My funds are drying up. My school work is piling up.
It’s not a good idea to go on a weekend excursion to two beaches I have already been to. This is what I tell Sam, Chris and Poppy all week.
Then, the boyfriend of the girl I have been with for a few months comes to visit her. When he shows up, he tells her that he knows about her and me. We talk like adults. He wants to hit me but decides not to. He tells me he had to come see her even though he knew. This is his last stand. I contemplate my role in a collapsing relationship and the prospect of losing what I had with her.
It’s beach time after all.
We four arrive in Busua without any complication (see prior post for nightmare story). I know from the get-go that this is going to be an enjoyable trip, not least because I am traveling with wonderful people.
Showing up to Busua on a Friday is markedly different than the weekday atmosphere I experienced here a couple of months ago. The main street is bustling in that small fishing village kind of way. Laughter rings out from the beach and the sea salt clings to the steady reggae beat in the air.
We stop by Frank’s Kitchen for a bite to eat. A small boy watches us curiously as we turn into the patio. He lets the plastic chair he was leaning back on clamber down, stands up and straightens out his pockets. Barely visible through a snowstorm on an old TV is a Nollywood movie, complete with screams and fiery explosions. He directs us to some tables and hands us menus. We order and watch as he runs back and forth across the street to gather up the necessary ingredients. Not five feet away he cooks us our meals. He can’t be older than ten years.
The cat to my right can’t be bothered.
With our bellies full we take a stroll down the beach. One fishing boat is already ashore, its red, yellow and green flag of Ghana waving valiantly to the open blue sky. While snapping a picture of my friends, another returning boat battles through the surf.
That night, we procure some akpeteshi (palm moonshine), sit beach side, play cards and talk life. The steady crash of waves soon culls me into slumber.
Saturday the sun is out and Busua is swarming with life. Just a ways down from our hotel is a volunteer run orphanage and after school program. The children line the water front porch, kicking around footballs, playing volleyball and tussling around in the sand. We join in of course.
Two women walk by with plastic containers on their head. One has bread and margarine. The other, ripe avocados. A dollar later I have a foot long sandwich.
At this point I am already surprised how different an experience I can have somewhere I have already been. Considering how much of Ghana there is still left to see I would have never guessed that a trip back to this tiny beach had so much more to offer.
Like surfing for my first time!
We forgo the lessons, rent boards, and bob in the salty green water waiting for the right waves. A couple of hours and a few successful rides on the slow rolling waves later I find myself preferring the good old body surf. I float and take in the pulse of the ocean.
Back on sand I make one of many beach dog friends.
Yet, somehow I find the strength to help pull in today’s catch with the village.
This little guy is clearly doing most of the work.
As the sun starts to set on our second day I sit and watch as Chris gives Sam a haircut . My cellphone rests on the table before me, as well as a school article on development I haven’t yet opened. Wishful thinking.
Despite the tranquility around me, I cannot exorcise the anxiousness from within. My phone lights up. Another message from her.
The waves work their magic over me again that night. When my eyes open next I feel a coolness in the air and notice a shy pastel pink hue behind the hut’s shudders.
Alone in the first light of day I stare out in wonder, still very much lost within.
This is my own recipe for a delicious Ghanaian style okro stew. Most of the authentic ingredients can be found at a nearby African Market (a quick google search might find one).
If you are a vegetarian, leave out the chicken and substitute vegetable bullion cubes. If you cannot find Fufu mix at a nearby African Market, just enjoy the stew as is!
2 breasts Boneless Chicken
1 lb Okro
4 small Red Onion
1-2 Garden Egg (or small eggplant)
1 bunch Kontomeri (or spinach)
Pinch Kanwe (or sea salt)
1 small Spicy Pepper
½ cup Palm Oil
2 cups Water
1 tbsp Salt
1 tbsp Garlic Powder
2 cube Maggi (or chicken bouillon cube)
1 cup Fufu mix
When you go chop in Ghana, you go eat.
Ghanaian food is without a doubt the spiciest and most satisfying diet I have ever maintained. Farm fresh vegetables and tropical fruit abound- but it is the spicy, greasy, carb and protein heavy meals that I quickly began to crave throughout my day. This is a quick guide to the world of flavors awaiting you in Ghana.
This is where you can buy all the vegetables, meats, and other ingredients necessary to cook, as well as fruits and snacks. Prices are usually set, but deals can be struck.
Typical Veggies: Onions, carrots, tomatoes, garden eggs (small eggplants), cassava, plantain, yam, cabbage, peppers, okro, kontumeri (palm leaves), cucumbers
Typical Fruits: Oranges, bananas, watermelon, mango, pineapple, apples, pears, advocado, papaya
Typical Meats: Chicken, beef, fresh and saltwater fish, goat, shrimp, crab, snail and various bushmeat (any animal caught in the wild such as large groundhog creatures called grasscutters, small deer, and even monkeys)
If you are not one to cook, then the market is also where you would go to order prepared food. Each vendor sells a particular or variety of dishes and you order by specific price. For example, you can order $1 of white rice with 50 cents of salad, 1 hard boiled egg and sauce. The stands usually have catchy (and often religious) signs to indicate what they sell.
How to Eat
There are two ways to eat in Ghana: either by yourself or sharing a communal bowl with friends. If you are eating in front of others it is customary and polite to say “you are invited” or “join me brother/sister”.
Most food is eaten with the right hand, particularly soups and stews. There are bowls, pitchers of water, and sanitary soap everywhere so that you can wash before and after eating. When you are eating and someone greets you, you offer them your wrist to shake.
If you are on the go food will be combined into a plastic bag. You can either eat out of the bag or bring it home and put it into a bowl. Generally speaking, you get used to eating and drinking things out of bags in Ghana. Water, food, ice cream, and even alcohol comes in bags!
Eating with friends.
Don’t rub your eyes after this.
Sachets of pure water. Tear the corner off with your teeth and squeeze to drink.
Mostly boiled or fried eggs, sausage (chicken hotdogs) and porridge (mixed with ginger and sugar). My go-to was a laughing cow cheese and fried egg with vegetable sandwich or fried dough balls with ginger porridge.
Sausage = hotdog
Eggs always extra fried.
Maria and her laughing cow cheese sandwich special.
Fufu are large dumplings made from pounded cassava and plantain. This is hands down my favorite dish when eaten with okro stew and tuna. (Recipe in future post). Fufu is not typically eaten with okro stew by Ghanaians and I more often than not was looked at weird when ordering it or outright told that I could not order them together. For the life of me, I never figured out why. Spicy, slimy, greasy, and delicious.
Banku are boiled balls of fermented cassava and corn. More bitter, sticky, and denser than fufu and not only eaten with soups or stews but also with fish and pepper sauce.
The proper way to eat it. Use your pointer and middle fingers in a scissor movement to pinch off a bite. Then, using the fingers roll the banku into a firm piece. Using the thumb press a curved indent into the piece. Dunk into soup/stew and scoop up liquid into mouth.
Banku and groundnut (peanut) soup
Banku and okro stew with fried chicken
Banku and light soup with fried fish
Banku and grilled tilapia with pepper sauce
Banku and light soup with guinea fowl
Kenkey are steamed balls of fermented corn, wrapped in banana leaves. Even more bitter than banku, these can come either outside temperature or boiled hot. They are often eaten with fish or sauce.
Fried plantains and spicy bean sauce. Everyone has their own little spin on this dish and different understanding of how much spice the human tongue can withstand.
Tuo Zaafi (TZ)
A maize dish originating from northern Ghana (and best eaten there). It is not bitter and has a light, fluffy texture. It goes extremely well with okro stew and guinea fowl.
TZ with okro stew and goat meat
Boiled, fried into chips, or pounded and shaped into fried balls. Eaten alone or with a spicy sauce.
There is plenty of fried, smoked, dried, and grilled fish to eat in Ghana. Grilled tilapia is usually a treat. I never got around to eating the entire head, which for many, is considered the best part.
There are several different types of prepared rice common throughout Ghana. When at a vendor you usually order a base rice and then build the rest of your plate from there (salad, meat, sauce, etc).
Jollaf, a spicy red pepper rice with salad, fried plantain, boiled egg and sauce.
Waakye (wah-chay), beans with a reddish brown rice, fried plantain and sauce.
White rice, red sauce, and tuna.
Fried rice and vegetables.
And occasionally, some couscous.
Once in awhile you come across chips (french fries) and some delicious meat and vegetable sauce.
And don’t forget the fresh fruits.
There are lot of things to snack on between these massive meals. Some of my favorites are: plantain chips, groundnuts, multitudes of crackers and biscuits (many from the middle east and asia), popcorn, chocolate, fanice (vanilla ice cream), kelewele (spicy plantain), grilled corn, meat or jam pies, egg rolls, gizzard kebabs, and dough balls. Many of these can be bought through vehicle windows from hawkers in stopped traffic.
This is by no means a comprehensive list of all Ghanaian cuisine. Local dishes enjoy a large degree of variation in ingredients and preparation methods and I can only imagine the amazing lesser known dishes I have yet to taste.
If you ever meet a Ghanaian who can cook or if you feel up to the challenge yourself, make sure you chop some of this exquisite food.
It is August 2009 and I am buzzing from an unprecedented summer of fun living off-campus in Burlington, Vermont. The elation of the new semester rushes over me; I am an upperclassmen and the introductory classes are finally over. More than that, I am counting down the days to my spring semester study abroad in Africa. “Eager” is an understatement.
It is at this time, caught between where I am and where I am going, that I become a “UVM Buddy” to an incoming international student. As life has it, becoming the buddy of Francis Ayombil is the start of a friendship that will span four years, two continents, four expected degrees, and all of the rewards of immersing yourself in a culture outside your own.
The email form the Office of International Education is simple enough: “Are you interested in picking up an international student from the airport, bringing them to their dorm, and if possible, helping them to adjust to life at UVM?” Once accepted I am thrilled that my buddy Francis is from the country where I am soon to study- Ghana. He is completing his Masters in Biochemistry at UVM through the International Student Exchange Program.
In the weeks before his arrival I answer his most pressing questions via Facebook Chat, almost exclusively concerning the topic of winter. When I ask him if he has ever seen snow his response is humbling: “Only in the freezer”. I assure him that the real thing is better.
At Burlington Airport Francis tosses his suitcase into my car and a handshake later we verify our friendship. After settling into his dorm he spends his first night in the United States drinking a Steel Reserve beer and watching “American Pie” with my friends. I imagine where he was just ten hours earlier. His eager eyes absorb everything that happens around him. His smile does not wane for a moment.
Francis continues to “adjust” to life here with characteristic humility and immoderate laughing. Snapshots include him celebrating his first Halloween in a ballerina dress, chain-sawing wood at my family Oktoberfest, gazing down wide eyed at a Thanksgiving turkey, and throwing his arms up in the air as New York City rests on his shoulders. Clearly, Francis loves this one life he is living. His enthusiasm for the world around him is refreshing and infectious.
In January 2010 I am on a plane bound for Ghana. It is remarkable how a change in environment can direct you back on the path of learning from the world around you rather than just living in it. My studies are invigorating and the raw experience of living abroad provides invaluable experience. Volunteer teaching at a refugee camp expands my awareness and backpacking throughout West Africa exposes me to African cultures of genuine hospitality. Despite being a stranger in a stranger land, Ghana feels like home to me.
When I return to the states I find Francis seasoned by nearly a year of life in Vermont. He even looks comfortable in his trademark bright orange puffy winter coat! By the time I graduate, he is accepted for a doctoral program at UVM, a testament to hard work and confidence in his surroundings. Four years later I take pride when Francis drapes his arm across my shoulders and tells a stranger “this is my buddy”. Not just friend. You see, UVM got it right- there is just more meaning in the word buddy.
Last year I returned to and began my pursuit of a Masters degree in African Studies from the University of Ghana. In March, Francis’ parents honored the shared bond between our families by naming their newborn grandson after my own father- David. When this past semester ended I was able to travel north to visit his family and hold my father’s namesake.
Two lands, two families. Tied together through the friendship of buddies.
I once had a bar patron joke that my degrees in anthropology and political science would help me study the politics of dead dinosaurs. Indeed, misconceptions about social science in general and anthropology in particular abound.
Yet, a haunting question still emerges: What has my major prepared me to do in life?
After graduating from UVM in 2011 I was determined to stop working in restaurants and to start climbing the ladder towards my dream career of humanitarian advocacy in Africa.
I quit the restaurant and became a substitute teacher at South Burlington High School. It paid substantially less than the service industry but reinvigorated me to seriously consider my future.
I was surprised when offered a permanent position as a Para-educator, teaching a multitude of subjects to students with developmental and behavioral challenges. I had no experience in education or mental health. Along with tutoring after school I maintained a just-livable income.
I saw teaching as temporary and was still troubled with how I could transition into my career. Reminiscing on my 2010 study abroad in Ghana had my feet itching to travel again. This is how I found myself in the UVM Fellowships office of the wise and wonderful Britten Chase.
Brit directed me towards a Fulbright Scholarship as an English Teaching Assistant. This prestigious grant through the US Department of State seemed a perfect way to develop my experience as a cultural and political foreign ambassador. I applied to teach English in Nepal.
Knowing that a Fulbright grant was far from guaranteed I also applied for an English teaching job in the Republic of Georgia through a private company called Greenheart Travel. I was fairly confident that if Fulbright fell through, Greenheart would accept me.
I was elated to find out that I was one of a dozen finalists for six Fulbright grants to Nepal. However, come spring I was not chosen. Shortly thereafter, and without explanation, I was not accepted to teach in Georgia either. My fiery plans had been smothered. Moreover, I felt as if I failed to live up to the expectations I set for the mentors who tirelessly advocated on my behalf.
Out of work for the summer my mind grabbed wildly for any vine swinging any direction. I liked teaching; maybe I should get a teaching degree online? My father and grandfather both served in the Air Force; maybe I could become an intelligence officer? I applied to be an orderly at Fletcher Allen with a dream of returning to nursing school. I filled out my Peace Corps application for the third time but still did not submit it. I had a new plan every week.
I found myself tending bar again to pay the bills. I also jumped ship from mental health work in public education to community support work with a private organization called the Howard Center. I excelled at and enjoyed working with marginalized groups in the community. I felt the work was more in tune with my career goals and balanced my less altruistic job behind the bar.
I committed to working hard, saving my money, and widening my range of opportunities so that I could reignite my humanitarian desires in the world region I coveted most: Africa.
For most of 2012 I worked 60+ hour weeks, tucked away my cash and planned.
Meanwhile, I decided that I could profit most by continuing my education with a one year Master’s degree in African Studies from the University of Ghana.
The program was affordable, would bring me back to Africa and further develop my analytical and research skills. To help offset airfare and living costs I applied to Fulbright a second time. A funded research project in Ghana could double as my MA thesis.
I was named a finalist for my Fulbright Research Grant in 2013 but alas, I did not receive the funding. Twice a finalist may be construed as twice a failure, but the Fulbright process paid huge dividends in narrowing my focus and fueling my resolve. Another door always opens.
Last August the plane door opened up onto the runway and a surge of humid African air rushed in. My olfactory senses raced with familiarity. I was back in Ghana. Over eight months later I am now winding down my second semester of graduate study!
My program has exceeded my expectations; the cross pollination of ideas between African peers and myself has been invaluable. Particularly advantageous is the theoretical and practical foundation I have gained in social and economic development. My current field research on human rights and mental health in Ghana builds on my demonstrated strengths and passions and will culminate in a thesis I can be proud to present to future employers in the development and rights advocacy sectors. Of course, living and traveling within Ghana has been equally inspiring.
Looking back I realize that anthropology trained me to be an observer, a listener, and curiously watchful of human behavior. I prize cardinal anthropological values such as understanding human diversity and being able to communicate effectively. I am familiar with a wide range of beliefs and values and strive to be culturally flexible in an increasingly multicultural world. I utilize self-reflection, explanatory models and adopt broad perspectives so that I can frame an understanding of the world as it unfolds around me.
I am an anthropologist and every job I have held in the last three years harnessed these skills.
I am told that it is not the destination but the journey that matters most. Without a doubt I am exactly where I belong, but it was my three year journey to get here that prepared me for it.
After living in Ghana I tend to carry less- both in things and in expectations.
This fall I will be a post-graduate once again.
Studying the politics of dead dinosaurs has never looked so promising.
Chief Russel was poisoned by an angry neighbor. Apparently Russ ate one of the guys hens.
He was an itchy little mutt but he was always happy to see me, which of course, made me happy too.
His owners said that shortly after his death the neighbor who poisoned him suffered a stroke…
Miss ya Russ.
I found out earlier this week that Joe passed away. Apparently they found him early in the morning suffering from a massive nose bleed. There was nothing they could do and he died from the blood loss.
He was a good friend.
I will miss him.
Stretching out on the half empty bus ride from Mole National Park to Tamale is much more pleasant than the floor ride coming in.
Tamale is the fastest growing city in all of West Africa. There is energy in the air, though a piece of me laments seeing traditional mud houses drowning amongst more modern constructions.
The motorbikes that glide by make the flat, wide roads seem a bit excessive; cars are the exception here. It strikes me as odd that I have not seen a single stray dog since we got to Tamale. Hoards of goats walk the streets with certainty. It is as if they own this town.
We decide to stay the day and night and leave back to Accra early the next morning. Half of the group elects to take the STC luxury bus while the other half opts for the less cozy Metro Mass. The difference in price is 17 cedi (roughly $7). It seems like pennies to pay for a giant comfortable seat and AC but for me it is more about my budgeting ethos as a traveler. Each time I sacrifice luxury comfort I gain one more souvenir, several beers, or a dozen market meals.
The Catholic Guest House seems like a resort after days of bus travel and living safari dirty in Mole. We book five double rooms with showers and enjoy omelets and toast for breakfast. There is a TV at the far side of the restaurant playing the Disney Channel. Strange as it is, or maybe because it is so strange, I find it hard to break my attention away from it.
The water trickling out of the shower head hits my skin and turns a dark brown before whirling down the drain. When I feel clean enough it dawns on me that my supposed tan has washed off.
In the guest house courtyard I sit cross legged, a chair supporting my back, as I meditate under the shade of a tree. The hotel guard eventually strolls by and asks me if I am alright. His brow scrunches when he realizes that I did not fall out of my chair but purposively chose to sit on the ground. He smiles as if to console me and continues on.
Fed, clean, and rested we are ready to explore some of the sights of Tamale. At the main road we wait to flag down a taxi. Sam starts to talk about how much he would enjoy riding in the back of a tuk-tuk, a three wheeled motorbike that has a small trailer attached to the rear. They are generally used to transport goods and produce but we resolve to try our luck.
A local in a light blue shirt and a pale fisherman hat is riding in our direction so a few of us point at him up and down. Right as he passes us I see an ear to ear smile spread across his face. He jerks the bike to the right and pulls over, immediately looking back as if to make sure what he saw was real. When I ask him if we can pay 5 cedi for a ride up the road he smiles again and nods.
The metal railings and floor of the trailer are piping hot from the sun but we squeeze in anyway. The bike slowly makes its way down the road, depressed by the ten obruni load it bears. Other motorists and taxis pass by to our left, the passengers smile and wave as they do. The giant market emerges to our right and dozens of people call out laughing at the sight of us. A young guy takes a picture with his phone and I nod at two elderly men sitting in the scant shade to be found. They return knowing and courteous nods.
We hesitate outside the Central Mosque unsure of the norms surrounding outsiders, especially girls, wanting to see inside. Sam and I slip off our sandals and go in while the girls wait. The ground floor is split in two basketball court sized rooms, cool and dimly lit. Just a couple of men sit or lie stretched out on their mats, watching us look around like lost souls. I approach an older man in a white tee-shirt with a picture of the Statue of Liberty on it. I ask him if there is any way we can have a look around the mosque. He asks us how we entered and we say that one of the side entrances was unlocked. He ushers us back to the girls, takes in the situation, and explains that they do not normally give tours. However, he says since we are interested he will show us around. Score.
Our impromptu guide takes us up a few flights of stairs and explains that the mosque is split in half, the women praying on one side, the men on the other. The mosque can easily accommodate a thousand people and there are plans to replace the open air windows with glass. When he asks us if we want to go on the roof we all perk up. What a treat to see Tamale from up high. Afterwards we put together 20 cedi and offer it with thanks for the tour.
Our next stop is at the local chief’s palace. The compound consists of both circular mud huts with straw roofs and modern square buildings with bright silver slanted metal roofs. A man tells us that we cannot enter unless we tell him our purpose. We say we are just interested in seeing what the palace looks like. Apparently that satisfies him and he shakes our hands one by one and leads us to a building in the center of the compound.
The open white tiled room has a two-step platform in the back corner with a leather arm chair resting at the top. Each level represents prestige, the chair being reserved for the chief himself. Three men in traditional cloth are lounging on the first step. A very elderly man sits cross legged on the top level, in front of the chair. Their expressions hardly change when we enter. They agree to pictures.
The outskirts of the Tamale market swarm with hundreds of people. Heaps of bags, shoes, and clothes are sprawled out on the ground. Stalls sell food, hats, belts, beads, fabric, books and more. In the midst of all this activity I see a toddler casually weave through the mass. It may appear chaotic but the layout of and maneuvering through the market makes total sense.
After a long trek to the Zongo district we find ourselves at one of Tamale’s famous local leather making factories. The pelts, usually goat and cow, are soaked in water and ash for a day or two. The chemical reaction makes it easy to scrape off the fur. The hairless skin is soaked one more time before being completely dried out in the sun. A combination of water and millet husks is applied to the skin to give it a distinct reddish brown color. Finally, using the heel of the foot the skin is stretched out before being sold to local artisans.
Looking down at my brown leather Keens I realize for the first time that I walk around in another animal’s skin. Seeing this process makes it a little more real for me.
Back at the Catholic Guest House we relax in the dark of night with beers and good food. The TZ and okro stew in Tamale more than makes up for the lousy food experience in Mole. Sleep comes easy to me tonight as I sprawl out in my very own bed.
The thought of the bus bringing me closer back to the reality of grad school has me alert and reflecting on the five day trip.
Ten other people made this the largest group I have ever traveled with in West Africa. The diversity of personalities surely added to the shenanigans. However, at times it made paying, decision making and negotiating an exhausting process. When it comes to backpacking here three to five people seems to strike a nice balance between fun and rugged.
More than anything, I am always happy to return home safe.
The tiredness usually fades just in time for the next adventure.