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More tales from Jaware

Under the Neem Tree

More tales from Jaware

Over a beer at Jaware, people’s tongues loosened and they told you things which they would never tell even their close relatives or good friends. Stories that went beyond newspaper reports. By Cameron Duodu

Since I wrote about Jaware in the last column, some friends have been making interconnections between what I wrote and what they have saved in their own private “internal data-banks” and which they probably would never have retrieved, had my Jaware recollections not prompted them to bare their minds.

One friend wrote to tell me that my description of the days of kalabule in Ghana had come just in time for her because she had been striving, without success, to make her sons understand “what we went through during the era when we were ruled by General Kutu Acheampong!”

I did not have the heart to tell her that some of the same things also happened under General Joseph Ankrah, General Fred Akuffo and Flight-Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings and were not unique to Kutu Acheampong’s time. One thing is clear, though, military rulers approach economic problems as if they were drawing up a strategy for conquering an enemy force. But in economics, there are no friends and no enemies. If there is a beer shortage, the beer price will go up, and no armoured car can change that. Not only that, beer-thirst can affect both a regime’s friends and its enemies alike.

Another friend wrote to ask me whether I knew that the word Jaware comes from the song “Yaa Amponsaa”, made popular by the very first guitar-artist star in Ghana, Jacob Sam, who also worked under the name of Kwame Asare and his Kumasi Trio, and recorded it in 1928. Sam later plagiarised himself and brought out another song called “Lamle”, whose lyrics were almost identical to those of “Yaa Amponsaa”. 

The woman that Sam idolised as Yaa Amponsaa/Lamle in his songs, was depicted in the lyrics as having a neck “like that of a pumpkin.” Sam also said that the hair on Yaa Amponsaah’s head was like “strings of silk”. Wow! An African who didn’t have “kinky” hair but hair like “strings of silk”?

This mystified me until another line gave me a clue. Sam said that Yaa Amponsaa looked “like a white woman!” This seemed like a contradiction: if Sam was singing about a white woman, then why would he say that she was “like” a white woman? Then I got it: Sam was actually talking about a composite woman; a black woman who also had the features normally associated with a white woman!

 

Operation Guitar Boy

It wasn’t until a friend pointed out to me that Bembeya Jazz from Guinea had also recorded a Yaa Amponsaa song that the mystery was finally cleared up for me. For the Bembeya song spoke about Mami Wata, a water-inhabiting woman who was half-goddess and half-human and who was often confused with the mermaid found in European mythology.

Mami Wata, of course, also features in Nigerian mythology. Victor Uwaifo made a memorable record about her called “Guitar Boy”. This song advised a “guitar boy” that if he happened upon Mami Wata (presumably on the beach), he should be courageous enough “never never to run away!” from her.

Now, this song’s call for courage had a cathartic effect on the political history of Ghana. For, on 17 April 1967, a small group of soldiers, taking the words of the song quite literally, drove 103 miles or so from Ho to Accra and tried to overthrow the very strong, military government of the National Liberation Council (NLC), that had itself overthrown President Kwame Nkrumah in 1966. Led by Lieutenant S. B. Arthur and Lieutenant Moses Yeboah, the insurgents succeeded in killing the strong man of the NLC regime, General E. K. Kotoka.

The song they played, after they had captured Broadcasting House in Accra, was Victor Uwaifo’s “Guitar Boy”! The putsch itself was named “Operation Guitar Boy”. It only failed because Lt. Arthur, its leader, had a woman badly on his mind: instead of consolidating his position after capturing all the strategic objectives he had targeted in Accra, he drove in an armoured car to visit his girlfriend! He wanted to establish whether she had recognised his voice when he had announced the coup on the radio! By the time he went to Burma Camp in Accra to “assume command,” a stratagem had been worked out and he was captured and shot – together with Lt. Yeboah.

Now, if you think that’s been quite a ramble, I am afraid that’s exactly what happened when we gathered at Jaware. One person would start a story, others would raise the telltale associations which the story had roused in their minds, and they would lay it all out. For instance, talk of a counter-coup might get someone else asking: “Do you remember the day in November 1982 that a Lt. Achana tried to overthrow the Jerry Rawlings PNDC government, almost all by himself?”

“Who can keep count of coups and attempted coups in Ghana? Our political history is festooned with military adventurism, isn’t it?”

“Haha! You can say that again. Well, you will never believe what happened during Achana’s coup attempt. As he drove towards the seat of government at the Castle, at Osu, in Accra, which he had chosen as his main target for bombarding with mortars, he stopped at the Mark Cofie Mazda workshop, which, as you know, is on the way to the Castle. He saw Michael Cofie going about his business there, walked calmly to him, placed a pistol to his head, and then….”

“You mean Mark Cofie’s brother, Michael? He was a very good mechanic! Very friendly and inoffensive?”

“Yeah. It was he who ran the Mark Cofie Mazda plant for his brother. Now, I don’t know whether Lt. Achana knew him before or not, but Achana stopped his army vehicle, went and placed a pistol at the head of Michael, and kidnapped him to go with him in the military vehicle!”

“What?!”

“Yes! Achana took Michael with him, positioned himself somewhere near the castle, and began to fire his mortars at the place! After he had fired each mortar, he would ask Michael to fetch him another from the military vehicle. Michael said that the only reason why Achana failed to blow up the castle was that he had forgotten to bring with him the mortar-guiding instrument that could have enabled him to correct his aim as he fired the mortars! Because Achana lacked the ability to correct his aim, all his mortars fell harmlessly into the sea!

“Michael said later that ‘having failed, Achana then ran away to hide in an unfinished building somewhere. He was captured there and executed.’ Michael said he remained shaken for days. He realised that had he been caught with Achana, the Rawlings people would have made short work of him, as they would never have believed that he was kidnapped and not a willing collaborator!”

We drank beer and pondered this story. It was the sort of story you would never read about in any newspaper, but which you could hear at Jaware. For the thing about being a beer addict in those days was that the quest for beer took one to places where stories grew, as it were, on trees. NA

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Written by Cameron Duodu

Cameron Duodu (born 24 May 1937) is a UK-based Ghanaian novelist, journalist, editor and broadcaster. After publishing a notable novel, The Gab Boys, in 1967, Duodu went on to a distinguished career as a journalist and editorialist.

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