The driver who fell asleep at the wheel: An Untold Story (Part 2)

Under the Neem Tree

The driver who fell asleep at the wheel: An Untold Story (Part 2)

“The longer I worked with Kwame Adu, the more I despised him,” says Cameron Duodo in the exculsive story of his youth.

I would despise Kwame Adu because after plying the routes around our area for a whole day – starting at 5am – he would be very tired by around 3pm. Had he been a sensible fellow, he would have taken a break to go and take a nap at this stage. But he could not bear the thought of losing out on the passengers who would, towards the end of the day, be anxious to reach home before dark. So, to “fortify” himself to be able to gather in their fares, Kwame Adu went to have a drink instead.

He never gave a thought to me as he dived into the palm wine bar. Other drivers would have given me a shilling or two and said, “Go and look for something to eat!” whilst they went for a drink.

The drink Kwame favoured, palm wine, was sold all day, but the version tapped in the afternoon and sold immediately thereafter, was particularly prized. Now, chemistry is not my forte, so I cannot relate to you exactly what the sun’s rays did to the enzymes inside the palm tree’s juices to make them so sweet.

But what I do know is this: to make palm wine, a mature palm tree was selected and felled. As the tree lay prone on the ground, a large incision was made in the bark of the trunk.

Then a small hole was dug in the soil under the tree, and an earthenware pot placed in it. Next, a smaller hole was drilled underneath the part of the palm tree that touched the ground, and a hollow bamboo shoot inserted into it. The bamboo shoot was expertly led into the earthenware pot, and protected with leaves.

Fire was then applied once a day to the incision in the top part of the tree. The heat from the fire disturbed unreleased elements in the “wound” (incision) of the palm tree, and caused the “wound” to “bleed”. The palm tree’s “blood” then trickled down the bamboo shoot into the pot. The interaction between the fresh sap from the tree and the heat from the fire induced a “fermentation” process in the juice. Once inside the pot, both the Roman god, Bacchus and the Greek god, Dionysus, hitherto entrapped in the sap, escaped!

Gleeful at their new-found freedom, the two wine-gods of the ancient world danced a pas de deux inside the pot. This gingered the nectar and catalysed it into a crystal clear liquid that was capable of foaming, if slightly shaken (not stirred!). This foam took the form of a beautiful white “cap” which danced around the top of the liquid. It could be blown away expertly with the lips before a sip.

The ritual of separating the foam from the drink was one of the more joyous aspects of drinking palm wine. Some people used the foam to pour libation to their deceased ancestors. Others prayed silently to any gods they believed in, for good fortune.

Served fresh, palm wine produces a taste with a faint suggestion of champagne – but without the sharp taste that champagne transmits into the inside parts of one’s cheeks. Palm wine – glorious afternoon palm wine – has no match in the world: sweet but lethal, the only thing one of our local poets could find to compare it to was – wait for it – the act of sex! What? Yes! I kid you not – his name was Dokyi Apenteng; he hailed from Tafo, in Akyem Abuakwa (about 10 miles from Asiakwa) and he composed a hit song entitled, “ Nsaafuo, yefre wo a bra oo bra!!” (Palm wine, when we call you, please do respond and come!)

Would you not have thought that a poet would address such an eloquent call to, say, a new, nubile girl friend? Haha! Now you know: yes, palm wine does mean more to some people, than even – you know what!

Of course, neither Kwame Adu nor his fellow “palm-wine drinkards” (to use the term made popular by the Nigerian novelist, Amos Tutuola) quite realised the mischief that a catharsis between an imprisoned Dionysus and a starving Bacchus could detonate within anyone’s bloodstream.

Palm wine inebriation occurs in a slow, imperceptible process, producing a titter here, then a roar of laughter there, until finally, the rolling on the ground sort of boisterousness takes over. Well, Kwame Adu allowed his tongue – rather than his head – to tell him how much palm wine he should consume.
And since – I repeat – the afternoon version was particularly enticing to the taste buds, he took in plenty of it. (Actually, at the risk of overstating the case, I must acknowledge that afternoon palm wine was singled out and given its own suggestive name: whereas ordinary palm wine was called nsaafuo – white wine – afternoon palm wine was called awiasa – which can be loosely translated, with a bit of poetic licence, as the afternoon “boozer”, or mid-day “souse”.)

Now, as the innards of the felled palm wine tree degenerated into full decomposition, the fermentation process intensified and the taste of the drink gradually changed to become more bitter and “hard”. The alcohol content also increased in strength. This was what the true drunks hankered after. They would sometimes wait until the bottom of the palm wine pot was reached – because they said the “impurities” that carried the most potent alcohol, collected at the bottom! They were after a knock-out, you see!

When a palm wine drinkard reached such a stage, he would sell his cover-cloth itself, in order to be able to buy a calabashful of the stuff!

Kwame Adu lay somewhere in-between the awias group and the hard-hitters. He actually got the bar-tender to mix the two types, if he found the awiasa too sweet for his liking. When he got the right mixture, he would “cut” about three or four calabashfuls of an afternoon.

I used to go and furtively sit behind the palm wine bar, in order to hear the stories Kwame Adu and his former fellow-combatants of WWII told each other. (I was too young to be allowed to sit in the bar itself.)

There were vivid comparisons about the whores found in such distant ports as Mombasa, Dubai and Lobito. Because he owned his own taxi, Kwame Adu could afford to buy drinks for his former comrades-in-arms, and the more he bought for them, the raunchier became the stories they told. Sometimes, I found it hard not to laugh with them. But I knew that if I let out a sound, I would be discovered and ejected from my “hiding place” and that would be the end of my vicarious odyssey into WWII. I therefore learnt to laugh silently.

Filled with Bacchus-induced bonhomie, Kwame Adu would climb into the driving seat. And begin to drive. But – as I said in my previous article – he would soon begin to nod off. And I would steer the car to prevent it from running into a ditch. Sometimes, I had to kick his foot off the accelerator pedal, when he was approaching a bend too fast!

I swear if I was not in the car myself and therefore liable to suffer an injury – or death – if it entered a ditch, I would have allowed it to go its own way – just to spite him.

Eventually, he must have cottoned on to the fact that I resented his not trusting me enough to allow me to drive the car. What he did to mend matters was that as soon as he climbed into the driving seat, he would say to me, “Come and do the steering!” And he would give me complete control of the steering wheel, whilst continuing to operate the pedals himself.

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