By some stroke of ill-luck, I wasn’t on my regular public transport route on the evening of 24th July, 2012. I wasn’t on any public transport route at all! I wondered what kind of conversation was going on within individual beat up trotros, or what taxi drivers were talking about. Rumour had quickly turned into sad truth: the president had kicked the bucket (Metro TV couldn’t have found a more classless way to make the first announcement of its kind ever in Ghana). Grief quickly made its way up like a destructive flood from the south to the north. Hearts were filled with sorrow. Heads were filled with ideas.
In trotros in the following days, commuters spoke sparingly. I found it surprising that they merely listened to the news on their way to and from work. Had we been numbed into golden silence? The traditional flutes would play on the radio every now and then, irrespective of station. That tune is such a tear-jerker, I thought to myself on one trip. Among every group of people, there was somebody wearing black. I had never seen such an outpouring of sadness.
Within days, there were picture specials in the dailies. Tabloid headlines were screaming clues of how the president died. Shocked Ghanaians stood around newsstands reading as much as they could without buying a copy. The Daily Graphic had an insert, comprising pictures from as many eras as they could find of the good man. They were suddenly collectors’ items.
It wasn’t until the one week celebration that it turned into an explosion of black and red. It didn’t take me long to notice that I hadn’t read the memo. I walked up to Bridge in my blue shirt, earphones firmly as one with my head. It was awash with funeral colours. I couldn’t kick myself hard enough. Truly, I hadn’t felt so out of place in a long time. Individuality quickly gave way for a desire to be part of the crowd. Oh, for the ground to swallow me. Instinctively, my head dipped lower in shame with each step.
I reached the mini-station opposite Fiesta Royale Hotel as the odd-one-out. Thankfully, there was a trotro going into Dzorwulu already parked. No need to wait and feel a thousand pairs of disapproving eyes bore through my body. The mate wore a flimsy black T-shirt with President Mills’ ever-smiling face on the front. No way would it survive three washes. The driver was grinning broadly as he rushed in. He was tearing pieces of tape to stick the man’s picture up on his windscreen. I had to advise him to paste it inside, in case he activated his wipers – in case they worked – and ripped the picture. I felt it my duty, at least, having not reflected the national mood that morning. From that morning onwards, anything red would do. People wore Manchester United jerseys, wore red shirts that read “Corea”, and shirts of dead relatives from funerals past.
Gloom was represented everywhere, but in the midst of tragedy, life goes on. There was still money to be made. Plenty of it. And some were raking it in like it was the California Gold Rush of 1849. Quickly, hawkers were roaming the streets with strips of red usually seen only either at funerals or Kumasi Asante Kotoko matches. They were shoving them into cars. Being a seasonal commodity, they weren’t going to slack in any efforts to make a killing. For GH¢1, you could get yourself a strip of koogyan. Hawkers tied them to car antennas before the owners had given permission. The larger pieces of cheap red cloth, frayed at the edges from hurried cutting, cost GH¢7. It certainly wasn’t above some enterprising thinkers, the day he died, to order bales of polyester onto the next cargo ship departing the shores of China.
I’d never heard of the funeral cloth cynically named “Sε asa”. But after all he had gone through from the public, saying “It’s finished” seemed apt. In the markets, traders couldn’t stock their shelves fast enough. By the time the three-day funeral commenced, the official Atta Mills cloth had been printed and distributed. Of course, it was specially-priced, whether as a sign of its quality or to take advantage of emotional mourners.
Walking into a banking hall and seeing pretty bankers accessorised with bright red broaches didn’t seem strange anymore. Neither did seeing a red England football flag draped on a trotro. Trotro wipers were tied together by red fabric. The president’s face filled the papers like never before, advertising agencies and moonlighting laptop-carrying graphic designers filling their boots too.
The herd mentality was in full effect, and the cowherds were shedding tears of joy all the way to the bank.
RIP, Mr. President.