Read time: 21 mins


by Azags Agandaa
2 July 2024

It’s 5pm.

The white car pulls out of the yard onto the road. Baba sits beside Fadi in the back seat; their things are in the boot. Assistant Commissioner of Police, Mrs. Kame, is behind the steering wheel. She usually leaves the office by 3:30pm or latest at 4pm, a good time to escape the rush hour. But she’s had a tough time today, convincing this strange man in the back seat. She had to threaten him to finally get him to comply. Baba is to be detained and prosecuted for keeping a minor in a filthy den, and the girl is to be taken to a government foster home.

That’ll mean a permanent separation from Fadi. For Baba, who is recently widowed, nothing could be worse.

There’s already an endless line of vehicles on either side of the road, moving in opposite directions. Both heading home. The line moves slowly, shudders, halts. Then starts all over again. She used to read novels to pass the time spent in the traffic jam. No longer: she has to be alert while on the road. Last month, a police officer was shot dead in his car while he was reading a newspaper in a traffic jam.

Mrs. Kame turns on the radio, streams through the channels.

‘This is Citi 97.3 FM,’ a voice booms out, sonorous, but then the frequency runs into a loud hissing. She streams back, adjusts, locks the dial. The booming voice picks up again: ‘…The hottest issue of the day has been our topic this evening: Government to demolish all slums in Accra to decongest the capital….Foreign invalids, street children and beggars to be cleared off the streets and deported before end of year….The government is constructing a temporary camp on the outskirts of Accra for homeless mothers and children and the mentally challenged.…Our guests have been…We’re back after…Stay tuned.’

After about five minutes later, the show resumes. The guests—a police PRO, a minister for children and social protection, the spokesperson for the mayor of Accra, an estate developer and city planner—are ranting. Everyone is talking all at once. The studio is getting rowdy. The host is shouting at the top of his voice, ‘Please, one at a time…hello…could we…could we…Honourable….’

Mrs. Kame switches over to another channel. Everything she wants Baba to hear, he’s heard. She monitored him in the rearview mirror, listening in. The city has become inhabitable for their kind. They’re considered a litter in the capital, garbage, though nobody puts it that way.

The little girl presses her body against Baba. Baba must be freezing, too. His shoulders are pulled together, but he doesn’t complain. Mrs. Kame bends forward and reaches for the AC button; the green AC light runs up from 15°C to 25°C.

‘Baba, what’s your daughter’s name again?’ she asks, breaking the silence that has lingered between them.

‘Fadila, Fadi.’

‘I hope I don’t forget it again. Are you okay now, Fadila?’ She turns and smiles at Fadi. The little girl looks away, bends her head down.

On the radio, a highlife tune plays. She turns the volume down. The traffic is gridlocked; tired faces peep out trotro windows, staring at other faces in the line bound the opposite way.

Two police motorcycles speed through the jam, in between the lanes, wailing their sirens and shouting, before stopping by a black SUV, whose owner possibly violated one of the plenty useless rules. Passengers and drivers alike sneer at the police, some hailing insults—kwasia, sikadie police. Stupid, corrupt police.

A few years back, ACP Mrs. Kame, seated in the same trotro, would have joined the other passengers shouting insults. Not anymore. That earlier person would later get upset at commuters hurling curses at the police. During her first days in the police force, she even made a few arrests of people who spewed curses at the police. Not anymore. She’s learned to live by that simple self-care axiom given by the guest speaker at their inauguration: as a police officer, you must learn to behave like the dead goat—being numb to everything thrown at you.

‘How old is she?’ Mrs. Kame asks. ‘Six, going on seven.’

‘And she hasn’t spoken a word yet?’

He nods.

‘Have you tried taking her to school or the hospital?’ He nods a yes. She doubts him.

But it’s true. When Fadi turned four, her mother and Baba took her to school. After a week, the school called them back to come for her. ‘She’s a special child,’ the teacher told them. ‘She can’t be schooled in a normal classroom. Maybe the school for mentally challenged children? You should see a speech therapist first….’ Stung by these words, Baba brought her back home, resolved never to take her to school or anywhere.

But a year later, at her mother’s insistence, he took her to a speech therapist at Korle Bu. This time, he couldn’t stand it. The lady told him, to his face, that Fadi was autistic. On top of that stinging word, she added, ‘Your daughter may never be able to speak, not after five years of not being able to speak a word.’ If she spoke, the lady said, it would be a miracle. Therefore? Therefore, he should consider taking her to the school for the dumb.

He’d stormed out of the consulting room, causing the patients in the hallway to startle.


Baba doesn’t know why Mrs Kame has singled them out. She’s going to provide them temporary shelter in her house, she’s told him. Why them? Were there not many others with children, too, even women with sucking babies strapped to their backs?

Baba slips in and out of sleep, usually waking to the shrieking and yelling of street hawkers closing in on the car like locusts besieging a village, fighting for access to the front window. These hawkers have owl eyes for rich cars. At the sight of Mrs. Kame’s uniform, some back away immediately, but a few are adamant and remain standing until Mrs. Kame barks at them and begins to wing the door open, as if to get out. They flee.

Another halt. Fadi watches a boy race from the side street and approach the car. She’s never seen anything like that before. A boy as light as the sun. The boy stands beneath Mrs. Kame’s window, barefoot. He whispers something, points to his mouth. Mrs. Kame looks away quickly. The glass hisses up. He’s still standing there, his sun-face pressed so hard against the windowpane it becomes flat like the glass. He has yellow hair and a red spot in his left eye. He’s nine or eight. He remains standing, blinking, shaking, as if he’s epileptic. Fadi is staring at him through the glass. She can see him down to his very soles, cracked, dirty. Crusted toenails. He lifts one foot and puts it on top of the other. Can’t he see her standing up and watching him through the clear glass? The glass is dark from the outside, but she doesn’t know this. Then something so rare happens. She opens her lips. And she smiles.

Baba is startled. He hasn’t seen her smile at another child or even at another person apart from him and her mother; those rare smiles. He looks out at the boy to see if he’s somebody familiar, perhaps one of those noisy lot in their neighbourhood at Mallam Atta. He doesn’t look at all familiar, the albino boy. Even as the cars begin to move away and the boy retreats, Fadi is still staring back at the sun boy with the red spot in the left eye.

At a Shell filling station, Mrs. Kame pulls over. Honks. A lady comes out running. Mrs. Kame asks Fadi’s father what they’d like for drinks. He shakes his head. She insists. Any, he says.

Rolling down the glass and leaning over, Mrs. Kame calls after the lady, ‘Sweetheart, please, add some cake and sweets for my little girl ai.’ The lady comes back dashing with the items in a pink Thank-you-for-shopping-with-us—Welcome-another-day takeaway bag. Mrs Kame drives off.


Baba was dressing Fadi when the police officers burst into the nook. They’d been living there for a week. The woman who sold sweets on the same dirt lane must have told on them.

It was a nook beneath a three-storey house. Not designed to serve as a living space, the nook had no door—there was no possibility of installing one to it. The architect could not have envisaged that the breathing space under the three-storey house could be repurposed into a home. To amend this technical lapse, the previous occupant had hung a cloth-curtain to protect the secrets of the chamber—the white curtain was in bad state, splotched and ripped in two, so that during the day the sun came into the room.

‘What are you doing here with this little girl?’ the two police officers demanded.

Without waiting to hear his reply, they frisked him before proceeding to search the room; for what, he couldn’t tell. They overturned his Ghana-must-go bag and rummaged through his things—old clothes, tubes of paints, plain papers, pieces of canvas. No contraband in his possession. They were disappointed.

The police marched Baba and Fadi across the rusty railways track and to the police station. The police yard was full of people. Women with babies, men and women in begging wheels, blind men, other amputees. Baba and Fadi were brought to the office of a certain sergeant.

‘Whose daughter is she?’ the sergeant asked, at the same time taking the envelope from the police. The envelope contained a portrait they’d found in Baba’s bag.

‘I’m her father.’

‘Speak the truth.’

‘That’s the truth.’

‘That’s not the truth,’ the sergeant retorted, drawing out the portrait. ‘No father in his right senses would keep a girl this young in that filthy mosquito corner.’

‘What work you dey do?’

‘I’m an artist, a painter.’

‘What? You paint? What do you paint?’


The sergeant looked up from the portrait to the skeleton of the man standing before him, claiming to be the father of the girl. He examined Baba’s amputated arm, cut off at the elbow. He tried to see the remnant, but it was concealed in the short dangling sleeve. He wondered which hand handled a brush and which handled whatever else. He shoved the portrait and the envelope away.

‘This man is not speaking the truth,’ he said, addressing the two officers. ‘This man here cannot be the girl’s father. Look at the girl, and look at the man.’

The two junior officers did the examination and seemed to agree with their boss.

‘Let me see your Ghana card,’ the officer demanded, ‘and that of your daughter.’

‘I don’t have them here. But I have the details in my head.’

‘No one is in your head. How will I know that you’re not lying?’

‘She’s my daughter; that’s the truth.’

‘Small girl, how are you?’ The officer asked, reaching to take Fadi’s hand, but the girl cringed and clasped onto Baba’s leg.

‘She’ll not hurt you,’ said the girl’s father.

‘Call me Abena,’ the officer said.

The young female officer took Fadi’s hand. The girl began to cry as the officer led her away. ‘No visible signs of abuse,’ said Abena, when they returned.

The next place they were ushered into was the office of a certain ACP Mrs. Florentia Kame, Greater Accra Regional Commander. So said the label on the door.


The Kames live in a large house, fenced with a high wall topped with barbed wire, on the outskirts of Accra. A lady, obviously a maid, answers the gate. A German shepherd barks repeatedly at the squealing of the opening gate. The headlights shoot straight into the dog’s burning eyes; the beast growls in protest. It’s chained to a weeping tree, drooling, pieces of meat littered about the ground. The many weeping trees are tall in the yard, but the royal palms, lush, tower over them, above the storey-house, shooting with confidence into the open sky.

Baba is unable to close an eye. He hasn’t slept alone in a long time. It’s always been with Fadi and her mother or, recently, just Fadi. He doesn’t resist when Mrs. Kame asks to take Fadi in with her; what for he doesn’t know. He’s yielded out of fear rather than willingly. Now, he’s listening out to catch any sound of Fadi. He hasn’t prayed for a long time. But this evening, he raises his hands and head up and prays, ‘Ya Allah, All Merciful, All Gracious, protect her.’

The bed is as high as the ones he’s seen in movies. He’s been so used to sleeping on a mat he finds lying on a bed uncomfortable, and, getting off the bed, he lies down on the tiled floor. Tiles so clean they shine like mopped mirrors. He feels the cold against his skin—a tickling sensation. All the same, it’s better down here. He lies on his back, staring up at the ceiling, at the noiseless spinning fan and at the blue lamp. The breeze comes seeping in through the slightly open louvers. The breeze of Pokuase. The air the rich breathe. The air filtered through the many leafy trees he’s seen on the way, the green hills and the valleys; it’s free of dust and heat and stench. Here is a different planet from Mallam Atta and Kantamanto, where heat and noise and stench compete for space.

It must be about midnight when he hears the knock. He can make out Fadi’s snivels. He opens the door: Fadi, eyes wet, and the maid. He takes her in.

As soon as he lays her on the bed, she falls asleep. He examines her to be sure she’s unharmed. She reminds him of her mother. Dark and beautiful, except that those tribal marks her mother had are missing on Fadi—that’s the trouble the police have with him, with accepting that he’s the true father of the girl. How can a man so ugly father a child so beautiful? Just how? Eh?

As he’s done every other night, he leans over the sleeping girl, plants a kiss on her forehead and pulls the blanket over her.


Fadi sleeps like her mother, emitting a little snore and with her eyes wide open, glaring at you: what they call a cat-sleep.

Baba walks over to the Ghana-must-go bag and fishes out the girl’s mother from the bag. The police couldn’t find her. No one can find her, except him. The other portrait is with Mrs. Kame.

He gazes at the portrait for a long time until his eyes begin to well up. Then he buries his head in his open palms and sobs his heart out like a child. This is how he’s mourned her. Every single night. While the world sleeps.

It hurts him to see everyone else moving on with their life as if nothing has happened. But that’s the language of the city. Every man for himself. In this city, everyone carries their burden like the kayayo. Alone. There was a time that he too carried on with his life whilst someone else was grieving. Now, it’s his turn to grieve.

It’s been two weeks now since they left Mallam Atta. And three weeks since her death. It was hard leaving Mallam Atta, the place and house that had been his home for several years. But it was necessary.

Fadi’s night screaming had begun a few days after her mother’s funeral, at Mallam Atta. On each occasion, the screaming stopped when he awoke.

Their last night at Mallam Atta was the night the girl screamed the fiercest. Baba had woken in time to catch Fadi walking out of the room. In the morning, the landlady came and called him over.

The old woman, dreaded in the neighbourhood as a witch, had no blood relation living with her in her late husband’s house. There was a room adjoining hers, which she never rented out. It was always shut and padlocked. Rumour had it that it was the meeting place of the neighbourhood’s coven of witches and wizards—of which she was the high priestess. On account of this, her tenants kept leaving, and those who couldn’t afford a better place elsewhere kept their distance from her.

But Baba couldn’t leave or avoid her. He passed her door to get to his. They also shared a bath. He maintained the house; that was how he paid his rent.

The compound of the old mud-and-brick house had been rented out to a mechanic with many apprentices, and all these people used the bath as a urinal and a place for ablution. The acrid stench that rose from the bath on hot afternoons was so unbearable that tenant after tenant stopped using it. The urinal-bath was left for the sole use of the old landlady and Baba’s family.

Fadi’s screams might have disturbed the landlady’s sleep, Baba thought: she’s going to complain that the girl’s screams disturb her night. He thought she was going to caution him to keep his daughter’s mouth shut at night. She was going to say if he couldn’t keep his daughter’s mouth shut at night, she’d shut the little girl up herself.

When the old woman’s tiny face peeped out, Baba quickly backed out of the doorway.

‘Come in,’ she said from her room. ‘I can see you are terrified that the old witch has called you to her room to eat you up,’ she added, at the same time indicating with her left hand the short stool in front of her.

Baba sat down on the stool. Looking away, the old woman said, ‘You should not be afraid of me. We witches operate on principles. We do not cross lines; we do not harm strangers. You’re not my kin. Well, I haven’t called you here to teach you witchcraft. I’ve called you to tell you I can no longer keep watch over your daughter. I’ve been fighting your wife’s ghost who comes here every night to spirit her child away—last night, the ghost cried so bitterly and soulfully and begged me to stay out of her way, and I must respect that.’

Baba began to tremble visibly.

‘Put a bell on her neck each night before she goes to sleep,’ the landlady said. ‘The ghost will not come again. Ghosts are scared of noise.’

Without speaking a word, Baba rose to go, his mind made up. It was time to leave.

‘You can leave,’ the landlady called after him. ‘But if you don’t bell the child, as long as the girl can’t speak a human language but only a ghost’s, her mother will keep visiting, wherever you are.’

Baba packed his daughter’s clothes and his own, leaving Fadi’s mother’s clothes and the cooking utensils. He went to hand the key to the landlady.


Baba hardly sees Mrs. Kame. She leaves in the morning, returns at sundown. The maid is the only one at home all day. Doing laundry, hanging the clothes head-down on the endless clothesline, scrubbing the baths, cooking, watching telenovelas. Feeding the shepherd dog meat. Serving Baba and Fadi three meals a day. She begins to feed Baba gossip about the Kames, too. She gathers her gossip by eavesdropping on the Kames’ conversations and by talking to people in the neighbourhood.

‘Madam’s husband is away, out of the country. He often is. He’s wide a traveller. A rich man. They say he belongs to a secret cult. Their only daughter, a girl of Fadi’s age, died mysteriously three years ago. Right here in this house—the maid was doing laundry at the back. Madam was at work.’

Baba doesn’t say anything back.

‘Mr. Kame and his daughter used to be so close. Madam wants to adopt a child, preferably a girl. Madam’s husband is considering it.’

Save the barking of the dog when his meals are delayed, the house is ghostly quiet.

For a week or so, Baba and Fadi spend the days playing Fadi’s favourite game, the pebble hide-and-seek game. Fadi hides both hands behind her and brings them forward. There’s a pebble in one of the clenched palms: Baba has to point out which one holds the pebble. If he gets it right, then it’s Baba’s turn to hide and Fadi’s to do the pointing out. But Baba has one hand, so the game ends quickly. It takes four, not three, hands to play it.

Fadi is growing taller and fatter by the day. Baba relishes eating the food, too, though he hates being pitied, fed and treated as a beggar. He no longer feels disgusted eating with his left hand. He no longer retches eating with it, as he’d done in the early days after his right hand was cut off after he fell off the wall of a tall building he was painting. The nausea and retching lasted nearly a whole month until he gave up thinking about the filthy, disgusting things he did with his left hand, like wiping his arse with it. When he ate with the same hand afterwards, he couldn’t help feeling that he was eating shit.

The hand now defies labelling. It is both left and right. He’s also overcome the shame of walking in public with an amputated arm dangling in a sleeve. He had spent a whole year indoors after the amputation, unable to show his new self to the world. He often wonders what has become of that severed hand. Buried while he’s still alive or ground and washed out into the Korle Lagoon as they do with aborted babies?

Sometimes, father and daughter take a stroll around the yard as far as the hedge, the weeping trees and the royal palms. Fadi likes to see the dog bark and drool. This is followed by a little conversation with the maid, who does all the talking, narrating whole movies.


Madam’s husband is home at the weekend, at last. The house is alive. Baba is invited to the family sitting room. Potted plants stand on the porch. Cactus. Aloe Vera. Bougainvillea.

It’s a large hall. It smells of art. Paintings of assorted kinds. Baba’s eyes traverse the portraits on the wall: landscapes from the northern parts of Ghana. A barren savannah landscape. Brown earth. Grassy savannah landscape. Green earth. Animals. A child on a donkey. Crocodiles. Baobab trees. An antelope on the run. A framed portrait of the Larabanga Mosque, beyond it a baobab tree, a stretch of round huts, thatched roofs, beyond that a cloudless sky. The land Baba grew up in.

‘Sit down, and meet my husband,’ Mrs. Kame says. A failed artist, but she doesn’t say so. ‘This is Baba, Daddy,’ she says, her left hand caressing Daddy’s shoulder; ‘the painter whose work is before you.’

Mr. Kame looks up from the portrait to which his eyes have been glued. Baba recognizes the Chameleon.

‘Akwaaba,’ Mr Kame says with a broad smile, his eyes searching stealthily for Baba’s missing arm. ‘You’re welcome.’

‘Thank you.’

‘I understand you’re the Van Gogh of our time,’ he says, expecting an appreciation of the compliment.

Baba looks lost. ‘I’m Baba.’

Mrs. Kame laughs. ‘He doesn’t know what you’re talking about. Have you heard the name Van Gogh?’ she asks Baba.

Baba shakes his head.

‘Well, let me go straight to business,’ says the Daddy. ‘I must congratulate you on a good work. This is a work of impressive quality. You have a great talent. I want to buy it. How much will you sell it for?’

Baba shakes his head.

‘I’m offering you fifteen thousand Ghana cedis and free accommodation for this work alone,’ he stresses, tapping his middle finger in the portrait. ‘A home for you. We have other plans for your daughter.’

Mrs. Kame nods, smiles, expecting Baba’s eyes to glisten with excitement. ‘I’m not selling it,’ Baba says, leaving the couple completely astonished.


‘I can’t sell it,’ he says.

‘But why?’

He can’t explain it to them. They won’t get it.

‘—Perhaps he should be given some time to think over it,’ Mrs. Kame suggests. Mr. Kame does not like the suggestion; he wants an immediate response. Baba is asked to wait outside for a while.

A hushed brief conference.

Baba is called back in.

‘Do you want us to increase the offer?’ Mr. Kame asks.

Baba shakes his head.

‘Baba,’ says Mrs. Kame passionately, ‘Please, accept it. For your daughter’s sake, accept it.’

‘And for your own sake,’ adds Mr. Kame, his eyes searching again for Baba’s missing arm. He wants to say something else, but refrains.

‘I can work,’ says Baba, who’s noticed the searching eyes.

‘O yes, you can. This is evidence you can work,’ Mr. Kame says, pointing to the portrait.

Realsing that Baba has given a definitive ‘no’ to selling his work, the couple asks that Baba paint a very similar version of the portrait and sell that one to them. Baba says yes, leaving the hall with the original portrait in his hand.

‘There’s something peculiarly unique about his work that only an artist can see,’ Mr. Kame remarks. ‘I tell you, that work is worth more than a thousand pounds. If I enter it into the competition, trust me; it’s bound to win. That will qualify me to join the Art Hall of Fame. And I shall reward him greatly. Try to convince him; try to talk to him.’


Baba had watched the chameleon come out from the roadside grass at Paloma. He watched it climb onto the road, making his way through the sandwiched spaces of the traffic jam. When the vehicles set off, Baba didn’t turn back to see the mess. He could only imagine the chameleon flattered on the road.

He hadn’t thought much about it afterwards, until much later he remembered that the chameleon was his totem.

It turned out the real chameleon would be found three days later crushed and flattered out on the road at dawn. ‘Fadi’s mother’ – the name he had carved – showed at the back of the half-mangled kaya-kaya pan. And her cracked heels. And the tire sandals. Nothing else. He wasn’t shown the mess; it was for his own good, the imam said. It was gathered up and rushed straightaway to the cemetery. No one knew what vehicle had run on her, but it must have been a heavy-duty truck; a mere car could not have managed that perfect grinding of flesh.

She’s Fadi’s mother, the chameleon portrait, a part of him. He can’t give her to someone else. How do you give a part of you out, to be taken away elsewhere, for money?


Dawn is the time he paints best. And so, this dawn, he sits hunched over the table on which lies a blank canvas, determined to do something. He doesn’t know what it is he wants to paint. All the same, he sets to work.

In the next two hours, he is done with two paintings. He leaves them on the table to dry and goes back to sleep.

When the table creaks, he wakes up quickly. Fadi is at the table holding the pointed edge of a brush over one of the canvases.

‘Fadi!’ he almost yells.

‘Baba!’ she says quickly, effortlessly.

He sits upright. He’s heard her clearly; it’s not a dream. He’s heard her speak his name. However, he doesn’t show any open surprise lest he make the snail recoil into its shell.

She brings the canvas to him.

His eyes follow Fadi’s forefinger to the miniscule red dot she’s made on the painting. Baba smiles, realising the omission he’d made with the sun boy he painted for Fadi, as her seventh birthday’s present. Fadi has now dotted the boy’s eye.


The dog barks repeatedly, but the maid doesn’t come out. She must be in the middle of a movie and won’t come out to feed him until after the movie has ended. They sneak out through the side gate, Baba clutching the Ghana-must-go bag in his only hand.

At sundown, Mr. Kame is back home. The failed artist holds the portrait of his dead daughter with mixed feelings. Baba has left it on the table. He’s stunned by Baba’s artistry; Baba has seen Mr. Kame’s daughter but once, when he was invited into the hall, where her framed picture hangs. The dead girl’s suspicious gaze is what Mr. Kame can’t bear to look at. He won’t let anyone see the portrait, not even his wife.

By the time Baba and Fadi reach Mallam Atta, dusk is falling. The familiar smell of the big gutter welcomes them home. The sound of tins and cans clanking in the dirty water commingled with the hissing of koose in blackened saucepans. A thousand azans blaring from a thousand loudspeakers from a thousand mosque rooftops. This is what home tastes and smells like, what it means to be home.

When the muezzin from the nearby mosque breaks into a song, Fadi sings along. Baba smiles. He’s always known that someday Fadi would sing.

About the Author

Azags Agandaa

Azags Agandaa is a Ghanaian writer whose collection of short stories, The Slummer’s Curse (2019) won the Ama Ata Aidoo Award 2nd Prize of the Ghana Association of Writers (GAW) Literary Awards. Aguriboma (2022), his poetry collection, also won the Kofi Awoonor’s Prize of the same Literary Awards. He teaches English and Literature at The Victoria Grammar School, Accra, […]