Make Myself Happy
Alternative Title: "Mama Fat"
As we bounced down the road back toward Paga, I looked at my watch: 6:30 pm. “Perfect,” I said. “We’ll get back right on time.”
I was throwing a dinner party that night in the Hotel Mayaga’s dining room. I’d organized it with Mary the owner, and her staff was preparing eight plates of chicken with jollof rice. I’d requested dinner to be served at around 7:00. Of course timing was flexible; any time after seven would be fine, and the guests certainly wouldn’t be arriving on the dot. This meant that Alasko and Henry and I would have a chance to enjoy a Star or two while Nia went upstairs to relax.
My cell phone jingled. It was Sweet Mother.
“Hello Pee! I want to let you know that Gulyara and her husband cannot make it to the dinner.”
“Oh no! What shall we do? We have eight plates.”
“I know. So I have invited Hawah, from Cinema Palace. Do you remember her? And, um, I invited Mama Fat.”
Mama Fat. I closed my eyes and swallowed. Then I opened them, took a deep breath, and said, “Yes. By all means. Mama Fat should come to the dinner.”
After we rang off, I sat in the car seat and sighed.
“What was that about?” asked Nia.
“I am working on developing my abilities in forgiveness. I have a long way to go,” I said.
“Who is Mama Fat?”
“I’ll tell you later.”
We reached the hotel. I ordered a round of Stars as Alasko and Henry sat down at a table in the open-air courtyard, and then went up to the room with Nia to set my bag down.
“Okay, tell me the story of Mama Fat,” said Nia. So I did.
Fatima a.k.a. Mama Fat and I go way back. To the beginning, really. These were the days before I learned to cook for myself, and instead pedaled my bike five miles into town to take my supper at Abuyama’s rice stall. Mama Fat is a somehow-relation of Abuyama, and although she’s our same age, the way the family structure works out she’s technically a ‘mother’ to Abuyama. So we call her Mama Fat. In truth Mama Fat isn’t fat at all, but rather trim in build with a round face and laughing, dancing eyes. Back then she always bubbled with humor and talk. “O Burunyi Peter,” she used to say, before saying whatever else she had to say to me. Burunyi is a southern word for “white dude.” I don’t know why she chose to use that term. In Navrongo, the word for white guy is fela, which I think is hilarious (“Hey fella.”)
Back then Mama Fat’s sunny disposition, as is so often the case, was overlaid onto a life of utter hardship. She hailed from a tiny village way out in the bush, a place called Basiasan, which sits in one of the most remote sections of Ghana. It’s a little over halfway along the 110-kilometer stretch of road between Navrongo and Tumu. I know Basasian because I used to ride my bike past it on my twice-yearly marathon rides to Tumu to retreat and mark term papers. There it was: a forlorn collection of thatched-roof mud huts in the bush in the middle of nowhere (a ‘nowhere’ which I found to be very beautiful, by the way).
Mama Fat has had a rough life. When I first met her she was in deep poverty and struggling with the pain of losing her son to her husband who had left her (Tony Dee, a chap who I knew through other channels; long story). In order to feed herself and try to provide some small things for her son whom she rarely saw, and to come up with the fees required to get him into school, Mama Fat had resorted to walking around in the market selling things which she carried on a tray on top of her head: soap, groundnuts, hair lotion, you name it. This was what you did when you had no farm, no stall in the market, and nothing else business-wise that you could do.
But Mama Fat was still a lot of fun in those days, and we became great friends. Though she is Muslim, she was one of my favorite pito-drinking buddies. I’d come into town on market days, move through the crowded lanes, and spot her walking around selling. “Mama Fat!” I’d call. “Take that stuff down off your head and lets go drink pito!”
We remained friends throughout the years, through my various visits. I remember one time, I think it was 1999, she was the first one to spot me when I arrived in Navrongo and got down from the lorry to begin the walk to the (then-brand-new) Hotel Mayaga. “Burunyi Peter! Oh my goodness! It’s Burunyi Peter!” I heard her calling from across the road in her bemused voice.
By then her situation had improved. She’d remarried and was living in a nearby housing estate called Low Cost.
By the time of my last visit, in 2008, things were going downhill for Mama Fat. She invited me over to her house to greet her husband, and I could tell that all was not well. Her husband, a friendly deep-voiced gentleman, sat in his sitting room with his feet up and hands his behind his head and graciously shot the shit with me for an hour. Meanwhile Mama Fat stood off to the side, forcing a smile, staring at the floor, not saying a word. Her downcast eyes were moist and I could feel the pain behind them, though I didn’t know how much pain there was.
And at the end of that 2008 visit, as I now explained to Nia, Mama Fat and I had a falling out.
“What happened?” Nia asked.
“A few days after I visited her at her house, Mama Fat did something to me that was decidedly uncool. Very, very uncool.” I explained the details of what happened. “And then I left Navrongo, and Mama Fat and I haven’t seen each other nor spoken since.”
But that was more than six years ago, I thought. Was it possible to let bygones be bygones? This is something that I have never been very good at.
I left Nia in the room and went downstairs to join Henry and Alasko. One Star became two, and then my guests started to arrive. Sweet Mother rolled in side-saddle on the back of a moto driven by her daughter Nadya. Sweetie had decked herself out to the nines in a gorgeous dress of deep indigo. Hawah arrived on her own moto, looking regal in a shimmering, shiny silver-green brocade with matching head wrap.
“Nia!” Sweet Mother yelled up to our bedroom window from the courtyard, as she hoisted a plastic bag. “Come down here and collect your dress!”
Nia came down and picked her parcel, then went upstairs to put it on. The rest of us ambled into the dining room and arranged ourselves around two pushed-together tables.
“Where’s Kamal?” I asked Sweet Mother.
“He’s coming late. He was delayed at nurses’ training college.”
I took a deep breath. “And Mama Fat?”
“She’s coming…right now,” said Sweet Mother, lifting her and looking out the door that was behind me.
I stood up and turned.
Mama Fat stood in the doorway. Her round face beamed. She wore a sheer black long sleeved blouse, and black jeans. She toted a black handbag. She looked fantastic.
I stepped toward her and took her hand.
“Peter,” she said.
I eyed the empty chair to my left. “Sit next to me.”
And she did. And the party proceeded. And yes, maybe, just maybe, I can get better at this thing called forgiveness: at letting bygones be bygones. Through the course of the drinks and the meal, Mama Fat and I laughed and laughed, just like old times. “How are things in Basiasan?” I teased. “Oh God, do I know?” she replied. Etc. We congratulated each other on our recent 51st birthdays; mine a few months ago and hers just the previous week.
“Where do you stay now?” I asked. “Still at Low Cost?”
Mama Fat made a psshhhh sound and laughed. “Are you kidding me? No, me I have put up my two simple rooms, across the road from there. And I am fine.”
“You look more than fine,” I said. “You look great. And—I don’t know—you look happy.”
“Oh Peter,” said Mama Fat. “There is something I decided some years back. And that was to just make myself happy.”
I closed my eyes and felt the echoing words and radiant glow of Charlevida, Chally Pee’s daughter, back in Cape Coast.
Mama Fat continued: “Nobody, and no thing, is going to do it for me. But me? I can make myself happy.”
My mind sang with joy. If this is a movement, LET ME BE PART OF IT!