I. Fledgling

“And, behold, there was a woman which had a spirit of infirmity eighteen years, and was bowed together, and could in no wise lift up herself.” Luke 13:11

Eighteen Years. 06-23-2012 6:55pm. Asamankese, Ghana.

A cool breeze was blowing through the town of Asamankese, whipping dust off the dirt roads into the eyes of pedestrians and the wares of hawkers, preceding the rainfall that was forecasted for that night. Maria was rushing home, her left hand holding a plaid plastic ‘Ghana Must Go’ bag and her right hand firmly gripping Kookie’s small fingers. Her haste was partially due to the imminent bad weather conditions. Asamankese never had a light shower. It would be raining cats and dogs in no time. But she was hurrying and causing the four year old to straddle twice as fast as he usually would because she was in public and she hated to be seen in public. Her ‘Ghana Must Go’ bag was filled with market produce- yams, cocoyams, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, amongst others. The plaid pattern of the bag, thought to originate from 3rd century China, closely resembled the rich tartan kilts of the Scots. Yet ironically, the utility plaid bags had no place in the rich tradition of Ghana, they were emblems of poverty and hardship which had gained popularity when Ghanaian illegal immigrants were forced to leave Nigeria, thus the name ‘Ghana Must Go’. Since then they had remained in circulation and since Maria’s arrival in that town, her bag had served several purposes. It was her market bag on Friday and every other day, it contained her personal belongings. That day, being Friday, she had gone to the market dutifully and bought almost all that was needed to make supper tonight.

Every young woman was doing the same. Thus as she walked home, she could only inhale the aroma of smoked fish and spiced meats and sigh to herself. Asamankese seemed to be home to mistresses who were black belts in husband-retentive cuisine and mothers who firmly believed in nourishing their families. By seven o’clock, only a few vehicles would be on the road. The men would be in hot pursuit of their wives’ peppery soups and the children in turn would scamper home for a bowl of whatever Mama had prepared. Homes in that part of town were built such that stoves were outside and thus much of the food preparation, the pounding of plantains into fufu, the grinding of Habanero peppers and ginger and the crushing of palm kernels for abenkwan was done in the open compound area. And because people neither built homes with gates nor walls unlike the wealthier parts of town, all household activity was in plain view for passers-by to see unless shielded by trees or hedges. Those without large families and households, resorted to hawkers and food joints just beside the market place. Bachelors, divorced men and the women in their circles, visited these chop bars which gave them the feel of being at a bar and in addition, faithfully served up indigenous dishes. The meals were as delicious as what could be found in a home with even more variety and at affordable prices so that no appetite would be left unsatiated.

The market was approximately half an hour from her home by foot but she could make it home in less if she walked in her usual no-time-to-waste manner (as though there were hot coals under her feet). It came to mind suddenly that there was nothing in the refrigerator for supper that night. She would need to cook a meal afresh, plus she needed Kookie to be home before his parents arrived. That way, they would never know she had taken their son out without their permission.

She felt some moisture on her neck and squinted her eyes; she could now see it was drizzling. The sun was setting, leaving the clouds in the sky as beautiful patches of amber. There was enough light to make it back home without the use of a lantern which also meant just enough light outside for her to be seen. Bustling to and from the market, there was still a number of women making last-minute purchases for supper and fortunately no one was paying attention to her. She pushed past the small throng, leaving the market and made her to the narrow road which if she followed all the way down, would lead home. Skipping to avoid potholes and ditches in the road, Maria hissed her teeth. The road was so uneven. Very few of the roads in Asamankese could even qualify as third-class roads. Each time it rained the streets would flood, gullies would form and water would remain stagnant for days, breeding mosquitoes. She pulled Kookie close to avoid a rift and looked at his feet. She would have to give him a shower when they got home. It was getting chillier and the raindrops were heavier but she arrived home before the rain could properly begin.

Maria Sakyi was born to be a model, a celebrity and a bright shining star. Yet that cloudy night, when few stars could be seen, she found herself wiping mud off a four year old’s foot, next to a basin full of a discouraging pile of dirty silverware, pots and pans, outside by the bore-hole from which they fetched running water. She belted out in song randomly taking Kookie by surprise. “The thing you dey do!” She was loud and so he jumped a little and his face clearly said stop doing that please. Maria gave him a wide smile and hugged the little angel. His bright white eyes reflected innocence and intelligence. His hair was grown but it was clean, dark and healthy because Maria never let him miss a shower nor miss brushing his teeth. He owed his beautiful baby toothed smile to “Auntie Mari” as he called her. His smooth face shaped like a heart, made him as pretty as a girl till his mischievous smile gave away his boyishness. Kookie was Maria’s best friend and life had changed for her since he was born. He was a silver lining on the gloomy black cloud that seemed to perpetually sit above her head. She picked him and took him inside to dress him, singing to herself still.

Before his birth, Kookie’s parents desperately hoped for a child. They had Maria staying with them, but she was not their child and they never let her forget that. Maria had slept in a corner of the living room every night for the past eighteen years. There was not much furniture in the room anyway, except three dark wooden seats and a matching table. They did not own a television. Living in a remote part of Asamankese in the Eastern part of Ghana, Mr and Mrs Sakyi-Ankrah made their living off a poultry farm. There was not much money to go round but whatever extra funds Lina Sakyi got for herself, she used on her son Kweku (who Maria called Kookie). Hence Maria slept on the floor each night and was first given a pillow at age fifteen. The hardness of the cement floor she slept on, did not do any damage to her soft skin however, because Maria just blossomed naturally. Her graceful, lithe body betrayed the fact that she ate very little (leftovers, scraps and mostly fruits from the neighbors’ trees). Nonetheless, at age twenty, her moderate bust and hips called for attention, accentuating her beauty and altogether making her a very attractive young woman. Her thick natural African hair crowned a face of striking features. The color of her skin was close to ebony but her teeth were bright white and they stood out, along with a slight dimple and a twinkle in her eye, each time she smiled.

Mariel Saks” was her stage name, her alter ego. It was her name on social networks- Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. She kept her accounts active because through them, she lived. Maria never viewed herself as one living two separate lives. To her, she was dead to the Sakyi-Ankrahs and alive to the world. In her mind, she was not a poor young woman living in Asamankese and being denied the right of tertiary education. She was everything she wanted to be. This was why when she met Timothy Appiah near the town’s biggest bar one night and he offered her a job, she jumped at the chance. Tim would make her famous and she knew this since the very day she set eyes on him. He could see past her situation and into her future. He knew she had potential and drive and diligence. Maria had spoken with him for less than twenty minutes before agreeing to his proposal. Timothy Appiah said he was a photographer from Accra. His warm smile and expensive equipment convinced her he must be telling the truth because after all people from Accra were rich and must have nice lives. He gave her the name “Mariel” and they started business together. As of yet, Maria was not receiving any profits from their joint business, but Tim came around often and he assured her that it wouldn’t be long till she was rolling in millions of cedis. The thought of making such amounts of money put a huge smile on her face.

The thought of Lina Sakyi wiped that smile off and left no trace of it. Lina had seen Maria’s school reports each semester and knew that the twenty-year-old in her care was incredibly smart but never praised or rewarded her. She only increased the amount of work Maria had to do, as though cleaning every room, throwing out garbage, fetching water for the household, cooking, doing laundry, taking care of Kweku and other odd jobs was not enough. Maria had sobbed hysterically the night Lina decided that she was to start working on their poultry farm instead of going to vocational school. She had tried to explain to her that it made no sense for her to work on the poultry farm since there were already more than enough hands and secondly she was a female and could not be of much help. In return for her explanation, she received a cold slap.

“Shut up!” Lina’s shrill voice shook Maria to tears. “I’ll lock you outside and you can go and sleep on the streets for all I care.” Maria whimpered in the dark room lit by a lantern. There had been a power failure only a few minutes ago.

“No,” was all she could muster, in a tiny voice amidst sobs.

“Look at you. Prostitute!” Lina spat out snidely, sizing up Maria. The women had not gotten along since the younger of the two had joined their household. Lina had raised Maria up as a toddler. However, no matter how much she helped and watched over Kookie and worked hard at school, the plump woman with short hair would never consider the child her daughter. Angelina Sakyi had married Mr.Sakyi-Ankrah at age twenty-four. She was a beautiful light-skinned bride married to her dark knight in the town hall with three witnesses the day after a small but joyful and colorful traditional celebration of their marital union. It took them six years to have their first child by which time, she had gained an immense amount of weight, changed in complexion and practically lost the attractiveness that lured her husband Nana to her. She habitually dressed in loose-fitting printed cloth and hated having her large arms seen. She continuously feared that Nana had his eyes elsewhere and prayed to Allah that he would not disgrace her by choosing Maria over her one day. As Maria had grown up, she had frowned upon the child’s natural glow and beauty. She never wished Maria to be seen with her so she left her at home always. She also made sure the girl would dress in drab clothing that would keep eyes off her. Now that Maria was a woman, she was determined to make her existence hell before she grew wings enough to leave their home.

Maria needed to be alone right that moment. But there was simply nowhere to go. She did not have a room to herself and could not claim any part of the acre which the Sakyi-Ankrah home was built on as her own, not even the space on the living room floor where she slept. Although she wiped and cleaned everything in that home, nothing was hers, not a single item. She began walking outside and as she closed the door behind her, and muttered “You’re just jealous of me.”

Heh, what was that you said?” Lina turned to give Maria one last scathing look. “Get out of my sight before I do something you’ll never forget!” Trying her best not to slam the door but slamming it anyway because of how angry she was, the fledgling actress and model stomped out on to the road. Pulling her skirt up to her waist, wiping the tears from her face and brushing off dirt from her hair, she began to run into the dark night. Power had not been restored to the neighborhood. She would be home in the morning.

Bowed Together. 09-03-2012 4:30pm. Asamankese, Ghana.

Anyone viewing Maria Sakyi from afar that day would have wondered at what she was doing. Her legs were bunched up, close to her chest and her arms were wrapped around them but her head was bowed. She was on Asabea’s bed, rocking back and forth and moaning ever so lightly. If one did not know Maria well, one could have assumed she was praying. Maria was not given to such spiritual ventures however, so it was obvious that something was terribly wrong with her.

“Are you crying?” Asabea asked her, glancing at her friend and then turning her attention back to her school work from her desk where she sat. Maria and her were home alone since they had just arrived from class and her parents had not yet returned from their work.

“No,” Maria’s answer was curt. She kept rocking back and forth for a few more minutes before she stopped and rolled over on the bed. “I hate this.”

“Hate what?” Asabea shot back, surprised that her friend was talking a bit more. Maria’s response to her initial question had made her feel as though she wanted to be left alone.

“Things I hate? Well there’s quite a number of them. My life, my appearance, my existence, my aunt, her husband. Need I go on?” Sarcasm rolled off of her lips with ease these days.

“What were you referring to right now?” Asabea sighed. Her melodramatic friend was on a roll once again.

“The pain. My cramps, they started today.” Maria sat up as she spoke. “Could I have a bottle filled with hot water please?”

Asabea stood up from her seat. There was not much space in the small room which Asabea called her own but there was a bed, a desk and a small chair. In Maria’s eyes, this was luxury. Asabea was her parents’ only child and though they were far from affluent, they did whatever they could to make their daughter feel comfortable and help her work hard at school. There was barely a foot between the desk and the bed; so Asabea was immediately facing Maria when she stood up. Looking squarely into her friend’s eyes, she said, “I’m going to get you this bottle. And after I do, no more complaining. Is that clear? I have so much work to get done before we head out tonight.”

“Ah I don’t even wanna go out tonight Asabs. I’m tired.” Maria looked like she wanted to say more. Asabea did not give her the chance. She walked out of the room in search of something to put her friend out of the misery Mother Nature had so generously inflicted. Maria lay back on the small bed and looked up at the white ceiling. There was so much she wanted to tell Asabea or anyone who would listen for that matter. Asabea was her friend by default. They were the two smartest girls in their class and had practically grown up together. They did not resemble each other in appearance but everyone told them they acted like sisters. Asabea was slightly taller than Maria and in some sense prettier. Her wide smile lit up a small face, with perfectly aligned teeth. She wore her hair in braids usually and they hung down to her waist. Long eyelashes framed big eyes and the whites of her eyes contrasted beautifully with her coffee-colored skin. Maria and Asabea shared much in common- the way they laughed, the words they used and even the music they liked. But when it came down to it, Maria could be extremely introverted and was very careful about what she said. There was no doubt that she was incredibly talented but she did not throw out her pearls to swine. No one would see the best of Maria till she deemed them worthy. Today in particular, she needed to speak to Asabea about what had been raging in her mind over the past few days but Asabea was never a good listener. For that reason, their friendship was merely superficial. It was hanging out together and sharing jokes but never sharing intimate things that bothered each other. Maria’s mind was stormy. And there were no safe grounds where she could pour out her rain. She looked around for a piece of paper and began to jot down a nearly poetic release.

Lift Herself Up. 09-08-2012 4:30pm. Asamankese, Ghana.

“Let us pray,” At the priest’s directive to the congregation, one would have thought noise would fill the the small parish or at least a murmur of voices would be heard. But this was no pentecostal chapel, it was the Mary Our Help Catholic church in Asamankese and over there, prayer meant moments of silence. Maria closed her eyes. She opened her lips slightly. She looked up and then down. Jammed her hands into her pockets and then brought them out and let them touch each other.

“Our Father,” she began. The rest of the words did not make their way out of her mouth because she had opened her eyes and was distracted by the jewelry a woman sitting in one of the opposite pews was wearing. “Pray for us sinners.” She ended her prayer with a sigh.

“Dreams and prayers must be the same thing.” Mass had ended. She slipped out of the back doors and began walking home with Kookie since Nana and Lina had chosen not to attend that morning. “They never come true. Do they Kookie?”

Kookie smiled sheepishly knowing he was expected to answer but of course having no idea what she meant. He decided to go with the reply, “Yes.” Maria burst out laughing and swooped down to pick him up. She passed by several church members who gave her strange looks, causing her to look down. She could practically feel the despisement in her eyes. She wished she could go to the Priest and tell on them for being bad church members who gossiped about people but frankly she did not know the priest and secondly, she did not know what a good church member was. She hated coming to church for several reasons but it was one of the few places she had permission to take Kookie and she could spend time with her buddy outside the house.

The parish was one of the best-looking buildings in the town. For a small building, its architecture was quite unique. The rectangular structure was painted white with high windows. They were not stained glass windows but the building was beautiful regardless of there being much color on it. It was crowned with a small dome and a cross on top of it. Its appearance did not appeal to Maria however. Church for her was silence and standing and sitting and trying to remember the right words to say at the right time and listening to the drone of the voice of Father Graham, the old white priest always elegantly dressed in white robes. She hated that she never had money for collection. In addition, she wished that they would offer her more food than flaky white bread and tiny cups of wine. She usually came to church with her empty stomach growling since everyone else would be asleep when she was leaving and she had been told to never “cook a meal for herself alone”. Lina was a Muslim and did not attend church. Nana was too tired from Saturday to ever be awake before noon on a Sunday. Lina had called her several names over these past years, greedy, slutty, difficult, stubborn, evil, wicked. It did not even make sense to Maria to attend church herself. Church was for good people and she was by all means far from good. That was why they talked about her behind her back. Everyone knew about her in some way or the other, although she spoke to no one outside of school.

She did not like singing hymns either. The sound of the organ irritated her and so she sat each Sunday staring at the hymns numbers on the board and counting them off as they sang each one. She was pleased when they sang shorter hymns and when Father Graham would say, “first and last verse only.” She tried saying the Lord’s Prayer, Hail Mary or A Prayer to the Angel of God before she slept each night. At least three Hail Mary’s and one Lord’s Prayer would do. She sensed she need protection and help and guidance. However, she never knew who to ask and where to turn. She did own a Bible however. It was given to her at her birth, when she was baptized and given the name Maria. She kept it clean next to the small brown bag in which she kept her clothes and all that she owned and left it beneath the kitchen sink. She was always glad when she remembered she had a copy of the sacred book to herself. She had showed it off to Asabea one time.

“Have you read it though?” Asabea had looked curiously at the black book in Maria’s hand.

“Don’t be silly. Bibles are to be read by priests. We can’t read them on our own. That’s a sin.” Maria had answered with some pride because she felt powerful being able to share with her friend this valuable truth.

“I see.” Asabea put the Bible down gently in order not to damage or offend it in case unbeknownst to her it secretly contained life. “Let’s go see Tim again.” The two girls had chuckled at that suggestion and had began making their way to see their friend, the professional photographer.

Read on! Here’s Chapter II

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