HOW NANA OFORIWAA DIED
Within half an hour of their laying out Nana Oforiwaa on the long table in the entrance hall of her rest house, people began to gather, the prominent in the hallway itself, the ordinary people on the verandah, where they crowded around the door and flowed back onto the lawn, many still damp from the evening’s downpour.
Slowly word passed out to the search parties that at two o’clock in the morning were still scouring the valleys and ridges for the lost children. Wherever two or three people met confused words were exchanged: “Found? Who? Dead? Is it not her niece we are looking for?” So that later in the morning, after the sun had come up and the body had been taken away, when the children actually appeared on the main road, walking towards Aburi, nobody approached them; nobody said a word even as they arrived at the steps of the rest house.
All through the early hours of that Monday morning people had continued to gather: men who had been involved in the search parties, those woken from sleep, others who had seen lights on the road at that strange hour—whole families, the youngest holding on to their parents’ legs, eyes open but still sleeping. At one point the police corporal came from Nsawam, then left. A blanket was placed across the body, but still it lay there, in plain sight, for three hours, not because the thought of moving it didn’t occur to them, but because nobody dared.
At a little after five on Monday morning the schoolteacher arrived. Light had begun to gather beneath the horizon, and the sounds of the earth waking could be heard through the half-darkness, and through the restlessness which was growing among those gathered there. Irritated by the crowd, the teacher pushed his way through the steps up to the verandah and they realized then that he did not know (perhaps the message that reached him was confused), or that he did not want to know. “What the hell are you people doing here?” he was saying, but his words had an opposite effect to their intention because the people pushed in around him as soon as he passed, slowing his movement to the table that stood in the hallway. As he came towards it, those who were standing closest turned their heads to see who was coming through, but did not move, so that the force of the teacher’s pushing propelled him through and he stumbled a few steps forward into the circle that stood around the body.
For more than half a minute he stood there. The room had gone still. The first birds had begun to wake. It was cool and quiet, and the air was gray with half-light.
Then the teacher spun about, his mouth working soundlessly. “Get out, all of you, get out!” he was shouting, until he realized he was making no sound at all, only a hard sucking noise as his tongue worked in the back of his throat. The people moved back, but they did not get out, as he stood before them, his face bunched, choking with anger, his limbs twitching in uncertain, incomplete movements.
And then it stopped. Understanding seemed to drain from his face, leaving an expression of exhaustion, but also of satisfaction because in his mind he had achieved his wish: he was alone. He had banished them all from the room and now there was only himself and Nana Oforiwaa.
Her lips were slightly parted, as if a fruit were about to be brought to her mouth, as if there were thoughts in her, and words waiting to take flight. Nobody stopped the schoolteacher, though later they wished they had, but nobody could have guessed what he was going to do, so that when he began to move, already it was too late. He stood by her head and bowed, and touched his ear to her parted lips—still they were a person’s lips, solid, not yet sand, but cold. It lasted only seconds. Then there was a hand on his shoulder, softly pulling him away. But in those seconds his ear closed on her mouth and made a seal, so that nothing separated them. Everyone saw from the teacher’s face that he was listening. Though listening for what, nobody could say—with Nana Oforiwaa’s life already gone.
Then the seal was broken, and the air rushed between them. On her cheek there were drops of water—water from the stream where they found her, or from the rain when they carried her in. On her forehead there was grass like green stitches. Her eyelids were closed. Someone moved towards them, and there was a hand upon his shoulder, and voices talking, saying to come away. Then there were people between him and Nana Oforiwaa. Turning, the teacher looked at her for the last time.
A little while later, the Deputy Commissioner himself arrived from Nsawam with three uniformed men in the back of his car. The people stood back to let him pass, and though a few stayed to watch, the room was almost empty as the body was wrapped in a gray blanket and suspended, a man at each corner, and taken out through the back door.
Many of the onlookers left now, some to go back to their search for the children, who still were missing, but most stayed in the precincts of the rest house, not as before in a state of confusion, but aware now that the events of the night must have started somewhere. And that they would lead to other places still. That now there was something to be done: a story to be pieced together—of what happened that night—that not one of them could have told singly, though already it had begun to form, and was living, among them.
There were ten days more to run before the first parts of the story were heard out loud. They had to wait until the funeral was past and the newspapers had finished their work, but all the while, wherever people met the story was sifted and mulled and woven and connected, and always some old fact was remembered in a new way, and another was linked to a further still, and opinion was spun backwards and forwards between the twenty or so things that could be said definitively, until it made a platform so complete and strong as to constitute knowledge. Then one person was chosen to tell the story: Kwaku Wilkins-Adofo, town doctor and former unit head at Tetteh Quarshie Memorial in Mampong, now retired. A month after Nana Oforiwaa was discovered, a meeting was held of townspeople, which he was called on to address, not because he’d been witness to any of the events leading up to the death but because in the days that followed he was the only person who had had access to the teacher, and so, everyone believed although in fact it was not so, access to the last hours of Nana Oforiwaa’s life.
The assembled people listened quietly as Kwaku Wilkins-Adofo stood up to speak that Wednesday evening in the largest of the town’s church halls, although not even it could accommodate all the peo- ple who wanted to attend and chairs had to be set out behind the podium, and the doors opened onto the quadrangle between the hall and the church so that those outside could also hear.
The doctor stood at the front of the hall, seated behind him a row of dignitaries and other senior people. Next to him was a bare table on which he placed his hat and spectacle case. Though he spoke clearly and slowly the people outside had to strain to hear him, as his voice was soft. At first only those in the front heard his opening words, “Agoo,” I would like to talk, so that the response rippled slowly back to him through the crowd like a wave, “Amee,” we are listening.
He was methodical in his testimony, embellished nothing and missed nothing. “It is true that Nana Oforiwaa died alone” (a sound of indignation rose through his listeners that such a death should befall a woman of her stature—cold, drowned, covered in mud under a bridge), “but we are all alone at the moment of death. That is how death takes a person.” It was quiet enough after that for them to hear the hollow thonk of glass on wood as he put down his cup. “It is true,” he said, “but also, nothing happens invisibly among people.”
And then he said how in being seen there is a kind of company. And how therefore, to his mind, while Nana Oforiwaa was alone, still she was in their company, right until the last moment. And he said how everything he was going to relate that evening had been seen or heard by one person or another. That these things were signs of the company they, Nana Oforiwaa’s neighbors, had kept with her until the end, and that they had nothing to feel shameful for.
Here, for a little more than a moment, he paused, so that some thought he had lost his nerve, though those closer to the front saw the concentration in his face, as when a doctor listens to the pulse in a child’s wrist, or the breathing of a chest.
And then he began.
“Everyone remembers the heat and then the rain.”
Already, he said, the air had begun to condense on the skin by the time Nana Oforiwaa arrived at the school on the day that would be the last of her life. The gardener saw her car entering at the school gate. Almost half of the fifth form saw it pass on its way down the hill. A handful of children on detention, who were weeding the grass along the road, saw her car come to a halt outside the teacher’s quarters, saw her open the back door before the driver could come round to open it for her, saw her step out onto the sand of the road and smooth her dress over her knees with sharp swipes of her hands and squint into the sun.
As it was Sunday, classes were out. The young boy sent to summon the teacher found him up a ladder in the school hall inspecting some recent repairs to the ceiling.
Returning directly to his quarters, the teacher met Nana Oforiwaa pacing up and down in front of the steps.
A group of children playing in the shade of a tree nearby heard some of their brief exchange, catching only Nana Oforiwaa’s last words, “So, we go inside then.”
Further up the road Nana Oforiwaa’s driver was leaning over the open front door of the car. He too saw Nana Oforiwaa and the teacher enter the house.
Two hours later the sound of a bell brought the children from the upper fields. The light had deepened and a light breeze began to stir the leaves in the shadows as the children passed the parked car on their way to the dormitories. The drowsy undertow of insects and bird calls disappeared under the noise of voices and falling feet. It was six o’clock in the afternoon. Nana Oforiwaa’s niece had now been missing over four hours. So had the boy.
Some time after that the teacher emerged from his house and spoke to the driver.
Nana Oforiwaa would stay where she was, he told the driver, until her niece and the boy were found.
But she did not stay where she was, because during the night she left the schoolteacher’s house and went out into the rain.
“She wasn’t hungry,” said the old woman, who had served her evening meal and was the last person to see her alive.
“She didn’t look like a person about to die” (though what such a person should look like she couldn’t say), “only a little occupied with thinking.” And she shuddered to recall how all that night she had gone about her business below in the kitchen as usual, while Nana Oforiwaa was pacing about above her, turning over in her head whatever it was that led her to that bridge in the night in the middle of a torrential downpour. But the old woman heard nothing, she said, not even when Nana Oforiwaa let herself out, which she must have done on account of the fact that the back door was swinging open on the breeze when the old woman came in the next morning.
She had told all this to the police, and later to the doctor, who now repeated it to the gathered people, so bringing to a close his account of the last hours of Nana Oforiwaa’s life. He looked to the people seated behind him for a sign of whether they should stop for a rest, or whether he should continue with his story. They nodded to him to continue, since he had only begun and there was a long way to go. Somebody went to refill the doctor’s water jug, and when that person returned the doctor began again, setting out the rest of the story, from the moment the children’s absence was first noticed to the moment of their return, and further back still, to the events that preceded their disappearance.
All the while as he talked his eyes were fixed above the heads that listened, gazing out through the door, where the black outlines of the trees stood against the speckled sky. His soft, even voice moved fluidly, like water, and soon it was as if the words had a natural life of their own. They were not coming from him, it seemed, but rose around him, as if conjured, until the sound of the words saturated everything and nothing was possible outside of them. And when it was over the people assembled there knew that what they had heard was true, though they did not quite remember how it had become so.
The doctor told of how earlier that Sunday Nana Oforiwaa had taken her niece to the Botanical Gardens after church. The boy had been with them too, and Nana Oforiwaa had gone into one of the glasshouses, leaving the children outside. When she returned both children had gone.
She had summoned the groundsmen, who searched the gardens for them, but that took over an hour on account of the size of the gardens, and all through that time Nana Oforiwaa had stayed, alone, at a table under the trees in the café. There were plenty who would have sat with her, but none dared. She sat, her arms folded heavily across her breasts, her mouth tight as a hairpin, and her eyes full of righteous hostility.
Later, they discovered from the park guards that the children had not gone out through any of the gates. But that meant nothing. There were many places in the fence where they could have slipped through. That was when Nana Oforiwaa decided that the children had purposefully disappeared. “Look now what has happened,” she said, voice raised, and the groundsmen stood quietly, heads lowered, as if they were responsible. But Nana Oforiwaa was more than angry: she had begun to panic, and the people said (her driver, the customers under the trees, the waitresses) that she feared now for her niece, she feared for what the boy had done with her, a girl she’d brought up as her own.
Everybody knew about Nana Oforiwaa’s niece and the boy, the half-foreigner. It was a matter of silent outrage, their shameless public intimacy, touching each other like the whites did on the streets of Accra. It was spoken of by everyone (and not in lowered tones either). At weekends, people would see him waiting for her at the back of the Methodist hall, as the solemn hymns came rolling slowly down the hill, waiting to take her away, to couple like monkeys in the shade of the banana trees. Afterwards they’d come out into the church square, where people attending funerals congregated in their red and black robes, and walk together openly, her books crossed in his arms against his chest. Many times they were seen taking the shortcut back to the school, up the steep paths from the other side of the main road, down through the alleyways between the collapsing bungalows whose old steps were covered with moss, down the rocky paths on which washing was laid out to dry. And if they felt it was safe enough, and that they were not followed, they would do it again, stripping off their clothes in the tall grass, surrounded by the noise of women talking in their compounds, of carpentry and of sick children.
Now, in Nana Oforiwaa’s anger, in her indignation and impotence, many felt their own anger and indignation and impotence, which they had endured for many weeks; and it swept them up in a rush of sympathy. Nana Oforiwaa had not seen it all clearly before, they said, but now she had, now
she understood. And such was the strength of the resentment unleashed against the boy that he might just as well have murdered Nana Oforiwaa with his own hands, while the girl remained immune from their anger, on account of the fact that she was Nana Oforiwaa’s niece, even if both she and the boy had run off that Sunday together.
And so, when on Monday morning the two of them had come walking up Aburi Main Road, passing Peduase Lodge, brazen as the day and ignorant still of what they had caused, two different receptions awaited them. As they reached the rest house they heard from inside the sound of a prayer meeting in full swing. They had not yet climbed the stairs when there emerged from the door a phalanx of churchwomen, bustling with the determination of martyrs, that pushed the boy aside (not violently, but as if they had not seen him) and swept up the girl into the bosom of holiness and propriety.
As for what had passed between Nana Oforiwaa and the teacher before the first search party set out to find the missing children, the doctor could add little. What he could tell them he had learned from remarks the teacher had made to his companions during the night’s search: that Nana Oforiwaa had come directly from the Botanical Gardens to the school; that she was upset and anxious; that she’d wanted to search for the children herself, and immediately, but that the teacher had persuaded her to wait a little longer, arguing that the children might return on their own.
When later the doctor had tried to talk to the teacher himself, he told the crowd, he had met with no success. The teacher was, by this time, beyond rationality.
“He says things over and over again. Nonsense, unintelligible things . . .” the doctor said. “Otherwise he lies completely silent for hours, his whole body clenched . . .”
Then the doctor stopped talking. There was silence for a long time. Silence that was full of pity for the teacher. Though not only pity, but gratitude too for his carrying such grief. And as the doctor stood there, looking out over the quiet people, it occurred to him for the first time how much the grateful will forget.
And how much they will forgive.
Excerpted from Eddie Signwriter by Adam Schwartzman. Copyright © 2010 by Adam Schwartzman. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.