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 )
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 )
To My Siblings, In Solidarity
The sun is beating down mercilessly on people who are already toasted varying degrees of brown and shades of black. The skies look like those on the Simpsons TV comedy: cotton-candy blue and white, and as I lay on my back, I can almost picture the credits rolling across the endless screen and hear the familiar tune playing. The sun beats down on my left side yet the gentle breezes from the right slowly caress and ease the heat of this equator sun, making it all worthwhile. The sound of a metal bell reminds me that some people are working even on this holiday. As the sound of the bell grows fainter and shifts to the background, it is replaced by the crowing of a rooster and the barking of dogs. Other sounds have become so much a part of the environment that one has to pay particular attention to be able to decipher what constitutes the cacophony.
Where am I? I’m sure you are dying to know! For Christmas, I gave myself the gift of a second pilgrimage to Haiti, Ayiti, the beautiful land of beautiful people where the great economic divide is as visible as the night and day that marks the passing of time and where suffering, as widespread as it is, never keeps the people from smiling back when you make eye contact. I had to return to Ayiti. It had wrapped its arms around me in May 2002 when I made my first pilgrimage and it had refused to let go. So I honored it, and all who were in it, by returning.
I am sitting on the rooftop, seven floors up, at St Joseph’s Home for Boys, affectionately called “Michael’s” after the director and founder. As I bask in the sunlight thoughts of snow, thousands of light years away, in my memory, I try to absorb all of Ayiti again—yes, I loved Ayiti, just as I loved my homeland, Ghana. I had fallen in love with Ayiti from the minute I exited the plane and had to make my way to the terminal on foot.
As I lie, I absorb all the sounds that are unique only to Ayiti and some of the other developing countries I have been blessed to visit: the sound of the vendors’ bells and voices advertising their wares, roosters crowing (although I am still unable to determine the exact reason since people have been awake since 4:30 am), music blaring out of speakers miles away echoed off the mountain sides, “tap taps” (local bus system) and taxis honking incessantly, engines of cars starting up, a PSA of some sort being run from the back of a pick-up truck with a make-shift megaphone, people calling out to each other in Kreyol, cats and dogs fighting for turf, and intermittent gun shots interspersing this orchestrated piece, poignant reminders of the state of the country.
The sun has dipped behind one of the many mountains that encircle Haiti although a part of the island is still bathed in sunlight and a shadow of light is thrown across the mountain. Sounds of nighttime are slowly replacing those of the day: generators kicking on (electricity is only available for part of the day), the crackling of firewood and the smell that accompanies it, as people prepare the evening meal, rush hour traffic with all its sounds, and radios and televisions blaring loudly.
The flight part of the journey had been uneventful and we had landed finally, after about 15-20 hours in airports (Ohio to Miami to Haiti), on the small farm runway that had cattle and goats grazing on it. About a half hour after landing, and squashed in the small cab of a pick up truck, with luggage competing for space, we were ascending and descending roads that were carved so adeptly out of the mountains. In the darkness, roads pitted with potholes filled with rain, gave the illusion of being smooth terrain until we were jolted out of our seats when our driver landed in one of them. It was pitch black, the kind of dark that threatens to swallow the dim, struggling headlights of the journeying vehicles. We had been driving for over 90 minutes when we had originally been told that the trip was a half hour max. There had to have been something wrong. I was convinced there had to have been rebels on the main highway and that’s why our guide had detoured. Who was to say?
Was my faith tested? You bet it was! I began saying the Rosary in my head and trying to remember any prayers I had memorized in my 20 years of Catholic school education. That having brought no comfort, I took refuge in making my petitions in my native tongue and just free-styling. At this point, I realized how ridiculous I might have seemed to any of my friends and family back home. I had made this trip after reconciling that “if this should be the end then so be it, I was going to Ayiti, come what may!” I smiled as I realized that this initial panic stage was natural when faced with trials. This thought surprisingly calmed me down enough to concentrate my efforts on watching the driver make it round each sharp bend in the two-lane mountain road, the lesser of the two evils. No sooner had I shifted my focus than we were arrived at our destination: the rectory at Plaissance.
Plaissance was one of the two reasons I had been itching to return to Ayiti. Located in the northern part of Ayiti, Plaissance for me was the French Riviera with all the mountains dripping with greenery. This was also where my host family lived and I could hardly wait to visit with them and catch up on 3 years worth of news…whew! Oh wait a minute, we can’t do that! The language barrier for me was my biggest struggle. Having had some elementary French in school, I could get by if people spoke French however, the Kreyol in Ayiti, a mixture of French and African languages, bore little resemblance to French. As I vacillated between excitement and disappointment, I began to piece together sentences in my head from the basic Kreyol I knew. Yes, I would tell them this or that, oh wait…how do you say this in Kreyol? I got ready for bed; tomorrow the words that eluded me now might come.
Gwo Jan was the other reason. This was where my other family lived. Two men and a lady! , Ari, Dja, and Carla. These three were my inspiration for some of the work I had gotten involved in since returning from my first trip. They had the arduous task of educating their own people, the people of Ayiti, about the history that lay beneath the brand name sneakers they loved to wear, the struggle with power, and the struggle against systems that was always in motion. They were also responsible for educating any tourists, who dared to enter their village, about the beautiful land of Ayiti and its people. These three, so far as I was concerned, were the heroes whose stories hardly ever got told. They had captured my heart and brain and engaged me in working for the struggle from the first time I had visited and though our communiques were few and far between we carried each other in our hearts and I couldn’t wait to see them again.
I look at the chaos that surrounds me. Sometimes I work well under pressure although this time all order and creativity has eluded me even though my deadline is but 24 hours away. The chaos, the order I strive for, the pressure which produces results, or so they say…all this is nothing compared to the thoughts that take residence in my head all day long as I go about the mundane tasks of my everyday life as one of the numbers in a big corporate institution.
These thoughts are far from related to my job or everyday routine. These thoughts are about the greater good, about service to all people, if I may be allowed to use clichés. My thoughts are with the people I met on my two trips to Ayiti (Haiti), my study abroad project in Morocco, my trips to Ghana, my working vacation in Egypt, my time at the Catholic Worker house in Denver, CO, or more recently and way less expensive, my chat with the unassuming man who everyone mistook for homeless. These are the things that occupy my head as I try to navigate my way through the numerous cubicles, edit letters, make copies, or prepare mail.
In these thoughts the perpetual question burns my innermost parts each time I can scrounge a few minutes to pause and reflect…what am I being called to do…in the long run, what really matters the most?
This question has come to me in various forms, and over the last five years since graduating from college I have processed this question in numerous settings: over dinner with religious discernment groups, in retreats, workshops, service trips, journaling, and mind you, this list is endless. If I have learned anything at all, it’s that, nobody else can tell me what my calling is because this is something that I need to discern for myself.
In journeying through this process of discernment, I have slowly learned more about myself, and my place in the grand scheme of things. I have come to cherish the heritage, the ancestry that makes me who I am today. I have discovered and embraced the similarities, as well as the differences, that make us all children of the Great Being.
It is with such a basic foundation that I returned to Ayiti for the second time. I returned not to donate time or money but to visit with the ones I had met once before, to sit in solidarity with my siblings, to share with each other the gift of our lives, despite the admonishment of family and friends fearing for my safety in Ayiti.
There is a quiet knowing…a sort of “I have arrived” feeling as I sit on my steps and crunch on some cereal. The “ChocoBalls” cereal I chose instead of the name brand one which cost 11/2 times more than this one. I may never get to live as simply in America as I do when I am in Ghana or Haiti but I can carefully consider my choices before making my small everyday decisions. I have been back two days now and I’m still buzzing with the energy and excitement that usually accompanies a return from a service trip where one has been made more aware and one has left with a resolution of some sort.
I’m reminded of my trip leader’s numerous poems that she read to us at prayer time while in Ayiti. One in particular sticks out: “to my brothers and sisters in third world countries” it begins and then it apologizes for the insensitivity on our parts that allows us to spend twenty minutes picking out what sweater or shoe to wear when my sister halfway around the world, is putting on the only piece of clothing or pair of shoes that she owns. This prayer has stayed with me since my very first trip to Ayiti because somehow that is how I manage to stay grounded…to constantly contemplate the faces of the people I know and am now fortunate to call family, in Ayiti. To remember their joy and excitement when they don their Sunday best for church or throw on the same pair of shoes for work day after day. To recall their smiles as they share what little they have with everyone around. To let myself revel in the optimism and conviction of the people as they say “Viva Ayiti”! My family in Plaissance and Gwojan who keep the dream of freedom alive, and continue to live and tell their story despite all attempts to silence them. They are the thoughts that constantly plague me as I go about my routine tasks. They are the constant heat from the equator sun, absent in the dead of winter, yet ever-present in my thoughts as I ponder what the greater good and ultimate calling is.
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That’s what we call the 26th of December in Ghana, and I’m sure in other British colonies. If we had presents, we gave them on Boxing Day. Usually, if I remember correctly, that’s when we made our rounds of various family and family friends’ homes. We took presents of fruit or cookies and stopped to drink Fanta or Coca Cola in each location. We sometimes ate jolloff or chicken at some of the homes. It had the feel of an American Thanksgiving Day. We would arrive home stuffed, and usually headed straight for bed.
It feels like eons ago. This is my 15th Christmas I have spent away from Ghana. It feels surreal to have had 18 consecutive ones and to now be bereft of them. My sister Sheela is in Ghana. I wish I had gone with her but there was no way I could have pulled off another ticket twice my rent. I think it makes me miss home the most when there is someone there “enjoying” it for me. Although yesterday, Sheela gave me one of the best presents ever–a Skype phone call with all my cousins. The ones with whom I grew up at least. I felt like the proud big sis to have all of them gathered around the computer talking in and out of turn catching me up and telling me I should be there. I smiled broadly on this end for moments after we hung up. I ought to have been there, but no use wishing that now. For months I had been kicking myself for going to Ghana in August instead. It would have been so much nicer at Christmas when everyone else was home as well, and definitely more enjoyable to go with Sheela. But I didn’t. I am here in the grey-slightly warming-up, sun-struggling-to-peek-through, Bay. Much as I love the Bay and California, this is the one year where I wished most for a White Christmas or a Christmas in Ghana. Perhaps it was mainly to do with the fact that Sheela was in Ghana or perhaps it had to do with the fact that I loved family and wanted to be surrounded by large quantities of good food, big laughs, and re-telling of stories.
In any case, I am here, trying to be content, to love being with me, and eek out some writing. I am going to finish up a piece on analyzing Christmas music which strangely enough disappears when it hits 11:59 pm on Christmas Day (have you noticed this?) Shouldn’t we be rejoicing now that the season is finally here? The child has been born? Yesterday afternoon, I was in CVS for an item (yes they were open) and they were already setting up the Christmas sale aisles for all the items that have come to define Christmas. I guess if the carols were gone, there was no need to keep the tinsel or miniature Nutcracker or reindeer. Ironically, I also noticed that close to 90% of all those working to dismantle Christmas were of Asian descent. Earlier on in the IHop in a pre-dominantly Black neighborhood, our server and several of her colleagues were also Asian. It was fascinating to me that I observed this stark difference. Were there always several Asian workers and servers, or did I just notice them more because it seemed they were the only ones working? Were they the only ones working? Why? As a woman of color sitting in a restaurant with a very diverse pool of customers, why did it bother me to see all Asian servers? Did Christmas bring all these people together? If so, why wasn’t the server pool just as diverse?Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
She cussed silently as she felt a splash of water hit the footies that she wore. She had washed her regular house slippers and forgot to dry them so she decided these padded footies would have to do. The splash of water came from the pot of meat that she was prepping to slow-cook.
She had literally been on her feet for sixteen hours, except for an hour in therapy and a few minutes here and there as she commuted from one place to the other. She had done massive amounts of laundry and had stood through that as well. So tonight, the feet made it known that they were tired. “A few more minutes guys, I promise,” she whispered. I really ought to invest in one of those kitchen mats that absorb the shock. She knew her back would ache when she finally lay down to rest tonight. She was certain of it.
Grammie lived close to where her college was, in a subsidized housing community that mostly housed senior citizens and their families. It was off Broadway Street almost close to downtown Columbus, and was right on the bus line so it was real easy to get to since she didn’t have her license yet. Sometimes, she would bring a friend with her and enjoy watching Grammie entertain someone else while she cooked.
“Hi Grammie!” she called to her grandmother from the back door. She had dropped by after classes to have a cooking session with Grammie, or more like to fix her one of the many Ghanaian dishes she loved; they had about five in rotation now.
She would call and ask what to bring and Grammie would say:
“Oh honey, don’t worry yourself, everything you need is right here.”
Sure enough when she arrived Grammie had laid out all the ingredients for the recipe of the day. Grammie had also baked her, her very own spice cake. Of course, she knew she had to share once she arrived at back on campus but she didn’t mind. They brewed up a cup of coffee and sat down to prepare the ingredients. They would catch up on which of Grammie’s neighbors’ children had gotten into trouble that week. Or talk about how Mz. Thelma and Mz. Fanny’s smoking habits seemed to be getting even more out of hand.
“Sometimes, I can just smell it!” she declared, referring to her upstairs neighbor Mz. Fanny.
“Remember when you used to come by the apartment so we would cook?” I miss those days,” Grammie said. Grammie had been confined to wearing an oxygen mask for a year now.
She smiled reminiscing right alongside with her.
“Yeah, I remember.” There were patches in her memory that made her worry; she was glad she could recall this memory on demand.
Encouraged by this recall, she continued:
“Remember me going up to Ms. Fanny’s apartment to say hello and bring her a piece of cake or a bowl of whatever we had cooked that day?”
“Yeah. Fanny would always tell me I had a good grandchild,” Grammie added smiling.
“Mz. Fanny would put hot sauce on everything I took to her.” she said.
“Yeah, that’s Fanny alright!”
Picturing the old apartment that Grammie had brought tears to her eyes. SO much had changed since then. Those were the carefree days of learning to live life in America. She had acquired independence by choosing to live on campus even though home was a mere 30-minute bus ride away. Having lived under her Grandmother’s totalitarian house rules for nineteen years, she was finally unfurling her wings and realizing what freedom truly meant.
Tonight, cooking in her own kitchen had brought these memories rushing back right alongside her flood of tears that seemed to rise out of a deep pain she wasn’t even aware she was holding. Grammie was on a breathing machine, with tubes in her lungs to help her breathe. Tonight when she checked in with her sister, she had said Grammie was getting more and more confused. She had been lately, before the EMS came for her. Her brain wasn’t getting enough oxygen, the doctor said. Tomorrow was a crucial day, they were going to try and switch her to breathing on her own.
“Do you think she will?” She asked her sister, already knowing that answer was ambiguous.
These thoughts overwhelmed her as she cleaned her brand new crock pot. As much as she loved cooking, there were days when she could just stand to throw it all in a pot and not have to mind it half as much. Tonight was such a night.
She felt Grammie’s presence in the room. She burst into tears again smiling as she saw her tears drop into the bubbling liquid. “Cook your heart out honey. That’s my girl! Oh honey, don’t cry, I’m ok, I can cook now.” Grammie seemed to say.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 2 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.