Posted by: Caitlin | July 30, 2009

The Longest Lunch

I’ve been trying my hardest to make the most of my time in Ghana – cramming in weekend trips, learning Twi, and dissecting the career paths of everyone I meet – but as I crossed the halfway point, I started to get nervous. Despite my best efforts (appreciated by the Ernst & Young cafeteria staff and our regular fruit vendor, I’m sure), I still haven’t managed to eat myself sick of the food here. I dream of grilled plantains and groundnut soup, and I actually got the shakes last night when I realized I’d eaten all the mangoes, leaving us with only a pineapple and three papayas.

Since I don’t think there are methadone clinics for plantain addicts, however, and since I can’t do much to reproduce the mangoes without a degree in genetic engineering, I decided it was time to learn how to make some of the more replicable Ghanaian staples on my own. After all, if you give a girl a lump of fufu she’ll eat for a day. Teach her how to pound it and…well, okay. She’ll probably never make it again. The six-hour cooking class Kel and I took convinced me that some things are better left to professionals (like the 10 year old girl who took over fpr us when we got tired).

We signed up for the class through Global Mamas, so it was a little surprising when we were met at the shop by our young, decidedly-not-a-Mama instructor Matthew. It turns out his big sister, who usually runs the show, was out sick. Matthew led us to their restaurant where we’d be cooking and showed us a table laden with all kinds of goodies – yam, cassava, peanut butter, eggplant, and of course the ubiquitous palm oil. We were given freshly starched aprons and a big bowl of salt water, which (Laura, stop reading now) Matthew assured us would be totally sufficient to disinfect both the food and ourselves. His science seemed dubious, but Kel and I resolved to Wikipedia it when we got home and hope for the best.

Our first course was red-red. Red-red is beans fried in palm oil accompanied by plantains fried in palm oil, and it will knock. you. out. Its deliciousness is a Trojan horse within which lurks a gallon of palm oil, just waiting to put you in the food coma to end all food comas. As long as you don’t plan to be useful/mobile for the rest of the day, it’s totally worth it.

Fig. 1

Fig. 1

Appetites sufficiently whet (it had, by now, been 6 hours since breakfast), we moved to palava sauce. While red-red makes no bones about its main ingredient, palava sauce tries to gussy up the insane amount of palm oil – Fig. 1 – with the inclusion of greens. This, according to my personal color-coded food pyramid, makes palava sauce a nutritional all-star. (NB: According to this philosophy, St. Patrick’s Day beer and pistachio pudding also pass muster.)

Palava sauce is typically served over boiled yams. I thought I knew yams – Thanksgiving staple topped with marshmallows and brown sugar, right? Well it seems I don’t know African yams. The 2-foot long, 10 pound behemoth Matthew showed us looked like the tuber version of a Rodent of Unusual Size. Putting marshmallows on this would be like tying a frilly bonnet on Mike Tyson. And, as befitting its appearance, this yam was not about to go down quietly. Matthew warned us that we had to peel it thoroughly and wash our hands immediately afterward or else the cantankerous bastard would give us an esophageal rash. So, we dutifully whacked away, dropping pieces as soon as we were done and dunking our hands in salt water.

By this time Kelly and I were both feeling a bit faint. It had been 7 hours since breakfast, the charcoal brazier was going strong, and we had just only narrowly escaped being itched to death by a feral yam. It was at this point that Matthew brought out the African blender – a ridged bowl with a wooden pestle – and instructed Kelly to grind boiled tomatoes, one by one, until the seeds had dissolved into a fine paste. My lower lip began to quiver. Before I could start whimpering in earnest, however, Matthew giggled and pulled an electric blender out from behind his back. This was more like it! A quick blend, a quick boil, and we’d be on our way to lunch-town!

Fig. 2

Fig. 2

Oh no. First, nothing boils quickly on a charcoal brazier, no matter how desperately you fan the coals (Fig. 2). Secondly, I had not anticipated just how many steps were required to prepare fufu (our final dish), nor what a stickler Matthew was for attention to detail. First you have to peel the plantains, just so, and slice them on a diagonal. Then you have to lop off the ends of the cassava, slice a seam in the bark, and wiggle your knife underneath to peel it. Then you have to slice the root in half and, gripping it tightly in one hand, hack out the fibrous core using a very large knife and reckless abandon. Once all that’s done, you still have to boil the plantains and cassava together for about 20 minutes until they soften to mashability. Then, and only then, can you begin the pounding.

The pounding itself isn’t as simple as you might think, either. It’s a two-person process, one sitting on a stool and adding plantain or cassava to the pounding bowl, and one manning the 5-foot pestle. And you can’t just thump away willy-nilly, oh no. First you add the plantains, one piece at a time. When those have been sufficiently smashed, you take out your ball of pulverized plantain and start over with the cassava. Matthew tsk’ed as he watched Kelly and I try to shortcut by pounding two pieces at a time, then kicked us out of the way so he could painstakingly comb through the cassava for bits we hadn’t creamed thoroughly.

I think it was clear to all of us at this point that Kelly and I were not going to be starring in Real Housewives of Ghana anytime soon (or given the amount of actual housewiving the Real Housewives do, maybe we would’ve been a good fit). Matthew brought in the big guns, aka his 70-pounds-soaking-wet niece, to finish the job.

At long last, it was time to eat. Thank goodness hand-scooping and bowl-slurping are standard table manners, because once the fufu hit the table it was game on. I think I squeegeed the last drop of palm oil off my plate about 7 minutes after we started.

7 minutes later...

7 minutes later...

Now, with my blood sugar at a mango-induced high, I can say that the experience was totally worth it. I have a new appreciation for the work that goes into my cafeteria lunches, and although I’ve resigned myself to a fufu-less existence back in Boston, I am now fully capable of producing at least three Ghanaian dishes. So put your arteries on notice. When I get back, I’m going to show them just how delicious artherosclerosis can be.

P.S. I apparently ran out of Flickr space already, so for a more in-depth look at variations on a theme of palm oil see here: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2054114&id=8401116&l=aae4cce6a5

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Posted by: Caitlin | July 20, 2009

Halftime

Take a knee, everyone.

I am officially halfway through my time in Ghana. The nervous precariousness of my first few days here (“What if somebody NOTICES me being not-Ghanaian???”) now seems light-years away, thank god. While still noticeably not-Ghanaian, I am now comfortable enough in my daily routines to feel like Accra is, if only for a short time, my home. So, not at all in the grand tradition of light shows, wardrobe malfunctions, and musical numbers, I thought I would do a halftime show about my daily schedule. Keep in mind, all of this is more exciting because it takes place in AFRICA.

Most mornings, I get up at 6:45 and go to the gym (“But Caitlin,” you say, “Don’t you do that at home?” Yes. But now I’m doing it in AFRICA). I run for the length of one Coffee Break French podcast (the only Anglophone country in Francophone West Africa, I have decided, is the best place to pick up French), wheezing “Je suis”s all the while, and spend another 20 minutes skittering around the weight machines, trying to avoid Foster the personal trainer’s earnest attempts to get me to bench press.

From the gym, I take a taxi to work – actually, I take taxis pretty much everywhere. The morning taxi drivers are usually a little less inclined to conversation, but I understand – they are, after all, quite busy finding new and wildly inventive ways to arrive at my destination. I’ve finally gotten enough of a sense of the landmarks that I could start to direct them, but then I’d miss my morning tour of greater Accra.

I work at Ernst & Young, an accounting firm (one of the partners is part of my organization). At some point during the day Dorothy, secretary to the partner I work with and my assigned babysitter, checks in on me. Dorothy is the best. She’s no-nonsense, always perfectly-accessorized, and patiently answers all of my questions about where to find the coffee machine (!), the cafeteria, and the on-switch to my air conditioner. There’s also a round-the-clock security detail, led by the absolutely delightful Uncle Ken (I think that’s how he was introduced to me, and if it’s wrong, I don’t want to be right). He holds onto the key to my office, which you, knowing me as you do, would probably agree is for the best.

About that office. It’s huge. I suspected I had it quite a bit better than most everybody else at the firm, who sit about six to a room, but I didn’t realize HOW much better until I opened a desk drawer and found leftover business cards for the Executive Director. I keep expecting a mob of resentful accountants to show up at my door demanding use of at least two of my extra chairs, but so far everyone’s been really nice about the unpaid intern occupying the best office in the building.

Another one of the bennies of working in a for-profit is the cafeteria. Every day, a crew of ladies shows up with trays of fish and chicken, pots of plantains or beans or sauce or fufu or noodles, and always always always an enormous Crockpot of rice. Two cedi, or $1.35, will buy you a cat-sized mound of rice with another carb of your choice, plus sauce and protein. It’s delicious, and a great way for me to get my daily banku without going to street vendors (since banku in a normal state tastes like something that’s gone off, trying to figure out what will ACTUALLY give me food poisoning is a little tricky).

My cab rides home are the absolute best part of my day. There’s a group of cabs that hang out by Ernst & Young, and ever since one guy got a tongue-lashing from a Ghanaian colleague for overcharging me they’ve given me a fair price. Plus, we have the most interesting conversations. Cab drivers will rail about politics (if the fuel price has gone up recently); tell me about their families and aspirations; give me lectures on the moral dissoluteness of dating; and explain what the women who walk through lines of traffic are selling out of the bowls on their heads. One even bought me a pack of gum after I complimented his stereo.

Most days I stop at the grocery store on my way home. Grocery shopping has always been my favorite soothing ritual, and the ever-shifting stock and prices (one day there’s $15 cauliflower! the next there’s nothing but mushrooms!) makes the Koala Supermarket endlessly interesting. The guard at the door, Rudolph, keeps trying to teach me Twi but so far I’m stuck at “ey-yey” (“I’m fine”) and the universal language of I-don’t-know-what-you-just-said giggles. We get along marvelously.

I arrive home around 6, say hi to Charles the compound guard, and spend the rest of the evening with Kelly eating between 2 and 4 mangoes and pondering my mysterious new rashes. That is, my exciting, exotic new equatorial rashes. And there you have it! Lifestyles of the Itchy and Not-Famous. While I’ll continue updating with my exciting weekend adventures (stay tuned for the Longest Lunch, a tale of our 6-hour lesson in fufu preparation), now you know what I do between tro-tro rides and Obama sightings. And, to be honest, feeling that comfortable and at home in the in-between is at least as exciting to me as the adventures. After all, it is in AFRICA.

These Are the People in My Neighborhood

Posted by: Caitlin | July 13, 2009

Barack, Barack…Barack Obama

So the past few weeks have been pretty crazy, huh? Celebrities are dropping like flies, US politicians seem to be engaged a contest to see who can bring the most disgrace to public office, and riots are breaking out worldwide. Since most of the big stuff is coming out of the US (from SUVs to overweight Mississippians, big stuff does tend to be our main export), it’s been interesting and a little disorienting to see things unfold from the outside, with the rest of the world.

Gauging man-on-the-street reaction to recent events has not only given me a nifty way to divert conversations about my marital status or willingness to accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior, it’s been a reality check on what actually carries across the Atlantic (sorry Sarah Palin, Ghana could care less). For instance, according to my informal sampling of taxi drivers, the issues that matter most to Ghanaians right now are (in order of importance):

  1. The recent fuel shortage in Accra
  2. Michael Jackson’s death 
  3. Obama’s visit

Just passing one of gas stations with two-hour lines was enough to set a cab driver off on an apoplectic rant. Michael Jackson didn’t start conversations unprovoked, but there were strong opinions that plastic surgery – and possibly science in general – was where it all went wrong, and on Tuesday I ended up watched the memorial service at a restaurant filled with tearful Ghanaians singing “We Are the World”.

Obama, surprisingly, was not a hot topic (at least until Saturday). My only other significant time abroad was spent in a Muslim country while Bush was at his Bushiest, so I was thrilled to finally have a president people liked. I tried to strike up a conversation about Obama in every cab ride, but the all I got was a weary “Uh huh, you like Obama. HAVE YOU SEEN THE QUEUE AT THE PETROL STATION?!”

Obama fever built steadily over the course of last week, however, and by Saturday the entire city was oozing hope and change. This song was playing on every radio station, and DJs were giving flowery speeches in honor of “Barack Hussein Obama…chosen by God to lead the American people…visiting our land of gold and oil.” This was the perfect time for Kelly and I to deploy our secret curry-favor-with-Obama-and-the-nation strategy.

Operation Pay Attention to Us

Operation Pay Attention to Us

The crowd, still 2 hours pre-Obama

The crowd, still 2 hours pre-Obama

Saturday morning we were up at 7:30 and ready to Ba-stalk Obama. We’d heard he’d be visiting a local maternal health clinic, so we headed down and settled in to wait for the next four hours. It was sort of like the inauguration, what with the riot police, lack of personal space, and general air of exuberance, but Ghana’s balmy temps and easy access to snacks gave it an edge.

Waiting on the edge of our sewers

Waiting on the edge of our sewers

We passed the time by making friends with our neighbors, taking pictures of cars driven by white men with crew cuts (“He could be in ANY ONE OF THEM”) and trying to avoid a sure death by sepsis from falling into the 6-foot-deep gutter separating us from the road. Finally, after at least seven false alarms, we saw the motorcade approach…and then disappear down the street the clinic was on.

 

 Undeterred by the brevity of our glimpse, we hung out for another 20 minutes while the Obamas made friends with the mamas. Finally the motorcade started up again, took a U-turn around the median, AND…passed directly in front of us! I SAW HIS FACE. Kelly saw his face give us and our dresses the skeptical side-eye, but I’ll take any kind of recognition. It was EXHILARATING.

Rugby doesn't stand a chance against this kind of enthusiasm

Rugby doesn't stand a chance against this kind of enthusiasm

We ran to the nearest fancy hotel and fought some rugby-enthusiasts for possession of the big-screen lounge TV. I know my Obama-worship is pretty shameless, but watching his speech, I was just so proud to have him be our voice in the world. It was pretty powerful to watch our African-American president speak to Africans about the need to acknowledge the pain and injustice of past (and present) wrongs without getting mired in them. Plus, nothing gets a soon-to-be-MBA all hot and bothered like talk of good governance (nothing, that is, except perhaps the sunburn I got while waiting for him to show up).

Walking home, it seemed like everyone else was genuinely happy for us too. Normally, going down the mile-long stretch of road back to Kelly’s house is like running a gauntlet of aggressive bracelet and bag salesmanship. Saturday afternoon, it was a love-fest. “Obama!!! HEEEEEY Obama!” “Nice dress!” “Obama! America! Yes!”

I felt pretty “America! Yes!” myself. Our congressmen may go AWOL to Argentina, we may have lost Billy Mays to that great infomercial in the sky, but we have a president who can make us, and the rest of the world, proud.

Posted by: Caitlin | June 29, 2009

The Kindess of Strangers

Oh wow, you guys. I decided to do a little SparksNotes research into A Streetcar Named Desire before titling this post, and boy, was I ever not paying attention that week in 11th grade English. That play is DARK. Rest assured, I have not been engaging in illicit affairs to escape my guilt over my gay ex-husband’s suicide, and Kelly is not to my knowledge shacking up with any violence-prone Poles. I just have – without any dramatic irony – relied an awful lot on the kindness of strangers this weekend.

You see, Saturday was my first time venturing outside of Accra. Before I left Boston, the president of Pathfinder had asked me if I’d mind bringing a gift to his son’s Peace Corps host family in a village an hour or so east of Accra. In theory, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to go somewhere unfrequented by tourists and hang with a family for a few hours. In practice, I was utterly terrified of having to take a tro tro to get there.

Tro tro is a catchall term for a vehicle falling somewhere in size between a taxi and a bus, and the main means of transportation outside the city. Within Accra, they rattle along on (to me) mysterious routes, packed to the gills, with a mate hanging out the door yelling a shorthand destination. “Accra”, for instance, means the main Tema tro tro station. Something that sounded like “Osspapaqua” apparently means Osu (where I live), Papaye (the landmark fried chicken place down the street) and Danquah (a major traffic circle nearby). On the plus side, tro tros are insanely cheap compared to the taxis. On the minus side they are, according my guidebook, far more likely to kill you than malaria or an exotic intestinal worm.

Astute observation on the business end of a tro tro

Astute observation on the business end of a tro tro

I was determined not to let the threat of fiery death or ending up in Togo by mistake dissuade me, however, so off I went. ADVENTURE! I stood at the nearest stop and watched three tro tros zip by without pause. As loyal rider of the 57 bus, I’m used to this, but I was beginning to worry that maybe you had to do something in particular to flag one down. I asked the woman waiting next to me. She told me she was going to Tema Station too and led me onto the next tro tro, pointing out where to sit and letting me know when to pay the fare. I settled comfortably onto my neighbor’s lap and 10 minutes later, arrived in the chaotic parking lot that is Tema Station.

Tema Station

Tema Station

With one ride under my belt, I felt a little more at ease. As I weaved my way through women selling everything from toothpaste to baked beans from buckets on their heads, at least 4 different drivers helped me figure out where the tro tro to my next stop, Ashaiman, was parked. This trip was by comparison a luxury cruise. My elbows had all the room that elbows could want, and my seat buddy, despite evident disappointment that I would not come peruse his flip flop inventory in Ashaiman, took it upon himself to guide me to my third tro tro of the day.

It was Tro Tro #3 that introduced me to the sort of gear-grinding terror that inspired my guidebook’s dire warnings. After ensuring that every seat was filled, the driver reached in, wrenched the driver’s seat from the floor, and lifted out something that looked suspiciously like the transmission. Having done this, he hopped back in and with a great and terrible crunching, we lurched toward the road. And then stopped and lurched back. Apparently, even for tro tro drivers, there are limits to the conditions of disrepair they will operate under. We loaded into the next one going to Ningo, where another friendly passenger showed me the shared taxi that would take me, finally, to my destination.

I know I said in the first post that only the main roads in Accra were paved. This turns out to have been a total falsehood (blame the jet-lag, but it seems the roads I thought were dirt were in fact just dirty). The road to Tsopoli, this was an unpaved road. We maintained a steady 5 mile an hour pace, distributing our time equally between the right and left sides of the road depending on pothole location. At last, we arrived at the junction where I was to ask the nearest person for Pastor Agbodeka, Daniel’s host father.

Pastor A with his progeny

The sons (and daughter) of a preacher man

Luckily, the nearest person was his daughter. She took me to their compound a few hundred yards off the road, and gave me some water while we waited for the Pastor to arrive. Although I’m not sure he immediately understood what this obruni was doing hanging out in his courtyard, he was warmly welcoming and immediately launched into a prayer of thanks for my arrival. I gave him his gift, he gave me some biscuits and Malta, and we looked through a photo album containing various permutations of his 11 children and multiple grands (plus photos Daniel had sent him of his family).

When it was time to go he prayed again and took me up to the road, his wife hugging me and grinning the whole way. They bought me a bunch of bananas and two watermelons for the trip back, and hailed me a tro tro going straight to Accra (who knew? apparently 3 legs of my journey there were unnecessary). Sunday morning I got a wakeup call from the Pastor, who just wanted to give me one more good God bless (he thankfully did not ask why I wasn’t in church).

Although we did pass a tipped over tro tro on the side of the road back to Accra (everyone seemed to be fine, if a bit jostled), and although I do think the religious exhortations most of them have stickered to their rear windows are probably good insurance, I have to say that tro tros no longer intimidate me. They are filled (very, very filled) with some of the kindest strangers whose laps I have ever had the pleasure of sitting on.

Posted by: Caitlin | June 25, 2009

Fufu-l’s Gold

Starting something new always makes me feel like I’m back in middle school. For a week or so I wander around in a state of perpetual mortification, stammering and lurking awkwardly around the edges of conversations. Then something happens, maybe I find my way home on my own or successfully convince a cab driver that my refusal to pay double the going rate will not mean his financial ruin, and it’s like a switch flips and I remember that I am (sort of) a grown-up capable of navigating my way through the world.

To my immense relief, my Ghana switch flipped a few days ago. Now that I’m not spending my hours worrying obsessively about walking, talking, or breathing the wrong way, I have time for much more interesting pursuits. For instance, seeing just how much fufu is TOO much fufu. Yes, you should know me well enough by now to know that after avoiding death by embarrassment, food is my biggest priority. And lucky me, Ghanaian food is right up my alley!

 

Not even close to too much fufu
Not even close to too much fufu
 

The three main starches – fufu, banku, and kenkey – range in consistency from the slime they used on Double Dare to Play-Dough. They are therefore perfect for someone who, like me, doesn’t like to do more chewing than is strictly necessary. They’re served with some sort of spicy sauce and used to scoop up whatever meat or fish comes with. I haven’t quite mastered the scoop n’ slurp, but I am nurturing my talent for carcass cleaning (thanks for the years of training, Dad).

So the food is delicious, and my stomach is adapting just fine – with one exception. EVERYTHING is absolutely sopping with palm oil, and my system just does not know how to deal. You guys know, I’m no lightweight when it comes to fat content. I ate buttercream frosting morning noon and night for DAYS before coming here. But there is something about palm oil that just takes me out at the knees (possibly the constricted blood flow as my arteries give up). Still, as it’s unavoidable, I’ll just stick to hoping that it gives me a shiny coat and lubricates the joints. And maybe have a little more fufu, just to balance it out.

Posted by: Caitlin | June 15, 2009

It’s Ghana Be Great!

Hi dear ones,

The idea of blogging makes me feel both very modern and very silly, like a hoverboard with a dust ruffle. I doubt I’ll be able to enlighten anyone on Ghanaian anything in two months, but then again, I think what you mostly want to know is whether I’ve been bitten by a malarial mosquito (no) or eaten anything with the eyeballs still in (not yet). If you really want tips on traveling in Ghana you can talk to Kelly, who has the entire Ghanaian taxi fleet – comprising approximately 95% of road traffic – quaking in their boots.

Kelly's house

Home sweet home

I flew out here a week ago, along with about 30 Texan missionaries in matching Christ t-shirts. I may have divine favor on behalf of the Corpus Christians to thank for the lack of turbulence, but once we arrived in Accra and were thrown into the melee of airport taxi drivers, I was glad it was Kelly on my side. For those of you who don’t know, Kelly is a friend from Vassar who’s been living in Accra for a year, and the reason I’m here. She set me up with this internship, offered me her couch, and has helped me find food, a phone, and my way around. Although Ghana is (according to my travel guide) Africa for beginners, I’m still endlessly grateful for a friend who’s at least an intermediate to show me the way.

It’s different here. I suppose that is the central tenet of a travel blog. I went to Rabat my junior year expecting dirt roads and one-story buildings, and found traffic lights and concrete high-rises. Accra so far is a little more like what I expected Rabat to be. Only the main roads are paved, herds of cattle do pop up in intersections now and again, and there’s no real city water system (Kelly calls to have the tank in the back refilled whenever it gets low). What IS familiar is the labyrinthine tangle of roads and roundabouts, populated by drivers with an evident disdain for pedestrian traffic. All it takes is being nearly flattened by an enthusiastically fare-seeking cab driver to make me feel at home.

It also helped that it’s true what everyone says – Ghanaians are incredibly friendly. You say hello to everyone you see, ask about their day, family, goiter, whatever might be of concern. I’ve tried my best to break from the tradition of notoriously reticent New Englanders, but I’m beginning to think perhaps with a little too much gusto. As it turns out, even for the friendliest of folks there is a limit to the number of times you can ask how a person is in a conversation before it becomes awkward. Over the past week, I’ve begun and ended every conversation with a query about the other person’s well-being, with a few slipped in the middle for good measure. On the plus side, I can tell you with some certainty that everyone in Accra is doing well and has had a very nice weekend.

My office!

My office!

As for work, the people are very kind, and have so far good-naturedly tolerated my over-greeting. I have a very large, very air-conditioned office,  a cafeteria that serves fish stew and banku (my new favorite food) and a chance to do work I love. So while you can expect an update when I do get malaria, eat eyeballs, or manage to embarrass myself in front of a crowd (I’d place bets on number 3), I really do think this is Ghana be great!

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