He.ro [pronounced hee-roh]
A person distinguished by exceptional character, nobility and fortitude (Collins English Dictionary)
With this definition in mind, meet Amos Frimpong.
I met Amos selling “plantain chips” on a street in Cantoments, nearby the Ghana International School (G.I.S), in Accra, Ghana. To the average Ghanaian, seeing beggars and street hawkers is commonplace – even if they are kids. The idea of this young boy selling plantain chips by the road is a familiar one.These street-vendors may be commissioned by companies to sell on the streets, or personally selling goods. At this point, you are probably thinking you can tell the trajectory of this piece but I pray thee, read on.
On a fateful Friday, I found myself stuck in traffic with my mum, when I did my usual thing of rolling down my window to call out to a plantain seller. In the moment between me deciding how many bags of the salty and unripe ones I wanted to buy, and my staring at the young boy who gassed past near-by competing plantain sellers to my window, I found my thoughts veering off-track – and the wheels of our car as well. I had decided that we needed to park the car on the side of the street so that I could get down and talk to this guy.
Perhaps alarmed by my sudden action of stopping the car and getting down, Amos inched back. He could only afford me a brief conversation that ensued mostly in Twi (a Ghanaian local language), snippet of which I attempt to reproduce here:
Me: What is your name?
Amos (obviously a little confused at this his customer): Madam, my name is Amos Frimpong?
Me: Amos, how old are you?
Amos: (still with a look of skepticism/confusion/shyness): Madam, please I am 13 years.
(He repeatedly looks away when answering my questions. This is what makes me think I am making him uncomfortable).
Me: Do you go to school?
Amos: Yes. I go to Disciples JSS.
Me: Disciples? Where is it? What class are you in?
Amos: Madam, it’s at Nungua. Please I am in Form 1.
My mum: So you speak good English?
Amos: Yes, Madam (He deliberately says that in English and smiles at my mum. Henceforth, we resort to speaking English. His English is flawless and he is very eloquent. Point-of-note: English is Ghana’s official language.)
Me: Ah, Amos, if you go to school why are you standing here selling? Did you go to school today?
Amos: No. School starts on the 13th of January. But when I go I will still be coming here after school.
Me: Where do you live?
Me: So you walked all the way here? How will you go back home?
Amos: Yes. I will go home. I will walk. (There’s a google image map of the distance walked I’ve attached below. It’s about 11.6km)
Me: What do you want to be in future?
Amos: I want to be a teacher or engineer.
Amos: So I can help people to learn and build things.
(Amos, seeing other plantain sellers around him receiving customers in cars passing by, begins to dart many glances past me, which give me the impression he needs to go make some money, so I realize I must start rounding up the conversation)
Me: So when will you go home? How will you go home?
Amos: Madam, I will go when my basket is empty. It’s for my school fees.
Me: How much is your school fees?
Amos: 50 Ghana. (Note: The equivalent of this is approximately $25)
I gesture for him to come closer to tell him all the inspirational things I can master from my system but for some “funny” or ‘fuzzy’ reason, I am so lost in complex thoughts that I only say to him “Be strong, enh? Study hard. Don’t give up. You will be great. God bless you ok? Take this for Christmas.” In retrospect, I didn’t do enough. But I don’t know whether I couldn’t do more, or I just didn’t know how to do more. My initial bid to get my favorite salty and unripe plantains turned into a striking experience that left me with another kind of salty and unripe taste in my mouth.
First, there are these questions I constantly ask myself after the encounter, “Should I have done more? Could I have done more? How do I do more?”, are places we could start from. My Global Health professor taught me something over a cup of coffee. He said:
“Metty, you are not here to learn the solutions/answers to Ghana’s or Africa’s or the world’s problems. You are here to learn to ask the right questions. The sooner you learn that the better for you and those around you”
That is the most profound thing Professor Skolnik has said to me in his wealth of pithy statements and great advice. Questions. It is the questions that lend us a start to the quandaries of life we face each day. I realize now that perhaps in questioning, we will be able to better navigate understanding ourselves and the systems we create for ourselves.
We must question why things came to be –
- Why is Amos on the street selling and not in school?
- How did Amos get on the streets?
- Where should Amos be if he is not on the streets?
- What does Amos want for himself? Does he enjoy his work on the streets? Would he rather be elsewhere?
- What are the implications of Amos being on the streets? How does it affect me, you, everybody else?
- What is the significance of Amos being on the street? Does it speak to the qualities of our humanity, institutions, government, nation?
- In the metaphorical sense, what do we do when Amos’ basket is actually empty? Assuming he gets exhausted, What other venture will he resort to, to sustain himself?
- How did we get here? Not just Amos, but we ourselves? How did we get to seeing hawkers on the streets as commonplace? How did we get to blogging about this? having a discussion about this?
- How did we get to seeing Amos standing by G.I.S as normal, given that G.I.S is such a prominent school, with wonderful educational facilities? Do we see the irony? (PS: No name-calling here, I just happened to be thinking of the location at which I met him. The same can be said for many schools splattered all over Ghana, etc.)
- Would Amos be on the street if he lived anywhere else in the world? Say, in Sweden, Switzerland, Canada, America?
- Is there a possibility to have absolutely “no child” on the street selling “plantain chips, wares and other commodities”?
- If these children are not on the street, where will they be? What will they be doing? What should they be doing?
- Are these the right/valid questions? Are all our answers to these questions right? Are our answers possible, impossible, realistic or idealistic?
- Are there any more questions we should be asking?
And here I prove Professor Skolnik’s point. See how many solutions you came up with by asking all these questions? This is why Amos is a hero. He is only in grade 7, but he got me to get out of my car and engage the world, by asking questions. Hopefully he has done same for you. Amos Frimpong, does not only deserve to be viewed as hero because of what he represents for all the million-and-one kids trying to fight for their dreams against rigid social structures we have created for ourselves. Neither is he a “hero” because he fits the Collins dictionary’s definition of being “distinguished by fortitude”.
For me, he fits into my category of a hero because simply put, he want to be a Teacher or Engineer because he wants to “help people learn and build things”. He is a hero because he has taught me something, “We must all desire to learn and build things”. We must desire to build. Build hopes, build solid dreams, build realities, build life – it is not utopian at all. It is possible. If man has had the zeal to destroy entire cities in war and hate, then we sure do have the capacity to build things in love and peace. We must build. Build the structures, attitudes, institutions and edifices that Martin Luther King makes reference to when he says, “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
Until then, we will keep walking, the long journey Amos journeys to build his living.
We will keep walking Nelson Mandela’s long walk to freedom.
*The interview was truncated to suit this space*