Having been in Ghana for nearly 11 straight months, I’ve definitely fallen into a food rut. Cooking no longer excites me and I can’t muster up the smallest hint of excitement for the local staples that I normally prepare. Well, with the exception of fufu. I’m still solidly in the butterflies-in-my-stomach, stars-in-my-eyes, hand-holding stage of that relationship.
But a girl can’t eat fufu every day. One 3 cedi serving is enough to have a chick doing some serious first trimester impressions for the next 36 hours. As with consuming large green coconuts, such nourishment must be taken sparingly – and preferably when one is wearing a gathered skirt.
Desperate for a change, I went online and Googled cassava recipes. After drooling mournfully over descriptions of cassava cake, cassava custard, and cassava pone (oh, for an oven!), I came across some intriguing savory recipes. Quite sure I wouldn’t be finding some of the ingredients at the local kiosks, I headed to a market not far from my house that I’ve never visited before.
An elderly woman near the entrance spotted me immediately and patted her empty, dented metal tub with a hopeful smile. Not seeing any produce in her immediate vicinity, I smiled back, albeit confusedly, and continued on my way.
When I ducked back out of the first stall on my list, she was waiting for me, tub in hand.
Ah hah! Mystery solved. I politely declined the offer of her services to carry all my purchases around the market for me and continued on my way.
There were two reasons for my refusal.
One, I didn’t know how much should be paid for such a thing and didn’t want to get taken advantage of. Because I’m a really bad bargainer. Like, really bad. It only took a couple times of watching my Wisdom in action for me to realize just how lousy I am at this beloved African pastime.
His negotiations usually involve a judicious mix of lavish compliments, incredulous facial expressions, winning smiles, outrage, and prognostications of immense future wealth/multiple business locations/foreign contacts.
Sellers love him. (Seriously, they are always smiling by the time we go, even if he’s undercut their asking price by a good 3 or 4 cedis.)
And then there’s me.
Me: How much is xyz?
Seller: Twenty cedis.
Me: Oh! It is costive!
Seller – impassive silence.
Me: Would you take fifteen?
Seller, shaking head: No.
Me: Okay. Pays for item.
And that’s when I play hardball.
The second reason I refused to hire the elderly woman to carry my purchases is that it just felt wrong. The mental image of me (the white foreigner) coolly walking through market selecting various food stuffs while an elderly woman (local African) struggled along behind under a growing load of cassava, plantain, tomatoes, etc. made me sooooo uncomfortable. I have not heard/read countless diatribes on the blasphemies of white privilege for nothing. I’ll do my own sweating, thank you very much.
When I struggled back through the market under a heavy load of purchases, she was there again, asking for the third time to carry my load. I smiled, said no thanks, and continued on my way. But behind me I heard something that nearly stopped me in my tracks.
“Obruni, you won’t even give me chop money?”
Iiiiiisssshhhh!!!!! I was mere steps from the tro tro. There was no need, even if I wanted it, to hire a carrier at that point. But I had realized, far too late, that I was depriving this woman of the opportunity to generate income.
She could have been begging at the roadside, as a number of her peers often are forced to do. Walking up and down on the median, hand outstretched to the open windows of vehicles stuck in traffic.
But she chose instead to plant herself in the market, with her dented metal tub, in hopes of earning a few cedis (quite possibly far less than she would get from begging) through her own labor. And I, with my bags of vegetables, could have been her meal ticket. Some banku and okra stew perhaps, or a plate of jollof rice. Nothing extravagant, but filling and delicious.
Yes, it would have been awkward if the photogs of White Privilege Tattler: Ghana Edition had shown up and snapped us for the front cover of the January edition. But really, would it have mattered that much so long as that lady was given the opportunity to earn her daily bread?
No, I don’t think it would have.
As someone who has spent time in several developing countries, I am grateful for the increasingly thoughtful approach people are taking to traveling/volunteering/visiting/living in other countries and cultures.
But sometimes, we spend so much time thinking that it cripples us from responding.
There’s this debate Wisdom and I have every 6 to 8 weeks. It’s usually triggered by me, ranting to him (because I don’t dare do it in public) in response to yet another White Person = ATM moment. Sometimes – okay, a lot of the time – I get really tired of being seen as the BOO (Bank Of Obruni). I’m a person, not a cash register.
(And yes, even as I’m typing this, I’m fully aware of how much this makes me sound like a #FirstWorldProblems poster child. But bear with me, because it’s truly not a fun experience when you are living – not just passing through – a place. It gets kind of lonely when you can count on one hand the number of people who haven’t come close to you because they need or hope to benefit in some way from your resources and connections.)
Anyway, I go through my spiel on ATMs and BOOs and the evils of foreign tourists who distribute cash like they’re Santa Claus and vows that I won’t create problems for the outsiders who follow me and round up with a nice hot indictment of the whole concept of begging and those who practice it. (By the way, there’s a difference between beggars and those who practice begging. I will give to the former. The latter? Not so much. But that’s another post for another time.)
When I’m (mostly) calm again, Wisdom comes in and says, “But Sarah, they wouldn’t ask for it if they didn’t need it. You don’t know – you could have been God’s hand to help that person. You’ve never been in their shoes. You can’t know how they’ve struggled in life. Or how many times they’ve tried for work and failed to get anything. You don’t know dry times because when you come from US and change your dollar, the money is plenty for you. It’s not like that for people here. All they have is the cedi. You don’t know what it’s like. It doesn’t always have to be money, you know. Sometimes you can just sit and talk to the person, find out what they’re good at, given them ideas for things they can try.”
So, yeah, I have lots of good, well thought out, reasonable arguments for why I should not.
They make a whole lot of sense when I’m reading them in a book or a magazine article.
But when I start expressing them in response to real life situations? Well, let’s just say I can give a spot-on impression of Ebenezer Scrooge.
Underscore or undermine the stereotypes/old power structures?
Give a man a fish, or teach him to fish?
Enable or empower?
Hand out or hand up?
I’m still struggling to find the balance.