The woman who sat by me on the flight from Accra to Takoradi sometime in February had never been on a plane. It was obvious when she asked me to help her fasten her seat belt. It became more obvious as the plane ascended like a bird with a bad limp, and a cold hand reached out to my knee. I held it. She was shaking, her other hand was protecting her belly. I stroked gently the back of her palm with my thumb and made small talk.
“It’s only for a few minutes”
“You can close your eyes if you want”
“I have not eaten food today, thats why my body…” she said, failing at trying to hide her embarrassment.
“Do you live in Takoradi?” I continued, balancing my voice over the noise from the engine.
After a brief moment of silence, she said firmly “I don’t like this thing” -she was referring to the air craft.
When the plane stabled, and I let go of her hand slowly, she said she wasn’t scared anymore but her tummy was still “turning” her. She circled her right hand over it, her face still holding disgust, but she started to speak gently to me. She started in Fante and when I let her know I didn’t understand, she asked why? I shrugged, told her I would try to learn.
“Learn quick”, her face became stern, as though she could beat me up right there for not understanding Fante.
“otherwise people will talk about you behind your back.”
I decided against making a case for myself, an easy way out, telling her that I wasn’t Ghanaian and so didn’t need to learn Fante, so I shook my head slowly in understanding, as she gave me golden words of wisdom. Words to live by.
“Don’t give people power to talk about you.”
It wasn’t the first time I was getting the exact advice from a Ghanaian on a plane. A woman by me on a flight once had wondered too why I didn’t speak Fante. “Do you want people to gossip about you?” she asked me, horror spread all over her face like acne. Another woman too, in a store in Accra. I wondered why they all had the same reason. Why they didn’t ask me to learn Fante so I can easily get a job perhaps or get good market deals, why they never served me with the “you have to be proud of your culture” line that is usually handed out to African returnees from Europe who insist on using a fork to eat swallow.
Do Ghanaians gossip a lot? I wanted to ask her but I changed my mind.
She made to peep through the window and withdrew immediately as though she had just seen a bad thing. The thing that didn’t make her want to fly in the first place. The thing that turned her stomach and made her only ever travel by road or never travel at all. The thing called fear that she had to conquer because her best friend’s daughter had suddenly just died and they were burying her the next day.
“Only my friend Faustina can make me climb this craft”.
I laughed and it eased into a thin smile. First because she called an aeroplane, craft, which is technically correct but weird, and because clearly, friendship meant the world to her.
For the sake of friendship, she was frustrating fear, making it her victim, and this warmed my heart.
“See, all here is water water” she said, matter of factly.
“If something happens… “ her voice derailed, then she rubbed her tummy again.
I wanted to tell her that if something happened over land too it might just be as fatal, if not worse, but I did not, I did not want to be the one who held fear by it’s hand and let it back in through the sealed window.
Somebody stood up in front and staggered towards us, he was heading to the washroom behind. She nudged me with her elbow to ask with her eyes if it was ok for him to stand, and the look on her face transitioned from shock to surprise and mild curiosity.
We both grew silent and my mind sailed as the plane continued to gather speed. I leaned into the window and when I tried to read a book, I knew it was an attempt at futility because having flown the route many times, 35minutes of flight time with most of it ascent and descent plus turbulence hardly gave any time to assimilate a book so. The hostesses gave out snacks and drinks in a branded carrier bag very quickly, like they were going somewhere immediately after they were done with us. We flew through cauliflower shaped clouds that left me with the insatiable want to reach out and touch one. Below, the water was receding and houses started forming like a distant maze. We flew so low and I remembered once, on this same route, I had forgotten to switch off my phone and a Whatsapp message had come in. There was the tiniest bar of network on my phone and it disappeared again just as quickly as it came. I continued to look at the flat houses below and wondered for the umpteenth time how fast the plane was indeed going, as it says in textbooks.
Suddenly, a phone rang. It wasn’t mine I was sure. I looked to my left and find new friend fumbling through her bag. Before I can say to her that her phone shouldn’t even be on, she answers it and shouts Braaaa, mpacho… and goes on and on moving from side to side, desperate to find a good point where the network was stable enough for her to hear clearly. Mpacho wait, hello, she continued. No shame, no guilt, no contrition, nothing. Two three four of us stare at her with intent, suggesting with our eyes to her that she cant have her phone on, let alone receive calls. She continues until she can no longer hear anything and the line disconnects on it’s own. She looks up at us rather strangely, her face innocently questioning why we were all staring at her.
“My phone was ringing, what was I to do?” she says.
Somebody replies her in Fante. I hear her make expressions that would be – really!!!you don’t mean it? Had they been said in English. They continue speaking in Fante, I face the window and see the houses zooming in closer. A little laugh escapes me. Her ignorance is beautiful, honest, fascinating even. It makes me want to cup her face in my palms and move it gently, this way and that.