08 March 2009

Khaya Tree by Ayesha H. Attah

March 1954

On the day after the first rainfall of the year, Lizzie-Achiaa stood under a neem tree in front of her father’s compound, a convinced young woman.

She was convinced that there was more to life than working on Papa Yaw’s unproductive farm, helping Mama Efua with chores and having inane conversations with Asantewa.

Times were hard in Adukrom No. 2. Owusua, her eldest sister had died the year before. Swollen shoot disease had infected plants. Her father’s cocoa farm had been no exception, and of course, he was quick to use that in his defense of trying to marry her off. But she was convinced life would get better and she didn’t have to marry someone she didn’t love.

She stared at the neem leaves, resplendent after their wash. She was convinced that outside Adukrom No. 2, there were interesting people and she had proof—her tall enigma from the north, Bador Samed.

Before any friendship had developed with Bador, however, she’d regarded him just as everyone in the village had — with mistrust. He’d showed up early one Saturday morning and stayed on for two years as the medicine man’s assistant. She welcomed his friendship when everyone in her house was mourning Owusua and wouldn’t give her the time of day. Their conversations were the perfect escape from a house where death had left its stubborn mark. He would be sending for her any minute. She waited impatiently.

She looked back into her father’s compound. The laterite huts capped with thatch roofs seemed in need of redoing, with cracks snaking their way from foundation to roof. Her half-sisters ran around, pushing each other, lifting their dresses, laughing with the freedom only children have.

“Sister Lizzie,” a boy’s voice said. She turned around and saw Kojo dressed in a pair of torn brown shorts. “Good morning,” he said. “Please Brother Bador wants to see you.”

“Thank you,” she said, glad she didn’t have to keep waiting. She noticed that Kojo’s small shoulders had risen with self-importance, obviously because of the message he was sent to deliver. As they walked away from Papa Yaw’s, she bent over to pluck two globular pods from a shrub pushing out of their path. She handed one to Kojo and shook the other in her hand. “You don’t have to come all the way with me,” she said. To Kojo, this task was probably a big deal — having Bador Samed bid him on errands. His eyes widened, pleaded with Lizzie. “Give me the pleasure of finishing this task,” they seemed to say, but Lizzie wasn’t about to be swayed. She stared at him until he realized he wasn’t needed anymore. She strode on, passing by the Aduhene’s compound.

Lizards scuttled out of her way as she arrived at the Insu River. He wasn’t there. She stared at the river, running on young and wild, rejuvenated by the rainfall from the day before. She sat down under the tall khaya tree, which had become their spot. She hit the pod against her shin, listening to its rattling. She fussed with the black cloth she was wearing.

“Do you know what that’s for?” a voice asked, startling her.

“You scared me!” Lizzie said, turning around to see Bador Samed grinning. His head blocked off half of the sun.

“Sorry I’m late,” he said. “Opanyin Nti caught me just as I was leaving and made me mix herbs for him.”

“I just got here myself,” she said. “What were you asking me about?”

“The pod you’re holding,” he said.

“This?” She shook it again. “It’s tutotuto. A cheap children’s toy,” Lizzie said, smiling and raising her nose toward the sky.

“True,” he said walking around her, “but did you know that the leaves of the plant are great for curing snake bites?”

“Really?” Lizzie asked. “I didn’t know that. See, what would I do without you?” She laughed and hit her forehead with the pod.

“A lot, my dear,” he said, sitting down across from her. “You’re one smart woman. I’m just here to help you believe in that fact.” His skin, the color of laterite, looked redder with the sun bouncing off it. His small eyes shone. They were gentle and ageless. Every time he looked at her, his eyes seemed to pierce her existence. He wore a black and white striped smock and white shorts.

“How do you know I’m smart?” she asked.

“Because like souls find each other. We’re two smart souls.” He looked at her and reached into his pocket, extracting a small white container and a thin piece of brown paper. He popped off the lid of the container, poured dried leaves onto the paper and rolled it.

“Can I smoke too?” she asked.

“No, you can’t.”

“Why not?”

“Because I don’t want my wife smoking,” he said.

“I’m not your wife,” she said, “yet.”

The river gargled on indifferently. Bador Samed closed his eyes.

“Is that what it is today?” he asked, opening his eyes. A smile spread across his face. “You’re not my wife, eh?”

“It’s not that. I just don’t understand why you can do some things and I can’t just because I’m a girl … a woman.”

“I said I don’t want ‘my wife’ smoking and nothing about women in general,” Bador Samed said, still smiling.

“Wife, woman. You meant it as the same thing,” Lizzie said. She turned round and shifted her gaze from the colossal roots of the khaya tree, up along its trunk to the point where its branches kissed the sky. When she looked back down, Bador Samed’s face was an inch away from hers. She inhaled the strangely sweet smell of tobacco. He leaned forward slowly. His eyes narrowed. She looked at him, her heart beginning to sprint. This was the first time she’d been that close to any man. She closed her eyes.

“Relax,” he said, planting his lips on hers. They tasted spicy and felt moist. All she heard was the Insu River splashing on in its infinite course. She opened her eyes. Bador Samed was back in his original position, smoking his tobacco. She thought him so beautiful. Of all the men in the village, he was the only one she’d ever been interested in. It was his foreignness, his eccentricity and that he wasn’t staying in Adukrom No. 2 all his life.

“When you make it to Accra,” she said, catching her breath, “you’ll start learning the white man’s medicine and save enough money for me to come join you.”

“You keep saying that,” Bador Samed said, stubbing out the tobacco stick on the wet grass. “You always talk about what I’ll do, but what do you want to do with your life?”

She was taken aback by his question. She was lucky her father had sent her off to school—the only girl in the village to finish secondary school. Bador was right—with all her school knowledge, who did she want to be? She wanted to find answers to why people like her sister died, to leave Adukrom No. 2, to meet more people like Bador Samed. People who weren’t afraid of limits.

“To be your wife,” she said, grinning widely, knowing her response would irk him.

“Seriously, Mrs. Samed.”

“All right,” Lizzie said, smiling. “I want to look after people—sick people.”

“That’s more like it,” Bador Samed said, getting excited, his eyes lighting up like a five-year-old who’d been offered sweets.

“I want a big family, but you can’t have any other wives. As annoying as Papa Yaw is, I don’t understand how Mama Efua shares him with two other women,” Lizzie said, drawing a circle in the damp loamy soil with the pod.

“There’ll be only one Mrs. Samed,” he said, taking Lizzie’s hands into his and holding them. His hands felt calloused and were stained a reddish-brown hue. I’ve never been so happy, Lizzie thought. I shouldn’t be, especially not with Owusua gone. She stared at a seedling that was pushing out of the soil.

“Are you all right?” Bador Samed asked. She remained quiet. “You’re thinking of your sister, right?” he asked. She nodded. “We all go to the ancestors eventually, Lizzie. Some people leave faster than others.”

“She was so young. She didn’t ask to be sick.”

“Lizzie, some of us will die violently, some through epilepsy, some in sleep. But we’ll both come up with remedies to make people live longer.”

Lizzie smiled and said, “Let’s go to Accra.” Her chest rose. It was a rash decision, but one she’d convinced herself about on the spur of the moment. There was no turning back.

“Are you serious?”

“Yes,” she said. “I have nothing to do here.”

“What about your family? Will Papa Yaw let you go?”

“I’m not telling them. We’ll elope!”

“I like your energy,” Bador Samed said. “But we have to plan this properly. I need money. We need a place to stay in Accra. We need to work on all those details.”

“I thought you were spontaneous,” Lizzie said, stretching out her lower lip.

“I am, but with you coming along, I want things to fall in place perfectly.”

“Let’s leave in a week.”

“Fine, a week it is, my dear. But first … come back here tonight.”

Lizzie knew why Bador Samed told her to come back. This would be their pact, their nonverbal way of sealing their deal. For her, it would also be an act of defying her father. Her way of making sure he couldn’t marry her off to anyone else.

Three days passed and Lizzie hadn’t seen or heard from Bador Samed. She thought it strange and began to cook up excuses for him. Maybe because he was planning their escape, he didn’t want to be seen with her. He was smart, that Bador Samed! But, she wanted him to touch her again and make her feel like the only woman in the world and she wanted to plan their future, even if it was just in talk. She sat in front of the rectangular room she shared with three of her sisters. I have to find out if he’s well, she thought. Springing up from the stool she’d been sitting on, she marched out of Papa Yaw’s compound.

Kojo’s older brother was sitting under the mango tree in front of his house, scrubbing his teeth. She quickened her steps so she wouldn’t have to talk to him.

“Lizzie, darling,” he whined. He was so sickly, even his voice carried no timbre.

“Kofi, I’m coming,” she said, trying not to look into his eyes.

She wasn’t going to come back. She walked past the Aduhene’s compound, past a string of similar huts and stopped in front of Opanyin Nti’s hut, where she saw the medicine man stirring an earthenware pot of neem leaves.

“Good afternoon, Opanyin,” she said.

“Lizzie, how are you?” he asked, looking up.

“Opanyin, I’m fine. Is Bador Samed in?”

The medicine man’s eyes watered. He shook his head.

“Do you know where he is?”

“Lizzie,” the medicine man said, looking her in the eye. “The last time I saw him was three nights ago.”

How strange, she thought. That was the day they’d made plans to run away, the night they’d sealed their deal. Had he left her all alone? She didn’t think that was possible. He couldn’t have just used her, could he?

“Has he gone to find some ingredient for you?” she asked, hoping that the old man was getting senile and had forgotten.

“No. You remember how he just appeared?”


“I think he just vanished from our lives in the same way. There are some things you should just let be, Lizzie,” he said, bending over his pot, adding more neem leaves. He was obviously being mysterious. Maybe Bador Samed would come back for her. Maybe he’d gone in search of money. He must be preparing for their elopement.

“Thank you, Opanyin.”

“You’re welcome, my daughter,” he said, stirring his brew.

She walked to the Insu River.

As she sat under the khaya tree, she battled with opposing thoughts. One part of her was swelling with the surety that Bador Samed was simply getting things ready for their flight. The other was confused. He would have given her some clue that he was leaving to prepare things, but he’d said nothing.

As the Insu River ran its indifferent course, her eyes traveled along the trunk of the khaya tree. Where are you? she wondered. She would be so miserable if he never came back.

Lizzie stood in the entrance to her room, watching Agya Kwaku walk out of Papa Yaw’s compound in a huff. She saw her father shuffle behind him, chewing stick in mouth, his head bent obsequiously low.

“Oh, Agya!” Papa Yaw said. “The girl didn’t know what she was saying. Agya, wait small …”

She wanted to hear what her father was saying to her suitor, but his voice became smaller the farther away he walked from the compound. She patted her plaited hair, hoping she hadn’t been rude to Agya Kwaku. The truth was that she was still reeling from Bador Samed’s disappearance. No one had seen him. He hadn’t written to her. Nothing! He was the only man she wanted to be with and now that he’d disappeared, she wasn’t in the mood to be married to just anybody. Besides, now that she’d been tainted, would anyone want her?

She turned around, ready to pull back the tattered red and green curtain that covered the entrance to her room, when her shirt was tugged on from behind. “What’s your problem-” she started. Papa Yaw whirled her around. She saw a thick neem branch in his hand.

“You useless, good for nothing,” he spat out, hitting her shins with the branch. He reeked of stale palm wine.

“Papa Yaw, why?” Lizzie asked, a frown creasing her forehead. Papa Yaw was always abusive. She’d found it strange when he hadn’t reacted to her refusal of two of the men he’d brought over. Both times, he’d served her a dish of silent treatment and hadn’t resorted to violence. Now he was behaving just like she’d expected him to.

“Come here!” He walked to the middle of the compound.

“No,” Lizzie said, lifting her right leg up the ledge into her room. Her father clutched her shirt, dragging her away from the door. Her foot landed on the rough ledge. “Agyee!” she screamed out in pain.

He hit her shin in rapid strokes with the branch. Its leaves and yellow fruits were still intact. She tried to run into her room, but his grasp was too strong. He spun her around.

“You think of no one but yourself,” Papa Yaw yelled, spitting out bits of chewed stick. “You think I enjoy begging in front of all these men? Eh? First you rejected Mr. Sam. I didn’t say anything. Then you did the same to Wofa Atta. Still I remained quiet.” With his left hand, Papa Yaw adjusted his heavy, black and white kente cloth, which was nestled around his shoulders. He spat out his chewing stick.

“Today, after being rude to Agya Kwaku, you think I’ll let you go scot-free?”

Lizzie tried to break into a run, this time aiming for the compound’s exit. As she lifted her legs off the ground, Papa Yaw yanked her shirt. She lost control of her legs and landed on the ground, grazing her buttocks. Her father struck her head with the branch. He swiped at her neck, slapped her back. Lizzie tried to get up, but her father kept hitting her. The lashes kept coming. She tried to block them, tried to second-guess where the branch would fall, but each time he moved on to another part of her body. She saw Papa Yaw look up and followed his gaze. Her brothers, sisters, mother and stepmothers were trickling out of their rooms. She crawled toward the exit.

“Papa Yaw is beating someone!” a shrill voice shouted, inviting all in the village to come over and witness the spectacle. This was one of the things Lizzie hated the most about the village. Everyone was in everyone’s business. She picked herself up close to the exit, noticing that people lined the periphery of the compound and had completely enclosed her and Papa Yaw.

Papa Yaw came after her. As she tried to escape, the crowd wouldn’t part. Obviously they wanted a good show at her expense. Her father pulled her plaits, dragging her back toward the center. He lashed her arms rapidly. She flailed her arms, trying to stop the contact of the rough branch on her flesh.

“Useless, selfish girl,” Papa Yaw shouted. He let go of Lizzie’s hair, and again, she tried to dash for the exit. He caught her shirt and unleashed a string of lashes on her arms.

“God, show your might!” Lizzie heard her mother cry out.

“You little witch,” Papa Yaw went on. “Do you want us to all die from hunger? Eh?” He pointed in the direction of his cocoa farm. “If you married Agya Kwaku, he would give me seeds for free, I would plant them, then after the rains, I would yield a healthy harvest to feed all your greedy mouths. But you … you think only of yourself!”

Lizzie was quiet as tears flowed from her eyes. She wanted to stop them but she couldn’t. She looked at her feet, blurred by her tears. The neem leaves were falling and landing on the ground.

Lizzie heard her mother still crying out.

“‘I am not interested, I am not interested!’ You think it is for you to decide?” Papa Yaw asked her, rapidly striking her legs. She tried to dart toward her second stepmother’s hut, where the thatch wall had fallen over. Her father was faster. He caught the cloth she wore around her waist, spun her around and struck the branch against her left shoulder. “Agya Kwaku is an honest man. He would have taken good care of you. But you …” She covered her shoulders with her hands. He hit her shins. “But you selfish-” She tried to buckle her knees. “-think of only-” Before his last stroke hit her, Lizzie grabbed and held on to the branch with her right hand.

She felt the flesh on her arms blistering. She stared at Papa Yaw, his yellow eyes bulging, capillaries dancing about on them.

“Leave it!” he spat out. Lizzie clutched the branch firmly.

The Aduhene came in through the crowd and touched Papa Yaw on the arm. “I beg you,” he said.

“Let the girl go.”

Papa Yaw shook the chief off. Lizzie felt her tears drying on her face. She wasn’t letting go of the branch. She saw Papa Yaw’s eyes redden as he tried to extricate the branch from her grasp. His muscles were taut. His cloth slipped off his shoulders. As Papa Yaw tried to save the falling cloth, Lizzie heaved the branch with all the energy she could muster, pulling it out of his fingers.

“Go back to your houses. I beg you,” the Aduhene pleaded with the gathered crowd. His voice was too soft. Nobody seemed to hear him.

“No more nonsense,” Papa Yaw shouted. He cleared his throat loudly, spat on the ground and stomped off, red-eyed, to his room.

Mama Efua ran to Lizzie, who was still standing in the middle of the compound, branch in hand. The leaves had gathered at her feet and she was now sobbing uncontrollably.

Khaya Tree was written by Ayesha H. Attah and is an excerpt from Harmattan Rain, her debut novel published by Per Ankh Books.

Copyright Ayesha H. Attah 2009.

Ayesha Harruna Attah is a writer and journalist. She has worked as a freelance writer for the Accra Daily Mail, a Ghanaian newspaper, the AFRican Magazine and Yachting Magazine.

Born in Accra, Ghana, Ayesha lived there for 17 years before moving to Massachusetts to study biochemistry at Mount Holyoke College. She also holds an M.S. in magazine journalism from Columbia University.

At the Per Sesh Writer's Workshop, with a fellowship from TrustAfrica, she wrote her first novel, Harmattan Rain. It tells the story of three generations of a family from the independence of Ghana till the late 1990s.


Ivor W. Hartmann said...

Welcome to ST Ayesha! A fiery and passionate beginning here with Khaya story. I can't wait to read the rest of Harmattan Rain to find out what Lizzie does next.

Masimba Musodza said...

Now I have to read the rest of this!!!

Anonymous said...

I have gotten a copy of the book and am finishing it off. It is very good. Thank you for the mention too. I will be e-mailing you soon with more information. Akinloye

Ayesha Attah said...

Thanks for your kind words! To read more from Harmattan Rain, you can order a copy at www.bbkwan.com. Cheers!

Ayesha Attah said...

Thanks for your kind words! To read more from Harmattan Rain, you can order a copy at www.bbkwan.com. Cheers!

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