Rumpus Exclusive: “Wisdom”


Yao longed to amble Tafi’s wide streets again, strike up a conversation with a woman stooped over a sudsy bucket, or simply perch near the visitor center with Kofi and watch the stream of passersby. People came to Tafi from across Ghana and the globe to connect with the monkeys, the people, and a part of themselves. In Accra, there was no time for connection unless it could lead to profit. No one wanted anything to do with anyone unless they had something in their pocket the other could spend. Especially the girls.

He vibrated with new anger at the memory of Elinam’s charge, and the aftermath, replaying the incident that had ultimately driven him to Accra.

As he had once before, Yao had gone with Elinam, his mate since primary school, into a part of the sanctuary forbidden to all but the priests. Deep in the thicket of mahogany and ficus trees, he had taken off her top and his shorts. She had knelt to take him in her mouth, but when he moved to join them at the hip, she pulled away. He was already inside of her, had already been inside of her, but this time she ran from him wailing.

He had accepted her histrionics as part of the maddening game of virginal pretension girls were raised to play to prove the masculinity of their pursuers. Their first time, he had played along, gently unfolding her crossed arms, prying apart her shut thighs as he coaxed her in the drowsy octave of desire to give in to her own wanting.

Days after their negotiation of limbs and longing, Elinam performed a routine of contrition. What else could it be but an act, Yao wondered, when his old friend began turning her head when they encountered each other in town?

“She says it was rape,” Kofi reported back after Yao had sent him as an emissary to find out why Elinam had abruptly gone cold.

“Nonsense,” he replied, fear, confusion, and anger behind the defensive swallow that followed.

“I know you have to be sorry about what we did,” he said, confronting her at the Tafi Abuife Development Youth Association Celebration Week Game Day. The TADYA pickup truck roared by, packed with, and trailed by, revelers dancing to the jams DJ One Touch blasted from the tent that housed his turntables. Yao leaned in to tell Elinam, “I am not sorry.”

Elinam’s head jerked at his statement.

“You were begging me. Pressuring me. You forced my hands to touch you,” she said.

“Heh! Did I force you?”

“There are more ways to force than by force.” She folded her arms under her breasts now, her words seeming to give her courage as her tone became firmer. “You continued to coerce me, even after I resisted. I told you I didn’t want to, but you wouldn’t stop.” She shook her head.

“Do you mean to tell me you vex,” he said, slipping into a hybrid of pidgin and English, “because I was able to persuade you?”

“Because you wouldn’t stop until I did what you wanted.”

He studied her tightly wound arms now, remembering how he had detangled them. “But you gave me head.”

“That was all I wanted to do. Full stop.”

Her friend Ana had been watching them from the edge of the crowded street, as had Kofi from the opposite side of the road. Now Ana strode over.

“O le okay?” she asked Elinam, mixing English and Ewe.

He almost laughed as he swallowed again. Watching Ana rub circles of comfort on Elinam’s back as they walked away, his certainty that he had done nothing wrong gave way.

* * *

Now Yao stalked futilely in the direction of the long-gone taxi, his anger at Elinam and the prostitute becoming one. As he walked along Lagos Road, the street lamps went black. Dumsor. He sucked his teeth at the latest in a string of intermittent power outages, and the feeling that the ground had dropped out from underneath him again.

The white rubber capping the toes of his sneakers slowly reappeared as his eyes adjusted and he decided what to do. He had planned to liquidate the phone at the electronics repair shop near American House Junction. He needed to get money some other way for the two trɔtrɔs he would have to take to reach the room he shared in Oyarifa. His alternative was a two-hour walk home.

Yao picked up his pace now, focused on beating morning’s first light, resolving in that moment to return to Shiashie for the money. By the time he passed the American International School, he had broken into a trot.

Breathing hard from the risk, he stopped in front of the house he had burgled earlier. He could chance another home, but this one had no snarling dogs or gateman to elude. And he knew they had a laptop. It wouldn’t be as easy to take as the phone, but the residents of the house were likely sleeping again, he told himself, the humiliation of violation giving in to their respective circadian rhythms. They would never expect him to come back. No one expected the same misfortune to strike in one night.

He advanced to the wall, suddenly remembering he had left his pillow and wire at the mall steps. Hastily, he removed his shirt and shorts and folded them into a padded cushion before placing them over whatever glass it could cover. When he pat tested it, he could feel the jagged grooves through the fabric. He inhaled, resigned to the pain that would come as he gingerly twisted his left hand to place it along a glass-free space before gently pressing his second palm into the material and hopping up.

In his briefs, he couldn’t sit into his straddle and gain the balance to jump. He fell into an awkward heap on the other side. Ignoring the pain shooting through the arm he had landed on, Yao furiously rubbed the scratch on his inner thigh. Relieved to find the skin wasn’t broken, he lay still for the seconds that followed, listening for movement inside the house. The sleeping silence unbroken, he rose to his sneakers, bravado beginning to numb him again.

Yao left the folded clothes on the wall so he could make a quick escape and sidled up to the first window for his momentary amusement. The old lady was still lying in the buff, the rotating fan muffling her snores. He felt his penis stir. Without the added barrier of his shorts zipper, it strained the thin cotton of his briefs, embarrassing and titillating him.

Was he so lonely that he was seriously considering this old body? Was he still so inflamed at Elinam’s equivocation of persuasion and force that he would use this abiriwa to settle the matter once and for all? Was he really willing to risk going to counterback again?

He turned to the sky. Still black as night. With dawn an hour or so away, he decided he had time to fuck her if he moved quickly. Unlike the window that looked into the young man’s room, all the metal frames bordering both sides of her window were empty of louvers. Yao gripped an edge of the net pane and yanked it toward himself, grinning with relief when it came apart neatly and quietly.

Discounting the logistical fact that he could not have sex with her, take the laptop, and get away, he convinced himself this would end well: that the old lady wouldn’t scream, that the young man and his roommate next door wouldn’t burst in to save her, that he could fuck her and find wherever she hid her money without being caught before night yielded to light.

He hoisted himself into the bedroom with the arm that wasn’t in pain, the intimate scent of sweat and perfume instantly filling his nose. He tugged at his erect penis, his heart beating in his ears as his eyes adjusted.

Yao advanced to the bed, stepping out of his briefs when the old woman abruptly sat up. He stopped as she moved past him and pulled open a door in the wall, leaving it slightly ajar as she sank onto a toilet. In the fog of sleep she hadn’t seen him.

He sighed at himself, remembering the morning the CID officers had come to his home, luring him to the Golokwati Police Station. They had come under the guise of being from Strategic Foods, looking to sell surplus bananas behind their boss’s back. He could still smell the putrid cell behind the police station reception counter, his room for the night after Elinam identified him. Sense flooding back to his brain, Yao bent to collect his underwear. He had not belonged in that cell, and he did not belong here.

He would dart out of the room before the old lady returned to her bed, and leave the way he came. He would beg a trɔtrɔ mate at American House to let him ride to Madina Market free, and do the same at Madina for the ride home to Oyarifa.

He started to move, but the abiriwa’s voice suddenly arrested him. Instead of the trickling or plunking sounds of toilet relief, she began to sing in tongues. Yao could not speak the heavenly language, but he recognized its repetitive cadence instantly. There was no one in Ghana who did not know the sound of tongues, diverse as they were. Many a night was pierced with the projectile shouts launched from open-air and open-plan church buildings.

The old lady wove Ga and English into her prayer. “Oyewa’do, Nyɔngmo. Thank you, Jesus.”

Still clutching his briefs, Yao started to move again, but he smacked into a wall. The prayer paused with the sound of listening.

Yao was scrambling off the floor when the light switched on. The old lady emerged, childlike plaits on her head, the stretch-marked and folded flesh of age telling the short story of life. She gasped, noticing his nakedness and hers, before she began to scream.

“In the name of Jesus, Foul Spirit of Rape, I bind you. You are not welcome in my home. You will not shame me, and you will not shame this boy.”

On his feet now, with the aid of the light, Yao ran out, but the young man who had seen him leave with his mobile hours earlier stood at the door. He looked to be about Yao’s age, twenty, and he was a twin, as there were two of him blocking Yao’s escape.

One of them bent to take off his left chale wote and slam it across Yao’s cheek. The thong of the rubber shower slipper snapped out of its socket.

“Leave him,” the old woman commanded, her voice hoarse from shouting or because the blow was ringing in Yao’s ear.


“I said leave him!” The abiriwa sank to the edge of her bed and gathered her bed sheet around herself. “The devil is already tormenting him.”

She exhaled with the weariness of age and broken sleep. “Look at you. Fine boy. A young man hoping to rape an old woman. You see how the devil is making a fool of you?” The woman closed her eyes now. “Satan, you will not shame this boy. You will not waste his life. Take your hands off him. Release him, in the name of Jesus.”

Satisfied her order was heard, she opened her eyes and readjusted the bed sheet, looping it under her armpit again.

“Give him some of the kenkey,” she directed the twins.

Yao turned to the young men for confirmation of what he was hearing.

“Grandma, we should take him to the police station.”

“So he can sit in a jail cell not knowing his right from his left? First, he must be arrested in the Spirit.”

“But, Gra—”

“I said get this boy some kenkey! And fish!” She sucked her teeth as one of the boys retreated, annoyed she had had to repeat herself.

Yao moved to leave.

“Where are you going?”

“Ahshhh!” Yao folded, felled by the pain that inflamed the arm he had fallen on as she reached out to yank him to stay.

“They are bringing you kenkey. Put on your pants.” She shook her head. “Where are your clothes? Derek, go and bring him something of yours to—”

“Madam, my clothes are on your wall.” He grimaced as he massaged his shoulder.

“Aah,” she said, verbalizing the breath of exhaled judgment. “Derek, go and bring his clothes.”

“Madam, I am—”

“Do you know it’s a demon?” She asked him. “The Spirit of Lust and Theft. You have let them both in. You have given them rest.” She threw her hands up now, exasperated.

As Yao stepped into his briefs, Grandma continued. “Foul Spirits, I dismiss you in the name of Jesus. This home is sealed in the blood of Jesus. At my Lord’s name, you have to flee.” She paused to call her grandsons—“Derek! Eric!”—before turning to him again.

“Where are you from?”

He ignored her, assessing whether he could overpower her grandsons with his pained arm, and escape.

“I said ‘where are you from?’”

“Tafi,” he said finally, ashamed of the tears that suddenly brimmed in his eyes.

O de suku-ah?” She asked him in Ewe, knowing now he was from the Volta Region.

“’Vegbetɔ?” He swiped a tear at the sound of his language, comforted by this little piece of home.

“I am not, but my former husband was a proud Guan.” She rolled her eyes at the memory. “He grew up in Volta and we lived there for some time.”

“I completed B.E.C.E.,” he answered her earlier question, proving it by returning to the English he had passed in the Basic Education Certificate Examination.

“Then how did you end up here?”

Yao inhaled as Derek and Eric entered the room with his shorts and t-shirt and a plate of food. He eyed the meal with suspicion, but hunger overtook his trepidation.

The plate was crowded with kenkey slices, the midsection of a fried tilapia, ground green micro chilies, and a lump of black shitɔ. Saliva instantly pooled in his mouth, the fragrance of the fermented corn dough mingling with the blackened pepper, dried fish and tomato condiment, and the seasoned tilapia. He hadn’t eaten since seven that night, the small waakye and two 500-milliliter sachets of Special Ice pure water long burned away with the night’s action.

A cock crowed outside, the official announcement of morning. Soon the sky would show it.

“Eh-heh, I’m listening.”

The boys hovered, and Grandma folded her hands on her lap as Yao bent to put the plate on the ground and step into his clothes. When he was dressed, he picked the plate up again in silence.

“Have you attempted rape or burglary before?” Grandma asked. “Because you were emboldened to come into this house naked, though Jehovah had other plans for you and me, and us—” She turned to her grandsons. “Go on. You were saying?”

Yao sighed, pinching a piece of kenkey from the ball, dipping it in the pepper as he decided whether to tell the old lady the truth.  A small part of him was curious how someone who didn’t know him or Elinam would read the situation.

“I was falsely accused.”

“Of rape?” Grandma leapt.

“But I didn—”

“Did you ask permission? Did she tell you she wanted you?” Grandma pummeled Yao with questions. “Or did you come into her chamber like you did mine, naked and full of a Lustful, Lying Spirit?”

“She was my girlfriend.” He overstated his friendship with Elinam for the sake of simplicity and brevity. It had taken years of flirtation and missed opportunities to get her in that Sanctuary.

“And so what? Does that give you the right to take what she didn’t want to give?”

He inhaled with fresh anger. “Excuse me to say, but she went down on me of her own accord. She admitted she did.”

Grandma turned to her grandsons quizzically. “Went down?”

“She sucked my penis.”

He waited for the old lady to get his point that Elinam was no angel, that she had indeed wanted to fuck, but Grandma twisted her head again.

“The devil has made a fool of you, but do you know Wisdom is at work, too?”


Rumpus original art by Dmitry Samarov.


Excerpted from Everyday People: The Color of Life edited by Jennifer Baker, forthcoming on August 28 from Atria Books. Copyright © 2018. Reprinted with permission courtesy of Atria Books.

Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond is the author of Powder Necklace, which Publishers Weekly called “a winning debut.” Her work is featured in various anthologies, including Africa39 and Everyday People. Forthcoming from Brew-Hammond are a children’s picture book from Knopf and a novel. She was a 2019 Edward F. Albee Foundation fellow, a 2018 Aké Arts and Book Festival guest author, a 2017 Aspen Ideas Festival scholar, and a 2016 Hedgebrook writer in residence. More from this author →