It was 1956. We lived in what is now Ghana, West Africa. At the time it was the Gold Coast, a British colony with a history of a lucrative slave trade. The country was segregated. I was not allowed to befriend village children. That didn’t stop Peta and me from forming a bond I am as freshly thankful for as if it was today.
Peta had one eye that worked. The other was a mass of white scar tissue. The contrast of that against his black face captured my curiosity. Peta was from the Mamprusi ethnic region to the north. His facial markings were 3 stripes cut into his left cheek. His hands were large, his back strong and he always had a song or riddle for me.
Being thirteen had its advantages. I could ask questions about anything. When I asked Peta about his eye, he shrugged it off, saying his eye was that way since a boyhood fight. Peta didn’t know his birthday, but he thought he was 35 years old, or there about. His age did not matter so much to me. What mattered was that he paid attention to me in a place where I was the minority, a white boy in Africa.
Peta worked as the compound garden “boy” for my missionary father. Peta drew water by hand from the well and filled the two 55-gallon barrels which fed running water to the bungalow bathroom and kitchen. He cut the weeds, chopped wood for the cook’s stove and made minor repairs to the bungalow. Once he clubbed a mad dog to death as it ran through the open gate at my baby brother. I watched the dog’s eyes glaze dull starring at the noon sun.
Out back on the edge of the missionary compound in Kumbungu, in the “boys” quarters, Peta had a small room. His bed, made of rough timber, stood in one corner against the back wall. To the side of the bed, he kept a wooden trunk on top of which sat a candle, Peta’s large comb and a Christian New Testament translated into Dagomba. On Sundays he took his Bible to church. I was not sure Peta could read but he said he was a Christian and that’s what Christians did, took their black Bible books and went to church. He was no dummy. You had to be a Christian to be employed by my father, the white man missionary from America.
I soon discovered another trait about Peta. In addition to all his other admirable qualities, he was a magician.
I rode a donkey. Other missionary kids had horses. I occasionally rode horses, renting a village elder’s horse in full parade dress to ride up and down the dirt road through town. That was fun, but I felt conspicuous and clownish, when the villagers laughed at me the way they did.
My donkey, Pepper, was gray, marked with an ebony cross positioned exactly across his shoulders and down the ridge of his back. Peta told me this is the mark these beasts got for the role they played in the life of Christ. Pepper was mine, for good or bad.
I rode Pepper, astride his rump with my legs locked under his flanks. He was stubborn and lazy. I don’t think he liked to be ridden. Often, he would lay his ears back, try to bite me, hop with stiff legs, buck a few times, then stand still, head down. He brayed as if being held prisoner.
Mostly, Pepper wanted to be left alone in his stall, flicking flies off his long, fuzzy ears.
He was fat and impudent. Still, I fed and groomed him and treated him with half a bucket of millet each day. He frequently tried to kick me. Lucky me, I had only one broken bone from Pepper’s ill temper. I figured Pepper liked me as much as he liked any human.
I found Pepper dead one morning in the early harmattan haze, laying on his side in the straw, twice his normal size. Peta stood there smiling.
“Grain,” Peta said. “Too much grain. You left his millet box open and he helped himself.” Peta laughed. “Greedy donkey!”
“Look see,” he said. “You stan’ back.” He pushed me behind him, ignoring my tears. Before I could ask what he was about to do to my gluttonous pet, Peta thrust his machete into the donkey’s side.
For a moment, as the gas and body fluids spewed out on us, my long-held wonderment was satisfied about what it might have been like to fall into one of the common local open-pit latrines.
Soon the bloated donkey carcass lay empty, like an old tire that gave up and went flat.
“See! I tole you.” Peta’s pidgin English conveyed a note of glee. I cared less that Peta had won a point with me about cause of death. I wanted my donkey back.
In that moment, without notification to me or my father, Peta stopped working for my father. For the rest of the day he worked magic for me.
“Paul. You go do schoolwork. Come see me at lunch time.” Peta was a smart garden “boy”. We both knew even though my pet had died, my mom would still want me to do my correspondence home-school lessons at my bedroom desk, which is what I did.
At noon, before mom could catch me for lunch, I ran out the screen door, across the red laterite gravel covered yard and out back.
A crowd had gathered under the shade tree near Pepper’s stall. At first, I was puzzled so many people wanted to see my dead pet. Besides, while working on my 7th grade math and history that morning, I had decided I did not like that stubborn donkey. He was mean to me and not much fun. He was a stupid donkey and ate too much grain. Good riddance. All I would ride from now on was my beloved Raleigh bicycle.
I pushed through the mass of black bodies and found Peta sitting on his haunches whacking away with his machete on a big chunk of flesh. The people were pushing each other, yelling at Peta about money. Two of them each grabbed fresh cut roast sized pieces of fresh meat and handed Peta fists of bills. One said, “Such sweet meat!” Peta looked up and smiled at me.
“Oh, Paul! You finish school now?”
“Yes,” I said. “But what is all this meat and blood? What have you done to my donkey?”
“For you!” Peta shouted. He shoved his sticky, red hands into his pockets and pulled them back out. Shillings and pound notes flowed into my hands. “For your new donkey,” he said. “Lucky for you, dese people like donkey meat!” His laugh and the miraculous money were sweet. I hugged Peta’s sweaty, strong neck and he swung me around and around.
“Thank you,” I said. “Thank you.”
By day’s end, Peta sold off every bit of my old donkey, including the head, skin, fuzzy ears and bones. Nothing remained.
Two weeks later, Inky, my new ride, stood in Pepper’s stall. I had a lock on the millet box, high regard for the black magician who lived in my back yard and deep gratitude for my best friend, Peta.