Dawn in Dzorwulu was always a dazzling affair. The orange hue from the horizon reflected on its many high-rises a transcendent cool of colors. The blushing pink of the Adu-T building for fashion, blue of the towering Stanbic Bank heights, and jade from Green Ventures’ blocks were but a few standouts on the Main Street.
On the street level, pedestrians made their way to their daily business, acting as the fillers in this geometric glass work of art. Every so often a mob of runners would march pass, soldiering through the middle of the road. Bikers in commute and some for leisure were also in motion, while the autonomous trams had the unpleasant business of stopping and waiting for long periods, to accommodate their movement.
Sister Mercy watched this show every morning, munching on her chewing stick while sweeping the floors of her Waakye spot. Often times she stopped, as she did this morning, to wonder when her mornings would be for herself rather than her patrons. Just thinking of her patrons a chill ran down her spine. Today was going to be a heated day! Not in terms of temperature (well that too), but having to tell everyone that her famous red-red was finished.
Every morning she had a devoted and dedicated clientele that simply could not begin their days without her mouth-watering red-red. It had been declared ‘the finest in the land’ by Mayor Smith, and a ‘splendid dish’ by the visiting UK Prime Minister. Mercy’s mother, the late Aunty Grace, had forged the recipe from the annals of their family’s ancestors. Crafting the perfect blend of stews to cook the beans in, and fashioning the finest slices of plantain ever known to man. Crisped black at its end, absorbingly red on its body.
However, ever since the flows of plantain had reduced from the hinterland, she had had to seriously ration her portions and increase the price. The clients weren’t happy with this, causing even her most devout customer, Sammy the fitter, to threaten that he would go to Ama’s Slammah Cuisine if Mercy continued to raise her prices. But these were empty threats because all of them knew that they were dependent on Mercy’s, and Mercy’s red-red alone. Nothing else would suffice. It wasn’t just the red-red. It was the ambiance of the place. The white palladium you entered to receive your food. The deep seaters and long couches one sunk into to feast. The subtle afro-jazz melody vibing from the soft speakers. The drums of asana, sobolo, and Blue Skies standing patiently in the corner, waiting to be drank. The monitors rolling through a selection of clips that the customers could pick from. Old videos of Ghanaians back in the day dancing to ‘One Korna,’ or sending goodwill messages from abroad. The leg rests positioned tactfully to transition the heavy eaters from satisfaction to sleep, as seamlessly as possible. The customers themselves as part of the experience. Food-friends sharing in the common love for Mercy’s red-red.
Then there was the certainty of service, knowing that no matter how long the line was, or which bogger tried to cut in front, waiting at the end was a hearty bowl of red-red to feast on. And Sister Mercy would be there to scoop healthy amounts until your eyes were bigger than your mouth, stomach, and nose put together.
But today, Mercy would have to disappoint.
It had happened before, the plantain drought. Back then, she still was able to supplement with a lower grade plantain from the Local Foods Association, which always had reserves for its sect. But the association had sent out a message that plantain was finished and there would be no more for the foreseeable future. In fact, there had been increasing talks about the possibility of plantain going entirely extinct! But those suggestions were mostly from conspiracy theorists.
For the last thirty years, Ghana’s intensified exposure to the World had introduced her many foods to global mouths, and of them the most popular was red-red. So invariably, Greater Ghana Alliance (GGA) streamlined plantain as a cash crop and inserted it into its export-agricultural machinery. Plantain farmers virtually became rich overnight, and the industry was booming. But in the last five years, there had been reports from agronomists and climatologists alike that there could be a sudden and permanent drop in plantain yield in the offing. Change in temperatures and moisture to which the plantain was very sensitive to. GGA and the plantain farmers weren’t going to give up a new-found golden goose so easily. So they bogged down and turned all local traders to sell to their lucrative offshore customers, leaving little produce for the local market.
Sister Mercy found herself on her knees shoving through kitchen utensils searching for at least one misplaced finger of plantain. She didn’t need to search hard. There it was, cradled in the corner of the drawer. A blackened yellow finger. Ripe and ready.
Mercy shoveled some more in case there was more but alas her search was in vain. The finger would only be enough plantain for one dish she approximated. It seemed that the prospect of serving only one dish was more treacherous than simply saying there was none. She couldn’t imagine giving it to one person, and certainly not eating it for herself. Out of the question. She could just imagine the look on everybody’s face. No, at least one person should be served. That is how she would do it. That’s the way her mother would’ve done it. Wouldn’t she? Aunty Grace had never seen a plantain drought, only in times of the year when it wasn’t in season. But the era of seasons was long gone in Ghana. The mechanization of the agric sector had effectively removed Ghana’s dependence on rain (thank God, because the rain was hardly predictable anymore) and it could produce at will.
Almost, at will.
Mercy asked the Kitchen-bot to heat the deep fryer and boil water as she began the arduous tasks of hand-grinding the spices for the beans stew. Mother always insisted that the toil and sweat were part of the recipe and so as little robot involvement was necessary.
Before long, one of her newer patrons, Gonzalo, was stretching his limbs and lumbering up to the front of the stall having finished his morning workout.
“Good morning madam Mercy,” he sang.
“Morning Gonzalo, how are you?” Mercy asked from behind the counter, momentarily looking up to see the young Latin American.
“I had a great run, and my stomach is ready for your red-red, please. No rush, I don’t have any deadlines for this month,” he said rubbing his stomach and searching for Mercy over the counter.
“How nice. Work has been good?” The onions were stinging her eyes as she tried to find Gonzalo.
“Very good! Your country is so advanced with its urban association policies. There is local government, but it is just supporting everyone do their own stuff. And when someone needs a hand — pop — they support, then step back. So I am learning a lot.”
Mercy had many Latin customers, but Gonzalo was the most chatty of them.
“That is good to hear Gonzalo. Your friend the animator is he still around?” Gonzalo had brought a friend who was researching a new animated series idea. It had caught Mercy’s eye because it was her life long dream to start an animated series of her own. One chronicling how her mother started this business of selling red-red in the now World famous Dzorwulu Main Street.
“Oh, no. He left madam Mercy. Maybe he’ll be back for the Easter.”
Sammy had just popped up behind Gonzalo and he was looking annoyed.
“You haven’t even started cooking? Sistah! Some of us get work oh, I beg, do my own fast before this one.” Sammy said pointing with his eyes at Gonzalo.
“Good morning to you too Sammy. Please, you will wait like everyone,” Mercy pleaded.
“Yo! I already told you, that me dier, Ama’s red-red was completely fine. So I hope you are not going to mention dat your prices you were mentioning last time?” Sammy said fidgeting with his crotch.
“Hmmm.” Mercy was sure to keep herself busy with her duties so as not to make eye contact with the ever discerning Sammy.
Little Cynthia was also just tip-toeing up as well. Her eyes glued to her palm-screen, her other finger flicking from side to side. She came every other week to get red-red for her ailing grandmother who was an old friend of Aunty Grace.
“Little Cynthia how is your grandmother?” Mercy asked hearing the girls squeal from across.
Without looking up Cynthia responded “fine thank you, she sends her regards. Oh wait-wait, I win, I win! Can I use my gold coins to buy?” The little girl said in a rush.
“We haven’t installed that one into our POS yet, my little bofrot.” This time she did spare a glance but quickly turned away as she saw Sammy trying to make eye contact.
A small black Kantanka pulled up by the stall and the strapping Joshua Prempeh, the Deputy Coordinator of the Dzorwulu Borough, stepped down. All sister Mercy’s usuals had arrived.
“Aye Sammy, you de? Little Cynthia darling? Sister, wassup? Please the usual.” Joshua announced, filling up the line further.
“Don’t be mentioning my name like that, Mr. Joshua. I haven’t eaten this morning and Mercy is playing some sort of games. But anyway, you, I get mattah with you!” Sammy said agitatedly.
“What matter is this?” Joshua said, chuckling to himself then looking amusedly at the others.
“You don’t know what I am talking about, eh? You aren’t on the platform?” Sammy continued.
“Please, I am here for my red-red, the time and place for our discussions is during association meetings.”
“Oh, you, don’t worry. Beh, I go see you?” And with that Sammy continued fidgeting about himself.
Then there was a calm silence among the patrons, each preparing themselves for the experience they went to bed dreaming about the night before. The deliciousness of the caramel-like plantain, eaten with a mouthful of steaming peppery beans. The burn of the dish hardly detracting from the temptation of getting that first bite of heaven. Yes, the patrons waited for sister Mercy in silence. Waiting for their dreams to come to reality.
Sister Mercy was feeling the heat of the kitchen and the eyes of her customers. What on Earth was she going to do about this? Four hungry expectant clients, all wanting red-red. Needing red-red.
Thinking it couldn’t get any worse, Shin-shin, the neighborhood alcoholic, stumbled into the line bringing with him his trademark smell of oriental liquor and Chinese soy.
“Ago-Amen!” He said and responded to himself. “Today, I have my money saved specifically for Aunty,” hiccup. “I mean sistah Mercy’s red-red. No alcohol oh! Today my money is especially for Sister’s red-red. Aye, Chale, I will eat like a fool today. Hip-hip-hip?”
No one in the line minded Shin-Shin who was not affected by this coordinated affront.
“Hip-hip-hip, hurray!” He bellowed happily.
“But you, when will you go back to China?” Sammy spat at the drunkard, finally acknowledging his presence.
“Please, my friend. Do not bring yourself. I am more Ghanaian than you,” Shin-Shin pointed at Sammy.
“I beg, sister Mercy, hurry with my order so I don’t have to stand with this buffoon,” Sammy said shaking his head at the drunk.
No response from Mercy, who was switching over to slicing the plantain, hoping everyone was too distracted to notice it was only one finger.
“But do you know Sammy, that you owe me? Do you know who built your …. your… your little fitter shop? My late uncle, Mr. Steven. What a great man he was! From the countryside in China, to the bustling booming metropole of New Accra. Glittering like the Blackstar she is. My uncle came and made this place his home, and home for many others — including your father Sammy. So do not come here telling me to go back to my country. You should go back to your village. Stupid mackerel!”
That induced a laugh or two. Sammy wasn’t pleased at all, but thought it unwise to argue with a drunk. The wise saying playing in his head “when you argue with a mad man, no one can tell who is mad or not from afar.”
But Shin-shin wasn’t done.
“Ah, and look who is calling me a buffoon? Can you imagine?” He appealed to the small crowd. “Sammy, the one who left his wife to marry the bountiful aunty Grace, only to be rejected without even getting to his knee. Oh! Can you imagine?”
Sammy was having to replay the wise saying over and over again in his head. ‘It wasn’t worth it getting involved with this pathetic drunkard. It wasn’t worth it at all, especially on an empty stomach.’ He kept repeating this to himself shutting off Shin-Shin’s tirade.
“His sweet loving wife that dedicated herself to him and supported him through the recession, depression, se-session, and all that. To leave her, to marry aunty Grace. Only to be rejected. Oh-oh-oh.” Shin-Shin was opening a virtually empty bottle of schnapps, tipping it over into his gaping mouth. “If I am a buffoon, then you, my friend, are a man with an imp’s mind.”
At that, Sammy flung himself at the drunkard, but Joshua had been reading the situation and used his large frame to block the fitter from attacking Shin-Shin.
“Sammy, Sammy! Calm down and listen!” Joshua pushed at Sammy. “You can take your red-red first then cool down, eh! The nice young man doesn’t mind?” Joshua said of Gonzalo who had jumped out of away of the wrestling men, but was in agreement with Joshua’s suggestion.
“You will take your dish and go and work. Mercy’s red-red will cool you down, okay? Okay!” Joshua’s grip on Sammy was so fierce that the fitter wasn’t able to get a look at Shin-Shin, who had stepped back almost colliding with a passing bicyclist.
“Foolish-stupid!” He snarled and resigned himself to the compensation of receiving his red-red first.
Everyone in the group let out a collective sigh.
On the flip side of the counter, Sister Mercy was about finished preparing the one dish and was not any closer to knowing how she would resolve the issue of who to serve it to. Biding for time, she offered her clients the option of another dish.
“Aye, if anyone wants a change of flavor. We have yam and nkontombre, fresh from the Dzorwulu farms. I even ate some yesterday, so sumptuous!” she exclaimed.
“Sister Mercy, please. We have all come here for one thing, and one thing only. Do not try and distract us from our task. We are here for strictly red-red. We know that you have vendors across the city, I helped in that cause,” Joshua said pompously patting his chest. “So even though we can get red-red from anyone of your chop bars, or other chop bars, we flock here because yours has a special magic. There is something about your hand that turns this particular red-red to gold.” Joshua stated and everyone agreed, even the little girl momentarily ungluing her eyes from her glove-screen.
“Sister Mercy, in fact, you have been very some-way today. What is going on? Be frank and speak, we won’t harm you.” Sammy said softly, cooled down from the earlier fracas. Mercy heard Sammy and lifted her eyes to finally meet with his and she dreaded having to tell them the truth, but there was no way around it.
“Mmm…” She started but stopped, staring at the crowd before her, unsure of how to put this tragedy in words. The simple and honest truth that only one could have their beans with korkor. It was a truth that was harsh, possibly unacceptable to those who had gathered in front of her stall this morning. Was it not the hope of getting her red-red first that had calmed Sammy down? Was it not her red-red that had made Shin-Shin save his money rather than spend on more booze? And for little Cynthia, her ailing grandmother. Gonzalo as well, being the first to arrive today. And big man Joshua providing so much support when her business needed it most. These were not merely customers. They were part of the DNA of Grace’s Grace chop bar. Her mother would be disappointed of having such loyal patrons unsatisfied. Such was the gravity of the situation, but Mercy needed to find a way because the truth could not be held for long.
She stepped out from behind the kitchen counter, wiping her stained hands on her apron as she approached her patrons.
“Well. Mmmm. How do I say this?” She said almost pleadingly.
Cynthia had turned her palm toward Mercy who knew that meant she was being aired live on her Faba-feed. Instantly, Mercy felt the eyes of a million strangers fall upon her.
‘Maybe, casting them away and claiming she had some COVID-type sickness would be a better way to handle this situation,’ she thought desperately. But what happened when they returned the next day and was ‘sick’ but preparing food? No, it wasn’t a sustainable lie. Sammy had taken a step forward, his eyes narrowing as they squared on Mercy.
“Sister Mercy. Let the truth prevail.”
Mercy was still wiping her hands, avoiding Sammy’s eyes, and instead, taking in the increasing crowd forming around her stall. In a time before, the only reason why a crowd would form around Grace’s Grace was to get the happy-hour servings of red-red with Aunty Grace handing out boiled eggs and sliced chicken free with your regular plate. Remembering her mother’s knack for being so much better at this work than Mercy was, she felt the anxiety kick up at her heart.
“Well, I am sorry to say but there is only one kor-kor left,” she let out in one breath.
Everyone had heard her but the silence that persisted afterward suggested otherwise.
Now Joshua was the one stepping forward.
“There is one branch left and then more is coming?” he asked.
“No. This is the last korkor in this district. And as far as I know the rest of the city,” Mercy explained, her eyes cast to the ground.
“What are you saying sistah? It is like you are talking but what you are saying can not be true. Do you really mean to tell us that there is only one left? And after this one you are not sure when the next one will come?” Sammy asked in disbelief.
“Unless I go out to the countryside and source some…” Mercy answered like it was a realistic possibility.
“Oh my goodness gracious of God!” Sammy exclaimed clutching his heart and burying his face in his free hand.
Joshua had immediately taken the initiative by asking Sersa to call his friends at the City Foods Association. But Mercy knew it would be to no avail.
“They say there has been a serious drought and that the plantain that is being made in the country has all been saved for export. So, for the meantime at least, there is only one,” Mercy insisted.
“Well I was here first,” Gonzalo piped up all-of-a-sudden from the back.
“Heh! Excuse me?” Sammy said, relinquishing his hand from his heart and staring down Gonzalo. “If you don’t remember, you agree make I go first.”
“But seniore, I am sorry to say that that was done knowing there was more plantain available. I am afraid I can’t anymore.”
“You and who can’t! Please don’t make me slap you so you forget all your English. Mastah, move out of my way!”
It was all spilling over in front of the chop bar. Sammy lunged at Gonzalo but before he could reach him, Shin-Shin had pulled at Sammy causing him to fall flat on his bottom. As the three were tangled in a scruff, Joshua cut across little Cynthia who was gleefully recording every bit of the action, providing commentary for her audience.
Mercy faced up to the GGA man.
“Listen Mercy, I don’t even need to tell you how much your red-red means to me. I think what I have done for you over the years shows. I am not trying to make you feel bad, or use my job as an excuse, but, come on! Would you be where you are without me?”
Mercy didn’t know what to say to this but was very annoyed at Joshua nonetheless. Before she could reply to him his phone buzzed and he was momentarily distracted by his friend from the City Foods Association.
The Shin-Shin, Sammy, and Gonzalo tri-factor was becoming more absurd by the second. Gonzalo toppled over Sammy who had clawed Shin-Shin onto the ground with him, and it was a mix of push, shoves, and grunts from the three men on the floor, with little bursts of laughter from Cynthia who skipped around the fracas like it was a fire.
Joshua was done with his call and his sullen face told the story. But quickly the gloom turned to determination and he tried to make the most of his opportunity to claim the dish.
“See, the other three are fighting like baboons. And Cynthia is distracted. Just give it to me and I will be on my way,” Joshua urged, placing his muscular arms on the serving counter.
“Sorry, Mr. GGA-man. I can’t do that. It just doesn’t feel right giving it to you just like that. I can’t do it. What about Cynthia’s ailing grandmother? Or even Shin-Shin…” Mercy said exasperatedly.
“Please! If the grandmother is coming to die, let her die. She has had her share of red-red through her life.”
“Aye, how can you say that!” Mercy slapped hard against Joshua’s shoulder, who recoiled but was quickly upon Mercy again trying to grab her from over the counter. Mercy was standing her ground, stopping the government man from entering her kitchen and taking the steaming bowl of red-red sitting on the counter.
The struggling men on the ground looked up to see the commotion between Joshua and Mercy and immediately settled their beef to tackle the pressing issue. Not far behind, a district policeman had jumped off his bicycle with a whistle pressed between the lips of his squeezed face.
Cynthia, however, was now lost in the crowd which had formed a compact circle around the stall. She had been concentrating on her viewers so much that she had lost track of her content. Feeling the body heat of the crowd press in on her, she squeezed between legs looking for air. It was during this struggle for breath that a sudden panic rose in her little chest and her beating heart threatened to jump out of her mouth. Stars were popping up in her vision and she lost track of where she was. She would cry out for help, but that breath was not forthcoming and she choked on her own cough. She was thrashing now, flinging her hands hoping desperately to be let loose of this sudden nightmarish situation. And just before she felt the blackness descend she broke through and caught on to all oxygen the air had. On her knees gasping for breath, she wiped the sweat off her head, only realizing afterward that the feed had been on throughout her near-death experience.
Scrolling through the worried messages she was finally able to regain her breath, which reminded her of an episode her grandma had had herself. Cynthia had heard her grandmother panting from her room and had run-up to her bedroom to see what it was all about. When she got to the threshold of her grandmother’s room, she saw the health-bot hovering over her grandmother whose hand was up almost in surrender. She had looked awful, but when she saw little Cynthia a smile brightened her face, and Cynthia could swear she was twenty years younger. Remembering her grandmother, she didn’t want to imagine her sad this morning without her red-red, so Cynthia closed the live feed and made toward the chop bar but from the other end where there was no commotion. She sprung up over the counter and was soon face to face with the steaming bowl of red-red. The vapors were delicately swirling from the beans, and the plantain had that golden red color to them. She moved closer to the bowl, her eyes barely over the counter. She placed both her hands on the bowl but immediately withdrew from the heat. The sudden motion caught Sammy’s eyes and he and the other men, including Mercy, all stopped to stare at little Cynthia standing by the red-red.
The crowd outside had squeezed in as well and everyone waited with bated breath.
“My grandmother doesn’t have long to live. The only thing that brings her joy is eating red-red. It isn’t even good for her.” Cynthia etched closer to the bowl again. “This is what I do for her. The only thing I can do for her. I can’t give her medicine. I can’t make her bed, bath her, or feed her. All I can do is bring her her red-red.” A tear run down her cherubic cheek. “But it wouldn’t be fair. It wouldn’t be fair…” Sammy and the others were all at a standstill, the crowd as well with a few turning their phones to record little Cynthia’s moment.
Cynthia had finally made a decision. She grabbed the bowl, but instead of going the way she came, she walked over to the Mercy and the arguing men and lifted the bowl toward them. No one spoke.
“Let’s share it!” Cynthia bellowed and after a split-second silence, applause rang out from the crowd followed by a number of cheers, even from the policeman who was whistling wildly.
Mercy bent down and kissed the little girl’s forehead and proceeded to get cutlery for all, before turning to the crowd to tell them that though the red-red was finished, there was boiled yam and nkontombre. Behind her, the early morning tenants were helping each other with the seating in the palladium and before long they were all taking measured bites of the delicious red-red.
The sun was stark in the sky now, but everyone was in the comforting shade of the chop bar, so paid no heed to its heat. All they could do is gobble mouthful after mouthful of red-red until the bowl was empty and their stomachs were moderately satisfied.