Saturday, Dec. 21, 2013
Together the three of us (Emma, Dornuki and myself) walked the mile path to the intersection from the school, the noon-day equatorial sun was characteristically unforgiving. At the intersection, we waited for nearly an hour (from 12pm-1pm) trying to find a trotro going in the correct direction.
Emma explained to DK and me that the trotros – public taxis in big rickety vans – did not have destination names written on them. Rather the driver extended his hand out the window pointed alternatively: forward for Accra, left for Tema, and right for another city that starts with an “S.” Pedestrians by the side of the highway make the same finger gesture to indicate their destination so trotro drivers know whether or not to stop.
Anyways, our leftward-pointed fingers didn’t do much good; it was the last Saturday before Christmas and the hottest part of the day. Passing trotros didn’t even bother with the finger signal because they were all full. I thanked God that I’m not normally a very hot person, as otherwise I would have fainted. The whole world was tinged yellow in a small concession to the flaming sun and/or the creeping smog from the Tema refineries. My skin doesn’t normally burn, rather it freckles, and I was confident my face was already coated in a fresh layer of spots.
When I emerged from my woe-is-me/I-might-be-evaporating haze, we made the gametime decision to hail a cab despite the expense (fortunately we shared the cost with a similarly stranded Togolese couple).
Four Ghana cedis later, we had all dozed off sitting on top of one another (sun fatigue? Is that a thing?), and arrived at the huge Community One market. At which point the real fun began.
It was about 1:30pm, and we hustled around the market buying (red) onions (15 cedis/bucket), garlic, dozens of very toothy ginger roots, a huge bag of salted ground nuts (peanuts), a huge bag of dried chillis, another of dried shrimp, and some auxiliary spices.
This process mostly consisted of: 1) Emma haggling in Twi, alternating with Emma hugging the vendors she knew 2) Dornuki sneaking handfuls of ground nuts 3) me trying unconvincingly to look like I belonged with them and was not a noob obruni but rather an indispensable-yet-also-unremarkable sidekick 4) all of us trying to carry the very heavy (flimsy) plastic bags of onions without them tearing and pouring into the open drainage (sometimes soapy white, sometimes algae green) that runs through the market corridors 5) me and Dornuki trying to stay close to Emma while also avoiding getting plastered face down in a gutter as men periodically ran between the stalls with heaping wheelbarrows of cut sugar cane, kente cloth, smoked fish etc. 6) Emma nimbly navigating between vendors, wheelbarrows, and the hundreds of women strolling the corridors with platters on their heads at LEAST a meter wide (carrying anything from bowls of water bags to dozens of pineapples/mangoes or towers of smoked tilapia) 7) me trying to figure out the mechanics of these fast-moving head platters 8) me and Dornuki trying to subtly squeeze passing mangoes to test for ripeness without alerting the vendors or/Emma of our interest (mangoes are expensive).
After this first enjoyable (if clichèd) foray into the organized chaos of the Tema market, we continued down a few side alleys to a small, unmarked shop. Inside we heard the shrieking metal of heavy machinery. Outside were a bunch of people sitting on the ledges of the gutter working on different stages of what I soon recognized as a banku dough assembly line.
Two men were ferociously peeling enormous cassava roots and chopping them into mango-sized chunks. A young woman was filling a large plastic (trash can sized) bucket with the chunks and carrying them inside. Two men were kneading a huge plastic vat of banku dough and galumphing it into smaller bowls to be sent back inside. The last two men were pouring bowls of finished dough into huge tarp sacks and stacking them high along the edges of the gutter open drain bisecting the alley.
Turns out this was a grinding shop; they were using huge, powerful machines to grind the raw cassava, re-grind the dough, and anything else that needed to be handily crushed. Holding up one of the thirty or so onions we had bought, Madame Emma simply said, “Can you skin it? I’m going to get fish.” Then she left. Dornuki and I spent the next hour hunched (standing up) over the wooden table outside the shop, peeling and peeling. (Emma had conveniently purchased two knives for us.) DK scraped the skin off the ginger, I peeled about three dozen onions and two whole heads of garlic. We bought some water bags and drizzled them over each piece to wash it, then chopped everything into dime-size bits and placed them in a separate bucket to be ground.
Lots of ladies passing through the narrow alley stopped to watch the live entertainment. As I was about to peel a garlic clove (kind of hard actually, especially with a big knife), one woman tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Can you peel that? Show me.” Of course under the pressure I messed up and did it poorly, and she laughed, “You cannot, but you are trying.” Fortunately I redeemed myself by nailing a three-bulbed onion AND removing all the stamens in a under a minute right afterwards. Emma arrived just in time to see this victory as well, but merely shrugged. I was still slower than average, but the unspoken metric of failure/success was clearly whether or not you cut yourself (working top speed, bent over a billion vegetables with a brand-new razor-sharp butcher’s knife), and I was not gushing blood, so she nodded approval. Alhamdulilleh at least the sun didn’t hit us in the alley.
Finally we three went inside. In different grinders, we poured 1) the 3kg bag of groundnuts, which came out the bottom as a hot, smooth peanut butter the texture of caramel, and collected into an old Gino’s tomato can 2) The dried shrimp, bag of chilies, rosemary, black peppercorn stalks (they look like black cinnamon) and a bean-shaped spice I’d never seen. This came out, after multiple grindings, into a bright red powder which we collected in a plastic bag. 3) Our onion-garlic-ginger labor which came out as a soupy paste that filled up a whole bucket.
We gathered all this and headed to a processed goods stall where we bought: milo powder, Lipton tea, Vitamilk cartons (soy), cans of tomatoes and tomato paste and beans, a 25kg sack of rice worth 110 Ghana cedis alone, cornflakes, soft brown sugar, chocolate spread, hobnobs etc.
We couldn’t possibly carry all the goods we had acquired, so we assembled them at the dry goods store, hired a wheelbarrow, and in the meantime went to buy boxes of frozen chicken and one frozen turkey (which DK had never tried). At this point it was past 5:30pm and we’d been in the hot sun working since breakfast without eating, drinking, or sitting-down.
We finally emerged from the market, loaded the vast array of food into a taxi. I bought a bunch of fried plantain chips (both sweet and salty) and a few water bags. These we consumed within seconds, before being absorbed into that perfect kind of sleep you can only have with a) a thirty minute cab drive ahead, b) a strong, hot breeze searing through the windows, c) acute physical exhaustion coiling around basically every body part.
Little did I know, we had hours more work to do when we got home: in particular, peeling and trimming the huge cardboard boxes full the frozen chicken and turkey, hacking them through the bones into different size pieces, cleaning each piece thoroughly in multiple buckets of water (filling up said buckets outside the school and carrying them back in to the stoop we were working on), making marinades for the meat and freezing then in dozens of huge plastic bags, doing the same thing over again for the tilapia, preparing and frying chicken and rice and cabbage for dinner, etc.
I felt like a wimp, but by 9:30pm or so when we finished, I literally could barely walk, lift my arms, anything. And I’m not in bad shape – I’ve been jogging 45 minutes on most days. Still, jogging is for people privileged enough to view physical exertion as leisure – weird concept, if you think about it. By contrast, this was, depending how you count, about 6-8 hours of hard, hot physical labor, the kind that is hard because you must do the work (like chopping the frozen chickens) bent over, without benefit of a seat, and it exhausts almost every part of your body. (Did I mention that it got dark at 6:30?)
And in some ways, that’s just a part of life here: you use your body to do the things you need instead of paying other people (or machines) to use their bodies on your behalf. By any measure, my materially-cosseted life has been seriously insulated from such conventional labor. (Or labour, if you’re Ghanaian.)
Just to put the cherry on the day, DK insisted on playing Scrabble (she borrowed a really old board from someone, la arif) after dinner. She explained the rules to Emma, and the three of us played for a few minutes. (Note: Imho it is completely unfair to play Scrabble with non-native English speakers.) At which point, around 10pm, a) all three of us have fallen asleep in our chairs at the table and b) Mr. Kabutey, who had been out that afternoon and thus had no idea what our day had been like, burst through the door, insisting that I teach the JHS 3 boarding students Pythagorus’ Theorem at that very moment.
Because I am his guest and I want to help, and probably thanks to the will of God Almighty alone, I willed myself to rise from that chair and go outside into the buggy classroom. Turns out, the students could not yet define a triangle, so we started there. An hour later, we had also discussed and defined equilateral, isosceles, and right triangles, as well as “the hypothenuse.” Before mid-night, we had thoroughly covered Pythagorus’ a^2 + b^2=c^2 – hamdulilleh that bit of Mrs. Zarzecki’s 8th grade geometry had stuck – and I returned inside, dissolving deliriously into bed.