Most mornings, I meet just about the same squatters sitting outside their uncompleted buildings, shirts unbuttoned or draped over their bare chests. A few vigorously scrub away with chewing sticks of various lengths. The routine is the same: a smile, a wave of the hand, a greeting. Response. On some days, however, all I get is an absent-minded nod without the courtesy of a look. The circled portions of the ever-present lotto newspaper are obviously a lot more interesting.
Lotto used to be a weekend activity, complete with a TV show for the live draw. I still remember the crowd in attendance cheering wildly in anticipation when a number was held up. “Banker, banker!” they would scream. My memory fails as to whether any such was ever picked out. Sure, there was mid-week lotto, but the Saturday one was the main event. Lotto Bingo, VAG West, Asare Original Pay All and other private operators had their time in the sun, till the state declared them illegal. Dreams were shattered regularly on any given Saturday, yet like ants to sweet poison, the patrons made their way back to the same lotto kiosks that impoverished them, still with hopes of striking it rich by guessing a minimum of two numbers between 1 and 90.
One afternoon a few years ago, I waded through Tema Station in search of a car going to Korle-Bu. At the time, I wasn’t very familiar with the unlabelled lots. Indeed the whole place looked like a tornado had ripped right through. No order. Politely, I walked up to two middle-aged men to ask for directions. I should’ve known better than to disturb anyone with a lotto paper in hand.
They were busily counting numbers in an order which naturally made no sense to me. It looked like they were analyzing winning numbers which from years back. The paper was in poor shape and had nothing but rows and rows of numbers. One was mumbling inaudibly to the other, who nodded with rapt attention, though with a somewhat confused look on his face. A teacher and his pupil. All I wanted was to get to Korle-Bu in peace.
Their expression was one of impatience, for I had rudely interrupted their intellectual discourse on probability and permutation. With a fling of their hands, they sent me off in one direction, far away from where I would get to know the Korle-Bu trotros were parked. How dare I get in the way of their being millionaires?
I don’t know whether it is only in Ghana that we waste time taking apart the history of lottery numbers, but we believe we should have a hand in our own destinies. It can’t just be guesswork. Where’s the fun in that? Lotto champions choose the numbers they believe will change their fortunes overnight, and they work hard at it. It’s not uncommon to see drivers and bookmen at the lorry parks predicting the next numbers. Neither is it strange for many a taxi driver in traffic to wait patiently at a red light, whiling away the time with his lotto paper.
Wherever I have been in this country, some things have been constant: one popular drinking spot and a lotto kiosk. The closer to each other, the better. A man sits in his kiosk all day, a small notepad – with carbon paper – strategically placed. His radio plays music or a political shouting match in the heat of the day. Outside the kiosk, with varying competencies in chalk art on a blackboard, are the last numbers to have dropped. Then, there’s one big number. This is one half of the “two sure” for the week. No way is he going to give you the other one for free. A small tip will give you the other half. Just stake big and rake in the cash. After all, wouldn’t you expect a higher measure of success from someone who has spent majority of his day scratching his head with a pen, staring intently at winning numbers since pre-Independence, spotting trends not visible to the untrained eye?
As we headed out of Tema Station into the rush hour High Street traffic, I took a look at Brennan Hall, the single-storey building of the Department of National Lotteries that used to be filled every Saturday at 5pm as the life-changing numbers were picked. Right next to it is the multi-storied Fortune House, the edifice lotto stakers of various economic muscle helped the government to build, a temple to their god.
Gone are the days of lotto doctors, armed with chalk and blackboard preaching their gospel. Today, the lotto writer is the main guy. But then, I ask myself, almost like in the lotto advert of the nineties, “why is the lotto writer not rich?”