At 9:30 AM., Dodzi already has roasted plantain arranged in a pyramid, the speared ends not quite meeting at the top. Her face glistens with sweat. She perches sideways on the table supporting the rusty white enamel pot of smoldering coals, using tongs to turn over the plantains. Usually her eyes hold a fuck-you smile, but when she sees me she breaks into delight, displaying even teeth I wish were mine.
I pull over. She jumps down to come to my car but I wave her back, motioning that I’m getting out. Before my car arrived from the US, I used to walk to her plantain stand. I’d stand in the double heat of the sun and her fire, taking my time to point out which slices I wanted. Now, I’ve become one of those enclosed in an air-conditioned car, waiting for a seller to approach my window and take my order, and then driving off. I’ve missed the ease of relating.
Dodzi says something in Ewe to her younger helper and they both smile. I suspect she said I had come to visit. My purse slung over my shoulder, I cross the gutter and make my way to the bench behind her roofed stand. We exchange greetings. She’s well; I’m well. I sigh with contentment. The breeze is so tingly.
I’ve thought of writing about her and even prepared questions on my phone but have never found the time. Now I ask her if I can take her picture and probe into her business. She rolls her eyes and snorts. “People are always coming to ask us questions. Newspaper people, Legon students, asking all sorts of questions. We don’t know what they want with us.” She darts a suspicious look at me. “What are you going to do with my picture?”
“I want to write a blog about you.”
Her eyes pop with panic. She throws her hands up, gives me a vigorous shake of the head. “What’s a blog? I don’t want trouble!”
I soothe her with my smile. “Oh, it’s just an online article. Something I write for fun.” She’s still suspicious, so I pull out my phone and open my blog. “See?”
She sees my picture and I point to an article, show her comments from readers who are not Ghanaian. Somehow, she gets the idea that only Americans will see it. Her body relaxes and she turns plantains over. I feel a smidgeon of guilt for not telling her I have readers the world over.
“Should I give you the usual?” she asks.
“Yes. Two cedis, and one-cedi groundnuts.”
In the glove compartment of my car, some nuts from the previous day nestle in their clear plastic envelopes the size of a deck of cards, but I want her to receive the money she expects from me. In the past, she has given me a biting look for not buying a lot. Buy enough so we can also get money to eat!
She hands me two hot plantains wrapped in paper. They are just the way I like them: not too ripe. I settle down to munch and talk, looking around. I’m not sure how to proceed. The questions I’ve prepared suddenly seem artificial:
“How much do you make in a day?”
Enough, she answers without looking at me. It’s clear she has no time for that kind of silliness. Not when a suited customer awaits in a car. She rushes to the window to take his order, then she serves him, wrapping four cuts of plantains in paper before slipping them into a blue plastic bag. After delivery, she smiles at the man and waves him off before returning to her perch on the table, one leg horizontal, the other dangling.
“You still serve in plastic?”
She sighs, her brows creasing with exasperation. “I told you before, they won’t take the plantains without plastic. Yes, I hear on the radio; they tell us plastic with hot food is dangerous, but if I don’t give customers plastic, they ask me if I take them for bush people. You see them, educated people wearing suits in their cars and they want plastic. What can I do? I have to serve them in plastic or they will go to someone else. I wish they were like you. It would save me money. I have to buy these plastic bags that might kill my customers.” Her smile is bitter, fuck-you again.
As she’s talking, her friend from the other side dodges the Lagos Avenue traffic and dashes over, smiling at me. “Ei, Mommy, you have come to visit us again.”
I give her a grudging smile. Mommy. It’s a politeness thing that makes me feel ancient. I mutter to myself: Do I look like I could give birth to you?
“Ei, is that your car?” she asks. “I remember you complaining about dusty taxis, ha-ha.”
“She’s complaining about plastic again,” Dodzi says, wiping her hands on her blue apron.
Her friend laughs, a laugh that says I’m so silly. “Hmm, Mommy, as for die, we will all die. It’s in God’s hands.”
I feel my face heat up. “That’s what’s wrong with this country. We take no responsibility for our lives. We say ‘O!, God is in control!’, so we don’t need to change our toxic behavior, we don’t need to take care of ourselves!”
She touches my arm. “Mommy, that’s why we go to church. So long as you go to church, you are in God’s hands. When it’s your time to die, you die. But you go to heaven.”
I snort. “Yeah, church is fine, that’s why pastors have so much power. People are so full of ‘God is in control’ that pastors are the ones in control. No wonder pastors take people’s money and impregnate their women.”
The friend gives me a tolerant smile, the kind you give to a lunatic, and turns to Dodzi, but Dodzi smiles contemptuously.
“Sister, I agree with you. Let me tell you, I know this pastor. He prays for women who can’t have children, and when the children are born, they all look like him, ha. He fucks the women, that’s what. I am no fool. I know what is going on, but people are afraid of pastors so men let them chop their wives, ha ha!” Her laughter is full of scorn.
I’m impressed. Usually the not-so-educated aren’t this irreverent. As we’re talking, her young helper sweeps around us. I’m about to ask Dodzi more questions about pastors when I notice the helper starting a fire about ten yards from us.
I turn to Dodzi, pointing. “Is she burning the rubbish?”
“Yes.” She goes on flipping plantains, the perfect arches of her brows serene. She squeezes a plantain to see if it’s cooked through, then wipes her hand on her apron. A customer awaits. She serves quickly, asking the lady to have a nice day.
I eye the grey smoke spiraling into the air, then I note that on a long table near us, sachets of “pure water” are stacked in an ice cooler, as well as soda.
I blink at her. “Does the trash contain plastic?
“Yes,” she says, still not looking at me.
“But burning plastic is so bad. You know that!”
She turns the full glare of her slit eyes on me. “What do you want me to do? If we don’t burn it, this place would be nasty.”
I cast my eyes along the road. There’s not a single trash can in sight. Only twenty yards down from us, another roasted plantain seller waits on a customer. Once called Kofi Broke-man, roasted plantain with groundnuts is no longer a meal for the poor. Lagos Avenue in affluent East Legon is dotted with women roasting away, plastic wastes littered around them.
I turn to Dodzi. “Don’t you wish the government would put trash cans on the street?”
Both women snort. “Ghana government?”
Dodzi gives me a side glance. “They should put trash cans where? No one cares, tweaa! Go to Kasewa. There are mountains of rubbish everywhere. Right by the rubbish heaps, they sell foodstuffs. Trᴐtrᴐ drivers drop and pick up passengers right in front of a mountain of trash, kai! My eyes are wide open.
She nods. “It’s true. So, we do what we can. We sweep and burn the rubbish because there’s nowhere else to put them.”
My words dry up. What can I say? I should be attacking Accra Town Council or something, not her.
“What about these?” I’m pointing at a carton full of plantain skins to my right. “Why aren’t you burning them?”
“Those? We sell them at Medina market. They use them to make alata sɛmena. The black soap, you know. They burn them and cook the ash.”
Her friend chimes in. “It’s a long process of boiling and cooling and until the soap rises to the top. You can smell it.”
“I can show you how to do it if you like,” Dodzi says, then turns indignant. “That soap, I grew up with it. We always made our own soap.” She is taut with anger now. “Now, they, they, they, they say we should use Dove, Lux, stuff from foreign lands. Our soap makes your skin feel good and young.” She pokes energetically at the fire with a long stick, waving off the ash. “Our food is better too! Look at you, looking so young. It’s because you’re eating roasted plantain and groundnuts, Ghana food. You’ve got fresh blood! Ghana food is good for you. I’m sure you’ve got a boyfriend. I’m sure all these young men are chasing you. Someone is fucking you, no?”
I’m spared a response, because she spots a young man strolling past. He is clicking a pair of tiny scissors. “Hɛɛɛ!” she calls to him. “Come cut my nails for me.”
“Who is that?” I ask.
“He cuts nails. That’s his business.”
What do you know, an ambulatory mani-pedicurist! He swivels round and steps behind the plantain stand. Dodzi sits like a lady sitting side-saddle on a horse. She can roast her plantains and peel off groundnut skins at the same time, filling tiny plastic envelopes with the peeled nuts. Her bare feet hang down, and the pedicurist goes to work. He’s from the north, with the tribal marks of a Frafra though he communicates in Hausa.
“Where are the leaves for the apklɛ?” Dodzi’s friend asks. Dodzi points to an aluminum bowl. The friend picks up the bowl and begins separating the leaves from the stems. Then she turns to me. “Do you know akplɛ?”
“Sure, I do. Is it not like banku, only with more cassava?”
“Aha, you see? Some people don’t know, just because it’s Ewe food. We are all one Ghana, with slight differences.”
“It’s true,” I answer. “So how much for the pedicure?”
Her friend jumps in. “One cedi.”
One cedi! Less than 25 American cents. Dodzi laughs at my expression. “Yeah, you can go to the salon for a pedicure where they put your feet in warm water and do all kinds of fancy stuff. Me? I don’t have time for that. I can paint my own nails when I get home. I don’t need to pay 20 or 30 cedis when I can get my nails cut for one cedi and not waste time.”
“She has to go home and cook for her family,” the friend says. “She’s going to make soup with the leaves to go with the akplɛ. She doesn’t have time for salons. That’s why I’m helping her.”
I shake my head. “No, this pedicure is great! Look, he’s even got his soap for cleaning the nails. Wow.”
Tiny crescents of nail clippings settle on the ground near my feet. I ask if they are going to sweep them and burn them with the rubbish. A look of horror overtakes Dodzi. “Sweep them and throw them away? My nails? No, no, no!”
“Ah, Sister, don’t you know? Human nails are powerful. You never know what people are going to do with them.”
I’m confused. “What will people do with them?”
“They can do medicine. Ei, hmm. You don’t know. Maybe someone is jealous of you. She can take your nails to the medicine man, and next thing you know, you’re dead. Or your belly gets swollen, with rotten intestines.”
“Let me tell you,” the friend says, “even your soiled menstrual pads can be used.”
“Yes,” Dodzi says, nodding vigorously. “Do you know people steal them from your rubbish bin? Hmm, I had a neighbor. Ah, she kept noticing that any time she woke up, her rubbish was scattered on the ground, like someone used a stick to poke and separate them. And yet when she’d collect them, she would notice that not a single used pad was to be found. Her neighbor was stealing her used pads to use them for medicine.”
“You don’t know? They put water on it to redeem your blood, then they take it to the medicine man to make juju and either sabotage your business or kill you. Ei, let me tell you. I even know someone who would stalk her enemy at the hairdresser’s to get her hair. When you go to the salon, make sure you collect your bits of hair. Don’t let them sweep it away.”
I nod in shock.
“Don’t let them keep your nails. And watch out for your pads.”
“Erm…thanks.” I don’t want to tell her about my hysterectomy. Who knows where that conversation would lead to? “So, where do you get the paper you use to wrap plantain in?”
“Medina market. You can get anything from Medina—Hey, MTN!” She’s looking at a lady sitting under a large red umbrella selling phone cards. “Bring me ten cedis’ credit.”
I marvel at how Dodzi multitasks: roasting plantains, serving customers, prepping for dinner, getting her nails done and keeping up with the competition.
“There are so many of you roasting plantain,” I say. “Don’t you worry about not getting enough business?”
She smiles confidently. “No, there’s enough for us. God provides for us all. They have their customers; I have mine. Like you. You come back to me, don’t you?”
“I do.” I smile wickedly. “Even though your plantain wedges are thinner than others!”
Her tongs hang in the air. She looks betrayed. “You bought from someone else? Is that so?”
“Well, erm, sometimes I have to. If I can’t fight the traffic to get here. But you’re my favourite!”
Her face relaxes into a smile and she shrugs, turning over a plantain. “Anyway, I can’t envy anyone. My customers always come back.” She picks up a stick and pokes at the coal.
She is right. I will always come back, because she is Dodzi, my friend.
Bisi Adjapon is the author of Of Women and Frogs whose short story version was nominated for the Caine Prize. As in International Affairs Specialist for the US Foreign Agricultural Service, she won the Civil Rights Award for Human Relations. She has written for McSweeney’s Quarterly, The Washington Times and other publications.