"But they said I must take you to the hotel!"
"We'll go later," I replied gently.
"But they said...." And so it went on in the airport car park until I managed to convince James that for once he needn't worry about the ubiquitous Ghanaian bogeyman, They.
They know everything; who's sleeping with who and what was said in supposedly confidential ministerial meetings. They even know the real age of Michael Essien - the Chelsea, Real Madrid and AC Milan player. Jose Mourinho would understand.
We got home from the airport after 11 pm to find an assorted troupe of relatives and well wishers, some of whom I was meeting for the very first time. Those would be Sophie’s friends from London. Sophie is my niece. They were playing soccer in the lounge with a small plastic ball that would have hurt their feet if they hadn't been wearing shoes. My father no doubt was apoplectic in his grave but my mother looked on bemused.
This influx of people must have frightened Michael the houseboy terribly because he promptly absconded that very night. Clearly the prospect of having his chores multiplied by a factor greater than 10 - albeit for a brief period - was too awful to contemplate.
Job interviews for domestic workers in Ghana can be surprisingly swift, surprising because of the comfortable air of lethargy that suffuses everything. In less than an hour after Michael's disappearance was discovered, a smiling man named Theophilus presented himself before my mother over breakfast. I liked him, it must have been the dark eyes in a worry free face. But in Ghana you can never tell.
"How old are you?" my mother asked.
"And you want to sweep floors at your age?" This was the Ghanaian deference to age coming through. It's ingrained in us from the moment we're old enough to eat solid food and realize the choicest meats on the dinner plate are not meant for you.
Theophilus looked puzzled and spread his palms to indicate age really was just a number. I liked him even more but in Ghana you really can't tell. I'd probably phone home in a month's time and find Theophilus had robbed my mother blind.
"We don't want anyone with itchy fingers," my mother warned. Michael was already being castigated as the likely cause of all the items that had gone missing from the house over the past few months. The only thing left to do was to put up a "Wanted" poster and call up a posse on horseback. But Ghana is much too hot for such unbridled bursts of energy. Michael must have banked on that.
"Do you drink?" Aunt Adjoa snapped at Theophilus. She's my mother's youngest sister and the stern one in the family.
Theophilus paused a moment before answering. "As for alcohol, " he said, referring to it like it was a rather unreliable but well meaning acquaintance, "I only drink at funerals."
He got the job.
The day started off with a service for my mother at the Calvary Methodist Church. There is a section of Accra society for whom Calvary as it's affectionately called, is an immovable feature, looming large in every aspect of their lives. A clutch of black and white robed priests stood waiting in front of the altar, their faces quick to break into broad smiles to match the colorful sashes draped around their necks. I felt a lump in my throat as scores of hands stretched out in blessing towards my mother while the walls shook to the sound of a soaring hymn. My nephew, who'd come in from Michigan, delivered the opening address and spoke more eloquently than I ever could. He described my mother as an angel around whom other angels congregate. I thought that was very well put. I wish I'd said that.
With the religious bit out of the way, it was on to the main event - a party for the Greatest Mother of All Time. It was held at the Labadi Beach Hotel, an establishment that seems to have been around almost as long as Calvary, and come to think of it, with much the same clientele. I'm always amazed by the subtexts that permeate Ghanaian life. We talk past each other with such ease and so often that the sub text becomes the text and requires an advanced degree in code breaking to understand it.
Take my sister in law, a lovely Chinese woman from Singapore. As she has two little boys, she arranged a baby sitter to help her out at the party. Seeing how irrepressibly active my nephews are, I thought she'd have hired at least three baby sitters, one for each child and the third as back up for when one of them inevitably raised the white flag and collapsed in a swoon. Anyway... the baby sitter never showed up. Later that evening, my sister in law cornered her and asked where she'd been.
"I was at the party,” the woman said simply, and she probably was. She'd probably started dancing and forgot why she'd come in the first place.
Four hundred and fifty guests all dressed in white, in sharp contrast to the flock of black aproned waiters and svelte ushers. My cousin - the Organizer in Chief - held an impromptu cull right before the party started and had the ushers, all young women in clinging black dresses and vertiginous heels, line up in front of her. I was puzzled at her selection criteria and watched bemused as those who'd been voted out, pried their feet out of their heels and into ballet flats. They'd have been on my list any day of the week. Later it was explained to me that my mother and her sister, Auntie Adwoa, for a variety of reasons wouldn't have approved of them: a dress too short here, hair too risqué there or a neckline that came perilously close to a navel. I suppose that's the reason I wasn't the Organizer in Chief. I'm too easily swayed by flashy trinkets and not to mention flashing thighs.
There were a number of highlights for me. One was the Hallelujah Chorus which was the accompaniment to the popping of champagne. We'd never rehearsed it - indeed Jerry the MC had only been roped in the day before when the original MC decided to delay his return from the US. That sort of thing happens often in Ghana. It went surprisingly well under Jerry's able direction and and the champagne surged out of the bottles as if on command, immediately Handel's final chord was struck,. Later, when the band was pumping, a friend ran up to me, breathless with excitement, "The old ladies,” he cried, "they're really dancing!"
(Actually what he said and this is for those who grew up in Ghana, "The old ladies! They dey dance o!") I'll always remember that.
The day ended with the die hards staking dogged claim to the dance floor. Chief among these were the teacher's from my mother's nursery school. As one, they shed their demure personas and transformed themselves into a shrieking flock, showing off aggressively suggestive dance moves. Now I won’t be able to look at them in the same way as they recite the 2x table. Later that evening I overheard my aunt muttering about the disgraceful manner in which some women had been dancing. It was clear she hadn’t seen the teachers. Somehow I don’t think the Greatest Mother of All Time would have been too bothered.