Healing from Ghana Overcoming the Traumatic Years

Fearing shame and stigma, I concealed the experience to myself. This article is my first means of publicizing what happened to me in Ghana two decades ago because I have concluded that my writing about it is part of my healing process. I have never discussed it with families or friends, and I don’t think I ever will.

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Cologne, Germany

In 1999, my father, my family’s breadwinner, lost his job as manager of a prestigious international company in western Nigeria. I had just completed my junior secondary school final exams and was supposed to go on to a prestigious secondary institution. But my family’s sudden fall from financial security killed the plan.

My mother stepped up to provide when my father could not. She got paid to braid and weave, working her hands through all kinds of hair from dawn to dusk in her customers’ homes. She sold anything she could get her hands on, mainly seasonal produce like oranges and mangoes and we would hawk them in the neighbourhood. Within a few months, she lost her weight and her beauty and started selling her clothes and jewellery to travelling Hausa traders. ‘I’ll buy new ones, better ones, as soon as our situation changes,’ she would say. But the bitterness in her smiles betrayed her show of optimism. I realized that she, too, was just trying to cope.

My mother’s earnings could not sustain us. So, my parents, my three siblings and I moved out of our luxurious 4-bedroom mansion into a crowded room-and-parlour apartment, a ‘face-me, I face-you’. It had one bathroom and a smelly pit toilet that we shared with ten people.

Then, we lost our two Peugeot cars: my parents sold the 505 after my father’s company had taken back his official 504. He used the money for his job hunt, dashing out cash to buy favour. But the bribes didn’t work. After a while, I noticed my father’s beauty fade away, too. Grey hair invaded his dark, shiny afro. His sweet, gap-toothed smile crumpled into a frown that never seemed to go away. Before, my father used to tell us colourful folk tales, speaking his Ekiti-Yoruba regional language. But that stopped. No more folk tales. No more jokes.

Life had been good before my dad lost his job.

We lived like a typical middle-class Nigerian family of the 90s. We had a huge compound to ourselves and two Peugeot cars: my father used his company’s official 504 for work and road trips, while the 505 belonged to Mother and us. Whenever Mother could not drive us to school, our family driver, Uncle Sola, took us. On weekends we visited supermarkets, holiday resorts, or grandparents in the villages.

The gardener tended the flowers and trees in our huge compound. A domestic worker kept the space tidy and a laundryman assisted in the cleaning on Fridays and Saturdays. Yet, our loving parents, especially Mother, maintained discipline. My immediate brother and I used to wash our socks and underwear with our hands. We cleaned our rooms by ourselves, too. Mother inspected all our chores. If we failed to do our chores, Mother disciplined us by preventing us from playing our favourite games and sports and from inviting our friends to play with us. We were a happy family. But that was a long time ago.

Ghana

Uncle B, my mother’s immediate elder brother, a successful West African contractor, living in Ghana, was one of the few relatives who visited us after ‘the fall’.

I remember the day he arrived. Neighbours thought he was my biological father, because of his light skin and average height, just like my mother. They got the complexion from my maternal grandfather; like them, I was light-skinned while my immediate younger brother is my father’s photocopy with his dark skin, big eyeballs and short, sturdy stature. My uncle bubbled with gladness after my mother told him about my excellent grades in school. He promised to take me to one of Accra’s elite senior high schools. This would have been a huge help for my parents, but at first, my father objected to this offer. He thought I was too young to go all the way to another country. But my mother told him that my uncle was not a stranger. She knew his wife from primary school. After an everlasting argument, my father yielded, accepting my uncle’s repeated promise to take good care of me. The next day, I left Nigeria for Ghana with my uncle.

Uncle B lived in the new Accra suburb of Kasoa. Rows of flowers separated the large homes in the estate.

‘So you are the golden boy my husband has been talking about.’ Looking down at me more like an object than a human being, my uncle’s wife muttered her response to my ‘Good morning, ma.’ She was a huge woman, much taller than my uncle, with skin warped from bleaching lotions. Pimples marked her face and a dishevelled wig wiggled, unsteadily, on her head. All I saw was an ugly woman.

‘Your beautiful face and clean skin will soon damage by the time I finished dealing with you,’ she told me.

Before leaving me in the kitchen, she stated her mission to make my residence in Accra a miserable one. She said she would not allow me to get close to her three boys, mumbling something about her sons becoming the most successful before everyone else in the extended family. Her sons looked like they could be my biological brothers. Her second son was a year older than me; her third a year younger; the eldest who was three years older than me was away on a group excursion. I had been excited about the prospect of having them as my best friends. But my aunt took that away from me.

My uncle and the three boys lived in the house. My aunt could not do any serious harm to me in the family home. Besides, hadn’t my uncle promised my parents that he would look after me? On our way to Ghana, as we hopped from one public bus onto another, he had reaffirmed his promise and also told me that he had often visited my parents when I was a baby.

After my first weekend with Uncle B, his wife made sure that I never had a chance to be alone with him. She followed him everywhere. Behind her back, her sons joked about how she clung to her husband.

During my first breakfast with the family the day after I arrived, Uncle B announced to the whole family, rather than to me, that he had already discussed with his wife, and she would make sure I got admission into a local community school in the area. That meant I would not go to the elite school that he had told my parents about.  His wife nodded in agreement as Uncle B explained that I should always direct all my needs to his wife, since he would be away most of the time. He travelled the next day.

Uncle B’s wife made good of her threats to make my stay miserable.

On my first Monday morning, she dragged me out of bed and dictated everything I needed to do: sweep the compound, wash dishes, mop floors. Her sons were shocked. They asked why I wasn’t getting ready for school, but their mother shut them up. She told me to eat her children’s leftovers after they left for school. Thereafter, she drove me in her car on sandy roads through the estate.

We reached the fence of an industrial compound. Inside, thousands of rows of cement blocks lay on the floor to dry under the sun. Women, men, boys and girls sat under trees. They changed into working uniforms and shoved their clean clothes into plastic bags. My aunt asked one of them where their boss was. Two women pointed towards an apartment building in the middle of the compound. Then a tall, muscular, jet-black man, dressed in a blue singlet and jeans, emerged from the apartment. He smiled and greeted my aunt in Ga language. She was responding as we walked toward him.

The people gathered to receive instructions from the tall dark man. The man muttered a few words to them, pointed to the pyramids of sand that landmarked the compound, and they dispersed in groups of threes and fours. Then the man led us into the apartment’s neat living room. He stared at me shyly, the way a groom stared at a bride, and then began to speak Ga language with my aunt. I didn’t understand a word. About three minutes later, my aunt rose up to leave. In Yoruba, she told me that I would be living with and working for the man. I should do whatever he asked me to, or face consequences. At that moment I wanted to cry or at least protest being left with a total stranger, but I did not. My growing fear of her crippled me and I was left with questions that I would never find answers to. Why did she want me to be miserable? Was it because I resembled her husband, or because of my stellar academic performance back in Nigeria or what? My mother would not have allowed me to travel to Ghana if she had personal grudges with her. So, why was I experiencing such wickedness?

The tough-looking man smiled at me as soon as my uncle’s wife shut the door. He asked what I wanted to eat. I wasn’t hungry. He told me to relax, that he would be back soon. And off he went.

The morning went on without hearing from Mr Quaye, the name people called my new host. Around 12 noon, Mr Quaye sent one of his labourers, a boy around my height but much older than me, to take me to a nearby canteen where I was to eat whatever I wanted. Later that afternoon, Mr Quaye sent for me, and with a wide smile summoned me to a meal of tuwo. We ate together from the same bowl. I noticed how he was staring and smiling at me sometimes. I was now less suspicious and comfortable, at least with him.

The workday ended at five in the evening. As the labourers departed one after the other, Mr Quaye came to sit beside me on a bench in front of his apartment. I was reading an expired newspaper I had found under the living room’s centre table. After inquiring with a wide smile about how I was feeling, he explained to me that my aunt had told him how terrible and spoiled a boy I was and had asked him to engage me in rigorous labour in the block industry. He noted that he, however, believed none of her words. He had known my uncle and his wife for some time as the supplier of the blocks that built their house. He said she was a tricky and cunning person, whose smiles concealed her wicked intentions. He said he would not engage me in strenuous activities. Rather, I would be his personal assistant, performing lightweight tasks like counting blocks, talking to customers, overseeing labourers, and so on. He said he liked me, and as long as I made him happy, he would make me happy as well. He pulled me into his arms and on his chest, I sobbed.

A Peculiar Relationship

The solace in Mr Quaye’s arms felt peculiar.

At 13 years old, I had already read a great deal of literature: English, African and American. I enjoyed romantic and adventure novels. Before my father’s fall, I used to help my English teacher clean his apartment once in a while, and in return, he allowed me to borrow any of the books in his personal library. In the books, I entered sensual worlds where men and women enjoyed each other in intimate settings. Even same-sex relationships played out in those worlds between the pages. But I had no practical experience of intimacy. Besides, my focus was on surviving in a foreign land. That’s why my sense of awareness flickered when I noticed the nature of Mr Quaye’s advances.

Later that night, I asked Mr Quaye for a mat or foam to spread on the floor to sleep on. He smiled. ‘Don’t you want to share the bed with me?’ As soon as I joined him in bed, he pulled me towards his body with his strong arms. That night taught me what it means to ‘cuddle’. That night, I knew he would be happy with me as long as I allowed him to do whatever he wanted with my body.

A week later, I asked Mr Quaye to pay me salary. I wanted to save money because I realized that it was impossible to see my aunt and uncle. My aunt had brought my luggage one day and had left without even seeing me. I was on the other side of the compound counting some blocks and didn’t know when she came and left. Mr Quaye told me that she didn’t want to see me. He said senior high school tuitions were quite expensive in Ghana. So, I begged him to help me. He promised to do so, as long as I remained a good boy. I was registered at one of the local senior high schools; Mr Quaye paid my tuition and bought my school supplies.

About a month after my arrival, the nightly cuddles advanced. Mr Quaye had arrived at midnight drunk from a funeral ceremony on a Saturday. I was asleep when he came into bed and grabbed me. This time he pushed his mouth into mine and began to enter me. But entry failed; he got up and staggered to the bathroom, returning a minute later. I smelled the Vaseline. He rubbed some on himself and turned me around, scooping some into my behind, and tried to penetrate again. Intense pain ripped through my body. Only the tip of his part made its way in. I cried out, begging him to stop. ‘Sorry, we will continue next time.’ Then he turned me face down, pulled my thighs together, and after a lasting rhythm, he climaxed between my thighs before snoring the night off.

Again and again, Mr Quaye tried to enter me until he finally did. He tingled with joy. Like a husband honouring his wife, he pampered me with money, food, gifts and attention. If I complained about a headache, Mr Quaye worried profusely, took me in his car to the hospital if it grew worse. If I complained about any of the labourers, Mr Quaye gave them a stern warning. I don’t really know if the labourers knew what was going on between Mr Quaye and me. But they knew I had good favour with him. So, they went through me to talk to him, ask for his permission to do something or to apologize for a shortcoming. Mr Quaye never said no to me. If he tried to say no, my frowns and pouted mouth melted his anger. Mr Quaye was a man of a few words with a hardened face; he only smiled at customers, not labourers. I saw him fight once. He nearly beat the man to death. He never exerted his anger on me. He’d take me to another part of Accra to visit his mother sometimes. A very nice woman. She always prepared fufu or banku with delicious soup for us.

Mr Quaye had a few male friends. When they came over to his apartment to watch football and smoke weed, I snuck out to play with my school friend who lived in the neighbourhood. I never told him about what Mr Quaye did to me at night.

I cannot say if I endured Mr Quaye because of the material favours I got in return, or because of the way my uncle and aunt abandoned me. Besides, at that stage, I was reluctant to return to Nigeria immediately, because I had nothing to fall back to. My parents were sinking in poverty. Now that I think about the situation, I wonder if it was the frustrations in Ghana, the zeal to go back to school or the fear of Mr Quaye that made me yield to him. I remember my aunt’s aggression and how Mr Quaye became my only refuge. The longer I lived with him the more comfortable I felt. We became close friends, and in private moments, we talked with the ease of age mates.

When my aunt first dumped me with Mr Quaye, I planned to wait until my uncle returned from his numerous trips and came to check on me so that I could tell him what his wife had done. I thought he would then take me back to live in his home. But my uncle surprised me. Two months after living with Mr Quaye, Uncle B barged into the compound one evening as if possessed by some spirit. I was watering some flowers in front of the house when he drove in. I dropped the watering can and rushed to welcome him and his wife, but he shouted at me to steer clear, that I was the devil incarnate, that I bit the finger that fed me with the way I treated his wife, that he would make sure I suffered for this and so on. He didn’t even allow me to say a word. He spent nearly five minutes insulting me, adding that he would never come to see me again. He said he would report me to my parents whenever he travelled to Nigeria. Mr Quaye calmed him down, I overheard my uncle admonishing Mr Quaye in English and Ga to deal with me ruthlessly. They drove off and I never saw them again. Mr Quaye later told me that my uncle’s wife usually came to check on me once in a while without meeting me one-on-one.

The Healing Process

I served Mr Quaye for nearly two years, performing administrative assignments before and after school, and on weekends, making him happy at night.

Then one morning, I was supervising the labourers when I heard my name from a familiar voice and turned around; and behold, there stood my mother, with tears in her eyes. The labourers, led by Mr Quaye, begged my mum to let me stay, but she refused. She thanked Mr Quaye for taking care of me. However, the news of my uncle and his wife’s betrayal had gotten to them and my father had ordered her to bring me back to Nigeria immediately. Mr Quaye, depressed, took us to the Accra International Bus Park, from where I went back to Nigeria.

Later, Mother told me that a distant family member who had visited Ghana somehow got the news of how I was mistreated from my cousin—my uncle’s youngest son. The family member had initially informed my parents that I was doing well, withholding the true news for months to prevent big family fights. Of course, nobody knew about the clandestine acts between Mr Quaye and me. When the story that I was living with a total stranger in Ghana finally leaked, my mother travelled straight to my uncle’s house, quarrels ensued, and a taxi had brought her to Mr Quaye’s compound.

In Nigeria, my family had never managed to reach the financial comfort we once had. So, I struggled to make money. I took up work as a teacher in nursery and primary schools. The sorrow of my experience never left me. My parents think of Mr Quaye as the man who saved their son from an uncle bewitched by and his wicked wife’s magical charms. I never saw them again, but my mother has recently been reconciled with her brother. She once mentioned about uncle sending greetings to me the last time they spoke on the telephone, but I presume she realized I was not really keen about hearing from him; hence she never talked about him again.

My memories harass me. They flash through my mind, inflicting emotional torture. I suffer from bouts of depression. I launch into angry tirades out of nowhere. I do not like asking for help because I’m afraid of getting the wrong kind. I do not like deceit because it reminds me of Ghana. I went to the church in search of peace. But I did not find it there. I stopped going to church four years ago. I never got into crime or drugs, and I think I have passed the phase where that can happen.

I still enjoy reading—fiction, biographies and history. That’s where I find solace from my pain. I also like to write and wander in nature. The recent corona situation has also made me develop the hobby of watching movies. In the absence of social normalcy with various phases of lockdowns, movies keep my mind busy. I am now pursuing a PhD on scholarship. Am I healed? No, far from it. But I am healing. It is a gradual process and I know this is what matters⎈

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