I have no idea where my love for motor vehicles came from. No one in my family had ever owned one. And those who owned one in my hometown made them inaccessible to those of us whom they considered to be paupers.
Kwadwo Tawia’s father had worked in Accra – Achimota to be exact – and had made enough money to buy a Vauxhall 14 which he brought to Asiakwa and used as an occasional taxi, not to ply the roads looking for passengers (as other taxis did) but parked at home,to be chartered by other rich people if and when they needed to get to another town in a hurry – say, when someone was seriously sick and needed to be taken to hospital. Or when a rich man needed to go and display himself to the family of a woman he was courting. The car was a beautiful black thing, and it made such an impression on my childhood mind that I still remember its number plate: AC 2383. Now, Kwadwo Tawia was a funny fellow. To begin with, everyone called him Oware, which was extremely ironic, for he was only about three-and-a-half-feet tall even though he was then about 12 years old. And the literal meaning of “Oware” is “he is tall”! So whoever gave him that name had unintentionally turned him into a walking joke. I am sure the name wasn’t given to him to make fun of him, since his birth size wouldn’t necessarily have indicated that he was going to grow to be a pint-sized man. But whether he was cast into that role accidentally or not, the constant teasing he received from the children he grew up with, on account of the glaring disparity between his name Oware and his height, made him very hostile to those of us who aspired to be his playmates. He imagined that every time someone said Oware, there was a sarcastic sneer hidden behind the call. So even if you called him merely to offer him something, say toffee, to sweeten him up and see whether he would allow you to sit in the car, he would snarl back at you, “Yes?” In fact, at home, they were sensitive enough to be aware that he was averse to the name and they almost always called him by the full Kwadwo Tawia that was his formal name. Indeed, his mother was a very kind woman, as I can testify personally.
With his frame of mind, it was hardly strange that when his father brought the Vauxhall 14 to Asiakwa, Oware wouldn’t let the rest of us anywhere near it. We used to flock to it to take a look at it and watch our reflection in its shiny wheel-caps, which acted as a mirror that gave us strange, distorted images of ourselves. This fascinated us – why did our reflections on the wheel-caps make our legs longer than we knew they were? And why did our faces look narrower? With our minds trying to work these things out scientifically, we needed to be near the car often, but Oware would chase us away.
Not that we would have touched the car with what Oware derisively called our “dirty fingers” or do anything else to harm it. I mean, we loved the car! All we longed for was to be allowed to stand by it and imagine what it would feel like to put our bottoms on the fragrant, exquisitely red, leather seats. Who, in today’s world of plastics, would believe that in those days, even a modestly-priced car like a Vauxhall 14, came equipped with real leather seats! I am sure Oware derived enormous pleasure from his ability to prevent us from even merely standing close by the car and fantasising. For if you so much as walked within 10 feet of the car, he would cruelly send you away! Sometimes, we fooled him: one of us would tempt him to run after them, whereupon the rest would get as close to the car as possible and even run their fingers over its body. By the time Oware returned, they would have retreated to a respectable distance, and he would be none the wiser about what had happened.
But maybe, even if he had been able to find out, he would not have minded, for he also derived pleasure from chasing us. He could run really fast, despite his height – or perhaps because of it. His muscles were very well developed and a blow with his fist would cause wherever it landed on anyone’s body to swell up. Nature made up for his loss of height by enabling him to move as if his short legs never touched the ground at all. Okay, I can say it now – the guy was a monster, as far as we were concerned. I am sorry to admit this, though, for nominally, I was his blood relative: his mother’s mother and my mother’s mother originated from common ancestors in a nearby village called Nsutem. Our households, in fact, we exchanged dishes of delicious food during festivals like Ohum or Odwira. And his elder stepbrother, Koofie, was one of the nicest and most generous relatives I possessed. It amazed me that none of his good nature rubbed on to Oware. When it came to his father’s car, I am sure not even DNA evidence – if the technique for detecting such things had existed in 1949-50 – would have convinced Oware to regard me as someone to whom he owed any duty, in terms of family love. Before the inaccessible Vauxhall 14 came, the only car that had ever “slept” at Asiakwa – that is, which had ever been parked overnight there – was a Ford Prefect. It did look pretty awful, as if a feather could knock it down. But we begged for rides in it. It was driven by a guy who operated it as a taxi in Kumasi. He was a very handsome guy who always bore a smile on his face. Because he had such a nice personality, we were not surprised that the taxi’s owner allowed him to bring it home at Christmas and stay overnight. Again, I remember the registration number: AT 9981. We used to play on this number with our imagination: to us, “AT” stood for “Asiakwa Taxi” and 9 times 9 was 81!
We were delighted with our own cleverness in working this out by ourselves, and boys who could not work it out when asked, “What does AT 9981 stand for?” were laughed at as dunces. One day, we heard that the nice driver of AT 9981 had been killed in a car crash. We didn’t actually know whether it was at the wheel of AT 9981 that he had died, or another car. But we were all heart-broken. I remember my mother remarking, during his funeral, “How can such a handsome man be just thrown away, just like that?” She sighed and said: “As for death, it takes away everybody. It doesn’t care about the beautiful or the ugly. It just takes away everybody.” This gentleman’s death also served to demonstrate to me that one of Asiakwa’s most powerful citizens (who was later to become the chief of the town) was a great liar. When asked what had happened in the accident that had killed the man, he concocted a story that the man had fallen out of his car and that “the running board had crushed his head.” Later on, when I got to know about cars, I realised that this was a cock and bull story. A running board, on the cars that had such a thing, ran alongside the car on both sides. If one fell out of one’s car, one would probably hit the running board first before falling on to the road. So, there was no way the running board could crush one’s head! Again, it was one of my mother’s sayings that enabled me to make sense out of what the liar had said. Speaking of the liar once, I remember her as saying, “As for that man, if he says ‘look upwards!’ and you don’t do the opposite, you will find yourself having been bitten on the foot by a snake!”
When this man became our chief, I forgot what my mother had said about him and trusted him in a personal matter. I have lived to regret it ever since! “When he says look upwards and you don’t look downwards…” What a vivid way to describe the way a supreme trickster operates! Oh, how I miss the wisdom of my mum. If she had been around to advise me on my dealings with that guy, I would have been spared many a searing heartache!