. She said she could not understand why she gave him so many chances after writing to her with so many different names. We all laughed about it. One of the most important requirements of my job was confidentiality and I always kept it.
My friend ignored the waiters and went to the bar to get me a glass of my favourite tipple! He got the same for himself and sweet sherry for his lovely wife. We raised our glasses and said cheers!
To be continued 😂
More exciting days at Adisadel and meeting Bob Marley in London!