Friday, December 3

Agidi Boy

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It is 6 o’clock in the morning. Ten-years-old Aki Stapleton is sweeping the front yard of leaves of red flamboyant downed overnight in a terrific rainstorm. Daddy Korenta, the lamp lighter, from 5 Pignard Street, was scraping his boots along the street way outside on to his morning duty turning off the street gas lights before sunrise.

It was he who frightened the boy that Hitler’s war was getting more serious and that the Government of Gov. W. T. Southorn would soon have to start conscripting men as young as 18 years of age to begin early training for the West African Frontier Force.

Granny Priscilla Hunter, Aki’s washerwoman guardian, was consoled; her boy was too young yet to go to war. She counselled him to stick to attending choir practice, especially now that he will be robing for the first time after probation. Aki himself couldn’t wait to put on his white surplice and ruffle and his black cassock, never mind in his bare feet, ‘Ten-Toe’, as the Krio called that kind of shoeless poverty.

Granny Hunter was pleased that Bishop John Daly selected Aki to sing in his choir; only those who were able to distinguish notes or sight-sing the Tonic Sol-fa — do-re-me-fa-so-la-ti-do — were picked. She assured the boy that this kind of blessing was the sure reward of willingness at home, honesty, obedience, and of respect for elders.

The boy was growing up well; his results from St Mary’s School were showing that his teachers, Aunty Abi George, Miss Lucy Efwa Mensah, and his own Aunty Rose Stapleton, were pleased with him. Well, in fact, not all, because matters showed off rather badly once when the headmaster, Teacher Abel, was irreconcilably cross when he discovered that Aki had a hand in the homework presented by Chris Dawodou and Gustavus Taylor. Since then Aki avoided writing homework for his playmates after the giant of a headmaster walloped his backside black and blue while he was rigged up the back of one of the bigger students.

Indeed, at that age Aki had already earned the nickname Agidi Boy. He was out every day in the neighbourhood crying out ‘Jaai agidi’–advertising his Madeira basket of popular corn or coos flour dumpling wrapped in banana leaves; he had to render a full account when he got back to Aunty Colajou Dixx or to her mother Granny Cayor; or would that be from a different round with buns for Aunty Stella Taylor? Or a quick market run for Aunty Anna Dodgin, or for Aunty Regina Spillsbury from her window-in-the-fence Fana-makkit stall of pepper, locust beans, sun-dried Gejja fish, peppers and green Shallot onions? It was cheerful readiness to keep useful in any corner where the elders in the family needed him.

Well, frankly, he had little choice. After his mother died, his keep virtually dissolved. Granny Hunter offered to take him; his brother Fred went to their uncle, Connie Thomas, and his two sisters, Vic and Tryphena, had to shelter in Grandma Marian Stapleton’s home. These were hard times indeed, especially with war raging in Europe; yet, praise be to God for a roof over their head and for something to eat at mealtimes!

The boy was undaunted by his predicament and was ready cheerfully to learn new things. Once, he stood watching the master stone mason Pa Daniel Ahosu Goswell at work; curious, the boy called the old man’s attention to a piece of brick cast to one side. The Awo society master did not say a word but kept on working away until he needed the brick and, retrieving it and placing it, then answered: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the headstone in the corner. Im yone tem nor been cam yait.”

That boy, Aki, in his 90th year of life today, never forgot the lesson: indeed, as in life, each brick has to wait–for its proper time. New Tong flowed everywhere with such casual teachers, mentors, and role models whether as in the enterprising Pa Sam Goswell (brother to Daniel), Pa Sam Riley, Pa George Shyngle, Pa French and Pa Tebbs, or other strict masters in their labour crafts from Sierra Leone and Nigeria who settled in Bathurst, were raising wonderful families, and building magnificent homes all over the town for well-to-do Krio merchants as for the common that were working hard and bringing progress and advancement to the colony and its inhabitants.

Behind those men were women of fortitude and character exemplified by Granny Mary French, a foremost Krio Methodist, who, leaning only on her faith in the oneness of humanity, looked not on origin, or tribe, or tongue, and offered Daddy Darameh, an immigrant petty trader, to attach a Daara Koranic school to his rented shop in her compound at No. 7 Louvel Square. Granny Saine of 4 Louvel Square extended equal grace to another Muslim cleric Pa Jobarteh who opened a similar creche inside her compound at No. 1 Hope Street. These were Krio teaching all and sundry about the open arms of Christian welcome, the first blocks in the foundation for harmonious co-existence and respect among neighbours.

Through the war years an emergent middle class of Krio was demonstrating maturity, acumen, and responsibility enough to convince the colonial government that was therefore willing to distribute land, freehold, to successful entrepreneurs in New Town, Soldier Town, Jollof, and Portuguese quarters, farther away from the more prosperous seafront township. And Bathurst took on the aspect of the postcard beauty that became its hallmark– a well-behaved public, running gutters, clean streets, jasmine and rose hedges, no vulgar tongue; civil servants in grey trousers, white shirts, black ties, and lady servants in grey or black skirts, white blouses, speeding to work on time; nurses and doctors looking like nurses and doctors. The capital town showed character.

Easy to ignore was the fact that all Krio knew how to pray ‘Give us this day our daily bread’ but no one did anything about it until several businessmen joined forces with Pa Daniel Goswell and Pa Tebbs to say it was enough that the only daily bread was coming from the bakery of the British United Africa Company and was of loaves in taste, size, and cost that suited Europeans.

These men brought their capital and skills in appropriate technology to the table and soon the stone masons went to work brewing a mix of limestone and cockle shells to form a dynamic heat-resistant base. They raised the walls of the designed structure in red fire bricks and sealed the gaps with lime plaster, lay by layer, for the solid fore chamber, through to the tall connecting chimney towers that cooled things off to the outside. Thus, the space entombed with only a trapdoor entrance resulted in an oven that could raise heat to tremendous temperatures by the addition or reduction of fuel wood. At last, bread was in the baking — local bread selling at 6 pence for a French stick.

Value-addition was in full gear. Bakeries were commissioned; the Bidwell-Brights at Long Street, the Fernandez-Richardses at Picton Street, the Moses Oldfields at MacCarthy Square, the Sam Forsters at Lancaster Street, the Wallace Coles at Ingram Street, and the Walter Cokers at Hagan Street opened up bakeries that quickly chained out to lucrative distribution outlets. Several soon became prolific with the ‘Sweet Bread’, buttered, browned, and soft, delicious with the Krio Sunday beef stew or by itself with Blue Band margarine and a cup of the hot and creamy Ovaltine wheat grain beverage. It was the same formula that they adopted, Jose Harris, at Kombo Street, from deep roots in the Gold Coast, and the Sierra Leonean Pa Johnny Robinson, at Hope Street, when they pitched in later years into the industry.

In those pioneering days, Aki Stapleton, Balogun Davies, Emile Johnson, and one or two other boys sprang into action at the end of the business week, of course, after the ovens had cooled off. Creeping through the trap doors with broom, brush, and sacks in hand, they scooped soot and stubborn bits of wood.

By the time they cleaned out two or three ovens a week, with each getting 6d per oven for their labour, and on choir pay day, at six pence for treble voices, one shilling and sixpence for the lead treble, the boys were in funds. Now Aki could afford joining up with Lenrie Peters and Shokpeh Coker to buy bread with liver sauce from the sister of the civic and newspaper legend Edward Francis Small at her food stall at 4 Allen Street. Under some shop veranda at Lancaster Place, the boys would clean off the snack with a drink of mineral water before heading to choir practice at St Mary’s Church. As soon as the English choirmaster H. Sanger-Davies would release them, it was ‘home straight’; no idling in the streets.

That was one day in the life of a typical teen-age Aku Pikin Krio boy in New Town in Bathurst — family, church, school, and home chores — washing, cleaning, cooking, errands, and respectfulness of elders, ‘Yes, Ma’, ‘Yes, Sir’, and living with the three pillars of proper conduct printed in the mind to be courteous at all times with ‘I am sorry’, or ‘Excuse me’, or ‘Thank You’.

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