Ghana

Story of an African Suit: The Miss Ho Misadventure

It started during rainy season. After being barricaded inside an internet café for two hours during a particularly heavy storm, the light of day had never been so welcome. My friend, let’s call him Ross (because that’s his name), and I were walking back towards our little village in the Central Region of Ghana when we spotted a sign which we immediately knew would make a funny story.
We had been living in Ghana for five months at this stage in a small village together, but taught every day in different schools. It was fun, but as any job does, it had become a routine with little variation.
As we hopped on the crowded tro-tro back to our village we immediately began planning, despite being soaked to the skin and kicked by the goat under our seat. Excited as we were at the prospect of a new adventure, the plan got more and more elaborate with every pothole we drove through. The sign had advertised a national beauty pageant: “Miss University Ghana”.
With our initial plan of simply attending now evolved into an intricate scheme of attracting as much attention as possible, we had a lot of planning to do before showing up to the event. Attracting attention, as it happened, was the easiest part of the night: it was escaping the limelight which was to become the issue.
A week before the event, our plans went into action. They were shallow plans. Like puddles. Around ten percent of our night had actually been planned, the other ninety percent we filed under the heading “Wing It”. So far our plan consisted of buying some material and having suits made by a local dressmaker, wearing them to the pageant, and assuming the identities of two European fashion designer/ model agent types. All of these stops on the timeline of our plan passed smoothly. It was soon after this that things went off the rails.
We bought some beautiful black African-print material for our suits and brought it to a local dressmaker’s on the outskirts of our village. Our village was at a junction called Prisons Junction, or just Prisons, so named because it was between three very large prisons. The friendly ladies in the dressmaker’s shop informed us that the guy who tailors suits was at work as a guard in the minimum security prison. We took his phone number and gave him a call. By this stage we were cutting it tight, the pageant was on Saturday and by the time we called Robert the tailor it was Thursday morning. Luckily for us, he was happy to oblige. We met him at the prison as he finished work and walked back to his house with him. As he left his gun on the table beside me, Ross noticed the mischievous look in my eyes. Temptation gripped me, but as I made a move to touch the gun, just with one finger, Robert called me out to be measured.
We returned on Saturday morning just as Robert was sewing the buttons on our new suit jackets. They were immaculate: lined, inside pockets, buttons on the cuff; all in two days. In total, including material and tailoring, the suits came to around 25 Cedi (€12) each, plus a tip for his speedy workmanship. With suits in hand, we went home to get ready for our big night. As twenty-one year old Irish guys, getting ready meant drinking. We bought some whiskey for the occasion which wasn’t easy to procure, but in the local bar we spotted a dusty old bottle of J&B and took it off their hands. The dustiness wasn’t the only problem with the whiskey, as I’m pretty sure to this day that there were ant’s eggs in it. It got the job done though, and we suited up with stomachs lined with whiskey and baby ants.
Semi-drunk by now, we came up with names for our alter-egos: I was to be Hugo Fernandez and Ross was to be Esteban DeBusse. I have no idea why. Suited and booted we got a taxi to the University of Cape Coast where we bought tickets, before going across the road to a bar for a couple of beers and a couple of shots. We arrived fashionably late, and unfashionably drunk.
Our drunken lust for attention was given a rush of blood as we realised we would be entering via red carpet. Strutting onto the scarlet strip we were only too happy to have our picture taken, hiding our childlike glee by striking ridiculous poses and pouting. Passing through the lobby we took a deep breath and entered the auditorium. It was immense, there were about six hundred seats facing the stage, five hundred and ninety eight of which were seating Ghanaian men and women. As two sunburned Irish men, we drew a few strange looks; only a taste of what was to come. We took our seats halfway up the auditorium, emanating confidence from our pressed lapels and dusted shoulders.
It took about ten minutes for us to realise that beauty pageants are fucking boring as hell. Our only mild amusement came from the introduction of the University of Ho’s participant; Miss Ho. “We love you Miss Ho!” shouted ‘Esteban’, somehow thinking this would kick-start the banter for the evening. Teenage humour, however, was not enough to keep us in this shitshow, so we excused ourselves out into the aisle and headed to the lobby. Being resourceful young gentlemen, we had brought our own stash of hard liquor. We had each brought five or six 50ml sachets of sugar cane spirit, or magic sauce as I fondly refer to it as. We went outside for a smoke and each drank two sachets. There was an interval coming up and we wanted to be the stars. With each sachet we were becoming more and more confident about our impending West African superstardom.
Soon all that was left were a dozen empty plastic sachets and two drunken white men. We went inside just in time to see the halftime show, Ghana’s favourite rap duo: Ruff ‘n’ Smooth (don’t ask). On a normal day I would have left the room as soon as the first lyric exploded from their faces, but I was so drunk that it may as well have been the Rolling Stones. I was standing up, bouncing and mumbling along as if I knew the words. For about four minutes, they were my favourite musicians in the world. After I attempted to encourage an encore it was time for the interval, and everyone stood up and started to mingle and head to the lobby. It was time for Hugo and Esteban to start networking.
As we tried to maintain composure we walked through the masses of mingling madams and misters in Mad Men suits. I said to Ross Esteban: “Remember, we need to act like we know about fashion.” Which he immediately took on board, saying to the next guy we passed: “That waistcoat with those pants? Hmm.” A few dirty looks later we made it to the lobby. We were too drunk to care and introduced ourselves to a group, saying that we’d just flown in from Milan. They seemed intrigued, and as we moved on to the next group we were approached by a guy around our own age who introduced himself as Kwame, a fashion photographer. He asked if we’d brought our own photographers to Ghana. We said no, and he offered his services and gave us his business card. We said we’d be in touch and headed back towards the lobby.
Word seemed to have spread, and upon re-entering the auditorium I was greeted by the organiser, an oldish bald guy with an extravagant suit. Before suspicion could arise, I confirmed that I was a model agent from Spain. Apparently he couldn’t tell the difference between Spanish and Irish accents because he seemed not to smell the bullshit and was quite excited by my presence at his event. He asked if I had come alone, to which I replied “No, I’m here with my business partner Esteban and our photographer, Kwame” handing him Kwame’s business card.
By this point Ross was nowhere to be seen, I presumed he was outside smoking. The organiser handed me back the card and said: “I’d like for you to meet the participants”. Not wanting to blow my cover I agreed with a nervous nod and a smile, as he put his arm around my shoulder and paraded me up the central aisle to the front two rows where all the ladies in their gowns sat. They glanced at me but went back to their chit-chat, but as soon as he introduced me as a model agent, I felt like I’d been thrown into a cock fight covered in chicken feed.
The girls clambered across each other in their seats, trying to introduce themselves to me. If it was attention I had wanted, this was the most I’d ever had and the least I’d ever deserved it. Luckily the show resumed shortly after I had pretended to remember all their names. Unluckily I was stuck sitting in the front row with all the contestants, terrified of walking back through the centre of the auditorium with six hundred eyes upon me. I had gotten my attention fix. I was really drunk and being swallowed by my lie. I wanted to go to bed.
The participants were becoming unruly in their efforts to impress me and as the girl on stage was reciting some spiel on African politics, fumbled her words much to the joy of the participants surrounding me who began wooping, booing, cheering and whistling to bring more attention to the poor girl’s mistake. They then seemed to look to me for approval, to which I gave them a lazy-eyed furrowed brow and said, without a hint of irony: “Please have some respect”, which they of course took on board. I felt at that point that I could have asked for anything in the world and they would have obliged, but I’m a gentleman and the guilt was already giving me heartburn.
A drunken Hugo Fernandez sat amongst the participants for another thirty minutes; inwardly wanting to pass out but outwardly showing deep interest in the girls on stage, nodding and pretending to take notes on an invisible notepad. I kept glancing back to see if Ross was anywhere to be seen, but he gets distracted easily so was probably outside smoking and chatting to strangers about Esteban’s position at Versace.
As I dozed in and out of consciousness I suddenly heard the word I’d been waiting for: ‘interval’. There was to be a quick ten minute break while the judges made their big decisions. This was my chance to escape. As I stood up, re-buttoned my suit and began to leave, I felt a hand come down on my shoulder. It was the organiser again. Fearing I’d been found out, I stared blankly into his eyes. “Mr Fernandez” he said, “the judges would love to meet you.” “Oh shit”, I thought. “Call me Hugo”, I said.
I felt six hundred pairs of eyes on me as I went to the left side of the stage with the organiser and sat down with the judges. I wondered how many of the audience knew I was a fraud, and how many more knew that I was tremendously drunk. There were three judges, an exceptionally dressed older man, a young guy with a dazzling white smile, and a curvy middle aged woman wearing a yellow dress, looking not unlike a banana. I introduced myself. They didn’t, probably assuming I knew who they were already. I didn’t. My main fear before meeting the judges was that they would realise I not even close to being a model agent. My secondary fear was the one that came to fruition: they asked my opinion on who I thought should win.
At this point I panicked. What I say right now could affect a girl’s life. There are hopes and dreams hanging in the balance. I could potential make a dream come true tonight, or crush one. It was too much responsibility for me. They stared at me awaiting a reply for what felt like an eternity. It was at this point that I took my phone, clearly not ringing, from my pocket and said to the judges: “sorry, I really must take this” and began to walk off the stage towards the exit. Before I pretended to answer though, the older man called after me: “but who was your favourite, Mr Fernandez?” My thoughts were all over the place. My mind was a jungle of nonsense. I couldn’t even think of any of the girls’ names. Then I remembered one from the early evening and shouted back to the panel of judges: “We loved Miss Ho”, before scurrying down the central aisle of the auditorium, pretending to be on the phone while evading the eye contact of six hundred guests.
Esteban the deserter was still outside, still smoking, and still projecting his new persona upon anyone who would listen. I grabbed him by the arm, frantically whispered “we have to go”, and pulled him into the first taxi I saw, back to the village and away from the stresses of being a model agent.
To this day I still don’t know who won Miss University Ghana 2012, or if my presence influenced the contest in any way. But if it was you Miss Ho, and you’re reading this now:
You’re welcome.
Sincerely,
Hugo fucking Fernandez, the drunk Irish guy.

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