Tell Me What You See
1 — Tell Me What You See
Nurse Amena wasn’t rough with Mavis, but she was missing the tender touch one would usually associate with a nurse. Mavis had to remind herself that this was Ghana, and one could never assume the expected. She had been posted in the Netherlands for a couple of years prior, so that must’ve contributed to her unrealistic expectation of her country's people. She’d been back a few months now, her program with the Dutch Development Agency, also known as RVO, having ended as expected. That is, with Mavis considerably overwhelmed with information and still not so sure what she was to do with her new capacities as a field agent for the Ministry of Food and Agriculture.
Nurse Amena had left the room but came back a moment later with a slab of gel on her gloved hands.
“Please madam, lift your top.”
Mavis did as was told, and the nurse rubbed the gel on her swollen belly. A little more gently this time.
“Do you think everything is alright? Is the baby okay? My i-Watch! It told me to come to the hospital as soon as possible,” Mavis said hurriedly, expecting the nurse to take off as soon as she was finished.
“Please, I don’t know. The doctor will attend to you shortly.”
Mavis was not feeling any goodwill toward the nurse and kissed her teeth in annoyance as soon as the nurse left the room again. One would think with all the recent automation going on, a nurse would be grateful enough to do her job well. But no. It just wasn’t the case.
There was a silence in the room and Mavis allowed her eyes to roam freely. The white sterile walls, the hologram advertisement glowing in the corner of the room, a digital calendar with empty slots for information on patients. A second later, there was a click and a low humming as a box on Mavis’s bedside emanated with light. Soon the digital calendar was populated with information, and it took Mavis a second look to realise it was her details from her visits.
Her weight at sixty-two pounds. Height of five-feet three inches. Her pregnancy, in its second month. This being her second visit to the clinic since her first. The first was with her husband Albert, she remembered, to confirm she was pregnant.
“How are you doing today, Mavis Obeng?” The health-bot’s feminine voice sounded from the box, showing more warmth toward Mavis than nurse Amena.
“I am fine, thank you.”
“Good. I have processed the initial data sent from your home-bot, but will run some tests to confirm and provide a more accurate analysis and conclusion.”
“Ok,” Mavis trembled. Her hand made to reach for another to hold on to. But alas there was none. The alert had sounded from work and it didn’t make sense to wait for Albert before heading to the clinic. She would have to deal with this herself.
An orbed scanner plugged into the ceiling of the examination room whizzed on, and waves of light were soon criss-crossing over Mavis and her protruding belly. As soon as the lights were on, they were off again. A silence swept over the room. Then a clicking from the health-bot. The hologram in the corner of the room had stopped showing its advertisements and was now building a three-dimensional representation of Mavis’s child. The image, once completed, was raised in front of Mavis so she could see it without having to tilt her head.
“Hello Mavis. Please, tell me what you see?”
“I see a big head. Little fingers. I can see the umbilical cord…” Mavis quivered.
“Good job! The embryo has developed well. Have you experienced any recent pains in your abdominal area?”
“A week or so ago, but nothing too distressing,” there was a bulge developing in her throat.
Mavis knew enough about the bots to know that good news was always delivered first to wane the blow of the worse news. Her experience with her aged parents being the teacher in this scenario.
“There have been complications with the development of the embryo’s organs. Would you like me to demonstrate?” The bot would do as Mavis asked, but in the end, it would always deliver the facts. But Mavis didn’t want to hear it all said at once. She didn’t think she could take it. Maybe it had to do with her past trauma, remembered as vividly as the images being displayed before her. Some eight years ago, she was told by a human doctor, Dr. Mensah, that her first-born son, John Kofi, would never be able to walk.
Yes, it would be better if the health bot demonstrated.
“Please demonstrate,” Mavis pled, forcing down the bulge that was climbing up her larynx.
The hologram image immediately took on a different colour scheme, as organs within the embryo were highlighted yellow and then zoomed in on. The organs were then split apart and shown individually. The depth of detail was actually a little sickening to Mavis, and she felt like the demonstration was probably not the right decision after all.
She could make out a heart, lungs, liver, a pair of kidneys, and brain. They were all coloured a neutral blue now, but the health-bot started showing the organs progressing conditions from its conception to date. Mavis witnessed her child grow and the colours of its organs go from a healthy green to a yellow, then finally, the lungs turning red.
Mavis turned her head, sobs caught in her throat.
“Tell me what you see, Mavis?” The bot asked, ignorant of Mavis’s pain. Mavis tried to clear her throat. An impossible task. She gave up on that but pulled herself up so slightly, a few inches up, to brave the images.
This was her child.
“I see… my child’s lungs.. have failed.” Mavis landed and it seemed a relief to finally get to that first step of what was to be a journey toward acknowledging she had lost her child. That her dreams of having a fit child were not going to come true. That her dreams of holding a baby again were dashed. That this person, living in her belly will never live to see the world and feel her love. And it made her despair, but also angry at the unknown entities that had acted against her, and her little happiness she wanted to carve out for her and her family.
Then she felt a jolt of guilt of wanting a fit child. There was nothing wrong with John Kofi. She loved him to death. But was there anything wrong for wishing for an able-bodied child?
The bot had gone into a long explanation of what had happened but Mavis was numb to it. She didn’t even hear as nurse Amena came in to escort her out of the examination room. Nor notice the folded slip with the full report placed into her hand. What she did notice was when, at the clinic’s exit, Nurse Amena touched Mavis’s shoulder, then hugged her. And Mavis let it wash over her. The relief of letting all that was held up spill and splash without constraint. Mavis held onto Nurse Amena tightly, and let the death of her unborn child pour out of her and onto the World.
2 — The Fields
‘Tell me what you see, Mavis?’ Tawiah asked through Mavis’s earpiece as she stood at the hilled boundary of the forty-acre green pepper farm. Mavis tuned her i-specs, adjusting the crops from cabbage to green pepper, and instantly saw a set of new characteristics pop up on her augmented vision. The i-specs picked up the general atmospheric conditions, then the state of the crops, and finally the three farmers working on the fields. The weather was good, thirty-two degrees, a big drop from the average temperatures due to the intense cloud cover. Humidity was also favourable. However, the peppers were dehydrated. The heat of the last few days had been intense, and the i-specs could tell that significant application of water was needed to deter any deformations to the crops as they advanced through this crucial stage of their growth. She tuned the i-specs to tell her the weather forecast for the next few days and any sort of precipitation did not seem likely.
‘The crops are dry, and in need of water. Rain is not looking so likely. We would have to turn on the irrigation system,’ Mavis said to Tawiah, who was sitting halfway across the country in the Ministry of Food and Agriculture offices in New Accra.
‘Let me just do a cross-check with Drone H32. Oh, wait … Daryl is on his way with it as we speak,’ Tawiah’s high-pitched voice said through the earpiece. ‘He will be there in twenty minutes, so you can relax till then.’
Mavis decided to slump down the hill toward the farmers, hoping to get a kernel of boiled corn to chew on. From the top of the hill, she made her way through the rows of peppers, planted on small beds, all the way down to the tank tower, under which the farmers were taking a break from their early morning labour. She always loved coming to the countryside. There was a peace here that was hardly available to her in New Accra, where life bustled at a robust pace.
The countryside was something else though. The uninterrupted expanse of green stretching over the rolling hills in the southern end of the Eastern Region. An endearing sight of human geometry. The fixed plots, square shapes, and shades of green acted as a patchwork and were easy on the eye. In New Accra, the eye always seemed to be distracted by some unnecessary visual litter, each distraction feeding into a string of thoughts that only induced anxieties in Mavis. It was all too much in the city, and being out here was in its way cleansing for her eyes, mind, and heart.
Thinking about her eyes, Mavis removed the i-specs as she approached the farmers, Emmanuel, Attah, and Sampson. Mavis always found them a little distant from her and having the glasses on didn’t help in breaching that gap.
She engaged them in some light banter. They made some comments about the drones doing all their work, then they gave her a kernel of corn to share with them. All was good, good enough at least.
After she was done she walked over to the little farmhouse and went to the tank’s faucet and turned the tap over and let the cool water run over her hands, dripping down into the damp earth. The pressure was a little low, and she had the urge to check the water level with her i-specs, but thought it unsavoury to so openly show distrust in the farmers. Instead, she shook her hands off the last drops of water before flopping down onto a wooden bench in front of the farmhouse, waiting for Daryl to fly over.
Sleep came easily enough but was shortly disrupted by Emmanuel, who poked Mavis awake, pointing to the distant skies. Mavis collected herself and heard the faint chopping of drone wings. A distant black figure in the clouded sky and a pair of dangling legs. The image slowly enlarged as it made its way towards Mavis. She could vaguely make out Daryl smoking something, most likely weed, as he began his descent. The clouded sky temporarily parted to let the sun’s rays shine through.
The chopping sounds from the drone had smoothed out and she heard Daryl shout a greeting to the farmers before he was standing in front of Mavis, hands in pockets, a lit joint between his blackened lips.
‘Mavis, you dey?’ His voice deep and rasp.
‘I dey, Daryl. Where are you coming from?’
‘Begoro, but had to make some stops and supervise the drone spraying over some of the fields that are about to harvest. The green peppers have been struggling. So HQ said we should spray some more fertiliser to sort them — now. As you know, gotta fulfil quota!’
Mavis couldn’t help but laugh at Daryl’s use of the word ‘now’. Daryl was anything but a typical Nigerian, but that word popped up at the oddest of times, and it just negated everything Daryl projected of himself.
‘I see that you are laughing at me again.’
‘You, don’t worry. Finish smoking your weed, then we will do what we have to do here.’
Mavis was always comfortable with Daryl. On her field duties, he was the closest thing to home she had. Daryl had been part of the Greater Ghana Alliance (GGA), the current governing party of Ghana, and the Netherlands Enterprise Agency’s (RVO’s) joint agriculture programme since it was started five years ago. It was a simple partnership: RVO would bring in technical and capital support, and the GGA would ensure that a huge slice of the harvest was sent to Europe at a reduced cost. Win-win, they said. Mavis didn’t make much of it, and Daryl didn’t let on much of his thoughts on it either. Just that he had done a similar programme in Nigeria and was almost killed for it. Other than that, she actually didn’t know so much about Daryl. If he had a family, a wife, a home. Actually, Mavis would abuse Daryl’s silence by loading him with her own life problems. He didn’t offer much in advice, but his grunts of acceptance or dismay were very welcome to Mavis.
The sun was about climbing to midday and the clouds were all but gone when Mavis and Daryl got up to activate the drone for its field tests. By this time, the farmers had made their way to the town of Petro to look for a decent meal. Mavis felt more comfortable bring- ing up her earlier concerns.
‘The crops are dry, above and below ground. But the farmers said they watered it, and HQ confirmed this as well.’
‘I think there might be something off, maybe the farmers can tell us when they are back?’
‘Mhm. There could be many things off. Let us take it one step at a time for now.’ Daryl launched into a rapid stride, heading to the top of the hill Mavis had previously been on. As Daryl placed the earpiece carefully in the nook of his ear and confirmed his position, Mavis took notice of his shortened forefinger. Daryl had said he lost it when he was in Nigeria working for the programme there. The farmers had revolted violently, and he had been caught up in the middle of it. Mavis wondered what set of circumstances would lead to such violence?
Now, as much as ever, she yearned to see her family again, even her nagging parents. Being close to all of them was home for her. Presently, home was many thousand miles away. All she had was Daryl, the Drone H32, and her pair of i-specs.
3 — Pressures
Mavis and Daryl were both synced to HQ, with Tawiah quickly disbursing instructions to Daryl on what configurations to set on the Drone H32, before setting it off to run its tests over the fields. HQ wasn’t only home to the Ministry of Food and Agriculture, there was also a large RVO contingency in the building. They had technical staff manning laptops that were connected to all their remote agric-programs across the sub-region.
The GGA had done a lot of work in their time in office. Their mantra of ‘economic empowerment’ permeated every single branch of government, down to the secretaries. It wasn’t just a saying, or a great plan shelved in some report, as with incumbent governments of before. When the GGA said something, they meant it.
For the Ministry of Food and Agriculture, the policy directives were primarily to export high-value crops to bolster the national purse and develop the agricultural sector. Underlying that directive were soft expansionist policies intended to pump Ghanaian produce and commodities into Francophone Africa. Ghanaian agri-businesses were given huge support and leeway to operate their businesses if they were outward-facing. Over five years, Ghanaian companies were out-competing their francophone counterparts, and soon consuming their businesses.
The flip side was the GGA’s dealing with China. Once the GGA had sufficient leverage to pull across West Africa, it became easier to entice Chinese mega-infrastructure projects. With the GGA as the focal point, the bureaucracies of transacting such mega-projects would largely reduce.
It had taken on a magnificent shape, and it was now a matter of keeping the clockwork ticking. And that was the problem of having huge harvests lost in the Ghanaian countryside. If the GGA failed to deliver on their end of the bargain, then that would leave them in a vulnerable position at the negotiating table.
Of course, Daryl and Tawiah were extremely privy to these stakes, but to Mavis, it was something of a distant concern. The only way it impacted her was how much work she had to do. If she had to visit one less site, she was better for it. If she had more sites, ah well! The job was just a means to take care of her family.
As she leaned over Daryl, who had been kneeling down over the drone, wiping sweat dripping from his temple, she took notice of the crops. It wasn’t the first time that she found herself paying particular attention to their well-being. Her hand fluttered over her tummy as she made to crouch and observe the deformities in the fruit, the green peppers in this case. Some of them had healthy well-rounded peppers with a rich glossy green on them. The vast majority, though, were struggling to keep colour, their shapes crumpling. She couldn’t help but make the comparisons to her own offspring. That is what they were at the end of the day, the peppers, her kids, they were offspring. And for one reason or the other, their parents had failed to provide all that was necessary for them to survive.
‘I am done, Mavis. Let’s get started before the boys come back to the farm.’
Mavis sighed to herself for getting so worked up worrying about offspring.
‘Why are you concerned about them?’ she said, referring to the farmers.
Daryl didn’t respond, his eyes fixed on the remote as he steered the drone upward and alerted Tawiah that all systems were good to go.
‘Yes, we are clear. Will run hydrological assessments,’ Mavis and Daryl both heard through the earpiece.
Then the drone was off. In the course of its ascent, its wings grew larger and Mavis could see a number of sensors revealing themselves on the underside of its wings. Blue orbs, shining, then casting waves of light over the grounds as it scoped the fields.
‘So the crops have been lacking water, but from our reports, we have seen that the irrigation system has been in use. So, how?’ Tawiah mumbled to himself over the communication.
The drone was now hovering over the water tank, then it shifted over the borehole, at which point it lowered itself.
‘Checking borehole levels. I am just getting reports from the technical team here, that there has been a region-wide reduction in water tables. And it looks like our borehole is…is…wow…it is virtually empty. Low replenishing rates too.’
‘Impossible.’ Daryl shook his head.
‘I am going to assess the other five boreholes in the area. Wow — wow. This is not good.’ Mavis could hear Tawiah whizzing through dozens of screens miles away in his office.
Daryl had placed the control pad for the drone down on the ground, as he wiped more sweat with his shirt. He then pressed his earpiece two times to open communication with the technical team at HQ.
‘Guys, can you hear me?’
‘Loud and clear, Daryl,’ Mavis heard.
‘We are in a bit of a situation down here. These fields represent
about twenty percent of the vegetable produce. The crops can be saved,’ Daryl was pacing his words, Mavis realised. A strategy he adopted every so often to give himself more time. ‘I need to talk to the farmers.’
‘Hi Daryl, this is Folkert. What the fuck do you mean you need to talk to the farmers?! What the fuck does that mean, ay?!’ Mavis had only heard Folkert’s voice once, and it had been to lay insult upon insult on her during one of her first-ever field trips. He was the program supervisor for RVO, and it was safe to say that when you heard his Dutch accent, it wasn’t a good thing.
‘We need to gather information, even your own organisation’s manual on dealing with crisis — ’
‘Don’t give me that bullshit! We have a quota from you …’
‘Absolutely, so let me handle it.’ Daryl disconnected his earpiece and quickly gestured for Mavis to do the same.
‘We don’t have time.’ He was taking long strides down the hill, a sudden urgency.
‘What are you talking about?’ Mavis was following behind, her heart pounding in her chest now.
‘Can’t you tell what has happened here? Have you been to any villages or towns of late?’ They were back down in the farmhouse and Daryl was scrambling around looking for something.
‘No, I haven’t. After the site visits, I am taken straight back to the lodge.’ Mavis wasn’t able to keep up with Daryl who was still scrummaging around, tossing papers and furniture about.
‘Where are the car keys?!’
‘What? There is no car here. The batteries needed to be replaced. Haven’t gotten it back…’
‘Daryl! Can you please tell me what is going on?’ Mavis had grabbed Daryl by the arm and was yelling right into his face. The fervour that had taken over him still coursing through his body.
‘I saw this happen in Nigeria when I was near Kano. It is water. Our operations must have sucked the land dry of water. And since we don’t live here, we wouldn’t know if the people have been suffering as well — now. The farmers must have taken the water out and moved it to their villages to supply their people.’
‘OK, but why…’
‘These people we are dealing with, the GGA or RVO, Folkert, or whoever. The money involved… What do you think they will do if they find out these farmers are stealing their water?’ Daryl had moved out of the farmhouse, heading back to the hill they had been scoping from.
‘Do you think that they will actually use force?’ Mavis was feeling the heat of the sun pressing on her.
‘You think the farmers were the ones who cut off my finger?’
After a moment’s pause, Mavis had to catch up with Daryl who was now climbing the hill again.
‘So what are we going to do?’ She didn’t know what made her add the word ‘we’ to the sentence. It could easily have been ‘you’, just Daryl, but for whatever reason, she was now very much involved.
‘We have to get to the farmers, quick! Get them to understand the consequences. Get them to agree to use the water to irrigate the crops, assure them that we will provide water. Then communicate with HQ.’
‘Folkert has probably used time-lapse aerial satellite images to show what happened to the water — they will know. They will deploy.’
‘But how will we get there before them?’
Daryl had his hand over his eyes, shielding them from the sun, which was lashing a blinding sheen upon them. After a second or two, he pointed to the heavens and answered Mavis.
4 — Wings
Daryl had managed to unscrew the control pad to override HQ’s control over H32. Mavis stood in awe as she watched Daryl struggle to redirect the drone towards the hill where they were standing, then down to a height at which they could mount the airborne machine. Drone H32 was built for bulk transportation of agriculture goods, as well as the odd human. But not two. Daryl handed the pad to Mavis to hold as he lifted himself onto the hanging seat, then beckoned Mavis to follow suit. She tossed the device over, but as she was preparing to launch herself towards Daryl’s waiting hands, she had a moment’s hesitation.
Why did she need to get involved? This was all Daryl’s doing, right? He had flung her into this conflict between the farmers and the GGA. In fact, it was in her best interest to stay put and see it out from the safe haven of the farmhouse. Keeping her job, her income, and her family back in New Accra well fed and catered for.
Daryl’s arms had been flexed for a while, but now they were begin- ning to dangle like loose strings of noodles.
‘Mavis?!’ he yelled over the chopping sound of the drone blades. ‘Why should I follow you?’ she asked plainly. Daryl paused a second. Then acceptance of this moment’s doubt on
Mavis’s part spread over him like a breath.
‘You don’t have to do anything, Mavis …’
Without really knowing why, Mavis sighed and tossed her hands up to Daryl who instantly tensed himself to lift her up onto the drone. Once she was on top of his lap, he rubbed her leg and she scowled in return, before eventually smiling too.
‘Oga, I hope you can fly this thing!’ ‘Don’t worry — now!’
The ride was bumpy at first. Getting the ascent right without jerking violently from side to side was difficult for Daryl. But once at a good elevation, it became as easy as simply pointing the joystick in the right direction. With the drone stabilised, as well as Mavis’s heart propulsions, she could let her eyes wander over the rustic beauty of the low-lying hills of the Eastern Region. She always had a great vantage point on top of the hill at the green pepper farm, overlooking the valley. But now the patchwork was below her feet. The subtle variations in green. The wide landscape, stretching on to the horizon. The patches of forests standing tall between the rolling hills. The vast tracts of land excavated for development.
Development, in this case, meaning the pursuit of foreign currency through the export of high-value crops, on land that, Mavis reminded herself, had once belonged to farmers, chiefs, or shared through families. Land that would be used as collateral to form so-called ‘partnerships’ between the GGA and the farmers, with the aim of increasing yield and income. But from what Mavis had been increasingly gathering, actually contributing to the farmers’ indentureship to the GGA. Win-win, was how it was heralded. But win-win was hardly the case. The farms didn’t produce incredibly high yields and the farmers’ incomes did not surpass their expenses. Finally, loan payments were not met on time and soon, the land signed as collateral was being handed over to the GGA. But all the time Mavis witnessed this, she consoled herself with the fact that the farmers were still permitted to work on the farm and earn an income at the very least.
There was no denying that the beauty she saw in the landscape a moment ago was now tainted by her developing realisation. Beyond the neat lines, fences, and promises of new hybrid seeds and other agric-technologies, there was a silent war going on.
Mavis looked over at Daryl, who had been pensive since they were stable.
‘Daryl, was what happened in Nigeria … the reason you left?’ she asked.
Daryl remained as he was, hands wrapped on the pole connecting their seats to the main body of the H32. Then he took a deep breath and started.
‘… You tell yourself that it was your job to be one way. To work and do what you are told. And you think that that will bring you fulfilment. You see, now. Like the way you feel when you take care of your family. I did my job very well. And in Nigeria, when it came to a matter of life and death, it was death. And I didn’t even know that this was the decision before me. And all the fulfilment I had felt, was gone. And I just thought of what I would do if I got the chance again …’
They sat in silence as the first thatched roofs began to show themselves below their feet. Mavis could see scores of children making their way from a compound with buckets on top of their heads.
‘You know which chop-bar the farmers go?’ Mavis asked.
‘Most likely, they didn’t even go and eat …’
‘We need to go to the chief’s house. You have met him before?’ ‘Not the new one, but his compound is where the children were coming from.’
‘Then let me land in the football field.’
Mavis held onto the handlebars placed on either side. The chopper’s change of direction caused the air to cut to a different sound, and she felt her tummy lift up unpleasantly as they dropped down.
5 — Us or Them
Richard sat hunched on his cushioned chair on the veranda of the Chief’s compound, the shade a welcoming friend after the day’s work shepherding the children of Petro back and forth from the water tankers. Richard bent his head down and tied his aged fingers together in contemplation of the day. As was custom for him, he took his time to meditate over every aspect from dawn to daybreak. At least, as much as he could, before sleep would rush on him like a fly over freshly cut pineapple.
Today had been another day for logistics.
As had been agreed by the Elders council, and finally passed through the new Chief, Osei Larbi, the children of the community were to move the water from the tankers, brought by the farmers, to the respective households. Each family having a shared portion based on their needs.
The borehole drilled by the yankee people so many years back had gone dry. So had the government borehole of not so many years ago. The river, which had been the main water source for Petro since Richard was a kid, had withered into a pitiful stream of spit. So their only option was to siphon water from the farms. Of course, this was in disrespect to the terms of the agreement between Petro Chieftaincy and the GGA. But there had been no provisions made in the contract for a township on the brink of collapse due to water shortage. A shortage that had coincidentally aligned with the GGA’s irrigation program with the farmers. The program which had been agreed between the former Chief of Petro, Nana Osei Truman, and Luther Baduman.
Richard had remembered when Luther, the GGA official, had first come to Petro with his schnapps, kola, and motorcade of four-wheeled drives. You would think he was the president of Ghana, the way he carried himself. The way he charmed Truman. Flashing his phone, and displaying impressive hologrammed models of would-be construction planned for the Petro township. These open exchanges were followed with not-so subtle closed door meetings, with exchanged envelopes and back-patting ruling in the privacy of corruption.
The situation was becoming dire for the township as more and more farmers lost their jobs and fled to New Accra for work, leaving the old, the young and the women to fend for themselves. Then the water situation compounded matters further, and the Elders council of a time ago, formed again and motioned to move the sitting chief, Nana Osei Truman, replacing him with the young Osei. Osei Truman was hardly in the village, so removing him was easy enough.
Larbi was a New Accra boy by all means with no blood roots in Petro. But he had invested a lot of his money in the community and brought with him a number of jobs and a steady flow of income. The Elders council had to make the difficult decision of electing a non-native as chief, fully aware of the possible repercussions. The anger of the gods, for one. The incomprehension of the people the other. But the situation was indeed dire. And so, Richard himself reached out to the young entrepreneur. Soon a ceremony christening him, Larbi, as chief, was held, and a formal structure of governance instated, with the Elders council as the informal decision-makers and Larbi as the figurehead.
Every decision passed through this protocol of deliberation among the Elders, before Larbi gave his final input and acceptance. And so it came to be with the decision to siphon water from the irrigation systems on the farms. A decision that Larbi had cautioned might have serious consequences. Larbi initially suggested opening communication with GGA on the issue. However, information reaching the town of Petro of other villages experiencing the water shortages told of the GGA’s slow response to the emergency and the famine that followed suit. And given the recent bouts of illnesses plaguing the ailing citizenry of Petro, and the lack of water to tend to them, Larbi finally gave his approval. The children were to be used because the farmers themselves couldn’t leave the farms without raising suspicion, and the women weren’t healthy enough.
Richard thought of how tired the children had been from the day’s work. He was tired too. Not from physical exertions in particular, but the mental strain of dealing with the little ones. Richard, never having had a child of his own, didn’t know the give-and-take trade of getting children to do things you needed them to do. But alas, he reminded himself that they were children, and in another time, they would be free to roam and play, rather than carry the fate of the township on their little shoulders.
Richard was about getting up when he heard the distant knocks on the metal gate of the compound.
“Amen,” Richard replied, shuffling up onto his feet. Attah and Emmanuel, one of the few farmers still in town, came marching up to Richard, bowing down before looking over their shoulders.
“Senior, please, some two people go like see you. They work at farm with us.” Attah said, removing the cap on his head, then shifting it nervously between his hands.
“You mean with the government people?”
“Yessah. One with the government, the other with the obroni, but he black man, Oga from Naija.”
“The one from government is a Ghanaian?” Richard had no room in his heart for anyone from Nigeria.
“Yes, she be Ghanaian-“
“She? No-no-no. I won’t talk to any of them.”
“Senior. Like I-go gree with you. But the woman be nice woman. She only de do the job. But she understand we, I beg for am.”
Richard gave it some thought. Well, there could be no harm in getting to know your enemies position better. And indeed they were the enemy.
“Ok, let them come.”
Mavis sat beside Daryl on two bent plastic chairs, with Attah and Emmanuel leaning behind them on a low-lying wall of the veranda. Large chunks of the house remained unpainted and Mavis could make out the fashioned lines for electrical wiring. The compound itself was vast. The veranda they were in was not the chief’s, but rather, that of one of the elders: Mr. Richard, Attah had referred to him as. There were no children in sight, as Mavis nervously did some more scoping of the compound, waiting for Mr. Richard to attend to them.
Once it was plain that there would be no distractions for Mavis to mindlessly consider, she settled on Daryl who had sat still, concentrated on the floor.
Finally, the one called Mr. Richard made his way through the beaded entry of the house. He was wearing a holed shirt and had wrapped a cloth around his protruding stomach. He didn’t look much, but Mavis knew that out here in the countryside, things weren’t ever as they seemed.
Daryl and Mavis had decided that she would talk to the elder because Nigerians weren’t seen so kindly in these parts.
‘Mr. Richard, we are sorry to disturb your evening,’ Mavis filled in after an awkward silence.
‘My evenings of late have been more troubling. But what can we do?’ he replied stiffly.
‘I hear you senior,’ she looked at Daryl, and his eyes egged her on.
‘It is unfortunate that we come to you with no arrangements to meet. But sometimes, such meetings are forced onto us.’
‘We do not have control over God’s will… So what can I do for you?’ Mr. Richard asked.
This was the point at which she had hoped Daryl could jump in. But it was upon Mavis to explain the developing situation and let Mr. Richard know the possible implications for his village. The way she would word it was of the utmost importance. One false move, let’s say, subtly accusing the elders of wrongdoing, would cause the whole intervention to collapse.
‘Let me start by saying that I am sorry that I have not come to introduce myself formally. I am Mavis Obeng, and I work at the Ministry of Food and Agriculture. I have been working alongside Attah and Emmanuel for the last year, on their farms…’
Mr. Richard wasn’t looking at them. His gaze was set on a space over Mavis and Daryl, in the corner of the veranda’s ceiling.
‘As of now, our situation is very some-way. The government obronis know about the water,’ Mavis explained. Mr. Richard’s eyes pulled down to hers. A retort building in his stomach. But before he could blurt it out, Mavis intervened.
‘We know that you have had no choice. We aren’t here to attack you …’ And with that Mr. Richard’s expanding stomach released.
Assured that she could continue, Mavis persisted.
‘But we need you to know that, these people do not reason like us. They will see this as an insult. They are coming …’ Mavis said, but felt like its impact was lost on Mr. Richard, who stared blankly. Daryl, again, urged her to continue.
‘These are not government officials, oh!’ Mavis said, then glanced at Daryl, who nodded encouragingly. ‘These are soldiers, armed with guns. Soldiers who don’t know right or wrong, and know no allegiance but to money. You understand, Mr. Richard? Men without nationalities, or tribes, or even families. Men who know no such thing as mercy, for you, for me, the younglings … just money,’ Mavis ended softly, Daryl beaming at her with what looked like pride.
Mr. Richard, who had looked likely to boil over at every other word Mavis had said, seemed to have reconsidered his assumption about her and Daryl. He readjusted the wrap around his waist before speaking.
‘I know you, madam Mavis. I remember when you first came,’ he was back staring at the space above Mavis’s head. ‘Our situation, as you said, is a difficult one. I have known that at all times, water has been available to Petro. And never in my sixty-seven good years living here have I encountered such a drastic situation. I must say that this has coincided with the government program. But alas, our world offers no justice for the feeble. So we must make it for ourselves.’
‘The justice you think you are making, I am afraid to say, will only cause a bigger injustice on yourself,’ Mavis said flatly, and thinking that she had finally crossed the line, waiting with bated breath to see Mr. Richard’s response.
Mr. Richard withdrew a little, his nostrils expanding ever so slightly then contracting again.
‘So, what do you think we should do?’ Mr. Richard said solemnly.
Mavis didn’t have a clue. What could they do? Say they are sorry and then give the water back?
Mavis was running through all the possible solutions her imagination could conjure up. When she had burned through all of them (they weren’t many), she looked up at Mr. Richard, a clueless expression on her face, then at Daryl, who seemed ready to burst. Mavis nodded her head at him to say something, and he was about to when Emmanuel cut in.
‘Bosso Richard, I de hear some che-che-che.’
They all quietened, straining their ears to hear what Emmanuel was talking about. Then, Mavis heard it. The faint but unmistakable chopping sound of not one, but many drones.
6 — A Word to the Wise
Walking out of Mr. Richard’s veranda, hand shielding her eyes from the sun, Mavis could vaguely make out the not-so-distant figures of the drones descending onto the football field. Dust and sand were twirling in large spirals that blanketed the town, the chopping blades drowning all other sounds. Mavis had walked a couple of feet when she realised that the residents of Petro were also shuffling out of their homes to see what the disturbance was about. Thinning mothers holding on to shrunken babies crying and grabbing at their mother’s clothes. A distance in the mother’s eyes. A sickening stench pungent in the air.
Mavis had to stop because a pain was tearing through her tummy. She kneeled over and grabbed her stomach. She didn’t know when it stopped, or when she was back up on her feet, all she knew was that she saw the bulky frames of a SWAT team emerge from the swirling haze of sand. One particularly lumberous jack marched toward the mother Mavis had seen, gun held abreast, pointing at the woman and her child. She couldn’t hear what was being said, the chopping blades cutting up their conversation, but she didn’t need to hear. If the pain in her tummy was searing, what she saw next ripped her apart. The soldier turned his rifle and butted the woman on her temple and it was only a miracle that she didn’t drop her baby as well. In a blink, Mavis was upon the soldier, or SWAT guy, or whatever he was, cursing them, their families, and demanding that they step back before she did something, she didn’t know what, to them.
There were no words for this, she had gone beyond losing herself and could only communicate with a flurry of swipes at the man.
It would never have been enough. There was nothing that could justify such an act. That a mother holding her child in her arms, defenceless, should be attacked in such a manner. It went beyond humanity. The so-called values people would say every person obeyed and followed (or should obey and follow). And yet, in front of Mavis was this person committing such a heinous act.
Then the act became acts. The other SWAT soldiers took aim and fired a rapid round of bullets at the villagers. The cracking sounds of thunder rifling through the dust, the air, the sand. Cutting through the world and worlds.
These images weren’t processed by Mavis as and when the acts were taking place. Ever since the mother had been struck, Mavis had vacated her mind and body. This was not the world she knew. She couldn’t accept it. The world to her was her family and they were part of a happy-enough glocal community. Family encompassing alive and dead, even those who never lived to see a day.
In the moment, the now, Mavis was not Mavis, and it took the titanic efforts of Daryl to flatten her on the ground, wrestling her hands behind her back and whispering soothing sounds into her ear. But nothing was being processed. Mavis growled and wailed and screamed and let all her soul and life gush out of her onto the sandy ground in Petro. A small town in the southern part of the Eastern Region.
Words were exchanged after the dust had settled. Words that paled to the foaled air. Words along the lines of ‘fake bullets’, a ‘warning’, the ‘water is not to be stolen again.’
Phantoms distributed and received these words. Phantoms on the periphery of Mavis’s etched idea of the world. And at some point in time, when it became more tangible and relatable, and less fluid and blurred, when she played back what she saw that day, registering it finally, she accepted she had no word for it. Only the trauma of being there when the silent war became a tumultuous one. She as a witness to it. As co-conspirator.
7 — The Grand Scheme
Folkert paced the monitoring room like an addict. A fiend. The operators manning the laptops were all plugged in, pulling data from Petro, real-time, so Folkert had as a whole a picture of what was happening as possible. It was part of the protocol. So when it came to recounting events, he would not be caught off guard by any on-field witnesses. Of which it seemed there were many. The first bit of news that reached him was no casualties. Good news. However, there were several wounded, included one infant. Bad news. But not so bad considering the grand scheme of things. The grand scheme being that another large portion of the expected harvest to supplement the relief program in the Middle East wouldn’t reach its destination.
Folkert could almost see his partner’s grim face upon hearing the news. She had been through so much already, enough for them to deactivate all newscasting on their media platforms. Even when Folkert had told her how impractical it would be for him to be shut out from news entirely, she had begged. He didn’t like to see Younma beg, nor her eyes water. It would undo him. So he followed suit and for the last six months his news and work and, pretty much his life, was this program of monitoring, evaluating, and exporting the produce from Ghana’s breadbasket to Iran.
The gleam of the laptop monitors was beginning to brighten in response to the darkening day. The operators were like digital insects, clicking, digging, scouring, uploading, and finally tabulating the information on the RVO cloud. The smell of coffee saturated the office and created a positive feedback loop of caffeine for the insects to feed off. Folkert, not much of a coffee drinker, was buzzing as well, but finally decided to stop behind a particularly buzzy insect to see what data he was pulling from the site.
It was Edmond and he was following the movement of the Relief Mercenary Brigade. His monitor was divided into eight mini-screens. Five were live video streams from the Brigades’ respective head cams. The other three were spreadsheets of data listing logistical information such as pellets fired, fuel used, and other information relevant to the drones and mercenaries’ current condition. Folkert pulled his prescribed shades over his eyes so the glare from the screen wouldn’t worry him too much. The lead mercenary, Jacob Stapham, was marching through farms to see for himself (and for everybody in the monitoring room) what exactly was going on in the fields. He had his pellet gun aimed at the back of one of the farmers who was sifting through large swathes of tall grass to get to an opening that eventually revealed several clay dome structures. The farmer stepped aside and spoke to Jacob telling him how they diverted water into these reservoirs before fetching them to the village. Jacob’s camera bobbled forward and peered inside to see that it was almost empty. The farmer continued to speak and the instant translator was doing as good a job as it could in comprehending what was being said.
“The water for village finished. The water for river run dry. What do you want me to do? What do you want us to do? My family, my kids, we need the water, or we can’t survive.” That’s how the translator had interpreted what was being said.
“Tell the bastard that in such a situation they report to us and then we make adequate provisions for water to be supplied. Not too hard right? Or am I fucking crazy? Ask him!” Folkert didn’t expect Jacob to say the word for word but he did and Folkert felt a little embarrassed by it. With Daryl and the direct staff under him, he could let loose because they knew the procedures, so there was no excuse for negligence. Efficiency was the average. Exceptionality, the norm. But for the most part, there had been none of the latter and more of the former and so knocking someone’s head with a few harsh words was needed quite often. The farmers on the other hand were really caught up in it all without too much of a clue what they were taking part in…
“We know about this thing. The reporting.”
“Good, so why in the fuck?”
The farmer stood in silence and Folkert saw Jacob jab the nuzzle of his in the farmer’s direction.
“Careful now, Jacob. No need for any more of that. We have already been quite adventurous with our modes of disciplining today. Don’t you think they have got the message by now?”
“Sir, I believe they have.”
“Good. And is there any water to be salvaged?”
“From what it looks like we are out of water for a bit, at least until some of these boreholes replenish. But I am afraid that your original prognosis is correct, the crops will most likely die.”
“Fantastic. And thousands of people will continue to wait. Please make sure to send Ms. Obeng back to HQ when you can.”
“She is a bit of a mess…”
“They will tend to her here.”
“Sure thing boss.”
Folkert sighed and thought to text Younma that he would be late today. Later than usual at least. And he could imagine her on the other end of the text sighing as well and thinking nothing good had come of the day, which was right. But at least … There was no at least. The Iranians would be short of relief. The villagers in Petro would be traumatised and possibly more difficult to deal with. RVO would chastise and belittle his efforts. The morale in the office would be dreadfully low. And all the damned objectives would remain unfulfilled. If only he had listened to Jean Baptiste before he took on this appointment. JB had categorically told him ‘no matter what you do, do not assume the expected. That country is beautiful, but their people have a problem with getting things done.’ Folkert had laughed at that and Younma as well, gorgeously sipping a gin and tonic over the canal in Utrecht so many years ago. A less complicated time. Less war-filled. The water of the canal bouncing the evening lights in a mesmerising dance. It was hard to imagine if they would’ve still come if the conflict out East had broken out by then. But these games of what-ifs and whatnots was not a Folkert thing to do. So he dispelled those memories of before and refocused his attention on his massive screen in the centre of the monitoring room. The various feeds and streams of data and information jamming into his saturated head, on and on and on, until the next day would arise and he would be found in this same spot waiting to start again.
8 — This is what I see
The early morning rays filtered through the nylon curtains, flaring up the apartment in a dull but radiant light that said ‘good morning.’ John Kofi was rolling his wheelchair back and forth in the squashed kitchen, making sure that all his dishes were on cue. The boiled eggs could be overdone a bit, but the avocado-slicer had a habit of going a bit bonkers if you left the skin in it for too long. In any case, his eyes at the back of his head were the kitchen-monitor which did a good job of letting him know if anything was about to burst into flames. An oddity you would think but it had happened a few times, the main culprit being the microwave. After the second incident with the microwave, Albert had decided to do away with it, driving it up to the e-waste recovery centre at Agbogboloshi, before coming home and declaring the house flame free!
Just when the water began to boil over the eggs, Mavis slinked into the kitchen, sleepy-eyed, but beaming as she witnessed her son’s performance. They each had their day to make breakfast and John Kofi had been getting much better over the past few weeks. Well, since she returned from Petro, Mavis reminded herself. And instead of wincing in pain at the memory, she saw it more as a turning point.
Mavis opened the avocado slicer and removed the peels, tossing them in their makeshift compost bin. There were official bins for organic waste, but they had wanted to use theirs for fertilising their apartment’s garden. All Albert’s idea (the sleepyhead). Mavis was about to peer into the boiler when John Kofi scooted her away and demanded she go do her morning stretches as he finished up the rest of breakfast.
Mavis drew the curtains to let the waking sun wash over the apartment and cracked open the window as well so some natural air would flow through. The light was pure and she could make out the tiny dust particles floating in the air as she pulled out her yoga mat. Yoga was something Mavis’s mother had gotten into in her later years and had instilled in Mavis as much as she could. But work, family, and other excuses had been enough for Mavis to shove it away underneath the living room couch. It had been getting more attention recently. The time taken by work was no longer an issue, leaving her with volumes of time to spend on herself, her family, and increasingly her community as well. In fact, her morning stretches were not only to relieve tensions in her body and mind but to also list the duties she had in the week toward her voluntary association work. She had joined the Associations of Local Foods which was an organisation formed to offer urbanite’s food directly from the countryside. It ended up being a great alternative market for small-scale Ghanaian farmers to sell their produce and remain independent. The Association formed largely in response to the price hikes the supermarkets were experiencing.
Albert had told Mavis about it, and after her first meeting, she was hooked. In the second meeting, Mavis was getting up and being vocal during the main discussion. By the third, she was appointed Lead Coordinator and appropriately crowned with a Work Tablet, something she was familiar with in her time in government. On the agenda for the week was: approaching other neighbourhoods to see if they wanted to join the association, settle a fee with the farmers for the work the Association did, and finally, organise an event to bring wider awareness to the Dzorwulu Borough. It wasn’t a well-paying job or a job in the formal sense of the word. But it was something that came naturally to Mavis and she looked forward to their daily discussions, even bringing her parents in for a few meetings (her dad had also been vocal by the second meeting). When she wasn’t at the association, or hanging with friends from it, she spent time writing a blog on her excursions on the field. It was a sort of therapy for her, and she had garnered a decent readership, especially after recounting the event that occurred in Petro. The Petro ‘incident’ had awoken her to the World, and now that she was awake she was hungry to know more. The faces of it, underneath the surface.
She occasionally heard from Daryl and he acted as an informant for some of her posts. For one reason or the other, he was still tied to the program. But Mavis wasn’t the one to judge, and she was also excited to hear from him and know he was okay.
Mavis was pulling her head out of her thighs when she spied John Kofi stationed near the couch.
“Food … is … served.”
“Finally, I thought we would never eat.”
“You think daddy will get up?”
“Let him sleep. Today it will just be me and you.” Mavis grabbed onto John Kofi’s shoulder and rolled him to the breakfast table which was looking splendidly decorative, if not a little short on the food end.
“I will eat all this, oh! You need to make more.” Mavis exclaimed rubbing her tummy.
“The peppers are done — they are my secret recipe.”
“See you. Giving away your secrets. Don’t worry I will get some more from the association.”
“Can I come with you?”
“Of course, it’s open to all.” She said, grinning at him mash-up his avocado on the brown bread before spreading shitto over it. John Kofi and Albert were all that she needed she realised. Not just then, but a life ago it seemed. There was no fixing something that wasn’t broken. And as much as she now knew the World to have evil, she knew it also had a lot of good. The good that was inclusive, open, and willing to do the day to day to make the World a little better.
And knowing that, the two chatted away the morning enjoying their rather short breakfast. But what was missing in food was replaced with the joy of sharing with a person she loved dearly.