The Roasted Plantain Seller of East Legon

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Dodzi on her perch

At 9:30 a.m, Dodzi has already roasted wedges of plantain arranged in a pyramid, the thin ends converging upwards. Her face glistens with sweat. She perches on the table that supports the rusty enamel pot of smoldering charcoal, using tongs to turn over the plantains. Usually her eyes hold a sardonic grin but when she sees me slow down in my car, she breaks into delight, displaying even teeth I envy.

I pull over. She jumps down to come for my order, but I wave her back, motioning I’m getting out. Before my car arrived from America, I used to walk to her plantain stand, taking my time to point out which ones I wanted, sometimes eating there. Now, I’ve become one of those enclosed in an air-conditioned car, waiting for a seller to approach my window and fill my order before driving off. I’ve missed the leisure of relating.

Dodzi says something in Ewe to her younger helper and they both smile. I suspect she said I’ve come to visit this time. My purse slung over my shoulder, I cross the gutter and make my way to the bench behind her roofed stand. We exchange greetings. She’s well; I’m well. I sigh with contentment. The breeze is so tingly.

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Dodzi’s helper sweeping around. My car is in the background

I’ve thought of writing about her and even prepared questions on my phone but have never found the time. Now I ask her if I can take her picture and probe into her business. She rolls her eyes and snorts. “People are always coming to ask us questions. Newspaper people, Legon students, asking all sorts of questions. We don’t know what they want with us.” She darts a suspicious look at me. “What are you going to do with my picture?”

“I want to write a blog about you,” I say.

“What is a blog?” She throws her hands up, shaking her head. “I don’t want trouble!”

“Oh, just an online article. Something I write for fun.” She’s still suspicious, so I pull out my phone and open my blog. “See?”

Somehow, she gets the idea that it’s only in America and relaxes, flipping plantains over. I feel a smidgen of guilt for not telling her I have readers the world over.

“Should I give you the usual?” she asks.

“Yes,” I say. “Two cedis, and one-cedi groundnuts.” In the glove compartment of my car, some nuts from the previous day nestle in their clear plastic envelope the size of a deck of cards, but I want to give her business. She hands me two hot plantains wrapped in paper. They are just the way I like them: not too ripe. I settle down to munch and talk, looking round me. I’m not sure how to proceed. The questions I’ve prepared suddenly seem artificial:

How much do you make in a day?

Enough, she answers without looking at me. She has no time for that kind of silliness. A suited customer awaits in a car. She rushes to the window to take his order, then she serves him, wrapping four cuts of plantains in paper before slipping all into a blue plastic bag. After delivery, she smiles at the man and waves him off.

“You still serve in plastic?” I ask when she returns to her perch on the table.

She sighs. “Yes, I told you before, they won’t take the plantains without plastic. I hear on the radio; they tell us plastic with hot food is dangerous, but if I don’t give them plastic, they ask me if I take them for bush people. Look at them, educated people wearing suits in their cars and they want plastic. What can I do? I have to serve them in plastic or they will go to someone else. I wish they were like you. It would save me money. I have to buy these plastic bags that might kill my customers.” Her smile is bitter, sardonic again.

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Reluctantly serving hot plantain in plastic bags

As she’s talking, a friend of hers from the other side dodges the Lagos Avenue traffic and dashes over, smiling at me. “Ei, Mommy, you have come to visit us again.”

I give her a half smile. Mommy. It’s a politeness thing that makes me feel ancient. I loathe it.

“Ei, is that your car?” she asks. “I remember you complaining about dusty taxis, haha.”

“She’s complaining about plastic again,” Dodzi says, wiping her hands in her blue apron.

“Hmm, Mommy, as for die, we will all die. It’s in God’s hands.”

“That’s what’s wrong with this country,” I say with heat. “We take no responsibility for our lives. We say, Oh, God is in control, so we don’t need to change our toxic behavior, we don’t need to take care of ourselves!”

“That’s why we go to church,” the friend says. “When it’s your time to die, you die. But you go to heaven.”

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Friendly advice: When it’s your time to die, you die

I snort. “Yeah, church is fine, that’s why pastors have so much power. People are so full of “God is in control” that pastors are the ones in control. No wonder they take people’s money and impregnate their women.”

The friend gives me a tolerant smile and turns to Dodzi, but Dodzi smiles contemptuously.

“Sister, I agree with you,” she says. “Let me tell you, I know this pastor. He prays for women who can’t have children and when the children are born they all look like him, ha! He fucks the women, that’s what. I am no fool. I know what is going on, but people are afraid of pastors so men let them chop their wives, ha!” Her laughter is full of scorn.

I’m impressed. Usually the not so educated aren’t this irreverent. As we’re talking, her younger helper sweeps around us. I’m about to ask Dodzi more questions about pastors when I notice her starting a fire about ten yards from us.

I turn to Dodzi, pointing. “Is she burning the rubbish?”

“Yes.” She goes on flipping plantains, the perfect arches of her brows serene. She squeezes a plantain to see if it’s cooked through, then wipes her hand on her apron. A customer awaits. She serves quickly, asking the lady to have a nice day.

I eye the gray smoke rising into the air, then I note that on a long table near us, sachets of pure water are stacked in an ice cooler, as well as soda.

“Does the trash contain plastic?”

“Yes,” she says, still not looking at me.

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Burning rubbish containing plastic

To be continued.

 

 

America or Ghana, How not to Die

My friend Denise visited me in Virginia one day. She had a feminine condition caused by an overproduction of that necessary hormone, estrogen. The doctor’s solution was to prescribe birth control pills. However, the pills came with a warning. They might cause cancer of the uterus or breast. You’ve got it. Everything is bad for us and might kill us. It doesn’t matter if you live in Ghana or America.

The air we breathe is charged with pollutants that might just cause cancer of the nostrils and lungs. Is it any wonder that Michael Jackson supposedly spent $150,000 on an oxygen capsule? A British magazine reported that the dea was to take naps in it so he could breathe in pure oxygen. That way he would live to be 150 years old. Bless his dearly departed soul.

Our water source contains lead and contaminants, so we dump in Chlorine to kill germs, but that same chlorine might cause cancer. Therefore, we buy filters to remove the lead and chlorine. In the process, essential minerals are filtered out, which might lead to disease and ultimately death. What are we to do?

Food is the biggest source of death-causing carcinogens. Now, some Ghanaians love their Corn Flakes. You open a box to discover a substance whose only connection to corn is the name it bears. Somewhere in America, they take good, wholesome corn and grind it until it forfeits its very soul. Then,, after they have flattened and singed it into an awesome crisp, they fortify it with 45 vitamins and minerals. Only heaven knows what those vitamins do once they hit your system.

Step into a pharmacy in America and the assortment of vitamins will make you dizzy. Alfalfa 1000, Centrum 21 (more complete from A to Z), Beta carotene, Charcoal tablets, charcoal! Each bottle is compounded with substances like Dicarbon Phosphate and Sodium Molybate. What in God’s name is that? All this so that we don’t die.

Did you know that anti-perspirant deodorant can provoke breast cancer in women, which is one of the leading causes of female deaths? Or that the cavity-preventing fluoride in our toothpaste can adversely affect our liver function? Sure, we could go back to the chewing stick that can reach recesses that even the toothbrush can’t reach, but that could lead to heaven knows what.

What about the clothes we wear? Believe it or not, some scientists say they are bad for us. The chemicals used in dyes can cause cancer. Undergarments can lead to urinary tract diseases and yeast infections. I don’t know why Adam and Eve had to complain about their nakedness. They are responsible for all this woe on humanity. Constricting ties, bras—it’s endless. Don’t you feel like Macbeth with the good angel and bad angel on your shoulders? Do this, don’t do that, yes, no, yesnoyesnoyesno…

We’ve gone completely crazy. Mankind refuses to accept the truth. Ever since the beginning of time, we have been destined to die. Life is an incurable disease. It is a terminal illness. No one is going to come out alive. We are all going to die, even if we managed to live to be 150 years old. (Who wants to live that long, anyway?) And here’s the thing, even people of spiritual faith aren’t in a hurry to get to heaven. We want very much to cling to life on this earth.

So how do we not die? When I visited Edinburgh, I was struck by the centuries old cathedrals and gothic architecture. The people who build them are gone, but their works endure. Pierre L’Enfant, the man who designed Washington D.C. with its spectacular bridges is dead, but his work remains. Kwame Nkrumah is gone, but his countless achievements endure. Mother Theresa lives on through the many lives she saved and touched. Shakespeare and Achebe live in our libraries. You see, speaking in purely secular terms, the only way to defy mortality is to leave something of yourself behind. Anne Frank, whose diary is a marvelous literary feat for a teenager, wrote: “I don’t want to have lived in vain like most people. I want to be useful or bring enjoyment to all people, even those I’ve never met. I want to go on living even after my death!”
Indeed, she lives on in her book, in the narration of her story as you climb up the narrow stairs and slip behind the bookcase into the space she and her family hid from the Nazis.

Are you a secret writer? Write a book, a blog, anything. Are you an artist? Draw. Paint. Sculpt. Are you a philanthropist at heart? Do something for humanity. It doesn’t have to be big. You can do something for the  people who live around you. It can be as simple as the man at the Accra Lawn Tennis Club who showed me such uncommon courtesy and warmed my heart to such a degree that even today, I smile when I remember him. It can be as little as living in the heart of the old woman next door, the one you helped carry bags. It can be as big as the school you built. Your path to immortality can be as big or as little as you need it to be, so long as you find fulfilment in it.

By all means, swallow 1000 grams of Alfalfa if you want to. Eat well. Exercise. Do whatever makes you feel better about your body. But remember, no matter what you do, this body is going to fertilize the earth one day. The only way not to die is to leave something of yourself behind, something good for those who will come after you.

 

“Sing a Song of Temma Harbour…”

Mary Hopkin sang “Temma Harbour” in 1970. I can still hear its beautiful chorus my father used to play; beginning at 0.38 seconds. Coconut trees still line the beach. The smell of fish still wafts from the sea, even if clearing your goods makes you forget that for a moment…

 

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No, my son, Tolu, doesn’t work at the harbor. This is a requirement for entering. You must wear flashers in daylight, whether you are a worker or not. And you have to buy them, for 8 Ghana cedis each. We got them for 7 each, much to the indignation of the sellers. “Why did you have to bargain? Everyone pays 8 cedis!” My hired driver knew better to bring his own. While it is irritating, it creates business for people.  My agent’s assistant wore hers, beaming. By day’s end, that smile had wilted to misery.

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The worker who opened the container (see below) asked us to put money in his “collection” bucket. We declined. He did his job, anyway. See? Progress! Unfortunately, at every turn, people slipped ten cedi notes into the hands of clipboard wielding officials.

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Car being freed from the container. It is always a good idea to make sure they put a platform to drive out the car. They get overwhelmed and try to cut corners, damaging tires. IMG_3410

This part was puzzling. After the cars got out, the 40 ft container was only a quarter full, yet they pulled out all the boxes. Here I am, three hours later, waiting for inspectors to come verify my shipment, the brown boxes. The other stuff belongs to other people. Twelve years ago, when I shipped, the inspection took place inside the container. Dumping everyone’s boxes outside creates chaos and congestion. Hopefully they will go back to inspecting in the container unless there isn’t enough room. I worried about rain, but the good weather held.

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The inspection crew consisted of three sets of officials: Customs, National Security and BNI (Ghana’s equivalent of the FBI) Really? At each turn, I opened boxes and allowed full access, without paying a bribe. However, I discovered that getting the inspectors to do their job on time required slipping cedi notes into their palms. Agents have no choice, unless they want their client to spend more than one day at the harbor and put up with full-throat venting. I have a dream that this bullying practice of having to pay a wage earner to do his/her job will end. I have a dream.

I have a dream that it won’t take five hours after inspectors finish for the documents to be readied and printed so that one can leave the harbor before ten p.m., when one arrives at 8:40 a.m.

I have a dream that leaving the harbor won’t require going through four more check points within a space of fifty yards, where clipboard-wielding officials make a good show of frowning and taking notes while cedi notes slip under the clipboard. I have a dream that agents won’t pass this cost onto their clients, marked “sundry expenses” in the invoice.

I have a dream that the proposed changes coming to the ports will become a reality.

I believe my dreams will come true, so I’ll sing a song to Temma harbour, won’t climb a coconut tree but eat lots of it plus grilled fish on the beach.

 

House Hunting in Ghana, is this whining?

 

I wanted to buy a house, not build. And I wanted it right away. I had this quixotic notion that I’d tour the many houses I’d heard about, and pick one. All within two weeks. Ha ha. The day after my arrival, a mortgage employee moonlighting as a realtor picked me up. Thus began three weeks of house tours that drained me of hope until my eyes rolled over.

To homeowners, the concept of showing a house at its best is absurd. I saw a home at Manet Gardens that was dark, moldy and blistering with moisture, from the foundation up to about a foot high. The owner assured me it was no big deal. He would scrape off the blisters, slather it with some kind of black sealant to get rid of the moisture, and paint the whole house. Everything will be fresh, he said, just trust me. Now, why would I? Why would I rely solely on the words of a complete stranger?

House after house turned out the same. One house at East Legon hills was so fetid I stumbled back outside, gasping for air. No amount of cajoling could get me back in.  The house hadn’t been opened in years, the owner said. It was black and damp. Why not tell the buyer upfront about the condition to expect? Why whip up desire with pictures taken years before, or doctored, luring buyers to waste precious time? Meanwhile the moonlighter kept saying it wasn’t so bad. Implication: a customer shouldn’t expect the best. Thou shall not whine!

When you do find a house you like (and there are many gorgeous homes), chances are you can’t afford it. Prices are listed in dollars. For a country where public health doctors earn about $1000 a month, how can one afford a $250,000 home? What’s mind boggling is that you’re expected to have that amount and more sitting nicely in your bank account. Even more amazing is that people do have that kind of money. As explained to me, most houses aren’t built for the Ghanaian. They are built for the expat who has muchos dollars, or the foreign Ghanaian who can take out a substantial home equity loan, or the rich Ghanaian. Faced with these kinds of difficulties, people have turned to estate developers.

With developers, pre-construction prices are better. As it might take a year to two for your house to be completed, you get to spread your payments. It’s still not easy for the average worker. Even these developers are building houses worth $100,000 or more, unless you’re prepared for four hours of a daily commute to far flung neighborhoods. Fortunately, there are a couple of mortgage companies like Ghana Home Loans and Home Finance Corporation that offer 20-year mortgages. For a mere 10-13 %.  Now, before you go into cardiac arrest, note that although American mortgage rates can be as low as three percent, you also pay higher taxes and insurance, never mind end-of-year tax deductions. In Ghana, your monthly mortgage isn’t going to be as astronomical as you think. However, to qualify for the loan, you must have the credit history of a saint and earn above average income. What’s more, mortgage companies typically lend $50,000 to $75,000. As a result, young professionals are forced to rent.

Renting invites the same headache as buying. You go cheap and you have to live beyond the suburbs, or get something unlivable in the city. For a nice place in a nice neighborhood, say a two-bedroom, be prepared to shell out anything from $400 a month to $2000, depending on your budget. Worse still, you’re required to pay one to three years rent in advance, depending on the owner. This is of course against the law. You are only required to pay three months advance. However, it’s a lonely road fighting for your rights when renters regularly shell out the outrageous amounts. Still, I’d encourage you to follow the law.

The good news is that the price of rentals has gone down, so landlords are grudgingly taking in less advance. You can actually find a two-bedroom flat or chalet in East Legon from $500 a month. Chances are it won’t be modern and glitzy like apartments in Clifton homes. These fancy buildings are sprouting everywhere, featuring Lilliputian dwellings for the price of arms and legs. Most are thinly built, not sound-proofed and inhabited by people who fear smiling might diminish them. The buildings feature swimming pools and gymnasia, with monthly maintenance fees from $300-$500. Clearly not for the light of pocket. But they have 24-hour security, constant water and emergency generators. I do have to say though that the dumsor has greatly improved. Power outages are becoming rare.

If you do find what you love, try not to show enthusiasm. Whether you’re buying or renting, the minute you wiggle with excitement, or verbalize it, the price goes up. Either the agent got the price wrong in the first place because he/she got the listing through another agent, or it’s a deliberate ploy to reel you in and make the most out of you. Sometimes your agent originates the price hike; sometimes it’s the owner. Don’t be fooled by the compassionate smiles. Greed is rampant. Then there are the owners that will sooner have a house stand empty for years than reduce their inflated prices. At one home, when my realtor pointed out to the owner that he was losing money, the owner said, “No I’m not. Do I feed or clothe the house?” But he does feed the house. Apartments remain empty because their owners would rather pay maintenance fees than reduce the rent. The concept of rent sale seems an affront to both property and owner, therefore the homes stand in uninhabited defiance.

In conclusion, if you’re planning on moving back to Ghana, fly down and check out the scene. Study the market for a bit, and decide what’s best for you. But unless you have a pile of dollars, don’t expect to do it in a couple of weeks, or even a couple of months. It’s still worth it. When you’re sitting at a poolside concert, nibbling on kelewele, that spicy fried plantain, tossing groundnuts into your mouth and toasting your friends, nothing seems to be such a big deal. That’s the Ghanaian guide to happiness.

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