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.


  1. Well written piece.
    We've had our fair share of frustrations like a lot of fresh graduates who would like to find their small hamlet somewhere and call their own. And the amounts being quoted for those kind of horrible places they call homes leave a lot to be desired. Plus if you are not careful, you can be ripped off of your cash. Cash that took a lot of sacrificing to cough up.
    Thing is if you finally do move to Airport, you'll be more lonely than ever. No one in those communities talk to each other. The only time they meet is when they are jogging in the morning- that is those who jog. Keep in mind that you'll not be able to go ask for salt and such, and you'll probably spend evenings calling your friends or meeting at some local hang-out.
    A lot is changing in our societies and it seems we are moving to a more western approach, just with the open sewers and all the slum-like conditions that we find ourselves in.

  2. Hello, I like this blog.
    Sorry not write more, but my English is not good.
    A hug from Portugal

  3. Esi,
    Its true, Ghana has changed and that sense of community is almost gone. Every time I visit Ghana, I get disoriented because that 'ordinary sense of community' that used to flow freely and that, which has kept me going in the US in the last several years is not there anymore and frankly speaking Ghana is becoming more westernised than the Western world itself. Sometimes I dont know what to think anymore...

    I can partly blame it onthe fact that I stayed here too long before my first visit back home and I had one too many heart 2 heart talks with my fellow brothers and sisters 'a omo aka akwantuo mu' where we remiscised and idealised experience ( which is not necessarily a bad thing) because we hated America so much. Or maybe things just changed so fast with the technology boom in Ghana in the early 2000's.

    The reality of it all is that this western influence is happening at a faster rate than it did in the West and is accompanied by alot of baggage we seem to be unaware of or maybe we just dont care. With smiles on our faces we are copying blindly as our culture slips away, our land and our resources get misused and disrespected with hopes of a better life. At this rate it might not happen for many of us. We are not learning from their mistakes and it hurts...

  4. The dollar (new cedi) economy or the (old) cedi one --that's the question:) Lunch at a joint is waaaay cheaper than at a restaurant :) I like joints--3000 (old) cedis for a filling lunch of red-red. Get your malt afterwards and you're set. Or spend 30 (new) cedis at the Chinese place in Osu. The joy really I've found is to be able to move in between both places without caring what the observers think :)

  5. Thanks for this post Esi. I felt the same way when i went to Ghana a couple years ago. I just couldn't really articulate it the way you did in this post. Hope you're able to bond with your neighbors on a real level.