I was growing increasingly more impatient as I made my way down the already steaming street to meet a friend at her house. First, it was the young boy who followed me several blocks asking me for money until I turned to him and said with the full force of my irritation, “Go your way!”
Next it was the unwelcome chiding by the shop keeper at one of my favorite neighborhood stores. “Afia, long time!” he said, “Why don’t you stop here anymore?”" Ahhh,” I said to myself, counting to ten, “You must pretend he didn’t say this and go on as usual.” I bought the things I’d stopped for and smiling, headed back out onto the street.
At this point, I realized I was not able to muster up my Celebrity Neighborhood Obruni face so I fished in my purse for my sunglasses and as an added defense began texting Amy who is out at the lake for a few weeks. And I missed my turn. “Drat!” I thought, turning around and looking at my watch.
Somehow my day was already getting out of hand at only 9:30 in the morning. The ditches stunk, people were annoying and sweat was dripping off my face. I felt sorry for myself. Between the heat, pestering, chiding and unmet need for anonymity I was flustered and now at risk of being late.
And then, up ahead, I saw something that completely turned my mood upside down. A young man was walking confidently towards me, his elbow and forearm wrapped in an ace bandage. In a split second I realized his forearm and hand were missing. Images of Malian Sharia amputations flashed across my mind. Or perhaps it was an accident. I thought of the trauma embodied in the absent limb.
I wondered how long had it been since this man had two arms and before I had time to look the other way, I met his gaze and we passed each other. Nothing in his eyes hinted of self pity, anger or frustration as undoubtedly those feelings shone in mine. I realized how fortunate I am and how silly I am to let the little things irritate me.
Rob likes to walk. He also likes to bike, camp and hike. Which works out well for him in Colorado, land of campgrounds, parks and biking trails.
Here in Ghana, with the other options unavailable, he walks every day. Most of the time I’m around to join him which is good for me, a self-avowed walkaholic.
Yesterday we didn’t get forty yards down the road before encountering two men making bricks and setting them beside the road to harden in the sun. We greeted them and I complimented them on their hard work, eliciting a response from the more outgoing of the two. “I would like to come to Europe” he said following us down the street, sweat dripping from his face. “Here I work too hard for small, small,” he put his hand to his mouth miming food. Pointing to his feet, he brought our attention to the fact that he had no shoes and so had to work barefoot.
I looked down, wondering why I hadn’t noticed this before. I immediately thought of the two pairs of shoes sitting in our closet that James had left behind when he left the country last August. “I have shoes for you!” Rob walked over to the man to compare the size of their feet. “I think he wears a size eleven.” he declared.
Back to the house we went and pulled out the shoes, knocking off the harmattan dust with a stiff brush. We were quite pleased with ourselves after the man gratefully accepted both pair.
This morning Rob returned from an early morning walk with the news, “I saw our friend wearing the shoes we gave him.”
News of the Boston Marathon blasts reached me after dinner Ghana time and the story hit me in the gut, making me queasy and unsettled. The bombs were placed at the finish line and timed to detonate as a majority of televised runners celebrated the finish of the race. It was hard to digest, making as much sense as someone walking into an elementary school with an automatic weapon.
Up until then, it had been a good day all the way around. Amy and I hired our neighbor Owusu to take us shopping for food and drinking water, getting a good start to the week. We triumphed in our hunt for the bakery my friend Lena told me about, carrying our prized package of freshly baked flat bread reverently back to the cab. We scored a dozen pieces of tofu at the Chinese grocery, fueling promises of KFT (Kentucky friend tofu) and scrambled ‘eggs’. We found perfect avocados, beautiful green peppers and coconut milk for under 3 cedis a can ($1.50.)
At the Chinese store, Amy and I happily greeted our friends with hearty “Ni hao’s!” The older lady’s sister had just arrived from China and effusively pressed a piece of candy into each of our hands and then a bright red package with some kind of confection in it. Swept up in the moment and wanting to show my appreciation, I ate my treat with a big smile while our Ghanaian friends filled our plastic container with tofu.
It was a slightly sweet and fluffy cake the consistency of a Twinkie filled with some kind of stringy/chewy stuff. I suspected I might be eating dried squid but I was a good sport and ate it anyhow. Bob and I ate a lot of dried squid during our time in China fifteen years ago. I remember taking a big package of the white, twisted strands, essentially squid jerky on our long train ride to Mount Tiashan and it proved to be a satisfying salty and chewy protein snack.
Several hours after we returned home, my stomach started hurting. I was embarrassingly gassy and had to go to the pot before dinner. I thought it was the mouthful of week-old black beans I ate for breakfast but then I got to thinking about that Chinese snack. “I wonder what was in that thing I ate?” I mused as I dried dishes. Amy, stirring a pot of lentils asked what did it taste like and I said it tasted like a Squid Twinkie.
At dinner, which we ate by torch light after a big rain storm blew in and the power went out, Amy passed her unopened treat to Justin and asked him if he could read the package. “Definitely meat” he said, pointing to the first character. He opened it and pulled off a small piece, putting it in his mouth. Yup, it was stringy alright. After some more inspection and chewing, he pronounced it to be pork. Now the pain in my stomach made more sense. ”It’s all those enzymes waking up,” Amy observed, familiar with the feeling as she suffers from an inability to digest beans.
I didn’t feel like I would throw up and my discomfort did not stop me from dishing up a healthy portion of bulgur and lentils. My intestines seemed to have the situation in order and with another trip to the bathroom, I was able to sleep through the night. My stomach is pretty hardy and I’m nearly back to normal this morning, wishing I’d taken a picture of Justin pulling this thing apart in the light of our flashlights. This is the first time meat has passed my lips since that time Tami brought pea soup to potluck a few years ago. I recognized the chewy texture, followed by the realization that I was eating pork and I remember having a pain in my stomach after dinner that night, too.
The horror of yesterday’s violence lingers as well. After the brutal Newtown school shootings, I asked my cousin Frank in an email if he remembered these kinds of things happening when he was growing up. He answered:
Cookie, no I don’t remember mass killings when we were kids, not exactly sure when it all started. It is a result, I think of who we are and what we have become, too many people on the planet. It appears to be some form of cannibalism I suspect. As a species I know we can be brilliant and civilized but, after all we’re just a bunch of fucking animals. I was told that the same day of the Sandy Hook killings that there was a similar killing in China only there it was done with a knife. I can’t remember a more tragic and sad day.
One minute there is joy and triumph and the next, you are wondering what hit you. Sending my thoughts reeling. Were humans always this way or is this a new thing brought on by over population? Are we inherently violent as a species and if so, why isn’t the massive presence of organized religion having a positive impact? Is this a cultural thing, given the American appetite for war and torture, a terrorist act, or just some whacked-out mental patient seeking their moment of glory? Do the kind of people who hatch these plots even realize the difference between media violence and real blood, real severed limbs, real death? Is it a form of cannibalism?
One minute you think you are eating a sweet treat and the next you realize you’ve just eaten a dead pig. Such is the indigestible nature of life’s ponderables.
Our first Ghanian wedding, billed as the Solemnization of Holy Matrimony on the wedding invitation was anything but solemn. What we experienced was a long ear-splitting affair complete with karaoke graphics, humor, dignitaries, bible readings, microphone feedback, backup singers, a long sermon, cacophonic music, fabulous hats and a sermon delivered with rabid fervor. Fifteen minutes into the service I took Jeremy’s lead and wadded up some tissue and pushed it into my ears.
While the service only started ten minutes late, we did not have the stamina to stay for the whole programme. Bob, Jeremy, Eric and I slipped away after three and a half hours leaving Justin and Miki behind so he could fulfill his champagne-pouring duties. We felt like defectors but Justin, true to his nature never mentioned it. We had made it through the Opening Prayer, Praise and Worship, Bridal Procession, Exchange of Wows, First Offering, Presentation of Certificate, Song Ministration, Sermon and Second Offering, walking to the back of the church to place our gifts on the table and continuing on out to the car.
We had seen our opportunity and taken it, choosing to miss the Choreagraphy, Cutting of Cake, Popping of Champagne, Proposal of Toast, Vote of Thanks, Closing Prayer, Photographs and Refreshment. We made our way through a thick crowd of people lining the stairways, halls and parking lot. We later found out that by the time Justin was filling cups with champagne or rather non-alcoholic celebration drink there were an estimated five hundred people.
The six of us arrived at the Living Waters Chapel ten minutes before the “9:00am prompt” service time stated on both invitation and Wedding Programme. Following Eric’s lead, we seated ourselves in the third row on the right half of the church. At 9:00am there were only a dozen guests in the church, the three hundred folding chairs looking expectant and a bit lonely. The groom and his best man came over to greet us, looking sharp in black suits and gold vests with orange highlights and then took their places at the front of the church, the best man using a handkerchief to wipe his friend’s face.
We looked idly around the room, feeling a bit sorry for the small turnout, taking bets on when the service would actually begin. Guesses ranged from 9:10 to Eric’s estimate of ten o’clock. We felt he should know because he was the only person in our group who had ever been to a Ghanaian wedding. In fact, he said he’d been to well over one hundred. A woman lingered in the doorway wearing a Minnie Mouse tee shirt. Frimpong (Eric) picked at the gold ribbon on his programme and eventually took a call on his cell phone.
I was bemused by the banner with the words “He so loved the world he gave” and an image of a trussed lamb superimposed over planet earth. A banner reading “2013 The year of exponential growth” stretched behind the movie screen showing an animated GIF of a cascading waterfall. I pondered the relationship between these two banners and hazarded a guess that the giving was essential to growth. I thought of the Catholic Church my Aunt and Uncle used to frequent. The one he nicknamed “Our Lady of Perpetual Collections.”
The best man and the groom, looking sharp
At 9:10, the Master of Ceremonies announced that, since there were “white people” in the audience they were going to begin on time. “We are not on Ghanaian time today.” The pastor delivered the prayer and as the musicians fiddled with their equipment, three women walked to the front to stand behind the microphones. Without bothering to strike a beat, the musicians and singers launched into amplified mayhem. “I forgot my ear plugs.” Jeremy said, so I passed him a tissue. Within half an hour Bob and I each had wadding in our ears too but it barely muffled the sound.
Taken individually, the lead singer, back up singers, keyboard player, drummer and guitarists were all doing an excellent job but at least for the first song which lasted nearly thirty minutes, they failed to sync. Imagine a freight train without the clickety clack. Is that a cell phone in his hand?” Bob whispered. After a scrutinizing look at the red object in the lead singer’s right hand, I nodded my agreement.
At this point, I began to take notes. Bob took the notebook from my hands and wrote “I feel physically assaulted.” Indeed, the music was thumping through the floor and walls, the shockingly irregular beat pumping through my chest. “If I was wearing a pacemaker this would surely give me a heart attack.” I whispered into the tissue in Bob’s right ear while the words “Our God is an awesome God” popped up on the screen, superimposed over a silver microphone with visible sound waves rippling outward like a pulsating halo.
The room was full when the father of the bride, wearing a richly-patterned white fabric draped over one shoulder, walked up the aisle with his beautiful daughter on his arm. The bride and groom had fun ad-libbing each other’s names during the vows which made the audience roar. Both were accustomed to public speaking, the bride’s voice dripped with languid honey over the words “I take you to be my lawful wedded husband.”
A couple of songs later and I was on my feet, swaying to an irresistible beat, one of two white women in the room. In fact, the MC singled us out, saying “I see there are some people with different colored skin here today” and asked us to stand up for a moment. I looked around the room and it crossed my mind that we five obronis might be the only guests who don’t eat with the fingers of our right hand and wipe with our left.
An hour and a half into the service I was amazed that people continued to arrive, seating themselves in plastic chairs on the wrap around porch. The room now smelled like moth balls. I amused myself by rubbernecking at the fabulous hats, lavish, wide-brimmed, yellow, orange or black affairs that would have been envied at the Kentucky Derby. A woman passed in front of us wearing an outfit made of material stamped with a framed portrait of what appeared to be an American president. Both Bob and I thought we recognized Ulysses S. Grant.
Eric, Bob and Jeremy back at home after the wedding
“There are two laws in this church,” the pastor was saying: No spraying of anything, especially perfume on the bride and groom. He told the story of a bride having her eyes damaged by a well-wisher. And no wiping of tears or sweat from the faces of the bride and groom by anyone but the best man and the maid of honor. The best man dabbed dutifully at the groom’s face to emphasize this last point. Bob later heard that this was to prevent someone from loading up a handkerchief with bad juju and hexing the happy couple.
The ceremony was a welcome oasis of subdued reverence at lower decibels, romantic and refreshing. Although the pastor’s pronunciation of the word ‘her’ threw me more than once.’ “Will you love hair, will you comfort hair?” I especially enjoyed the ‘unveiling of the bride’ sequence in which our friend repeatedly attempted to roll up his bride’s veil and retreated, turning his back while his best man wiped sweat from his brow, steeling himself for another go.
The 36-minute sermon also had its charm but was unsettlingly punctuated by loud bursts of emphasis on the words “YOUR WIFE” and other key phrases. The bride’s face seemed frozen as the pastor lectured them on the concepts of obedience, sacrifice and faithfulness. The groom was cautioned to forsake all former friends (a.k.a. lovers) from his home town.
We tried to imagine these words coming from an American pastor’s mouth.
As we walked to the car Eric said, “That was horrible.” According to Eric, not all Ghanian weddings are as exuberant as this one and yet, we felt like the odd ones out in more ways than one. We looked around and saw that the other guests were fully immersed – swaying, singing and praying.
All in all, we were happy to be part of their momentous day, grateful for the experience and glad we left when we did.
Innocent-looking (possibly soap-eating) Nigerian Dwarf Goats Aponche and Go-At
I just looked out the kitchen window and saw Jeremy’s buff-colored goat, Go-At licking the soap we keep in a mesh bag beside the outside water faucet. The soap is there primarily so we can wash our hands before coming inside, if for instance we’ve been gardening or petting that funny Nigerian Dwarf buck on his musky little head. I was reminded that I have yet to find the orange sliver of soap I set down outside for a minute yesterday.
Yesterday I had a housekeeping triumph. Until that bar of soap disappeared, that is. For a short time we were lucky enough to have a ladder at the house and took full advantage of it to address our lighting situation. Andreas had pointed out that the two dull bulbs over the front steps were not sufficient to deter would-be robbers. And he should know after being robbed at home twice himself. He felt we should get also ourselves a night watchman and since that idea doesn’t appeal to us, we decided to at least replace the burned out bulbs around the periphery of the house.
Bob climbed up that ladder and replace all the burned out bulbs and our house is now lit up at night on five different outside walls. When the power is on, that is.
But one bulb, the one hanging over our side entrance steps still needed attention. I couldn’t find the correct outside bulb even though Bob remembered buying one months ago, so we used an inside bulb. And while that worked, it nagged at me that the bulb was not designed to handle extreme weather.
For a week I searched for a replacement. The folks at the shop in our neighborhood were hard pressed to understand what I was looking for, an outdoor bayonette or clip-style bulb. After two visits and much discussion and viewing of screw type, indoor bulbs it was agreed that they didn’t stock what I was looking for.
To some, this may look like something good to eat…
So I walked over to Atinga Junction where I knew there was another light bulb store. Sure enough they had what I was looking for, but only one. They removed the bulb from the display out front where it had been lit up for who knows how long. I was so happy to get the correct bulb that I didn’t ask. When I got it home, the inner parts of the bulb had shaken loose from its moorings. Probably a combination of putting the hot bulb into my purse and carrying it on my shoulder for half an hour did it in. So we were back to living with the wrong bulb and ladder time running out.
The morning Bob intended removing the ladder to the work site, I was cleaning the bathroom and decided to replace the sliver of orange soap on the sink. I knew there was a half a piece of white soap that would do nicely for that spot, since its brother half was doing so well on the kitchen sink. And the orange soap would replace the dwinding slivers in the mesh bag beside the outside faucet. Through the drawers I foraged until I pulled open one and WOW, there was a box with the image of the right bulb on it. Daring to hope that we hadn’t just used this box to store another bulb, I opened it. Sure enough, this was what we wanted!
When I showed Bob he said, let’s do it now because Eric is coming to take that ladder in half an hour. With the orange soap still in hand, I went outside to help with the ladder. I put the soap down. We changed the bulb. I looked for the soap and it was gone. They took the ladder away and I have not seen that piece of soap since.
I worried about the possibility of the goats eating that soap and kept an eagle eye on them the rest of the day. Jeremy reported after putting them to bed that they seemed fine. It crossed my mind that this is one of the reasons people put fences around their animals – not only to keep their excrement contained but for their own safety. I couldn’t help but think about poor Rusty and that bar of flea soap in Belize.
Sixteen years ago, in preparation for moving outside the United States, we flew to Belize and stayed with Jim and Marguerite for nine days so they could show us how to run Mountain Equestrian Trails. We would return later and run the lodge for fourteen months.
While there, Bob and Marguerite dove into accounting land so I looked for something to do. It seemed like a good idea to join their three children in bathing their dogs, Gringo, Rusty and the lap dog they affectionately called Rat Dog. These three dogs, after all would soon be our dogs after the family moved up to Texas and we relocated ourselves in their home. Soon enough, the dogs were squeaky clean and romping on the lawn. I placed the bar of flea soap against a post to dry in the sun. We were amazed to see Rusty lining up stuffed animals and running at them one by one to knock them down – something I’ve never seen any dog think of doing. We were smitten.
We returned to Virginia and started packing. The next time we heard from Jim and Marguerite, they said there had been a small change of plans – we would be inheriting only Gringo, the big white lab. Poor Rusty had died after eating that bar of flea soap and they decided to take their small dog to Texas for safe keeping. Jim buried Rusty underneath the breadfruit tree. Around Christmas time we wrote a politically incorrect and irreverent song about Gringo which included the line, “Go lay down with Rusty, you know that you should” and sung to the tune of “Away in a Manger.”
But back to the present. I later found the white soap I was looking for and added it to the mesh bag. The very bag I saw Go-At playing with this morning, nibbling on the mesh and licking the soap. None of us have ever seen him do this before and so it appears that he has acquired a taste for soap. I hate to think that the goats ate the orange soap but evidence speaks for itself.
Just as I was tempted to feel that I might be ‘safer’ in the States, this story comes to my attention (thank you, Facebook) about male representatives of “Indiana Moms Against Gun Control” showing up armed with loaded assault weapons to protest a Gun Control Rally in Indianapolis.
Several men with assault rifles and hand guns crashed a Mayor’s Against Illegal Guns National Day to Demand Action event in Indianapolis, Indiana on Thursday and stood silently as the state chapter of Moms Demand Action held a rally in favor of limiting the availability of military style weapons and universal background checks.
At least two or three men showed up at the rally site before the event began and engaged in a discussion about gun regulations with the group, two participants in the action told ThinkProgress. The armed men — who were later joined by another man carrying a hand gun and a woman who runs Indiana Moms Against Gun Control — insisted that they had a right to carry the loaded weapons.
I love the answer to the question, “Who goes on a hunting trip with this?”
How crass! – like showing up to an anti-pornography rally in a raincoat! At least no shots were fired.
But seriously, I can’t imagine what these pro-gun folks were thinking. Showing up with loaded guns, insisting on their right to carry arms openly does nothing to reinforce our image of gun owners as victims. Rather than reassure the general public that gun owners are moral, god-fearing people who wouldn’t dream of shooting up a school, they’ve sent the message that gun owners don’t care about anyone rights but their own. Loose cannons, if you will. Hardly reassuring. This type of action will only make people more determined to seek gun legislation reform. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot…
Our social calendar was nearly affected by a cop and robber show reminiscent of the Wild West, complete with a story about corpses laid out in front of the police station for viewing.
“The display of the bodies of the three men at the forecourt of the Buffalo Unit of the police, attracted a large number of people.”
It all began with a heavily reported dust up in Kumasi last Tuesday when a group of armed men on motorcycles terrorized shop keepers and commuters just after sun down at a busy intersection. According to one typically exaggerated news story:
“About 30 to 50 half-naked gunmen, some on foot and others on motorbikes fired several warning shots using AK-47 and pump action guns as they laid siege on the helpless residents.
The Hollywood-style action left many vehicles damaged as motorists crashed into each other in their attempt to escape the onslaught which took place at about 7 p.m. Horrified residents were also locked up in their homes for safety.”
Good citizens panicked:
“A traumatized resident, named Maame Birago told Nhyira News she nearly collapsed upon seeing the armed men.
“I was going to the salon to re-touch my hair [and] all of a sudden I heard gun shots and a lot of people were running, they were many, some of them were wearing boxer shorts so I also decided to run for my life and that of my child”.
“I nearly collapsed. I even fell on the floor so I just got up and run for my life,” Maame Birago narrated.”
President Mahama called a meeting with security chiefs on Thursday. Reinforcements were discussed and the president “called on Ghanaians to go about their daily activities without fear, since the country is in safe hands.”
Nana and Grandpa (on the right) with a friend circa 1919
Reading these stories and their associated comments led Bob to believe that the robber swoop on Tuesday was a staged ploy to justify increased police funding. We read that the gunmen were using police issue weapons to frighten the public. We also read that the police had recently arrested 150 robbers, inciting a horrific backlash from the nefarious bands of robbers. The massive arrest didn’t pass the sniff test. Most robberies are furtive and opportunist affairs leaving little to no evidence. We doubted the local police had the intelligence to track over a hundred petty criminals and coordinate their arrest. The more we read, the more this cop and robber show resembled a dog and pony show. A circus designed to frighten the public and benefit the police.
In January, our friend Andreas was robbed at gun point outside his gate. He suspects it was an inside job, arranged with help from his former night watchman who had disappeared several weeks before the attack. When Andreas went to the police, just hours after the incident and with a full description of the robber and information regarding his location, the police held out their hands for ‘dash.’ Andreas was incensed and refused to pay them extra to do their job. The police relented and sent an officer to Andreas’ home who promptly stepped out of his car, hand extended. Again, Andreas declined to pay and so nothing was done.
It occurs to me that this kind of frontier justice is of the same type found in the United States in the early 1900′s. We’ve heard many stories of crime, corruption and collusion between the Mafia and the Police in the big American cities during that era. Were my Nana and Grandpa who lived in New York City during those heady years still alive, I’m sure they could support my theory with their own experiences.
On Thursday, online news stories reported a repeat of Tuesday’s mahem in another part of town on Wednesday evening at dusk. By Friday word-of-mouth rumors circulated among residents about a third attack on Thursday. Based on these stories, our friends, Kat and Agye pondered whether or not to come out visiting on Saturday. They considered preparing a dummy bag with nothing of value to hand over to the robbers. We fluffed up the pillows in the guest bedroom should they decide to spend the night at Casa Kumasi.
In the end, our dear friends came, bearing food and no dummy bag or overnight kits. We ate, sipped Gin Zingers, Agye and Jeremy teamed up and won at Trivial Pursuit and Kat and Agye returned home without incident. Oh, Kumasi – will you ever fail to thrill and entertain?
Call me Spartan, but I prefer life without air conditioning. Open windows remind me of my childhood, a time when I knew the rhythms of my neighborhood intimately through its many voices. The song of robins, the squeal of the school bus brakes, the rumble of the trash truck, my neighbors calling out to one another and the sound of bike wheels on pavement all meant something different and added to the richness of my life.
When we were in grade school in the Bronx, my younger brother Johnny and I would leap out of bed when we heard the garbage truck and fly down the street to help, nudging the bins towards the road, flipping the lids off and dragging the empty cans back. In Nana’s New Jersey neighborhood I knew whose dog was barking, whose mother was calling whom and how hot it was by the chirp of the crickets.
Back in North Carolina we have air conditioning and it’s hard to imagine life without it. Our house is not shaded by the trees and so holds the heat of the sun like an oven. When the A/C is on, I find myself reluctant to step outside. Here, without that option, I come and go easily, often finding it more comfortable under the trees, with no screens to slow down the breeze.
Here in Kumasi, even when the temperature rises into the high 90′s, even when the broadcast rants of the deeply religious interrupt my sleep, I happily bear my discomfort in exchange for 24-hour open windows. It helps that the ‘lights’ are on to power the fan at the foot of our bed most evenings. When the power is out we wake and stare through our blue mosquito netting at the ceiling, willing ourselves not to sweat.
Life without lights is a challenge. Not only do the lights not work but neither do the electric burners, nor the blender, washing machine, refrigerators, battery chargers or fans. If the power stays off long enough, we risk losing our refrigerated food and our rechargeable laptop and flashlight batteries drain to nil. On December 25th, the power went out at 11am and stayed off for fifteen hours. Merry Christmas!
Like most hoteliers, our friends at Osda House in Accra have a back-up generator. They told me they chose to switch it on and off manually rather than wire it to kick in automatically. “How do you know when to turn off the generator?” I asked. “We hear cheers from the neighborhood,” was the answer. Indeed, when the power comes back on in Kumasi we hear that same happy sound.
Life without city water also sucks. It means bucket baths, bucket flushes, watering the garden with captured grey water, doing laundry by hand and using the kitchen sink which pulls water from the storage tank on the roof to fill the mop bucket. That roof top storage is a must and has seen the five of us through up to three days without city water.
Waiting two to four weeks for our weekly trash pick-up is also a pain. Rarely does the big orange truck come more than twice a month. And during the whole month of December they only picked up once, on December 8th. Double Merry Christmas.
We threw a little party last weekend and it’s coming on three weeks since the last time we saw the trash truck so we now have the equivalent of three bins of trash to get rid of. Next time Mr. Kinglsey comes to collect his 40 cedis for two months of weekly collections, I’m going to get his number so I can call him at times like this.
There isn’t any kind of formal recycling program here but we have noticed a man in a pink bathrobe who rides along to pick out the aluminum cans. At the landfill there are permanent residents, trash gleaners who specialize in plastic, tin or aluminum. Ever hopeful, we bag our ‘recyclables’ separate from the trash before placing in our bin.
Yes, the infrastructure and services leave much to be desired. After living in Kumasi for six months, we were shocked to see that the roads in Accra and Tamale are in good condition. “Where are all the potholes!” I wondered aloud. Kumasi is full of potholes that could swallow a motorbike. Or at least a couple of goats…
And the police. Well that is fodder for another blog. Suffice it to say they eventually arrive with their palms facing up.
But never mind that, as Eric often says. The sketchy water, power, trash removal roads and police protection do not mar my appreciation for a life without A/C. With the windows open, each new bird song is a puzzle to solve, every stray breeze a gift and the rumbling motors of large trucks give me hope that the man in the pink bathrobe has arrived.
The irony of rediscovering real Italian pizza on St. Patty’s day in an Irish household is not lost on me.
As an Italian/Polish/Irish/Scotch/German-Catholic growing up in a West Long Branch, New Jersey neighborhood teeming with multi-cultural Catholic families, we all celebrated St. Patrick’s Day with corned beef, cabbage and potatoes. We were expected to wear green unless we were Italian and then only if we chose to flaunt our non-Irish roots and risk getting pinched. Pizza was reserved for other holidays, especially birthdays. A birthday wasn’t complete without a trip to Freddie’s for Pizza.
Regardless of our lineage, all the families in our neighborhood agreed that Freddie’s was the gold standard of pizza. The crust was blistered from the intense heat of the wood-fired brick oven, thin and flexible, crisp along the edges and chewy everywhere else. The texture was unique, it seemed to have rippled beneath the unbelievably tasty sauce and the cheese (just enough, not too much) bubbled up on top.
At the tender age of sixteen, I moved two hundred miles inland and away from the best pizza in the world. Oh sure, Shippensburg had pizza and our family continued to feed our habit at the Pizza House a short walk from our new home. But their pies didn’t come close to Freddie’s in taste or texture. They were doughier, less Italian tasting and the cheese lay thick and waxy on the top.
In forty-two years, I have only enjoyed one slice of pizza that rivaled Freddie’s. In 1998, Bob took me along on a business trip from Tianjin to London and while he was in meetings I went shopping with a friend at Harrods. We stopped at their lunch counter and I ordered a slice of cheese pizza. To my delight, it was perfect and I ate it in blissful silence, savoring each chewy bite. Of all places, London – with its fried toast and clotted cream.
Until yesterday at Laura and Steve’s house when we tasted Elvira’s incredible pizza.
Bob, Amy and I were very happy for the invitation to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with our new friends Laura and Steve and family, recently re-located from Ireland. Like the other nineteen guests we brought something to eat and wore green. “Will we get pinched if we don’t wear green?” I had asked and Laura said, “No, but you won’t get anything to drink.”
So we all sat on the spacious deck, checking out the many shades of green worn by our friends, sipping beer and soft drinks and nibbling on appetizers. Many of us had a good frolic in their swimming pool showing off our splash tactics. At one point about a dozen of us lined up along the sides of the deep end and all jumped in at once. No one got hurt. We toweled off and the kids ran around on the lawn while the adults went back to sitting and talking.
When it was time to eat, the ladies gathered in the kitchen and served up a meal of Irish stew and potatoes, roasted chicken and soda bread. I noticed a couple of pizza boxes but with Nik’s pizza right around the corner, I figured that was for the kids. I was enjoying some potatoes and dill dip when Bob walked over and handed me a piece of pizza. I could see right away this was not Ghanaian pizza and realized at once that it must have come from Elvira’s wood-fired oven.
The first bite overwhelmed me with nostalgia. “It’s Freddie’s!” I cried out, happiness shining from my eyes. Wow! And after I finished my piece of heaven, I licked my fingers and thought, “Oh my god! – I can have this any time I want now!” As one of my friends told me last week, “Once you taste Elvira’s pizza, you aren’t going to want anything to do with Nik’s.”
I find it a bit odd that I would have come all the way to West Africa to rediscover a taste sensation from my childhood. I find it strangely reassuring to know that my taste buds have a memory too. It’s comforting to discover that my gold standard in pizza is real and not an exaggerated myth. After so many years of tasting other pizza that didn’t quite measure up, I began to question whether I’d created a phantom taste memory.
And yes, it’s ironic that I would get my first taste of Elvira’s pizza on the one day of the year I don’t herald my Italian heritage.
The happy crowd on St. Patrick’s Day with Elvira between Jock and Bob on the floor just right of center, Steve and Laura and their two children behind her and Elvira’s husband Italo on Camille’s left.
Four generations of chip eaters – Camille’s father’s mother, mother, Camille and her mother’s mother, all from New York
I knew it was going to be a good day when I got up and realized that both the lights (Ghanaian for electricity) AND the water were on. I heard the washing machine chugging away before I left our bed and knew the gods were smiling on us. When I reached the kitchen, I saw our laundry bucket and realized that Bob had started a load before I woke up.
The water line that feeds the washing machine draws from city water rather than from the poly tank on our roof, so a machine load won’t happen until we have both water and lights. Lately, we get one or the other or none but not both so often and I was getting a bit concerned. In fact, one of the last things I said to Bob before delving into my latest post-colonial novel was, “I don’t know how I’m going to catch up the laundry at this rate.” So, Bob rescued our laundry situation by jumping on laundry as soon as he got up.
After breakfast Bob, Amy and I took a taxi to the Cultural Center to pick up some tailor-made wraps and order a shirt for Bob. Ellen greeted us happily and Amy and I tried on our colorful culottes while Bob chose the fabric for his new shirt. We picked out several batiked bandanas as well and left the shop feeling quite pleased with ourselves. It really is amazing that you can have clothing custom made for only ¢25 or $12.50. And this includes the material!
Next we stopped down town at Ebeneezer’s Health Food Shop which is always a treat. Amy and I picked up some coconut oil, almonds and pumpkin seeds, chatted with the lovely staff and walked up to the corner by Opoku Trading Post to meet Bob. We met halfway, in front of the Oboni central produce stands and I noticed some beautiful cauliflower. We suspected they would want more for what we’ve been paying ¢5 a head for at our local markets but I went ahead and approached the vendor anyhow. “Sen?” I asked (how? or how much?) pointing to the display of fluffy white heads. Four cedis, she replied and Bob called over from the curb, “Get two!”
Amy, Molly and Emily Armantrout in their wedding dresses 1994
So now we’re really riding high and can’t imagine our day getting any better. Only it does. My destination this morning was the Golden Tulip where I had a play date with Chrissie and new friends Nicole and Laura. As we were running thirty minutes early (another unheard of circumstance in the land of unpredictable traffic) Bob and Amy joined me in the Tulip’s posh coffee shop for Lattes. Which arrived promptly (again, ?!!!!) with a cute little shortbread cookie on the side.
I took a big swig of Alvaro and instantly teared up, not because it had arrived so quickly but because it was the coldest drink I’ve had in about eight months. Fizzy, too! “How’s your latte?” I asked Amy, stifling a belch. “Excellent,” she gushed, “I feel so… normal!” Indeed, the cool, clean and quiet room with attentive, smiling staff was something we might find in New York. Or Pittsboro. Maybe even Paris. A bit of an oasis, I thought as I leaned back and perused the menu. “Oh my god,” I almost burped again, “You can order CHOCOLATE CAKE here!”
First to arrive were Nicole who holds both South African and Australian passports and Laura, from Ireland. I met these two just this week and was very happy to introduce Bob and Amy to them. Nicole and Laura get together on a regular basis with some of our other mutual friends.We had a nice chat with them and as more women swooped into the coffee shop, Bob and Amy rose to leave. By now there were at least a dozen of us and someone brought it to our attention that it was International Women’s Day.
There was an irresistible Italian florist who has a wood-fired oven standing in her yard, lives close to us and takes order for pizza and lasagna. And a French lady who married a Ghanaian and has been here for years, living a couple hours outside of Kumasi. Women from the United Kingdom, Australia, Lebanon all sat around the polished tables, sipping coffee and getting to know each other. And there I sat among them, the only American, wondering how I happened to be in their company. Many of the others wondered the same thing. No one had planned for this many women to gather on this day. It had just happened.
For a couple of hours we chatted about family and economies and travel and Ghana and got to know each other in groups of twos and threes until those groups began breaking up as people left to rejoin their other life. When I reached home, Amy and I pulled together a fabulous meal for our housemates and shared our stories of the day over dinner. After the dishes were washed and cards played, I booted up my browser and saw that Bob had emailed me a link to an article in Yes Magazine and so I read a little about the origins of International Women’s Day.
The New York women who started a movement in 1857
Turns out the day is set aside to commemorate progress in human rights world wide. And was started by a group of American women protesting against low wages and poor working conditions. But for me, the significance of the day was much less noble. To me, the day was one of happy happenstance, rich interactions with women from all over the world and the creature comforts of a great life with family and friends.
Bob and Camille are American expats living in Kumasi, Ghana, West Africa since June, 2012. Bob is here working on a renewable energy project while Camille cools her heels, cooking, weeding and writing. Bob lived in Accra with his family thirty some years ago so in a sense, this is a homecoming trip.
They met in 1990 and soon recognized each other as soul mates. They joined forces, got married, wrote a mission statement and jumped off the corporate treadmill. They support peace, local food renewable energy.
Bob and Camille have lived in Colorado, Virginia, Belize, China, Guam, Oahu, Maui, Nicaragua and Texas. They currently own a home in a community of very cool farmers and fuel makers in rural North Carolina.