Monday, May 9, 2011


Man this is weird.  I’m sitting in the living room of one Mr. Patrick Achempong, bank security guard and taxi cab owner, middle-class (for Ghana) Koforidua resident, and his wife Mary, and their three daughters Vida, Patience, and Doris.  Just me and the Achempongs.  Patrick speaks a little English, as does Vida, the oldest daughter, but the others, not so much.  Mostly we sit and smile at each other.  Mary busies about the kitchen making supper, and they offer to let me play my cassette tapes of American music.  What would they like?  I only brought two tapes with me for my three-day visit with this family; one cassette with the Indigo Girls and Van Morrison, and the other with David Bowie and The Specials.  I select the Indigo Girls and press play.  
 The stereo is cranked super-loud, and for some reason plays the tapes ridiculously fast.  Why it’s like listening to a whole new band!  Let’s slam-dance to the Indigo Girls!  I can’t tell if they enjoy this hyper-caffeinated, totally-blown-speaker version of “Airplane”, but I find it oddly appropriate and amusing.  I start to laugh.  They have no idea why I’m laughing.  That’s the second biggest thing I miss most about home; I don’t share a sense of humor with the Ghanaians.  (First is the food)  Well they seem to be tolerating the Indigo Girls at least.  Or they’re too polite to tell me otherwise.  The Achempong family is religious.  Evangelical Protestant, I think.  I wonder if they think we’re listening to a religious song.  Is this a religious song?

"Up on the airplane
Nearer my God to thee
I start making a deal
Inspired by gravity"

Well they say “God” there in the second line, so, you know, close enough.  And the Indigo Girl with the “pretty” voice is taking lead on this one, so that’s good, that’s helpful.  The other one might scare them.  Heck she scares me a little, and I’m American.  An American boy, mind you.  I always feel like I shouldn’t be listening to the Indigo Girls, like I’m peeking in on the girl’s only clubhouse.  But I’m a sucker for harmonies and lyrics.  The lyrics on “Airplane” are about traveling, being away from home, so although I’m not currently on an airplane I find the song quite appropriate. 

I wonder if they have a song about complete communication breakdown?  That might be more appropriate as we all sit and stare at each other.  I didn’t bring my copy of Led Zeppelin I with me to Ghana.  Seriously I have no idea what to say to these people.  I’ve been in Ghana for almost two months now.  Our in-country training is wrapping up and we’ll be sent to our volunteer sites in a week or so.  In fact just this day I found out where I’ll be living and teaching for the next two years.  I’ll be moving to a little town called Boso, in the hills on the border of the Eastern Region and the Volta Region.  Not too far from Koforidua, actually.  But first I must survive my home stay with the Silent Achempongs.  I realize that I’m a bit of curiosity, being all, you know, the white Obruni American and everything, but their curiosity is limited, apparently, to the non-verbal kind. 

I am temporarily saved by supper.  And it is really quite good; beans and rice, and plantain, and soda! They offer me an Orange Fanta soda.  The soda here comes in glass bottles.  The bottles are not merely recycled but actually re-used, over and over until they literally break.  Then I presume the broken glass is used to make beads or finds some other use.  They really don’t throw much away.  Food waste goes to the chickens in the yard.  Trash is mostly limited to scraps of paper, which is frequently burned in the back yard.  I’m told now that trash is more of an issue in Ghanaian cities, which is really too bad.

My Orange Fanta is not cold but it is very delicious.  And after supper they offer biscuits!  Not American biscuits, flaky and covered in gravy, but English cookies.  They call them biscuits here just like the English, and they come in little sleeves, and I think that they actually are from England, and they are just about the most delightful things I can possibly think of.  Little shortbread biscuits.  I eat like 12 biscuits and consider supper a grand success. 

I have my own room in the house, furnished simply with a bed and a strange green fluorescent light on the wall, and a wooden chair, and a print of Jesus – hazel-eyed, chestnut-haired White Jesus, mind you – and that’s it.  The bed mattress is foam, covered in plastic with a sheet above the plastic, so it squeaks whenever I move.  I try to lie still on my back and sleep.  I’m low to the ground and there’s no ceiling fan so it’s pretty hot in there.  I always find it awkward to sleep too low to the ground or too close to the ceiling, so I sleep fitfully on my low bed in the heat of the night, and wake up on my own before 6 am, to the sound of roosters crowing and Mary sweeping the porch with a rough whisk broom.  I’m not really sure when I’m supposed to wake up, much less where I should brush my teeth, even where to use the toilet – there doesn’t seem to be a bathroom in the house, or a sink?  I’m too embarrassed to ask anyone so I decide I’ll just wait to do those things until Patrick takes me back to school, where I’m teaching summer-school students.  Problem solved?  Sure; if the problem you’re trying to solve is “how to survive in Ghana without figuring out how Ghanaians do things.”  I realize I’m sort of mentally shutting down on my host family and the longer it goes, the worse it’s going to get.

I get dressed and enter the living room.  I realize when I am presented with breakfast consisting of a warm Fanta, and a plate of English biscuits thoughtfully laid out in a circular pattern upon a plate, that I may have shown a bit much gusto when demolishing all the previous night’s biscuits.  Hey, I’m a stereotype!  An Ugly American with awful, and expensive, eating habits.  Now I feel pretty stupid.  What, I inquire, are you all eating for breakfast?  They don’t seem to share the same enthusiasm for English biscuits as do I.  Cold beans and rice leftover from last night.  Well ok, that makes sense.  I should refuse the biscuits and Fanta.  But I really want them.  And they’re already out of the package, and it would be rude to refuse their hospitality, so, ok.  Fanta and biscuits for breakfast it is.  If you’re going to be a spoiled brat, at least get some biscuits out of the deal.

Eventually I was able to overcome my problems with Ghanaian food, and I did end up eating local for most of my meals.  However the one meal of the day I refused to “go native” was breakfast.  Every morning at my site I would cook up oatmeal, mix it with powdered milk, and eat it with fresh-squeezed orange juice and bananas.  Ghanaians didn’t eat much dairy, and the powdered milk was marketed almost exclusively to mothers to make baby formula, so I’m certain they thought me strange for buying gigantic tins of powdered milk during my stay there.  But breakfast remained the one meal of the day I had to have all to my own.

But on the home stay you are at the mercy of your hosts.  After school Patrick and Vida picked me up in his taxi, and we went back to his house for Friday night dinner and church.  During school on Friday I toyed with the idea of feigning an illness to get out of the rest of my home stay, but ultimately I was ashamed of myself for thinking such things. I resolved to stick it out and try to enjoy my stay with the Achempongs and try to learn something about them.  Church was quite enjoyable, there was lots of singing.  Traditional western hymns mostly, some in English and some in Twi.  I like singing; it’s my favorite part of church, actually.  Of course I was a bit of an object of interest at the church, and many people wanted to say hello and shake my hand. 

Around this time I began to notice that Vida, Patrick’s oldest daughter, and a young woman probably 2 or 3 years my junior, seemed to always be positioned very near to me.  I began to harbor suspicions that The Achempongs might be trying to set me up with their daughter!  Oh boy.  My suspicions grew throughout the next day when we all went to a funeral for the day.  Nothing sows the seeds of love like a good funeral, I always say.

First thing you need to understand about Ghanaians, at least the Akan people, is that funerals are a big deal.  Funerals are the social event of the week.  Akans spend obscene amounts of money on funerals.  I’ve mentioned this briefly before.  The Ga people in particular like to make customized fantastical coffins for their dearly departed.  Coffins in the shapes of cars, alligators, airplanes, guitars, kenke, you name it, they’ve made a coffin out of it.  And the funerals themselves are lavish affairs, lasting all day typically, with dancing, and speeches, and more dancing, and food, and palm wine, and did I mention the dancing?  It is important to them to send out their dear family members in style.  It’s too bad the object of the funeral is never around to enjoy the party, because I think they would enjoy it.  One of life’s little ironies, I suppose.  Or death’s, depending on your particular role in the whole affair.

The Achempongs dressed me up like a real African for the funeral, with a proper funeral outfit.  This consisted of a gigantic toga, if you will, of brightly colored cotton cloth.  Probably three or four yards of material all told, expertly wrapped around my waist and body and shoulder.  I was wearing naught but my underwear underneath, and only sandals on my feet.  I had a picture of the event which I can no longer find, and I can not begin to tell you how white I looked in that outfit.  I appreciated that they wanted me to experience the funeral as a real African, but I felt rather self-conscious and curiously naked, like I was wearing a towel around town all day.  And my shoulder got a nasty sunburn, because bring Africa and all, it was rather hot and sunny out.

But the Ghanaians seemed to appreciate the gesture, even if it didn’t originate with me, and the Achempongs seemed pleased that I was “their obruni” for the day.  As mentioned, we sat around the funeral for several hours, and I watched the dancing and listened to the speeches, well the ones in English at any rate, and generally enjoyed myself.  I didn’t even know who the funeral was for.  And Vida was a more-or-less constant companion.  She kept bringing me things to eat and I think she would have danced with me with great pleasure had I been brave enough to try that.

I had mixed feelings, at best, about being “set up” with Vida.  On one hand I was flattered.  Vida was a nice-looking young woman, and what man doesn’t like the attentions of a pretty young woman?  But I couldn’t shake the suspicion that maybe, just maybe, the entire reason Patrick Achempong agreed to a home stay was to see if he could introduce a nice, or more importantly rich, American to his lovely daughter.  Ha ha, joke was on him, I was neither nice nor rich.  Insufferable and dirt poor, more like it.  But this offended me somewhat.  In retrospect I don’t know why I was so uptight about being set up, maybe that’s just the way things are done in Ghana?  And really, who can blame Patrick for trying; I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not the most handsome man out there, but I do have one thing that sets me apart from all of Vida’s assumed young Ghanaian suitors; American citizenship.

Basically I was a potential lottery ticket to the Achempongs.  If they could get me to fall in love with sweet Vida, and marry her and take her home to America with me, then the Achempongs would be set financially.  I could send money back to the Achempongs, or maybe even bring them all with me back to America.  Patrick was just looking out for his family, and it’s difficult to fault him for that.  But I did fault him of course.  I was offended that he would view me as just a ticket to prosperity.  That’s not how things work in America, buddy!  We don’t marry for convenience; we have to agonize over potential soul-mates, and compatibility, and chemistry.  Marriage isn’t a career choice.  Not for most of us, at any rate.  But Americans are by and large wealthy, and we can afford to care about such frivolous things like love and happiness.

And I just couldn’t see myself being in love with Vida, poor girl!  And why not, you ask?  Was she ugly?  Far from it.  Vida was quite pretty, actually.  Ghanaians on the whole, in my opinion, are some of the most attractive people I have ever seen.  They are athletic and fit, they have fantastic skin, and nice smiles.  They’re certainly among the most attractive Africans, and I don’t think I’m being biased, but I probably am.  And Vida was a nice looking young woman.  A nice looking young Black African Woman.  And therein was the problem.  How can I put this without sounding racist?  I can’t, really.  I wasn’t attracted to Vida, in part, because she was black.  There, I said it.  Don’t hate me.  I’m not a bad parson.  Everyone has a type, right?  It’s biological!  If Vida was an American, I still don’t think I would be attracted to her, even though objectively speaking, she was pretty. 

But being American probably would have helped her cause.  The other big problem was that Vida was Ghanaian.  Or more properly speaking, Vida was not American.  We didn’t share the same culture.  Things I found funny she did not find amusing.  I don’t think Vida found anything amusing, actually.  We didn’t talk much.  I think she was nervous to be around me, she wanted to make a good impression, she didn’t want to offend me.  I prefer women who speak their mind, who laugh loudly, who are intelligent and know what they want.  Vida appeared to be none of those things, at least while she was with me.  And remember, as an American, I can afford to care about things like compatibility and chemistry.

The whole experience was sort of miserable.  The funeral lasted for hours, and it was hot, and I was positively boiling sitting there wrapped up in 4 yards of brightly-colored toga, and I was on some sort of blind date that I had no intention of pursuing any further.  I felt bad for Vida but I didn’t want to lead her on, so I remained polite but distant.  Vida probably had a miserable time as well.  Even across cultures she had to sense that I was not interested in any sort of relationship with her.  She probably felt like she was letting her family down, because she, for reasons unfathomable to her, was not good enough for me.  Heck, maybe Vida wasn’t attracted to White American Men, and was not happy to be set up with me either.  I didn’t ask to find out.  That would have been an awkward conversation.

And I was annoyed that I was not able to just be myself and enjoy the weekend.  I felt like I had to maintain my guard at all times, so as not to let them think that I was interested in Vida, and wanted to take her back to America with me.  Which was stupid really, and probably a convenient excuse to remain aloof and detached all weekend.  I began to second-guess myself.  Maybe this whole match-making thing was all in my head?  Was my ego that big to presume that they wanted to set their daughter up with me?  There really was no way to ask directly, I suppose.  I was best to assume the worst, just in case.

I found out I was right, by the way, a couple of days later.  I was back at the school, and it was after class.  Us Peace Corps volunteers were playing ultimate Frisbee against the Ghanaian school kids.  We were hopeless playing soccer against them, and the Frisbee game employed similar strategy, so we found that ultimate Frisbee was a more competitive game.  Anyway as the game was finishing up, one of the school kids came up to me and said that there was a man to see me.  I walked to the edge of the field and there was Patrick, standing next to his car.  He was alone.  He had a gift for me, a sleeve of biscuits.  Remember, cookies.  Delightful English cookies.  Patrick gave me the biscuits and asked if I would like to come and have dinner with his family again.  I declined.  I told him that it was very nice to meet his family, but that I would be leaving Koforidua soon to go teach at another school, and I needed to prepare for my new assignment.  I mean it was true that I was leaving soon, but believe me, there was nothing I could have done to properly prepare for Boso at that point.  I felt like I was breaking up with the Achempongs; I could certainly see the disappointment on Patrick’s face.  I knew I was right, but it didn’t make me feel any better.  Somehow it made me feel like a big jerk.  Particularly since I was planning on taking the biscuits anyway.  We shook hands and Patrick drove away, and I never saw him, or Vida, or any of the Achempongs again.  I guess I got more home stay than I bargained for, but not as much as Patrick would have liked.

1 comment:

  1. Great post, Scott. I had a similar experience as an exchange student in France: my landlady, part of the landed gentry, was rich in land, apartments, furniture and art but seemed to have a significant liquid asset/cash flow problem (the reason, perhaps, that she was renting part of her massive apartment out to me). The first time she invited me out to a big event with her other aristocrat friends I felt honored that she wanted to get to know me a bit better. The fact that we "happened to" run into her grandson (my age) at the event seemed like a happy coincidence. But after the second time (when the grandson conveniently showed up again, and yes, dancing was involved) I decided to decline further invitations. Like Mr. Achempong, she had it in her head that I was a rich American who could bring some cash to their family. And as in your case, the joke was on her: I know the invitations would've dried up, had she known how little money I had!

    Thanks so much for sharing -- I'm really enjoying these posts, Scott!