Monday, August 18, 2008

On being Ghanaian I: Invitation to Meals

A couple of interesting events occurred over the past weekend but I'll share the first one today and save the other tolis for later. What I'm about to share happened on Saturday as I was on my way to meet my friends and fellow Ghanaian returnees Akua and Eunice for lunch at the Asanka Local chop bar/restaurant in Osu. I found my way to the 37 tro-tro station where I was excited to get the most prized seat in any tro-tro - the front seat. Having verified that the seat belt was not working, I settled (un) comfortably into my seat. After the mate had shouted the irritating "Osu, Osu, Osu, last two" for about five minutes, I was joined in the front of the beat up mini van by a young man who i'd guess to be in his late twenties or early thirties. He greeted me with the usual "good afternoon", to which I responded, "good afternoon" though I'd really rather have said "fine afternoon".

As I sat, I noticed a hawker selling local cookies baked to a crisp khaki brown, packaged in a flimsy transparent plastic bag and sealed with a knot. I had not seen these cookies in so long that I simply had to have some. My journey from Ashale-Botwe to Madina had cost me 30 pesewas (p) whilst the tro tro from Madina to the 37 lorry station charged 50 p, so with only 20 p in change, I was inordinately pleased when the hawker told me that the bigger package of what one of my good friends later reminded me is called "Ayigbe biscuit" or Ewe biscuits cost 50 p whilst the smaller packs cost 20 p. I happily exchanged my 20 p for the 2 wafers in the pack. The taste of the biscuits did not match the excitement I experienced for havng bitten into my first ayigbe biscuit since I left Ghana for the US six years prior.But as I had paid for them, I continued to exercise my mandibles. About halfway into my snack, and just before our van languorously pulled out of the overcrowded lorry station, our gentleman and fellow front seat passenger bought some plantain chips. As soon as he tore open the plastic wrapping, he said "Madam, you're invited". I beamed and carefully took out one crisp stick and chomped on it. My smile persisted, and thankfully did not reveal the curious mix of shame and amusement that I felt. I half told half asked him if I had behaved rudely by not inviting him to my snack. He reassured me that all was well and entreated me to have some more of his. This time, I declined politely if sheepishly, and instead of eating his plantain chips, resumed the business of finishing my ayigbe biscuits.

When we reached the stop infront of Papaye restaurant in Osu, I hopped off the van, and as I walked down a side street towards Asanka Local, made a mental note to invite people to my meals thenceforth. However, tens of minutes later, when Eunice, Akua and I sat down to enjoy our lunches, none of us invited the others to her meal. It did not occur to me then, and my best guess is that after their time in the US, they too have lost this element of Ghanaian-ness which they've not relearned in the past year that they've spent at home.Upon later reflection on the day's happenings, I convinced myself that there had been no need for that courtesy during my lunch date with the ladies seeing as we were all about to eat. However, even this line of reasoning was challenged by something that happened the following day.

I was at home with my sister Adwoa and we'd decided to eat the leftover food from the previous night.Before I complete my story, let me dwell for a bit on the joys of eating leftover food in a traditional Ghanaian kitchen. In many Ghanaian homes, mine inclusive, it is common practice for meals to be had in the kitchen. On the day that the meal is prepared, the mother serves the food by dishing into plates, and in general, when food is left over, whoever chooses to eat it the next day serves him/herself. Often the person who eats the last portion of food does not transfer it onto a plate but eats directly from the aluminum pot as it reduces the number of items to be washed after the meal. On this particular day, having the good fortune to benefit from the last bit of rice in the pot (after Adwoa had served herself), i dished some garden-egg sauce onto he corner of the rice pot,i pulled a wooden stool from a corner and sat.With my warm rice pot expertly balanced between my thighs, and my hands washed, I finished my meal to the last grains of kanzo (tr: hardened or crusty rice which sticks to the bottom of the pan). There is something so deeply satisfying about this way of eating that I will choose it anyday over the alternative...a well laid table, my own plate and cutlery,knees under table, napkins on laps, elbows off the table...the fear fear of committing a dining faux pas....

Back to the main story,I was the first to eat, but again, I forgot to invite Adwoa. It really did not cross my mind and even it if had,I'd probably had reasoned that since she was about to eat the same meal, I did not need to invite her to mine. Surprisingly,when she sat down to eat her meal, she prayed (another rite i had not observed) and then she invited me saying "Sister Maame Esi you're invited" Shucks! Was my own sister, my ekyirba, ten years my junior going to make me feel bad for not being as nice as she?

Later, i recounted the whole invitation concert (Ghanaian slang for funny incident) to my friend who in jest rebuked me for being an ehwua (tr: person who actively or passively expresses interest in other people's food and by so doing compels them to share). I maintained that my troski-taking,front-sitting, snack-buying acquaintance had willingly offered his snack but my friend reminded me that the invitation is merely a polite gesture, not to be taken seriously, and in all cases, the inviter did not expect the invitee to accept. This reminded me of a related conversation i'd had with this same friend a few months ago when he'd jokingly explained to me that when an akan man says "wo ato me", it is quite different from when he says "bEEma, twe akongua bra ma yEndidi". The first, which means "you're invited" is only a polite greeting or acknowlegement and nothing more, whilst the latter is a genuine invitation to dine.

It seems then, that not only do I have to remember or relearn how to invite people to share my meals, I also need to distinguish between true calls to feast and false invitations. To be a true Ghanaian is not easy charlie! As the Nigerians will say Nah wah o!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Baobab Prize

*Africans building Africa is very much in line with the spirit of this blog so I was excited to learn that one of our own, Ms. Deborah Ahenkorah has recently launched an annual writing competition-The Baobab Prize. While there exist prestigious awards like the Caine Prize and Commonwealth Writers Prize for African writing, until now, there has been no award matching the afore mentioned prizes in prestige for short stories targeted at young people. The Baobab Prize which aims to encourage African children to read and write literature with strong African content addresses this need. The submission deadline for 2008 is 31st October . Please visit their Web site for entry requirements and more details. You can also view their Facebook group.

The Baobab Prize is a wonderful first step, but I'd like to see more support for African writers beyond the prize money. I say this because in 2001, I won 2nd prize for a national writing competition in Ghana, and was given some money for it. The money was great, however between then and now, I've received little support in my pursuit of a literary career. I imagine that it would be feasible to use the writing competition to identify talent, following which young writers could be given creative writing workshops and opportunities to publish their work. I wonder who should take on the task of following up with young writers and providing them support. Is it the place of the organizers of writing competitions to do this? If so, in what ways can they help, and if not, who should do this? Put simply, after the prize then what?

I will be forwarding your suggestions to Ms. Ahenkorah the founder of the Baobab Prize but if the implementation of the ideas generated are outside the scope of their work, we (myself and readers of this blog) will identify the appropriate organizations/individuals to take up the task, and and create one where such organizations do not exist. I look forward to your

*Photo credits: Baobab Prize Web site

Monday, August 11, 2008

Getting Back on the Road

Sometime in late 2002, I completed a driving course, and after only barely passing my driving test, was issued a Ghanaian drivers license. At that time, I did not have access to a car and I left Ghana soon following that so I never had the chance to practice my newly acquired skill. It is now 2008, and I have returned to Ghana. During my six year stay in the US, I drove only twice, so you can imagine how well that prepared me for the Accra traffic. I’m dreading it. I can’t see how not to be overwhelmed in my first few days on the roads. Thankfully my license had not yet expired so all I had to do was renew it, which I have. Technically the renewal of the license is the only requirement for getting back on the roads but it seems to me that in actuality there’s more that needs to be done. So In addition to renewing the license, I’ve decided to brush up my driving skills to reduce the likelihood of causing any motor accidents when I get on the road. I’m really mostly doing this so I’ll feel more confident, not out of any concern for people whose destinies might shoo them into their early graves-my car being merely a conduit for their inevitable demise.

On Monday August 4th, three days after my return, I headed to East Legon America House in search of the driving school I attended six years ago only to be told by the lady who oversees an internet café which is situated where Sir Kwat driving school used to be that she has no knowledge of any such driving school. What a difference six years makes! She promptly and pleasantly informed me of a different driving school, located farther up the same street, and close to “Living Room”, a self-service theater / room where I hear the younguns of this day troop for their love fixes. Having patronized the “Living Room” on one of my visits home about four and half years ago with a certain someone who shall remain nameless, and who did not so much as try to get a kiss, I knew exactly where to find this new driving school. On I walked. On the way, I noticed new buildings on both sides of the street. I also found a sign which read “house to let”. As I am currently on the hunt for a suitable place of my own, I rang the bell to the advertised house. A sweaty, particularly dark-skinned, Ashanti-looking man popped his head out of the compound and quizzically stared at my face, mute. My jumbled up twi tumbled out of my mouth and I uttered a stream of mumbo jumbo. Wonders! He understood! He may even have smiled, though I think the smile was the product of his bemusement that a small girl like me thought I could afford a four-bedroom house in East Legon. I stifled a laugh. We were thinking along the same lines, so when he told me the price ($1500/month), it probably did not surprise him that I grinned whilst declaring that wei deE me sika nso (translated: I cannot afford this), but he graciously averred that “Ohemaa, nansei deE saa o” (Queen, these are the going prizes these days). My charm had returned from wherever it lurked, and I sweetly sing-songed that “Director, eno deE me da se wai” (Thank you, Director…it is good practice to refer to Ghanaian men as Boss, Director etc…it establishes that you’re showing them respect and they in turn respond favorably). It also helps to be decently dressed. I was wearing khaki chinos, brown sketchers and a navy t-shirt from with pretty white lettering in a font whose name I don’t know that reads “true Ghanaian”. A few more minutes of walking and I found the driving school on the top storey of a two tiered building with the words “Nadel Driving Academy” boldly displayed at its front.

I raced up the stairs jumping 3 steps at a time, and without catching my breath opened the glass door which led me face to face with 4 people, 3 men and one lady. Punctuating my words with my labored breathing, I asked in twi if I should enter to which the big boss-like man responded affirmatively. I later surmised that the young apuskeleke-ish girl and the young man who could have passed for Obour’s twin, were new students. Nadel the owner was the one appropriately sporting the growing pot belly…a true osikani belebele :) The receptionist who seemed somewhat Hipc-ed (Ghanaian slang for poor) introduced himself as Nana Kwame but only after I had asked him if he had no Ghanaian name. He had initially offered Seth, Evans or some equally incongruous name like that. As we’re on the subject of names, I should also mention that I had initially thought that Nadel was a nice Ewe name but without consulting my head, my big mouth sought confirmation for the name’s origin. And I was disabused of my erroneous notion and educated that the NA in Nadel was for Nana and that the rest of it was culled from other Akan names which Nadel has combined in some funny permutation. Abaa gbe wO ei! In response to my query about their rates, Nana Kwame handed me a one-paged sheet which summarized what they call their “course categories”. The prices ranged from 220 Ghana cedis for the beginners course to 135 cedis for the brush up course. After questioning Nadel for about 15 minutes in an unsuccessful bid to get a customized course at a low price, I left upon promising to return the next day to begin the refresher course.

Having descending the stairs, I spotted a heap of unshaved oranges atop a table a few yards away. I strode there, selected a sharp knife and began removing the rind off one of the oranges and was nearly half-way finished before I saw the orange-seller rise from the bench under a nearby tree where she had been napping. She finished the business of peeling the rind, sectored the orange and took the money. In typical Ghanaian fashion, I squeezed the orange with both palms whilst simultaneously hungrily suctioning the juice onto my expectant tongue. Then leaving some of the juice, I went to sit under a patch of green grass in front of someone’s posh house to eat the orange’s insides. I didn’t care that a well dressed lady (debatable), sitting on the grass under a tree with crossed legs, eating an orange, and wearing nappy hair and a cowry dangling from somewhere was an unusual sight in Ghana. Whilst resting, I sighted some big assed women walk past. If I’m not mistaken, all the Ghanaian women I’ve seen in my time here have had bigger asses than me. It’s almost impossible not to look. The asses resemble what is popularly known as the ghetto booty but these are not merely ghetto booties. I can only describe it as a obscene, and in-your-face kind of butt. Living in the US, I’d convinced myself that I had a big ass for someone my size, but in my few days in Ghana, my confidence has been zapped. The worst part of it is that at least in the US, ¾ of the women who had bigger asses than me had fat asses. But in Ghana, even the mammoth asses appear tight, no cellulite or so it seems. Thank you, Ghanaian women for making me feel inadequate. After a while, I continued my journey home. I decided on the way to research other driving schools in Madina the next day before I committed to Nadel’s academy. On Tuesday morning, after enjoying half a ball of kenkey, peppery salsa and fried fish for brunch, I resumed my search for the cheapest driving school in the Madina/East-Legon area.

This time, I first walked from Madina Taxi rank or old road to a driving school near Rawlings circle at Madina New Road called O.B. Y driving school. When I poked my head into their sparsely furnished reception area, I was invited in by a smartly dressed receptionist. She inquired from me how she might be of service and I stated my mission in twi. When I started, an inscrutable expression formed on her pleasant face, but thankfully, she subsequently switched from English to twi and provided me what information I wanted. From O.B.Y, I proceeded to Keda driving school at Madina Zongo Junction where once again a female receptionist furnished me with a sheet detailing their rates and different course levels. I suspended my search for a few hours when I left Keda as I had to dash to the Accra Cultural Center to see Liz Turnah (Remind me to blog about my conversation with the rasta men I met there who asked me to go buy weed so we could smoke it to initiate me into their family of rastas…I’m considering taking sewing lessons from one of them). I returned to Madina just in time to catch the receptionist of the Heaven driving school close to where Rank Video Library used to be (now a commercial hub – I exaggerate- for cell phone units credits). I raced after the receptionist and when I caught up with her, she was nice enough to summarize their course offerings. I thanked her profusely with what our people call kraman ahoberaseE (the humility of a dog) and skipped back to the filth of Madina Market where I hopped onto a trotro which brought me home to Ashale-Botwe. I paid 30 pesewas.

After my two-day search, I concluded that of the four schools surveyed, Nadel’s school offered the least expensive course for the most practical driving time but I console myself that I am now better informed. Maybe someone else can do research for their area and if enough people do this, in a year, we’ll have a comprehensive document comparing all driving schools in Accra. How sweet that would be! An excellent and useful thesis project for a college student! Or you could suggest to your sibling to use the time spent at home after WASSCE to do this project and s/he will probably get into US college on full scholarship for undertaking the first ever comparison of driving schools in Accra. I had fun doing it. I can almost guarantee that no other applicant from Accra would have done anything quite that cool. I’ll be happy to supervise. Also, we need a law that compels people who like me have licenses but have not driven in years to update their skills. If such a law already exists then we’re doing a poor job of sensitizing people about it because none of the people I spoke to at the driving schools knew of any such law. So am I taking lessons at Nadel’s Academy? Nope. I am taking lessons from a friend. I’m paying him 100 Ghana cedis, and I have already had the opportunity to drive on the Aflao road, through the Motorway, past the Tetteh Quarshie traffic circle, all the way to Ashale-Botwe. That's Ghana for you. Keep reading and feel welcomed to leave me comments.