Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Chasing Shadows of the Past

Kodzi wongye ndzi o. (Once upon a time), many many years ago, there existed a little known place called Ashale-Botwe, which hid behind the bushes of Madina. At that time, most of the people who lived in Ashale-Botwe knew one another. A little girl could stand inside her father’s ( mothers in this kind of community don't often build houses; they build homes) walled compound and call on Auntie Akos in the next house and often did. If in the middle of stirring her banku, the fire beneath the iron banku pot lost its vigor, all she had to do was bellow for sister Akos to lend her some charcoal. But it was not only sister Akos and her household living behind her house who would know that little girl; so too would both neighbours whose homes flanked hers on the left and right sides and separated only from hers by the bare concrete wall.

It was as though there existed some unspoken agreement that such little debts were not to be repaid with charcoal, oil or whichever borrowed item but rather to be repaid in kindness or solicitude whenever today’s debtor became tomorrow’s borrower. It was in one such town in Ghana, where a person could borrow everything from salt to silver ware that I grew up, and so naturally, that constituted my Ghanaian experience. But it wasn’t until I’d had the opportunity to travel to the US for my university education that I really came to appreciate all that had at one point seemed ordinary about my childhood.

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When I lived in the US, I often felt that the Ghanaian sense of community was far superior to what I witnessed there. I found it rather odd that generally, the wealthier Americans became, and the more they isolated themselves. People wanted to live apart from their neighbours. That was an unspoken part of the American dream. How was a Ghanaian transplant like me supposed to buy into such a dream?

I preferred the conditions under which I’d grown up, exactly the same as how no matter how well macaroni and cheese was prepared, I could never please my abom-craving palate. Abom is a pureed mix of nkontomire, (a grean leafy vegetable which my Africanist boss might describe as the superior cousin of spinach), spiced with a dash of chili pepper, salt and a lil somn somn – aka momoni (a well loved, little-acknowledged and almost never praised (in elite circles) local season).

So I longed for my old neighbourhood and when I thought back on how well known and well liked I was by not just my immediate neighbours but everyone on Peace-Be street, I grew increasingly dissatisfied with my new lonesome life and community whether it was on Walnut Street, Anderson Street or Finley Street, all in Durham, NC. Although I no longer had need to borrow salt, oil or anything else, I wished for people with whom I could chat as had been the practice on Peace-Be street, and what I knew to be life in Ghana. So one can only imagine my excitement when my studies were complete and I was home bound.

Ghana awaited me. It welcomed me with free trolleys at its sole international airport, and steeply inclined passageways. My two sisters, who now tower over me and my dad and picked up from the airport in a low-hanging beat up cab. The driver? Mr. Gyimah’s son, one of the neighbours from the Ashale-Botwe I remembered. Somehow he looked much thinnier and more shrivelled than I remembered him. I knew him not to be much older than me but he seemed like this hard life had sucked the juice out of him. As all five of us squeezed into the car packed in together with my luggage and two people sat at the front of the cab, my mind began to race. What a welcome!

The newly constructed Tetteh Quarshie traffic circle missed my attention, and soon we were right in the middle of madina. I’d practically grown up in Madina. I’d walked through most of its sidestreets and tasted much of its street food but somehow Madina looked different. It was painted in brown dirt, the open sewers on both sides of the road sat before the small, brightly-painted, ever-present kiosks that littered the streets. The yellow MTN kiosks belonging to those who sell MTN phone units by the roadside worsened the town's appearance, lending it a semblance of a badly done collage, not unlike the Ghanaian commercial roadside paintings. However it did strike me as ironic that I would buy a painting of madina to display in my living room someday but I would not want to live there. Funny how art is able to impose beauty on reality eh?

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Madina looked like the projects. Even before reaching home, I was disheartened and I longed for Manhattan, where I had spent the last 3 days in the US. I didn’t really want to live here. But I also thought that I can't keep running off to NYC. I'm not from NYC. Whether I like it or not, this is the land on which my umbilical cord is buried. This is my home. I wondered if there was any hope of cleaning all this up so that someday I might proudly show it off to my good white friend Sarah Conyers who is actually from NY.

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The cab laboured on and finally brought me to my parents' house. Right in infront of the house, there was one of those uncovered gutters that are ubiquitous in Ghana I became furious at the contractor who had constructed the gutters on Peace-Be Street. I faintly recalled that my old schoolmate Kamal’s dad had been involved. I made a mental note to seek Kamal’s whereabouts and express my displeasure.

Home wasn’t much better. Like most Ghanaian homes, there was too little space. My mom had built her nursery school in front of our house and on the sides. All our neighbours had some sort of new structure attached to their house for whatever commercial venture they pursued. What did I want? I wanted grass, not the hard concrete design blocks that paved our compound. Why couldn’t our porch or living room not be made of concrete? My room was too small. Even the new bed sheet displeased me because it looked like it was imported from overseas. I was sad. I can’t live here, I thought to myself. Was this the past I’d so longed for? But this was my home. This was where I’d made all those great memories. I wept.

As I’d planned to move out of home even before my arrival, I soon set to that task. Estate agents were wonderful about finding me places to look at. The first 3 places I checked out at Osu quickly changed my mind about my own home. Heck, I’d rather live at home than in these slums that were being offered in Osu for 150 cedis, which is about equivalent of 150 dollars. Sure it may seem like no money to those of you who live in the US. Maybe you spend that much on dinner but to provide you some perspective, in Ghana, a newly-minted University graduate could start out making that money as monthly salary. In any case, I now make a quarter of what I would be making if I was in the US so I tend to multiply all my expenses by four to see if it makes sense to make such a purchase. Judge me all you want, but I need to be careful about spending if I’m ever to have a house of my own.

It quickly became apparent to me that I didn’t really want to live where the average Ghanaian lived. Even though I had thought to myself before returning to Ghana that I wanted to live right in the middle of all the action, now that I was home, I wanted something else. I didn’t really want to live next to the sister Akos’ and the Auntie Yaas of Ghana. If I was honest with myself, I was aspiring to be neighbors with the Dr. Mingles and the Professor Dzokotos. Attending church at the small Baptist church at Ashale-Botwe depressed me; the church was trying to raise 600 cedis, so I found myself at Legon Interdenominational Church where they had raised 24 thousand cedis during their annual church harvest.

I’m smack in the throes of an identity crisis. In some ways, I identify most with the Wofa Yaws and sister Akos’ who are always on foot, but in other ways, I derive some pleasure from fraternizing with the Mrs. Ocanseys who drive big brand new SUVs.

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I imagine that if I’d grown up in Ghanaian elite society, I’d be comfortable living at East Legon, driving to work, sitting in my air-conditioned office and interacting with my overseas friends all day through facebook. Then I’d close from work, make a quick dash to Koala shopping mall, then drive back home to East Legon and watch DSTV till I fall asleep. There is nothing wrong with such a lifestyle...well, except for the DSTV bit...hehe. Actually there are many things right with it, and the idea is to get majority of us to live that life. Right now, the reason I can’t live it without any scruples is because none of the people I played with on Peace-Be street live it. I’m conflicted in my pursuit of better things for myself when people I know by name, and in whose homes (however humble) I have once eaten have little chance of lifting themselves out of life as they’ve always known it.

I’m still looking for that perfect apartment/house. The latest house I’m chasing is at Airport residential area. It is likely that once I move there, I will not know my neighbours because there, walls are not just meaningless structures but demarcates and signifies personal space. I don’t know if it will be exactly like it was in the US where everyone minds their own business, but we’ll see. What would be wonderful is if the residents of Airport residential area enjoyed that kind of openness and familiarity with their neighbours as we have on Peace-Be street. That would be the perfect case where we develop our living conditions to be comparable to the best in the US and elsewhere but do not inherit with it the isolation of the wealthy in the West but instead, retain the great things about Ghana like being able to borrow salt from your neighbour even if you need it for a whole week. In Ghana, salt is just salt, and a person should be able to borrow some without going all the way to the market on a weekday! If I can't borrow salt in Ghana, I might as well be living in the US.

For now, I reason that people cannot fight poverty when they contribute to the problem by being poor themselves. Maybe I’m an inspiration to Auntie Akos’ daughter who may now see that the future for people who live at Ashale-Botwe can be better. If I had hope in the unseen, perhaps she will have hope in the seen. For the first time in his life, my little brother Ato knows how it feels to be dropped off at school in a brand new car – something I’ll never know. So I must achieve great things, but I keep reminding myself that life isn’t like this for everyone and that I must never forget the people I have left behind in my pursuit of the better life in Ghana. The visual model i'd like to follow is of one where my left hand (the weaker hand) is reaching for something higher up, and my right hand (my dominant hand) is pulling someone up from below. Far from detracting from my happiness, this outlook serves two positive purposes. It keeps me content with my lot, and it gives me hope for others like me and for the future of Ghana.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

An Honest Discussion About Momoni

There is a uniquely Ghanaian experience that is likely widely shared by every lower middle class Ghanaian girl (and a few boys). This experience is that of being sent on an errand to the market with a list that includes almighty momoni, a fermented fish popularly used as a seasoning for many Ghanaian sauces (often called stews) such as nkontomire stew and okro stew. See here for the chemical composition of momoni. Whilst almost every Ghanaian girl who is being "properly brought up" (Invariably this training involves learning to cook so that someday, she can win her way into a man's heart through his belly) has had to buy momoni or koobi at some point in her life, no one provides us the requisite skills to accomplish the task. Our parents are clearly not aware of our big problem with momoni, and to be fair, I never complained to them about it when I had to buy it so how would they know, seeing as they do not feel this discomfort themselves - I swear that on at least one occasion I witnessed my mom and her friend heartily bossing (chatting) whilst she was in the process of buying the fish! Shiee!
No guidance being offered, I had to devise my own strategy for purchasing the "goods" during my teenage years. These strategies and skills which I'm about reveal are time tested, proven and necessary for buying good momoni on the Ghanaian open market. Those who don’t know better might think that “good momoni” is an oxymoron as momoni is fish that is nearly- but not quite- rotten. However, any good Ghanaian woman knows that there are many grades of momoni and each has her own way of discriminating among the options to pick the best. Now imagine a shy high school kid in one of the better high schools in Ghana, say Wesley Girls High School, Presec, or Motown who has little interest in picking up a nickname. Such a kid had better pay close heed because for her, this skill is not only useful, it is crucial! I can’t imagine a SOS or GIS kid buying momoni. Well, I can, but charley, that kid would need this skill even more than I did as the stakes would probably be higher. But of all the kinds of personalities who may need this advice, the most important group are those girls, who like me were loud and known. Imagine if this filla (juicy piece of news) spread, charley!!

Preparing and Summoning the Chutzpah

The first step is to check if there is momoni or koobi listed when your mom prepares the market list for you. If theres isn't, sigh deeply and sing halleluya to whichever god you worship. If there is, well, shit happens, and as we like to say in Ghana, "a blow inevitably yours..." so brace yourself for the task ahead. Then decide whether you will go to your mom’s favorite momoni seller who will in all likelihood engage you in conversation and increase your chances of being found out or if you will play it safe and go to a new momoni seller where the transaction will be brief. If I were you, I know which I'd choose.


Next, proceed to the momoni seller, stand there long enough and pay close attention to the momoni so that you can select one that your mother (or whomever sent you to the market will like), pay for it, collect your change at the same time keeping a close watch around you lest a big-mouthed class mate should spot you buying the “bad meat” and broadcast it to the hypocritical masses, who will at that time titter and laugh communally that you- insert name here- was bargaining for momoni in the market. You are a dead girl!


Once the purchase has been made, give your surroundings a quick look over and walk briskly away, never looking back. Don’t make eye contact with anyone. Should someone later claim to have seen you, deny it. Simply deny it...*sing to the tune of Shaggy's "It wasn't me" ...

saw you buying momoni in the market

wasn't me

i even saw you pick out the good one

wasn't me

even caught you on camera

wasn't me.

Mission accomplished, breathe easy, buy the rest of the items on your list and go take your tro-tro home. Later that day when you’re enjoying the tasty garden egg stew that your mother made with the momoni, you may go for a second helping. Afterall, having risked your reputation to get that stinking piece of fish, waaalahi, you deserve seconds.

I haven’t eaten momoni or koobi in the past 6 years and I’ve been fine. I didn’t miss it. My mom claims that stews do not taste nice without it and I grant that her stews are tastier than the ones I used to make in the US but i'm reluctant to attribute that difference to the presence or absence of momoni alone. I suspect it is because the vegetables in Ghana taste better as they tend to be fresher and more naturally grown than those in the US but the jury is still out on that matter. The main question I have today is what is the future of momoni? Let's see where we've been, where we are, and where we're headed by looking at our parents generation, our own generation and our kids generation. For each generation, I'll try to predict what future I see for momoni.

There is no doubt that our parents' generation, especially the village born- village reared ones, is very koobi and momoni loving. Such people will never reform ( i use this word in jest)- save for a heavenly intervention- to become non-koobi eating types. If this generation felt uncomfortable about buying it, because they love it, they would have figured out a way to reduce the stress involved in its purchase. For example, they might have found a better (hygienic, non-smelly, attractive?) way to produce and package momoni and koobi. (Un) fortunately as I have earlier mentioned, our parents are fine with buying momoni as it has always been so they have no motivation for improving it. The result is that they cannot dream of the emergence of a momoni industry so big that we begin to export it to far flung places like China? I'm thinking of the Chinese because we're increasingly doing more business with them but also because they too have some interestingly offensive smells coming out of their kitchens. I can see them getting hooked on momoni. So as far as our parents' generation is concerned, the way I see it, momoni shall remain as it is.

What about our generation? I'm not quite sure how our generation, especially the city born, city reared types feels about momoni. I can't say conclusively whether we love it or hate or don't really care. I wonder if we love it but pretend we don’t. Or maybe we concede that there is some flavor to be derived from it, but insist that that benefit is not worth the odor and/or the hassle involved in buying it. Is there something great in momoni that our parents see but that we simply do not get because we don't give it a chance or is it just a stinking piece of sodium-laden fish that our parents for whatever reason are attached to? How would we know? I don't remember ever having a conversation with anyone about it. Isn’t it funny too that more of us have had the uncomfortable experience of buying momoni in the market but somehow we all bear it and never talk about it but people in high school always talked about how they went to Frankies? I know my mom never sent me to Frankies but I sure did do the market trip a number of times. What is it exactly that makes buying momoni embarassing to me but not to my mom? The verdict? Our generation shuns momoni or pretends to. Since we don't care about it, it has no place in the dreams of the girl, now woman, who wields the power to create that industry.

Will our children have to learn the art of buying momoni? Since their parents (my generation) aren't going to be demanding it, my answer is "not likely". I don't see that my kids-if I ever get around to having some- ever need buy momoni because I don't derive enough satisfaction from it to warrant its purchase. Well, that is unless something happens to change my position now that I'm back in Ghana. Assuming that momoni indeed died out, would its demise (i use this word to influence your answer) be seen as be good riddance to a shameful past or the loss of yet another very Ghanaian thing and therefore a plight to bemoan? I'd be interested to know what you think and please share any momoni or koobi related toli's you may have. Oh yes, you may respond anonymously :)

Disclaimer Please note that all this holds true only for the people like myself, that is, village-born, city-reared, lower middle class, who is able to achieve some real or imagined higher standing in society thanks to ease of class mobility in Ghana and uh a lot of hard work, and lots of breaks in life. My village born and reared colleagues are probably even fonder of momoni than the Nzema man likes his morning akyEkE. [AkyEkE is similar to couscous and is often mixed with palm oil to give it a pale yellow color, and eaten with paya (avocado) and a fish named Ewura Afua]. For them, momoni liveth on. Viva!

* Photo credits: http://buchele.blogspot.com/2008_04_01_archive.html