Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Guard and the Gardener

And just when I thought I’d preserved a small cocoon of modern civilization and a trustworthy crew around myself, the surprises of Africa knock me on the head again.

So this is what has been happening in my household over the past few weeks, while friends of mine in Canada are worrying about getting winter coats, and buying groceries, cleaning the house, kids getting a cold and the like, I am dealing with the dark corners of deceit and witchcraft in the heart of Africa.

A few weeks ago, while sitting among friends at Champs Sports Bar (a Canadian owned Mexican joint in Ghana), on Trivia night, surrounded by 20 tables of rowdy Expats, we received a frantic call from the house. It was Beatrice the ex-maid, (recently relegated to ironing only) – she warned John “Sir, please there is big trouble in the house!”. Expecting a fire or worse, we asked what it was. “It’s Eric (the gardener who has been with us for 6 years) – he’s been stealing the diesel! Even tonight, just now, he has taken two jerry cans of diesel, he and the guard” (A professional company has been hired to have one guard sitting on duty at our gate 24/7 to protect us and more importantly the expensive equipment for the company stored in our garages). Beatrice explained that Eric and the guard had been doing this for over a year on nights when we were out, bringing a taxi to the gate, filling the two cans, and then Eric jumping in the taxi, heading off somewhere into town to sell them. She also pointed out that Devon our oldest son had been returning from his friend’s place and had seen the taxi and Eric and the guard at the gate.

I shouldn’t have been, but I was shocked. Eric had always seemed a very loyal if not too intelligent guy. I paid him for numerous small jobs he would do for me, apart from his wages, and had always helped him out when he came with various sad stories over the years, of sick and needy relatives. We bought him a fridge and a TV and he lived for free in the quarters at the back of the house. By Ghanaian standards, for an illiterate guy with no gardening skills he was doing ok. As a gardener he was incompetent if not downright abusive! One day years ago when John had asked him to trim the palm fronds touching the windows, we came home in the evening to find the entire majestic tree pared down to a dead and pathetic stump. “It will grow back!”, he seemed so sure. It still stands, rotten and smelling out back…

But I digress… Now we had to deal with the situation at hand. There are two large drums of diesel sitting in the garage, to refill the generator (one of Eric’s jobs), as and when the electricity went through periods of long outages (very common in our dear Ghana).
We never kept track of the amount of diesel in the drums, it was a tedious job, not worth the time, and we basically trusted Eric. Well now we had to grill the guard, call in the management of the security company and fire Eric.

The guard denied any taxi having been there, denied any knowledge of Eric removing diesel and basically insisted on his innocence. After asking a few other people in the neighborhood, we discovered the same guard had his own diesel business passing out the back gate of the last place he was ‘guarding’! We called in his bosses who were only too happy to have him removed immediately. They were also very interested in what we would do with Eric. “Sir please – we would remove him for you. Throw his things in the road and not allow him through the gate again”. We were less into the dramatics. The truth is that he is a single guy, with few if any family in the city, and no money, skills or resources. We knew he had nowhere to go. John confronted him, he pleaded innocence, we gave him till the end of the month to go.

From that day, there was mayhem in the house. Every day when we left for work there was sneaking, and sneering and distrust and loud arguments and threats abounding. Gilbert the cook and cleaner confronted us one morning on our way out. “Please madam, sir, (I can’t get him to stop calling me this pretentious term which makes me feel old and elitist!). “The house is not fine. Sometimes Eric and Beatrice they fight. Sometimes I am upstairs and Eric could come in, he could take things. Bea too – she brings the laundry when I am not here. Please, the doors, I feel it is not safe to leave them open. Until Eric is gone and things are normal again”. We weren’t too concerned. The day came and went and Eric left. We paid him a few month’s services (as in common in Ghana – instead of putting a thief in jail, you pay them for a few months and see them on their way). And the security company was ready and happily put his things out. We followed up by sending a driver from the office to transport his things to wherever he wanted.

Just before Eric left, he handed me a hand written note. It was very difficult to read, but I pieced together what I could. It basically alleged that the reason Bea had made up these horrible stories against him was that he had confronted her for bringing too many men to the house. He claimed she was a witch and that she promised she would revenge him. This was how she had accomplished it, he claimed. Then he made an ominous statement that I was next on the witches list, as she perceived me to be the cause of her losing the main job in the house (as we had recently brought in the company’s official cook Gilbert). He claimed she would work her way to me next…

I put it down, we laughed a bit. Africa! Eric!!! I just thought to myself how bizarre my life was over here, even now, secluded in the Expat world of work, dinners, big airconditioned house with foreign satellite TV and a real supermarket to shop at (but that's another story!)…
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