Maya had been my best friend ever since we were in Primary 6. That made seventeen years now. Apart for a few quickly-resolved arguments, we got along swimmingly, even to the extent of having a double wedding last year — she to her man, Kwaku, and me to mine, Aaron. Maya had always been an amazing, steadfast friend. I couldn’t ask for anyone better.
There was just one thing… it irked me time and time again: Maya criticized my food all the time; not what I ate, but what I cooked. Every time she came over and I made any local meal for her, she’d snidely comment, “Ah, Shika! As for this one, it’s like there’s no pepper inside. Ei! Are you sure you are Ga?”
What audacity! What right had she to judge my meals, when I made them just the way I wanted to eat them? And for as long as we had known each other, even before we’d gotten married, Aaron had never had a problem with the hotness of my food or denounced me from the ethnic group we both belonged to.
I soon discovered it wasn’t just me Maya did this to. Our mutual friend, Serwaa, complained to me about it frequently, then we vented our frustrations together, only to allow it to occur again…Until, one day, a wicked idea occurred to me. Devoid of premature guilt, I carried it out four days later.
I told Serwaa to tell Maya to come over so we could all go and pick up my sister, who was a friend also to both of them, from the airport. She told Maya the flight would land at twelve.
At nine, I made my way to the little stall I used to visit so frequently. The shopkeeper, who I’d only ever known as Maame, exclaimed in Ga, “Shika! Long time no see. Ever since you started making your own shito, you won’t even come and greet me.”
“Oh, Maame, you see, it’s the work and the husband keeping me busy. Anyway…how much is the hottest shito you have?”
Maame looked absolutely startled. She knew for a fact I couldn’t eat hot shito. In all my years of coming here, I’d never bought any jar of shito beyond the “mild” label. Yet, here I was, inquiring about very, very hot shito – the one that only the sixty-something-year-old Ga men bought – the ones who believed they had bowels of stone; it was the shito they ate to prove they were men.
Maame recovered quickly enough. She handed me the pepper. I handed her the cash. I returned home to cook. As soon as I was done, the gate bell rang. Go-time.
“Oh, you guys,” I told Serwaa and Maya remorsefully, “The airport gave me the wrong time! The flight is landing at three, not twelve.”
This, of course, was no news to Serwaa. Maya, on the other hand, was highly irritated. “Three!” she exclaimed. “You can’t be serious. I don’t have time to go back home. Do you have food? Because I’m broke and I’d rather not starve.”
I smiled. “Don’t worry. I just finished frying some delicious yam. All of you are invited.”
Four plates. Each stacked with spear-like, golden-yellow slices of hot, fried yam. Each with a side of sardine and homemade shito.
The plan almost failed: as Maya reached for the first plate, I quickly snatched it away, saying how I’d better save it for Aaron, and placed it in the microwave. She was forced to take another, completely unsuspecting. I didn’t object.
We sat down in front of the TV, watching some very early rerun of Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper. Two minutes into both the meal and the show, Maya started to breathe through her mouth. Three minutes later, she began to sweat profusely. I knew her – she was too proud to ask for water.
Serwaa innocently volunteered to switch on the air-conditioner. The sweating receded. The heavy breathing did not.
Serwaa and I ate hungrily, practically licking our plates clean. Maya’s remained over half-full. It looked as if her tongue would no longer fit in her mouth. Her forehead was glistening with large droplets. You could hear her panting like a thirsty dog all the way across the room. Maybe it was a mean trick, but so far, she hadn’t said a single derogatory word about my shito – even if she had, it would have been invalid, because she wasn’t eating my shito.
“Shika, your shito really rocked today. Maya, how are you finding it?” asked Serwaa.
“Maya!” I said, pretending to have just noticed her condition. “Did you take a splash in a fountain or something? What’s wrong with you?”
Maya swallowed, opened her mouth and tried to suppress a gasp. She failed. Her eyes were watering. “The pepper is hot,” she whispered.
“What’s that?” I inquired. “I couldn’t quite catch that.”
“I said,” she almost yelled, “the shito is hot! God, it’s too hot!”
“Too hot?!” I repeated incredulously. “I made you your own separate shito, you know? I always got the impression my regular one was too mild for you. I thought you’d enjoy this.”
Maya stared at me, pained. “No…” She didn’t get any further before she had to rush out of the room to get a glass of water.
This was the day. I had won. I had finally won. Maya would never be able to insult my pepper again. I gave Serwaa a sneaky high-5 and revelled in my triumph.
Maya came back, face washed, thirst quenched and I supposed, most of the burning gone too. She sat down and said: “Shika, you’re always getting it wrong. Either your pepper has no sting at all, or it’s too hot it has no flavour. If you like, I can teach you how I make my own.”
I slumped back in my chair, thinking ‘You have got to be kidding me!’