The Days Before the World Ended

20th April 2033

“Tonight I speak to you from Linda Dor Hotel, about ten minutes’ drive from Kwahu Central Station. A place that is unfamiliar to you I suppose. A place quite unlike the place I knew it to be before I left eight years ago. I am back now and don’t know what to feel. But I do see the changes. I see the forward motion of progress held back by the anchor of tradition. For all that has changed, a lot has stayed the same. Tomorrow I will wake up early to take the bus to Babaso. This is the town my family stays in. The ones that stayed behind at least. It has been a long journey, Lexa, and I should rest for tomorrow. Wake me up at seven please. Good night.”

Good night Imma, Lexa replied in her monotone voice as Immanuel placed her underneath his pillow, clipping his earpiece off and settling his head for sleep. He hadn’t said much to Lexa, but there was much on his mind. Like the neon glows that clustered and towered over the rest of the sparkling lights that was New Accra’s skyline, from up above on his Nordic Air flight. Like the ID scanners that beeped in recognition of his face, displaying his passport number as he paced through the air- port immigration. Like the sleek new underground train terminal that awaited him at the bottom of the winding escalator beneath the airport. Akuffo-Addo Terminal glaring a bluish glow, the former statesman’s face framed and placed underneath the clock that chimed on the nine o’clock. The oppressing advertising peering in on him, welcoming him to the ‘motherland’, flashing tourist destinations, and displaying a collage of products from various regions and towns across Ghana. Some of these products were stacked in wildly coloured kiosks lined up on the wall at the train’s entrance. The familiar bustle and vibrancy of an African marketplace transferred into the sterile environs of a modern train terminal. Incongruous, but very much a reflection of this world. He also noticed the water-women hissing from their respective dispensers: “ice watah — hot watah — Milo!!!” Plastic bottles nowhere in site, passengers filling their flasks with water at the dispensers instead. Also, the GIFs continuously looping on the horizontal LED screens, politicians running for office, business people running their businesses, news being aired, a security contractor, Staywell, cajoling him with the benefits of their fool-proof urban safety systems.

He saw all this and absorbed.

Then at the ticketing machine he was pleasantly surprised to see that the software had been updated, unlike the Swedish system, so he didn’t have to use his bankcard. Instead, he was instructed to place his thumb on the screen, which he did, then was asked to insert his Tax Identification Number (TIN), which he didn’t know off the top of his head so he had to pull his wallet out to retrieve the number. He remembered the day the Ghana Revenue Authority (GRA) rolled up to Babaso as part of their campaign to register rural Ghanaians for TIN and integrate them onto the newly automated tax system. It had rained the night before so the roads were moshed, making it difficult for the farmers to travel from their farms. The GRA’s muddied vehicles had come to meet a virtually empty town, except the women and children who were busy tending to the household. An adolescent Immanuel registered his own name on behalf of his father since his older brothers, Alfred and Solomon, were on the cocoa farm with him. It was these fortunate events that blessed Immanuel with a holy TIN, without which his scholarship, bank loan and flight to Sweden would never have materialised.

He asked the machine for a train to Ejura, the biggest town near Babaso, but the train didn’t offer a service there. Instead it recommend- ed he get off at Kwahu Central Station and take a midnight or early morning bus, which it could book on his behalf if requested.

He reminded himself of the significance of Kwahu, and in particular the point called Kwahu Plateau. The distribution of rainfall in Ghana was spread out quite logically from north to south (north drier — south wetter), but everything southwest of the Kwahu Plateau received an unusual amount of rain. Not until recently. Rainfall patterns had shift- ed unpredictably and frequently and those places the Kwahu Plateau used to bless with rain, now received very little of it. Approaching Kwahu Central Station, he peered out his window at the rolling dark mountains and finally saw the iconic flat top of the plateau jutting out, its face bare and exposed. Just beyond it, a massive communication tower winged by solar panels posing statuesque in the purple night.

Immanuel absorbed it all, a home he once knew but was alien to now.

21st April 2033

“It’s been a long day. I saw him today. Papa.”

Your father?

“Yes, my father. He isn’t looking good. Daniel tells me he is still lying in bed for the most part. He has grown old from when we last WhatsApp’d.”

9th January, his birthday you told me?

“Yes. Mama is looking tired too. Daniel and Joy are great. We had red red — plantain and beans. The beans were from our little farm. I saw that today too. Not the cocoa farm, our farm for subsistence. Babaso is a lot like how it was before I left. There are changes. I am yet to feel much or know what I am to feel. I am happy to see everybody, I can say that be- cause it comes easy. But the way Joy jumped on me when I saw her and grabbed me, on my butt, as she always has done, playfully. I couldn’t reciprocate. I don’t know if she can tell. Maybe I will have something more for you tomorrow? Or not. Sorry, my thoughts are scattered today. The heat has been oppressing. It was never this hot, a blinding heat. I could barely breathe, as if the air was being beaten. It is one thing to talk about temperature increases by one degree Celsius and another to live in it. A meagre one degree … just one …”

Lexa shut off after a few minutes, recognising Immanuel’s gentle breaths as sleep and responding by triggering the clip on his earpiece to fall off his ear. It had been a long hot day, Lexa noted, assessing the temperature patterns she picked up from Immanuel’s wrist. She had also assessed his change in heart rate as he was told to stand outside his father’s room in the early hours of the day. Pulse quickening. Daniel had whispered softly that Papa didn’t want Imma to see him ‘that way’ so had asked him to wait outside to allow some time to put on his clothes and gather his strength. Harder thumps. When he shuffled through the beads into the living room he had raised his hands up and Immanuel, without knowing, was standing up being embraced by his father. Quicker still. His sinewy hands and long tough fingers grabbing his arm to take in the man that Immanuel had become. Heart rate steadying.

Immanuel had felt small again and embarrassed to be seen like this in front of his younger siblings Daniel and Joy. While his father drank him in, he too was scanning his old man. The balding top of his head, the grey kinky beard. The redness in his eyes, nose wide and wheezing slightly. His thinning body.

There was a lot Immanuel had felt that day, but he told Lexa very little.

His drive on the morning bus from Linda Dor Hotel to Babaso had been quiet but informative. His eyes had taken in the transformation from thick evergreen forest to sparse and yellowing savannah. Trees that were once dwarfed by their siblings and cousins, now stood idle as an island in a sea of brittle grass.

Sand being tossed on either side of the bus as it rolled on the grey asphalt road through weathering flat landscapes. What had been wild untamed nature was now segmented plots of land on either side of the road. Fields of groundnut, shea, mango, pineapple, banana, plantain and many other foods for export. The electronic buzzing of the mammoth drones spraying the managed lands up and down their respective quarters. The cloud of fertiliser descending over the fields in a torrential downpour.

There used to be more people along the roads, Immanuel remembered, but now they clustered at the major bus stops, selling whatever produce they could eke out. Hanging stretched dead animals for some small coin to buy something at the market.

He had also seen factories. Metallic structures, grey and alien, rooted in between the lined fields, vapour issuing out their chimneys. Signboards erected in front of them, almost shouting what they had to offer. Fertiliser, top quality pesticide, compost, and so on.
 Immanuel had absorbed this information with what had been forming in his own mind.
 During his time in Sweden he had spent his first three years studying environmental sustainability and agriculture. Building on that foundation he had pursued a Masters in the same field but with a focus on agroforestry — ‘the new trendy study for the white man, AKA what the black man has been doing throughout time,’ Immanuel had thought sardonically. It was during this period that he had begun developing his theory of transformational cross-farming, an inventive macro-scale solution for soil erosion and changing climatic conditions in West Africa.

All the while during those years, at the back of his mind, etched in his thinking: his father and the place he left behind.

“So you are going?” 
“Yes Papa, the bus to Accra will leave soon.”
“Then don’t let me keep you.”
“Oh Papa! It’s OK. I have time for you. I always have time for you.” 
“Imma, you are going to change. You will go see, learn and feel many new things, and you will change. It is not a bad thing, it is not a good thing. But let me tell you something. Here…” he pointed to the red earth below their feet. “Here is home, and it is the rock on which we come from. And that, that will never change.”

Immanuel’s father had sacrificed a large chunk of their cocoa farm earnings to support his son’s studies. A gamble that meant his two younger siblings would lose out significantly on receiving a good education. But the gamble had to be taken, or else the family’s livelihood was bound to be lost. The decade of increasing temperatures, sporadic low rainfall and rapid soil erosion from human activities were jeopardising the continuity of the cocoa industry across the once prosperous Afram Plains.

While the youth drained out of the region either to escape the com- ing decline, or attracted to the neon lights of the city, his father had stayed on. Immanuel’s father had inherited their cocoa farm from Immanuel’s grandfather. In a time where cocoa yields were peaking, when the big players in the cocoa industry were pumping money to keep the farmers interested in growing, as others sold off their land or destroyed it to mine for gold, Immanuel’s father and grandfather worked. They worked and were moderately successful. But the outward momentum had picked up too much pace, and there was no stopping the ailing cocoa industry in Ghana. Not Mars, not Mondelez, not Cadbury nor the World Cocoa Foundation.

The big industry players withdrew their resources and set out to new cocoa growing regions where yields could be expected to grow and grow and grow, boundlessly, with the world’s insatiable hunger for chocolate. Immanuel’s father, always hopeful, always optimistic, dug deeper and instilled in his children something that had become a rarity: hope. But even that became hard to maintain. His senior sons ditched the waning life of the village for a life of scraps under the neon lights in the city. But Immanuel was different, Immanuel’s father repeated to himself. His mind and heart were for his home and he had a TIN, which gave him access to things no-one else in the family could have. So it fell on Immanuel. Hope. Amidst the sweeping changes that had seemed gradual but now rapid across the Plains. The green to yellow of the vegetation. The moist to the dry of the soil. The fresh sharpness of the air to a sandy mist scratching the throat. The rushing water of the rivers now thin meekly streams.

Immanuel had known that this would happen. But seeing it now, rubbing it in his hardened palms, tasting it in the air, a change that was inevitable. Neither good nor bad.

29th April 2033

“For all this time that I console in you, Lexa, I wonder if it has made it harder for me to touch the intangible essence of people around me. Who is to say you don’t have an essence though? I find myself pondering this more and more as I confront the many layered emotions I struggle to — well — feel in this time. After our long day out on the field, Daniel and I returned to the house to check on Papa. He wasn’t in good shape.”

“Joy had run up to me, held my hand and took me to Papa’s bedroom. They moved the furniture in the living room outside to get aired since some of the storm from last night had wetted them. She dragged me across the bare space and into the one my father occupied. He was lying still, shrivelled, under a light cotton blanket. Wheezing. Sweat forming on his temple. I walked to him, and put my hand on his, and looked down on him, seeing all that he was, and unbecoming. Joy sobbing gently on my arm, feeling something for this person who was my father that I couldn’t entirely grasp. All I thought of was how his balding head reminded me of the eroding landscape around. That is what I thought of, looking at my father withering away”

“Daniel had been talking to the doctor over the phone outside, but was now by my side as well. He had whispered to me, softly enough to tickle my ear, “I thought he was getting better.””

Immanuel paused for a moment but a swelling in his chest made it hard for him to continue. He paced his breaths, making the conscious effort to allow the swell to pass. It did and he lay on his bed trying to imitate the sleep of Babaso. The crickets crackling, fresh rain smell mixed with that goat’s dung scattered across. He allowed his mind to skip over the moment that had just passed and he continued his accounts from earlier in the day.

“Daniel showed me something interesting this morning. We went off the asphalt road and through the narrow walkways that I used to traverse when I was younger. Fetching water with Mama, or showing Joy the way. He didn’t tell me where we were going, he must’ve thought I’d forgotten the path to the stream, the place he and I would go down to play in the water. Through the thick of the forest, up a gentle hill, the soil loose and falling at our feet, we reached a small hill then descended down what was now a steep profile, grabbing on the dusty vines to balance ourselves and finally through a clearing to the west bank of the River Baba. Well, what was the River Baba. Now, little more than runoff.”

“I had turned to him, puzzled, but he gestured to me to follow him upstream. We manoeuvred through the thick of the forest again, the sun cutting beams onto the decaying forest floor. Crunching on the leaves for a little while and swatting the volley of flying insects we entered another clearing. This one much larger than the one before. The red of the earth exposed to us, snails littering the floor, and the rough abrasive tracks of a tractor dried under the scorching heat which had replaced the rain’s dew. A little way up, the excavated earth was piled and packed to form a solid wall, scaffolding erected on either side of the former river’s bank, cement reinforcing the formation. It had looked small at first but climbing onto the scaffolding we saw the rest of the feat. Vast forest cleared. A giant grey wall of cement stretching from east to west. Far from complete but resolutely rooted into the terrain. A blue sign on the wall reading “Carao Construction”. Underneath the sign was a miniature display with a description of the project.”

In continuance of the growing relationship between Brazil and Ghana, Carao Construction devotes this dam to the people of the Afram Plains and the city of Kumasi, of which both stand to gain remarkably from this development. That the great Baba River be the pillar on which uninterrupted hydroelectric power is supplied to the IT Infrastructure Company’s Internet Server to be located east in the city of Ejura, is fitting. IT Infrastructure Company’s Internet Server will bring unheralded premier internet connectivity to the city of Kumasi and Afram Plains, surpassing that of Accra. For Ejura, the Server will serve as an employment opportunity, with 150 permanent jobs slated to be made available to the local population, along with other economies of scale . . .

Words from Chief Osei Asantawo

It is with great pleasure that we accept this gift from Carao Construction. It is well known that this great region has suffered a great deal from the outflow of its youth to urban centres of Accra, Kumasi and even Takoradi. It has not helped that our land is unable to bear cocoa as it once used to. But here is hope. The people of Baba commit themselves to change. With the authority vested in me, I declare that the River Baba serves the internet server in Ejura with uninterrupted hydroelectric power that will propel us toward a new economic epoch!

September 2031.

This was it! Hope! Wasn’t it? A new direction? A new beginning? His father had sent him away to learn how to improve cocoa yields but in the end it was all meant to bolster the economy of the region. If this project could do it, what was his use? He wouldn’t need to come back, he could continue his life in Sweden, advance his education. Support his family. Why would he need to come back home? Who was he fooling? This terrain was alien to him. Other people had figured out what to do with it before he could. They had managed to place it somewhere in the dominant narrative of the time. Not cocoa. The people of this region will maintain the dam. Simple. Premium internet connectivity would bring unthought-of opportunity. Simple.

Immanuel rummaged through these thoughts rapidly. He knew the dam wasn’t the silver bullet. But it made sense, and it was there. A physical reality. Not a theory locked up in his head and scribbled out on foolscap sheets tossed in the drawer of his desk. Something tangible. Not some mystical essence of people, or the land. What was this essence, and was it even relevant? For survival. But that was the other side of the coin. Survival at what cost? If the land of the Afram Plains is the rock, the Baba River is the fine earth that all life resonates from and which it has sustained throughout the millennia. What would Babaso be without the river?

There were knots tightening in his head, knots he was unable to loosen. The swelling in his chest came again. Stronger. Bulging. Relieving the discomfort didn’t come as easy to Immanuel. He turned over on his side, looking out the window, the waves of the curtain rippling over the crescent moon. The moon, which looked like a diamond at the bottom of a clear lake. Within sight, but out of reach.

14th May 2033

“We buried Papa today. The service was quiet, muted. Not so normal for a funeral in Ghana. We buried him out by the farm - a small congregation of people came to pay their respects. I didn’t fully observe the scarcity of people in Babaso till today. Papa is a big man, and our family is well respected. I expected a sizable crowd to be here to celebrate him in death and life. But as Father Raymond finished his song, I took a look at those who had assembled. Seated were Mr Kennedy, the vice-principal of the local Catholic school, Madam Kope, the woman who supplied the fruits and vegetables at the market, Salifu, Yaa, Boateng, big families. But it was only the heads of these families who sat and despaired for the man who was my father. Those who were to hold the mantle were not there.”

“Nonetheless, the setting was adequate. The storm from a couple of weeks earlier had been the only rain since. The wreath laid on the casket had dried and browned by the end of the service. The sun scorching an unyielding heat over our heads, and the dust hanging in the still air. Uncomfortable, but this was the sacrifice we would pay to the man who was my father. Who brought so much to this place, without asking for much, except that we all laugh and eat by day’s end. He had given everything to this place, this withering place.”

“Food was served back at the house. We cleared the furniture from the living room to allow those at the funeral to come and have drinks and eat kola. I wasn’t in any mood. Just dullness. I didn’t know what exactly I should have been so I wandered in the house, feigning whatever it was I should be to those I was sharing company with. Joy had decorated the living room with old pictures of Papa. There he was with Mama on their wedding day. There he was with his father and my two older brothers (they hadn’t come). There we all were the day the representatives of the World Cocoa Foundation came. They handed Papa a huge cheque for being the cocoa farmer of the year. The white man standing with his hands outstretched, my father’s hand reaching. A gleam in his eye.”

“I turned toward the sympathisers busy chatting and cheersing. Watching them with narrow eyes. Everyone knew their place in this setting even though it wasn’t their home. I was now the man of the house. But I didn’t feel like a man nor that this place was mine.”

“There I was standing next to Papa, hands on his shoulder, smiling. Joy came to me as she always did. I asked her how it had been before, for her, a vague empty question. She stared for a second at the picture of Papa and me, then said in Twi:

‘“You know I loved following you and Daniel to the river. You never told me when you were going, but I knew. Mama disapproved of me playing with you guys. Papa said I shouldn’t mind her. Being in that river was so wonderful. He must have known it was the only place I could be free with myself and with you. I am not sad Papa has died. I think he was dying a long time ago.”’

Are you sad Immanuel?

“Deeply.”