Part 2, The Roasted Plantain Seller

“Does the trash contain plastic?

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

“But burning plastic is so bad! You know that!”

She turns the glare of her slit eyes on me. “What do you want me to do? If we don’t burn it, this place would be nasty.”

I cast my eyes along the road. There’s not a single trash can in sight. Only twenty yards down from us, another roasted plantain seller waits on a customer. Once called Kofi Brokeman, roasted plantain with groundnuts is no longer a meal for the poor. Lagos Avenue in affluent East Legon is dotted with women roasting away. Nowhere to put their trash.

I turn to Dodzi. “Don’t you wish the government would put rubbish bins on the street?”

Both women snort. “Ghana government?!”

Dodzi gives me a side glance full of scorn. “They should put rubbish bins where? No one cares, tweaa! Go to Kasewa. There are mountains of rubbish everywhere. Right by the rubbish heaps, they sell foodstuffs.  Trᴐtrᴐ drivers drop and pick up passengers right in front of a mountain of rubbish. Kai! It’s true. So, we do what we can. We sweep and burn the rubbish because there’s nowhere else to put them.”

My words dry up. What can I say? I should be attacking Accra City Council or something, not her.

“What about these,” I say, pointing at a carton full of plantain skins to my right. “Why aren’t you burning them?”

“Those? We sell them at Medina market. They use them to make alata sɛmena. The black soap, you know. They burn them and cook the ash.”

Her friend chimes in. “It’s a long process of boiling and cooling and until the soap rises to the surface. You can smell it.”

“I can show you how to do it if you like.” Dodzi says. Then she turns indignant. “That soap, I grew up with it. We always made our own soap. Now, they, they, they, they say we should use Dove, Lux, stuff from foreign lands. Our soap makes your skin feel good and young. Our food is better too! Look at you, looking so young. It’s because you’re eating roasted plantain and groundnuts, Ghana food. You’ve got fresh blood! Ghana food is good for you. I’m sure you’ve got a boyfriend. I’m sure all these young men are chasing you. Someone is fucking you, no?”

I’m spared a response, because at that precise moment, she spots a young man strolling past. He is clicking a pair of tiny scissors. “Herh!” she calls. “Come cut my nails for me.”

“Who is that?” I ask.

“He cuts nails. That’s his business.”

What do you know, an ambulatory mani-pedicurist! He swivels round and steps behind the plantain stand. Dodzi sits like a lady riding side saddle on a horse. She can roast her plantains and peel off groundnut skins at the same time, filling tiny plastic envelopes with the peeled nuts. Her bare feet hang down, and the pedicurist goes to work. He’s from the north, with the tribal marks of a Frafra though he communicates in Hausa.

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Dodzi getting a pedicure while roasting plantain

“Where are the leaves for the apklɛ?” Dodzi’s friend asks. Dodzi points at an aluminum bowl. The friend picks up the bowl and begins separating the leaves from the stems. Then she turns to me.  “Do you know akplɛ?”

“Sure, I do. Is it not like banku, only with more cassava?”

“Aha, you see?” Dodzi says. “Some people don’t know, just because it’s Ewe food. We are all one Ghana, with slight differences.”

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Preparing for the main meal

“It’s true,” I answer.  “So how much for the pedicure?”

Her friend jumps in. “One cedi.”

One cedi! Less than 25 American cents. Dodzi laughs at my expression. “Yeah, you can go to the salon for a pedicure where they put your feet in warm water and do all kinds of fancy stuff. Me? I don’t have time for that. I can paint my own nails when I get home. I don’t need to pay 20/30 cedis when I can get my nails cut for one cedi and not waste time.”

“She has to go home and cook for her family,” the friend says. “She’s going to make soup with the leaves to go with the akplɛ. She doesn’t have time for salons. That’s why I’m helping her.”

“No, this pedicure is great,” I say. “Look, he’s even got his soap for cleaning the nails. Wow.”

Nail clippings settle on the ground near my feet. I ask if they are going to sweep them and burn them. A look of horror overtakes Dodzi. “Sweep them and throw them away? My nails? No, no, no!”

“Why not?”

“Ah, Sister, don’t you know? Human nails are powerful. You never know what people are going to do with them. I’m taking them home to burn or bury.”

I’m confused. “What will people do with them?”

“They can do medicine. Ei, hmm. You don’t know! Maybe someone is jealous of you. She takes your nails to the medicine man, and next thing you know, you’re dead. Or your belly gets swollen with rotten intestines.”

“Let me tell you,” the friend says, “even your soiled menstrual pads can be used.”

“Yes!” Dodzi says. “Do you know people steal those from your rubbish bin? Hmm, I had a neighbor. Ah, she kept noticing that any time she woke up, her rubbish was scattered on the ground, like someone used a stick to poke and separate them. And yet when she collected them, she would notice that not a single used pad was to be found. Her neighbor was stealing her used pads to use them for medicine.”

“But how?”

“You don’t know? They put water on it to redeem your blood, then they take it to the medicine man to make juju and either sabotage your business or kill you. Ei, let me tell you. I even know someone who would stalk her enemy at the hairdresser’s to get her hair. Make sure you collect your bits of hair when you go to the salon.”

I nod in shock.

“Don’t let them keep your nails. And watch out for your pads.”

“Erm…thanks.” I don’t want to tell her about my hysterectomy. Who knows where that conversation would lead to? “So, where do you get the paper you use to wrap plantain in?”

“Medina market. You can get anything from Medina—Hey, MTN!” She’s looking at a lady sitting under a large red umbrella selling phone cards. “Bring me ten cedis’ credit.”

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Where do Medina sellers get this paper from?

I marvel at how Dodzi multitasks: roasting plantains, serving customers, prepping for dinner, getting her nails done and keeping up with the competition.

“There are so many of you roasting plantain,” I say. “Don’t you worry about not getting enough business?”

She smiles confidently. “No, there’s enough for us. God provides for us all. They have their customers; I have mine. Like you. You come back, don’t you?”

“I do,” I say, smiling wickedly. “Even though your plantain wedges are thinner than others!”

Her tongs hang in the air. She looks betrayed. “You bought from someone else? What?”

“Well, erm, sometimes I have to. If I can’t fight the traffic to get here. But you’re my favorite!”

She smiles and shrugs, turning over a plantain. “Anyway, I can’t envy anyone. My customers always come back.” She picks up a stick and pokes at the coal.

I know I will always come back. She’s sassy and witty. And she’s my friend.

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Dodzi, my friend

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.