Sheena Kopman
Sheena Kopman

The sky overwhelmed Atonsu. At night and in the early mornings, I stood in the streets and stared up at the clouds that rushed towards some more desirable destination. I wasn’t sure how a sky could be larger in one place than any other, but it was: my American friends agreed that its breadth enveloped us and required a long look each night. Maybe it was the negligible size of Atonsu itself that made the elements dominant. The village was built around the crossing of two roads, one going to Kumasi and one to the middle of nowhere. To find my new house, where I lived with a small family, I stepped off the road into red mud and wandered between the gray homes until I saw the doorway. The first time I looked for the doorway, asking around for Auntie Mary, I was led by a boy who showed me into my compound and then disappeared. I stood in the frame of what would be my bedroom. In this room there was only a bare bed and a table. I wanted to be back outside, in the light, watching the sky sweep over the village.

              A woman burst through the door. “Welcome welcome welcome!” the woman said, as one word. “Welcome welcome!” She laughed. Though she was beautiful, poverty had clearly worn away at her muscles and bones sharp against her skin. Her hair, like overgrown grass, frayed out from underneath a hairnet. She was naked from the waist up and a fat baby sucked at her breast, eyes casually diverted to me. He was not interested enough to let go of his mother. She ignored him, laughing at the sight of me, a white girl in this room. Her name was Janice.

              Janice, though she had crevices formed by hard work and grief on her face, was not the master of the home. Auntie Mary owned these rooms. Janice was one of Mary’s nine daughters, living here to raise her two boys. The baby’s name was Elvis, and her older son, a surly eight year old, was Osborne. I asked her how she named the boys and she simply said, “my husband.” I inquired no further. Janice spoke in husky whispers. The only thing she did loudly was laugh. She and the boys lived in a room across from my own, and the rest of the rooms were filled with family. Auntie Mary had no interest in me and never showed me where to find her. One of her other daughters lived in the compound, a fifteen-year-old named Josephine whose only dress was a neat pale blue private school uniform.

              Josephine took an immediate interest in my presence, though it was less flamboyant than her older sister’s. As soon as Janice was gone, Josephine appeared in the yard breathless with hospitality. She spoke little but when she did, it was with confidence. My sister at home in New Jersey was fifteen, so I was glad to have this girl living in the room next to mine. Josephine helped her mother sell plantains on the weekends, but was otherwise a loner. She did laundry and pounded fufu when asked, but kept her eyes always on the roads leading out of the village. Josephine loved when I mentioned America, and hoped that I might take her with me. She was younger sister to Janice, but rounder and quietly sure of herself. They both had a strength I admired but did not seem to draw it from each other or their mother; rather, it came from some secret place I did not know.

              This was the second of my homestays arranged by my study abroad program. The purpose of the Atonsu homestay was to conduct a two-week research project on anything I liked. I liked Janice and Elvis, so I asked if I could apprentice in Janice’s business. Her seamstress shop was a room without one wall, so that customers could wander in while still being outdoors. Her shop contained only her sewing machine, a poster of designs, and extra material on the floor for Elvis to sit on. There was no cloth for sale—the customers brought it themselves—it was only a large empty room with a machine and a baby on the floor. The sewing machine was black with golden letters; it was shinier and smoother than anything else in Atonsu. Janice’s fingers wound the thread through the crevices in the machine I couldn’t understand, her dark eyes focused on the cloth, her mouth laughing. Janice laughed constantly even though she was serious about her work. She could not afford to make a mistake: since women brought their own material, it was often irreplaceable and limited in quantity. There was usually only enough to cut exactly one outfit. As the light in the three-walled room warmed the morning, Janice meticulously measured out the sleeves and the waist. When she was sure of herself, she pulled out scissors and made a cut. I never saw her moan over an error; if she made any, I never knew. She understood what needed to be divided, and so she cut.

              While Janice crafted other women’s clothing, I sat on the floor with Elvis. He had never seen a white person before, but he was less fascinated by my skin than by the attentions of a woman who wasn’t his mother. He hit me in the face, grabbed my nose, and kicked me, as any baby would. He laughed. His mother laughed. While she sewed, Janice spoke in a nearly constant stream to her son. “Elvis, you are bad,” she’d say. “Stop or I’m going to beat you!” She was laughing while she said this, and I knew that she would never harm this baby. Just as he was always dependent on her she was dependent on having someone to take care of. Janice only spoke to me when I asked her a question, usually about sewing, but she trusted me to hold her baby all day while she worked. Osborne occasionally wandered by, scowling at me. I gave him crayons and a piece of paper and received a picture of his house. With my crayons scattered on the floor, and the red cloth spilling from the sewing machine, the three-walled room filled with color.

              I wanted to meet more people, so I decided to enlarge my project and spend some time in the heart of Atonsu, near the crossroads. Janice was a woman who sewed clothes for those who could afford to look much more beautiful than she. I thought I should find someone outside of this family, someone with access to an even wealthier clientele, to apprentice. I approached a hair dresser whose shop was entirely outdoors. She had a sink, a mirror, and a pyramid of straightening gels. Her name was Regina, and the first time I met her, she pretended not to know how to speak English. When I returned the next day with a translator, she told me of her joke and laughed. People were usually laughing at me. Regina let me sit on the bench outside her shop and take notes on the women who walked in. They were usually young, around my age, and I quickly learned that going to the hairdresser was an indication of wealth . Due to the desire to make hair as straight as possible, the women’s hair was lathered in acidic products. The richest of the women had extensions, which cost a great deal of money and had to be replaced every few weeks. There were only a few people in Atonsu with long extensions. Regina’s hair was completely fake: it was short, straight, and as pale as it believably could be. Her skin was pale, too—I got the impression that these qualities qualified her to do other women’s hair.

              Sometimes, as I sat on the bench taking notes on the preferred hairstyles, Josephine would walk by. Since she was a student, she had no hair at all. No children or teenagers had anything but fuzz. Janice didn’t get her hair done; she had the hairnet and that was it. In fact, I never saw Janice outside of her compound, at the hairdresser’s or anywhere else. After a few days, Regina asked me to wash the customers’ hair. They all told me to be rough, to “beat the blackness out” of it. The women stroked my blond hair and when I asked them what the best possible hair was, they all laughed, “yours.” Though I was embarrassed and disagreed, I quietly helped them wash in straightening shampoo.

In the opposite corner of the village, Janice taught me to sew decorative ribbons. Elvis sat on the floor, screeching away to make his mother talk to him: “Don’t be so loud! Auntie is working! I will beat you.” She had taken to calling me Auntie, for Elvis’ sake, but hardly spoke to me. Despite her occasional outgoing greetings, in public she became introverted and trembling, as if waiting for a blow. Janice was frail and seemed hidden inside her sewing machine . Josephine, on the other hand, found me whenever she could and asked about America. I loved Josephine. I loved the whole family. I loved hearing Elvis crying at night over the din of the rain on the thin tin roof, and then listening to Janice sing to him until all the sounds faded together into sleep. I loved hearing Josephine wake up earlier than everyone else, fill a bucket, and bathe outside before the chickens started singing, as they did over the whole country.

              After one morning of waging war on African hair, I wandered home to chat with Janice. I asked, “How old is Elvis?” and she told me eight months. “I had four children, but two are dead.” I held Elvis against my chest, felt the last of her babies. She went on sewing.

              She revealed to me that she had been a master seamstress in Accra, the capital. “I had an apprentice,” she beamed.

              “Why did you leave?” I asked. Atonsu was beautiful but her three-walled room with no lights and one customer a day wasn’t any Ghanaian woman’s dream. Nor was her curly hair.

              “My husband beat me,” she said, the word rumbling heavy and dark, in a different tone than when she joked about punishing her baby. “So I came home to my mother.” She continued to sew and did not look at me.

              That night, the electricity went out, as it often did in Ghana. I sat in my room with the door open, a flashlight illuminating the corners. I left the room to find water to brush my teeth and noticed Janice’s door was open. I had never seen the room she shared with her two sons; it was a nest of cloth and scattered possessions. It looked as though her whole life had exploded in the privacy of one tiny room. Elvis was wailing; Janice sat holding him in the hall. Upon seeing me she thrust the baby into my arms and walked into the room, rummaging amongst the baby’s things to find what she was searching for. She emerged with a framed photograph—an item I hadn’t seen in this country yet, not even in Accra.

              “I sewed this,” she proclaimed, thrusting the picture into my hands. It was a photograph of herself in a wedding dress, alone, close up on the sleeves and neckline. Her husband was not in the picture. Only Janice and the white, magnificent dress she had created. Her hair was straight. In Atonsu, Janice’s clothes hung limply on her thin body, though her children were healthy and chubby. Her clothes were almost always askew. But in this photograph, and standing here proud in the hallway, she was more beautiful than the women who came to the hairdresser. Janice took back her baby and the photograph and picked up an oil lamp. She returned to her room, and once she shut the door I never saw inside the room again.

              The next day, Regina got bored and did my hair. No one understood why I would allow myself to look Ghanaian. I needed to go through the process of sitting for four hours while she yanked at my scalp. I wanted to see what these women went through to look rich. As a white girl, I couldn’t avoid looking rich anyway, so I chose to wear the long dark extensions of a young woman. Regina pulled hard and wove my blondeness in with the black. The extensions hugged my hair with a tight grip on each strand. When I was finished, I looked neither American nor Ghanaian. My skin was still brighter than the moon, but my hair was dark, like that of other girls in the town. I was a strange hybrid. When I returned home, it made both Josephine and Janice laugh.

              On my last Sunday, I asked Janice if I could accompany her and her sons to church. Church was an all-day affair, averaging five hours. Janice was elated and gave me a beautiful cream-colored Nigerian skirt and shirt to wear, along with a matching headscarf. She asked me if I would iron her clothes, and when I looked at her purple dress, I knew that she had lent me her best. I ironed both of our outfits.

              As I was leaving, Josephine approached me, ignoring the pearly cloth, and said, “Meet me here at one o’clock. Wear long pants and bring a flashlight.” Never before had I been given instructions like this, and I was intrigued. Long pants suggested adventure. I agreed and then walked to church with Janice, Elvis slung on her back.

              At church, I tried to hide my whiteness between Janice and the baby, but the other women turned around to look at me. They were all women here. Had they all suffered like Janice, who sat alone in the back with her baby and her American friend? The priest, who spoke on a microphone sometimes in English and sometimes in Twi, called me up to speak about myself. Intensely uncomfortable, I told the women I loved Ghana and Atonsu especially. After I slunk back to Janice’s side, the praying began.

              The women stood up, a mass of color, and quivered in prayer. They shouted their hopes and thanks as loudly as they could, in languages I didn’t understand, their eyes shut. In America I was used to a religious silence made of apprehension, of reverence, but this prayer was thunderous and unabashed. Each woman was so loud that she could hear only her own dreams over the storm of voices; it was as private as silence, but filled up the room. The drums in front started to beat, and the women danced proudly down the aisles to give money to the offering. Janice danced, too, as I held Elvis, depositing some of her meager income with a smile on her face and her eyes still shut.

              Two hours into the church service, I had to leave early to meet Josephine. As I whispered goodbye to Janice, she took Elvis in her arms and sadly nodded. I slipped out the back of the church. She might have been heartbroken to see me run up the hill to find her sister, but I needed to know what adventure Josephine would lead me on. I felt guilty leaving the woman who I had such sympathy for, and the baby I loved. But there was adventure waiting, and I changed from the Nigerian dress to American pants.

              Josephine told me nothing as I walked down one of the roads with her, away from Kumasi and away from the other villages. I tried to make conversation about Janice, but she shook her head with disgust. “My sister is bad,” Josephine said. Shocked, I asked why. “She left her husband. She is bad, very bad.”

This was why Janice never left her home, why she had so few customers, why no one but me seemed to ask her about her children, why she sat in the back of the church. For reasons I refused to understand, she was shunned by the other women, trapped in her mother’s house. Janice’s story was one of an American woman’s triumphs: leaving her abusive husband, rescuing her children, keeping her independent business. Slowly, I had been falling in love with traditional Ghana, anxious to shed my values, but while smooth hair and trendy clothes were desirable, it seemed to me that the tenets of Western feminism were lost. The real crossroad of Atonsu was one of values: at this point, I had to choose the American or Ghanaian reaction. I could uphold what I really believed—that Janice was right, was noble; I could return to church—or I could continue on the older path. Josephine’s way. Curiosity got the better of me. I went on.

We passed women who walked from their farms carrying yams and vegetables. Josephine cut into the farmlands and led me to a patch of slowly sprouting greens. “My mother’s garden,” she said, showing me where Auntie Mary grew carrots: a secret garden where she cultivated her living, and the lives of her nine children. For a moment, I thought this was the surprise, but Josephine pulled me through the garden and down a rocky hill. Josephine’s excitement would be over nothing that domestic. Without a word, she turned on her flashlight and crawled into a small cave.

              Crouched behind her, I let my knees dig into the mud. It was pitch black with the exception of Josephine’s flashlight beam. Suddenly I saw something the size of a mouse drop from the ceiling and swoop to the nearest wall. We were inside a bat cave. Hundreds of bats dangled until some impulse, perhaps the force of two girls standing in the middle of their room, compelled them to plummet down and open their wings. They flapped a few times and then found a new spot on the wall. I could feel bats passing by my arms, my legs, my whole body, never running into me. I could only sense them; only feel the wind they created. It was impossible to see them all at once. What I could not see was cloaked in darkness, and what was shown to me only entered my vision momentarily before sweeping away into the realm of loss and mystery. We crawled through the caves on our hands and knees, watching bat after bat fly through our beams of light.