Nowhere Is Comfort
"Another day, another dollar," he muttered as he lifted the bag of cement from the truck to his right shoulder. Quietly he repeated the words as he carried the light brown bag to the building under construction. His bare shoulders bent with the weight of the bag. His yellow-stained eyes followed the footprints of his fellow workers. Aweke had never held a dollar note, not even seen one before. But the phrase, learnt from an American rap song long forgotten, kept him going until the job was done, and he was handed a pittance for his trouble. Another day, another dollar.
The working day over, Aweke went in search for a drink at The Spot. He went to the chop bar because that was his routine. Yet, before entering the restaurant-cum-bar, Aweke had to brace himself against the loud laughter and hefty bodies gathered around discoloured white plastic tables. Instead of relieving his fatigue, The Spot reminded him of what he was. Like everyone else in the chop bar, he was a burly man, whose fingernails were chipped from manual work, and whose calloused hands left rough imprints on the beer bottles that circulated in the bar. In The Spot Aweke saw that he was indeed a common labourer.
Aweke sat alone in a corner. On his table a bottle of Star Beer and a bowl of plantain chips. In his mind there was a memory of the soothing taste of his specially grown marijuana. He needed it now to rise above the scene, to smooth out the harsh edges of the bright lights from the TV screen mounted above the bar counter. If Aweke was high, the stale smell of sweat would dissipate, and the impatient calls for beer would sound melodic, like a rendition of his favourite hip-life song. So strong was Aweke's craving that he sat with his ears tilted at an angle, as though he was waiting for something important to happen. But the only thing that eventually happened was the arrival of his best friend, Solo.
Solo clapped Aweke's hand in a loud handshake. Their fingers snapped together as their hands unlocked. "Chale, chale what dey happen?" Solo said, as he pulled a chair to Aweke's table.
Aweke's "nothing" barely escaped his lips. But always the optimist, Solo pressed on. "Chale, we need to go to that new club. You know the one behind trade fair. Some say the girls there are finer than Miss Ghana herself."
"And with what money?"
"You paaa. You know I got your back. I know the bouncer. Free entry I tell you. Free entry."
Aweke refocused his eyes on Solo's slim face. "Isn't that what you said the last time? Was I the only one who was kicked out of that other club with 'girls finer than Miss Ghana herself?' Chale, mabrε, I'm tired. Thank you, but tonight I go sleep."
"So just the one time something doesn't go according to plan and you go give up? Suit yourself. But don't come complaining when you wake up in the middle of the night wishing there was someone next to you keeping you warm."
Aweke smiled joylessly. "Solo, this is Accra. Not some winter country okay? Someone next to me means more heat than I want at this moment."
Solo shook his head at his friend. "Lost cause," he said, before calling for a beer.
Plans for the evening out of the way, the two men sat in silence with only the crunchy munching of plantain chips filling the space between them. It was a Friday in July. The year was 2014, but Aweke and Solo could have been sitting in 2004 in another chop bar exactly like The Spot. They were now thirty-three, but nothing much had changed for them. The same plate of plantain chips went back and forth between them, and the beer they washed the chips down with had a familiar savoury taste that had become comforting over the years.
Solo was one of the friends Aweke found when he and his mother moved from Ada back into their family's compound house in La in Accra. After her husband's funeral, and despite Aweke's protests, Aweke's mother decided she needed to be closer to her family. So a couple of weeks after Aweke's father was buried, Aweke and his mother boarded a bus that brought them to Accra.
At first, the cluster that made up his family's compound house irritated Aweke. In Ada, their small house had stood on its own, never part of a collective. In La, the family compound consisted of six small single storey houses arranged closely together in two rows. Aweke and his mother were going to live in one of these houses, and the realisation that the other families living in the compound would be observing his comings and goings disoriented Aweke.
In Accra, Aweke was again unsettled by the ocean's bland smell, different from the tangy scent the Atlantic gave off in Ada. The beach sand in Accra also felt coarser under his feet, and he noticed too that when he spoke Ga, it was less infused with the Pidgin English he heard some boys shouting out the first time he went to the beach. The difference in speech stopped him from asking the boys if he could join them in their game of football. He sat on a rock and watched as the boys kicked the ball around, all the while anticipating the force required to hit the ball towards the unmarked goalposts.
It was later that evening, on his first day in Accra that Aweke met Solo. Aweke was a few feet from his front door when the creaking sound of a screen door being opened filled the quiet compound. Aweke turned towards the noise.
"Solo, boni? Is that you?"
The voice came from the small house that was directly opposite Aweke's. Right next to the screen door leading into this house, a boy Aweke's age lowered his body towards the paved ground. The boy shook his head at Aweke and placed a finger across his lips. Aweke rushed to his front door, arriving there just as the boy's mother appeared in the doorway of the house opposite Aweke's. She peered through the light-softened darkness into the small courtyard between the two rows of houses. The netting in the top half of the swing door framed her torso, blocking off some of the light streaming from behind her. "O Aweke, boni? Is that you?" she said, when she saw Aweke.
"Ofiane ee, yes, please, it's me."
"I thought it was Solo. You haven't met him yet, have you? Anyway, wo ojogban. Sleep well."
Solo got up from his squatting position when the slap-slap sound of his mother's slippers grew fainter. He grinned at Aweke and threw him a thumbs-up. Aweke saluted as Solo walked off, his steps springier than usual from his victory.
The next day, Aweke and Solo laughed at Aweke's imitation of Solo's mother's expressions. They laughed even more raucously when Solo's mother, on her way to the market, walked past them at the entrance to the compound house.
Soon, Solo became the one Aweke confided in. But Aweke had long grown out of this need since their secondary school days. So he was surprised when he spoke his thoughts out loud. "I need something else to do."
Solo looked up at his friend. He grabbed a handful of chips and stuffed most of them into his mouth. He chewed slowly, as he waited for Aweke to continue. When Aweke remained silent, Solo said, "I feel you on that, chale. But the choices for us school failures are limited."
"I still need something else to do," Aweke said. He pushed his words out so forcefully that bits of ground plantain chips flew from his mouth onto the table.
"I hear you," Solo said. "I hear you."
Sleep didn't come quickly to Aweke. All he could think about as he counted the cracks in the ceiling were the things he did not want to do. His former life as a laundry-man ended when he placed an overheated iron on his madam's silk shirt. A series of errors with different families meant that eventually no one was willing to recommend him to others. Aweke did not miss his laundry-man life though. Sometimes, he'd found his madam's camisoles mixed with the dirty clothes, and against his calloused hands, the smoothness of the flimsy dress-like underwear emphasized the things he might never have. He was better off as a labourer. He was paid less, but at least he did not have to touch other people's possessions and have to let go. Sleep finally came to Aweke -- a somewhat tolerable slumber because of what the next day held. Tomorrow, on Saturday, Aweke would play football with his friends from the neighbourhood. His thoughts would cease on the field, and he'd laugh more readily when someone missed the ball and kicked the air. And after the game, he would not hesitate when the group went towards The Spot for fufu and light soup. Invigorated by the game, he would add his voice to the conversation, as Solo would narrate his exploits from the previous night.
"My info is legit," Solo assured Aweke, "At the club, I talked to this guy who is applying for the job. I even got details of where to apply. Do I have your back or what?"
Things became clear to Aweke. He would start out as a security guard. Eventually, he would break away and start his own company. Maybe with one of the other guards working at Spintex Estate. Then one day, he would buy camisoles with lace trimmings for the woman he would marry.
Aweke applied for the job. The possibilities of a new life made him cautious during the interview, so that he stuttered when asked to discuss the security guard experience he didn't have. But he got the job. The job was meant to be his. Aweke ignored Solo's taunts about GuardRight Security being desperate for workers. The job was his.