This is installment #14 about my experiences in Ghana, West Africa, as a Peace Corps Volunteer working with cashew farming families from December 2011 to December 2013. It’s part of an essay collection which starts with an introduction here.
Land ownership in Ghana is difficult for me to understand. The explanation I’ve heard is that, in rural areas, the land is parceled out by the chief, and there seems to be a system of inheritance (and often subdivision) for farms to be passed down through generations. Husbands and wives own their own farms and the family works on a patchwork of plots that are scattered outside of town. But land ownership is changing, so sometimes people also actually buy land from the chiefs and go through government channels to “own” it in the western sense. There are disputes between towns over who has jurisdiction over the increasingly valuable uncultivated land (“the bush”) in between.
Ownership is fuzzy to me other ways, too. Like the complexity of families, where every aunt is “mother” and every uncle is “father” or “junior father”, and a couple gets “divorced” by one storming out of the house and re-“married” by coming back, ownership of material goods isn’t so straightforward.
Who owns the house that I live in? It turns out that Madam Mary, Esther’s mother, “owns” it. But she pays eleven cedi per month…enough for one bag of cement…in rent to the Habitat for Humanity organization who built the house. If she quit paying that rent, or if she was no longer using the house for something, I suspect it would be given to someone else.
One thing they warn us about during training is that “Ghanaians will use your things if you let them, and you might not get it back. If you do get it back, it might come back broken.” When I arrived on site, I was determined to have clarity about my things. I’ve never been good about sharing. I like to have my own. I will treat everyone the same, loan my things to no one, and thereby avoid all of those problems.
Of course that starts to crumble immediately. The first time someone asked to use my charcoal iron, I realized I’d borrowed an iron myself before I had one. Who was I to deny someone else the same thing?
Off it went.
When I bought my bicycle, I resolved that I would make it clear that it was my bicycle. No one else would be allowed to use it.
The next morning, Esther asked if I was going to Sampa, and when I said I wasn’t, asked if she could use the bicycle to take Francis to school. “Of course,” I said. She’d been nursing some kind of foot injury…how could I say no? I snapped a photo of them as they rode away.
The bike is pressed into service now regularly by a small group of neighbors. They always ask before borrowing it. It’s been used for everything from buying eggs to taking kids to the hospital.
And you know what? It makes me happy to see it getting so much use. Eventually, it will break. Everything does. But you know what? We’ll get it fixed. And life will go on.
I am given gifts of food routinely. They arrive on my porch on the heads of children. When Madam Mary’s tomato harvest comes in, the nicest ones are put into a bowl and delivered by Francis, wearing matching sunglasses.
You don’t pass someone eating without hearing “Pine lee?” — “Come and eat” or “You are invited.” Although I do my own cooking, Esther routinely offers me food every time she is finished making it. Sometimes she doesn’t ask and just delivers a bowl to me.
It used to be a source of stress; I got over it. When she brings me food, I eat what I want of it and return the rest. And now when I cook for myself, I make plenty, and if there are leftovers, I offer them to her or the kids. As they say, food is never wasted in Ghana. Sometimes I have to swallow my pride…if the food I make isn’t very good, I don’t like to offer it to others. But the alternative is placing it in the dustbin for the animals, and to give animals food that’s fit at all for humans is preposterous.
I still cheat on fufu that others give me sometimes, pretending I’ve eaten it and disposing of it later when I’m sure no one is looking. But I hate myself for it.
My parents in Ohio sent me “bon-bons” — the name here for any kind of sucker or lollipop on a stick. The kids love them, and Francis asks for one whenever the mood suits him. “Bon-bon?” he asks, nodding encouragingly at me, showing me he has faith in my ability to understand him. Hard to resist.
But if I give him one, what does he do? He runs off to show it to his friends, so they can come get one, too. At first I was annoyed. “Francis, there won’t be any left if you keep telling everybody every time I give you one!”
Then I realized that this is the culture. If there is something good, of course we are going to celebrate it by sharing it with our brothers and sisters.
Why wouldn’t we just share until it runs out? Perhaps “saving for later” is just hoarding. I’ve got the bon-bons…when I run out, the kids leave…disappointed perhaps, but they don’t seem to be angry about it. “It is finished.” I tell them, and they run off to find something else to do, or share by handing the bon-bon around between all of them.
Some people complain about Ghanaians asking for money…if they see a white person, they’ll sometimes just call out, “Give me money!” It bothers some volunteers quite a bit. Luckily, I don’t get this too much in Kabile…it happens more in larger cities. But I’ve started to realize that this wouldn’t bother me nearly as much if I felt like we are on equal footing. The more money I have, the more it irritates me to be asked for it. That’s pretty interesting.
There are thousands, of foreign aid agencies working in Ghana, from countries all over the world. It seems like no one is able to even keep track of them all. Peace Corps itself has been here for over fifty years now.
So why are people still so “poor”?
Perhaps the stuff we’re doing doesn’t really help lift people out of poverty.
Maybe people are poor because the system is rigged to keep them poor.
Sometimes I wonder if the answer is already there: “Give me money.” How about the rich people just give the poor people some of their money? Money is just another tool. How am I supposed to deny my brother the use of my bicycle, or my sister the use of my iron? How can I cook food for myself and not offer what I don’t need to my sister’s children or my auntie next door?
Of course, nothing is simple. I myself can get selfish over the most trivial of things. If my shampoo starts disappearing, I’ll lock it up. And it won’t be pretty if my Laughing Cow cheese walks off (no doubt with a chuckle).
These head trips have little to do with the reality of life here, and everything to do with my own twisted psyche.
Some people just make themselves lunch. But I go into battle.
It starts well before I make any motion towards food, sometimes hours in advance. It starts with an exhaustive interrogation. Am I really hungry? What time is it…is it time to eat by the clock? What am I going to eat? What sounds good? What SHOULD I eat? Really, wouldn’t it be better if I don’t eat at all? What food do I have. How much effort or cost should it take?
But mostly, what would other people think of me if they could see what I am eating? And how can I get what I want without them noticing?
At lunchtime I feel guilty for making myself food…I want to sneak it, because others around me aren’t having lunch (well, not that I know of…most of them have gone to farm). I consider what to have, and at every detail consider what shortcuts I can make. I think about having a tuna salad sandwich. I’ll need to boil an egg. Maybe I don’t really need to use egg. I want the egg, but it seems like a lot of effort, and time will tick by as it boils, giving someone the chance to see what I am doing.
And then there’s the bread. What would really taste good is if I toast it in the pan a little bit first. But maybe it doesn’t need to go on bread. Maybe I eat too much bread. But the bread might taste really good. Well, maybe I can have the bread but I don’t need to toast the bread. But it’s better toasted. But it takes time.
This nonsense goes on for an hour or more as I do other things and before I actually start to make anything.
I finally decide to go all out…egg, toasted bread, the works. And sure enough, just as the egg is finished boiling, the kids have heard a pot rattle in my kitchen and start showing up to watch me cook.
I want them to go away. I don’t want to be watched. I don’t want to share my food. I don’t want them running home and telling everyone about all the food the fat American woman is eating.
I don’t want to feel any of this.
I could tell the kids to leave, but I don’t want to do that, either. An adult might hear and come running with a switch and yelling.
The boy and girl this time watch me from the doorway to my kitchen, the doorway I face as I sit on the low stool next to the stove burners on the floor.
I put the bread in the pan to toast it, then cut off another chunk, cut that in half, and hand them each a piece. I know I’m just encouraging them. I know I’m just trying to buy them off, perhaps paying them an indulgence in the hopes of avoiding my own inner hell.
My heart sinks when they take the bread and skip merrily off the porch instead of eating it there. They will show it to their friends, and more will come before I can finish cooking and scurry back to my room to eat in private.
It’s not as bad as I feared. Only one other boy comes back with them. By that time, I’m spooning tuna salad onto toasted bread. When there are a couple of spoonfuls left, I hand the bowl to them and flee with my lunch to my room.
In training, they told us to beware of what we thought we might be escaping when we joined the Peace Corps, because that is exactly what we would find here, only intensified.
I feel stupid and weak.
A shaman with dead snakes visits me in my dreams. “Your problem,” he tells me, “is your rational mind.”
Ain’t that the truth.
The boys are back today, sitting on my porch as I write this into a steno notebook. They do not ask for anything, they’re simply hanging out in the cool morning shade of my porch.
Eventually I am going to have to decide what to have for lunch.
I am trying to be a part of this community I’ve been sent to, a community that offers everything to me, a community that’s started to feel like family.
I try to put their generosity into my practice, imperfectly as I must.
When I do, my turmoil vanishes. Life feels abundant. The bicycle and the iron and the rice…it’s ours. Let’s enjoy them.
Brothers and sisters…would you like a bon-bon?