Monthly Archives: October 2010

Perming Kits and Bleaching Cream

You know how it is when you go back to Africa. You expect everything to be African. For the long time returnee, a part of you still expects to see little half naked boys running down chasing old car tires and small girls cooking with konko tins over a coal pot. In the same vein regal Black women should be clad in cloth, their proud heads adorned with cornrows, and their well-oiled ebony skin glistening under the continent’s unforgiving sun. You know: African.

I’ve only been away from home for 2 years, and I came with the same clouded picture of Africa that many foreigners do. It’s easy to do when the media consistently portrays the motherland in a unilateral way. So when I sat down to get my hair braided at Gloria Aidoo’s kiosk in Adenta, I was not ready for the following question as she picked my hair:

“Oh. Madam. You don’t want to put some small perming cream in your hair?”

Eh? My hair doesn’t need a perm. I keep it natural for a reason – that reason being so I won’t have to come back to the salon every 6 weeks for a retouch.

“No, no,” I replied. “I like my hair natural. Besides, I couldn’t do my afro puff if I had a perm, could I? “

“Mmmm, it’s true,” she conceded. “Anyway, the hair is nice.” She asked a lady who had sat outside her shop for confirmation, and they both agreed I had a nice “grade” of hair.

Black American women are always at odds over this perm vrs natural hair battle that seems to plague us. Stupidly, I assumed the women back home were free of this battle. Everyone I’ve engaged in this conversation with in America has a reason/excuse for why they perm their hair. Sometimes, it comes right down to a gnawing self hatred of our hair, which is masked under the explanation that it’s more convenient to have a perm. I by all means was not expecting to engage in a philosophical debate with Ms. Aidoo about the pros and cons of perming vrs natural, but since she asked me about my natural hair, I felt it incumbent upon me to do the same regarding her relaxer. I was not prepared for her answer.

“It’s because of the weather,” she replied.

“The weather?” I was truly puzzled.

“Yes, the weather,” she reiterated. “We don’t have the creams here in Ghana to keep our hair natural like you do in America. Because of the sun, it makes it too difficult to keep our hair natural.”

“I see. What about the ladies from the olden days?” I challenged. “What did they do before they brought perming cream to Ghana?”

“They used to have a comb,” she explained carefully. “That comb, they used to put it in fire. Then it will make the hair straight.”

I didn’t bother asking her about what they did before Madam CJ Walker burst on the scene with her revolutionary hot comb. Gloria probably couldn’t fathom Black life without a hair straightening solution.

Displeasure with our hair isn’t just a Black phenomenon. It seems as though ALL  women have lost pride in the hair that God gave them. It’s a such a shame in our, because Black hair in particular is so versatile.We  can thread it, cornrow it, plait it, twist it, lock it…and yet the majority of us seem content to perm it or throw a weave on it to cover it. Even WHITE women don’t like their natural hair. Evidently (according to Ali Wentworth) , every brunette, red head, brown haired white woman wants to be a blond. How sad!

With hair issues as the backdrop of my beauty trek in Ghana, I came across a more sinister foe: Carotone.

God, I hate Carotone. 

First of all, that junk is made in CHINA, which means it’s probably going to give you skin cancer. Secondly, it promises to give the user “a lighter and younger looking skin”, as if dark skin is incapable of being described as ‘young’! I had not encountered any obviously bleached women while I was in Ghana, so I was content to hiss at the TV every time I saw the ad or chew my teeth when I heard that ridiculous jingle on the radio.

My indignation was transformed into horror when I went to Madina Market with my friend the Purple Squirrel one Wednesday afternoon. There, as you enter the market, was a MASSIVE billboard advertising Carotone. The Carotone girl, who is clearly of mixed race, deceptively promised every black woman who used this cream that they would look like her: The ideal woman with caramel brown skin and shoulder length hair. Just beneath the billboard milled a bevy of market ladies – every fifth one possessing bleached skin.

I was aghast. Surely my eyes were deceiving me. And yet, as I saw a gay Ghanaian man weaving tracks of wavy hair onto the scalp of a Dorito colored woman’s head, I knew that the scene I was being confronted with was indeed reality.

Reader, have you ever seen the effects of skin bleaching live and in effect? You can’t go from mahogany brown to coffee and cream with no side effects – those effects being that you will wind up looking like a full scale oompa loompa. I grimaced to keep from weeping as I watched carrot-colored ladies breeze through the crowded walk ways of the market, the dark edges of their lips and eyelids betraying what color they were assigned at birth.

I can’t even remember what the point of this whole blog is (I’m distracted by the oompa loompas), except to say that I’m pretty disgusted that in this day and age we’re still plagued by the notion that lighter skin and straighter hair in the only standard of beauty, and more importantly that that notion firmly perpetuated in “the motherland”. The color you were born with is beautiful. The hair that you were born with is beautiful. YOU are beautiful. Own it.

 

 

Ghana Ghost Stories

Let me tell you something about Mama Africa. She is a HARD parent. She will force you to do certain things; whether you yield to those things willingly or are beaten into submission is up to you.

By all means, YOU WILL WALK in Africa.

Certainly, you WILL adopt one of her of local vernacular and employ it in your speech.

Whether you like it or not, you will believe in God. Take your pick: The Holy Trinity, Allah, Tsenku or a bronze lizard with ruby eyes – you WILL believe in and encounter the spirit realm at some point.

The thing about America is that it allows you to be very casual about your Christianity. I mean, when your faith is watered down to “What shirt and feathery hat shall I wear this Sunday?” why should you fear principalities and powers? Better still, does such a Christian even know what a principality is? I have never given much stock or regard to stories of voodoo and juju until this trip to Ghana. When you grow up in Ghana, there are certain stories of lore that we all knew as children:- Kebewie, the man with the boflot head that tapped small children on the shoulder as they slept and invited them to take a bite of his head. My favorite was the girl who went to boarding school and always had neatly cornrowed hair. When her classmates asked how she managed to get her braids so neat, especially since she was doing them herself, she never gave an answer. Once evening, one of the girls in her dorm got up to use the toilet, and there sat the girl braiding her hair…with her head in her lap. Now how could this even be??

As I sat on a bus headed for Takoradi, I heard a radio program that got my blood boiling. The presenter had an 8 year old girl on his show who said she had been practicing witchcraft since she was 5. When she does her witchcraft, she transforms into an eagle. He had a pastor on the line to pray for her as well, but said he must keep his prayer short “because they were on radio”. What tosh! And why would he pick on this 8 year old girl and coerce her into confessing witchcraft? Belief in juju was absurd, as far as I was concerned. It is the stuff of idiots and illiterate villagers. I have been fast heading in the direction of  watered down faith myself, until I read C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters and talked to a number of friends back home. Here are their stories (insert Law And Order *gang gang* sound here):

Demons and a skipping rope

At a church convention last year, a guest pastor began to prophecy about 2 deaths that had occurred the year earlier on the Tema motorway.

“Look at them,” he growled. “They are two. One holding a rope on this side, one holding a rope on the other. The car has somersaulted. 2 people died.”

He was talking about 2 church members who had died on the motorway the year before on their way to a business trip. As car after car splashed through the slick roads after a heavy rain, it was only THAT car ferrying the two people that flipped over and killed the passengers upon impacting the ground. He said two demons were holding a rope at either end of the street and had caused the demise of those passengers. The pastor called out a man that was a colleague of the deceased, and told him that the devil had an assignment against him as well, and that he should be careful concerning certain things.  Everyone in the audience was amazed.

I was amazed that my friend was repeating this story with such sincerity and belief. Victoria was my classmate from GIS and was in the audience when this story was being told. She has 2 degrees and is an intelligent, resourceful woman with global exposure. I sat there looking disbelievingly at her. She read my face.

“You don’t believe the story, do you?”

“No,” I replied. I almost sneered. “I don’t.”

“Hmmm. OK! It’s only Christ that keeps up from these things. It’s the only reason I don’t have fear.”

“Uh huh.”

Gimme a break!

A week later, I met my friend Khadija and she told me about:

The disappearing goat

A white girl who had attended the university of Legon with of Khadija came back to campus shaken by something she had seen. She was in a car/taxi on her way back from a day trip, and the driver hit a goat that was in the middle of the road. The goat appeared to be dead or dying. He and one other passenger got out of the car and put the goat in the trunk. By they time they got back to Accra and opened the trunk the goat. was. GONE.

“Okay, so there was…”

“There was no hole in the trunk!” Khadija exclaimed, cutting me off.

“Ah.” I was confused. “Okay…so maybe the trunk popped open while they were driving.”

“The truck was locked,” she reiterated.

“Ah.” I still couldn’t wrap my mind around it. a white girl had come back and said she had seen a goat disappear from a trunk! Why would she do that? Was she insane? Or perhaps on pills? They like pills, y’know.  I decided to leave that one alone, because Khadija carried on with:

The housegirl that was a witch

My friend Khadija is from Compton, as some of you know. They don’t have juju in Compton – they have crack infestations, drive-bys and aggravated robbery. When she first came to Ghana, she had a housegirl who would bathe her kids in the morning, and then leave them standing in the bathroom naked and wet…while she went back to sleep under the bed.

“What the hell did she do that for?” I demanded.

“Hmmmm. She said she had to sleep under the bed so that she could go to the village.”

“Go to the village?” I wracked my brains. I recalled from stories of old that witches would convene in trees in the “village” to decide what their next evil task would be, or to ‘top up’ on their powers.

 

“Yes. Indirectly, she was telling me she was a witch. I just didn’t know it at the time. It was a woman in the area who told me I must sack her for being a witch!”

This was almost too much to take. But the last straw was when I was told about:

The cat in the car engine

After suffering a period of abuse, Khadija had decided she was going to leave her husband. He, being a proud Ga Adangbe man, also decided that it was not going to be that simple. Once the customary period of begging and coercion to make her stay had run its course, he decided on his final mode of action: to cast a spell on her.

One day, she was about to start her car and noticed white fur all over her dash board. Then she heard a strange sound coming from her engine. Upon opening, she found a cat entangled in the engine block. Whenever something juicy is about to go down in Ghana, a Ghanaian will magically materialize in the vacinity offering conventional wisdom.

“Madam!! It’s a human being 000! It’s not a cat. It’s a witch. It’s a witch!!”

Khadija summoned a mechanic who untangled the cat from the engine. In my mind, I could see her husband lurking and looking out of a window.

He started doing the juju for her to see…like doing crazy things like wearing her panties around the house. She decided that she must fight fire with fire and went to see a mallam. He told her that her husband has gone for heavy juju on her, but his was stronger (isn’t it always?). In fact, her husband was trying to kill her!

“You have to take car with your car,” he said. “He has done some juju on your car!”

Again. she was driving and one of her tires burst. She took the car to a fitter, who proclaimed that God loved her. She was lucky she made it to the shop.

“Madam! All your tires were coming to burst today,” he said after his inspection.

Just then, her car slid off the iron BLOCK it was resting on and slid forward while her kids were sitting inside.

Eish!!

“Khadija. In FACT. If you were not from Compton, and not an American, I would have dismissed all these stories as crap,” I confessed.

She just smirked at me.

That night, I heard a rustling outside my window as I slept. It sounded like the ruffling of a bird’s wings. Why was a bird ruffling it’s feathers at 3 am?? All the birds should be sleeping by now! I saw Khadija’s face rotating in my imagination. Hei! Come and see me! I started pleading the blood of Jesus all over the house, my kids, myself and my dad.

Then I quickly darted to the living room where he slept. I startled him.

“Malaka. What are you doing here?”

“Oh. I heard some stories today, so I’m uneasy.” I quickly told my father about them.

“Ho. So you are scared?” he scoffed.

“I didn’t say I was scared,” I retorted. “I said I was uneasy!”

You. You are sitting there laughing at me eh? Everybody believes that they have an angel watching out for them. In The Screwtape Letters, Lewis asserts that everyone has a demon assigned to them as well. The devil is after every soul on the planet. Make sure you guard yours!

 

Lady’s Shades n’ Slangs

Accra – 1977

Kwasi: Ei. Rex. You are back. Akwaaba.

Rex: Yerhs! I jess gort balk into tern tha oddar der.

Kwasi (confused): Uhhh…Ok. Oh! How is your mother?

Rex: Orh! *Hahaha*! Sher’s foine, y’knaw? Yerhs. Doin’ rally well. *Heheheh*!

Kwasi (annoyed): Chaley, Rex. In fact, I don’t understand what you are saying. Why are you talking like that??

Rex (condescendingly): Orh? You kent herr what I’m sayin’? I talk like thiz nah because I t’ink like a White man.

That was a conversation my dad had with Uncle Rex when he had returned from London after living there for 2 years. Many things had changed about Uncle Rex, but very few more than his accent. As he said, he now thinks like “a White man”, and it would only be befitting for his mode of discourse to (very strongly) reflect that fact.

One of the most amusing things about a select group of Ghanaians is their innate need to ‘slang’ or ‘slur’ their English whenever they encounter anyone with slightest whiff of something foreign about them. It could be the way said assumed foreigner dresses, eats, does their hair and/or above all, speaks. As if instinctively identifying that this ‘poor soul’ is lost amongst the bush natives of the land and needs to communicate with someone who can finally understand their superior brand of English, the discerning slanging Ghanaian haughtily ascends and offers his/her services by launching into a nonsensical conversation that is made only more painful because the speaker sounds as though they are chewing a combination of rocks and broken glass. The need to slang is almost primal in this sub-group.

A friend of mine has a presidential body guard who is ‘running’ her. They were set up on a blind date, having previously only spoken on the phone. They agreed to meet at Frankie’s in Osu. As the massive 6’2″ man entered the restaurant, he adjusted his suit jacket (worn over jeans) and pushed his Chanel shades up on his forehead.

His women’s Chanel sunglasses.

Incidentally, my friend is of American American decent, and despite years of living in Ghana, still has undertones of an American accent. This delighted the body guard to no end. He spent the most part of the afternoon talking about everything and nothing, sprinkling his conversation with the appropriate “y’knaw whad I’m sayin’?s” and that ridiculous throaty chuckle that all Black American men are assumed to infuse in their conversation. Come on. Ghanaian men don’t chuckle. They roar! They guffaw! What is “eheheheherr…“??

Nonsense.

But the icing on the proverbial cake had to be when the pair went downstairs at Frankie’s to get some ice-cream. My friend stood by, bemused and silently laughing inwardly as the bodyguard ordered ice-cream. As if reading her thoughts, he turned and looked her in the eye.

“Do you like my slangs?” he asked, smirking with pride.

I don’t know what her response was, because at this point in the narration, I immediately erupted into a fit of uncontrollable laughter at his audacity. Slangs indeed!

Perhaps I’m biased, but I am of the opinion that the Ghanaian accent is of the most melodic and audibly  pleasing of all the West African nations that speak English. It’s like a delicate souffle. And  just like this delicacy, it will be ruined when too much heat is applied – and nothing is a hotter mess than a Ghanaian that is trying too hard NOT to sound like a Ghanaian.

The other night, I had my own encounter with a ‘forcer’, as my friend Nana calls them. ‘Forcers’ are those guys who have traveled to New York, Atlanta or LA for about 2 weeks, and come back dressed in LV from head to toe so that you know they’ve been abroad. Of course, in the 2 weeks they’ve been away, they have also picked up the necessary slangs to facilitate smooth conversation. How else are white people and the hip hop community supposed to understand them? Surely not with their natural African accent!

I was picking up a CD, and was directed to this guy who is a pretty big deal in the hip life community. He didn’t answer his phone. Instead, I was greeted by friend with whom I had a 5 minute verbal wrestling match. His friend (the forcer) said he would call me back. 20 minutes later:

Forcer: Heller?

Me (cautiously): Hello?

Forcer: Yarhhh…You are the wan who wanted the sirrdeee, eh?

Me:  The what?

Forcer: The sirrrdeee.

Me (the hell?): The WHAT?

Forcer (becoming irritated): The sirrrdeee! The sirrdeee! The wan with da hip life on it!

Me: Oh!!! The CD! Yes. I’m the one. Can you meet me at the cafe today so I can get it from you? You said it was in your area, right?

Forcer: Yarh, yarh. I ken dew dat. Imma call yew lader when I get clossa? A’ight?

Me (surrendering): Hmmm. A’ight.

 

Stop laughing.

The Fockery of Delta Airlines

This is an open letter to Delta Airlines, those bloody douche bag wankers.

To: The head dude/dudess at Delta

Re: An extraordinary customer experience.

Dear Delta Airlines,

I am writing to congratulate you for assembling a staff that provided me with extraordinary customer service this Sunday on October 17th at Kotoka International Airport in Accra. The staff of which I speak are those on the front lines – the ticketing agents and customer service reps who spared no effort in following to the letter what I can only assume are Delta’s rules and regulations concerning travelers to and from the country of Ghana. If your goal has been to train a dispassionate and unimaginative work force, then you are to be applauded for your success.

My flight from Accra to Atlanta that Sunday was scheduled to leave at 9:30 pm. Upon arrival at the airport at 8:15 pm, I was informed that I would not be allowed to get on the plane that night. Why? Because none of your agents was checking in any more passengers for that flight. In fact, they stopped checking in travelers at 7 pm, two and a half hours before the plane was scheduled to depart. As I approached one of your employees, he dismissively rolled up his radio, and nodded his head in the direction of your customer service line, telling me that I would have to speak with the agent there. I was greeted with a line of 9 other passengers, all eagerly hoping to make the flight for a plane that was idling on the tarmac outside.

As she casually ‘assisted’ customers who were obviously foreign, and scolded those who were clearly locals for missing check in, we were all told the same thing: Return to the airport the next morning to board the flight to Atlanta via New York and pay a $250 change fee per ticket. For me, this was totally unacceptable.

After 30 minutes waiting in line, Jane Sowah, (your agent’s name) gave me the same spiel. I approached her window with my 3 small children in tow, the eldest being only 5. She told me I would have to go to New York the next morning. I informed her I could not. Have you been through New York on a Delta flight, Mr. CEO? The combination of a disgruntled populace and your airline’s attitude toward service make going through New York akin to a journey through the bowels of Hell. Asking me to make that journey with 3 small children is like asking me to make that trek legless. Sensing that something was amiss and that we were not going to make the flight my daughter began to cry. I had already spent $800 to change our return date and cut our visit short by a month because she missed her father and brother terribly (they remained in Atlanta), and it had affected her eating. As she heaved and sobbed, I watched helplessly as enormous tears rolled down her cheeks.

“Please ma’am,” I begged. “I already have my boarding pass that was printed from the sales office. I’m willing to leave my luggage and just go with my carry on bags. Is there nothing we can do? My daughter is crying!”

“And why shouldn’t she cry?” Jane snarled. “Her mother did not get to the airport in time for check in.”

I was amazed.

“You have no compassion, do you?”

“No, I don’t,” she replied.

Now, I could understand her attitude if I were the only passenger in the airport who had shown up “late” that evening and was making an uncompromising fuss. But as I said earlier, there were 9 of us in the queue. As I told Jane, my experience and expectation at any other airport in the world is that one is able to check in within 2 hours of flight time at a Delta desk, to be served by a Delta rep, to get on a Delta plane! It is only in Accra that passengers are asked to show up 4-6 hours before the plane’s take off time and then punished with a change fee when there is so obviously plenty of time to go through security. I was informed that early check in was required to allow the plane to take off ON TIME and was forced to wait until Wednesday to get the next direct flight to Atlanta.

On the surface, this looks like a simple gripe, but there are things beneath the service that perhaps you have not considered:

  1. Ghanaians have a strong hatred for Delta Airlines – I was warned by no less that 15 people within my circle NOT to take Delta to Accra for any reason. Having had 2 previous horrible experiences myself, I unwisely returned and gave Delta another try, like a battered woman foolishly expecting kindness from her abuser. Following the pomp and pageantry at your gala in Atlanta, I succumbed the urging of Mr. Aye Addo the president of Ghanaian Association, who said via email that Delta would “soon become the clear and only choice for the discerning traveler to Ghana”. Instinctively, I knew I should have flown United to Accra, but I chose to believe in Delta, to my detriment. How does closing your check in counter 2 hours early translate to amazing customer service?
  2. In closing the check in counter 2 hours early and demanding early check in, you force/allow passengers to exit the airport minus their checked luggage. Do you not see the security breach in this? Who is to say that these passengers will not leave and return with contraband on their person? Who is to say that there are no dangerous substances in the bags that have been checked, and now being separated by their owners will not detonate on the plane? It is a well known fact that the scanners at KIA don’t work! How does this plan of action assist in the fight against terrorism? This lax attitude toward security are the reasons that the smuggling and sale of cocaine are so rampant in this country.
  3. In my case in particular, Jane Sowah (your employee) typed in that I attempted to check in at 8:45 pm. This is inaccurate. She took longer than necessary to assist each customer in an effort to cover her back and make it seem as though we were collectively late when in fact we were all there in ample time and could have boarded he flight if your crew was inclined to provide us with a modicum of service.

After being denied access to our flight, I went home to feed my exhausted children. As I stood at the sink, I heard the 9:30 Delta flight take off and fly over my home at 10:10 pm. This was merely adding insult to injury. In light of all that transpired, I must recommend the following:

  1. Empower your employees to do everything in their power and within the TSA guidelines to get your paying passengers on the flight. If you do not, you will loose your market share in Ghana very rapidly. Lufthansa continuously exceeds customer’s expectations, and remains the legacy airline of choice. I myself will never fly Delta to Accra again, as this experience has been the third and final slap.
  2. If your check in staff must go upstairs to serve in boarding the passengers, you would do well to leave at least one of them downstairs to assist customers until the plane takes off; that, or hire extra staff who serves that function alone.
  3. After being subjected to unnecessary rebuke, inconvenience and fiscal loss, I believe that a refund of the money I paid for the change fee is in order. I think you will agree that this fee is not only unfair, but cruel as well. Your staff clearly had every opportunity to get my family on that plane, particularly since I was willing to leave my checked baggage AND already had a boarding pass/assigned seat
  4. Is your purpose for coming to Africa to nickel and dime the customer base to make up for your budget short-fall? Recognize that your passengers are people, with emotions, and needs. We are not just dollar signs to make up and pad your bottom line, nor mere numbers on a flight manifest.

I eagerly await your response so that I may inform my public.

Respectfully,

Malaka Grant

cc: The Transportation and Security Administration (TSA)

cc: Delta sales management (Accra/Atlanta)

cc: The Ghana Association (Atlanta)

Attachments: Boarding passes for Oct 17th and receipts.


Purple Squirrel in a Pathfinder

A purple squirrel is a mythical creature; a being of lore. Something that has peculiar characteristics (like purple fur), but for the most part can still be identified as a squirrel. It’s kinda like a unicorn.

Last Monday a woman in black cloth and a black hajib approached me at my kids’ school in Adenta. She looked ‘African’ (but certainly not Ghanaian) but before she even spoke, I knew there was something American about her.

Ah.

Why was she standing next to Aya’s and Nadjah’s teachers? Why did they nod in my direction as I approached? What was that white envelope she was holding? This was all very strange.

“Good afternoon,” I said to the group. 

“Good afternoon,” they replied.

The woman in black was staring at my face, half smiling. Me? I was just confused.

“Please, this lady said she was looking for you,” said one of the teachers.

The woman in black spoke up quickly.

“I was reading your blog…”

You were reading my blog??”

“Yes. A friend of mine in California directed me to it, and I said I HAVE to come and meet you.”

How the heck did this chick find me? In Adenta of all places?!?

“Your blog is hilarious!” she continued. “I read one of your pieces, and realized our kids came to the same school!”

“Wow… What a coincidence,” I said in amazement…and a certainly level of concern. I mean, she could be crazy as a bed bud for all I knew.

I stood there listening to her as she spoke, regarding her cautiously. I still wasn’t too sure how this woman with a mix of Ghanaian, Northerner and American accents in local cloth was able to find me on the internet. I mean, she looked like a market queen – like she should be directing small girls to go and buy and sell tomatos…not reading blogs.

“My name is Khadija,” she said.

“I’m Malaka.”

But then, you already knew that, didn’t you? I thought.

After a short chat, we exchanged numbers and I hopped into my waiting taxi. Her children hopped into a massive silver Pathfinder. Ei.

The next day, my new unassuming friend called me to chew the fat (as much as you can on Ghana’s cell phone plans). She wanted to invite me for lunch. We went to a half chop bar/ half restaurant establishment with blue cement walls to eat. As we sat down to meal of jollof rice, salad and chicken – you know…’gentleman food’ –  we talked about everything. Life in Ghana and what it takes to adjust and survive here dominated the conversation. She told me that she was really happy to read about my experiences and observations during my short trip here.

“It let me know that I wasn’t crazy!” she cried.

In the midst of conversation, I discovered that my very obviously Muslim friend was indeed Black American, and had come to Ghana to raise her children in fulfilment of a promise. After much turmoil, she’d built a home and was preparing to start a new school. She regaled me with tales of survival that had me ashamed that I considered $4 paper towels and the harvesting of rain water to bathe as hardships. I told her so.

“You have a maturity about you that I just don’t posses,” I admitted. “Yeah, I’m a woman…but you are a WOMAN.”

“Ehh? Is it true? A ‘full woman’, as they say.”

“That’s right!”

We both laughed. Khadijah likes to laugh.

Over the course of the next week, we saw each other just about everyday this hajiah and her Pathfinder. Everyday, she gave me a tidbit of information that shocked me. Among the tales of juju that had directed at her,  stories about her insane ex-husband, and the treachery of both the Ghanaian businessman and layman that is always trying to cheat the next person, it was the revelation of where she was from that had me stuck.

“Girl. I’m from Compton,” she said when I asked her where in America she was from.

“Compton. You mean ‘Compton ‘Compton?”

“Yup,” she said with a broad smile.

Suddenly, we were discussing Snoop, hip-hop and car shows.

“Did you ever think you would be in Ghana talking about asymmetric bobs and hydraulics with another woman?” she asked with a laugh.

“Oh yeah. Sure,” I replied. “You can have these conversations in Ghana. In Cantoments, in Labone, in Osu…among Ghanaians who have been abroad. But not in Adenta. Not with a Black American woman dressed as YOU are, who is from COMPTON!”

Have you heard of such before? You haven’t! That is why Khadija (which is obviously not her gob’ment name) is my purple squirrel.

$4 Paper Towels

Last night I almost threw up at the pharmacy counter.

The baby had run out of diapers, and my father requested that I bring a pack home. I only had 40 GHc left in my wallet for the week, and it was going to take at least 15 GHc to get home from where I was visiting a friend at the other side of town.

I walked up to the counter with my pack of 40 Pampers in my hand, and asked the cashier how much they cost.

“14.3 GHc,” he said.

I suddenly felt violently ill. I was sure I was going to toss my lunch right there on his (I assumed) wooden counter that was lit by an electric lamp. The lights had gone off in the area. I handed him the money and felt my fingers and back go numb.

My husband had called me earlier in the day to ask if I had lost my visa card, because I had taken out more money than usual.

“$300 was taken out in the last the days,” he said.

“Yeah. I know.”

I rushed to tell him how and where I’d spent it. Most of it has been on transportation, and feeding the family.

“Babe, I’m not even chilling, I promise you,” I swore to him. “Let me break down how the money goes:”

  1. It takes 12-15 GHc (each way) every time I leave the house.
  2. We buy a loaf of bread every day at 1 GHc
  3. We buy a can of milk every 2 days at 1 GHc
  4. We buy 2 eggs every morning at 50 pesewas.
  5. The kids always want a snack/a juice box/a soda for a treat every day
  6. In the beginning, they couldn’t handle the local fare, so I had to suss out chicken and chips or fried rice at 7GHc each every other day.
  7. My dad doesn’t grocery shop or take me to the store, so if I was home and needed say, meat, I would have to leave the house, spend another 5 GHc to get to the closest store or walk to a kiosk where the seller would rape me with her prices because I am so obviously akata (Black American).

That’s just the short list. As I am on vacation, it is only to be expected that I will of course go out with my friends and buy some drinks and something to eat. That is usually another 20-30 GHc blown. So yeah, I spend a lot of money in Ghana.

Life in Ghana just ain’t easy. It ain’t! They used to say life was hard here, but it’s really hard. I honestly don’t see how the average person manages to eat a healthy balanced diet on the wages they make. As always, those who are making it in Ghana are really making it, which is why these contractors can demand a quarter of a million dollars for a 2 bedroom flat and people will pay. The tax system in Ghana has only gone on to further exacerbate the class divisions that previously existed. The government taxes basic goods, and the retailer passes that cost onto the consumer. So a mother like me ends up paying $10 for a pack of diapers that will only last me 4 days in this country, whereas I would buy a box at $34 in the states that would last me a month and a half. It’s like living in Beverly Hills without any of the bleeding benefits!!

The first week I was here, I had $500 in cash on me. By the 9th day, I’d spent most of it. I was sure my father was wasting my money, because he’s not nearly as frugal as I am. I referenced one of his first purchases – a roll of paper towels – to prove my point.

“Daddy. Why would you spend 4 cedis to buy paper towels?” I asked incredulously. “Paper towels in the States cost 99 cents. I’d eat my own arm before I spend 4 bucks on ONE ROLL of paper towels.”

“Oh. I bought them for you,” he said. He seemed a bit hurt.

“Ah. We don’t need paper towels that bad. It was a waste of money. We just bought chicken, hotdogs and beef ALL for 7 cedis. You wait until I tell Adwoa how you are spending the money!”

The fact is, he was not wasting money. The fact is, when you have small children, you’re going to need paper towels. I was just projecting my aggravation with the pricing on his practicality. We go through a roll in a week in Atlanta…but I’m here to tell you that we just finished up that one roll this week, our 7th here! I don’t let anything go to waste in Ghana. I don’t make breakfast for myself – I eat whatever the kids didn’t finish up that morning. Now that I’m out of the wipes I brought with me, I use a cloth towel to wipe the baby, wash it and reuse it later. If I have a cup of water and don’t finish it off, I don’t dump the rest in the sink – I put the cup and that last sip of water in the fridge to drink later. I have to BUY drinking water after all!

So when I saw some government minister sit on TV with his navy blue suit and shiny gold ring, yobbing about how cheap food was two mornings ago, I had to hold myself back from hopping onto the next tro-tro (because I can no longer afford to charter a taxi) heading in the direction of the studio so I could throttle him! I dunno. Maybe I’m crazy, but something is totally wrong when even charcoal is considered expensive in West Africa!

 

‘Technorogy’

Hei!

It has taken me up till this week to get in step with the way technology works in Ghana. Cell phone conversations are fast, internet connections are slow, TV stations end their transmissions (albeit it briefly until the generator kicks on) when the lights go off in their area.

I got my first taste of the way every day technology works in Ghana when I was chatting with a dear long-lost (and now just LOST) friend the first week I was here. I hadn’t spoken to him in 3 years, and after 15 minutes into our conversation, his tone seemed harried and uncomfortable. He cut me off in the middle of what I thought was an amusing anecdote and said:

“Yeah…so we’ll link up later yeah?”

“OK!” I was a little confused and offended at being dismissed. “So when would you like to…”

“We’ll link up later. Okay. Bye-bye!”

*Click*

Heh! I was fuming.

I noticed that everyone I was speaking to on the phone had abbreviated conversations with me. I was starved for company and all my “friends” were dismissing me! Why? My ‘cousin’, Ms. Naa explained it to me.

“It’s because we pay by the minute here ooo! If you don’t take time, you’ll be in the middle of the conversation, and your cell phone will just disgrace you! It will just cut off…no warning!”

“Ah…Me, I’m used to a monthly bill. I have unlimited minutes. I can talk as long as I wish.”

“No, no, no. Malaka. Here, there is a rhythm to the phone call. It goes: Hello?/Hello!/ Where are you?/I’m here!/Ok, I’m coming!/OK!/Click. Pam-pam-pam-fast! We don’t waste credits in this country.”

That explains why everyone is shouting into their cell phone and hopping into a tro-tro or quickening their pace. After forking out hundreds of cedis on credits myself, I also adapted the rhythm of the cell phone call. What they say is true – the cell phone has revolutionized the way we do things in Africa.

As for ‘technorogy’ in Ghana (shaking my head), it’s something else. I have Vodafone as my ISP while I’m here, and it’s slow as molasses on a rainy day in July. The other day I spent 5 hours trying to upload a 1 minute video to share with all of you, only to have it fail when it was 89% complete. Come and see tears! When I first got the USB drive, the lady at Vodafone very frankly informed me that I will “by all means have the internet. But I should be aware. Sometimes, the network misbehaves.” By “misbehaving”, she meant that speeds at certain times of the day will run no faster than 2.2 kbps. When I lamented about this, my Ghanaian friends on Facebook said that I should be grateful to have the internet at all! Well, after shoveling out $45 for 1 month of coverage, I would hope that I could at least Skype with my friends and family back in America! But no, it is not meant to be, and to circumvent the issue, I rise nearly every morning at 3 am to hold decent chat sessions with hubby on FB when the speeds are a ‘racing’ 15 kbps.

As for electricity, the less said the better. It will surely go off – the sooner one accepts that the better.

Ghana has a casserole of imported technological accoutrements. I saw my first Amharic and French keyboards here. It took my 10 minutes to get accustomed to their use.

Cable isn’t “cable” here either. It’s a satellite dish or DSTV. When one of my cousins moved down here, she spent many frustrating minutes trying to explain to the installation guys what was going on with her cable box.

“The box isn’t blinking,” she said for the 30th time.

“Ah, madam. What box?” they asked her for the 31st.

“The box…the box!!” she cried.

“Ahhh – You mean the decoder?” Like she was some akata (Black American) idiot.

“Yes. The decoder,” she said in surrender.

That’s the way it goes in Ghana. ofttimes, you just have to surrender. This place is Rome. You will wear your toga and eat grapes like the rest of the Romans do; never mind that it’s winter and you might freeze your balls off. Keep your (ridiculous – but very handy) wool/down jacket to yourself.

Akosombo

This weekend, I spent the most amazing time in Akosombo with my BFFFL (Best Friend For Frikkin’ Life!), Nana Darkoa. Her Rotary club was conducting a 5K sponsored walk to benefit children. What those benefits were, I do not know, because there was no mention of them.  What there was was a convoy of Ghana’s police force, a pick up truck with 4 loud speakers jamming local tunes like “Kpalogo y3d3″ , about 50 walkers and an air conditioned bus that trailed behind us should anyone pass out from heat exhaustion or dehydration. I have never walked 5 kilometers, and I pray to God that I never find myself in a situation where I will need to again. It’s FAR.

The girls came along with me because my father had made plans for the weekend. After our beach trip to T’di, Nadjah was itching to stay in another hotel with room service, so she was really glad to come along. Aya is generally happy to do whatever Nadjah is happy to do, and Liya could care less as long as she is fed and has a place to lay her head. The 5000 mile walk ended at a lake side cafe, where the Rotary club had arranged a catered lunch of jollof, banku, kenkey, fried rice, beer and anything else one would need to recover from walking the distance of Earth to Mars. Nadjah forced her friendship on a group of little girls who had also accompanied their parents, and touched snails that were crawling lazily over the foliage. Elderly ladies cooed over Liya, and for a while, I was free to enjoy my lunch. It was an awesome day.

My BFFFL had  reserved rooms for us to stay over at Aylo’s Bay, which I hear is the oldest resort at Akosombo. It has about 10 chalets that dot the property, with loads of flowers and ancient trees providing a canopy. Nadjah was immediately disappointed that we were not in a “proper” hotel.

“Awww!!” she groaned. “I wanted to go to a real hotel. This isn’t a real hotel. Are they gonna bring us breakfast? Where is the TV…”

Nana had gone to great trouble and expense to put us up, and after walking for half the day, I was not in the mood for ingratitude and griping.

“Shut your face and close the door before you let mosquitos in,” I commanded. “This is where we’re staying, so say thank you and like it.”

Apparently, Nadjah and her godmother were of the same mind. Nana had also hoped that the resort would provide more commodities…like air conditioning. The rooms had a shower, kitchen area and a table to eat at. The amenities were very basic. For my part, I had merely hoped for a place large enough to store me and my brood for the night. As I scoped out the bed, I knew it was going to be a long night. I felt myself weaken inwardly.

The queen size bed in the room was fitted with floral sheets and had a massive mosquito net that hung above it. The wicker furniture was lacquered over, making it appear glossy in the sunlight that filtered through windows covered with batik curtains. Outside of our rooms, a view of the Volta river greeted us. An added bonus was a dock that led to a floating dining area (that the girls imagined was a pirate ship) where we had dinner and drinks with the girls. By the time dusk rolled around, a sudden tropical rain was swishing our pirate ship up and down like a twig lost at sea. Aya lost a flip flop in the excitement. Nadjah then declared that she was really happy to be there.

“Thank you for bringing me here Mommy!” she said in appreciation.

We had showered earlier after the walk, and after the girls had tired themselves with play, we prepared to go sleep. I stacked the girls in bed to their comfort and tried to find space for myself. I couldn’t sleep.  As midnight approached, I realized what was keeping me up:

1) I had wicked diarrhea from the spaghetti that the girls had shunned earlier, and it was running its course through me. AND

2) Aylo’s Bay is good for one thing: Shagging.

There I was, under this white billowing mosquito net in a bed that was meant for a man and a woman (NOT 3 kids), looking up at the ceiling and feeling very “some way.” I needed a man, preferably my husband, to share this experience with. My frustration at my situation was only further aggravated when I remembered that one of my fantasies is a night of intimacy under a mosquito net – and when Aya gave me a swift kick in the back as she slept to reinforce that there would be NO intimacy tonight!

The next morning, Nana and I agreed on our perception of Aylo’s Bay’s use, and swore to make use of that purpose on our own (individual) time.

A friend of mine (who has asked not to be named in this post) surprised us the next morning at breakfast and arranged a canoe ride for the girls and I. We drove to the opposite side of the river, where a man named ‘Crocrodile’ rowed up in a red canoe 10 minutes after we made our request. He wore a page boy cap, aviator shades, a Samsung jersey and reeked of gin. Most mothers would refuse to allow their 4 and 5 year old kids to get into a precariously constructed canoe with a man who smelled like he just crawled out of a Johnny Walker bottle, but I ushered them into the wooden structure with as much confidence as I could muster. Aya held my hand in fear  the entire length of the boat ride, while Nadjah dipped her hand into the lake a yelled “Woohoo!!!” for no reason whenever she deemed it appropriate. The Volta lake was the most beautiful emerald green that day. On the surface it looked calm, but beneath us I saw swirling under currents that held up to the lore of the region. They were indeed violent enough to sweet you under and capture your corpse as ransom. Among the beauty of the Volta was filth as well, as random Voltic water bottles floated by us as well as the evidence of prostitution and hookery – An empty bottle of Skin Light cream hung onto the grassy shore.

We ended our day with the purchase pf roasted plantain and groundnuts for  cheap. Jill Scott carried us all the way home. It was truly an amazing weekend for us girls.

“Next time we come to Ghana, I want us to stay here,” Nadjah said.

Oh…I know I will. Aylo’s Bay? Hmmm. You, I’m coming back for you, and your mosquito net!

Part 2: Perpetually Insane

This past Saturday, the girls and I took a trip to Takoradi. El asked if Perpetual was coming along to be of some help and I told her no. I wasn’t sure what our accommodations would be like. It was just as well, because El needed Perpetual’s help to pack up her belonging’s. She and her husband were moving in to a new apartment that weekend.

When El walked in the door, I noticed an immediate change in Perpetual. She was far more servile and far less verbose. I chalked it up to the “CEO syndrome” – You know. The way you act around your supervisor is far different from the way you would act around the CEO of your company. She was more free with me because I was “familiar”. Before we left, I asked her if she could finish washing my clothes and slice my pineapple. I’d eat it when I returned. She nodded and said she would.

A few hours after the girls and I had gotten to the beach and soaked up some rays,  I got a call from El.

“Malaka, I have some bad news. It’s about Perpetual.”

My heart skipped a beat.

“What’s wrong with her?”

“Malaka, I have never suspected Perpetual,” El said. “In fact, I am in shock.”

Ah. Suspected her of what?

As if reading my thoughts, El continued slowly, piquing my curiosity.

“She has been stealing.”

Perpetual??” I asked incredulously.

“You just wait!” El commanded.

She launched into a monologue, detailing what Perpe had taken from her. Apparently, she discovered the theft when she was looking for her work-issued Nokia phone in her bedroom drawer. After asking Perpetual if she had seen it, her reply was:

“No, Ma. I don’t have it. In fact, I’m not even allowed to come into the room.”

“That’s not true!” I interjected. “She comes into the room all the time to make my bed!”

“Wait!” El instructed.

Unable to find or produce the phone, El went into the boy’s quarters where Perpetual lives and keeps her belongings to do a search. She unearthed a brand new Palm Pilot that her father had given her, still in the box. She found $30 in cash. She found a picture frame that someone had given her and her husband for their wedding…and a picture of herself (El) in it, tucked underneath Perpetual’s pillow. It was like something out of a Steven King novel – akin to Misery or something. All this search produced no phone, and only more questions; which of course Perpetual had an answer for each one. None made any sense, but she had a ready answer all the same.

El was livid, distraught and gobsmacked. Unable to speak and not sure what to say next, her husband spoke for her.

“We are going out to take these things to the apartment. By the time we come back, make sure you have washed everything in this house that you are supposed to, do you understand?”

I assume she did.

A few hours later, El returned to the house and her husband stood at the gate calling for Perpetual. They got no reply. He jimmied the lock, and the pair of them continued to call for her, to no avail. When they reached the boy’s quarters, Perpetual still didn’t answer the door. El’s patience ran thin and her blood boiled. She kicked in the door, only to find Perpetual “collapsed” on the floor with an inhaler next to her. Her limbs were spreadeagled and dangling “lifelessly”. As far as anyone knew, she had no asthma. El was having none of it.

“Heh. Perpetual. GET UP,” she seethed. “John, get this girl before I beat her!”

I cut El off at that point in her narration.

“You mean, MY Perpetual? Collapsed on the floor? This is too much like a soap opera.”

It only gets worse. As history has it, El gave Perpetual money to buy some medicine to treat her headache. The other house helps were concerned about the pills she had purchased and told El. The green and white pills she had purchased were to treat schizophrenia, and could potentially screwed her up big time. El immediately confiscated them and sharply scolded my sweet (but obviously really, really crazy) Perpetual. Somehow, the pills ended up back amongst things.

After a day, it was decided that Perpetual must be let go. Her “mother” came down from Kumasi with some lame story that escapes me. The sticking point is that she did not seem surprised or livid about the whole tale.

“Perpetual is actually 17,” she confided. “She had to lie about her age and say she was 20  to get a job, because the agency wouldn’t employ her otherwise.”

Jeez.

And so, my sweet (but really insane) Perpetual has been sacked, and I have no extra pair of female hands to help me around the house. In the meantime, circumstances have forced me back to Adenta, which is situated somewhere between the belly button and armpits of Hell, so I am truly less motivated to extend my stay.

When I got back to the house from our beach weekend, I took a look around. A sickly sweet smell attacked my nostrils.

Dang. She didn’t wash my clothes OR slice my pineapple. Ain’t that a b*tch.

A Perpetual Saga

Since coming to Ghana, I have become addicted to Nigerian dramas. They are my guilty pleasures, with story lines that by mandate must feature a mixture of at least two of the following: a ghost, a death, a robbery, a pregnancy, an arrest, a fight scene, a “love” scene.

If Nigerian films were crack, and I the junkie, then my enabler is Perpetual, my friend’s house help who has been “on loan” to me these last 2 weeks. When I first met Perpetual, I did not know that our destinies would become intertwined so quickly, and that we would be living a Ghallywood film ourselves. In true African fashion, I present to you our film:

PERPETUAL 1&2!!!

Part 1: Perpetually hilarious

After struggling to my meet my father’s impossible living standards for 3 weeks, I gave up and implored my friends in the virtual world to direct me to alternate lodging arrangements. The suggestions came in quickly, but none was more attractive than that of El, a former school mate of mine. She was offering a choice of two homes –  one at Achimota and the other at Laterbiokwashie. When I met with her in Osu to discuss the arrangements, a 20-something year old girl was in the kitchen cleaning up. El introduced me to her.

“This is Perpetual,” she said.

“Good afternoon, mum,” Perpetual said in greeting to me.

“Good afternoon!”

I asked El after we had been seated if what I heard was correct.

“Her name is ‘Perpatua’, isn’t it?”

“No,” replied El. “Perpetual. One day, I wrote a note for her and spelt her name ‘Perpetua’, because that’s what I thought it was. She crossed it out and scratched in the ‘L’.”

“Clearly she thought you were an idiot.”

“Hmmm!”

After El and her husband helped me move in the house, she informed me that she would be sending Perpetual over to help me with the house.

Fabulous! I thought. Because I truly do not feel like sweeping floors or anything else.

Perpetual came in ready to work. She asked me what needed to be done first.

“The laundry,” I said. “The kids clothes need to be washed. We can tackle mine later.”

She washed with amazing efficiency, had the floors swept, and cleaned up in the kitchen. I was free to walk down the street to buy bread and phone credits, two things the kids and I find ourselves in constant need of. In the evening, after the kids had gone to bed, Perpetual brought me a plate on a tray with cutlery. I hadn’t been served like this in ages!

“Thank you, Perpetual.”

“Oh, you are welcome Ma.”

Over the next few days, Perpetual began to refer to me less as ‘Ma’ and more as ‘Malaka’, which I really didn’t mind. (I’m still getting used to people calling me ‘Madam’ when I’m in town.) She and Aya got on together famously. Perpe (as I began to call her) has a love for all things American, and she and Aya would stand in the kitchen slanging one another. I sat in the living room one evening listening to their discourse that permeated the walls of the house. It was laden with vocabulary that included “yers” (yes), “whart?” (what), and “no you dirdn’t”. It was an slaughter of the English language, but the two of them seemed genuinely happy that they had found someone that could finally understand the other.

Perpetual was an amazing humorist, and she and I would joke about almost everything. She seemed oddly overjoyed to be in the temporary employ of someone of American influence, and had me twice speak to her (assumed) boyfriend and her 2 sisters on the phone. I stubbornly refused to speak with a full on Yankee accent, but as one taxi driver informed me the other day, no matter what I do, I will never be mistaken for a Ghanaian.

It was wonderful to have another pair of female hands in the house. Life was 50% better because of it. In the evenings, Perpe would keep me up until midnight watching ridiculous Nigerian films where we would sip Coke and exclaim “Eii!” at the appropriate time. As we struggled to understand each other, a direct result of our own version of ‘slangs’, we would each get the drift of what the other was saying or resignedly accept that we would never ascertain what the other was trying to get at and end the exercise of Q&A by nodding our heads in false understanding.

Perpe was fast becoming a true companion.