I have written a time or two about a short trip I took to Ghana almost a decade ago, but I am now seeing current-day Accra (the capital) through the eyes of my public health worker daughter, who is living there and working on a malaria project for several months. Her journal has captivated me, both for her cultural insights and the hilarity (from afar) of her daily life and the inevitable adjustments that she has had to make. Without further preamble, let me introduce K and a few amusing snippets from her writings:
On Fabric and Food
Since I arrived in Accra in late August, I have been keeping a journal that is more-or-less a chronological account of my days and weeks here, interspersed with some commentary on the excitement, frustration, awe, and unfamiliarity associated with new people, places, and ways of life. In that respect, my journal entries are not a perfect match for my Mom’s blog – that is, a compilation of very organized entries, with anecdotes that are neatly tied together by a central theme that is never tired and never forced. I can’t promise any of those things, but since she graciously agreed to let my words coexist with hers, I will do my best to follow suit. Here, I have taken snippets from my journal about my two most frequently-described topics – fabric and food – to give you a taste for the stories that surround them and for how they make my heart and belly full, respectively.
9/1. So I heard about expats having cheese parties abroad. Exclusive cheese parties. Who wants to share their cheese with 30 random people when you could share it with 10? Well, at the A&C Mall, which I visited 3 times today, the cheese was plentiful! I should have known better. The feta cheese I bought has a very unfortunate taste. I would be thrilled to share it with as many people as would be willing to eat it … I also took the moment to ask if we could stop for a few groceries, and I again, ended up with the weirdest basket of foods, including feta cheese, none of which I ended up eating tonight because the healthy things all required washing and I am JUST NOT READY to sabotage my diarrhea-less day with diarrhea yet. I did get the water boiler hook-up from the nice lady who works at my apartment, so now at least I know I can boil enough water so that I can dump excessive amounts of it onto fruits and vegetables without feeling as guilty about wasting bottles of water.
9/3. Cindy, a friend from school, introduced me to a tailor she has been using named Eleanor, who has her own store in Osu where you can pick out your own fabrics and clothing design. She was hilarious, radiant, and beautifully adorned with her masterful work and many brightly-colored accessories.
9/4. I identified a beautiful fabric dress that I want. Fridays in the office are for traditional Ghanaian clothing rather than business attire, and I totally want to get into that! Missed the boat this week and wore a red and black dress (here, red and black together means you’re going to a funeral…).
9/6. At work, I wrote down some basic expressions in Twi and practiced them, and I successfully put in my first food order at work (jollof rice). According to Wikipedia, it’s “the progenitor of the Louisianan dish jambalaya,” and that’s a pretty good description. For 10 GH₵ ($2.50), it was my lunch, dinner, and I still have more in my fridge at home.
9/8. Mary, the receptionist, is good about remembering what I have eaten and thinking of something new I can try, so we decided together that today was kenkey day. Kenkey is this huge sourdough dumpling made from ground corn. It is super dense, and it is served with hot pepper sauce and fried fish. This sounded okay to me, not great, but when the time came to eat, Lucy, the woman who buys the food, pulled out a whole fish, eyes included, and flopped it onto my plate. She then showed me how to peel the leaves covering the kenkey, and when I involved my left hand, she pushed it away and said, “No, use right hand.” Theresa was eating it across from me so she showed me how to take some of the kenkey off the ball and rub it between my fingers to get it to the right consistency, and then to dip it into the hot pepper. Again, everyone was amused by this. I asked if I ate the fish with my hands, too, and people laughed again like “Obviously!” The hot pepper was extremely hot, and it was too much to eat in large quantities. Another colleague, Theresa, said, “Get her some gravy; she can’t eat that,” while Mary was dumping less spicy sauce from someone else’s plate onto mine and marking the line I shouldn’t cross for spiciness sake. My boss, John, was piling my plate with his fried yams and sweet potatoes (like French fries!), and saying “Eat these, you won’t be able to eat much of this (the pepper) yet.” Another woman walked in, glanced at me, jaw dropped, and went, “Is this safe?” I felt like a little alien worthy of protection.
9/10. I actually ate vegetables!! Well, on top of noodles (this is the starchiest life), and had my first sip of alcohol in a while. They were out of wine, so I tried their Club beer, which kind of tasted skunked. (Little did I know that’s just how it tastes.) Elizabeth, my new Ghanaian friend, ordered a Smirnoff ice, which was so funny to me. I told her about the American custom of “icing” someone and she thought it was funny but also didn’t really understand, which totally makes sense.
9/11. I stopped in Woodin, the popular fabric store, and finally made myself buy something. I have been so indecisive about these fabrics, and I think I just need to try out the process and see how the first piece of clothing I have made turns out. The salesperson was extremely friendly, and I asked him a million really dumb questions about fabrics and made him help me choose which one to buy, and he happily obliged.
9/12. Today, I ate white rice with red sauce and a hard-boiled egg. Mysteriously, this is the only food I’ve heard of without a local name. I was told, you are eating “plain rice.” Good to know. I also sampled someone’s waakye, which is rice and beans, with pieces of pasta, garri (crushed cassava), and Shito (black pepper). Everyone was packed in the lunch room at the same time today, eating with their hands, some standing up, and everyone sort of seemed to get a kick out of my confusion. I ask a lot of questions about the food because they seem to like explaining it, and it helps me, you know, bond.
9/15. On Wednesday, the three of us ladies went out to lunch and ate sandwiches. Bliss. My sandwich had four carrot flakes, two miniature tomato slices, and a sprinkle of lettuce. I’m starting to feel about vegetables here like Mom felt about paper products in Tibet – overdose on them whenever possible because you never know when they’ll appear next. I practically sing aloud when I see an onion in my jollof rice, plain rice, or fried rice. Rice, rice, rice, onion, rice, repeat.
9/18. We left for Makola market, the overwhelming but famous Saturday local market in Accra. It was hectic and hot and there was everything under the sun, including live snails, but we stuck to fabrics, and I came home with two more, which I can’t wait to (someday) convert to clothes.
9/19. On Saturday morning, I vowed to use the shared kitchen at my place. I carried my eggs and olive oil and plate across the compound and into the kitchen. Alas, I could not light the damn burner. Someone said I needed a match. Another person said I just needed to adjust the gas tank. Either way, I’m afraid I will blow myself up before I eat an egg safely.
9/25. We all had non-instant coffee, a rare treat, and my friend Emily and I agree that is was the best and worst part of our day. It actually felt like a drug, rejuvenating me with every delicious sip, but hours later the two of us were seriously over-caffeinated just from the one cup and our arms and legs felt weak and twitchy the whole rest of the day.
9/29. First, they took us to my colleague Robert’s wife’s shop in a rather faraway location, and I had my measurements taken and handed over my beautiful fabric to have a dress made. I felt oddly sad giving it away, knowing it would not return to me in its perfect, unaltered state. Then Mary wanted to also stop at her friend’s shop, so we made another out-of-the-way stop, and I was lucky I had brought another fabric with me. This tailor measured me (in a much more intense, full-body way, including a nipple-to-nipple measurement that was in no way necessary for a skirt), and I handed over the other precious two yards I had unfolded, held up to my body, and refolded innumerable times. I exchanged phone numbers with both tailors and then texted them pictures of ladies I found on Google images whose clothing I wanted to imitate.
9/29. We stopped beforehand at Woodin so Emily could grab some last minute gifts, and the Osu location has way more fabrics, and I felt super addicted and emotionally unstable in response to this addiction that resulted in oohing and aweing and pining over fabrics that I can’t justify buying.
10/2. I got my dress back!! Robert delivered it to me by way of his wife, and as I held it up to myself, he expressed doubt that it would fit right. He was right. It was huge in the chest and totally gaping, but I still felt I had to model it for everyone, so I got to experience the joy of a group of colleagues tugging at the fabric over my chest, commenting on the flatness of my chest, and Robert taking up-close pictures of my chest to send to his wife so she could redo it. At one point, Robert was intently assessing the fit, and Mary slapped his hand away from me. He wasn’t making me uncomfortable, but it was cute to watch her stick up for me. I was sad to see the dress leave my possession again, but it came back, along with my skirt from the other tailor, and now they both fit, and I’m all set for African dress Fridays!
10/4. This weekend, I went to the obruni (white person) market (that’s what my friends call this market which draws mostly expats) on my own and bought some gifts and used the tailor I had met my first week, Eleanor, for my final fabric to be made into a shirt. The crafts are good there, but I find the obrunis consistently annoying, paler than ever, and loud. They fiend after the one and only bagel stand in Accra, and they shout at each other in jarring accents (I can’t even identify where such a voice would come from), which forces me to cringe politely into their round, burnt faces.
10/5. Since there is nothing else going on in my life this week, I will discuss the common expression used when you are eating and someone else enters the room – “You are invited.” This confused the heck out of me when I first got here. I would walk into the kitchen for a glass of water, and Mary would be eating unidentified meats for breakfast and she would say, “You are invited.” Huh? I smiled and nodded but then just walked away thinking I had probably done the rudest thing ever. Then, the next few times, I would walk in on someone eating, and they would say it without even raising their head or looking at me. Today, John was starting a late lunch as we joined a conference call together, and he said as we received the Skype call, “You are invited to my lunch.” Eventually, I realized (and got confirmation) that it’s just something people say out of courtesy but it doesn’t mean you have to join them, or watch them eat, or help them eat their unidentified meats.
10/9. Jack, one of the roommates and band members, arranged for a spit pig to be served through his local coworker’s family member, and we savagely sliced this pig apart for dinner, which we ate outside in the pouring rain.
10/17. When I got back, Donald and Samuel, who work at my apartment, were eating dinner in the bar and invited me to join. They were eating big hunks of pork, and I was full from dinner, but I tried to identify a small bite to be polite when they offered me some. Once I popped it in my mouth, I realized it was not going to be pretty. It was so tough, and they were asking me questions and I could not respond because my mouth was having to work hard on this very intense-tasting fresh pig with so much un-chewable fat. I told them, “Gimme five minutes,” which they thought was funny, but then five minutes later, when I was still “hiding” the huge un-chewable fat chunk in my cheek, I had to come clean and tell them I didn’t know what to do about it. Donald rolled his eyes and said to Samuel, “Get her a napkin,” and I tried to own the spitting out motion like I wasn’t the total obruni I am.
10/18. I started my day by picking up my shirt from Eleanor. She sells her stuff at the expat market each month, but otherwise you just go to her house. She is really successful – not just doing business in her neighborhood but totally catering to the expat community, too, and even starting to show her clothes internationally within West Africa. So I headed off on my own to meet this lady, and she lived in a little neighborhood so close to the beach you could smell and feel the water. She met me outside close to noon looking sleepy and of course wearing some African print shorts. When I walked into her house, fabric was draped over everything. It reminded me of what it would be like to go into an artist’s home and to find paintings and paint everywhere. She showed me to the showroom, and while she adjusted the shirt she had made for me, I shopped around. I don’t know why I’m such a fiend for these clothes – I literally ripped my own off in this stranger’s house and put as many dresses as I could find on myself.
I can now happily say I’m going African print strong, with five bright pieces of clothing lining my makeshift closet and two more fabrics lying dormant in my arsenal, awaiting their beautiful, affordable final form. While I may have beat indecision when it comes to fabric shopping and tailoring, I am still learning how to integrate fashion with food; understanding how to enjoy the dense, fried, caloric, starchy foods and still fitting comfortably into my never-even-slightly-stretchy prints has been a challenge I’ve yet to overcome. I still have a long way to go when it comes to adjusting to my life with one foot out the door, but I’m lucky I have a pretty solid role model who reminds me why I’m doing it.