- When you buy green pepper from them at Market, they will hold them up and say, “See! The pepper is even beautiful like you!”
- Even in the midst of making concrete blocks in the hot sun, they will be beating out a rhythm on their wheelbarrow for everyone to sing to.
- They say things like, “Hey! On that day, my joy will even be full!”
- When they haven’t seen you for three whole days they will say, “Oh, Madam Sarah, nowadays your presence is not well distributed at all!”
- They pronounce the silent consonants in words like “whistle,” “plumber,” and “listen.”
- They will sit on the front porch of their bright pink house playing the flute.
- When they find out that you were both born on the same day of the week (Thursday) they will be so happy that you’ll feel as good as if you told them they’d won the Ghanaian lottery.
- You will walk past them with a mouth full of Jago and Bread. And at the exact moment you prepare to take another bite they will say, “Obruni! Are you eating?”
- When you are walking they will say, “Madam Sarah, allow me to help you,” and take your laptop and carry it. Then their friend will say, “Madam, allow me to carry you,” and take your bag. And they will carry all the way up the hill while teaching you a bunch of new Fantse and Effutu words.
- They (complete stranger) will buy you coco and sugar bread from Inkebi’s for your dinner. And then they will give you their number so you can call them anytime you are needing taxi.
- When the coach announces a match next week Sunday, they (12) will look up at you and say, “I will score one goal for you.”
- After the football match, they (18) will look down at you and say, “Madam, did you see the goal I scored for you?”
- They will buy a pair of slippers (i.e. flip-flops) for you. Then they will sew beads on the straps and around the sole (pricking themselves multiple times in the process). They will even sew your first and middle name in beads on the straps. And when they are finished, they will deliver to your house. But they will not allow you to pay – even small-small – because “you are my friend.”
- On the walk back from the field after football practice, they will ask you the following questions: “Why don’t the European women breastfeed?” and “The Bible says we must not worship idols. But when we say the Ghana pledge and stand in front of the flag, is it like we are worshiping it?”
- When their team scores a goal, a whole band of them will march around the perimeter of the field chanting, drumming, dancing, and banging on a cow bell with all their might.
- When their friend tries to take their portable DVD player away they will say, “Hey! You don’t have to be touching the this thing with these Ebola hands!”
- Typical football match behavior: If they’re not playing, they’re drumming. If they’re not drumming, they’re singing. If they’re not singing, they’re dancing. If they’re not dancing, they’re turning cartwheels. If they’re not cartwheeling, they’re fetching the stray balls. If they’re not fetching, they’re advising those on the field (loudly). If they’re not . . .
- When they learn that their friend is hungry and not having money for food, they will bring him a coconut.
- Their winks. “The cuteness? You can’t handle the cuteness!”
- After playing a full match of football, they will take it upon themselves to become the sideline commentator for the next match, complete with interviews of the watching obrunis (“Obruni says the game is nice!” and “Madam Sarah says the goal is exciting!”).
- They’ll walk around Sankor with 1 pink, 1 green, and 1 blue clothespin clipped to their chin. Just because.
- They’ll walk down the road to Penkye wearing a deflated football as a hat. Again, just because!
is pre- and post-practice team prayer.
That, and having complete strangers, random acquaintances, and good friends brush the hair from my eyes, wipe the sweat from my brow (Literally. With their bare hands.), and clean the dirt from my feet (again, bare hands).
Sometimes, it’s good to be a bit of a mess and let somebody help you out.
Easter Monday is a big deal in Ghana. It’s the day just about everyone goes to the beach to celebrate and enjoy.
If you’re a guy, it’s pretty awesome. If you’re a girl, you get reminded all over again that not even lovely Winneba is perfect and are kept busy dodging proposals and pinchings from rude boys and men.
In spite of the gallantry of Samuel (the Stomach) and a couple of his friends, who ran interference and got my friend Mercy and I through a particularly stubborn bunch of teens, I could only handle a couple hours before I was done.
On my way back through Sankor, my neighborhood mom Rebecca invited me to come back that evening for Rice & Stew. Never one to turn down free food, especially when cooked by a master of Ghanaian cuisine, I said yes.
Now, for a little background. My first weekend back, Rebecca invited me to come chop fufu. When I showed up, chicken was among. I contemplated eating it but just couldn’t bring myself to abandon my pescatarian-ism even for her. I confessed that I did not eat land animal but would eat animal – meaning fish – from the sea.
The following week we had smoked fish. Then crab. I didn’t start to worry though, until I removed the cover of my dish and looked down at something that resembled a cross between a crayfish and a lobster.
One should always be specific when it comes to matters of diet. One should also remember that while yes, there are plenty fish in the sea, there are also plenty other things as well.
The crobster, as I dubbed it, turned out to be super delicious. When I raved to Rebecca, her face lit up. “I like to surprise you-oh!”
Therefore, I was only mildly shocked to uncover my dish the next day and look down at the tiny sea snails that are referred to as “kiss-kiss” (because of the noise made when sucking their snaily bits out of their shell. Shudder.). No problem. I could leave them in the bowl and no one would be the wiser that I hadn’t kissed this particular set of sea life. Life was good.
Return to Easter Monday. I settled down to my rice & stew, removed the cover and was confronted with the Ghanaian food group I dread above any other – coat. Taking sections of the hide of a cow, hydrating them until they are fat and chewy beyond all reason, and adding them to soups and stews has never been my idea of a good culinary time.
However, maybe I was wrong. Rebecca had been great at remembering my no-land-animal mantra so far. An exploratory poke of the spoon though, proved that this was most definitely not like any fish I’d had so far. I thoughtfully ate around the two chunks in my bowl while pondering how to politely tell her I could not manage.
About half way through she came from the kitchen and asked, “Have you ever eat some before?”
“No, I haven’t,” I said as cheerily as possible. “I wasn’t sure if it was for eating – my spoon will not cut it.”
“Yes, you can eat! Wash your hands and then do like this,” demonstrating tearing with teeth. “It is fish in the sea-oh! Not land animal.”
“What is the name?”
“Eh, I have forgotten . . . Eh-heh! Insert unfamiliar string of Fantse syllables. It is one of our fish.”
“Well, okay. I will do.” And I did. “Mmmm! It’s good.” It reminded me of a milder version of conch, which I tried in Jamaica and loved.
“Eh-heh! I have remembered – octopus!”
“Eat all!” she said with a big smile.
As soon as she went into the next room I flagged down one of her daughters. “Mercy! Mercy!” I hissed. “What is the English name?”
“Madam Sarah, it is octopus!” she responded with her trademark giggle.
“The one having many legs?” I said, waving my own arms about. And looking absolutely ridiculous in the process I am sure.
“Yes, Madam Sarah.”
Oh, Lord, God of heaven and earth, as Ema is prone to say.
Just don’t think about it. Just don’t think about it. Just don’t –
Eh-heh, I am even recognizing this wavy edge from childhood picture books.
Carefully flipping one of the chunks over, I inspected the other side.
If this is octopus . . . this little round protrusion can only be . . . oh gosh. I really don’t think I’m ready to eat an octopus’ suction cup.
But I did. I chopped aaaaaalll. And I am even now praying that the Winneba fishermen will run out of different-different animals to catch in the sea and that my next surprise will be something normal – like salted fish.
This is why I must to learn never to say never. Everything I’ve ever said I wouldn’t do (work at a library, write, go to Africa, and now, eat octopus) I have ended up doing.
One day-one day-aaah, I will learn to keep my mouth shut.
Every afternoon, Monday through Friday, the members of the Winneba United junior (i.e. under 17) teams gather at the ACM football field for practice.
They come on foot or on bike. Some carry ball boots slung over their shoulders, others haul their gear in discarded purses or children’s backpacks or faux leather bags.
Their attire is a medley of prized Qatar, Samsung, and Fly Emirate’s nylon jerseys and shorts. I see the occasional shoulder with uneven stitches, testifying to a small footballer’s determination to keep his jersey looking fresh. Most wash and wear the same dressing for each practice. I don’t know all their names yet, but I do know most of their jerseys. My favorite is the yellow Adidas shirt with the phrase “With God all things are possible” screen-printed on the front. For those who don’t own a jersey, cotton t-shirts and shorts (preferably with stripes) become their uniforms.
Their hose come in a rainbow of colors and stripes. There’s this one kid who always wears lime green hose – with both tough brown heels poking out the back. Ahmed prefers the puddled around the ankles look (or maybe it’s just because his legs are so skinny!). Essoun is big enough that his hose stay stretched up past his knees even in the midst of fierce battle for the ball. A couple others go for a one hose up, one hose down vibe. Those who don’t have hose make sure to wear the tallest pair of socks they’ve got.
They are footballers. You can see it in the way they run, warm up, focus, handle the ball, dive and fall and get back up.
Even the way many of them lace up their boots – the extra long laces pulled straight back, crisscrossed behind the ankle, tied again in the front – tells the world they are footballers. Their boots and their hose – and the ways they wear them – are part of their identity. They’re great at making them last. A rip from sole to laces on the inside of your left boot? Nothing that can’t be remedied with some careful sewing.
Why are they footballers? Following a four-day-long Easter weekend, Coach Dominic called the teams together and asked them, “Why do you play football?”
“To achieve something better in future.”
“Sir, I need to play to take care of my mother.”
“To get money.”
“Because I dream of football.”
“Coach, to become popular.”
“To get money to help my community.”
“I, I want to become the most popular player in the whole entire world!”
“Coach, please, I want to be like insert name of favorite player.”
“Because it is my talent.”
“To become better.”
“Please, Sir, it is my future.”
Football is an avenue forward. Their chosen path for building on the skills and talents and dreams and resources they already possess.
There are three ways to play a football match, Coach Dominic tells us: Win. Lose. Or draw.
There are three ways a footballer can choose to live his life, he says: Win. Lose. Or draw.
The talented footballer who never puts on a jersey, never represents a team or community or country but simply plays neighborhood matches for fun is living for the draw.
The talented footballer who plays for women – to get the girls – is living to lose.
The talented footballer who plays to achieve something, to represent his country, to get money to help his family and his community is living to win.
To whom much is given, much is expected.
1. They will say, “Are you remembering the towel which you gave to me when you are going the last time (two and half years ago)? I want you to know that I have kept very good care of it. In fact, I put it down purposefully to show you. Have you see? I want you to know that I am trustworthy and honest. In fact, I have given it to my junior sister these past two months. Because in so much as it has been given unto me, I must to give to others.”
2. They will show up at football practice with their ball boots in a pink Disney princess backpack.
3. They will tell you, “Sarah, you must to become a Ghanaian. Have you see? We all like you. In fact, whenever white people are coming and we think they are good, we will call them Madam Sarah. That is how famous you are. So try and become Ghanaian, okay?”
4. They will look totally fine even wearing girl’s flowered shorts to play football.
5. They will push their small brother around on a beat-up, plastic pink tricycle which has no handle bars. And even though it falls apart repeatedly with no warning, they will both be having the time of their life.
6. They will say, “Oh! Madam Sarah is back in Ghana!”
7. They will be driving taxi down the road and see you and call your name. Then they will stop the taxi, leave their passenger sitting inside, and come back to give you a hug.
8. Every time you go to bundle international credit for your phone, they will insist on doing it for you, even though they have plenty customers waiting.
9. They will say, “Madam Sarah,” and you will look down to see a little face gazing up at you adoringly. And you will melt into a puddle and begin devising ways to freeze this child at this particular age forever.
10. They will say, “When I am going to library I am happy because I think you will be there.”
11. They will ask, “What is the population?” And you will say, “Hmm, I think about 60.” And they will respond, “Oh, it’s a very cute number.” And their friend will say, “It is very gorgeous.”
12. Every time you show up for football practice, they come running up to carry your laptop across the field for you.
13. They will say, “We are going to church tomorrow to pray! In fact, I am even going to pray tonight so when I go, I will be full of the Lord’s anointing!”
14. When their teammate misses the ball they will say, “Ah! Are you sleeping?”
15. You will greet them (“Gideon! Eta sane?”) and they will respond that they are fine by God’s grace. But then they will whisper something to their older sister and she will inform you that they have changed their name to Prince so you must to call them that from now on.
16. When you go to beach and are wading you will hear someone calling you. And you will see a small boy standing by a palm tree. “Obruni! Come back or the sea will take you away! I love you!”
17. They will sing gospel songs (in harmony) as they escort you.
18. They (teenage boy) will say, “Nowadays, I am not listening to such a music (i.e. azonto, hip-life, etc.). It is all about love. Inasmuch as I am not come to do that, I must to listen to God’s music.”
19. When you help them with a typing project, they will buy you FanYogo.
20. At Good Friday Bible Study they will say, “Let’s all go to James chapter 2. James chapter 2.” Long pause. “I can’t find my James-oh!”
21. When they find out you are a Christian they will say, “Oh, I am happy, I am happy, I am happy!”
22. They will tell you, “I am having a question in my mind. Should I ask it?”
23. When they invite you to church they tell you, “Oh! The way we will sing and pray and shake and just roll on the floor! Hey!”
Thing One: “Have your menses come?” – 10-year-old boy, translating for his older sister.
Thing Two: “Hey! Your buh-tocks is big! Your vagina is big! Your – ” teenage girl (who I met a few minutes ago for the first time) pauses, mouth open while eyeing breasts dubiously. Closes mouth. Cue awkward silence. (For the record, all pertinent areas were clothed.)
Thing Three: “I want to give birth with you. Do you want a baby?” Twenty-something year old man, who I just met for the first time a few minutes ago.
The CID showed up at the African Christian Mission school where the Winneba United under 17 football teams practice this afternoon.
Their mission? Arrest a few men who were using the Christian school’s vacant classrooms to have sex with underage girls.
Really aren’t words for that.
Who I do have words for is Dominic, the coach of the junior football teams.
He went and spoke to the CID officials, and then came back and gathered the teams with a loud whistle. Thought much of what he said next was in Fantse, I could tell that he was seriously lecturing the boys against ever engaging in such behavior.
He called a friend of his and in the boys’ hearing confirmed that the punishment for anyone impregnating a girl under 15 in Ghana is seven years hard labor.
He pointed to one of the girls on the team, his expression almost fierce, “This girl, if I even hear she is pregnant, I will go and arrest the man myself. You will see. Even if her own mother does not care, you will see. The other coaches and I, we will go and arrest that man.”
He told the story of a 19-year-old neighbor who at the 6th of March Independence Day celebration was “jubilating.” On the 7th of March, CID came and arrested him in connection with a 13-year-old girl. “This boy ah, he will be in that place until 2022.”
“Eh-woah!” said the team in response.
“I was there at the station – all day, we did not sleep until 11 that night. And again the next day. We spent more than 2,000 Ghana cedis. The police will not consider because of his age – he will go. And the same will happen to you if you do not take care. So a word from the wise is – ?”
“Correct!” chorused the team.
“That is all. You can go home now.”
“Coach Dominic,” I said, “thank you for telling the boys that. It was very good.”
“When you see your neighbor’s barn burning, you must to use it as a teachable moment. What those men do – it is not good,” he responded seriously.
When barns burn, it’s good to know that there are young men who will teach future men not to light the fires.
You know you’re at a Ghanaian football match because . . . well, a couple of reasons really.
The goal is part metal and part wood and no parts net.
The field is part dirt and part grass and part empty water sachets.
The changing rooms double as 1) a tree (home team) and 2) a pile of cinder blocks (visitors)
The players have to keep fetching wayward balls from the neighbors’ yards.
The players are sharing ball boots.
But mainly, you know it’s a Ghanaian football match because:
All the spectators suddenly vacate the field
to go follow the man who is dragging the dead goat
and the man who is dragging the dead snake (rumored to be a python)
that killed the goat and was trying to swallow it
before the men saw it and killed it
and decided to take it for a nice long show-and-tell drag through town
See pictures below:
Always an adventure!
The lead pastor and half the worship team have sweated through their shirts by the third song.
Each time you look up at the stage, a different person is playing the drums or trumpet or keyboard.
The lead tambourine-ist is dancing so hard her wrap falls off.
Everyone is waving and/or dancing with their palm fronds. Amen-oh!
Almost everyone is wearing palm fronds around their neck, in their hair, or around their upper arms.
Four teenage boys are holding the corners of a wrap like a canopy and dancing while a fifth teenager shimmies underneath.
Your right ear goes temporarily deaf because of the trumpeter playing just past your right shoulder.
A woman runs up out of the congregation to wipe the sweat off the back and face of one of the tambourine players.
The congregation spends a good half an hour dancing around the tithes and offerings boxes.
Everyone is smiling and singing at the top of their lungs.
The grandmothers are (just about) out-dancing the teenage boys.
The pastor breaks into song halfway through the sermon and the congregation and worship team join in without missing a beat (just like a musical!).
The pastor gives a PSA on not urinating just wherever (right after the salvation/re-dedication prayers and just before the collection for women who’ve lost loved ones recently).
You can’t wait to see what happens at the Easter service!