The Repbulic of Joy - Extract

How to Steal a Goat (from a Witch) - Short story

The military had taken over the country, bloodless corpses were appearing periodically, the drought showed no sign of easing, and all I wanted to do was eat.
I was hungry when I woke up in the morning and had to fight with the seniors for my tiny piece of stale bread. I was hungry when I took my shower before first lesson, the dust settling comfortably back on to my body the minute I towelled myself dry. I was hungry at lunchtime, when we were served up the stringy yams or bitter cassava that had somehow been coaxed to grow in the dry dusty soil where all other crops failed. I was hungry during lessons, when we were supposed to be memorising facts about the great dawn of Ghanaian independence. I was hungry when the final bell sounded for dinnertime, when there was even less to eat than at lunchtime. I was hungry after dinner, when we climbed up on to the flat roof of the dormitory to smoke weed and play dominos. I was hungriest of all when I went to bed at night and tried to sleep in the relentless heat that continued long after sunset.
I could feel the hunger roving around inside me like a ravenous animal, demanding to be fed. It was never satisfied.


It was another viciously hot day, the sun not yet tired of burning our dusty skin and scorching the land. The mood was ugly, because a stack of Aid food had arrived from the States, but it turned out to be animal fodder, as dry and tasteless as the dust.
As me and Kweku were heading up to the roof, we were stopped by the hideous cackle of Mrs Frimpong. Everyone was scared of Mrs Frimpong, because she was a witch. She had the most obedient class at our boarding school. 'What are you boys doing, going up to that roof all the time? Up to no good, for sure.' I felt safe, because Kweku was carrying the weed. 'It's cooler up there, Madame,' I lied smoothly. She shook her head, unconvinced. 'Well, I've got my eye on you two. You may be prefects, but you still report to me!'
'Yes, Mrs Frimpong,' we recited dutifully.
She wandered off, in the direction of One-Tree Field. Everyone knew where the witches hung out. At the end of the basketball court, there was a field with just one tree in it, an ancient almond tree, and sometimes, late at night, you could see the glowing red sparks from their broomsticks flying around. If the night was windy, you could even hear their cackling laughter sweeping across the schoolyard like a curse. Once, the school had tried to cut down the almond tree, to make way for an outhouse. But the next morning the tree was there again, not an axe-mark on it. The witches obviously liked that old tree.
Kweku rolled a joint as fat as a small cigar, and we lay back on the warm stone roof to smoke. 'What you go eat tonight?' he asked. It was one of our favourite games. We tried to think of the biggest, most succulent animals in the world, and dreamed of how we would hunt them down, roast them on a spit, then eat them whole. 'A hippopotamus,' I said finally. 'One big, fat hippo, plus fufu.' Kweku's belly rumbled appreciatively. 'They get them for the North, you know. I bet they de taste go-od.'
'I no de care what they de taste like, so long as it plenty,' I said.


That afternoon, another corpse appeared on the roadside, all the blood drained out of it. Just thinking about it made me want to vomit. Some said there was a maniac on the loose, others put it down to witchcraft. After all, who but a witch would know how to do such a thing?
I didn't want to go to the market. It reminded me of the days before the famine, when it was a dream of a place, crammed with succulent meat and freshly-caught fish and sweet-smelling fruit and rainbow-coloured vegetables. Now it was more like a prison, with the militia everywhere and the frightened sellers hiding their wares from strangers.
Mrs Frimpong sent me to buy yams. She ate better than most of the teachers, even keeping a small herd of scrawny goats on her land. She told me where to find the market woman who would sell to me. But when I reached the woman's stall, I was alarmed to find a large, braying, crowd gathered there. She had been caught red-handed, selling cassava in bulk, and the soldiers had decided to make an example of her. They ordered her to strip and get on her knees. I cringed at the sight of this elderly lady, the flesh hanging off her bones, as she cowered before soldiers young enough to be her sons, begging for mercy. They showed her none, and whipped her with birch sticks until she made a noise like a cat with a trapped tail.
As I walked back to school, I kept stopping to wipe my damp forehead. I felt dizzy, either from too much sun, too little food, or the terrible screams of the marketseller. When I explained to Mrs Frimpong why I had no yams for her, she threw up her hands in disgust. 'What times we are living in,' she said.


That night, when the savage, clawing hunger was at its peak, I formed a desperate plan. Dreaming of hippos wasn't going to feed the gluttonous beast inside me. I shook Kweku awake and told him we were going to steal a goat from Mrs Frimpong.

© Omma Velada 2006

The Republic of Joy
(Lulu Press, 2006)
Short story anthology £3.99
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