This story took place in ‘99, near the end of the old millennium. I suppose the dawn of a new era paves the way for mysterious things to happen. That year, I was a final year student of Banking Finance in the University of Cape Coast, Ghana. I had grown tired of eating the same food on campus and, in the spirit of adventure, left the confines of the University campus to look for cheap foodstuff in Kotokuraba Market, Central Region’s largest marketplace. I wasn’t very interested in cooking, which was bad, according to all the people who, despite not having anything to do with it, have everything to say about my upbringing. If you’ve ever been to Kotokuraba you will agree that it is a fascinating place, as markets generally tend to be for those who don’t frequent them often. The market begins or ends, depending on how you look at it, at the entrance of the Mfantsipim School, Ghana’s oldest secondary school, and is sprawling with sellers trading in so many different things, all determined to get you to pay more than their goods are worth. But this isn’t a story about me, or of the traders who tried to cheat me during my brief visit to Kotokuraba. This is a story about a man who entered a marketplace carrying a load on his bent back.
He stooped over a long, discoloured cane, with his wrinkled face mostly covered by very dark glasses. In ‘99 we called people that wore those near-black sunshades ‘blind messiah’. I don’t know what they are called today. Everyone that encountered this man gave him a wide berth. No matter how much of a hurry you were in, the last thing you wanted was to be the reason a blind man tripped and fell. He wore a faded brown jalabiya, and had his mouth set in a grim line over his unkempt, greying beard. I failed to notice him at first, being caught in an intense bargain with an old woman over a bucket of tomatoes I was trying to buy. He walked right past me, and that’s when he caught my eye. The load seemed heavy, but he did not look at all burdened by it. I was about to return to bargaining when I saw him stop suddenly and stand still for a long second. The woman agreed to the price I was quoting, and I turned briefly to tell her to pour my tomatoes into a rubber bag. She disappeared into the back of her small stall, and I turned back to look at the man. I was surprised to see in the brief second I had looked away he was now sat on the floor. Crossed-legged on a small rug, he had made himself comfortable in a little clearing between market stalls that was not in the way of the hussle and bussle of tens and tens of buyers and traders trying to engage in business. A few mouths turned as passersby looked at the old man sitting on the ground. Sitting on the floor, cane by his side, dark glasses covering his face he was the quintessential image of yet another beggar in a market full of beggars. Everyone around him went about their day as normal. I watched him keenly. There was just something about the way this old man carried himself, that I found interesting. He placed the load he had been carrying on his lap. It was something wrapped in a leather bag. He opened carefully to reveal a kora. Koras aren’t very popular in these parts of Ghana, and yet I knew it was a kora because I had once sat in an Ethnomusicology class to impress a boy, in a time when I had been convinced I liked boys. He pulled out his kora from its case, propped it up, and began to strum. As he plucked on the first string, everything around him came to a grinding halt. We have our own stringed instruments in Ghana, some can even be likened to the kora, but none of them sound like it. Many of the people, traders, buyers and loiterers, had never before heard the beautiful sound of a kora. Hearing it was like being introduced to a genre of music you didn’t know existed. The first note caught your attention even before you decided whether you liked it or not.
His fingers moved like magic. They lightly plucked at the taut strings, weaving in and out of them like a kente weaver’s hands as she wove a very complicated pattern. There were so many strings, and yet he moved without pause, without missing a note or the rhythm. As he played, his slender fingers painted pictures in our ears. Eyes closed, head tilted so his ear was close to the kora, this old man first played a song that sounded sorrowful. We knew it was so because our wrenching hearts told us. I put down my basket of overpriced goods so I could turn my full attention to him. I was lost in the world of his music. Silently, he played. The music charmed everyone in the market who could hear. From the depths of his heart, this man told us a story with the harp-like instrument. It wasn’t just any story, it was his story; we were sure of it. And we understood his story, despite it not being in a spoken language. It was a story of loss, and of regret. And yet, in a light note that continued to crescendo slowly in the background of the heavier notes, we also heard hope.
Magic came as a shadow of a human being. Half naked, dressed in the dirtiest of rags, with wild hair and skin darkened by grime, she approached the old man. She walked with intent, and with rhythm, as if possessed by the music, till she got to the clearing in which he sat. She stood in front of him, an image of wildness…and then she began to move. Her movements formed a dance I was not familiar with, and I was certain was not Ghanaian. It did not feel traditional or contemporary. I felt as though I were watching a film of old, telling the story of a people that danced in a time long before ours; because this woman moved like the past. On the dusty floors of the market square, her feet drew the most intricate of patterns, and all who witnessed it fell into trance. In that moment we existed in a paradox, order married chaos, and our attention was held captive by a woman we had ignored; who we had sidestepped while shopping in this very market; who had survived, week after week, only on scraps from food sellers; who we had considered less than human, mad even. We watched her, her every movement complementing the dictates of the masterful kora player, and we were mesmerized.
The old man did not tilt his head upwards. He did not physically acknowledge the presence of the woman who danced so beautifully. Rather, he kept switching between tempos, between songs, as if to challenge her. And she rose to the challenge with the easy grace of a hawk soaring through the day sky. If the old man played sorrow, her body wept. If he played happiness, it leapt. And thus they kept at it as if they too were caught in the same trance as we were. And then, a few overenthusiastic people began to clap. The sounds of clapping hands destroyed the captivated silence we all stood in, and caused the woman to freeze mid-dance. It was almost as if she had just realised that she was being watched by hundreds of eyes. I was reminded here of a rather poetic Bantu proverb a girlfriend of mine had once shown me. “Dance, father, people’s eyes don’t eat, they just stare.” Beautiful words, but very wrong for the moment. It seemed, perhaps, that our eyes had eaten this mysterious dancer. Because, startled by the number of people looking on, she began to scream. The old man stopped playing abruptly. He tilted his head in the direction of our wailing dancer, and he called out something. So gently was it spoken, that I only know he called something out because I saw his lips part. It should have been impossible to hear over the loudness of our dancer’s lament, but she swirled around to look at the old man curiously for a second. And then, just as stealthily as she had appeared, this woman darted away. The reverie was broken.
Confused by the turn of events, everyone slowly went back to what it was they were doing before their day got interrupted by such peculiarities. Everyone except me. I continued to watch the old man. He sat still, as if mourning. Then, slowly, he began to put his kora back into its case. Something about how he did it reminded me of old Japanese movies and how the Samurai treated their swords as if they had souls.
“He will find her again,” the old woman I was buying from, said to me in Fante.
“Do you know him?” I asked her. She smiled at me in the specific way that old women with interesting tales always do.
“I’ve been selling here for more than twenty years, and I’ve seen them three times. That’s his daughter, the girl who was dancing,” she replied. The day had gotten even weirder. What I had thought to be a random event was not in the least bit random. I looked at the woman and I could tell she was not messing with me.
“You don’t believe me madam, but it’s true,” she said chuckling. It dawned on me that market women were no strangers to curious happenings. The marketplace was full of different kinds of people, from different kinds of places, and the bizarre, to them, was just in a day’s work.
“Don’t worry, I don’t mind if you don’t believe me. That’s his daughter, and he is always looking for her. She had her heart broken by a young woman, a market woman, and so she goes to market after market hoping she will find her again. Whether you love man or woman, heartbreak is heartbreak. Pain is pain. And so her father follows her, hoping that one day his daughter will return to him.” This was the fascinating story she told me as she handed me my tomatoes tied in a polythene bag. It felt lighter than the amount I had requested for, but I was too inside my head to worry about that. I remembered all the times that men and women had broken my heart, the intense pain that it had wrought in me, vestiges of which still remained especially on lonely nights. My heart wept for this woman who I did not know, but felt a connection to.
I turned to look for the old man, and I caught a glimpse of him in the throngs of market people, the kora firmly strapped to his back, feeling the path with his cane, slowly chasing after love.
This story was inspired by Ballaké Sissoko, a Malian kora musician with an illustrious career spanning decades, who had to undergo the injustice of his custom-made kora being destroyed in an airport inspection by United States TSA officials.
There’s a saying that if you are on a Ghanaian beach and you find an empty bottle of beer, a dog-eared book, and you hear an inappropriate joke, it means that Fui Can-Tamakloe (@afadjato) is not too far off.
Related country: Ghana