It had been raining since last night.
The rains beat us and turned the ground under our makeshift coop into a thick paste of earth and dirt. That was because our coop, which was a discarded metal cylinder, was open at both ends. The tiers of wire mesh in our coop suggested that it used to be a firewood fish oven. The mesh sagged and flaked away, and the coop was brown and green with rust and mold. Because part of its bottom end was worn, the coop’s decrepit frame staggered against a shady mango tree, which seemed to be locked in an eternal hug with the wall next to it.
The other fowls slept up on the branches of the tree. More severely than the previous night’s rains, these fellow fowls had beaten us the first day we had tried finding a portion of the mango tree’s branch to sleep on. One handsome cock had fought some of the fowls off and had secured a space on one branch for us. My mother however, had insisted that we leave to find another place to pass the night. I might have been the only one who had realized that it was not only because the space was too small for all five of us chicks that our mother would rather have us all sleep elsewhere. Our hero, it seemed, had ulterior motives for his all-eager-to-please-and-impress gestures and actions towards my beautiful mother. The way he had looked at my mother was the most telling part of it all.
I knew that look too well – and what it meant too.
I have come to believe it was that same look that made my eyes glitter whenever I looked at that other beauty-full chick who I used to play with during our stay at our previous home. Maybe there is something about beauty that makes, forces, others to look at beauty-full people in positively curious and unusually tender ways.
This same way of looking explains that wet glitter in the eyes – I am not sure. But I am certain that it was that look which that handsome cock had given my mother which had caused our having to make this discarded fish oven our home, since that day…
* * *
…that day, I was chatting with that beauty-full chick and watching my eight much younger siblings play. Together with many other fowls, we were outside the compounds of the various houses we belonged to.
Then suddenly, the world went mad. All the fowls from the neighbouring houses on the lane began crowing and screeching at dead high pitches. Everyone was running everywhere to anywhere away from the expert hands and deadly bosoms and waiting sacks of those plucking us away. These agile energetic humans were intent on plucking us fowls and accidentally plucking feathers in the process too.
Photo Credit: kpoipkpoi – steamed corn meal, eaten with palm soup – is the traditional food during the Ga-s Homowo Festival.
‘Ayekoo!’ they called it. Just after the ban on drumming and other ‘noise’ making is lifted, there is this ritual of seizing every stray animal – and by that, fowls, especially – on the streets. Usually, it was young men – many of who happened to have more than enough time to spare because they are jobless – who were all too glad and zealous to enforce this particular custom preceding the Homowo festival of the Ga people.
So it was no wonder that more people hooted at these young men instead of hailing them for upholding the tradition. It always seemed that these young men were bent on celebrating every Homowo with a chicken flavour, rather than wait for four long months for Christmas for that luxury.
Soon, they were gone, leaving behind giant pillars of dust in the midst of low little clouds of floating fluffy breast feathers. And it was not until much of the brief wild stir had calmed when we realized that we were lost, and four of my siblings were either dead or also lost somewhere else. Forever.
Our lives took another turn after this incident. We had to learn to fight for everything from air and food to shelter and dignity. Survival became a matter of a crude mixture of pure art and sheer luck. This was unnecessarily so, especially because life had been so much better at our first home…
* * *
…while at the Lamptey-s’, we were neither pampered nor maltreated. It was Shidaa , their dog, which they deliberately took good care of. We fowls were however fed well enough with rice bran, fish offal and scales, the bad lot among nuts and legumes and grains, crumbs of bread and such other odds. Even though mine is an experienced tongue, there were many other food items which I never got to tell what they were, or what they were made of.
Even with all these not-so-little pleasures life dished us, we fowls never felt like we belonged to – as in we were part of, rather than we were owned by – the Lamptey-s. Maybe it was because none of them bothered to give any one of us fowls a name. And we were never allowed in the porch, especially when there was a visitor.
However, Shidaa, the dog, could always go beyond the porch and sometimes, even take naps on Mr. Lamptey’s lazy chair.
Unless he needed to lie in it, Shidaa would almost always already be on it.
I have never seen Mr. Lamptey – nor any other member of the family – sack Shidaa off the lazy chair, much less, from the porch.
My mother once told me that the first time she was deliberately given water by one of the Lamptey-s was a few minutes to what would have been her untimely death. It was Christmas. Just before the sharp knife had slid and slit open her throat, Odartey, Mr. Lamptey’s brother from the hinterland, entered the house, cheerfully shouting his greeting and skillfully dragging a noosed stubby goat behind him.
In the end, the goat took my mother’s place in the soup that was cooked and later licked out of existence by the end of that day. My mother was as glad for her life as she was sad that her only brother had already been slaughtered by then, just before Odartey had arrived.
The only times I saw the Lamptey’s smile at my mother was whenever she laid eggs.
‘It hurts not to be able to return a smile. I hurts even more to return a smile with a fake one. I’d rather not smile at all than fake it,’ my mother would say, with a blank look and suddenly teary eyes.
And how could mother smile back at the Lamptey-s when their smiles only meant another untimely end to what would have been a set of fluffy cuddly balls of yellow which would be sweet squeaking chicks, after a some days! Thoughts of things like these made me always tell my five surviving siblings to be very grateful for having escaped this and many other agents of infant mortality.
* * *
The fowls here at our new home are not at all as polite and friendly as those we knew while we were at the Lamptey-s’. These fowls peck and fight everything and everyone. They act proud and petty and are rash and shallow. The rabid dog from the house beyond the other side of the wall no longer allowed any fowl to feast on the fat ticks stuck in her faded brown fur.
‘You fowls have got no sense for anything. No table manners,’ the dog used to say.
The fowls, I learnt, picked ticks, and the thinning skin of the poor widowed dog as well. With very little to live for, and after all her litter had been sold or eaten by one human or the other, the dog resigned herself to a speedy death from the ticks.
I also remember one hot afternoon when a scrawny school boy had carelessly spat a pip from an orange he was eating. These fowls. They all rushed and cursed and fought for it. The pip. What a broth of dirt and dust and hate they made in the process!
In the end, none of the fowls got the ultimate pip of a pearl. It sure must have got lost, buried, under the tantrum party. Everyone got their fair share of pecks, scratches, brutally plucked feathers, grains of sand in the eyes and the like. Not one fowl returned from the war with a smile.
I am sure by now, you might be wondering how we fowls smile, with a solid rigid pair of lips – call it beak, if you choose – which are movable only at the jaws. Well, I have never seen any of the fowls here do that – smile – but I have always seen my mother do it.
With her eyes. Several times.
And my mother’s smiles have always been crisp, sparkling and so full of raw, true mirth. Her smiles are so different in many beauty-full ways. Truth is, when compared to my mother’s, some humans’ smiles pale and shrink away by their own selves.
Theirs are dry and wry, stripped of every joy and of life itself.
* * *
Thanks to last night’s rains!
This morning promised abundant sumptuous worms and many more crawling foods and broken-winged others!
It was drizzling. And it was still cold, but the eagerness to go pick – rather than search – for food in the open warmed our hearts and bodies beyond words. And like the fowls staying up on the mango tree, we could not wait for the showers to cease.
An-other thanks to last night’s rains.
Once again, my mother had to tear down the latest little silt hill which had blocked the entrance to our way into the open, thereby locking us inside our cozy makeshift coop. When mother began to huff and puff and grow impatient with the tearing down of the wall, we chicks knew that her claws had become numb with the cold and the hard work.
All the sweetness which the morning had promised gradually eased into something tasteless and worse. Gloom.
It was either we all starved to death or we truly turned out the proverbial early birds to catch the same the worm.
It was still showering.
In a rugged rhythm, we could still hear fat drops of water tap the outer surface of our makeshift coop. As usual, some of those drops wove their way through the worn wire mesh above us, and then seeped through our already soaked coats of feathers into the very pores of our poor selves. The gloom grew worse.
And it was only the mother – or as it later turned out, God – who knew what the little ones would have for food…
Suddenly, there were hurried grating sounds all over the outside surface of our coop. A drop or two of rain water hit my eyes when I raised my head to look up. Through the tattered wreck of the tiers of mesh in our coop, I saw two pairs of human feet in swift motion. I heard one of the two humans hush down the panting breaths and the dragged noise which the other was making. The feet briefly hang above our coop, from the wall hugging the mango tree. Then as suddenly as all the noise and distraction had unfurled, the feet disappeared. Behind the wall.
Meanwhile, the one human’s ‘Shu-u-u-u-u-shhh’ menacingly hung in the air, above our coop, and above our wretched lives.
We chicks clang tighter to the scanty bosom of our mother, who inflated her sparse frame and started what sounded more like a shrill helpless cry than the mock baritone warning shouts she thought she was making.
Forced confinement. Fear. Soul-deep cold. Hunger.
All these in the midst of sheer plenty.
All these pained and scared us out of our skins and far past our swamped souls.
But we did not stay in that stirred state for long.
Two or three feint thuds from the two pairs of feet in the mud on the side of the wall, then came blunt creaks of dried leaves made damp by last night’s rain. The humans tiptoed away. They stole into the house. On the other side of the wall.
At this time, it was all too obvious that the humans were after something of more worth than a pitiful set of poultry.
So my mother stopped the shouting. She relaxed and began to tell us about the world behind the wall. She spoke of a backyard garden guarded by that rabid dog.
‘Around this time in this season, most of the lanky plants which grow in that garden have babies tucked on every side of their lithe bodies. From neck to knee,’ mother excitedly explained.
We have never had any reason to think our mother a liar. And more than just believe what mother said, we chicks were glad to see her lighten up, for the first time this darkly morning.
‘The plants. They have spiky hair, and that’s so unlike their babies’. Each of the babies’ hair is fine, silky, evenly cut and firmly held in a tidy pony-tail. Their hair, unlike their mothers’, shimmer with hues far and in between golden brown and purplish red. Those plants. Oh! You should see how beauty-full and full of grace they are, and they stand! The ends of their long green hands gracefully hang down, as if they are tired of having their hands always stretched open to embrace the whole world in one embrace. Sometimes, especially after it rains, you could see a little crystal gem gingerly dangle and glitter at the plants’ fingertips. It is all the more awesome to see this from some distance, away from the plants, and through the thin veil of the very early morning mist.’
We chicks let our minds drink deep and bloat in the essence of mother’s words. Aloft those words, we let our souls drift inside of us, and listlessly float into other worlds untouched by the woes of this world. In the tenderness of mother’s boundless spirit and the warmth and awe of her words, we could always afford to dream all our cares and tears away.
‘…but of course, that’s only when you’re grown enough to be able to air lift yourselves in a low flight, in that one frantic attempt – peculiar to us fowls – to fly. You could see the plants by just flying and landing on this low wall. And because you would then be grown enough to take care of yourself, you can always escape in time before the dog…’
Before mother was done with her warning, we heard a hurried mixture of all the previous sounds towards the other side of the wall. The urgency in the humans’ new run rudely plucked us back into the crude realities of this side of the world.
We had no time to guess what was happening. The humans – two boys, we now knew – descended on our coop from the wall. The speed with which they descended and landed on, then run away from our coop, could have instantly ground any one of us chicks into the ground, if any one of us had been unlucky enough to have been in their way.
The boys’ descent was accompanied by a rain of four fresh cobs of maize into our coop. The tattered tiers of mesh held up the cobs, but only briefly. Three of them managed to nudge their way through the age-torn holes in the flaky mesh. The other cob was caught up somewhere in the knotted thicket of the mesh. And as if to get physical with announcing their arrival into our midst, each of the three cobs – albeit gently – first hit us, all balled up in one taut hug.
We could only look on in wonder as each cob eased into a proper, final fall and then rolled not too far away from us, glazing itself with the wet and mud of our floor. With widened eyes, we watched each cob’s tassel slowly get soaked with the thick damp of our earth floor.
We chicks then fixed mother questioning stares.
‘Yes, these are the babies of those plants I was telling you about,’ mother returned.
Our gazes intensified with happy desperation.
‘And yes, they are food. Our kind of food,’ mother gazed in return again, wearing her biggest smile.
By this time, the boys were long gone. It must have been a narrow escape for them because, much long after we had finished savouring one fresh milky cob, that old dog was still barking after the boys.
By this time too, the showers had ceased. The early morning voices and noises of fowls and humans were at large and abroad.
We were sure that our fowl ‘friends’ did not miss us, and this could not pain us. And we just were not jealous about the gentle sun and the bountiful meaty worms and crunchy insects which our other ‘friends’ were enjoying, outside our coop, in the open.
It was the rainy season: worms and insects and such fowl delicacies cannot be scarce on this earth.
But such heavenly gifts in husks come showering down once or never in a lifetime!
Ayekoo (with the stress on –ye) is a custom performed as part of the final preparations – after the ban on noise making – towards the inauguration of the Homowo festival proper. As part of tradition, goodwill tokens of stocks in trade are given by the general public to traditional priests or priestesses, who go round collecting the items. Part of the excesses of Ayekoo is opportunistic young men who go round seizing stray animals and other things which ‘make’ noise.
Homowo is the annual traditional festival of the Ga people, from around mid-coastal Ghana. The sub-states of Ga Mashie and the Ga-Adangbe celebrate the festival in turns around August.
Shidaa in Ga means ‘Thanksgiving’ or roughly, ‘Gratitude.’
*A version of this story, with same title, was first published at the Phillis Wheatley Chapter, as the 2015 edition of its annual Chicken Soup publication.
* Find source of picture for this blogpost’s masthead – roast corn with coconut – here.
– Dansoman, Accra.