NTOABOMA — Ingenuity was never lacking, not among the young boys I grew to know and admire. I was four. My first toy was a car. It was not just locally made, I actually knew the maker.
We called him Abotsie. He never ceased to amaze. He was four or five years older. And he was notorious. For what, you would ask? Abostie was notorious for seizing his made-by-Abo cars (Abocars) from his clients.
He would seize the car on a whim even if you had satisfied your financial responsibility – often this came in kind. He took anything – from sukluiteye (toffees) to fried chicken. He tried seizing my Abocar for the first time. That’s how my grandmother got wind of it.
I lived with my grandmother since I learned to walk. I followed her everywhere. At that tender age, I quickly learned to keep track of her. Easily I learned to keep time with her because a long time ago she developed a knee problem. It slowed her pace but it never slowed her resolve.
My grandmother was a pure chemist. In Ntoaboma, no one made better Akpeteshie than my grandmother, and no place made better Akpeteshie than Ntoaboma. You may doubt it but this is actually true. Every step through her distillery, from sugarcane to Akpeteshie, was immaculately labelled and standardized. Every batch calibrated and every sale fully documented. Her clients came from far and near.
My grandfather and his kinfolk could barely touch her. Her attention to detail was miles ahead of my grandfather’s makeshift distillery, across town, where Murphy’s Law ruled supreme: Anything that could go wrong, went wrong over there. My grandmother always went to their rescue, and at a fee. She loved it.
I cried my way to my grandma who was busy calibrating the strength of her newly brewed Akpeteshie. “What?” She asked. I explained how Abotsie had seized my car. “So you cry?” Two aunties seemingly unconcerned with my wailing, burst out giggling at Grandmother’s retort.
She took a few minutes. At this point I stopped crying and stood stupefied, wondering what she might say next. She was pensive, gauging the temperature under one of her distillation columns. The place was quiet – only the crackling sound of the fire. Then she moved to collect a tiny taste of the distillate atop the column. It must have been good. I could tell from her grin – that grin you see on a young man’s face when he quaffs a shot of hard liquor.
I let out a series of cries hoping to redraw attention to me and my problem with Abostie. One of my aunties, I don’t remember which one, blurted out: “Didn’t you hear Grandma say you should stop crying?” I held back a few tears again. Grandma turned and nodded in agreement with my aunt. She approached me, held me by the hand and spoke: “In this house we only cry for loved ones lost. Let’s go.”
We found Abotsie in his workshop – of sorts. My grandma asked which one of the many cars on display at this shop was mine. I pointed it out. Right away Abostie bleated, “Liar!” Abotsie’s father overheard the conversation. He crawled out from the comfort of his seemingly quiet hammock adjacent to where Abotsie worked. Most men in Ntoaboma enjoyed some down time around the second part of noon – preferably in a hammock under an airy tree – after a hard day’s work on the farm.
As was customary in Ntoaboma, a man, especially a younger man, must fully acknowledge a woman. That is, he must stand straight and nod before exchanging any greetings. Abostie’s father did just that and exchanged a lengthy customary greeting with Grandmother – all ancestors were called to witness this encounter.
Then Abostie’s father rebuked his son who was busy squatting and inspecting one of his cars. Not to necessarily give me back my car, but to accord my grandmother the respect such an elder deserved in Ntoaboma. Abotsie stood upright and officially acknowledged the presence of my grandmother. Not without some fanfare but my grandmother went straight to her point. She looked at me: “Show me the car.” I pointed back at the same car. “Go get it.”
Everyone looked on. At first I flinched but my gaze locked with Abotsie’s gaze as I took my first step towards retrieving my car. The contours of his face shortened. It scared me. He’s about five years older, I thought. Should I get the car? Maybe not.
My grandmother urged: “It’s your car, right? Go get it.” I psyched myself up again. I breathed in and out, deeply and held it there. I walked past Abotsie as my grandmother and Abostie’s father looked on. I stooped, collected my car, tucked it under my armpit and paced gingerly back to my grandmother. Abotsie looked on with profuse displeasure. Fired up, he could barely control his anger. My grandmother waved Abostie’s father and off we left the shop.
Then, a blurt from behind. Abotsie: “If I catch you in this area, I will beat you.” My grandmother turned around and in front of Abostie’s father she locked horns on poor Abotsie: “He’s here now, why don’t you try?” There was silence. Even Abostie’s father did not quite know what to do or how to handle it.
It must have been quite an awkward moment for him. My grandmother held her gaze on Abotsie for a few seconds more, while the boy reconsidered his foolishness. Nothing happened and my grandma warned: “If you touch him, you’re already dead. Ask your father.” Abotsie’s father still looked on confused.
As we approached home, my grandmother turned to me and looked me straight in the eye: “What is this dirty car. My grandson. What is this dirty car anyway? Why? Why would you cry over such a thing? Can’t you make something better?” Stunned, paradoxically stunned and confused, I could barely look my grandmother in the eye. She maintained her straight look, as she always did, and smiled. “You can make something better,” she said. “You can make something much better. Can’t you?”
Although I was still confused, I nodded in agreement. Then she said: “Why don’t you throw this away and make me your best toy car?” I looked up and down this toy car – this Abocar – as if to ask: Why? How? “You can do that. For grandma. Can’t you?” I nodded. Completely!
It took me three days to finish my first toy car. The same car would usually take Abotsie about an hour to make.
But I still remember that car, the one I made – ugly in all the right places. That’s how I remember it. Surely it was no Abocar but that’s the only childhood plaything I still remember clearly. My grandmother loved it. The way I recall the exhilarating experience, if Grandma loved it, I must have loved it too. I felt a sense of sublime accomplishment. More, I felt I wouldn’t have to deal with Abotsie ever again.
Abotsie saw me driving my little car toy – of course! He was surprised to see me running back and forth like a soccer team with my own toy car. The look on his face was priceless – the contours were much longer than before. I was no longer pulling around a car he made for me, and for which I would have to pay him in kind and in full, and which he could still decide to seize anyway. He couldn’t come close to me or my toy. He kept spying my car from a distance. My friends gathered around – some laughed at it, others admired it, some were indifferent. I didn’t care either way. The difference was that most of them still owed Abotsie. Plus, even those who did not owe him, Abostie could still seize their cars at the slightest impulse.
My closer friends were happy that there was a new car-maker in town. That’s how I got into the business of making toy cars at a tender age of four.
When Grandmother gathered enough money out of the profits of her Akpeteshie business to buy herself a private vehicle, she called my uncle – an economist trained at one of those Ivy League Schools in the United States of America. He was an expert at the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) at the Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning. He was surprised to know that an Akpeteshie seller could save enough money to buy a Land Rover Defender. That is the car he suggested to Grandmother.
“What does Land Rover mean?” Grandmother asked. My uncle replied, “It’s English.” “Why is it English?” Grandma retorted. My uncle was confused. My grandmother continued, “You mean to tell me that from Tamale to Ogua, from Abidjan to Anago, no one can make a car? So from where do they get all these cars people drive in Ghana?”
My Grandmother decided to use her profits to build a new rental property for new teachers arriving at the Ntoaboma Community Middle School.
Grandmother called me the other day and asked what I thought of Kantanka. I said he was real – that the vice president of the country had ordered two vehicles from Kantanka. She replied, “Good. Times change. Maybe one of these days when you make enough money you can get your grandma one of those. Right?” “Of course,” I jumped. And we both chortled knowing full well that a new era had dawned – early, but bright.