Little boys, big knives

By Linda Smittle
Sept. 16, 2013

When boys from the age of 6 to 12 holler “Madam! Madam!” at my front gate, they usually want my football or frisbee for a few hours. 

Linda Smittle yardwork
Little boys, big knives

They almost always come in pairs; sometimes a group of four or five arrives together, anxious to cart the ball or disk off to the nearby school for an impromptu game.

This afternoon two pre-teens smiled and said hello when I walked onto my courtyard to answer their insistent, “Madam!”

Cutlass, the taller one, was dressed in once-white, calf-length trousers with a long-sleeved shirt wrapped around his waist. His sidekick, in a dirt-encrusted red t-shirt and black knee-length shorts, made hacking motions toward the ground with his outstretched arms and then traced a large arc in the air. I understood. They planned to cut the bush (six-inch-tall grass and foot-tall weeds) around my house.

“Thanks,” I said as I walked to the storage room to retrieve two cutlasses from the large wicker basket just inside the door. I placed the pair of two-foot long knives on the courtyard so they could decide who would use which cutlass.

The blade of one cutlass is slightly curved at the end — probably better suited for hacking down the bush. The other cutlass — with a handle that’s been repaired with duct tape — has a straight blade and is effective at digging holes (for planting moringa seedlings, for example). The leader picked up the cutlass with the good handle and the curved blade. His younger and shorter partner picked up the remaining cutlass. As they walked toward my overgrown yard, I went inside to finish washing dishes.

Ten minutes later I walked outside to check their progress. There were now five boys, each with a cutlass, hacking away in my yard. And a small army of smaller boys, ages 3 to 7, stood around watching their older “brothers” work. I held my breath slightly as I sent “don’t cut off anyone’s arm or slash anyone’s leg” vibes toward the youngsters.

Later I filled up a Ghana 50th anniversary gold plastic cup with water from my rain barrel to offer to the hard-working boys. When an onlooker held out his hand for the cup, I pointed to the older boys thrashing away and said, “It’s for the boys who are working.” The ringleader walked over and retrieved the cup. I made a sweeping motion indicating he should share the water with his co-workers. He nodded, took the cup, and started walking toward my backyard.

What?  I shook my head and again pointed to the slashing boys and my front yard. He nodded in agreement and turned around. Then he walked past my front yard toward the nearby borehole (well). I watched to see what he would do.

By the time he reached the borehole, the entire assembly was following him. He knelt down in front of the cement platform that holds the pumping mechanism, poured a bit of water from the cup onto the cement.  Then he started sharpening his cutlass.


I was impressed. I grabbed my camera from the house to document his resourcefulness. Each boy with a cutlass sharpened his tool. The youngsters without cutlasses pretended to sharpen one as they posed for pictures.

After a 10-minute photo break — and lots of looking at the pictures on the small digital camera screen — the boys walked back to my house and finished “mowing” my front yard. I offered them a reward: “Would you like a toffee for your hard work?”

“Toffee” is any small individually wrapped candy, one of the first English words many young Ghanaian children learn. The leader quickly responded, “Yes.”

“How many?” I asked.  He counted a couple of times – making sure each boy who had used a cutlass received recognition. “Seven.” he said, pointing to six of the boys inside my fence and another boy at the borehole.

I went inside and grabbed seven pieces of who-knows-how-old Tootsie-Roll-shaped suckers. I handed all seven candies to the leader who carefully distributed them to the workers.

Linda Smittle