Terimba sweeping the courtyard
I wake up around 6 am under a mosquito net. The cloud of white screens the room away. I stretch and avoid my laptop while rolling the netting up to hang out of the way. My stomach is still feeling full. The fullness is normal since I ate a heavy meal of Tuo Zafi last night. It was with my favorite soup, bierse, leafy green vegetables with groundnuts (peanuts). Still, I feel a bit lazy, like a bike ride is in order.
Everyday in my home we eat a stiff porridge made of whole grain millet that was grown in the field a few months ago. Part of the millet is fermented overnight and then added to the large silver cauldron full of more millet and water. An arm length big wooden ladle is used to stir the thick boiling mixture and beat it until it is stiff. This is a difficult job and one that I myself can only do for a few minutes before my arms are burning and slowing down. Charity, daughter in law and new mother, prepares the food. We have a big family so the pot is always full. The porridge is spooned with a wet calabash into silver bowls of various sizes and shapes to cool and solidify. The stew varies from a base of gooey okru to leafy vegetables, seasoned with hot pepper, dawadawa (made from seed of a tree fruit), small fry fish and salt. Sometimes fish or meat are added to the stew. Two ladles are carefully doled out into a separate smaller bowl allocated to individuals. If the kids don’t get their fair share, you really hear about it.
Everyone eats individually, spread around the courtyard on stools and chairs, unlike many other houses where bowls are shared. It’s common to have conversation, but it is taboo to talk while you are eating (chewing). Sound familiar? A 2L empty tomato can full of water is there to rinse hands and the two bowls. One is of TZ, now thick enough to stand a spoon (although not eaten with cutlery), a glob is grasped in the right hand, generally with the first three fingers and thumb. It’s dipped in stew before being eaten. Eating with your hands is an art and takes a bit of practice to perfect. In terms of taste, I love TZ now and miss it if I’m away for a few days. I didn’t dislike it on the first trial although it is different than most foods I was familiar with.
Sharing a bowl of TZ at a funeral, with soup and Guinea Fowl
I grab my bicycle and head out for a quick ride up the hills, which are beautiful in the early morning, a couple of goats are disturbed on the way out the door. They bleat and cry as they bounce and run in front of me.
On the way out of my house I greet people energetically with variations of the following: “beige” (good morning), “namba” (fine), “la’awalla?” (how are you) “la’asoma” (fine), Variations include: “’nigbina” (your body), “inya‘awalla?” (how is your home), “ig be soma” (your sleep), “tuma” (the work). A friend once told me that it doesn’t make any sense to talk with someone until you know that they are fine and that their mind is clear physically and in their home life. Otherwise, they may not be able to hear (understand) you well.
I know that I don’t pronounce words properly sometimes, although with greetings I’m almost perfect. There are three distinct languages in the district, and we work with farmers in each area, so I tend to get the subtleties mixed up. My house people have recently begun correcting me, and I’m grateful for that.
There is a valley and a road leading up towards the village of Tengzug, with boulders everywhere. They look like they have been piled by giants, piled and balanced impossibly on each other. The air is dry and burns my throat a bit. A haze covers the horizon, and the rising sun, spreads the red yellow light over over the sky. The hills cover and uncover the sun as I move, making the sun rise and set over and over. My mind drifts as the road unwinds slowly uphill.
I know that by taking this time for myself in the morning I am missing Terimba and Florence washing dishes and pots and sweeping the courtyard. I try and help with washing bowls and preparing food in the morning, if we have a morning meal. I get a funny number of compliments on that, people think it is strange that white girl wants to wash bowls, like a good daughter would do. In my own opinion I don’t do it often enough to deserve much praise.
South side of the Tongo hills in May
Once I was washing dishes at my friend Justa’s, down at the health clinic quarters, when another aide from the clinic came in to see her. I caught a critical sounding comment from the girl about Justa bathing while I washed her dishes. Why would she punish a foreigner like that? The culture of privilege given to people from ‘developed’ countries is very deeply engrained in most of Ghana. In the North, an ethic of treating visitors well is a reinforcing element of the culture. This sometimes creates the sense that foreigners are helpless and babyish, unable to do anything for themselves.
It’s true that we visitors are generally are sorely lacking in understanding how to act, what to do and what not to do. Ghanaians forgive me the faults and rudeness of foreigners very freely – Well… at least until you become ‘part of here’, as they say. Now my friends and family rarely let me off the hook without advising me to change my behaviour. In other words, I WAS forgiven silently during my first few months, but now expectations are higher and I am forgiven loudly instead. I’m much happier this way.
After the girl left, Justa said, “you know that when you [plural] do things like carry water and wash dishes it becomes hard for other foreigners, because people will talk and say that they knew a white person who eats spicy food, washes her own clothes and dishes, gives gifts and learns Taleni. They will say that these other foreigners are ‘just bluffing’ ”. I laughed – bluffing is an insult that describes when someone pretends to be bigger than they are. It is a foolish and embarrassing thing to be accused of.
The actions on my part seem so small – I can’t say that I have even done them well or consistently, particularly compared to other EWB volnteers who insist on carrying water and taking part in chores every morning. I’m afraid I still ‘bluff’ myself a good deal of the time, and avoid my responsibilities here, but Justa’s sentiment is still appreciated.
Riding down the hills the stones rise up dramatically – making me feel like I should be able to stand up on my toes to see over them. The perspective is deceptive because the boulders are so big and the road curves and turns so much. I remember a story I wrote, in a creative writing class at the age of 12 or so, about a girl who can talk to the wind when she is on her bike riding down hills. The wind is her very good friend. I tried to listen to what the wind in the hills is saying today.
I stop at a house across the street on my way to my own home. There are lawn chairs set up outside and a few men in traditional smocks sit sharing a drink in front of the door. A large cauldron sits on a smoking fire. Three women, one elderly, sit near it, idle for the moment. Beside the doorway there is an array of arrows, bows, a woven hat with cattle horns fixed, and a stack of suitcases, all with their own meanings and part of the history of the clan, and family. It reminds me of our Christmas tree at home, particularly because of the balls with my birthday inscribed. I imagine that this is how my house people would feel standing in my living room at Christmas.
David comes out of the doorway to greet me. He is the watchman at our district office, about 38 or so, wearing a polo collared red t-shirt and slacks. David’s family is celebrating the funeral of his father, who died in 2002. The events began on Friday, but Monday is a day of rest. Tuesday, the final day, there will be drumming, feasting and dancing. I have just stopped by to say good morning and to make him aware that I will come tomorrow and celebrate with the family. And assure him that I will, of course, take pictures.
On the way home, I continue greeting, including one of the old ladies of the main compound house. There are four old women, called “our mothers”, by the people in the house. These elderly women are highly respected and consulted for advice by the extended family. They have reached an age of wisdom, and transcended the limitations that being a widow may cause for younger women. In the evenings, people come and sit with them to discuss the events of the day and hear stories about the past.
As I step back into the yard. I hear the pigs squealing in the pen in the back, there were 5 of them I think. I saw them castrated with the razor blade over Christmas, the process looked the same as when I saw a horse being gelded working on a farm in the Okanagan when I was 18. The Pigs’ wounds were packed with ash, and healed in a few days. Roland told me that they will grow now that they don’t think of women. He was joking, but it’s undeniably true that the pigs have now more than doubled in size.
(I sit down and write this blog post…. it is 8:24 am as I finish.)
Time to bath. I wrap myself in my simple two yard cloth, a bold print of aqua blue with gold fruit splashed across it. I pick up a sponge, which is a long sash of plastic netting that can be bunched in the wand and used to scrub off dirt and dry skin very effectively with a bit of soap. Don’t forget soap. Bath sandals, or flip flops are also a necessity. I take conditioner but not shampoo: its so dry that shampoo to remove the oil from my hair is rarely necessary. Dodging Lauratia and Donald playing, I grab a plastic bucket in the courtyard and fill it from the clay pot by the kitchen, using an old tomato can. The pot contains the same borehole water that we drink. The water is very high quality and located about a three minute walk from our doorway. Lariba, Terimba and Mme Lardi normally fill it in the early morning, they carry the water in a large basin balanced on their heads. I’m a big suck and so if I help it’s normally just with a bucket. All of the water containers in the yard are clean and covered. I haven’t been sick from water-borne for one single day living here.
The bath is a small walled area with a concrete floor and a small drain (hole in the base of one wall). There is a rope hanging across the doorway, on wich I hang the cloth as a screen. It is multi purpose a sort of wash room that can be used as a urinal. There is no toilet, which means that I normally wake up in the early morning before sunrise to use the field. During the day, our home is quite exposed, which stresses me, but I am normally at work where there is a KVIP latrine anyhow. I have to say that I really don’t notice the inconvenience anymore. I understood the challenges of encouraging the construction of latrines from working in Cameroon, people often don’t feel that they are necessary. However, the experience of living here has helped me to really ‘get’ how free range sanitation practices feel relatively normal for my host family.
I love bathing like this, but it took a long time before I could bath properly. At first I used a small cup to scoop water, until I found out that it is only small children who wash themselves with a cup. Embarrassed, I started trying to go without. Now I struggled to splash water all over myself with my hands. This resulted in my bucket emptying before I stopped being soapy a few times. All concerns of the past! I can crouch and splash the small of my back like a pro these days. Its funny how we pick our battles – bathing was mine for a while.
Ghanaians are extremely clean and very careful about their health, and although the understanding of hygiene is different than my past experience, my family members have taught me how to take good care of myself in Ghana.
Living in this house is extraordinarily comfortable for me. We human beings are SO adaptable, despite that we love to resist change. I’ve found it takes patience to adopt new visions and ideas of ourselves, but we are alsoalways striving to know how to meet the expectations that surround us. It has been extremely stressful to be in a new environment where the expectations on me are suddenly unknown. Over time, the rewards of sticking with this experience, continuing to ask questions and learning a new wayto live have been, well, a feeling of having a place in Ghana I could always come…. home.
The terrible two: Donald and Lauratia
As I finish writing this, the screen door swings open and Donald stands shyly in the doorway. “ta dit su’palm?” he says, holding his pants pocket open. I repeat the phrase so that he knows I understand. He boldy pours a small handful of groundnuts onto the arm of my chair. Lauratia follows him, announcing “tad it su’palm!”. Then, like any kid she repeats “tad it su’palm!” over and over with increasing volume, just for the fun of bugging me.
I’m mildly annoyed and not sure what to say. Mme. Lardi is standing nearby and mentions, “deysa’ia”. It means ‘I am satisfied’, or simply ‘enough’. I repeat the phrase, even though I’m not sure if Lardi was giving me a hint about how to say ‘enough groundnuts, thanks’ or telling my little sister to back off directly. Mme laughs, Lauratia smiles and the two of them trample out the door for new adventures.
Time for work.
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For the record – when i said that Ghanaians value cleanliness – I didn’t mean that they know how to keep four year olds from running around and playing in dirt. No one alive could keep Lauratia clean for more than five minutes.