I have been in Ghana for 18 days now and my mom has at least three men lined up as prospective husbands for me.
Of course they all have to undergo serious interrogation from my mother, a series of menacing glares from my father, and if they are not disconcerted enough to run off into the haze of dust and car exhaust fumes, then they get to move onto round two: a conversation with me. If they get to round two it means that they are of the correct tribe, as God forbid I should marry an Eweh or Fanti (which of course were the far lesser caliber of tribes and not suited for our Asante pedigree), or worse still, a Northerner from the Volta region. This would be beyond unacceptable due to a plethora of reasons, and as my mom would often conclude,
“They eat dog, cat and pigeon and simply have no class.” We have this conversation countless times, and yet one can never tell her this due to the glint in her eyes that tells you, “My words are gospel truth. Ignore at your own irrational peril.”
No doubt at this point my mom and Dad are discussing excessive dowry payments, as well as other lurid requests and of course, organizing future living arrangements with these strangers – will she be moving to Ghana? No, Mellissa can’t live in Ghana because she is too headstrong and has an opinion about everything. She won’t be able to keep her mouth shut at even a hint of corruption and I don’t think this will make her popular amongst the locals. So, would I have to move to the UK? Yes, you would, but make sure you buy your own ticket to get there and sort out your visa….you’re not going to get a free ride on my daughter’s British passport, do you hear me? That would be my dad talking, never wanting to be taken for a fool.
It’s on this hot, sticky evening that I suspect Mother Dearest is up to something as she has been acting jittery all day. The conversation in the kitchen has been completely discarded from her mind. I am going to have to endure her whims, but have absolutely no interest in being with any Ghana-born and-bred man. She doesn’t need to know that though.
I’ve just managed to ease my weary bones onto a stool by the bar of my father’s restaurant. I have been serving greedy, African men who obviously spend way too much time drinking Guilder beer and eating fufu all day. Their hardened pot bellies are a testament to this. Often they would try to hold my hand or grab my backside with a look of lust in their eyes; I frequently felt like their next meal – roasting pork on a spit. It was all I could do not to slap one of them in the face; But I hear prison is a nasty place in rural Ghana (as that’s where they would put me, I am sure), and, I don’t want my dad to lose any business. So as I sit on this stool I ponder my life, wondering why I allow my parents to inflict such horrors upon me. As if on cue, I catch a glimpse of my mother wading through a thick crowd of faces with inane smiles etched across them and bodies drenched in sweat from dancing, and maintaining too close bodily contact. My heart sinks when I see the excitement on her face; her right cheek is quivering with it.
She reaches me, moments later, gasping for breath. I realize I have been holding mine in grotesque anticipation of what is about to escape her lips. I see her mouth move, but I cannot fathom what she is saying.
“Mellissa, are you listening to me? You look like you’re about to pass out. Have you eaten? Should we take you to the doctors? Mind you, it’s a little bit late right now, I’m sure they’re closed. Although, if we pay them enough, they might reopen for us. But you’ll have to talk to someone first. Mellissa….?” The last ‘Mellissa’ is almost snapped at me, the initial concern and worry almost forgotten, or at least masking another concern.
“I’m fine, Mom. I thought I told you I wasn’t interested in meeting any guys?” My insides quake as I say this; you see, my mom and I…we have different….tastes. My mom sidles up to me, her breasts knocking me off balance in the process. The heels of my Nine Wests screech against the marble flooring to counter balance this; the stool being punished in the process, titling backwards unnaturally. She grabs hold of the bar counter to steady herself, unnerved, looking as though she has just conned a business tycoon out of his mother’s ruby ring she left him to remember her by.
“You don’t know what you want, sweetie pie. But you’re in luck! Apparently you made quite an impression on this young man. Not only does he like the look of you, he likes your personality too. I tell you, Mellissa, I know men, and it doesn’t get much better than this,” she says, rather sincerely too.
I quickly realize she is not going to drop the case today and it’s easier just to comply. “Ok, Mom. So, who is it?”
“Oh, it’s Charles, of course! He told me you both got along really well a couple of weeks ago; when you arrived, remember?” She leans in close as she says this, to be heard clearly above the din of the music. I recoil slightly – how could I forget? Not only that, I have to meet him again.
“Thank God you weren’t as awkward as you usually are around men. He seems quite convinced that you’re laid back and relaxed, so please keep that up. At least until you’re married. “She looks at me unblinking, trying to gauge my understanding. I nod slowly, making sure there is comprehension in my eyes.
“Good. He is on his way right now. Do Mother Dearest proud!” She smiles and looks beyond me, recognition in her eyes, then turns away with startling grace and speed for a voluptuous, African woman. She meanders her way back through the throng of people. Before I have time to compose myself for the barrage of torture, I receive a tap on my shoulder. I swivel around slowly on my poor stool to find Charles smiling at me, rather smugly, decked out in a white linen outfit that has been starched to an inch of its life.
It’s an hour later and I’m surprised at myself for being able to see some good in Charles. He is ambitious and works hard at his job for the government. He is somewhat modest and seems genuine enough. I mean, it isn’t his fault my mother had accosted him and painted a pretty picture of me that would be tantalizing to any man’s carnal mind. I’m hearing tales of my life from Charles that my mother has obviously fed him and in great detail. Shoot, I would even want to date me based on all that my mother has said! But still, that one problem remains – his breath. I am trying the best I can to inhale whenever he stops for breath and exhale when he talks – for however long that lasts. Occasionally, when really strapped for oxygen and feeling the light headedness take over me, I laugh raucously without cause, which buys me about 3-4 seconds before he continues talking again. Or I cut him off mid-sentence to complain about the lack of air conditioning in the nightclub, (we have moved to the humid room, which smells of timber, due to a drunk happily removing layers of his clothing right before me earlier. He was swaying his narrow hips, asking me whether I found him sexy or not in broken English. My dad had his bouncers swiftly remove him from the premises before I had the chance to answer. Still it was decided for me that it would be best to have some privacy), which again buys me another couple of seconds of air.
“So Mellissa, would you like something to drink, or eat? You must be hungry….You haven’t eaten for a while.” He smiles at me, rubbing his chin. I wonder what he was thinking, but don’t have enough energy to care, and say, “I’m ok, thanks. I’m not really hungry or thirsty.”
He doesn’t drop the matter. “Oh, you know us Ghanaians; you will offend me if you don’t take up my proposal.” There is an artificial lightness to his voice which tries to cover up the edge to his statement. The word ‘proposal’ makes me even more determined to decline his offer, just in case it’s some indigenous tribal ritual – marriage by acceptance of food.
I smile wanly to throw him off my suspicions. “No, I’m just trying to watch my weight is all. It’s quite late and I don’t want to take in any more calories.” There, that should do the trick, I think. He leans back, drinking me in with his gaze. It isn’t the hungry look (this time), it is more contemplative.
“Ok, I get you,” he says, bending forward suddenly and reaching for my right arm, which is feeling very exposed and vulnerable.
I jerk back slightly, but not completely. I find the scene so surreal I am curious to see what he is up to. He looks at me reassuringly; at least I know he isn’t about to kiss me (thank God)…no, his countenance is too investigative for that right now. I knew I should have worn my long sleeved chiffon dress instead of this boob tube top. His hand makes contact with my naked skin at this point, and begins to slowly inch its way up from my elbow to my shoulder; deliberately slowing down at my triceps for a real good feel. His hand is in desperate need of moisturizer of any kind; if they were any rougher or callused, he could cause me injury. I pull my arm out of his reach. He laughs softly, looking somewhat amused, possibly by the perplexed and fearful look on my face.
“You know what”? He finally breaks the silence.
“What”? I say, looking at him, then at my violated arm, then back at him again.
“You have a great capacity to get fat, you know,” he says nodding his head at this new-found knowledge, handed to him by the betrayal of my unstable arm flesh. Wounded and enraged, I wedge myself out of the inconsiderately tight booth and look down at Charles with as much contempt as I can muster.
“Excuse me, I have to go now,” I say. If that’s the way he has gotten girls in the past – by insult – it sure isn’t going to work with me.
“Mellissa, look, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings; I am just trying to be honest. Don’t take it personally…you shouldn’t be so sensitive,” he says desperately whilst simultaneously trying to get out of the booth himself. I can’t help myself – I chuckle. It’s an amalgamation of hysteria and frustration from serving sex-crazed African men all day, as well as fury at the chauvinistic attitude they displayed…now including this one. “Don’t worry about it Charles. It was interesting meeting you. Just so you know, I’m now going to gorge myself on jollof rice and fried chicken, even though it’s late and I have the innate capacity to get fat, because I’m absolutely starving….you were right, but I just could not handle the thought of spending longer than necessary in your presence….” I am babbling now, but I can’t stop. Even the lizard that has made its home underneath our timber carved table can sense the tension and promptly scurries out. Charles opens his mouth to speak “But – ”
“I’m not trying to be mean. I just can’t spend my time with any more chauvinistic men – a girl can only take so much in a day.” I shrug my shoulders and smile a small, tight smile. He is lucky I am far too polite girl to tell him about his halitosis.
He stops short; his scrambling to get up ends and he looks deflated. His eyes are fixed on the bewildered looking lizard still making a hasty retreat across the marble flooring, skidding slightly from time to time due to the speed in which it attempts to flee. Still, I can tell plainly that he just doesn’t get it. He really doesn’t see where he has gone wrong, and in effect feels sorry for himself at my lack of understanding him. I leave him there and concentrate on making it back home – I have bigger fish to fry. Mother Dearest is not going to be impressed.
How this experience influenced me:
I decided to write this as a third person creative non-fiction piece to capture the angst, annoyance, stress and irritation of people and their emotions in this real life situation. I felt that the dynamics of the relationships between myself, my mother, father and dear Charles, would be caught better from an objective view point.
I am actually an international student from the UK, but my parents are Ghanaian, and therefore I was on holiday in Ghana, visiting them. Whilst there, as you have witnessed, my mother was determined to set me up with every single bachelor going; she is not very discriminatory. This was the epitome of me finding myself and sticking up for myself; not falling for my parents’ emotional blackmail, but also trying to appease them somewhat. It was a hard lesson in diplomacy and I realized that I really could not please everyone. Again, this was a shocker, as I had assumed that I was quite a strong-willed and sincere person in my approach with people and life, but I found that for some reason, this strong-will often eluded me when it came to matters with my parents.
Now, on the guy front, this experience taught me what I did and did not want from a relationship. But would you believe, despite Charles insulting my arm flesh, I STILL dated him (long-distance, and only for five months, though – phew!) Yes, and that was because of the influence of Mother Dearest – my Dad, on the other hand, could not stand him. Which were my exact sentiments. So, because of a huge emphasis on respect in my Ghanaian culture, as well as wanting to please Mother Dearest, I dated a guy I disliked, trying to force myself to see anything remotely redeeming in his personality and character. Despite him practically calling me fat. I am a woman – we read in-between the lines and often blow things out of proportion. But, still, I’m sure you get my point.
Overall, it was a bitter-sweet experience (especially when I dumped him – joy!) because I got to understand myself better, as well as the somewhat unhealthy influence my mother had on me. I discovered what I stood for as a person, and learned to love myself even when someone who was meant to care about you dearly (Mum/Charles), did not want the best for you (whether knowingly, or not) and was trying to control your life. Boy, did this experience teach me about having healthy boundaries! It was a wake-up call to continuously learning how to balance being accepting and loving, as well as firm and knowing what I stand for, and certainly not settling for less than I deserve or want to appease someone else. Even if it’s Mother Dearest.
Mellissa Gyimah is one of ten finalists for the International Student Voice Magazine scholarship sponsored by International Student Protection. She is from Ghana and the United Kingdom and studies at DePaul University.