The elders, they say anyone who knows their way through the Kumasi central market will have earned their path through life, all the way to heaven. Me, Aaron, nine years old, I've always known it: I'm going to heaven. The elders say heaven is full of ripe papayas and mangoes, and you can bathe in coconut juice there. Maame even told me, "Son, there's no way God would manage to keep you outside the gates to heaven with such attitude!" She said it like "attitude" is a bad thing.
"But Maame, you don't understand! I have songs playing in my head! There's the beat of the djembe, and the singer goes 'azonto, azonto, azonto.' I don't have no 'attitude'!"
Sunday. The market is full of people. They run around like the chickens in our backyard. Maame once said the market is as big as four soccer fields. That's pretty big, I guess. One day, I'll have a house as large as four soccer fields! I sprint through the trotro station. The orange soil is still muddy from the rain last night but the sky is blue, like the eyes of the girl I'll marry. I zigzag between passengers getting off. There's my favorite trotro, a rusty, green one. It says "God Bless Ghana" in yellow bold letters on the rear window. Prince, the driver, sees me as he's reversing and the people chatting behind the minibus have just enough time to scramble out of the way.
"Aaron!" he shouts. "Where you flying to, my boy? Say hi to your mama, will ya?"
A metallic boom erupts from my right. An old lady in bright green clothes—she looks like a wrinkled cucumber—is pounding Prince's trotro with both her hands, "Can't you look where you're going, you idiot? Why do you think God gave you eyes?"
I break into a run as Prince apologizes to the old lady. I sprint toward the south entrance of the market, where the clothes stalls are. Maame's going to be in a bad mood this morning; she's been complaining the rain and mud are losing her business. She said Ghana will be "developed" when they build an indoor market.
"Why," I asked her, "you don't want to see the sky, Maame?"
Maame is busy as usual, talking to clients and negotiating her prices. She grimaces as her client announces a low price. She waves her hand and looks away. She looks insulted by the offer: she could have been a Nollywood actress for sure. Her eyes go round as she sees me.
"My boy! Come here, I need your help!"
I stoop and tiptoe below the wooden counter on which Maame displays her T-shirts. She is waiting on the other side with her arms open and gives me a hug. Maame's hugs are always strong. Her dark skin is always soft. It's the best feeling in the world.
"I'm running out of plastic bags, son. The black ones. Go to Auntie Nana's and buy me a hundred, will you? Then get us chicken stew with rice and plantain for lunch. You remember where Abina's stall is?"
I put my fists on my hips. Of course I do! I'm sure Maame will give me an even bigger hug once I complete her errands. She hands me a bill—twenty Ghana cedis, not ten, but twenty! —and my hand shakes a little as I grab it. Now, Maame is staring down at me.
"What are you waiting for, son? Off with you!"
I'm back in the dirt alley—I'll bring back the bags and the food really fast, I decide, and I'll show Maame how grown-up I can be! The way through the vegetable district is shorter but at this time, it'll be too crowded. I'll pass through the bead district. I start running, skipping left and right, dodging elbows, stopping and starting again, jumping over puddles. I'm sure if I concentrate hard enough I can stop time. I love the bead district; it's so colorful, like millions of little lights. There's a splash and I feel wet on my feet; I stopped looking at the path and didn't notice a pond of mud. Now my shoes are dirty—Maame will be upset... I'll ask Auntie to wash them for me.
Ahead of me, I see a large, green sign advertising Club beer: I'll make a right there and keep going straight for a few more minutes. Auntie Nana will be happy to see me, as always. I hope she'll give me ground nuts!
Just as I reach the corner a group of ladies arrive from my left. They're wearing traditional dresses, orange, blue, yellow, with geometric patterns, and carry their errands on their heads in large baskets. They look like proud giraffes, and one is carrying a baby on her back. I make my way through their pack, as they shout at me to be more careful. I'll reach Auntie's soon. I put my hand in my back pocket.
I stop. I put my hand in my second back pocket. I search my front pockets. I gasp in horror. I turn around: the group of colorful giraffes has caught up with me. The one with the baby looks at me, "What's wrong, little one?"
Tears are building in my eyes. I feel warmth in my chest. I can't speak.
The lady has stopped and lays a hand on my shoulder, "Little one?"
"I... I... I lost my money!"
I look left, and I look right. I look on the ground near my feet. Tears are running down my cheeks. Maame once said good boys don't cry.
"It... It was in my pocket!"
The woman stoops a little, to put her face closer to mine. "Oh, I'm sorry, little one! I'm sure it must have dropped as you were running... Go back the same way you came, quickly!"
I nod to say thank you, and do as she said. Maame will be so mad. She'll never give me money again. Will I get spanked? My shoulder jerks. I have to find Maame's bill. I stop near the bead stalls and look around on the ground like a mad dog. What if it fell in the pond where I stepped? I keep walking, eyes circling around people's feet. Then I see them.
The strangest shoes! Toes sticking out, made of rubber, like plastic monkey feet. I stop in awe, staring at the strange vision.
"Hahaha, you like them boy?" I hear from above my head.
My eyes run up a pair of white, hairy legs, then khaki shorts, a white T-shirt, and lastly a face just as white. An obroni's face. I take a step back. I've never seen a white man before... Were his colors washed away by all the rain in his country? The man looks at me with a large smile. He reminds me of the ghosts in the stories Maame used to tell me. His nose and cheeks are red like a tomato though. His short beard's hair is orange and grey, like you'd imagine a carrot growing old. His nose is sharp and long, and he might be able to cut through soft plantain with it. He is showing his teeth, somewhat yellow. The white man keeps staring at me and I don't know what to say.
"Boy? Are you alright?"
The obroni's voice is warm. Now I see his eyes are the color of the ocean. Maame always says, "Be careful of the white men! They'll treat you all nice, but only care about the money they can make out of you." It's true, I think: on Maame's TV, the white man is always running in all directions, talking about how "he doesn't have time," "he's made a lot of money today," and "time is money." The white man always looks serious and concerned. Sometimes, he visits other countries to "save them," but often he's just running around while there are explosions in the background. The elders always say the white man needs to relax.
I should probably keep looking for Maame's money.
"Sometimes, when you're nice to him, the white man will give you money." Prince's voice resonates in my ears.
I make the biggest smile I can and recall Prince's voice when he comes to greet Maame.
"Obroni!" I finally say. "You enjoy the market?"
"Very much! But I'm not sure where I am exactly... I need to get back to..."
I don't wait for him to finish, "I can help you Obroni! I grew up in the market! Where do you want to go?"
"Fosua Hotel... Do you know how to get there?"
"Of course, I do. I'm going to heaven!"
I wave for him to follow me. We start walking, and he asks me what I'm doing here. I tell him about Maame's clothes stall. How she buys cheap Western clothes from the charities, and then sells them at the market.
We're back at the Club beer advertisement now. I point to the left, and we head toward the food district. Smells of grilled fish, fried plantain and spices soon enter my nose. I'm hungry. It must be around noon now, and the market's tiny alleys are packed. I often look back to make sure the obroni hasn't lost me. I can easily see his white, grey, orange and red face in the otherwise darker crowd. I have to slow down and elbow my way through the shoppers. I wonder if the white man can still see me.
"THIEEEEF!" A woman's voice. I turn to see, but something hits my shoulder and I almost fall onto a fried rice stall. The obroni runs past me. As he is going, the crowd keeps opening just before him. All are looking at him. He must be going after someone. Probably a market thief has stolen from him! But with no obroni... Who will give me the money for Maame's errands?
"Obroni! Obroni, wait!" I scream and start chasing the white man.
I run as fast as I can, but the obroni's legs are taller than me; he covers a lot of ground. Just when I think I've lost him, there's an intersection, and a group of people standing there. I hear laughter and exclamations. I can only see their backs. They seem to have stopped their course to look at something. Suddenly, my stomach churns. I wonder if the white man is okay. I keep my pace as I make my way through the little crowd of spectators.
"Obroni? Obroni, are you here? Obroni!"
I don't see him at first. On the light brown ground, a boy a few years older than me is kneeling and imploring a tall figure to let him go. The figure is a woman, with short hair and shoulders as large as a trotro bus. Her sharp muscles show along her arms, and she is holding a wooden ladle above the boy's head.
"Thief!" she yells, and I feel shivers running through my back. "You have no honor! Give back the obroni's money! Your ancestors will be ashamed!"
Then she hits the boy twice in the legs with the wooden ladle. He quickly searches his pockets, and reveals a small leather wallet, that he hands to the lady while staring at the ground. He doesn't say a word, and just waits there on the floor. The crowd is now clapping with energy.
"God bless Morowa!"
"What is it with these boys, today? They want to have everything easy!"
"The market feels much safer with Morowa around!"
Now the crowd is laughing, and Morowa is giving back his wallet to the obroni. For a second, no one's attention is directed toward the thief. He stands up quickly and disappears into the crowd. I move to the obroni's side.
"Thank you so much! I just can't thank you enough..." he says while taking Morowa's hand.
"No need to thank me, Obroni. But you can try my fish stew. The best in Kumasi!"
The obroni turns his face down in my direction.
"Are you hungry, boy?"
I nod like the little figurines on Prince's dashboard.
"Alright then," the obroni says loudly to the little crowd, "anyone here who's hungry for a portion of fish stew, it's my treat!"
I hear hands clapping and "oh"s and "ha"s, and I follow the obroni and Morowa in a little court behind a curtain. There are blue plastic tables and blue plastic chairs, and our little crowd sits wherever there's space. The obroni and I sit together at a table in the back, and the white man orders two portions of stew with fufu.
"Obroni!" I say with my eyes wide open. "You know fufu?"
"Yes," he smiles, "I've been in Ghana for a few weeks now. I've tried fufu, and kenkey, and banku... Although I find banku a little too sour for my taste. Which one do you like best?"
It's nice to talk with the white man. He has a soft voice, how I imagine my father's was. He has many questions, and I realize, has seen more of Ghana than me in my entire life. So I ask him about the elephants in Mole park, and the waterfalls in the Volta lake region, and the tree-top walk in Kakum park. I tell him I plan on travelling all over the country when I grow up.
"Where you from, Obroni?"
"I'm an investment banker from New York."
"Bank." So the obroni must be important among the white men..... Maybe he is rich! "New York." I think of the tall grey buildings you see on TV. And these white men in black suits, looking busy and important, like proud black ants. I think this is where money comes from. Maame said our government couldn't afford to buy books for all the schools, so they went to New York to ask for money. I wonder why our government can't make money, too. Maame says even she can make a living. She says the government is too busy looking good for the white men. Maame and the elders always talk about the "Ghanaian way," but they say our people just want to own white-man things.
"Boy? What's your name, I haven't even asked you yet!"
I look around the little restaurant and notice a lot of customers are staring at me, and whispering between them. I'm eating with the white man, probably the only one in the market, and that must make them curious. I'll have to tell everyone at school tomorrow, for sure! They probably won't believe me. I push my chest forward a bit, to sit straighter.
"My name is Aaron," I answer proudly, and then pause. "Obroni, why did you come to Ghana? All the Ghanaians want to go to America... In your country, people have cars, and big houses... The government takes care of them. Why did you come here?"
There's something changing in the obroni's eyes, like a cloud covering the sun. He seems to be looking for words.
"Well, I guess you can say I'm looking for an answer."
"What kind of answer, Obroni?"
He smiles awkwardly, and I know he won't lie, whatever he says next.
"I've lived a busy and good life, but a meaningless life too."
He looks at his left hand and I see he's wearing a golden ring.
"My wife passed away. One year ago... I was working on an important deal at the time. I was rarely at home. I guess I thought she'd always be there. But when she died, I realized I didn't really know her anymore. I realized I hadn't spent time with her in so long, and I hadn't really taken an interest in her life either. When I had married her though, I knew she was the woman of my life."
He looks at me. "Maybe I shouldn't tell you all this. It must be hard to grasp for a kid."
I feel sad for the obroni, very sad. I was young, but I remember when Maame lost my dad. She didn't smile for a long time after that. I wonder if the obroni's wife is eating papayas with my dad in heaven. I don't know what to say.
"The truth is I was scared. I was keeping busy so I didn't have to think," he continues. "You see, I realized there has to be more to life. More laughter, more color, more meaning. More joy. There was no joy in this life, just adults pretending they know what they're doing... Never grow old, Aaron! And so I sold the apartment, and I gave her things to charity, and I quit the job. And I'm here now with you because I know there has to be another way to live. I won't return until I've found how I'm supposed to honor my wife's memory."
He opens his wallet, and shows me the picture of a blond woman with long, curly hair and a large smile. She looks happy, and she's wearing a bright pink dress with ample flounces that make her look like a spring flower. The obroni's voice is trembling, I realize. Can adults cry too? I don't want the obroni to be sad. So I think of where to find joy, and I know.
"Obroni... After fish stew, I want to take you somewhere in the market. You have time?"
He nods with a smile. We finish eating in silence. I think of Maame and how strong she must be. Now, I want to protect Maame and the white man, and all those who are crying inside.
After he's paid for the food, I take the obroni's hand and guide him out of the food district, across the vegetable district, and deeper into the market along the appliances stalls. As we get closer to our destination, the beat of djembe grows louder. This is my favorite place in the entire universe: a little bar surrounded by djembe stalls, where people come to dance azonto at any time of the day. Kids are allowed too, as long as we don't drink. I always imagine I'm in a music video, on MTV, and I'm dancing to azonto for millions to see. There's joy and laughter here, always. And the adults, they laugh like the kids. They don't look at us frowning or scolding. They dance with us. And so I hope the obroni will like it too.
We enter the little courtyard and I wave to the owner and a few customers I've seen around many times. I go straight to the middle of the dance floor, and turn to show the obroni some azonto moves. He is stiff like a wooden plank and the other customers find it very funny, but he doesn't seem to care. Soon I can get him to follow the beat though. Some passers-by stopped, probably intrigued to see an obroni dancing azonto. I can see there's a wall of spectators forming around us, and more people are joining on the dance floor. In fact, I've never seen the bar so crowded. My friends will never believe me when I tell them tomorrow!
I'm not sure how long we've danced, but the obroni is starting to sweat. It finally hits me. Maame! Maame must be so worried.
"Obroni! I must get back to my mom now! I think she'll be angry... Please come?"
He follows me through the market alleys, as some stalls are already closing down. We walk fast. The obroni is humming some song I don't recognize. I think azonto worked; it always does! When I'm older, I'll give joy to people through my music and my dancing.
"It's just there!" I say while pointing at Maame's stall.
The obroni's face turns white, whiter, as he suddenly stops his course, his jaw dropping. His arms hang lifeless on his sides. I follow his gaze. He's looking at Maame's stall.
"Obroni, what's going on?"
He doesn't answer and walks in a straight line to Maame's shop, like some spirit controls him.
I'm hot on his heels, and as I reach the stall, he's staring at a dress displayed on the shop front, too high for me to reach. He passes his hand on the smooth, bright pink cloth. It's a dress, with large, fluffy flounces. The exact same dress the obroni's wife was wearing in his picture.
"Obroni! You want this dress? It's one hundred cedis!" Maame's voice is shouting from inside the shop. She is giving him a very high price.
"Maame," I yell, "Obroni is my friend! He bought me lunch and we danced azonto!"
She comes outside and gives me a big frown.
"My boy, I hope you have a better explanation for leaving your own mother to starve all this time! What are you doing with an obroni you don't know?"
Before I panic completely, the obroni speaks.
"Your boy told me during lunch that your dream is to be a seamstress?"
"My mother was a seamstress," Maame says proudly. "She made traditional clothes and her patterns were admired in all of Kumasi." She looks at me. "When my husband died, I had to sell our equipment."
They start talking and Maame tells me to clear the stall and pack her stuff, to be forgiven for making her worry. I start working and try to hear their conversation. The obroni's tone is different when he speaks to Maame—I guess they're having an "adult" conversation.
Soon enough, the stall is clear. Maame and I are waving goodbye to the obroni as he is going back to his hotel. He said he knew the way from the trotro station. The sky is turning pink. Maame and I must hurry and get home. I'm sad the obroni is leaving. Maame is smiling.
"Maame, will Obroni come back? He's my friend, you know. What did you talk about?"
"Yes, Aaron, your friend is coming back tomorrow. We talked about life, about loss, and love, and about dreams. He said he wanted to invest in my business. He'll loan me the money to buy sewing machines, and everything I need to be a seamstress again. I'll tailor beautiful garments for my clients, and they'll value my work. And I'll pay him back."
I search for the obroni's figure in the distance but he has disappeared.
Then I remember.
Suddenly, my throat feels dry.
"Maame! Maame, don't spank me! I, I... I lost your money. I'm sorry! It'll never happen again!"
I look at her with wet eyes, awaiting my punishment. But Maame is still smiling.
"You need to be more careful, Aaron. You know how hard I work to give you a good life. But for today, I forgive you. Because I've learned a beautiful lesson from you! You've shown me that, obroni, obibini, no matter our culture, no matter where we come from, we all have the same heart."
Maame kisses me on the forehead, and I feel relief going through my arms and legs. I'm tired. I hope we'll eat fried plantain tonight. As we begin to walk back home, I grab Maame's hand and start to tell her about my incredible day.