The Fire that Burnt the Patriarchy
“See. This thing we de do, we go fit collect all the people dema money, you understand. Then put some money here, some there, for the business inside. You understand. Then when people see that de money work, we go slide am into some hot soup for we to chop. You understand! Goat pepper soup!”
“Aye goat pepper soup! Uncle you be senior plus! Aye, but see-see. If de people no give us all the money how we go do am?”
“Ah! Dat is why there is risk, dat is why we are using Shareefa. She is the key. When they hear her name sef, dem all go put down. See-see, right now the situation is very bad. People are on the streets protesting! The rain that fall yestee, it no be tomorrow when de go come collect am ohhhh. I beg! All we for do is give them something small, you understand, then we take the rest for the soup!”
“See you be senior!”
“Nor, you be the senior.”
Shareefa eavesdropped as the two pigs, Baba and Uncle Fatal, oiled each other up for another minute before she decided to turn away from their rancid conversation, retiring to her quarters where she did not expect to be disturbed for the rest of the night. Already, Baba, the sheep of a man that was her husband, had dragged her through all of Nima, having her introduce herself to every chief and alhaji this side of Accra. The men had sat silently nodding their heads and waving their hands giving their blessings to Shareefa’s campaign to become the assembly member of Nima — Makola constituency, which had now become the most populous district in Accra.
As if she needed their blessings. Their blessings were worthless. Less than worthless. They were dirty, these men, waving their hands, and tossing their heads like rag dolls. She didn’t know them. But she knew of them. She had been told by the sisters who cooed at her side whispering to her stories of them and what bedrock of oppression they derived their power and wealth.
One from sakawa, sacrificing little girls as a rite of passage into the cult of internet fraud. One from hoarding water supplied through the shambolic plumbing network. While his partner coordinated price hikes of sachet water, the only other affordable water source.
Some others, through government contracts that they would simply take the money and not do the work. Slavemasters! And Shareefa had sat, nodded and waved her head and hands along with them. As comrade. God forgive her. She thought desperately. God should forgive her. If her father were to see her now! Hmmm. Her father, the famous Abdul Aboubakar, who had ridden with little Shareefa sitting on his lap zooming through traffic on his scooter so many years ago.
In that life, Shareefa wasn’t buried as she was now. Back then she was free. Free to laugh, and play and walk on the streets of Accra in the evening times. Laughing at policemen attempt to untangle the knots of traffic during rush hour. Watching the street vendors weaving in between the lanes. Singing their own distinct songs. Advertising their products delicately balanced on top of their heads. But that was suddenly torn from her when her father died and she was tossed back to the village to live with her mama.
Then she was married to Baba, an unknown oaf of a man, who came stumbling into her household promising gold and silver from his tongue, but offering hot water and stale bread with his hands. Mama was ready to offload her as soon as he came forth, and of course, Shareefa did not have a say. She just nodded and accepted, as was expected of her. Then she produced three children for the man, as was expected. Then accepted when they all left her to go live in the burgeoning cities. And now, in keeping with what was expected, she nodded and smiled in front of those men who held the keys to a gate she was being rammed through. Sending her to a place she didn’t want to go.
Laying in her bed contemplating the conversation she had just eavesdropped, she wondered where it was all going. Once she was accepted and got on the podium to talk, what would she say? What was she expected to say? Baba had told her nothing and would tell her nothing. Only command and expect. Fool! She hated it. But didn’t know what it was. Maybe it was the un-remorseful abuse of her father’s respected name to gain political clout. Or the assumption by her husband and uncle Fatal that she would simply go along with everything they willed without her resisting.
Deep in thoughts, and digging further into the pit in which her deepest desires were buried, she failed to notice a little girl enter her room. The room was dark, and the little girl’s big round eyes bounced the light from outside into the room. Startled, she recognized the girl.
“Fayrouza, why are you here?”
“Ma’am.” She swallowed hard and hesitated a little. Shareefa leaned forward and beckoned the little girl to come closer.
“Come now, little one.”
“Ma’am, the sisters, Amina, and Beera, they are calling for you.”
“Ok, I will see them tomorrow in the market-“
“They said the waterhole. Midnight.”
And she was off. Gone with the answers, leaving Shareefa with only questions.
Luminous light spread across the cemented compound, lazily reflected in the bodies of water that had formed after the torrential floods from the day before. Shareefa unbent the nail hooking the kitchen door shut and stepped outside to meet a silent night, disturbed only by distant crickets.
It reminded her of being back in the village with her mama. A sorry place. It had been a prison in every way but in name. There had been nothing really holding Shareefa back from leaving. Nothing at all. At least physically. But there were rigid walls surrounding her. Walls built by the expectation. As a woman of God. As a daughter, then as a wife, and mother, the harbinger of the nation’s future. She had been forced to mute her dreams that she had nurtured and even consciously set out to fulfill when she was living as an adolescent with her papa. Instead, she swallowed the numbing pill of denudation.
Papa’s brother, uncle Fatal, who had taken onus for Shareefa’s upbringing, was not interested in having Shareefa further her education, or live out a life in the city on her own. No. Shareefa was not to talk out of turn. Shareefa must not think too much. Shareefa must listen and follow instructions. Shareefa must not argue or be sad. Shareefa shall marry, and be a good wife when the time came. Then mother. And then serve God duly for the rest of her life. That was Shareefa’s destiny, and every day she was forced to gulp down this inconvenient truth was another she spent digging her true self in the pit buried in her mind.
A glimmer of hope came with her marriage to Baba. His words were sweet, his touch soft and delicate at first. It took a while before Shareefa saw through his act. When she did, her skin itched with filth and her spirit shivered with contempt for the cockroach lodged into her life.
There will be those times when Baba would be talking to her, his lips flapping and hands gesturing but Shareefa would stray deep into the caverns of her thoughts, down into the pit to see herself screaming. Tearing. Questioning.
“You let this devious cunning sheep of a man foal you with his penis!? His dirty wiggly thing that hangs between his thighs. You let him turn the wiggly thing stiff and hard, and you let him wreck you with it?! You are no more a girl Shareefa, but a woman! What now!? Your children have left you-“
“They haven’t! They call from time to time. It is not their fault”
“No — you are right. It isn’t. It is your own fault Shareefa.”
“I don’t know what you want me to do.”
“Free me! And I’ll show you.”
Whenever this conversation raged inside her head, it always came down to the decision between her obligations and her freedom. But she couldn’t. She simply couldn’t. She didn’t know where to start. How to start. And where it would end. But being back in the city, and seeing the variety of lives the women were living, on their own, Shareefa began to see how her true self could be content. And tonight, creeping through the compound and slipping through the metal gates, she was going to take a symbolic first step of sorts towards emancipation.
The waterhole wasn’t far from her house, but navigating the road was a tedious exercise. The streets were unnoticeable since the floods from the night before had swept everything in its wake. Scattered debris and wastage floated in utter disrespect of the neighborhood. The gutters flowed like rivers and the main road was a riverbed, carrying along the inner city’s excrements for everyone to see.
Stepping onto the street Shareefa first lifted the ends of her silk gown but quickly acknowledged that no matter what she did, she would get wet. Embracing the water, she carefully paddled along the sides of the walls and on top of cars until she finally reached the narrow pass which led up to the waterhole.
The waterhole was a congregation of solar mechanized boreholes complemented with instant filtration that allowed for fresh clean water to be supplied during the day. There were large digital boards that displayed the water level and composition in the boreholes, and smaller screens locked to each tap that regulated the flow of water as per the payment made. The project was meant to provide an alternative water source. But it was largely deemed too expensive by residents.
Shareefa climbed up the walkway and saw the undefined silhouettes of Amina and Beera take shape. The moon was now hidden behind a stack of makeshift homes, leaving the harsh red light from the digital boards as the only source of lighting.
“Greetings sisters,” Shareefa announced bowing her head to the two older women, whom she had been informed were among the pillars of Nima’s mighty community.
“Shareefa you are welcome,” Amina said holding her chin high, her hands tucked into her long embroidered silk gown. “Sorry for bringing you out like this, but it was the only way we could guarantee privacy.”
Amina spoke and Beera silently nodded at her side, never taken her eyes off Shareefa who was rapidly feeling like an intense spotlight was being shone on her.
“Sisters, it is no problem-“
“We know that it is a problem. We know many things Shareefa…” Amina tilted her head to the side as if measuring another angle of Shareefa the red light glowing a demonic flare over her face.
“We know that your uncle and husband have not acted with your best interest at heart. We know of their plans, but for anyone paying attention that would be obvious.”
A silence fell over the women like the cold chill before a rainstorm. Shareefa didn’t have anything to say. Amina’s words cut true and incise, and there was no avoiding or nodding away a response. Even though the surface Shareefa was inert, the Shareefa buried deep in the pit was raking and screaming to be heard. But she couldn’t. These women were no friends of hers. And there had been no inclination from them beforehand that they were interested in Shareefa. As far as Shareefa saw it, they had plucked her out because she was a threat to them and the power they wielded.
“I want you to look around us,” Amina commanded.
Shareefa lifted her head to take in the panorama from their vantage point. Rotating, she took in all that was Nima. Half flooded by the storms the other half teetering on collapse. Beyond, the towering neon lights of New Accra in the near distance. She settled her stare back on the sisters, a little puzzled.
“What do you think would happen if there was another storm?”
Before Shareefa could think to reply, Amina was brandishing a tablet that she unfolded for Shareefa to look at.
“This is a map of Nima. The obronis have come to us many times to tell us of the areas at risk from floods,” she pointed out the areas on the map marked red. Upon her touch, the images on the map became animated showcasing key demographics of the would-be affected areas.
“You see? There and there, and across here,” Amira relayed the information on the maps to the real thing spread around them.
“I get you. But I don’t know what you want me to do?”
“You know why the obronis come to us and not our ‘leaders’?” Venom in Amina’s tone.
Shareefa starred at her blankly.
“Because they know, and everyone knows, that they have not and will not do anything about it.”
“I am sure -“
“Sister. I also stood where you are and listened, suspicious of what they were saying. Doubting it. But true-true all that this map said came to be. Not just the recent one oh! The one from the last three months, from last year, and even before. They knew it would happen. And did nothing!”
“Why are you telling me this?” Shareefa was feeling increasingly anxious. Her inner voice, however, was yelping from underneath. It was taking Shareefa all her effort to calm the beast inside.
“Listen,” Beera, who had not spoken a word stepped in to face Shareefa nose-to-nose. “The people we have given responsibility for our welfare, the people who we entrusted with our lives, the people who say ‘all they do is for us’… Those people don’t give a damn! We saw them spend that money meant to manage the floods on themselves! We saw them squander it in casinos and hotels! In those places across the highway. There is no hope for them and their deceit and corruption. They are an abomination! Do you understand? Not fit to lead — not fit to live! Too long we have sat and waited for promises and plans. But no more! We are ready. We have forces that will follow instructions. That will do what is necessary. We don’t have time. If another flood were to happen, as has been mentioned in the forecasts, blood or no blood, we need to act. My son…” a tear ripped through her smooth purple cheek. Suppressing the sudden shot of pain that threatened to overwhelm, Beera continued.
“We need a head, a leader, a face. You can do that. Sister. You can do what is right,” Shareefa noticed her tone was suddenly soft and compassionate. But beyond that, she couldn’t hear what Beera was saying. Inside her head thoughts were spiraling in every direction. A whirlwind. She was surprised the sisters didn’t realize. Because she was pulling every bit of herself to remain silent. To keep within what was expected of her. The path of least resistance. But that was the problem. She didn’t know where the path was anymore. She had taken a chance coming here tonight and it was exploding in her face. How could she have thought she could ever free herself. And now these women believed her to be something more than what she was. But what was she?
“…Your name is powerful. Not only because of what your father did, but because of what you will do. These men will drown us in their rot. These -”
“This is too much for me. I can’t -” smothering the ever-growing explosion from within herself Shareefa broke away from the sisters and sped down and out of the watering hole. She thought they would chase after her, but they didn’t. And it was only Shareefa’s own breath that followed her down onto the flooded streets of Nima.
The sun was on top of Shareefa as she climbed out of the tro-tro just behind Baba, uncle Fatal and their entourage, into the umbrella-covered mayhem that was the center of Makola. The blistering heat was impossible to withstand. Balls of sweat instantly streamed down her face, soaking under her armpits, dampening her canary and diamond blue silk gown. She instructed one of the boys to grab a sun-brella so she could protect herself from the intense heat, which was intensifying with every passing second. But there was no escaping it. From up above it was the sun. On the ground level, the people. Like sponges. Soaking up the heat and squeezing it over her. The concrete rivers created after the floods were still running their course, but the levels had dropped markedly allowing for normalcy to resume. Well as normal as it could be given the extreme circumstance.
Unfortunately, Shareefa was to spend most of the day under the scorching heat, interacting with the ‘masses’ as Baba referred to them. Today was the last day before the manifesto speech, and Baba thought it wise that Shareefa went out one last time to engage the crowd. She didn’t mind the excursion because it gave her an opportunity to roam unsupervised. Happily rendezvousing with her previous life.
Hiding underneath the shade of the roofing sheets of a butcher shop, the group huddled to discuss their plan of action. Uncle Fatal had shepherded idle boys to spread Shareefa’s posters around town, whilst Baba had hired a number of speakers and a microphone so he could blare out their campaign messages. He had already made provision for Shareefa’s face to pop-up on the digital screens spread across the market. The screens typically displayed the ins and outs of market goods. What was available. The prices.
Baba pointed to the nearest screen which loomed over the vegetable kiosks on the other side of the road, snickering as Shareefa’s face posed and blinked behind the superimposed message ‘Unity through Prevalence’. A moment later, the screen was displaying market prices for yam and cassava.
Baba turned to Shareefa smiling “You see your beautiful face? See what I have done for you? You’ll thank me later, no?”
Shareefa shot a disdainful look at Baba before snapping her head away. It was unlike her to show so openly her disgust for the man. But it just happened. It was just a second later when she felt the tensed fingers of her husband wrench her face and pull it towards him.
“You don’t do dat to me. You hear?” Shoving her head, before he returned the smile to his contorted and ugly countenance. No one noticing a thing.
The screen was now reporting news of the first man to attempt uploading his memories to an Android, and Baba was having a good old laugh about it.
“One day, I’ll live forever!” He proclaimed, the boys laughing along as he arched his neck to spare one poisonous glance at Shareefa. She stared back unblinkingly at the man. In her mind, she was sinking further into the pit. The dark soil surrounding and pressing in. The blackness descending until her world was a dot on the canvas of the universe. It took her young maid to pull Shareefa back to reality. Softening her with a song and a joyful laugh, tugging her so they start their campaigning in the inner parts of the Zongo, where the families lived.
Shareefa and her escorts managed their route efficiently, maneuvering through the maze-like slums of Makola, touching on the major fragments within the dense web. They sat and talked with housewives, spoke in pockets to idle teens, sipped asana and gossiped while chewing groundnuts and cousé. Shareefa entangled herself, and the more she talked, the more she realized the depth of the problems facing the ‘masses.’
They told her of the impending automation of the plastic recycling industry, which would eliminate a sure source of income for the scores of waste scavengers. They told her of the woes of keeping their children out of gangs that marauded the streets at night, stealing and pillaging from the vulnerable. Leaving their infamous maimed hand imprint on victims. They lamented over the food prices. The costs of imported foods such as rice, tomatoes, and chicken were killing their pockets, and homegrown produce was in shortage. Above all, they saw the recent floods as a manifestation of a curse on them. A sign of worse things to come.
Shareefa mourned and sympathized with them, feeling their anguish and assuring them that they would see a better day if she were given a chance. But as the words left her lips she wasn’t convinced herself. What could she truly do?
On their way back to the market, Shareefa saw little Fayrouza carrying a bucket of water on her head whilst lifting another in her free hand. Shareefa drifted from her escorts toward the girl, kneeling down so that they were face-to-face.
“Why weren’t you at the house this morning, little one?”
Fayrouza’s eyes were set on the floor so Shareefa could only see her eyelids.
“What is wrong?” Again, no response. Shareefa sighed then firmly lifted the bucket off Fayrouza’s head and ushered her to lead the way.
Balancing on narrow gutters, and cutting through half painted walls, and incomplete structures, they made it to what Shareefa assumed was Fayrouza’s house. Fayrouza turned to Shareefa, gesturing for her to drop the bucket which Shareefa did timidly. She then carried the two water-filled buckets into the house and came back a second later holding two ten Ghana Cedi notes. She raised her round eyes to Shareefa and offered her one of the notes. Shareefa looking down at the little girl’s determined expression bent down and pressed the two notes back into Fayrouza’s hands.
“Don’t worry. I’ll collect it when I see you next time, okay?” Smiling softly, Shareefa winked at Fayrouza, before the little girl smiled then skipped away, leaving Shareefa suddenly heavy and forlorn.
Curled in the corner, the rich black soil in between her naked toes. In her fingers, the tough spring of her hair. Her face bent down, eyes closed, body subdued. A sapping hopelessness, drawn from the thought that she would remain in this blackness, that encompassed her, that would become her.
Her, being in this nothingness, now could be honest with herself. If she were to see a mirror she would drown in it. To see the person she really was in the pit. The beauty, the boldness, the fire the burnt the flames of a million lives, unjustly scorned by those who took for granted.
Finally, she opens her eyes and stares into a puddle of water that reflects the open blue sky. Like a marble from deep within the pit she was in. She moves in closer and sees herself. For all she was, and all that she would become. The savage fire. The eternal flame. The fire in Shareefa’s heart, spreading over her skin, burning the hairs and senses till it was numb and blackened, leaving behind crisped smoldering charcoal that dissolved into the soil. Becoming it. It becoming her.
Shareefa checked herself in the mirror one last time before heading out with the campaign team to deliver her manifesto. Staring into her image, seeing the bright flame in her eyes roar, she saw her true-self for the first time. Her reflection stared back, godly and glowing an orange aura.
Baba had handed her a script to read, and to be fair it was pertinent to the struggles of the people. The script made mention of challenging the oncoming automation by corporate entities, disguised in the veil of neo-colonialism. It also challenged the unscrupulous neglect of the poor, and the need to build from within. But Shareefa knew well enough that these words were wind. Once said, never repeated. Forever forgotten.
By the time they arrived the crowd had formed an immense mass, bursting at the seams. On stage with her were the chiefs and other leaders who had granted her their approval, and accepted enveloped handshakes. She eyed them as she was motioned by the MC to come on stage to deliver her speech. There was nothing but tranquil clarity as she glided onto the podium. Once standing at her vantage point, Shareefa took her time to spot the familiar faces in the crowd. Amina, looking at her intently. Beera by her side, a proud face. She nodded at them, cleared her throat and began.
“Honorables, Chiefs, Alhajis, Sheiks, Akwaaba. It is with the greatest honor that I deliver this rather short speech to such a prestigious audience…” Shareefa turned away from the hushed crowd to face the men seated on the stage.
“Your work over the last years, decades in some cases, has indeed been a great achievement. In fact so great that it has brought us closer to hell on earth.” There was a sudden audible shift in the crowd, murmurs dissolved into to shouts of agreement feeding more energy to Shareefa.
“Your corruption and selfishness has known no limits and has duly sunk deep into the scars we carry now like crowns. I would like to say on behalf of all of those who have had to endure your reign. No more! A fire has been started. An immortal flame. We can not wait for judgment day. So we have brought it to you. God speed.”
And with that declaration, child-assassins sprung onto the stage behind the bewildered chiefs and elders, delivering a swift and bloody justice. Shareefa turned to the stunned crowd, a fire raised in the backdrop.
“My name is Shareefa Aboubakar, and I am the fire of justice. Let it all burn.”