The lay preacher’s voice boomed over the eight rows of captive passengers as he stood in the aisle to our right facing the rear of the battered bus, aka trotro. Perhaps it was a case of sanity-preserving selective memory, but I always forgot about the lay preachers and their evangelistic sales pitches that accompanied most long trotro journeys in Ghana. I was impressed though, because this sounded like a safe-sex sermon, a community service even in Ewe (Ehveh), the mouth-full-of-Akple sounding language of the Volta region.
I adjusted my buttocks and did my best to appreciate the ambiance of the safe-sex sermon, as much as you can, on a bus, on Christmas Eve, sharing a twenty-feet-square space with thirty sweating passengers, your knees squashed to your chest, live chickens plopped below your feet in black plastic bags, and a hell-bent preacher standing over you shouting sentences peppered with the words "Jesus", "condom" and "HIV/AIDS".
This was my dear friend David’s first exposure to the lay preacher phenomenon and the zealousness with which Ghanaians have embraced Christianity. I gave him the most mollifying smile I could muster. He sat grinning at the preacher. The preacher’s voice rose to a crescendo – “Because Ehveh Ehveh con-dom!” – and, like a well-rehearsed magician, he reached into his pocket and withdrew a shiny plastic square. “Jesus said Ehveh Ehveh pro-tek-shon thooousand Cedis…” He tore it open and waved a slippery condom over the heads of the thirty-odd passengers. This was a safe-sex message with a price.
The other thing I always forgot was that trotro preachers invariably had something to sell, and it was usually a remarkable remedy to cure snake bites, scorpion bites, piles, herpes and malaria, all in one miraculous fifty cent pill. Today’s sermon made a refreshing change.
David’s grin turned to incredulous disbelief. “Is this normal?” he shouted in my ear. I nodded. This was how most of Ghana got from A to B. The majority of passengers handed over their meager savings for what amounted to snake oil cures. At least I reasoned, this auditory assault was for a worthy cause.
A dozen hands waved worn notes in the air like punters at a strip joint, just aching to give up their cash. The preacher distributed the condoms to men and women, young and old alike, who passed them along so that those in the back rows didn’t miss out, cash filtering in the other direction towards the preacher. There was no bashfulness about this last minute dash of Christmas shopping which now induced a lull in the punters and a pause in the spiel. Peace and quiet at last, I thought.
One other thing I always forget: never assume anything in Ghana because anything can happen, and it usually does.
The preacher leaned over David and reached into an innocuous brown sack sitting on the seat beside him. The scorpion demo again? I’d been singled out by the preacher salesman on another journey to volunteer for the pleasure of receiving a scorpion bite, to prove that the scorpion bite remedy that he was pushing actually worked. It did work; at least the young man who agreed, along a dirt track half-way to nowhere, to be bitten wasn’t dead by the time I jumped off at my destination. No, this was something else altogether. He withdrew an instrument that would make even the most potent, tiger-nut-chewing man blush. The preacher held aloft what amounted to a ten-inch long, remarkably girthed, wooden penis.
I turned around to see the eyes of the thirty-odd passengers popping like exclamation marks. I doubted these folks had ever seen such a tool unless they’d participated in sex-ed classes. Condom in right hand, wooden penis in left, our preacher motioned to David to help demonstrate how the two made beautiful music together. This was after sales service, if ever I’d seen it, which was absolutely necessary if the stories safe-sex educators told me were true. In one instance a couple placed a banana covered condom, as they’d seen in demonstrations, next to their bed, believing this would do the birth control trick. Spelling out the message visually was the best way to ensure the message got across. What better time than on Christmas Eve when the next generation of Hohoe babies were about to be conceived?
“Come on! This is your chance,” I shouted in David’s ear above the din of the bone-shaking bus. David though, was still only six days old in Ghana and a naturally shy individual. The no-bloody-way shake of his head told me that immortality would wait.
“Bra! You come!” The preacher now set his eyes on me. I was six months old here and something I never forgot, because I deflected marriage proposals from random men daily, was that Ghanaian men were not easily discouraged.
“Oh this Ghana,” I thought to myself, echoing my colleague Pat’s catch-phrase whenever the power went out. What to do?
I could hardly look David in the face now. He dug his elbow into my side and cocked his head toward the preacher as if to say, “Come on buster, money where your mouth is.”
I knew that this would eclipse a Nigerian movie for entertainment as far as the passengers were concerned. It would make a great story. Still, I argued in my head, I wouldn’t do a safe-sex demo in a bus full of mostly men anywhere else, unless they were all gay. Just because I was an anonymous traveler in a busted up vehicle heading bush on Christmas Eve in Africa didn’t mean I had to stand in front of thirty-odd passengers and, well, be suggestive.
Just like the time I was trapped in the women’s toilets with two exchange students by a middle-aged, masturbating exhibitionist in Japan when I was seventeen, I realized that I didn’t have to do anything; I already had a great story.
I smiled sheepishly at David, who seemed relieved, probably imagining the fallout, and shook my head at the preacher. He’d be fine. He didn’t need me, I thought, as he waved the penis as though he’d done it once or twice before. I consoled my self with the thought that if his demo was successful, the Christmas baby boom would surely bypass Hohoe next September and Ghana would keep giving HIV a run for its money. This could only be a good thing.
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