The Mud People: My experience of a Ghanaian modern dance performance

On the final weekend of October 2022, I had the privilege of attending two showings of The Mud People, a dance performance choreographed by Elisabeth Efua Sutherland, at Terra Alta. Despite having spent 10 years of my life as a dance student, I wasn’t confident in my ability to understand an entire contemporary dance performance. But the dancers were talented, the emotional energy was distinct, and I was able to piece together meaning with much less difficulty than I’d anticipated.

The Mud People was a dance performance in three acts, tied together by a central narrative that has layers upon layers of meanings, only a few of which I believe I understood. And yet, I can’t help remarking how thematically coherent it was. The fitting title of the show was referenced in several literal and metaphorical ways, down to the set design. The “stage” was a rectangle of soil which extended forward into a T-shape, and on each end of T’s upper line was an upside-down African broom fanning out behind a mound of peat. Simple, yet elegant.

Image courtesy of Terra Alta

The show opened on four dancers—Mary Addis Ababa Ackwerh, Sunday Whedoku, James Brown, and Aguy Sibailly—apparently dancing in the mud in excellent synchrony and silence. They broke out of synchrony to perform domestic gestures: sweeping, carrying water, pounding fufu, fanning a fire, sleeping, and waking up. The most interesting part of their daily rituals, however, was one that did not seem to be related to domestic productivity at all: a dancer would occasionally position themselves upside-down, with their head entirely obscured by an ambiguous prop. Considering the title of the show, it was hard not to draw connections to the expression of having one’s “head stuck in the sand”, the sister-expression of being “stuck in the mud”, and all their associated connotations of avoidance and resistance to progress. Once the metaphor occurred to me, it became impossible to unsee. All at once, the queerest part of the dancers’ all-black costumes—the fact that their heads were all covered with black fabric—made so much symbolic sense.

There was something strange about the way the dancers moved through their domestic routines and head-in-the-sand rituals. There was a sense of mindlessness and a lack of emotion, and although the choreography, the blocking, and the lights were aesthetically gorgeous, those first moments made the characters seem two-dimensional. I was reminded of a stereotypical painting style: black stick-figures of African people going about mundane tasks, no definition to their facial features, but only, at most, the shapes of their silhouetted bodies and their clothing. Throughout the first act, the basic movements, attire, and narrative felt like something from humankind’s earliest history. Watching it, I felt as though I had time traveled.

Image courtesy of Terra Alta

The dancers’ dispassionate routine began to disintegrate when Sunday’s character doused himself with water and seemed to “wake up” to his potential. His head was uncovered; no longer was he stuck in the mud. His awakening was dramatic, a performance rife with lithe, sweeping, grand motions. Change had arrived. But would it be accepted?

Sunday tried to “wake” someone else up: one of the female dancers, Aguy. The two had a beautiful duet, which spelled hope for another awakening. Alas, Aguy’s reluctance returned in full force when Sunday tried to remove her face covering. She resisted being fully lifted out of the mud and separated herself from Sunday entirely.

Image courtesy of Terra Alta

The music—composed by David Addo Gyan—up until this point, had been rhythmic, simple, heavy with the percussive sounds of sticks and drums, and evenly paced enough to avoid evoking too-strong emotions. However, when Sunday’s stint with Aguy prompted her to team up with the other two—James and Mary—to punish Sunday for his deviance, I could feel sinister energy permeate the music and the entire atmosphere of the show.

The co-conspirators started to create music using their own bodies as instruments as they prowled around in a circle whose circumference was defined by their bodies, patting their thighs and clapping their hands in a way that was reminiscent of Ghanaian childhood games, and yet felt far from playful. Again, dance became a literal representation of an idiomatic expression: where two co-conspirators, James and Mary, literally “put their heads together” as to what to do about Sunday.

Sunday tried desperately to create a sculpture out of mud—what for? Perhaps to leave a legacy, or a last attempt to create something that could help guide his community into progress once he was not available to do so himself—until he was dragged away and violently killed. The two co-conspirators turned into a single, large figure, in a feat of acrobatic prowess and abdominal strength.

The first act ended with a projection on a screen: a graphic of Sunday’s head, surrounded by a halo of earth, which was in turn surrounded by a body of water. The projection changed afterwards to a looping clip of water with a toxic green tint, a riverbed distorting from the motion of the water. In the interim between the first and second acts, a drummer, Akiva, performed onstage while a short lamentation on the screen read:

“OH, I WHO SO WANTED TO OWN SOME EARTH,
AM CONSUMED BY THE EARTH INSTEAD:
BLOOD INTO RIVER
BONE INTO LAND
THE GRAVE RESTORES WHAT FINDS ITS BED.”

At this point, I began to understand one of layers of meaning to this show, beyond being a narrative of an outcast punished for daring to be different: environmental commentary. After reading this quote, Sunday, for me, began to represent the unjust death of African agency regarding our own natural resources. Those of us who try to take charge of our own destinies and the ways in which we use the natural resources that are our birthright and heritage, are deprived of the chance to manage what is ours. And yet, at the end of that lamentation, there is a glimmer of hope. A possibility of regrowth. If “the grave restores what finds its bed”, if even a dead body, rubbish, and waste, can meld with the earth and become fertile again, the essences that they contained could very well be born again in different forms.

Image courtesy of Terra Alta

The second act was the most abstract, the most difficult to understand. Mary emerged onto the stage, wearing white now and dancing with a metal bucket, reminiscent of a crustacean or gastropod. There was something furtive about her movements, making me wonder if she was a small, slow animal, like snail or a tortoise, trying to avoid a predator. She rotated in her shell, and from within the bucket, did a dance with her legs that made her look like an overturned crab. While she did her shell dance, Aguy returned as well, also in white, and her movements were jerky, body making distinct, unnatural angles, as though she was trying to disguise herself as a tree. Her head moved a little like a snake’s or a lizard’s. I got the sense that these characters were not necessarily the same people they were in Act 1. These ones might not even be human.

Aguy’s unnatural motion was unsettling, made worse by the words projected on the screen behind her, an accusatory question: “DID YOU DROWN THE CITIES?” Evidently, whatever happened to Sunday had much larger ramifications than the death of a single man. Somehow, he may have caused a flooding disaster to an extent that could wipe out entire civilizations.

Eventually, a character who did seem human—Elisabeth Efua Sutherland herself, the choreographer—emerged onto the stage, at once dominating the audience’s attention with her movements and introducing a certain fluidity which, hitherto, no other dancer had moved with. Her actions, which flowed smoothly from one to the other, were almost as defined as the dancers’ movements in the opening scene. I could believe, through her gestures, that she was somehow bringing down the sun; I could believe that she was introducing the concept of farming.

Image taken with my iPhone

As Elisabeth danced, Aguy some paces behind her, the text on the screen changed to read, “DID YOU SELL YOUR SOUL FOR GOLD?” This surely had implications related to galamsey, the illegal mining of gold in Ghana, but I struggled to understand how this could be related to the narrative of the performance so far, or the dancing that was occurring onstage with the question as its backdrop. Unable to connect the ongoing narrative to galamsey, I interpreted Elisabeth’s character instead as some sort of teacher, arrived from a distant land, to bring guidance and direction into a place that seemed to have lost both. I could noy help thinking about colonization. Soon, Mary and Aguy became what look like Elisabeth’s “converts,” dancing in a line with Elisabeth as the leader, adapting to the new status quo of fluidity where before, they had been rigid, timid, and inhuman.

This marked the end of Act 2.

Another drumming interlude by Akiva occupied the space between Acts 2 and 3. This time, his drumming was backed by the sounds of the ocean.

The dancers—James, Aguy and Mary, three of the original four—danced their way onto the foreground with their hands over their ears. They moved like a single organism, and repeated their sinister circle dance from Act 1, patting their knees and clapping their hands as the atmospheric audio changed sneakily from ocean waves to sounds of heavy wind. The dancers’ circular movements reflected the energy of wind, as did their flowing white clothing. James, for some reason, still had the black covering over his head, though the two women did not. Perhaps this spoke to his absence from the second act; whatever transformation may have occurred for Aguy and Mary during that time, James did not equally benefit from it.

Image courtesy of Terra Alta

The three dancers descended to the floor like a singular organism, heads resting on one another’s shoulders in a beautifully choreographed pose of unified stability. Sunday had also returned to the stage, the only dancer still in black, lying there as dead as they left him in Act 1.

It seemed that almost all the attempts at transformation for the three living dancers had largely failed. The only changes that stuck, it appeared, were superficial; changes in appearance alone. James picked up Sunday’s limp body, and, astonishingly, attempted to make his corpse repeat the domestic actions executed by the four in Act 1. A word of praise regarding Sunday’s performance: he was extraordinarily good at being dead. His head and limbs moved like there was no life in them at all. It was hard to convince myself as an audience member that the dancer wasn’t actually unconscious, and utterly impossible to not be impressed.

Eventually, James contorted Sunday’s dead body into the upside-down position from the opening act, with Sunday’s head stuck in the sand. Together, the living three enacted a ritual of dumping mud all over Sunday’s corpse. This did not feel like a respectful burial, but like stubbornness and incorrigibility, the desecration of a soul who tried to break out of a stagnant routine, by forcing him, even in death, to follow that routine. In death, the stripping away of agency was made complete.

By the end of the show, I was shaken and provoked. The conclusion of The Mud People simultaneously prompted self-reflection and reflections on the Ghanaian citizenry: Are we mud people—stuck in our ways and murderously hostile towards members of our communities who see wisdom in doing things differently? Are we taking charge of, and care of, our environment, or have we let greed take the lead? The performance’s answers to these questions, in my opinion, were far from optimistic, and unfortunately, rightly so.

Image taken with my iPhone

-Akotowaa

Whispers Down the Lane: an immersive, wholesome experience

I’ve been to several Gallery 1957 exhibitions since the galleries opened, but none of them have impressed me as much as Whispers Down the Lane, a solo exhibition by Araba Opoku, who is, in my opinion, some sort of prodigy. After seeing the exhibition once, I was so impressed by it that I had to memorialize my experience of it in writing and see it a second time.

The Spider Kid standing before the chalkboard outside the exhibiton

One of the greatest things about Whispers Down the Lane is that it is intentionally designed to be a truly immersive experience. It is too unique to resort to the usual experience of walking through a white-walled room to look at a collection of paintings. As a matter of fact, this exhibition starts even before you walk into the gallery.

Just outside the exhibition space, there is a green chalkboard that has become almost a more iconic backdrop for me-too-I-saw-the-exhibition-some pictures than the paintings themselves. The chalkboard is not only a title poster but a mind map showing, presumably, the thoughts that went into the conception of the project. Because I’m a sucker for lexical scrutiny, I notice a few typos in the mind map, like “cobrebs” for cobwebs, and the word corrugated, spelled with only one “r”. Surprisingly enough, what these misspellings give me is a sense of authenticity. These are the sorts of mistakes one makes when one is in a creative frenzy, trying to write down as many ideas as one can, as fast as they can, without sparing much thought for correctness. The chalkboard makes me feel like I am looking at a copy of the real, deliberately unedited sheet of paper on which Opoku penned down her very first ideas. Besides which, it is just so aesthetically pleasing, from the hand-drawn aesthetic to the green-pink-white color scheme, to how it is framed with palm fronds on either side. The sprawling, spider web arrangement of the map feels well into the exhibition’s surprisingly coherent, though large, set of themes.

The mind map of a chalkboard just outside the exhibition

Entering the exhibition space feels like stepping into a fluid, surreal, possibly underwater universe. Nowhere in sight are the classic white walls of modern museums. Instead, deep green drapery serve as the backdrop to all the paintings, and hang from the ceiling in billowy, inverted pleats. Begging for a visitor’s attention as soon as they walk in is a screen, directly opposite the entrance, on which a short film plays on a loop, made even more inviting by the small arrangement of velvet green beanbag chairs a short distance from the screen. Or at least, I think it’s a screen. It isn’t until my second viewing of the exhibition, when I really take my time to go through the list of paintings on the exhibition’s QR code-linked webpage, that I realize the “screen” is itself a painting listed in the exhibition: I Saw a World Without a Moon, acrylic on canvas. Indeed, on closer inspection, I discover that the irregularities on the “screen” which are reminiscent of the tiles at the bottom of a fancy pool, are painted and deliberate. This blows my mind.

Before allowing myself to become too immediately enticed by the film, I insist on exploring the installation tucked away to the left, near the entrance of the exhibition space. I can’t lie, I am astonished to find a whole sink inside an exhibition space, but it is so appropriate and so artfully done that I have to respect it. (A certain owner of a certain social media company could take notes, shade intended.) An arrangement of potted plants beneath the sink gives a sense of the outdoors, even in the air-conditioned gallery, further complemented by the basin, buckets and empty gallons around the sink. Simultaneously subtle and obvious, the installation speaks more to the theme of water in a way that feels remarkably grounded in the Ghanaian context. Behind the sink installation is another green chalkboard, which contains words from the exhibition’s curator, Katherine Finerty, bookended by snippets of a poetic passage presumably written by Opoku herself. This chalkboard is also loaded with themes that prime you, orienting your mind to properly absorb what you are about to see: midnight and the moon; water scarcity in Ghana; sci-fi and fantasy TV; dreams; a childhood whispering game; upside-down orientations and rotation.

Sink installation just inside the exhibition space

Whispers Down the Lane has probably the most cohesive set of paintings I have ever seen in an exhibition. Each painting is remarkably similar to (although quite distinct from) the next one, because of the consistent colors and swirling brushstrokes, and the common elements and objects in the paintings. In each one, I see a creepy forest at midnight. The most identifiable elements, for me, are brown tree trunks, predominantly green-blue-yellow foliage, dark-feathered birds, and black stars. Nevertheless, each painting is abstract enough that two people can interpret the same paintings completely differently. The ambiguous swirls and blends of shapes and colors really do reflect for me what dreaming feels like: the conscious part of your brain knows that this is too surreal to be reality, but according to dream logic, and the specific context of the dream (or, in this case, Opoku’s speculative universe), everything makes sense. At the same time, the swirls and blends remind me of the distortion of objects and reflections caused by rippling, swirling water in the real world, especially in the nighttime, under the illumination of the moon.

If you move through the exhibition too quickly, it could feel dizzying, as though you are seeing the very same painting over and over again, but slightly different each time. The same scene of the woods at night, reoriented; turned upside down or sideways, or spliced into pieces and reassembled in a different configuration. Although the explanation for this is written plain and bold in chalk, it takes me until my second, more unrushed visit to understand what Whispers Down the Lane means. Because I didn’t grow up calling it that; I grew up calling it “Chinese Whispers.” Picture a group of children in a line. The first one comes up with a phrase and whispers it into the ear of the child beside them. The child whispers what they hear into the next child’s ear, and on and on, until the last child has to say aloud what they heard—often an incredible distortion of what the first child said, phonetically similar, yet absolute gibberish. Now, instead of a group of children in a line, picture a group of paintings, and there you have Opoku’s collection of paintings.

For the record, my favorite painting is the one called On a Voyage into Blue’s Euporie (one that several others are automatically drawn to, if the pictures I’ve seen online are any indication!), and a close second is The Pillars of Galilea.

The exhibition’s accompanying film, directed by Christine Boateng, is slow and meditative. The narrative—two sisters waking up at dawn to fetch as much water as possible—is at once mundane and beautiful, a poetic representation of a practice that is a quintessential part of the modern Ghanaian resident’s experience. The theme of water scarcity is not explored as a tragedy but as a nostalgic, dreamlike, collective, and bonding experience. The sense of nostalgia, in particular, is heightened by Claudia Owusu’s poem, narrated by the director, Christine, in lines such as these: “There was a time the water came, and we filled buckets into neat lines. Elbows locked and knees set to life and carry all that came with it.” I can’t help thinking about the experience of fetching water before sunrise in boarding school and some of the severe water shortages we experienced in those times. And indeed, there’s a sense in Claudia’s poem that flowing water is the exception rather than the norm. In the film, Opoku and her sister fill an almost absurd number of buckets, which, I think, is part of the commentary: you never know when water is going to be flowing again, so you might as well milk every drop you can, now.

Like everything else about the exhibition, the film is loaded with themes and a distinctive atmosphere. Everything that occurs in the film feels like it is happening in a dream, even the most regular, real-life things, like clothes drying on a line, or a Polytank running out of water. Some of the more out-there elements, like Araba submerged in a full tub of water, give visuals to the idea, planted by Claudia’s poem, of dreaming as submersion: a literal metaphor, very similar to how it feels to be in the exhibition space itself. There are a few editing elements that make me smile, like how, in the beginning of the film, the sound of almost every single drop of water coincides perfectly with Araba blinking herself awake.

By the time the film ends, I feel a sense of warmth, not only from how the film is paced and edited, but because of the beautiful, unspoken camaraderie between the two sisters, and how, in settling back down around sunrise for a morning nap, they give off a sense of satisfaction from a necessary job well done. I, too, after watching the film a handful of times, finally leave the gallery for the second time, satisfied at the wholesome, immersive experience of Whispers Down the Lane.

-Akotowaa 🕸️

Streets Are Hot: 3 Vignettes of Accra

When a Ghanaian tells you streets are hot, you know they’re not just talking about the temperature. Every vignette in this post is a lightly embellished retelling of a very true story.

Note: Each vignette first appeared as a Twitter Note. Each one is hyperlinked in a heading.

Vignette #1

A man sits on some steps in the shadow of a shop’s roof extension, hungry and sheltering from the threat of his own sweat. He is probably hungry. He is probably broke. Streets are hot, and he probably knows that intimately.

You don’t even see him, at first. You are thinking about how you would rather be at home, asleep. Alas, it is primetime to be “in town” on a quick but necessary errand. You’ve found yourself a rare, sweet spot within the rhythms of a bustling Accra, during which the facilities you require are open, even as the streets on which businesses are squished like irregular sardines are unusually free. This part of town is unusually quiet at this time. Just as well, because you only came to town to do one thing, which ought to last five minutes and which, today, will not take two hours.

You are tired, hungry, and very close to broke. But this does not matter to the man in the shade, because you are driving a car, and as far as he’s concerned, that makes you potentially the biggest business opportunity he will have today.

Therefore, as you approach, his droopy eyes perk up. He jumps to his feet, donning a reflector jacket that seems to have materialized out of nowhere. He has eyes for you and only you. He rushes to direct your parking as though you are royalty in distress.

This is about the least distressed you have ever felt in this part of town. You are about to be only the second of two vehicles in a car park that could easily hold over twenty more. But from the enthusiasm with which the reflector jacket man runs and gestures, one would think you were attempting to park in a space so packed that an inch in the wrong direction would result in the most disastrous of scratches to the most unforgiving driver the city has ever seen.

You sigh at the fellow’s theatrics and park in one swift move, perfectly within the white lines. On another day, parking in this same spot would have taken you five moves—or five minutes.

You cut the engine and emerge from the car. The man in the reflector jacket beams at you with all thirty-two and greets you with a colloquial honorific you suspect you are too young for. You greet him back in a flat tone, partly because you are exhausted, and partly because you are secretly envious of how much energy he can muster up for his hustle, even on a day like this.

You go off to attend to your errand, which you complete well within five minutes. When you return, the fellow in the reflector jacket is nowhere to be seen, which is just as well, because even as a self-appointed parking attendant there really isn’t any work for him to do today.

As you pull your car out with utmost ease and start to accelerate away, you catch a glimpse through your mirrors of the reflector jacket man dashing out of a streetside not too far away, where he was apparently ingratiating himself with the driver of some other lone car.

You wince as he starts trying to run after your car, but you are already too far away and accelerating too much to bother turning back now. Still in the mirrors, you can see a total reversal on the man’s face from the beam with which he greeted you earlier. Now, his expression, which you only glimpse for a second, suggests that you just might be the rudest and most ungrateful person he has ever met in his life.

As his figure shrinks in your view, he performs a number of rude gestures towards you, the thrusts of his hands packed with vehemence. You wonder if he genuinely believes that you owe him; that you’ve cheated him by leaving him without paying for something you did not need him for. Eventually, you conclude that what he believes is likely not as important to him as it is to you. All that matters is that streets are hot, your paths crossed, and he still got no cedis out of you, which is the greatest affront imaginable to him in this economy.


Vignette #2

A man stands in the shadows of a bank at the corner of what was once an exclusively residential street. You turn your car gently into that street, vaguely noticing the fellow, but paying him no mind as you cruise past him to park halfway down the road. You cut the engine, right beside the gutter of your partner’s house. You text your partner that you’ve arrived. The text delivers but is not immediately read, and so you wait.

It is a cool night in Accra, and this evening, you are driving in more comfort than usual. You have borrowed your mother’s car for the night: a sleek, recently-washed Nissan that surrounds you with an air of affluence you do not fully possess. The historically bourgeois street on which you find yourself probably adds to this aesthetic. You do not consider how these factors may have influenced the events to follow, until a much later post-mortem. As things stand now, you see no harm in getting out of your car to wait for your partner to let you into the house.

In the time it has taken you to park and exit your car, the man from the shadows of the bank has walked down the street. He now approaches you with an intentionality that makes you wonder if you are supposed to know him.

He stops before you and greets you with an exceptionally polite gesture that is a little too self-conscious to be a full-blown bow. It’s an impressive paradox, how well his intentionality is combined with bashfulness. You greet him back cautiously, in a measured tone, certain now that you do not know him.

The man, infusing his slightly accented voice with generous amounts of supplication, apologizes for bothering you at this time of night. It’s just that… well… “It’s so emba-razz-ing,” he bemoans.

He proceeds to spin you a barely comprehensible tale about how his car has broken down. (There are no other cars in the vicinity, broken-down or otherwise.) Now his unusable car is at some place. (Is it a workshop? You’re not sure, but there are no workshops close by. How did he get here, then? You don’t ask.) He really needs to get to some place, and the place is far from your current location. (Ashaiman? Ashaley Botwe? You’re not sure, and he’s not good enough with the nuances of Ghanaian pronunciation to make it clear.) Now his wife is waiting for him at some other place you can’t catch the name of, and, well… “It’s just so emba-razz-ing,” he repeats. “So emba-razz-ing.” But he really needs to meet his wife and get to the place, so if you could please assist him with transport…?

It must be a slow day for your brain because you think he’s trying to ask you for a lift. You let him know that unfortunately, you are meeting someone, so you don’t have the requisite time to take him anywhere. In hindsight, you will wonder if this man thought you were stupid as he repeated, with extra careful deliberation, “No, I mean transport. Transport.”

And that is when it finally clicks for you.

The man continues, “So if you can spare something, anything…?”

Earlier this very day, you mentioned to your partner your intentions to be much more intentional about how you spend and give away money. The latter is particularly relevant because several acquaintances who have you in their Contacts list seem to consider you their resident bank; the person whom they call to ask for money because they know you are kind enough to give it, even when their communication with you is largely limited to their moments of financial need. Despite your own humble finances, you always give when you have enough to spare, because you subscribe to the philosophy of kindness, and because you understand: streets are hot.

But streets are hot for you too, and you’re not convinced that you have enough to spare for a complete stranger. You tell the embarrassed man, regretfully, that you have no money on you, which is… almost true. You’re barely carrying any cash; certainly not enough to spare.

The man is undaunted by your declaration. While never once dropping his demeanor of abashed determination, he informs you that he will accept mobile money. But please. Something… Anything.

You release a sigh of resignation. You have never been good at shrugging off a person in need. Your partner has still not come out of their house. Besides, you can’t see any smooth way to get out of this—and so you bring out your phone and begin a mobile money transaction.

“Is twenty cedis okay?” you ask, tap-tapping on your cracked phone screen.

The man barely misses a beat before imploring you, “Make it thaarty, make it thaarty.”

You hold back another sigh and change the figure you have already typed in. It is around this moment that your partner comes out of their house, slightly alarmed to see you looking like you’re doing a shady business deal with some guy they’ve never seen.

You acknowledge your partner’s presence, and the man does as well, not bothering to explain who he is or why he’s there. Your partner waits in silent confusion as you complete your transaction. You ask the man for his number and enter it. A many-lettered Yoruba first and last name appear on the screen within a prompt asking you for confirmation. You show it to the man who eagerly—but bashfully, always bashfully—verifies the number.

You complete the transaction, and the man proceeds to thank you with a quiet profuseness. You do not notice, in the moment, how the man strategically avoids eye contact with your partner, who is clearly suspicious.

A few moments later, when you are finally inside the house, you find it increasingly difficult to shake the uneasy sensation in the pit of your stomach. You tell your partner that you fear you may just have gotten scammed. You recount the events in full, including as many details of the man’s very confusing story as you can. By the end, your partner’s eyes are full of doleful amusement.

“Yeah,” they drawl. “You just got scammed out of thirty cedis.”


Vignette #3

You have had a long and stressful week, with most of your frustrations proudly sponsored by the country you call home. The inefficiency of your bank, the too-sluggish progress of your work, the increasing prices of fuel and food, various family-related stressors, your bedroom ceiling being clawed apart by vengeful crows that you must have offended in some past life… The list goes on.

But it’s the weekend now, and after taking care of your various washing, dusting, sweeping and scrubbing chores, you are ready to enjoy what’s left of your Saturday. You’re about to meet up with some friends at an arts event which, thankfully, does not cost money.

Accra’s heat is unrelenting at this time of afternoon, and you drive to the event venue with your windows rolled up and your AC on. For the moment, temporary escape from Accra’s oppressive heat takes precedence over saving money on fuel.

Sometimes, you wonder how everyone else stands it, especially those who make their living on the streets—walking, hawking, running after cars while carrying loads… Their hustle is relentless and, while admirable, it is another reason you prefer to keep your windows rolled up. Whoever you give a chance will get as close to your face as they can, never knowing or caring about your resolution not to spend a cedi on anything you haven’t pre-determined to spend money on, including their wares and services. Streets, after all, are hot, and you splurge enough on fuel as it is.

All you are trying to focus on today is getting to your destination, hassle-free… and then you hit a red light. The people who must, some way and somehow make a living, descend on the stopped cars.

If there is one brand of hustle that you hate, it is the rush to provide services unasked-for, fast enough to blindside you and therefore trap you into an obligation to provide compensation for work that cannot be undone. You hate it because it works too well on your emotions. You’re begging me for money now that you’ve already done the thing; how am I to refuse you now, without feeling like a wicked person?

And that is why your whole body tenses up when one of such legendary hustlers, a window washer boy, runs up to your car. Before you can blink, he has splashed filthy water on your windscreen and started to wipe. Your reaction is visceral. You wave your hands, clap your palms, bang on your steering wheel, shake your head, glare at him, say “no” and “please leave me alone” in as many ways as body language will allow, with the barrier of your car’s sealed windows between you.

The window washer begins to beg and plead, saying words you can’t and don’t want to hear. He moves from the front of your car to the driver’s seat window, leaning on your car, getting as close to your face as the glass will allow, and increasing the profuseness of his supplication. Through it all, you stare steadfastly ahead, trying to make your face a mask of stone. All the cedis you tend to dash out to people on the streets, they accumulate, and you’re tired of it.

You expect the window washer to move on to his next victim in the time he has left, but for some reason, it’s like this young man has meant you paa. He remains beside your window throughout the duration of the red light, and his response to your lack of response is that his pleading transitions to insults. Determined as you are not to look directly at him, you observe all his vehemence from the corner of your eye.

He continues his rant at you for as long as it takes for the traffic light to turn green, and that is when he makes his move. As the cars ahead of you gear up to speed off, the window washer splashes the remainder of his filthy water all over the left side of your windscreen—the side that you have to look through as a driver—and runs away.

You are shocked out of your mind, but you have no choice but to obey the traffic and move along.

It takes you another few moments to conclude that you should probably do as much as you can about your abysmal visibility while driving.

You try to squirt water onto your windscreen, but none comes out. Great.

You resort directly to the windshield wipers, but fate is not on your side today. You are forced to remember that one of the stressful things that happened during your week was that the rubber portion of the wiper on the driver’s side fell off onto the street as you were driving in the midst of a rainstorm, and you never had the time to get the wiper fixed. Now, the plastic of the left moves impotently over the windscreen, never making contact with the screen itself. You turn the wipers off, defeated. There is nothing to be done until you are parked at your destination, with access to soap and water.

For the rest of the journey, you are a hazard on the streets, struggling to navigate the road through a view of crusting, murky brown water. You are forced to admit it: the window washer won this round.

🕸️

-Akotowaa

How I Lost My Nose Ring (and Other Related Events)

This, unfortunately, is my disability origin story.

The Buildup

It is November 2018. I’m going in and out of the most intense mental health meltdown of my life, and, like any self-respecting young person in a psychological crisis, I decide to alter my appearance.

For the past few months, I have been studying abroad at UCT in South Africa, the country in which my best friend at the time is also living. On this day, in the middle of November, I have one final exam paper to write. Once that is over with and I’m back in my Cape Town apartment, I head out with my now-ex-bestie into the town with two agenda items:

  1. Dye my hair.
  2. Pierce my nose.

In a matter of hours, both goals have been achieved, and I am belatedly freaking out about what my parents and grandparents are going to think when they see me. I eventually calm down because I am a badass, and because if they had no choice but to deal with the tattoo I got earlier that year, they will find a way to deal with this other stuff as well.

Self-portrait, featuring the nose piercing and the half-bleached hair, circa November 2018

Speaking of telling my parents things, something I have told them is that there is no way I am going back to school in California next semester. If they send me back to school without the mental health break I need, I assure them I will not come back alive. They agree to let me stay at home for a semester, and I make arrangements with my California school accordingly.

Sometime after this decision has been made, a commission comes my way. A singer/actress I know has recommended me to a producer she’s worked with, who is looking for a writer to do some screenwriting. I accept the job, because I’m going to be back in Ghana for several months and it would be cool to have something to occupy myself with, right?

Unfortunately, there are several factors I fail to properly consider.

Before November is out, I’m back in Ghana, in my parents’ house. One would think, now that my semester is done, and I’m on break, and I look like a righteous badass, that my mental health would improve somewhat. Alas, imbalanced chemicals can be extremely stubborn, and I am as bad as ever, for several weeks even after I return. I often sleep for close to 20 hours out of every 24. When I am conscious, I am often crying. It’s as if, by the time I wake up, I am already in tears. I consistently interrupt my mother’s affairs with tearful declarations that I do not want to be alive anymore. While all this is happening, my screenwriting project is sitting there, waiting for me to get myself together. The client wants it done by end of January, or perhaps February. The new year is approaching, and I still can’t bring myself to want to exist, much less write.

Deep into January, when I am still showing no signs of improvement, my mother coerces me into psychotherapy, and the therapist, in turn, nudges me towards a psychiatrist who puts me on antidepressants. With concurrent therapy and medication, I start to slowly feel like a human being again, as opposed to a dead thing in animated flesh.

Maybe, I think, I can try to be serious about this screenwriting gig.

It is so much harder than expected.

First of all, I am a complete novice to this storytelling form and related software. New things take time to get comfortable with, and besides, I am a slow, deliberate writer. But there is so much pressure. Some of it is from the client. They want the thing by the fast-approaching deadline, and my pace prompts them to frequently check in. I already have anxiety. Every time I get a message from them, my heart falters. Every request for an update is interpreted by my brain as a blasting, even if it is requested in the kindest possible tone. Each set of notes I get on a script makes me think, “Oh God, they think I’m not good enough. They think I’m a trash writer and it’s probably true.” These thoughts come to me regardless of how positive their feedback may be.

Once I start working in earnest, I realize how much I underestimated the amount of work it takes to write an entire season’s worth of a web series by oneself. Goodness, people have whole writers’ rooms for this sort of thing! And here I am trying to do this all on my lonesome—apart from my client’s editorial input—during my first experience with the artform, no less! Hectic.

Through my depression-corrupted thought patterns, it is impossible for me to see that these conditions are among the many reasons I should give more grace to myself. Instead, all I can think is that the reason I’m not doing this work as easily or quickly as my client desires is that I’m deficient and useless.

The slowness of my pace drives me up the wall. Never mind that 13 episodes is plenty, that the revision process is long, that I am fighting for clarity of thought through a fog of mental illness each time I sit down to write, or that I’m unfairly comparing myself to the lightning-quick brain and production rate of my client, who is a veteran in this artform and industry and is simply a very different sort of creative worker than I am.

My self-reprehension filters down from my attitude towards this professional writing assignment and further into my feelings around my own personal writing habits. My portfolio is scant—if we’re talking about writing that I consider even close to professional-grade quality—and I hate it! I think of all the brilliant ideas I have that I rarely manage to turn into completed pieces of writing because my work ethic is basically nonexistent. Indeed, I am always using the busyness of school, or demands of work, or the incapacitation of mental illness as excuses. None of these would stop me if I were truly serious. I say I want to be a professional writer, but here I am sleeping and crying because I’m tired and sad. Tiredness and sadness don’t get you published, idiot! Here I am taking at least three days each to produce 15 pages of screenplay because I’m agonizing about “taking my time” and “doing it well.” Lame cop-outs from an incompetent writer.

I chastise myself: If you want to be a writer, you will need to do the work, no matter what your mind state or physical circumstances. You will need to be ruthless with yourself, show no mercy, work like you’re on crack. And you deserve to be punished for all the life and time you have wasted so far. Your punishment shall double as your atonement. You will translate stories in your head onto the page until you are either done, insane, or you drop dead. Don’t ask me any questions, just start writing, you useless, lazy maggot.

This dangerous self-talk, fueled by years of pent-up anger and frustration at myself leads me to pick a story idea—there, I have one—and decide to put it to paper in the most merciless writing process I have ever subjected myself to.

I start to write words down: a vomit draft of a brand-new speculative fiction story, the idea of which has been simmering in my brain for at least two years. My vomit drafts are almost always traditionally written, in longhand, with a pen and a notebook, and this story is not an exception. I break in a new notebook just for this undertaking. I write. And write. And write.

I am hungry, but I do not eat. Only writers who can actually write well and produce finished stories deserve to eat, therefore, I do not deserve to eat. I am exhausted. I do not sleep. Only writers who do a sufficient day’s work each day deserve to call themselves “tired,” deserve to sleep. I do not deserve same, and thus, must write until my eyes bleed.

I am sure I get headaches. I am too mad to pay attention to them. Who cares if I am physically miserable? Punishment isn’t supposed to be enjoyable, and I tell myself I do not care if I burst a whole blood vessel, but this story must get written. The era of starting and stopping without finishing is over.

I lose my mind. For several days, I am in some sort of trance. My body is decaying, my mind is deteriorating, all I can think about is that I must finish a story for once in my life, and if it hurts, it’s because I deserve it, and if it kills me, it’s only because I was never a cut out for my own dreams.

At this time, my house is not conducive for any intensive writing or studying. I do not have a desk; the closest thing to an adequate workstation is the dining table, which is often scattered with baked cakes, paper and rubber packaging, and other paraphernalia my mother needs to run her solo baking business. Besides, the blender and radio are constantly running, and it is a hassle to hear my own thoughts from the dining room.

But I must write, and so I write, everywhere I can. On my bedroom floor, on my bed, on the TV room couch, on the living room sofas. Everything is uncomfortable or requires some weird contortion of my body so that my right hand can continue peppering page after page with feverish words. When my right hand gets so strained that I can hardly use it for a while, I switch to my left hand. But my left hand’s writing is not as developed, and the slowness worsens my frustration, so I can bear it only briefly until I force my right hand back into torturous action.

Some part of me recognizes through the mental frenzy that I need a writing desk. I ask my parents for one, as a “birthday present,” but it does not arrive before June.

Interlude: Related incident. Flashback to Class 6.

I am ten or eleven years old, still in primary school. Perhaps I am too old to still be messing with the new monkey bars on our school’s playground, but I do not particularly care. And, as with everything I do, I am intense with my playing. I swing and swing, throughout break time, straining the muscles in my arms and stressing the skin of my palms on the metal rods as I pivot with my feet dangling above the ground.

I don’t even realize how much damage I am causing until the bell rings, signaling the end of break time, and I finally get off the bars, look at my hands, and my palms are rubbed raw and bleeding. They sting badly, but I’m a tough kid, and I hurt myself all the time.

I think I wash my hands quickly in the bathroom before returning to class for French. But, back at my classroom desk, I try to hold my pen in my hand and hiss as it makes contact with the sore rawness. I try to hold the pen in my left hand, and though that palm is suffering too, the pain is much more bearable.

It is in this moment that it strikes me as completely absurd that I can only write with one hand. Why are we socialized to be so dependent on a single hand? How are we supposed to take notes when the monkey bars tear up our right palms more than our left?

I resolve to fix this problem for myself. For the remainder of my pre-teen years, I stress myself and nearly all my teachers out, with my insistence on teaching myself how to write with my left. I am intense with this too. I force myself to take as many classroom notes as I can with my left hand, and it makes me dreadfully slow, to my own chagrin. The frustration only fuels me to try harder. I submit assignments that were written with my left hand, teachers complain of illegibility. I do not stop. By Form 2, at least one teacher is telling me that he likes my left handwriting more than my right. (“How the turn tables,” as the Tik Tok generation says.)

In the present day, I can write quite fluidly with my left hand. Some people call me ambidextrous, although I would not use the title on myself, since my right hand is still better and faster at nearly everything than my left.

End of interlude.

Back to 2019 and my self-inflicted punishment.

It is now about June or July. My screenwriting commission is obviously way past its January/February deadline, and I am sure my client is tired as hell of me. I get a new writing desk, but my body is so used to its bad habits that they persist.

My story is not yet complete, but I have made so much progress and written so much that the notebook I broke in is nearly full now, from cover to cover. I have, perhaps, one scene left, and I know exactly how this story is going to end.

I am still not at ease, and I still have my screenwriting project waiting for me, but I am beyond spent, and so wired that I can neither sleep nor continue to write, and so I recline on the TV room couch with my Kindle and try to read. The book is A Court of Thorns and Roses, by Sarah J. Maas. I don’t yet love this fantasy-romance series, of which this is the first book, but by book 2, it would have thoroughly sucked me in. For now, though, I am reading passively enough to recognize that something strange is happening in my body.

The muscles in my legs are twitching. I feel them. Calf. Thigh. Left leg. Right leg. Different parts of each leg. A twitch every 10 to 20 seconds, on average. The twitching isn’t abrupt. It is slow and, for some reason, sinuous. I don’t understand it. It creeps me out. I decide to look at it while it’s happening. I put my Kindle down and sit up a bit to observe.

I am watching my own body do things I have not commanded it to do, and it makes my skin crawl. The twitches in my legs look like animated earthworms living inside my flesh, making humps, sliding forward a few millimeters at a time, flattening, then reappearing elsewhere on my legs to repeat the motions. I have to wonder if I’m going mad.

I don’t want to think about myself going mad, so I go back to reading. But it’s only a few moments later that I notice something else that has, in fact, been going on for a while: my fingers are twitching, too!

From time to time, without my permission, a finger lifts itself off the Kindle and returns after a second or two. I can see it happening, but I can’t feel a thing. The fingers of my right hand do this more often than those on my left. I am flabbergasted at how any of this could be happening, and I can no longer concentrate on my book.

My next action is hazy in my memories, but I think I decide to distract my thoughts from my body with something more cognitively demanding: a return to my personal punishment. This is not a good idea.

An hour or so after I continue to strain my already stressed body, the twitching is no longer periodic. It is continuous, and now I have totally lost the ability to keep my fingers still.

My ten digits have decided that I am bloody Beethoven, and now they are moving like they are playing some symphony on an air piano, and they are not stopping, and at this point, I actually cannot tell if this is reality or not, and I am silently freaking the eff out.

Is it time to repent for daring to usurp God as judge by meting out punishment to myself?

I push the pause button on my purgatory. It’s about 2 a.m. I shouldn’t even be functioning right now. I finally permit myself to go to bed, at least for a little while.

Sagaa. I can’t sleep. And for the love of God, my fingers won’t stop playing air piano! To make things worse, I now feel this buzzing in my brain that could be anxiety, or sleep deprivation, or none of the above. It’s like Brownian motion, making it impossible to calm down enough to go unconscious, despite my exhaustion. I rise from my bed and pace around my room.

It’s 3 a.m. I am on the verge of a panic attack, and whenever I am not consciously moving my fingers, they are moving themselves. In that moment, this is the most terrifying thing that has ever happened to me.

I’m crying. I go to my parents’ room and wake them up.

My father books an appointment for the next morning with the only neurologist he knows in Accra. Neither of us trusts my twitchy body to drive, and so my father commits to taking me to the hospital and tells me to sleep until morning. I can’t. He gives me a sleeping tablet he claims will knock me out for at least four hours. I’m barely out for three, and when I open my eyes again, it feels like I never slept, only that I blinked out of existence for a second, and have suddenly reappeared. I’m unrested. And my fingers are still playing air piano.

I try a few things, like submerging my hands in cool water. Submerging my hands in warm water. Putting ice on my hands. I’m still Beethoven and still losing my mind. Eventually, it is time to go see the neurologist, and my father comes to drive me away.

I cannot trust my hands to fill the patient registration forms at the hospital, and so my father fills them for me. When it’s my turn, the doctor sees me and tests my reflexes, finds things lacking. He asks me several questions and tells me that my problem certainly looks like a nerve problem; what he is unsure about is whether it is a brain problem.

Naturally, as soon as I hear this, I conclude that I am probably on the verge of death. Ever since I read Michael Grant’s BZRK series as an early teen, I have harbored a persistent, somewhat irrational fear of getting an aneurysm and not knowing about it until it explodes and kills me. I don’t know if aneurysms can make your fingers and leg muscles spasm out of your control, but at this point, the doctor is literally speculating about brain damage, so I am one hundred percent freaking out regardless.

The doctor orders that I take some tests, including an MRI, so he can analyze me properly. My father takes me to a medical imaging facility. If you’ve ever had to do medical imaging, perhaps you will recognize, at this point, how my nose ring comes into the picture.

The medical staff inform me that no metal whatsoever is allowed into the MRI machine. The watch comes off. A staff member points to my nose, and I am genuinely startled; it has been about eight months since I got the ring put in, and I am so used to it that I often forget it is there. I’ve never deliberately taken it off, and it’s just classic that the first time I have to perform this delicate process, it’s when I can barely control my own fingers.

I try, multiple times, in multiple ways, to unscrew the stud, and fail. Some aunties in the waiting room/reception of this medical imaging facility watch me struggle and they seize their chance to moralize about piercings to me, their words coated in kindness and concern. One of them expressly tells me that once I get it out, I should never put it back. In the context of a potential medical emergency, I see her logic, but I still don’t like it.

Eventually, I resign myself to asking my father for help. He returns to the reception from wherever he went, and in about five seconds, unscrews the stud—something I had not been able to accomplish in fifteen minutes.

I put the stud in my wallet and go in for the MRI. I have to wait a day for the results.

Hours after I get back home, I need another sleeping tablet to fall asleep. I am so shaken, so anxious, so close to being convinced that I could die at any second once the unconfirmed thing in my brain bursts open. My purgatory is suddenly the least important thing in the world. How can I think about my story when I’m literally dying? Ei, God, when I said I would write until I dropped dead, why did you take me so literally?

So I don’t write—but I also don’t put my nose ring back in. After all, what if further tests are needed?

The next day, I get my results, and my father takes me back to the neurologist. The neurologist mounts my medical images on the wall and explains my results to me.

I do not have a brain tumor—thank you, God! But here’s what I do have: decayed spinal cartilage.

Here’s what I understand from the doctor’s explanation: Years of writing longhand, anywhere and everywhere, in atrocious posture, and overworking my hands, have led to the decay of the cartilage that separates the bones in my spine from the nearby nerves. The cartilage is frayed from individual vertebrae rubbing against each other too often. Now, with little cartilage to serve as a buffer, the bones of my spine are making contact with the nerves in my neck where they should not, and now the nerves in my hands, which are directly connected to the nerves in my neck, are receiving signals when they should not. Hence the involuntary movement.

The explanation is followed by recommendations, solutions, and prescriptions. I will have to allow my body to re-grow the cartilage in my spine. This can be aided by eating a lot of green things, including kontomire and seaweed, plus daily calcium supplements. In the meantime, I will have to ease up on my hands, especially my right. The doctor thinks it’s great that I am able to write with both hands, tells me that I must try to use my left whenever I can and allow my right to rest more often. Henceforth, I am forbidden from doing any writing anywhere and in any position that isn’t a proper, flat desk and chair. (“You see, that’s why I went to buy you that desk,” says my father in front of the doctor, as if it was all his idea.) The neurologist also recommends that I resume regular swimming. It is an excellent way to exercise my neck without the pressure of the weight of the rest of my body. In the meantime, some nerve medication should help to put my hands back under control.

I enter a daze that will take me days to come out of. I have written my way into corporal degeneration. Even for me, that is a new level of intensity.

My father and I stop by the pharmacy to fulfill my prescriptions before we go home.

Physically and emotionally, I am beyond exhausted. Perhaps that is why I wait yet another day before I even think about putting my nose ring back in. But when I try to put it in from the top, it goes only a little way before it stops. I am baffled. I try to put it in from inside my nose, but I can’t even find the hole from inside. Impossible!

I try again, several times from the top, where I can, at least, still see the hole, but I press until my eyes start to water, and the ring continues to be blocked by tough flesh, never breaking through to the other side.

I can’t believe it, but it’s true: a healed, 8-month-old piercing closed up in 3 days because nose skin is, apparently, miracle skin.

I am furious with my traitorous nose. So furious that, even when my father sees how upset I am about the closing and offers to take me somewhere to re-pierce it, I refuse. After what it’s just done to me, my nose doesn’t even deserve to be adorned. I withhold from it that privilege.

Epilogue: Conclusion of events, as of 2022.

The screenplays eventually got finished, seven or so months past the deadline. I disrupted my client’s production schedule so thoroughly that the window for producing and shooting it passed, and they were forced to move on with their schedules for other, more pressing projects. Now I am not sure if the scripts I worked on will ever turn into anything concrete. Alas, I am past caring. I’m just glad I made it out of that commission alive.

The story I wrote during my purgatory frenzy was eventually finished and painstakingly revised, and is, to this date, one of the best pieces of writing I have ever produced. It gained me an honorable mention in the Writers of the Future awards, 2021, 3rd quarter. I am still hoping to sell it somewhere, and so I don’t know when it will finally be available for public consumption.

These days, I write almost exclusively at desks. I still do vomit drafts primarily in longhand, because that is just how my brain works. I swim (almost) regularly. My nerves still twitch from time to time, very occasionally, when I forget to regulate my tendency to over-write and abandon my swimming practice for too long.

And I still have not resolved to get my nose re-pierced, because I’m still lowkey kind of upset.

The end. 🕸️

-Akotz the Spider Kid