I walk down the street in my flowing Ghanaian print dress. I am on my way to my favourite Eritrean café to journal about my swearing-in ceremony. I am sentimental. I want to shout out, and then grin broadly while I tell everyone I meet, “I am a US citizen now.” I smile broadly at some folks. Most of them, white men, stare some place above my eyebrows and don’t acknowledge me. I want to say I am one of you now, but somewhere deep inside I know this can never be true. I have lived in this country long enough to know this isn’t the whole narrative. I continue to walk and smile anyway. A Black woman and her daughter stop me to comment on the African fabric; they make small talk. I contemplate sharing my good news. All of a sudden I’m shy.
Earlier as I sat listening to the many levels of ceremonial rites, I penned a few words on the blank portions of my program. Some are mine, others are what some speakers said, yet others are reflections from what my fellow citizens said:
The theater is packed full with family members and well-wishers seated up above in the mezzanine and the new citizens down in orchestra. I feel I am standing on the edge of making history. Goosebumps take residence on my skin and refuse to move on.
Pictures of the White House, Mt. Rushmore, the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, and the Washington Monument flash across the screen suspended from the ceiling. In the historic Paramount Theatre in downtown Oakland, California, about 2000 people are gathered to celebrate.
These flashing pictures are interspersed with black and white and sepia shots of the millions of immigrants who have rolled through Ellis Island over the centuries. The pictures show them waving mini Star Spangled Banners. Tears fill my eyes despite my resolve not to ruin my rarely made-up-but made-up-for-the-occasion face. That mascara was applied after ten minutes of fretting.
The steady scroll of pictures begins to switch to our own locale. I see the Golden Gate flash across, followed by the Bay Bridge, then the Redwoods and numerous mountainscapes, lush with greenery or red desert dirt. I live here! My heart skips a beat. I dab my tears quickly as they roll down my cheek. I imagine the trail of salt it leaves.
Names of countries flash across the screen. Flags follow. I try to test my knowledge by matching country to flag. Countries whose former citizens are being sworn in. I smile sadly as Ghana and then much later, my red-green-yellow dotted with the black star, appear on the screen. Another tear rolls down. Would this be termed a betrayal? I wonder how many other Ghanaians are in the room. Are they and other citizens feeling pangs of guilt?
As my guilt slinks into the corner, country names are called out and former citizens stand. I discover that of the 111 countries amassing the 1206 immigrants represented in the room, I am the only one standing in for Ghana. Contrary to popular belief Africans aren’t dying to give up their allegiance to their countries. More tears. This time I give up trying to wipe them. I try to smile through my tears satisfied that we have proved them wrong, at least for this event. China, Mexico, and a handful of European countries actually have the highest number of immigrants present. Go figure!
The MC thinks he’s funny, making jokes that get a stilted-clapping response at best.
“No more waiting in lines at ports of entry. Your blue book waves you through and buys you a smile.” Yeah right! I will test this theory when I return from Ghana in the fall.
“Your passport is a valuable document, use it in good faith and protect it. It gives you the freedom to choose your path.” This, I myself know to be true. I couldn’t be an “aimlessly” wandering academic back in my home country; the pressure would have had me conforming by now.
“America is better for all 1206 of you deciding to become citizens.” Really? Do you mean that?
A past immigrant of Asian descent gives the formal address. Ironic that they would pick one of the model minority. She is proud as she says:
“Value family because that is the foundation of this country.” Oh Lord here we go!
“One of the first and most important things to do is to learn English.” I wonder if anyone is chuckling in their heads. This from someone who has obviously mastered the language enough to be given a speaking part. I roll my eyes. I wonder how much of her speech is doctored.
“You are not foreign anymore!” This pronouncement makes me almost guffaw forgetting where I am. We, all of us with our blended accents and difficult-to-pronounce names, will always be foreign.
The ideals we espouse in this here ‘land of the brave’ are tantalizing alright. The packaged U.S we sell to immigrants is attractive. Having lived in this country for 17 years I know living up to these ideals is where the real work is. It’s where we as a people very often fall short.
Later, I wave my mini banner and sing, “O Say Can You See…” The harmony is touching. I reflect on all the journeys that culminate in this theatre. More tears. I think on my own journey and my reticence to make this particular commitment. Have I failed in choosing access? Much later, I walk the streets bordering Piedmont and Emeryville wanting to shout “I do!” to anyone who cares to know. I have bought this package with all its flaws. Now what can I do about it?Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 2 so far )
I have been tasking myself with writing “that” blog entry almost everyday since I arrived in Ghana.
It’s not that there isn’t a lot to write about. As you know a writer always finds ways to make even the mundane, exotic and appealing to her readers. The problem is three-fold: first, it is having too much to write about and using the idea of this overload as an excuse to just absorb and not produce; second, I feel I’m reliving the same experiences of being back in Ghana so why bother telling this story to my readers; finally, my own dilemma about attempting to live on the continent for the third time in two years is preventing me from sharing my thoughts. Today I have overcome the confounding issues that have left me tongue-tied because there is something new and exciting happening in my life that demands to be written about.
My first few years in the US were fraught with change and confusion not unlike what I have experienced in returning to Ghana. Only back then I was thinking life moved too fast, white people multiplied by the day, and everyone was too uptight about being on time. “Open-sesame” doors (motion-sensors) and moving staircases only belonged to the world of the books I had read back home. (You can imagine our indignation when after a couple stores with open-sesames, the doors at Pep Boys refused to open to Sheela and I.) People always asked me to repeat myself which I found odd; that had never happened to me before. People asked stupid questions like “did you ride an elephant to America?” Imagine that! Some people back home had never seen a live elephant, let alone ride one. Yet others wanted to know if my family had ever been photographed by National Geographic. Did I mention confusion?
Living in the contradictions as I am always want to do, I tried unsuccessfully to befriend the Black American students on my two campuses where I began my college career despite the stereotypes my immigrant family relayed about “the Blacks.” True to some of my family’s stories, some said I talked “funny” and wasn’t really black. Others accused me of only hanging with white folks and being an “Oreo.” For others, I was the Africa they didn’t want to be associated with. On the contrary, White Americans found me fascinating and exotic, someone to invite over to showcase to equally clueless family members. I spent many an evening sitting around fireplaces giving ‘Africa re-discovered” talks after eating Lasagna or Chili. (Although some of my friends were genuinely clueless and curious, I cringe when I look back on those days.) Nevertheless these experiences were made smoother and less jarring by the friends I made those first two years of college who were willing to learn and teach. Some of these genuinely clueless and curious friends and those who called me an “Oreo” have lasted through the seventeen years and become some of my closest friends.
Enter KT. We met our sophomore year at a campus ministry retreat held in New Jersey. We were both raised in very traditional Catholic homes, volunteered as Eucharistic ministers and altar servers, loved going on retreats, and accumulated service hours like they were frequent flier miles. We had our differences. She was from a large catholic family of nine people; my family of four paled in comparison. She was an athlete and participated in various sporting activities; I couldn’t catch anything thrown my way. She didn’t know any black people; ironically, I knew scores of black people and even some white ones as well. Later on, she would meet everyone in my small family and eat fufu and habenero-infused light-soup; I would meet her large family and share a thanksgiving meal with them. I would teach her how to dance to African rhythms and she would teach me the hokey pokey. Later, she would inspire me to explore the Buddhist tradition, learn yoga, and pray in alternative ways. Much later, I would demand that she unpack her “invisible knapsack” of privilege, and she would sometimes drag me along for the ride. The ebb and flow of our relationship is at times beautiful and at times intensely emotional, but I dare say that all of the fifteen plus years have been powerful and very instrumental in shaping us into the women we have become, and the unique friendship we share today.
I am not sure how many black people she knows now or better yet, how many have made it into her regular circle of friends, but now she can thrown down fufu and pepper soup like nobody’s business, knows when she doesn’t “get” racial issues and when to shut it, and is one of the handful of white friends I know whom I’d claim on any dance floor. Let’s just say she’s come a long way from “Hi my name is KT and I’m from Parma, Ohio,” as have I from “Hello, my name is Melody-Ann and I am from Ghana, West Africa.
So I write this blog entry for KT who is making her first trip to Ghana and to the continent of Africa, fifteen years from that first hello and handshake. I want to say Akwaaba and re-introduce myself: Akwaaba, wo fr3m Kuukua Dzigbordi Yomekpe. Mi y3 Ghana nyi. These are my people; these are where my roots lie. If you are ready, we can wander the back-roads of Melody-Ann and the new tracks of Kuukua. This is for you my friend.
[The prose poem post that follows was written about 10 years ago and edited today as a tribute to our many years together]Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 6 so far )
I stare down at my swollen ankles and use my hands to trace the chubbiness right from the ankles to the toes. I used to want to be this fat. The kind of nice plump that people could tell by looking at my feet, that I was well cared for. Now I know it’s not healthy to be over a certain weight given one’s specific body type. But as a young person who pretty much weighed between 80 and 100lbs until my mid 20’s, I was teased mercilessly. Complete with buck teeth, I was the brunt of many a joke in my classrooms over my entire school career, that is until I wore myself out praying to become fat, eating all things fatty, and padding my clothes.
It’s funny how a tiny act like staring at swollen feet can evoke such a powerful memory.
In any case, I had almost a four hour layover in Brussels. It’s slowly dwindling and I am happy for that. There are no shops in this section of the airport. This is probably a good thing since I am broke anyway. This trip is costing me a lot more than I bargained for. Or maybe the truth is I didn’t know what I was getting myself into when I agreed to move my life to Ghana for a year. With a ticket over $1800, airline baggage fees about $300, shipping 3 barrels costing $175 each, travel to and from Cali, shopping for professional clothing and other household things, I think I am close to $5000 in total moving costs.
Was it worth it all? What happens if I decide this is not for me, and I want out? What do I do with all these things I’ve shipped to Ghana? But what if I decide, I want to stay? How many of my contemporaries return to Ghana and stay this early in their lives,l. at age 34? I know of folks retiring there after they’ve acquired their “fortunes” or amassed enough wealth to live better than they used to live when they were there. I know these folks are around my mother’s age. But what would the country look like if my contemporaries all came home in their numbers and pushed for better functioning public service systems. New public restrooms. Dual-, better yet, multiple-carriage roadways that were built in the allotted amount of time with no contractor “chopping” the money. Traffic regulations implemented and thwarters penalized. Child labor abolished and perpetrators dealt with harshly. The status of women elevated and their well-being and thriving be of national concern. What if my coming home, our coming home would aid in this process? Would I have the patience to deal with the traffic, poor cell service, filthy public restrooms or lack of, and the superiorist attitudes of men?
Lots of people commend me when I say I’m returning to my home country. Most wish me well amid comments of “there’s no place like home.” A few laugh out loud in my face saying: “no way you are going to make it. Those people will drive you nuts.” I first I saw this as some challenge. Then with sadness, as I saw my own people give up on their own developing countries. Then I saw the added layer of how they perceived my assimilation. Was I so assimilated that I was unable to return to my own culture? Then there’s my mom who says jokingly, Kuukua loves Ghana. She’s a Ghanaian through and through.” I’m usually waiting for the “you can’t take the Ghanaian out of her” part. It doesn’t come. Maybe that’s my own baggage. Is this a bad thing? Idk for right now.
For now, my swollen feet tell the story of my long journey to try out this my home country. I’m in Brussels after traveling from Columbus to Chicago, a total of about 8 ½ hours flying time but more of prep and stress. I still have about 8 more hours to go not including the layover. Ugh! Anyway, onward I say.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 6 so far )
There is a lot to say and do but for some reason I am quiet and calm. I booked my flights yesterday and it gave me some calm after it was all done. It’s scary to be making such a big move. It didn’t occur to me until Nana Nyarko said it that I was really doing something brave. Yes, it was home but it was out of my comfort zone. A place I hadn’t lived in for 16 years. I am taking a big leap of faith dragging myself off to another continent and especially to a country where sexism and homophobia have lunch together every day. A place where any sense of progressiveness is sometimes seen as an adoption of Western ideals and a booting of the traditional homegrown ones. Homophobia and sexism are preached in the pulpit on Sundays at most churches, discussed and prayed about at Bible Study on weekdays, and argued about over Star beer in the local chop bars where men retreat to instead of going home to their toiling wives.
Over the last two months I’ve been privy to conversations with several people, some of which have scared me. People in charge talk like this? These are the voices in the mainstream? What will happen to the world if we don’t stand up and counter some of these conversations and yelling matches? What happens if those of us with alternative voices chose to remain quiet? I’ve been more shocked at my own friends’ reactions to their “lot in life” to use the phrase rather facetiously. Most of the women I encountered knew their worth but some were willing to let society dictate to them how much they should be worth. Some were willing to be physically groped in public places because it was easier than causing a scene and drawing attention to the man doing it. Some had never been told their worth and so didn’t know to expect any better. On an average a woman is guaranteed to be forcefully grabbed by a strange man at least once a day if she leaves her house and more if she uses public transit. This is not OK! The term, “Personal Space” and “Boundaries” mean absolutely nothing to most men, married or not. The common retort I’ve gotten is that women were created for men’s pleasure so any woman who doesn’t acquiesce to such harassment hates men, this then ushers in the topic of homophobia and when this comes in, people literally lose their minds.
But I think I am beginning at a good place. The school I’m headed to is an international one, and there is only a handful of its kind in Ghana. As such, it is a cocoon of sorts, and this characteristic both thrills and disturbs me a bit. It would be a microcosm of Berkeley to an extent but there will be more people who look like me than not providing a comfort I have not been privileged to have before. I have been assured of care and support for this journey, but it’s my conscience that nags about service to the poor and how this fits in. The school is one of the more expensive schools in Ghana and even though they serve orphans as well, the concept still remains that it is an exclusive school of 320 students more than half of whom can afford to be there. I have heard only positive things from everyone I’ve spoken to. I know now after traipsing through five institutions that no institution is perfect. Some are better than others but they are all people-made and so have flaws. Once I learned this, and also that institutions don’t always work for people, especially my people, I had a whole new understanding and appreciation for them and my relationship with them. I hope this will be one of the better ones. This hope is what tempers the nervousness and anxiety that seizes hold of me at all hours. What the heck am I doing? When I can’t answer this question, I try to pack. When fitting 16 years of life in America into 2 50-lb suitcases fails, I go shopping. After all, I am going to have to replace those shoes I gave to Aunty Ama. JRead Full Post | Make a Comment ( 7 so far )
Enuanom na adofo, mi gyena Ghana na miri kyerew0
I owe you one. I apologize for the silence since my angst filled post 2 months ago. Since most of you follow me on FB I assume that you mostly all know that I am in Ghana. It is day 6 of my 73-day experiment to try on my country of birth. So far so good. I’m happy to report that I’ve had waakye, my favorite street-vendor food, for breakfast and dinner on a couple of occasions. The jet-lag is challenging leaving me consistently sleep-filled and nodding off in the most inopportune of places like in the taxi cab or sitting upright on my bed working my way through one of my numerous “summer reading” texts. The journey was pleasant albeit rather long and arduous on the no-longer-limber body.
“Hi Sir!” I flashed all 32 molars as I attempted to get help from the guy in the seat across the aisle from me. “Would you mind terribly helping me with my carry-on?” I’ve been told I smile pretty. It helps that I have a pretty face to go with it.
“Why of course! Anything for that pretty smile.” Feminism out the door, Or perhaps it’s a different articulation of feminism (we can debate that at a later date). With ganglions on both wrists and two wrist surgeries behind me, hand luggage was always a hassle. Try as I did to minimize how much I took aboard flights, I never seemed to succeed. The extra pound or three off the 50-pounder checked luggage almost always inevitably ended up in my hand luggage. The past few months of traveling had actually found me perfecting a system: Wait until everyone was boarded so there was sure to be no overhead space for my luggage then feign surprise as they asked if I would mind terribly if they gate-checked it for free! I would pretend to think it over ever so momentarily pretending that I might need something from it during the flight. I would then acquiesce, and waving the bag away saunter onto the plane with a triumphant look. Well for this transatlantic trip, it didn’t work that way. They couldn’t gate-check the luggage. So the flight attendants’ brought me a Delta plastic bag and asked me to downsize the hand luggage a bit until we could zip it back down to its original un-expanded size. The funny thing is the sir I asked seemed to struggle with the luggage almost as much as I would have. I guess that should teach me to go by appearances. Anyway, I made it through to Amsterdam smiling at strange white men who surprisingly happened to be contractors from the South. Baton Rouge, South Carolina, and Texas. There’s a race commentary for later. In Amsterdam, all hand luggage were forcibly checked. I was relieved.
In a throwback to my first time in an arcade, I settled into the 17-hour plane ride with two stops and 3 hours of layover, scanning the over 100 entertainment options with panicking and frenzied calculations. If I chose wisely, didn’t doze off, or take breaks while at the watering hole, I could potentially see 4 movies on the first leg and 3 on the second. What if I couldn’t decide which 7 were worth it? In the end, I didn’t make the 7 cut but I did see the period classics that I had missed in the theatres: the 7th Harry Potter (somebody needs to kiss already!), Black Swan (OMG!), Life As We Know It with Katherine Heigl, and Going the Distance with Drew Barrymore. I saw bits of Barney’s Version, No Strings Attached, The Rite, and Big Momma 3, enough to know not to spend any more shrinking brain cells on them. I believe that such nocturnal busyness is responsible for my current super comatose level of jet-lag.
I arrived in Accra worn out but was rescued almost immediately by Papa Kwame, our Estate Manager. With him by my side, I could let some of my defenses down so I did. He walked me through the immigration paperwork and a one-hour wait for my luggage (I’ll never complain about SFO again!). Another hour later, we pull into our compound.
Thanks to my MFA writing, I was ready for my aloof Grandmother. This time I didn’t even attempt to chase her for a hug. She stood at the back door almost nervously as I approached the front door calling her name to ask how she was.
“Hi Ma! Otsi Den?”
She responded with a mumble. Something about how old age sucks. I nodded knowing I could neither agree nor disagree on this fact. Having written out quite a bit of scene around my interactions with Grandmother, I could almost predict the next sequence of dialogue. They came just as I imagined. They had to do with how much she hates my hair this way. The baby locs that I’ve been twisting.
“Do you like it?” I play clueless twirling one of them. “I did it myself,” I add proudly still ignoring her discomfort.
I abandoned the effort and asked what was for dinner. I then went to my room to re-arrange the luggage the house-help unloaded, shed my travel clothes, and spray my room with the mosquito spray readying myself for my first night back in Ghana.
This is how I begun and ended the main part of this epic journey.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 2 so far )
I too had an absentee ballot for a dad. Although in my case I was lucky (or unlucky depending on how you look at it) to still be on the continent of Africa with my mother’s people. Talk of bitter kola nuts, tubers of “real” yam, and sisters from spirit worlds had me missing my homeland, Ghana. I was right there with her as I imagined the sound of the ululations, and the knocking sound some of the words made as the women uttered them when Faith and her new-found sister strolled the streets.
I miss Ghana. Everyday! Moments like these– hearing other African writers read about the continent– take me back and make me miss it more. Later on in the evening, I played with sesame seeds, and tossed a few mini-sized Hersheys-kisses look-alikes into my mouth, all the while suspiciously eying the cinnamon bark being passed around. We were writing through sensory detail; I was thinking of millet, Golden Tree chocolates, and roots from the medicine woman’s jar. I guess Faith’s prompt worked. Even though I made a shameless plug for my latest anthology (AWWR), I didn’t have the guts to share my free write when it came time for the competition. aah well, another time I guess.
It was a great experience all around.
I want to thank the co-captains, Irina and Lex for birthing this brain child. And of course all the fun people who attended and brought good food. If you missed it, catch them next first Tuesday, February 1, 2011.
Be sure and also check out Faith Adiele’s main site.
In her third publication of the year, PSR alumnae, Kuukua Dzigbordi Yomekpe, writes about the experience of negotiating identities as an immigrant to the US. She writes about changing her name, straightening her hair, and practicing her “American” accent to assimilate successfully into her new environment.
The anthology, African Women Writing Resistance, was published by University of Wisconsin Press and released in August 2010.
The editors of the anthology will be speaking about the book on a panel at the 53rd Annual Meeting of the African Studies Association held in downtown San Francisco.
Although she will not be speaking on the panel, she will be at the book reading and signing later on.
Please Facebook her or email her (firstname.lastname@example.org) for more information.
Thursday, November 18, 2010
Westin St. Francis
335 Powell Street
Panel: African Women Writing Resistance: Voices from the Diaspora
Chair: Jennifer J. Browdy de Hernandez, Bard College at Simon’s Rock
Patricia M. Chogugudza, Langston University, The Impact of Gender, Culture, and Migration on the Lives of Sub-Saharan African Women Living in the Diaspora
Discussant: Anne M. Serafin, Independent Scholar
This is the third piece that was published in the African Women Writing Resistance anthology in August.
Musings of an African Woman: Life in the Land of Opportunity
I. IMMIGRANTS IN A FOREIGN LAND
The leaves on the tree right outside my window gently stir with a wind that only blows about every ten minutes. The air is hot, sticky, and humid. The leaves rustle and move yet no breeze enters my room to ease the stifling heat. The air condition units of the neighbors kick on and drone out the sing-song voice of the man who is having a highly animated conversation next door.
As I gaze out and try to take in my surroundings, I realize how this crowded apartment complex reminds me of the Korle Bu flats back in Ghana, which houses civil servants who work for the government hospital. I think to myself, life in America is just a coated version of life in a so-called “third world” country. True, the thickness of the coating makes it easy to dismiss this theory. People work so hard all day only to retire to this in the evening–a conglomerate cacophonous display of miniscule living quarters! For the amount of money people pay for a place here, they could be living in a 5-bedroom ranch house in some developing country free from all the stresses of life. Sure, some of the finer amenities of life could be missing, but these should be minor inconveniences given the amount of space and peace of mind one would enjoy.
…I have finally gotten my body to understand that lying still, perfectly still, is the fastest way to staying cool and sane.
So, really, what makes this different from an average Akua (insert “Joe” or “Jane”) living in a developing country? Maybe it is the convenience of constant running water here whereas Akua would certainly have to be rationing or walking some few miles to a well or a community pipe. Or the electricity that seems to burn all day long, by which these people in the other apartments are cooling their living spaces. Or could it be the microwave, coffee maker, or George Foreman grill? All seemingly necessary appliances for existence in America yet, I beg to differ! These are all mere trappings of the life we choose to lead in this here “freedom country” to which members of “developing countries,” en masse, escape with hopes of amassing wealth and returning to establish a mini-America in their homelands.
Noble goals, no doubt! But realistically, how many of these people ever end up leaving America to return to their homelands? How many actually achieve that goal of returning home to recreate better versions of the lives they had here in America? I would like to purport…very few! The average immigrant Jane usually ends up caught in the lifestyle of consumerism. With the onslaught of bills, even a trip home to visit aging relatives or bury a dead family member becomes unaffordable, a debt to be added to the credit consolidators list, or for some a risk, the imminent danger of not being able to return because of immigration regulations.
As I write I wonder, whom I am really writing for. Who is my audience? My people, my fellow “developing country” citizens who, like me, have left oftentimes, better living conditions to come to America with the hopes of “finding greener pastures” and “making their fortunes” in this land of opportunity? If this is my audience, do they even care?
Funny, mass amounts of immigrants make up the bulk of the population in America; almost everyone left somewhere to come and “make it” here. Different reasons propelled each ethnic group that migrated here, but the one underlying reason, regardless of which group, seems to be the promise of something better.
In the process of “making it” we all lose important parts of ourselves: an accent, a-difficult-to-pronounce-name, the foods with which our clothing used to reek, the culture that used to emanate from our very beings. We lose these parts of ourselves in an attempt to blend in, become one of the majority. Sadly though, (or would it be fortunately?) for most immigrants, we can never quite complete that process of blending in.
Just when you think you’ve perfected the pronunciation of a word, or got the meaning of some idiomatic expression, some person somewhere comes up to you on the pretense of making conversation and asks, “so where are you from?” or my all time favorite, “what are you?” I love to give people like these hernias because I calmly proceed to say casually “the Midwest, Ohio!” Of course, they don’t get the subtle hint and so they continue to probe: “no, I mean where are you really from?” At this point they are practically beside themselves with frustration at you, oh no, not themselves! They know they are right, you look different, you sounded different just then, you must be different!
That’s when I kick myself for ever leaving my country, where I was not “different,” to “seek greener pastures.” What most people do not realize or refuse to acknowledge is the fact that this country, America, truly only belonged to one group of people, and much like my country, colonized by the British, these original owners were sacked and maltreated. America today is made up of centuries of people from other places; people who looked and sounded different back then when they first arrived, some brought in by force, others driven by the search for a better life, others escaping persecution; these very same reasons continue to bring immigrants in today.
So if we’re going to be so darn fussy, about who is “different” then shouldn’t we all return to our original homelands? But of course, there are quite a few Americans today who cannot trace their ancestry back to their original locations, so where does that leave them? May I suggest: Ambassadors for peace, embracing and extending warm welcomes to all new immigrants?Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 6 so far )
Cooking was a major affair in our household. Sometimes the cause of disagreement among family members and house helps, the coal pot, aka the kitchen stove, was essential to this process. Because it required charcoal it was always lit in the courtyard to prevent the first puffs of smoke from choking everyone in the house. We would ball up old newspapers in the lower part of the stove and light these with a match, then fan the flames to allow the kerosene-soaked coals on the upper bowl to ignite. Once the coals caught fire and the smoke evened out, the stove was returned to the kitchen. Under heavy cooking, new charcoal had to be added often because the original chunks would turn to ashes. It didn’t bode well for whoever was on kitchen duty when this occurred. Once, Aunty Mercy took coals from one coal pot to begin a new fire and ended up losing the starter. Grandmother was furious.
Aunty Mercy was the oldest of all the house-helps we ever had; she came to us after she had spent her life savings bailing out her only child who had been jailed for murder. She walked with a hobble because she had been the victim of a number of bicycle accidents. During a particularly bad Hamattan season, she was struck by lightening, adding a twitch to that hobble, yet she was full of life and had many stories to tell. She was warm and cuddly and my sister and I loved her. She was the antithesis of all Grandmother was.
“’Familiarity breeds contempt!’” Grandmother would exclaim dramatically whenever we would interact too closely with Aunty Mercy. More contact with the house-helps outside of duties blurred the boundaries she worked so hard to keep. Grandmother’s main prejudice centered on sharing food, eating Aunty Mercy’s food, was forbidden. Aunty Mercy would occasionally cook her own tribal delicacies. We joined her once and almost got caught.
The kitchen was warm and slightly cramped. Aunty Mercy squatted in her usual lopsided position in the middle of the kitchen floor tending to her meal. I scooted around, trying not to knock her over. The freshly prepared nkontombire froyi with koobi and ampesi made my mouth water even though I just had dinner. Something about the green leafy spinach leaves bubbling in the reddish liquid makes it more appealing. Salted tilapia was soaking in a bowl next to plantains from our backyard garden.
“We’ll join you, but Grandmother will be mad if she catches us.” I replied enthusiastically.
Sheela rolled her eyes and translated my response. “You know she doesn’t speak any English.” Aunty Mercy beckoned us closer to the stove. I saw the coal pot with coals almost turned to ashes. The fire was almost out.
“Looks like she forgot to add new coal,” Sheela commented.
Aunty Mercy pulled up two kitchen stools for Sheela and me, pausing to wipe both with a kitchen towel lest we ruin our clothes.
I stared into the pot. It smells great.
“What’s in it?”
“kontombire ahataw, anyiew ne tometo ne galic.”
Ok. But what’s that other smell? “What makes the sauce so red?”
“Oye ngo na.”
“This tastes different.” Sheela said. I turned expecting a frown on her face, surprised by a smile.
“Let me taste!” I squeezed my way in between them.
“sssh ma anti aba kyi hon!” Aunty Mercy cautioned.
I grin. Grandmother would be furious if she knew what we were doing.
“Why don’t you use this in our meals?” I asked.
Floorboards from the third bedroom creaked slightly. We heard Grandmother’s footsteps.
“Grandmother says Sheela is allergic to palm oil.” I looked over in panic at Sheela who seemed to be enjoying her pieces of plantain and nkomtombire. Was she really allergic or was Grandmother lying?
More erratic footsteps interrupted my panic. Aunty Mercy motioned for us to be silent. She quickly grabbed our half empty bowls and explained:
“Nso nnyi egroya ntsi wa ba egyadze ha befee bi.”
“Huh? There was no water in the bathroom?” Surely Grandmother wouldn’t buy that one!
Her voice preceded her.
“Sheela! Kuukua! Where are you two? You better not be in the kitchen! Go brush your teeth and get ready for bed!”
A bend in the hallway separated us.
“We are getting water!”
We dart across the hall, pick up our toothbrushes, and begin to brush our teeth. Close call! Who would have thought that Aunty Mercy had learned to count with Grandmother’s footsteps?
THE OAKLAND WORD PUBLICATION.
IT IS CURRENTLY UNDER REVISION.
The Coal Pot
The kitchen stove, which we call the coal pot, was of the utmost importance in my house. We used it at least twice a day. It was often the center of the day’s activities and sometimes the cause of disagreement among family members and house helps. It only used coal and had to be lit in the courtyard to prevent the first puffs of smoke from choking everyone in the house. We would have to ball up old newspapers in the lower part of the stove and light these with a match, then fan the flames from the lower part to allow the coals on the upper bowl to ignite. Once the coals caught fire and the smoke evened out, we would return the stove to the main kitchen. This chore was almost always handled by the resident cook. When we children handled the stove, it was under careful watch of whichever house-help we had at the time. Every meal I had as a child was prepared or heated on this stove. Most of my classmates’ families had long switched to electric or gas stove imported from abroad, but Grandmother refused to cave in to modernity. Besides, the coal pot needed to be monitored more closely than an electric or gas stove because it did not have an internal regulator. This was perfect for her because it meant we didn’t ever leave the kitchen (or her sight) for too long. It was not until well into my teens when she finally consented and got first, a kerosene stove, and then an electric two-burner hot plate.
Cooking was a major affair in our household. We usually cooked massive amounts of food to store for several days. Although we didn’t have a large household, my Grandmother was quite busy as school principle during the week days, and church leader on the weekends, and preferred not to spend a lot of time supervising the cooking each day. The stove needed to be replenished every so often because the original chunks of coal would eventually turn to ashes under such heavy cooking. New coal had to be added before the entire spread of coal turned to ash otherwise we would have to begin the whole process of lighting the stove anew. As I recall, this happened a couple times. It didn’t bode well for whoever was on kitchen duty when this occurred. I recall an occasion when one particular house-help was working. Aunty Mercy. She took coals out to begin a new fire for another coal pot and ended up losing the original one on which the main family meal was being prepared. Grandmother had a few choice words for her, but Aunty Mercy quite immune to Grandmother’s harsh words, just nodded and begun the whole process over.
Aunty Mercy was the oldest of all the house-helps we ever had. She came to stay for a few years, earlier on in my life, and then left for a while because of a disagreement with the matriarch of the family, Grandmother. She returned when I was much older and stayed for a long while again. Aunty Mercy was from Asinmansu and had had her share of life’s challenges. Her son had been jailed for theft and she had spent her life savings bailing him out only to have him flee the country. She had been hit by a bicycle a few times so she hobbled along almost precariously as if at any moment she would topple over. She had been hit by lightening and this had given her a twitch in addition to the hobble. Despite all these, she was full of life and had many stories to share. She was also warm and cuddly; she was quite the character and my sister and I loved her. She was the antithesis of all Grandmother was. As I came to later learn, Grandmother, who was of Scottish and English heritage, could not bring herself to break the tradition of the “stoic” English women who had gone before her. We interacted with her peripherally while doing homework, taking tea, or when being chastised or punished. I recall spending a great deal of my time with Aunty Mercy or whoever the house-help at the time was; we changed them so often, I have quite a few in my memory.
Grandmother, as a three quarter mulatto, was extremely prejudiced that it took a thick-skinned person to live with her and take the constant barrage of derogatory comments. My first experience of extreme prejudice came when she punished my sister and me for eating Aunty Mercy’s food, which was not to be mistaken for food prepared by Aunty Mercy. This was ironic because she prepared all our meals. Since Grandmother set our menu each week, Aunty Mercy would occasionally cook her own tribal delicacies. My sister and I being the curious kids we were were always ready to try something different. On this one occasion, Aunty Mercy served us dinner and then left to clean up, and eat her own dinner because she ate her meals apart from the family. Sheela and I went looking for her later and found her cleaning up the main coal pot, and tending to her saucepan of freshly prepared koobi stew and ampesi, a local delicacy of salted tilapia stew with boiled green plantains and yams. She invited us but warned us about the wrath of my grandmother; she agreed to be on the lookout for her. Unfortunately, that night, luck was not on our side and Grandmother did find us eating Aunty Mercy’s food. Grandmother stood guard over the point where her race discriminations met our childish curiosity and being the adult, she always won. We were sent to brush our teeth and given a good talking to about the results of mingling with servants, and what Grandmother termed “familiarity breeds contempt.” For her, the more interaction we had with the house-helps outside of duties, the more they felt closer to us, blurring the boundaries she worked so had to keep. Although Aunty Mercy did not care for being in trouble with Grandmother, she also felt it her calling to prepare us for the real world where we did not have this bubble of protection that Grandmother’s skin privilege afforded us.