I have an uncle called Fiifi.
He is my father’s elder brother.
The other day, he came to our house. He came to our house with his big mouth and his satchel bag of troubles hung around his shoulders. It is a bag that if you see him with and you tell him that you are looking for trouble, he can peer into, dip his hand into, bring out ‘this trouble’ and ask you, “do you like this type?” or dip his hand again and bring out ‘that trouble’ and ask you “do you like that type?” If you tell him that you like neither ‘this trouble’ nor ‘that trouble’, he can keep searching in that bag until he finds the exact type of trouble you are looking for. A kind that has been tailor made just for you. That bag contains all sorts of trouble and on the day he came, he most certainly laid out one on the table for me. One that had been made to suit me like a well-made garment. Even though I had not asked for trouble and was taking care to mind my own business.
“So what do you do”? He asked me.
My brother, Kobby winked at him, signaling at him not to ask me that question in the presence of daa but he ignored him. Maybe he was just being his normal clueless self, for he asked again,
“What do you do?”
I felt a bit uncomfortable. It was not as if I was not proud of what I do. It was just that, that particular subject was one that always stirred up anger, pain, and stress in my family. It was a subject that in the past had led to insults, curses, blows and at one point, daa had held his chest tightly after a disagreement on the subject. He had held his chest so tightly that we feared he was having a heart attack. Therefore, we rarely ever discussed the subject in our house. However, uncle Fiifi was having none of it. He was as insistent as a three year old who had asked his mother a question and had made up his mind not to let go until he had had an answer. Kobby tried to change the subject and daa shifted uncomfortably in his chair, pretending to be reading the papers. Maa got up to go to the kitchen. The topic had reminded her that there was cooking to do. Joojo walked out of the hall towards his bedroom. This left me with daa, uncle Fiifi and Kobby in the sitting room. Nevertheless, my uncle was not ready to let sleeping dogs lie, so he turned to daa and asked,
“Bra, what does he do?”
“Ask him,” daa said, putting the papers down. “Is he not your nephew? Is he not the one standing there? Ask him.” Daa was getting angry; I could sense it in the rising tone of his voice. Kobby tried to play peacemaker, smiling round at everybody.
“But is he not the same person I have been asking all this while?” Uncle Fiifi countered. “Does he not work?”
“Ask him,” daa gestured towards me with his head.
“Where does he work?”
“How much does he earn?”
“Why is he still living at home?”
With each ‘ask him,’ daa’s tempo went higher and higher and I knew, we all knew that the next ‘ask him’ was going to be a bomb. We knew that the next ‘ask him’ was going to be an explosion that would have shattered our afternoon into tiny fragments of chaos. Then, for the first time that day, it seemed as if uncle Fiifi finally got something into that his thick plank of a head. He finally realized that daa did not want those questions directed at him, so he turned to me and said,
“Hɛɛ! Come here!”
He looked into my eyes and asked, “Why are you still unmarried”?
“Funny man, this”. I said in my head. He had changed the direction of the questioning. ‘Smart move,’ I thought to myself. The answer to this new question was likely to lead to further questions, which would eventually lead us back to his initial question. For the questioning was most likely to have gone like this,
“Why are you still unmarried?” Then, I would have gone like,
“I’m not yet ready”
“Not yet ready? As in you have not found the right woman?”
Then, I would have liked to say “no, I have not,” so that he would take his bagful of trouble elsewhere. However, everyone in my house knew that I had found the right woman so my likely response would have been “I have found the right woman.”
Then we would have come back to,
“Why are you still unmarried?” This would have forced me to say something like,
“We are still making plans towards the wedding,” and he would have asked,
“How do you mean, ‘making plans towards the wedding’?”
Then I would have said “financially,”
Then he would have asked,
“What do you mean financially? How do you even earn a living? At any rate, you koraa, what do you do?” Back to square one. A question that I was not prepared to answer that afternoon because I was tired of explaining, defining, and defending what I do. The whole process had begun to wear me out.
Just then, my sister Kuukuwaa came in with her hands full of loads of yellow shopping bags and I got up to go and help her but uncle Fiifi held me back and said,
“Hɛɛ! Hɛɛ! Hɛɛ! Sit down!” He turned his attention to Kuukuwaa and asked her,
“This brother of yours, what does he do?”
Kuukuwaa was surprised because she did not even know what we were talking about, but uncle asked again, “what does he do?”
“What do you mean uncle? What does he do sɛn?”
“As in what is his profession?” uncle replied.
“But you are aware that he studied physics at the university right?” Kuukuwaa asked him.
“Eeh? So he is a physicist eh?” Then, he turned to me and asked, “Why have you not said so all this while?”
Daa snorted angrily in his chair. I was thinking that if someone did not put a plug on the questions, that my old man would burst like an overblown balloon, which had been poked with a pin.
Kobby snickered. It was just like him to rub salt in my wound.
“Physicist eh? Where? At which university or laboratory do you practice this your physicist?
“Aaah! Uncle!” Kuukuwaa exclaimed. “Won’t you drop this subject?”
“But Kuuksies,” he said, I know that you are a doctor at All Health Clinic and that Akwes is a lawyer at Good Law Chambers and that Kobby is a banker at All Riches Bank and you have just told me that this one here is a physicist but you have not told me exactly where he practices that physicist.”
Daa could no longer hold it in. “There! He bellowed, pointing at my bedroom. That is his office. That is where he is building his atomic bomb,” he added cynically.
“Eii! Bomb?” Uncle Fiifi asked innocently, startled. “Why is he building a bomb? Isn’t that illegal?”
Sometimes I think my uncle is slightly demented. My siblings also suspect that he is mad but we are all too polite to draw attention to it. We are all too respectful of daa’s elder brother.
Kobby could no longer keep in the laughter he was hiding in his cheeks so he burst out uncontrollably. Daa turned to him with an angry glare. “Look at that fool too! You think it is funny eh? He is your brother! He will become your responsibility one day if you don’t encourage him to go and look for a job.”
“Aaah!” Uncle exclaimed, stood up from his chair, and looked from daa to me and from me to daa as if he did not understand what was going on. “Is he not a physicist? But he studied physics at the university right?” As if everybody that studies, physics at the university ends up as a physicist.
Daa did not answer, so uncle turned back to me and asked, “Young man, but you studied physics at the university right?”
I sighed, trying to keep my rising impatience, which had begun to border on anger under control. Then I said in almost a whisper, “yes,” with choked emotions.
He turned back to daa and asked, “Why then are you saying that he is not a physicist?”
Then, he turned back to me and said,
I was thinking in my head that ‘this man is mad,’
Then he said again,
To which, I said in my head,
Then he said again,
I burst out laughing in spite of myself, wondering what he was playing at. Maybe it was just his madness acting out.
“Why is he laughing?” he asked daa, “Is that not physics?”
My father’s elder brother is trouble personified and I mean major trouble. He has always been trouble, for as long as I have known him. Anytime he appears at our home he finds it in peace but leaves it in pieces and I knew that he was not going to give it a rest so I said calmly, “I am a Professional Writer.”
He was just about to sit down but he stopped mid-air and stood up again. Then he asked, “What is that?” and began to laugh. He laughed so loudly. It was a long loud laughter, he laughed so hard that tears began to drip down his cheeks. “What did you just say?” he asked. I could see my mother standing sadly at the kitchen door pretending as if she was busily preparing something. However, I knew that she was indeed listening in on the conversation and I knew she was praying in her heart that the topic would not lead to a quarrel. I knew she was praying in her heart that my uncle would give up and begin to go back to his own home; praying that this stoker of fire will not come and burn down her home.
“Ehen, you were saying?” uncle Fiifi asked again. Daa rearranged himself in his chair properly and looked directly at me trying to give me eye contact but I held my head high and turned my attention to the doorway. I knew what was coming.
“We spent money on him to go and be a doctor, and then he did the first two years and said he did not have a passion for medicine so he downgraded it to physics. Therefore, we went and borrowed money from the bank to see him through that too. He has finished that one and is now working and earning his salary from that office over there,” daa said sarcastically as he pointed to my bedroom. My father’s contempt for my bedroom stems from the fact that I do most of my writing there. In fact, he has threatened to throw me out of that room and out of his house. “If not for the love I feel for your mother, I would long since have ejected you!” It so happens that he went into my room one day, in search of his radio, which Joojo had taken in there and saw my various notepads and freshly printed manuscripts neatly arranged on the floor. He had deliberately trodden upon them. Deliberately, (he said so himself), with his dirty slippers, as if they had been a part of the floor carpet. This had led to a big row between him and me and from that day I have always kept my room under lock and key and he has forever been threatening to eject me from his house.
“So uncle Fiifi,” Kuukuwaa asked, “Why have you come all the way here to harass Kwame?”
“Look at the other fool,” daa retorted. “You keep on shielding him. He will come and live with you in your matrimonial home one day, if you guys think that your mother and I will be alive for ever.”
“But his father has a house,” uncle Fiifi said. “Or does he not? Moreover, being the first-born he is sure that he will inherit it. So why should he work hard eh?”
I was boiling with rage, but for the respect I had for maa, I would have walked out on the two men.
“So,” my uncle continued, turning his attention back to me. “Are you a physicist- turned – writer, a writer-writer, or a hobby – writer?”
“I am just a writer,” I said quietly.
Uncle looked at me. His glasses were on the tip of his nose so I knew that he was definitely not looking at me through the lenses. He turned to daa and asked,
“What profession is that? Since when did writing become a profession?”
“You ask him,” daa said in a quietly angry voice, gesturing at me with his head. “He is your nephew isn’t he?”
“So, this your writing, how much do you earn in a month?” My uncle asked.
“My son, you are the one I am talking to. How much do you earn on a monthly basis?”
Hm! I sighed to myself.
“Is the boy deaf and dumb?” he turned to ask my father. I flinched at the word ‘boy’ with which he had described me.
“He is your nephew bra; direct your questions at him.”
“But he is not responding.” He said to Daa. He turned to look directly at me and asked again, “Mr. Writer, I say, how -much- do- you- earn- in- a- month?” spacing the words for emphasis.
He looked long at me and asked, “in fact, how many books have you written so far?”
“Six,” I responded proudly. In fact, it would have been seven if daa had not torn one of my stories into pieces, I remembered with pain in my heart.
“Eeh? How many have you published?”
I wanted to tell them that I was still in the process of looking for a good publisher; that I had some short stories published in some journals but I knew that they would have mocked at me, so I kept quiet.
“How many of your books have been published?” he asked again.
“Writer? In this Ghana? How many of your books have been sold?”
“Are you a best seller?”
Still more silence,
”Mchww! My friend, remove that ‘Professional’ from in front of the ‘Writer,’” he said sarcastically. “A profession brings you an income. You have written six books and have not earned even a pesewa and you go about parading yourself as a ‘Professional Writer’. Look here, you cannot hood wink me. Who in this Ghana would even take you seriously if you told them that you were a writer?”
The man may be mad but he is most definitely, not stupid. I never cease to be amazed at his regular outburst of intelligence. Daa smiled.
“So let’s start again,” he said. “You are an ‘Amateur Writer’. This your writing, is it a hobby or is it full time or are you doing it to kill time while you look for a job?”
I knew there and then that it was daa, who had invited his brother over to come and insult me. For that was daa speaking and not uncle Fiifi. Those were the exact words of daa.
“Is writing even a profession?”
I wanted to say yes, but I knew that daa would take umbrage at that and I did not want to have an argument with him. He looked fully prepared for an argument. I could see that he had sharpened his tongue and was just waiting for the whistle to blow so the arguments could begin but I did not want to argue with him. I did not want any heart attack-like scenes. Besides, Kobby kept begging me with his eyes not to respond to their questions, so I kept quiet whilst uncle asked in that annoying tone of his, if writing was a profession.
“In our time, it used to be a hobby; something we did to amuse ourselves. It was not anything to be taken seriously.” “Remember?” He turned to daa and asked, “When our head teacher would ask us to write a story that ended with ‘Had I Known?’”
Daa nodded his head.
“Antiquated folks with antiquated ideas,” I thought to myself.
Unconsciously, I began to drum a beat on NP77 with my pen. NP77 being a code name for my note pad. ‘NP’ of course standing for Note Pad and ‘77’ because this is my 77th note pad since I went into full time writing. The men were wasting my time. My actions were wrongly timed for daa’s gaze travelled from my face which he had been looking into directly and landed on my laps on which NP77 was nestled. His eyes rested on the offensive pad and he stared at it in disgust like a wicked stepmother stares at her rival’s baby, this note pad, which had become a constant annoyance to my father. I stopped drumming and my hands passed instinctively to NP77, which I quickly picked up, from my lap, and hid behind my back. ‘May no evil eyes look upon it’ I thought to myself.
“Are you hiding it?” daa asked. “If it was something to be proud of would you have been hiding it?”
I was not in any way ashamed of NP77 but I knew that now that daa had set his eyes on it, it would be the next subject for discussion.
“What is that?” Uncle Fiifi asked. “What is he ashamed of?”
“Ask him,” daa said angrily. I was beginning to enjoy the drama between daa and his elder brother, the business of,
“What has he done?”
The way things were going, I knew that their popular front would soon collapse. I knew that they would soon turn against each other. All I needed to do was to bid my time until that happened.
“What are you hiding behind you? Let me see it”
I brought NP77 from behind me but I did not give it to him.
“What is that?” he asked daa
“His story writing pad,” daa said contemptuously.
“Ooh! I see,” uncle said, nodding his head as if he had had a sudden revelation, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down. “Your story writing pad eh? So, is there a story in it?”
“Yes….er no,” I did not want him to ask to see it.
“Look at him bumbling, like a fool,” daa said. I was not too upset for the word ‘fool’ comes naturally to daa.
“Let me see it,” uncle said but I did not give it to him. I had too many ideas jotted in there and I knew that uncle was capable of tearing it to pieces, just like that.
“Hɛɛ!” Uncle said. “Why can’t you be like every child in this house? Why do you have to be so different? This is a family of doctors, lawyers, bankers, and engineers. For God’s sake, why do you have to go and ruin the flow? Considering that, you are the first-born.”
My conscience tore at me because my uncle had hit the nail right on the head. I felt like a part of the family and at the same time apart from them. I felt as if I was among loved ones and yet I felt alone. It was as if I did not belong, as if I was an aberrant, the black sheep of the family, a perpetual embarrassment. They made me feel like a weed in their neatly arranged bunch of white roses. I knew my siblings were making a conscious effort to understand me, to accept my chosen path. Yet I saw it in their eyes albeit subtly, I saw the pleading and the worrying. I saw their eyes asking again and again ‘’are you sure of what you are doing?” I sensed it in their body language; in the terseness of it, particularly whenever they thought that I was not watching. I knew of their weekly meetings with maa. I also knew of their consistent prayers behind my back, that God would open my eyes to see the folly of my decision. To tell the truth, I also felt a weight; a fear that I dared not disclose to anybody, an apprehension that the course I had chosen may lead nowhere. At the same time, I felt extreme excitement and passion about what I had set out to do. I dreamt big dreams about it. It felt like setting off on a journey to the unknown, on a path that only the brave could dare to tread. I was aware that others had trodden this road before and had made their names; had acquired laurels for them. I seemed to hear a voice from out there calling to me, “Child, do not be afraid to take this step. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”
“Do you want to die a pauper?” Uncle asked again.
The question hit me hard. This question was one that had continuously haunted me. First, like whether I was a ‘writer-writer’ or a ‘hobby-writer’ as my uncle chose to put it? Like, whether my books will get the global audience that I knew it deserved? Like, how was I going to get a good publisher since those I knew did not have the capacity to market my books on an international platform? Like when was I going to get a major breakthrough and start earning money for my writing? On-line- publishing seemed to be my only hope and yet even that one had not been programed for writers in Ghana. Trouble o! I often mused on the perception that making it as a writer was like playing professional football. A ‘many are called but few are chosen’ kind of scenario.
The problem with me is that when I combine my writing with my work as a physicist, I tend to suffer regular writer’s block so that instead of writing a book in a couple of weeks or months, I spend years and years on one book, and that frustrates me beyond measure. For even though I am a good physicist, my actual passion lies in writing; in playing with words; in coming up with beautiful written pieces. It got to a point when I found myself struggling to wake up each morning to prepare for work as a physicist. There were days when I plodded hopelessly to work like someone without a purpose, just going through the mundane process of it all. I knew that if I was to become a writer, that if I was going to get my breakthrough, I was going to have to devote more time to my writing. I knew that I was going to have to make some sort of sacrifice if I was going to be a successful writer. Therefore, I resorted to practicing as a physicist on a part time basis but I had not anticipated the huge financial constraints I was going to run into. Since then, I have constantly been faced with the burden of whether I should continue with the writing and remain a pauper until I get my breakthrough or whether to give up on my dream and go back to my regular job. I am in a dilemma.
“Don’t do this to us,” uncle Fiifi said. “See all the money that has gone into your education, please do not let it go to waste. Please look at your old father and beloved mother and reconsider your profession as a physicist. Ah! How do we go about explaining to people that our son is a writer? Writer sɛn? Who even told you that writing is a profession in Ghana? Mchww!”
I shifted my butt from side to side on the chair, feeling so hot and uncomfortable. What were the two old men trying to do to me? Why were they trying to snatch my heart out of my chest? Why were they trying to wrench my passion from me? I told them that being a writer was like being pregnant. That there was the gestation period and then there was the birthing period. That a good writer was likely to make it but that it took time.
“Your pregnancy is evil,” uncle Fiifi said. “A pregnancy that has lasted for two years! You need a pastor to deliver you of that evil child.”
I wanted to cry, that uncle had called my writing an ‘evil child’. I felt as if I had a wet wound in my heart.
“Go and ask your mother or any other woman who has had children how they would have felt if they had carried their babies for two years. You yourself seating there, if your mother had carried you in her womb for two years, would you not have been born with teeth in your mouth and a walking stick in your hands? Does even an elephant carry its baby for two years? Young man don’t come and annoy me today.”
I was beginning to boil. I did not owe uncle Fiifi anything. I did not live with him, he did not clothe me, and he did not feed me so I did not see why he had come all the way to our house to make my life miserable. I wanted to tell him my piece of mind. I wanted to ask him to mind his own business but I could see maa watching me quietly from the kitchen, silently appealing to me to restrain myself for her sake. Therefore, I kept quiet and swallowed their insults whilst I bemoaned my predicament and that of the Professional African Writer or ‘P.A.W.’ as my colleagues and I chose to call ourselves. However, that day, I decided in my heart that I was going to do all I could to make my dreams come true. I decided to cling on to my faith that ‘I had been called and will be chosen’.
“It’s your entire fault. You pampered this boy too much!” Uncle Fiifi re-directed his anger at daa.
“How do you mean?” daa asked angrily.
Kobby looked at me and gave me a conspiratorial wink. I smiled. We knew what had happened. The popular front had collapsed right before our eyes. We waited for their quarrel to intensify then Kobby quietly walked out of there and I quietly followed suit after a few minutes. I walked out of that heat into my bedroom or my ‘office’ as daa chose to call it, from where I knew I would live to fight another day. However as I slipped NP77 back into my back pocket, I whispered to myself, “My time will come. One day, my time will come.”
story by: Agnes Gyening