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.