None of us had realized that it was the Fourth of July. Days in Ghana sort of blur together. Schedules don’t really exist. Calendars weren’t of use to the people we lived and worked with. If a day or event was important, they just new when it would occur.
I received a beat-up package about a week before from my mother. She was always good about sending me little cards and things while I was away in other countries. Smart woman, she knew to ship them prior to my leaving so they would get there on time.
This package contained Independence Day themed goodies – patriotic nail stickers and temporary tattoos, American flag pencils, playing cards, sucker candies and Pop Rocks. Everything was red, white and blue. I handed out the pencils to some of the village kids I didn’t know that well. But the stickers, I gave to the special ones.
I placed a silver star on Nora’s cheek. She adored it.
Alfred and Dennis wanted one too. They put a flag on my nose. Ironic, being that I’d do anything to be an ex-patriot.
But the Pop Rocks took the cake.
“How do you eat them?” Nora asked.
“Here, I’ll put some in your hand,” I began. “Then you just put them in your mouth and wait.”
“And wait?” Alfred asked.
Their mouths gaped open at the same time. The area was filled with the crackling sounds of the explosive candies in the parched mouths of the village children. It was so new and foreign to them, I couldn’t imagine what was going on in their heads. But they all smiled and laughed.
It was cool to watch.
Our table was set when we returned from the village. Audrey had taken time out to cook us “something special” for the Fourth of July. I honestly had no idea what it could be, and at first I didn’t really care – Audrey showed very little interest in Ghana and its people and I couldn’t see her whipping up some special ethnic feast. But maybe she’d surprise me.
“First, I found these hot dogs and hamburger meat at the market,” she pointed to a plate of shiny, slim meat sticks and mottled-looking browned beef. “They came from a can, but I think they’ll taste fine. There’s also ketchup that I picked up in Accra last week.”
We began to smile.
“Then, I found some actual potatoes at the market, and made some mashed potatoes,” she went on.
“I also made some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but here’s the real treat…” she opened up our stock pot to reveal a bright orange culmination of noodles and powdered cheese.
“Macaroni and cheese!”
We all laughed and screamed. None of us had seen familiar foods like this for over a month.
“And then there’s also Kool-Aid packets for you guys!”
More shouts of joy. Audrey had really pulled it off.
She later revealed that the Kraft macaroni and cheese and Kool-Aid packets had been brought from home. “I wasn’t sure how the food was going to be here,” she explained. “I figured I’d bring some easily packaged things, just in case I got homesick.”
We later had the village boys bring us back a box of celebratory booze. Exploitation, I know.
But maybe you’ll feel better knowing it was only Smirnoff Ice.
Accra is the capital of the West African country, Ghana.
My volunteer group flew into Accra on June 16; almost 24 hours total flying time, and a roller-coaster ride landing. We arrived in the dead of night and had to use our torches to lead us around. The next day, we ate jollof rice and plantains at the University of Accra, sleeping amongst spiders and non-working toilets in their dormitories.
The second time I went to Accra was about four weeks into our volunteer experience. It was a long-weekend stay, and we explored the art markets, the local restaurants. We stocked up on Western groceries to take back with us – Pepsi, Snickers bars, cheese, powdered milk. I thought I’d been ripped off on a sale at a local market, I paid more money for an ebony wood statue than I should have. I remember crying in the back of the tro-tro because I’m usually sensible when it comes to spending.
The last time I traveled to Accra was at the end of August. My group had traveled around the shoreline of Ghana, visiting Cape Coast, Elmira and Takoradi. We spent time on the beach and ate luxurious meals at Big Millie’s campground. There were white pineapples to be eaten every day. I remember being worried because I’d have six days between returning to the United States and going back to college. I had no time to detox, no time to process my reverse culture-shock.
I would like to go back some day, and see what it’s like to really live in Ghana’s capital city.
This is an interesting piece for Matador that has sparked some debate. What is the author trying to portray here? Is this another example of “White person dominating developing nation’s customs”? Is she merely using the people and place as a backdrop to tell her own story? How do you distinguish when a travel piece is no longer about the travel, and more about personal glorification?
This piece could have taken a disastrous turn, but I think the author did well to keep a low-profile. I personally connected with the story because I also practiced West African drumming in Ghana. It’s not easy, and it’s also hard to engage in. Drumming in Ghana is a male-dominated art. The women dance, which is a challenging in itself, but the men drum. A local will never deny you the chance to practice drumming if you are an outsider, but to show this craft in front of others is not always socially acceptable.
More people began to fill in the clearing. When there was quite a crowd assembled, the master drummer pulled me over to his group and handed me the bell. “What!?” I exclaimed with wide eyes. He said something quickly in the language I had only just come to recognize and ushered me to a seat next to one of the drummers. I looked around frantically for my translator. I wasn’t ready to play the bell. The bell was the most important instrument in any drum ensemble because it kept the time for all of the drummers. If the bell player got off beat, everyone got off beat. I knew the rhythm they were about to play. It was a rhythm for Afa, the god who acts as the go between for the other gods. I knew the rhythm, knew the song they would sing. But I wasn’t ready to play it in front of a huge crowd of people. The noises of the crowd died down and it was too late to protest. The master drummer made eye contact with me and nodded. I began to play.
What do you think about her writing? I found it to be very compelling. Do you think she could have changed it in any way?
Link to the essay:
In Ghana, mangoes are the size of American footballs.
I feel like mangoes are overrated in the United States. They are puny and expensive, some kind of “exoticised” fruit that in fact is very commonplace in Miami, or the local Hispanic market down the street from my apartment. Mango milkshakes, mango puree, mango Italian ice…something about the mango makes Americans think they are gourmands for eating something other than an apple or an orange.
I had no idea mangoes grew on trees until I lived in Ghana. Mango trees look like they would thrive on an alien planet, growing from a thin vine downward toward the ground, snapping off when just ripe. We had a mango tree in our yard at the villa, their waxy, green-red skin greeting us each morning as we left for work, dripping with dew from the morning mist.
In America, one mango feeds one person. In Ghana, we cut one mango each morning to feed ten people. They smelled so fragrant, and their flesh was so soft, so pliable, it slithered down your throat and rested in your stomach in a comforting way. In Ghana, there is nothing like the taste of a fresh mango.
We leave Ghana in one week.
I’ve been here for almost three months. This volunteer trip did not pan out at all like I’d expected, although I am surprisingly grateful for the result. It’s a lesson in expectations; don’t have any before you leave, and your trip will be better than you thought.
And now, it’s time to celebrate. Although the celebration is somewhat ambiguous to me; our volunteer assignment was to teach women’s micro-enterprise to a village in the Volta region, but it seemed the jewelry and soap-making business for the women of Atabu is already set up and working quite nicely by the time we arrive. So the long, hot days are spent working side-by-side with these women, not so much “teaching” them micro-enterprise but engaging in a wonderful exchange of ideas and cross-cultural comparisons.
I think Ghanaians just like to party in general. Sombre events in the United States are totally reversed in Ghana. Catholic mass is a celebration of Christ with loud music, dancing, singing and colorful outfits. Even funerals are more of a celebration of life than they are of death; the community wears black and red to represent the deceased and escort the body through the connecting villages in a tricked-out van. I almost took it for a holiday parade, based on the elaborate costumes, painted vehicle and processional singing that went along with it.
So today, we are celebrating women. Feminism and the working female is still a distant concept for many in Ghana, but progress is definitely evident. We have spent three months side-by-side with the women of Atabu and it will be hard to leave our friends behind, these women who are so incredibly strong and smart and able, much more than our American laziness can compare to. These women need not worry about “empowerment” for much longer – they are more powerful than they know.