It started sometime in 2001 or thereabouts when my sister Nira, who was working in Bangkok at that time acquired an Africa Grey Parrot, whom she named Mithu. Whenever we spoke or met, she was always so full of him, how friendly he had become, and most of all about how well he had started to speak. It was tough buying an African Grey there. Not only was it expensive, there was a lot of official paperwork to be completed too as it was considered an endangered species there. But she did it. We were totally impressed.
We had recently moved into Accra (Ghana) some years earlier, just the two of us, in the second innings of our working life. The forests of Ghana’s Ashanti Region are home to African Greys. We were fascinated by the stories that we had heard from Nira and decided to get one ourselves. We had never had a pet before and an African Grey It seemed like a low maintenance pet which we thought we would be able to manage. There was a pet shop not far from our house, the owner was a friendly Ghanaian Mr. Danso, whom we had met (and got to know quite well later), so off we went to his shop to enquire if he had any African Greys. Sure, he said, and took us to the back of his shop where he had about half a dozen of them and he asked us to make a choice. While all the others were relatively quiet and totally ignored us, this one parrot was screeching away. Since he stood out so differently from all the others, we picked him and brought him home in a cardboard box. We also picked up a cage for him and had it delivered. We decided to call him Kofi, which like Mithu in India is a common name in Ghana for a Grey. We were not very comfortable with the idea of caging a bird who should be flying free, but since we had a big apartment, with space to spare, we picked up a big cage. Our rationalization was that we would give our Kofi a good life, far better than what he was living in the pet shop.
In hindsight, we should probably never have got involved.
In his cage, in his new home. Kofi was completely unsettled. He would be screeching all the time and would puff up his feathers and growl at us whenever we approached his cage, even if to change his feed and water. We had been advised to cover his cage with a sheet at night, it would make him feel more secure, but he was far more secure when he could see what was around rather than when he could not. We learnt the hard way how strong his beak was and how badly he could bite – it was not a bite but a vice like squeeze on your finger and trust me, it was very painful. He would rip apart the sheet metal food and water trays placed in his cage every other day and we would have a tough time finding replacements. And around the same time, he started pulling out the feathers from his wings and breast, exposing raw skin. Naturally we were very worried, we contacted a Vet, and requested for a home visit since bringing him to the hospital was not possible. The vet seemed to know how to handle him, he caught hold of him and with a little help from us clipped his feathers with a scissors. It was sad, because I felt he may never be able to fly again, but the vet said No, Relax, they will grow back, not to worry. Then he had some medicated powder which he poured into his hand and liberally rubbed all over Kofi. Kofi looked like somebody had spilt a bag of flour over him.
We got a feeling that perhaps Kofi was feeling lonely being alone and perhaps a companion would help. Perhaps we should get another bird and we hoped that a pair would give company to each other and they would both be happier. So we were back at the pet shop, we explained the scenario to the owner, nothing unusual he said, it happens. But he agreed with us about getting another bird, and said Kofi is a male, you take a female this time. So another bird and another cage came home. We decided to name the female Julie.
As such they were in separate, identical cages, but occasionally we would join the cages together so that they could both be in one cage. Invariably, it would always be Kofi who would rush into Julie’s cage as soon as the doors were joined.
Julie was an absolutely quiet bird. Rarely would you hear her voice. We began to realize that the parrots had some kind of routine and in the early hours of the morning, and just before the sun went down was the time when Kofi would get into this routine. For about 45 minutes each time, he would run from one end of his perch to the other and be whistling away, oblivious to the world. We read about this too, that this was how it was, the parrots calling each other to group so that they could fly together to hunt for food and then return as a flock back home. Julie could not be bothered with this routine. She was totally indifferent. Yes, they had become a lot friendlier and calmer, but would still not allow us to get anywhere close to them. They would always growl when we approached them.
We tried very hard to teach them to talk, We would spend long times outside their cages teaching them simple words, but no luck. We bought some recorded cassette tapes too, which were supposed to be helpful and we would play these to them. Nothing. It was only later that we learnt that most of the Greys that are on sale here are birds of the wild, trapped by catchers and sold. They are wary of humans and will rarely become friendly. Parrots who are born, bred and reared in captivity and who have known humans right from their birth are the ones who are likely to become friendly and talkative. So we gave up trying to educate them and decided to just let them lead their lives with us. Returning them to the pet shop even though we did not want our money back would only mean they would be sold to somebody else, and releasing them to be free would mean they would soon be caught by stray dogs or wild cats or even other bird catchers. They had lost the ability to defend themselves, and left to themselves, the two birds would never survive. The birds and we established the minimum rapport necessary for mutual co-existence, they would not allow us anything more than that.
And a year or more passed.
Then one of our friends from Lagos, Rukhi Mitra, came to Ghana and paid us a visit at our home. She saw the parrots in their cages, we told her many stories about them, and then she gave us a very good idea. She saw our big balcony and advised us to get it covered and netted and convert it into a huge aviary for the birds, so that they don’t need to be in cages. She told us about how we could put plants and creepers and other paraphernalia and create a small forest like ambience in the balcony for the birds. We loved the idea and got the balcony enclosed and netted almost immediately. Once that was done, we let the birds out of their cages and into the balcony. Though not entirely free, the huge space did give them some kind of relief and they seemed happier. Their singing routine did not change. Kofi would do his morning and evening ragas while Julie would quietly meditate. We returned the cages to the Pet Shop. Told him we were not looking for a salvage value, perhaps he or another customer could find them useful
There were times when we would see the birds mate. That got us into thinking that perhaps we may be able to get them to breed. We did some research and we spoke to the Pet shop owner. He explained to us that for them to mate and breed, they need a quiet, dark place, somewhere where they can lay their eggs, and our aviary per se would not work. They needed to feel sure that the eggs would be safe. What we needed was a strong box, closed from all sides with just a hole or opening, adequate for them to go in and out. We had a carpenter make a designer box for us, the bottom scooped out slightly to give a saucer like shape so that eggs would not roll here and there, the cavity covered with hay and saw dust to provide a cushion (even though we were told they will cover it with their own feathers before laying) and had it fixed as close to the aviary roof as possible. Kofi and Julie took to it immediately, and while Julie would spend almost all her time in the box, Kofi would be going in and out, doing his singing routines and leading a normal life in addition to his visits to Julie. We were also immensely happy and excited and hoped to see some results very soon. But it was not to be. After several week, curiosity got the better of me and I decided to take a peek into the box to see if there were eggs, or if they had broken, or what was going on. But there was nothing. I guess the two were merely discussing politics inside and not really interested in breeding. So that too had passed.
Our stay of close to 6 years in this apartment was about to come to an abrupt end. The owner of the apartment block passed away and then, as is usual in Ghana, several claimants to the property suddenly began showing up. Each one claimed to be the rightful heir and demanded that we pay all further rents to him and to nobody else. Out of the 8 occupied flats, 6 tenants decided not to get involved in the family politics and left. That left just two of us – another Indian and me – to brave it out. Then he too announced one fine day that he was leaving, in fact he had quietly been making alternative arrangements and renovating a new place which he had rented, but had not told us. It would be ready in two weeks and he would be out of here. For us, staying all alone in this place, despite our attachment to it, would have been a major personal security risk so we also started looking for alternatives. We were fortunate to be able to find an independent house within days, in a fairly good area of Accra and started our move.
The first priority was What about Kofi and Julie ? It would have been a shame to move them back to small cages after they had got used to the luxury of their aviary. After all, who would want to move from a large house to a small house? Plus it would have been quite unfair. We once again considered returning them to the pet shop, but we would be passing the place every other day on our way to work and I knew we would always be wondering what happened to them. So that idea was discarded too. We decided to get a large steel aviary cage fabricated out of wire mesh and we had it erected in the huge garden that came with the house. It was big, the door itself was tall and wide enough to allow a person to enter comfortably to be able to give them food and water. It cost a tidy amount, but we were okay with that. It was not welded, but assembled with nuts and bolts so that it could be dismantled when required. We were a little wary about them being attacked by cats or other vermin at night, but the cage was strong enough to forbid any such entry. It took just a couple of days for the structure to be grouted in the new house, so Kofi & Julie’s new home was getting ready along with ours.
The days came when we had to start moving our furniture and stuff from the old house to the new one. That was hardly a problem since we had adequate people from our own office as well as the Company’s closed delivery van. Then it was time to move Kofi and Julie. I entered the balcony, and fortunately, without too much effort, I was able to grab both of them one by one and put them into cardboard boxes which we had prepared for this purpose. We took the boxes down and stowed them comfortably in the back of my Honda CRV. Rita sat at the back and I took the wheel. Julie sat quietly in her box, I can imagine her quiet demeanor of acceptance, but somewhere along the route, good friend Kofi decided he had had enough. He somehow managed to burst through the box screeching his lungs out and was fluttering and flying all over the car. Rita was yelling too, but we dare not risk stopping the car on the road and trying to re-box him because he would certainly have flown out. And that would have been another problem. Fortunately, he did not come near me while I was driving and we were able to reach the house without any incident. Once in the house it was not difficult to get hold of him again and then put both of them in their new cage.
So Kofi and Julie spent their first night in their new aviary just as we spent our first night in the new house. The aviary was positioned quiet close to our bedroom and when the day dawned, and when we heard Kofi start his song and dance routine, we crossed our fingers and prayed that all would stay well in our new home.
And it did indeed. Barring a robbery and a car-jacking, but that’s another srory. We stayed put in this house for six years that means we had Kofi and Julie with us for nearly 10 years. Our hair turned from black to gray during that period but our Greys seemed to be living on the elixir of youth. We had long since given up trying to teach them to talk, nor did they ever even remotely say anything that sounded familiar. Even though we had a full time Ghanaian domestic working for us, Rita insisted on taking care of them by her own self, changing their feed and water herself every morning, and even washing them and the aviary with a hose every weekend. They would go ballistic when it rained, the water falling in a fat stream through a hole in the roof right into their cage and both of them vying with each other to sit under the stream. For all his bravado, Kofi would always let Julie enjoy the session and only get under it when she was done. Julie was a moody one, and there would be times when she would be completely disinterested, sitting with a bored look doing nothing. Meditating maybe.
And the times were good, we were enjoying our work and the country and the years flew. Somewhere in between Daddy (my father) passed away, and we started to realize that not only was nobody invincible, nobody was indispensable either. That was the reality of life, and we felt it was now time to call it a day in Ghana and head back home to our families. And, frankly speaking, the idea of being able to live life doing one’s own thing at one’s own pace began to look appealing. As I clocked 60, I gave the organisation the notice of my intent of leave, and requested that I be relieved in the next 12 months.
We knew everything else would be manageable, but again, what about Kofi and Julie ? There was no way that we could take them with us to India. They would not survive that long journey and getting the paper work to export them from Ghana and then import them into India would not be easy. It was also the time when the term ‘Bird Flu’ was first beginning to be heard. So back to Mr. Danso, the pet shop owner for his advise. He also told us that export was not really an option. People had been using Greys to smuggle drugs and now their export had been banned. But, he said, his son had just opened a Mini Zoo, a small animal park, not far from where we lived, and would be happy to take the birds whenever we wanted. We went to see the place, then we met the son, who came over with us to see from where he would be picking up the birds. Even before he saw the birds, he saw the aviary and wanted to know if it was part of the deal. Of course it is, it belongs to us, we are leaving the country, and we are certainly not taking it along. That I think was the clincher, because he left and was back almost immediately with his crew to figure out how to dismantle it and re-assemble it in their own premises. No rocket science was required for that, and so it was all settled.
Shortly before we left for the airport that one last time, to board our flight to Delhi, the guys came, quickly took Kofi and Julie away to a new location, and started the process of dismantling the aviary. We kept a discreet distance and did not interfere. We did not follow Kofi and Julie, we just believed and prayed that what he had told us about taking care of Kofi and Julie would be true and that they would be well taken care of. Who knows, with his expertise and knowledge, he would keep them happier than we could.
Maybe they would soon forget us, even though we probably never will.
It has been over 6 years since we returned. We have had no contact with the pet shop, nor have we ever tried. Sometimes it is best to let pleasant memories live rather than be disillusioned by getting to know the truth.