Paa Kwesi Owusu, 80
Badu, Brong Ahafo Region, Ghana
July 15, 2049
Good morning Mr. Owusu, thanks for having me in your home.
You are welcome. I don’t get many visitors.
Your place was a bit hard to find, it’s pretty far off the main road.
I value my privacy.
Right…well I appreciate you agreeing to talk to me. As I mentioned on the phone, I just want to ask you a few questions about your life growing up.
Alright. Go ahead.
Okay. Yes. Let’s start with your childhood. What was that like?
I grew up here in Badu in the 1970’s just a few minutes that way. It was an even smaller town than it is now. My parents were farmers just like all our neighbours and we mostly grew yam. As children, my brother and I spent most of our time either doing chores or playing outside. We weren’t that different from the other kids in the area.
And the weather? Seasons came and went?
They did, yes. We were used to Harmattan winds covering everything in dust from about late November to early March. Honestly, we dreaded Harmattan because there were always so many chores. Once, my mother made us clean all the leaves in the garden because she didn’t like seeing them brown. Of course, by the time we got to the end of the bushes, the beginning was dirty again. It was exhausting, but I suppose I don’t need to tell you that.
That’s okay, please keep going.
Right. Rains would come in April and be pretty predictable until November. Then it would all begin again. We always looked forward to those months because we could play a whole new set of games. Avoiding puddles and things like that.
A lot has changed in 80 years.
And a lot has stayed the same.
[loud beeping noise]
Excuse me, I need to change the filters on my recycle tank.
Let me help you with that. You keep sitting, I can change it while we talk.
So…When did you start working as a community organizer?
[chuckles] In some ways I was one my whole life. My parents didn’t have much, but our farm was fruitful so we had more than some others. They always taught me to share as much as I could with those around me. I remember asking my mother if we could start packaging meals for some of my friends as a child, and I kept doing that into adulthood for other members of the community. There were already farmer collectives around and they sometimes organized community feeding programs. They also provided food for festivals and events. When there came a time for new leadership they reached out to me. This was around the early 2020’s.
When the Dust began.
What was it like in the beginning?
Anyone you ask will give you a different date for when it truly started. For me, there was a Monday in May ‘24, when my brother was sitting where you are now, in tears. The Harmattan still hadn’t ended, and the crops he planted were all dying in the ground. The rains were so late. I assured him that they would be back, as I had done for months. After he left, I remember looking around this room and feeling the weight of the dust. I noticed how dry my throat was and the itch in my eye became oppressive all of a sudden. That was the first time I wasn’t sure that the Harmattan would end. For me it started that day.
That must have been scary. How did the people in your community react?
It was a difficult time. Everyone was confused. You have to understand that our town is in the Brong Ahafo region, which at the time was the nation’s breadbasket. Cultivating the land was a way of life that supported so many Ghanaians. People were desperate. At first the government stepped in with subsidies to support us but their money soon dried up. Then the international organizations came for a while and they forgot about us as well. We had to fend for ourselves. Many people did things that they were not proud of, but we survived.
What did people have to do to survive?
Let’s take a break, young man. I’m tired.
Sure, no problem. Can I get you a hydropack?
No, they’re disgusting. Just go and open the window.
You have to unlock the dust seal on the side there. The lever is under a flap on the left. The left. Yes there.
Oh yes, I see it, thank you. I haven’t seen one of these kinds of seals since I was a kid.
It works well enough.
Same for this recycle tank. How old is it?
I’ve had it for many years. The water tastes a bit metallic but it’s better than that gel. At least it’s water.
Right. You don’t mind the dust blowing in through the open window?
There’s air blowing in as well isn’t there? It’s too stuffy in here.
[laughs] I guess I’ve gotten used to breathing through filters.
Young man, let me ask you a question. Why are you here? I have been here my whole life, even after many others left, and no one has ever taken an interest. I didn’t believe you would actually come after we spoke on the phone, honestly. Why come all this way?
[clears throat] I guess I’m interested in what life was like before The Dust. There aren’t that many people around today who went through that transition as leaders in their communities, and who are still around to talk about it. The Dust is all I’ve ever known but I watch movies and read books about life before it started and it seems like such a magical time.
[scoffs] A magical time?
Yes. I have lived in Accra my whole life and have only seen rain twice. I can’t even imagine having it fall as much as it did back then.
You think because we had rain, our lives were good?
I…I don’t know. I suppose.
What did you mean when you said a lot has stayed the same?
Earlier I said that a lot has changed, and you said a lot has stayed the same. What did you mean?
Oh. People are still suffering. It looks different now, but let me not pretend that life was easy. It was hard work, staying alive and taking care of the people around us. In the cities, you had more comfort, but here we have been exposed to the elements for a long time. There was panic for a while when the Dust began, but people got used to it eventually and are now surviving the best way they know how to. They wear masks and drink hydro packs and keep on living. It all looks the same to me.
I’m sorry. I know that growing up in these times must be hard too.
At least you don’t have to deal with mosquitoes. Have you ever had malaria?
No I haven’t.
Oh, it was horrible. You would feel too cold and too hot at the same time. Shaking and barely able to move. A pounding headache. Nausea.
That does sound horrible.
I once sat in front of a delicious bowl of light soup and cried for hours because I didn’t have any appetite. My mouth wanted it but my body was refusing.
My whole family teased me about that for years. It was hard but we learned to live with it, as people do. The problems are different today but we keep trying to figure them out. We have learned how to conserve our water and plant crops differently. What else can we do?
Not everyone decided to stay though, many people travelled as far as they could to search for new opportunities. Why did you stay?
Badu is my home. I worked my whole life to make it better and I did not want to leave it. It’s nowhere near what I remember growing up, but it’s here.
[Mr. Owusu coughs]
May I close that window?
Alright. Thank you.
Are you feeling okay, Mr. Owusu?
You can call me Papa K.
Papa K. How are you feeling, can we keep going?
I think I need to lie down. One day you will be an old man, and understand the meaning of that phrase.
Okay, I should start heading back then. Thank you…
I have some newspapers from the ‘20’s that you can look through while I rest. If you want.
Really? Oh, that would be incredible!
Just do it quietly.
Of course, Papa K. You won’t even know I’m here.