Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Three Cool Things about Ghanaians

Three Cool Things about Ghanaians

1. Akwaaba Water

Akwaaba means “you are welcome!”  Akwaaba is more than a word, it is a way of life with Ghanaians, who are very friendly and, uh, welcoming hosts.  It is tradition for a Ghanaian to welcome someone into their home with “Akwaaba!”, and a bright smile, and a glass of water.  The glass of water is symbolic of being a gracious host, and should be offered right away to guests.  Ghanaians will feel uncomfortable and unwelcome until the glass of water is offered!  As a guest you are not required to drink the water, it is the offering that is important.  As a host you had better be ready to pour some water when your guests arrive, or run the risk of making them feel awkward in your home.  Ghanaians by and large are a friendly and compassionate lot.  I try to retain a little bit of this to this day; when guests arrive at my house I try to make a friendly first impression by sincerely welcoming them to my home, and offering them something to drink.  Sometimes I drop the ball on this bit of ritual but I’m re- dedicating myself to it.  I probably won’t say “Akwaaba!” to you when you come to my home, but be prepared to drink some iiiiiiiiice watah once you arrive – although probably out of a glass and not a plastic bag.  And truth be told that nasty plastic bag water is only seen at lorry stations.  Homes, even of the most modest variety, do have glasses.

2. The Secret Ghanaian Handshake

Maybe I shouldn’t be divulging this particular cool thing here, since some of you who are reading this have never been to Ghana.  I wonder if this is some sort of cool thing that you’re only supposed to learn once you get to Ghana.  So at the risk of offending Ghanaian sensibilities (something I’m pretty good at) I’m going to describe the official Ghanaian handshake.

Step 1.  Shake hands.  Ghanaians don’t particularly care for the firm manly handshake.  Even a bit of an open-hand slap is acceptable instead of a death-grip approach.  The whole approach has what I would call “natural soul,” brother.  It’s tougher for a white boy to pull this off but you got to know where it’s coming from, at least.  There is no pumping of the arms and no “bro-hug” using your free arms while holding the handshake, like we do here in the States.  The Ghanaian handshake is brief, but it can be repeated over and over during a conversation, it is not just for introductions.  It quite frankly is almost used as a punctuation mark, like a double exclamation point.
Step 2.  Sandwich your middle finger and your thumb between the middle finger and thumb of your handshake partner.  This is the set up for step three.  Grip the fingertips firmly.  Unlike step one, some strength is preferred here.  This position is not held long because it is a transition to the handshake payoff in step 3. But messing up the grip here makes it almost impossible to complete the handshake, so be sure to practice and get it right.

Step 3.  Oh snap!  That’s right, pull your hand away and snap your middle finger and thumb against your partners’.  This is a teamwork thing; both participants must pull away at the same time or else the snap won’t work as well.  As good snap will bring a smile to the face of any Ghanaian.  Not only are you welcome, you are accepted, and you have a little soul.  Doing it wrong will not offend however.  Even making the effort to do the Ghanaian handshake will be appreciated.

A couple of notes about the video; what is that white guy eating?  An apple? Where in the heck did he get an apple in Ghana?  And stop eating the apple while trying to learn the cool Ghanaian handshake.  But the other kid, he's got it.  Nice.  Also the Ghanaian kid is awesome.  Love his high-pitched exclamation at the very end.

Of course we see athletes and cool people here in the states perform elaborate handshake rituals all the time.  One has to consider that this all stems from the Ghanaian handshake, or something similar.  I have not traveled to other countries in Africa but I suspect there are other cool African handshake rituals to master in other countries.  Now of course as Americans we go completely overboard with the whole thing.  This seems typical and appropriate given our proclivity towards bombast.  But it all comes from Ghana and there it is simple and cool and soulful and awesome.

3. Palm Wine in a Calabash / Akpeteshie for my homies

Where do I begin with the delights of Ghanaian Palm Wine?  Palm Wine is a mildly alcoholic beverage made from the sap of the palm tree.  I’m not certain if all varieties of palm tree produce palm wine, but it is harvested in a similar manner as maple syrup.  Except I think that unlike maple syrup, palm sap can be harvested throughout the year.  Raw palm sap is non-alcoholic so the sap is fermented in order to preserve it and make it delicious.  There is a sliding scale of fermentation, from very mildly fermented to moderately fermented.  Mildly fermented palm wine had very little alcohol content.  Moderately fermented palm wine is probably similar to beer or wine in terms of alcohol content.  The taste of the palm wine varies quite a bit from batch to batch, and with the amount of fermentation.  Good batches are celebrated, and bad batches are, uh, tolerated. 

Palm wine has a milky, almost iridescent color to it.  It is served from a calabash, which is a gourd, hollowed out of course and made into a serving bowl.  Palm wine is typically drunk with friends, and if there is only one great big calabash it is passed around from person to person to sip while idling in pleasant conversation.  In my opinion it is symbolic of sharing ones good fortune with your neighbors and friends.  Passing around a great big full calabash of palm wine also requires some measure of dexterity, particularly once one is passing around the fifth or sixth bowl of the afternoon.  Spilling of the palm wine is met with laughter and good-natured derision.

Now palm wine can also be distilled into hard liquor.  The Ghanaians will sometimes refer to this as “gin”, but the more common name for it is akpeteshie.  I like to refer to it as “white man’s grave”.  Akpeteshie is strong.  Frequently it is mixed with roots and herbs to add flavor, I presume, but mostly it tastes like pure evil!  I mention akpeteshie not because I enjoy drinking it, which I really really don’t, but because of one important social custom that the Ghanaians do with akpeteshie that I think is pretty cool.  Typically when guests arrive, if the occasion is special, a bottle of akpeteshie will be brought forth, and all guests will be served a small amount (thank goodness) of Akpeteshie.  The host will raise his glass and toast the occasion, and will always honor the dearly departed of his household by pouring a small amount of akpeteshie on the ground, as if to give their honored ancestors the first sip.
 Then all will drink down the nasty fever-inducing liquor.  To not drink, in this instance, is fairly rude as you can imagine.  Of course we see this action emulated in Urban American culture, sometimes with sincerity, and sometimes with mock-sincerity, and sometimes with utter clueless-ness.  But I’m guessing the tradition started right here in Ghana, if not West Africa as a whole.  And having seen and participated in the ritual myself, done with simplicity and sincerity it is a very cool thing.

This concludes my three, three and a half I suppose, cool things about Ghanains.

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