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January 2008

BONN VOYAGE (The Toilet Keepers)

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It was sun-drenched and lovely in Bonn last week. I had spent a couple of hours in the main shopping area near the Hauptbanhof. This is the German equivalent of our central lorry parks, except theirs combines road and rail, and there’re no children hawking pure water, or touts yelling Kanesh! Pig Farm! Suhum-Nsawam!

I couldn’t, however, locate a public washroom when I needed one. Or let’s just say Macdonald’s was closer so I popped in without any intention to eat a Mac.  I headed straight for the washroom down in the basement where an African-looking woman stood and a Brong-Ahafo-dark young man sat. She held a mop. He just sat. Between them stood a small table and on it, a saucer bearing a few coins — none bigger than 10 cents.

The idea here is that you don’t pay a charge to use the washroom, but the so-you-won’t-give-me anything look in the cleaner’s eyes affects you to volunteer a little something.

I dropped a euro in the saucer as I left.

“Viel dank, mein bruder! Danke schon!” said the cleaner in profuse German thankfulness as I bounded up the stairs.

“Bitte, meine schwester! I replied, invoking the residue of my Achimota School Form One Deutsche.

“Dabre onnte krom ha (He probably doesn’t live here),” I thought I heard the cleaner say to the young man.

I stopped. And turned. “Me nso mefi Ghana,” I said. They both lit up like lamps. So I went back downstairs, and we went through the when-did-you-come-when-are-you-going-back dialogue. “Braa, me se efie ne fie oh,” (no place like home) she said. The young man, probably in his mid-twenties, was her son, she went on. He had insisted for years to join her in Germany. He had finished an apprenticeship as a mechanic in Kumasi, and even worked briefly. She sent him some money to set him up, but he used it and the rest of his savings to somehow obtain a visa. What else could she do, but buy him a ticket to come and see for himself. She was cleaning toilets so her son would have a better life.

But a baby on its mother’s back doesn’t know the way is long. 

“So has he found a job?” I asked.

“Bisa no. Ask him. When he wakes up in the morning, he comes to sit with me in front of this toilet. Das all! N’adwuma ne no. That’s his job, me bro! Das all! He didn’t listen to me. She told me it was unusual for anyone to offer them a euro after using the washroom. Five cents, 10 cents, that was it.

The young man told me he’d regretted his decision. He wished he was returning to Ghana with me. Pictures of Germany were beautiful, he said. But his life as a mechanic was much better. He would be happy if he found his own toilet to clean. But eno mpo abo no. He was desperate and ashamed, he said.

You have to be desperate and ashamed when you’re not good enough to wipe bottoms.

I left them with bits in my wallet, and wished them the best of luck and kinder toilet users in the coming years.

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