John C. Kennedy is the author of Last Lorry to Mbordo. He was station in Peki, Ghana (196568) a Peace Corps Volunteer, 1965-68, in Peki, Ghana. He is working on a second novel about the travails of RPCV readjustment.
About this story – In his youth John was a fan of western serials. John is a man of few words.
Who Was That Stranger
By John C. Kennedy, Ghana (1965-68)
The passenger lorry slowed as it entered the old part of town. Jason wondered if the large van had somehow become a time
transporter. The bank, built during his last year in the village, still looked new and out of place. The community center that had beenunder construction was still under construction. A large sign congratulated the paramount Chief on thirty years of service.
He nudged Karen, “He was a new chief when I came so that sign is new. Everything else looks the same.”
“The electric wires weren’t here,” she replied.
Boys were playing basketball on the court Jason helped build.
“Amazing,” he mumbled. “Thirty years and the game goes on.”
They got down from the lorry.
A group of children chanted, “Foreigner, foreigner, give me penny.”
“Something else that hasn’t changed,” Karen noted.
They had arrived in the capital a few days before traveling to the village. Quite by chance, in a conference at the national university, they met a young man from the village. He was the son of Markus, Jason’s best friend during his time in the village. He told them the sad news of his father’s death a few months prior to their trip. He also explained that the town was much improved and that it was now possible to find lodging by the night.
They located the place he recommended and asked for a room. The proprietress ushered them to the VIP suite. At $10 a night it was the most expensive.
The next day they walked to the location of the secondary school. They found only abandoned buildings. They crossed the street to the small shop where Jason had, every school day at breakfast break, purchased a coke and peanuts.
“What happened to the secondary school?” he asked the woman in the shop.
“They moved up to the new road about a half mile beyond the hospital,” she replied.
He asked about the old shopkeeper.
“He died a few years ago,” the woman said. “I am his daughter. I am the small girl who sold you roasted groundnuts.”
“And very good groundnuts wrapped in newspaper,” Jason said.
“Your memory is good,” she said.
A boy of about ten brought them each a cold coke.
“This is my son,” the woman said.
“I used to drink these warm,” Jason mused.
“Yes,” the woman replied, “electricity has made our lives much better.”
They decided to walk to the new school along one of the dirt roads that connected the old part of town to the new road. Groups of children passed in school uniform.
Some children smiled and called, “You are welcome.”
“They stopped asking for pennies,” Karen said. “Do you suppose their parents scolded them?”
“Perhaps, or maybe we are now known,” Jason replied.
On the new road an old Bedford passenger lorry, with the school’s name on the side, passed.
Jason signaled for the truck to stop.
“I believe it’s the same truck they got my last year,” Jason said. “Thirty years and still running.”
“Just like you,” Karen added.
“Welcome,” the driver said.
“Are you going to the school?” Jason asked. “Can I ride in the back?”
“No one but students are now allowed to ride in the back,” the driver answered. “The government says it is too dangerous. But, we have room for only one in front. The distance is short and you have been in these bone crushers before. Go ahead.”
Jason had a little trouble getting his leg up over the side of the truck.
“The mind remembers but not the body,” he said to Karen once he was in. “You’d best ride in front.”
For awhile, at the school, no one paid much attention to them.
They wandered around and marveled at the three storied classroom blocks.
“Wow, real buildings,” Jason exclaimed, “amazing.”
An older man approached and said, “Welcome. What is your business here?”
“I was a teacher here once,” Jason said, “My wife was a teacher in the city but came here sometimes. We want to look around and see how things have changed.”
He showed the man his photo ID from thirty years earlier.
The man looked at the ID, then carefully at Jason.
He smiled broadly then said, “You were here in my first year of teaching. I was at your wedding.”
“We brought a small album of pictures of the wedding,” Jason said.
The old teacher looked carefully at one of the group pictures and pointed, “That is me, right there. Welcome, welcome. Let me take you to the Headmaster.”
He ushered them into the Headmaster’s office. When Jason showed the Headmaster his old ID, the Headmaster insisted that Jason return the next day and address the students.
As they walked toward the edge of the compound, Jason asked the old teacher about colleagues.
“Mr. Ato lives in the next town and Mrs. Abene, who was a witness at your wedding, lives across from the bank. The others are no longer here.”
On the road, they stopped a taxi and asked the driver if he knew of Mr. Ato’s house. He did. When they arrived, a young girl answered the door and took them to a room where Mr. Ato was sitting.
He got up slowly and said, “Welcome. What is your business here?”
“I am Jason, the teacher from the old days.”
“Jason, Jason, you have come back. It is so good to see you.”
They talked of the old days and of their lives. Mr. Ato had become Headmaster at the school for awhile and he spoke of good times and bad.
As they rose to leave Mr. Ato said, “That boy you saved from malnutrition, Kwodwo. He is a teacher at one of the middle schools. He lives on the edge of town near the teacher training college.”
They returned to the old town and asked on the street about Kwodwo.
An old man said, “Do not worry. I will send a messenger to let him know that you are searching for him. He will find you.”
That night, after they returned to their lodgings, they heard a knock on the door.
Mrs. Abene and Kwodwo stood quietly in the hallway. Jason invited them in and offered soda and snacks. They talked of life, school, and family well into the night. As they rose to leave, Mrs. Abene invited them to lunch the next day and Kwodwo asked to meet them again at the end of his school day.
Next morning they returned to the school. Jason spoke to the assembled students. He was moved to say, truthfully, that the students he taught in this town turned out be the best he would ever have in a long career of teaching.
Lunch was wonderful. After retiring from teaching Mrs. Abene had started a small business that catered birthday parties and other events. She made a little party for Jason and Karen with tasty sandwiches and local fruits.
After lunch they walked up to the seminary chapel where they had been married. The little chapel had not changed except an organ in the right front had replaced the piano in the left rear. Jason sat down in the last pew. He felt a tear on his cheek.
“What’s wrong?” Karen asked.
“I was thinking of Markus playing the piano at our wedding. Now even the piano is gone.”
There was a lone grave in front of the chapel.
“Rev. Akwasi’s grave,” Jason said softly, “the minister who performed our wedding. He was devoted to this place.”
Later that afternoon they met Kwodwo on his way home from the middle school. They walked together through town to his house. In his yard Kwodwo cut open two coconuts. They sat together and enjoyed coconut milk and groundnuts. Mrs. Abene’s granddaughters stopped by to say hello on their way home from the experimental school run by the teacher training college. As the shadows grew long, they said goodbye to Kwodwo.
Jason and Karen walked together back through town, enjoying again, this place of their youth.
The next morning they boarded a lorry in front of the small shop to return to the capital. They waved goodbye to the shopkeeper and her son.
“Mommy, who was that stranger?” the small boy asked.
“That was no stranger my son. That was the Peace Corps Volunteer.”