Friday, August 22, 2014, for the first time I held a yam in my hands, a two and a half foot long root, six inches in diameter at the top, brown with clinging of bits of our mother earth from which it was pulled, hefty in the hand. I washed it like a baby, this thing utterly new to me, this foundation of the dinner Monica arranged for our Fulbright neighbors and one of their University of Ghana colleagues. I pealed it, sliced it into one inch discs, and subdivided the disks into two inch planks. They boil up like the potatoes this former Idahoan knows (“famous potatoes” used to be and maybe still is the license plate slogan), and I imagined that one could mash them and put salt, pepper, butter, and sour cream on them, and I could pass them off as Idaho’s finest. The yam, in addition to cooking like a Russet, is a similar shape, though slightly narrower at the top, to another root crop of my youth in Idaho, the sugar beet. I suppose we humans usually look for the familiar in the novel–my mind certainly does so; we learn by expanding from what we know punctuated with an occasional eureka moment–with the proviso that I am trying a different culture’s cuisine on in my kitchen, the only way I know to learn it. I think of the many millions of times persons have eaten this staple in western Africa, roasted, boiled, fried, pounded. I now partake of that stream of humanity with this humble root. We are one in this practice. Lovingly holding this root, like a child, is part of how Africa is holding my family, how Africa is the first home of humanity. Africa is our mother, and this root is drawn directly from her to nurture us. Eating it is only part (and I think much less than half) of the learning. More is here: Holding each piece, smelling each part, tasting the unusual elements, imagining it as one cleans, cuts, sautés, salts, cries over onions, blanches, peels, crushes, fills the air with steam. Boiled yam is served as the foundation for Palava, an onion, palm oil, tomato, pepper, egushi (ground squash seeds), and greens dish, with meats and sea foods added, today some beef chunks, shrimp, and fish fillets dredged in ground millet and sautéed before being added to the sauce. The tomatoes needed to be blanched, peeled, chopped, and mashed; and the onions (eight of them) finely chopped. My recipe does not identify the language, but says that “palava” means business or trouble. So this is also then “Trouble Sauce.” I thought of that book of wonders, Like Water for Chocolate, as the tears troubled out of me from chopping onions mixed with the food. There was no garlic, I repeat, no garlic, in this dish (This is new!). This was a five hour preparation time meal for five adults and two children (next time I can do it in three). No one died. Our eight year old Ghanaian guest, when I brought him into the kitchen to taste test the meal, said it is good, not great, but good. I am a little bit African today. Saturday, Monica took Hannah to play with Adwoa and Mansa. Their aunt, Charlotte, and uncle, Augustine, got to meet Monica. Suddenly our social capital is deepening. Charlotte is the one who gave me the egushi which I did not find when shopping, while she and I were talking cooking (She made my mouth water.). In the midst of that conversation she did a quick check for my veracity after I answered in the affirmative that we had eaten banku: She asked, “Hannah, how do you eat banku?” And Hannah answered nonchalantly, appropriately holding up her right (not left!) hand, “With your fingers.” We have had quite a few conversations with Hannah about the etiquette of left and right hand usage in Ghana: The right is for food, greeting, pointing, and the left is for attending to, well, private matters. Banku is made from corn meal and is similar to polenta. It is eaten usually with an okra stew, sometimes a gravy, to make the banku slide down your throat easily. Monica brought some of my leftover Palava to Charlotte at her request, and it was judged good. Charlotte teaches mathematics at a nearby primary school and Augustine is a French professor at the university here. Charlotte has offered to take Monica shopping in the market so she can get a good sun hat without paying the extra charged white folks, the Brunie tax. A young woman who lives with the family is likely to become our seamstress: Monica is already dreaming up the African dresses that I will see her and Hannah in soon enough. Sunday morning Monica and Hannah played with her figurines, slowly pretending to wash their hair. After breakfast we took a walk, Monica and Hannah engaging in an impromptu scavenger hunt of flowers, sticks, and rocks. We heard some water running: Monica and I look at each other longingly. We have no water. We think about it, however, a lot. Having no tap water is one way to focus the mind. Our rooftop tanks emptied out at the end of dinner Friday night. So we were able to host the dinner well, even as we created a pile of dirty dishes and our bodies both awaiting more generous water. We have bottled drinking water and a couple of small barrels of tap water just for this moment, but we do not know how long we need to make them last, so we are slowly using our cache. Once last year, we are told, there was a five day period without water. Charlotte said that we could get some water from them if need be. Apparently their abode has a larger water tank for when the municipal water shuts off. We will eat leftovers and wash only one place setting for each of us to use. And we will go to restaurants. And take brief sponge baths. Monica left Hannah at her friends’, the Asaah’s, house. We have other adults now who we trust to keep her safe. This is a huge deal. Monica can lie down at the same time I do. The parenting “ON” button can be momentarily unpushed; how strangely refreshing. I am now committed to cooking for or with Charlotte and her family.
Adwoa (8) and Mansa (6) Sakyi (pronounced say-chee) have become Hannah’s first African BFFs, having played with them every day for the last four days. Adwoa and Mansa are staying with their aunt and uncle nearby, and will be leaving about September 9 to go back home to school in Winneba, about 60 kilometers to the west of Accra on the coast of Ghana. Adwoa tells me her father was born in the Brong Ahafo Region in the city of Techiman, and her mother was born in the Western Region in the city of Wassa Nkran. The aunt and uncle live about a block from us and have a small store selling reusable bags, candy and a few other items. The store is staffed by family youth; they clearly have other income. The girls run and scream and practice giving birth to Hannah’s dolls among many other games. They are the very definition of strength and beauty running together in the grass and wild flowers with huge crows flying around them. The crows like their American kin are black but have a white middle from the neck to mid belly, all around them, quite formal looking. The crows run from the girls (they know their power). I knew yesterday that this was going well when Adwoa, after we’d dropped her and Mansa off at their house, ran back to us 50 yards to make sure Hannah could play again tomorrow.
Tonight Monica is being entertained by a colleague. She will pour her mind and love over and through her, and each will be changed forever. Hannah and I will play, eat, read books, and hit the sack. Then I read more. I am finally getting some of my books read: David Graeber, Leymah Gbowee, Staughton Lynd, Thomas Piketty, and John Steinbeck. I am loving Graeber’s praise and critique of Quakers (in The Democracy Project): Great horizontal decision making process; too bourgeois. The praise and critique are glibly stated and without nuance, but true enough to be useful. He also mentions one of my Quaker mentors in pedagogy, sociology, and activism, George Lakey. (He is worth many reads and protesting with.)
Monday, August 18, 2014
My alarm goes off at 5:30 am because our driver will be here in an hour. Time to grind the coffee beans. Oh, and, as promised, I will cook the corn given to us by Becky’s mother, an 82 year old Ga speaking (no English) woman of graceful and generous spirit. She lives in a compound behind the Eternity Congregation Presbyterian Church, a place set up by German Presbyterian missionaries in 1868. The shelters are small, and don’t need to be large: the cooking and socializing are done in the courtyard with cats and chickens, banana and mango trees shading us. Children run between and into different courtyards in this community. Community. That is clearly in abundance here. People care for each other. There is not much money or financial equity here, but these persons are socially wealthy. It is not that money is not needed, it is. Each family has one or more persons with jobs in the capitalist system, and they arrange for much that must be bought with money, but that money is so much less than anything most of us could imagine in the USA. When Monica asks if we can take Becky’s mother’s picture, the answer is yes and she puts on gorgeous fabric on her body and head. Her name we are told is not pronounceable for most English speakers, but stunning beauty should be a part of her name. After we took pictures of her with many combinations of our and her family and bought some of the vegetables from her stock that she sells, she gave us the gift of sea salt and ground corn for porridge or banku. This morning our family eats the porridge.
Rosie and Rosette seemed tired yet alert. It was warm but not hot in Legon, and there were insects here and there. A snack could not be far off, though I’ve never observed them actually eat. Our house geckos are so cute. I’ve always wanted house lizards, and now I finally have them–no cages, no space, time, and money consuming terraria. They eat bugs and look cool. So when Monica wakes at 3:00 am, walks to the bathroom, and nearly steps a four inch long and a third of an inch wide millipede, well, let’s just say that they don’t seem as cool, even though they probably eat bugs too. (Monica gently scoops up the multi-legged cohabitant and safely evicts it.)
The coffee, porridge, and paw paw is prepared. We eat and then our main taxi driver, brother Oppong, a friend of one of Monica’s colleagues, arrives at 6:30 am to take Hannah and me to her first day of school: The German Swiss International School (GSIS). Monica will go to the office as Hannah goes to school. So, consider that Monica is fluent in German, her parents separately having immigrated from Germany after World War Two, met in Chicago, and had one child with whom they spoke only German. Monica’s first language is German. It strikes me as odd and yet consistent with the many strange social configurations in my life that our family went to Western Africa in part so Hannah could go to a school where she’d learn German. And she will, and Monica’s extended family in the US, Germany, and Hungary will be delighted. Hannah gets both part of her biological heritage and her adopted heritage enhanced in Africa.
GSIS has a party to start the first day of school. The staff is multihued and international. Several staff musicians performed including “Oh Happy Day” in a hair raising African American gospel style that had us all swaying and clapping, and a contemporary style song written by a twenty something German teacher that had sweet lyrics. We were amazed at this talent.
Hannah seemed at ease here in Kindergarten. There were plenty of children who were weeping at the idea of or the actuality of usually Mom or, sometimes Dad, leaving. The parents of these children were often actually, or appearing to want to be, weeping too. I feel for them; we crossed that bridge many times in the last two years at The Montessori Center in South Bend, Indiana, but not today. Hannah was happy playing on the playground and finding friends. She has been used to full day school for the last two years, so wanted to stay when it was time to go. It went well. When I asked if she learned any German today, she said, “Nein.” Right.