Oh, hello again. Cake?

Long time! (As my Ghanaian colleagues would say.)

I think I promised you a tale of fufu-making, but that will have to wait.

Somewhere in the past few weeks, I went from feeling great when I wrote here because I was writing something, anything, to feeling a bit guilty when I was writing here, because it meant I was not writing fieldnotes for my actual dissertation. You know, the reason why I’m in the field in the first place, eating food that is then by definition fieldwork food. (Said Actual Dissertation has nothing to do with food, which has struck me as a major miscalculation on a number of occasions. Le sigh.) I want to dig my teeth into some big topics—deprivation and extreme culinary circumstances, and notions of ‘local’ and ‘traditional’ foods, among others—but sitting with Big Dissertation Thoughts and Big Food Thoughts is tricky.

So for now, the opposite: some fluffy thoughts about tiny cakes.

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Before I moved into my delightful digs in town a few months back, I was living in a student dorm with very little to recommend it aside from its microwave. Sometimes when I had a hard day, I’d make myself a microwavable brownie in a mug.

I was excited to see my new place in town also had a microwave…but like many things about the new place, nothing works quite as it is supposed to. After fussing with various settings and dials and praying over an eye of newt on alternate tuesdays to no avail, I threw up my hands and now simply use it as a shelf.

But soon after giving up on the microwave, I was craving a brownie something fierce. What was an oven-less, microwave-less gal with a baked-goods sweet tooth to do? I recalled snatches of conversations I’d had with others in this predicament and decided—what the hell, I’d try to steam the sucker. And so I did. And it turned out so such a moist, dense crumb that it put the microwaved version to shame!

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But then the next time it flopped.

And the next.

After my beginner’s luck, it was impossible to get a whole mug’s worth of brownie to cook consistently. I poked around online, thinking surely there had to be ovenless traditions of steamed sweets to tap into—and lo: the Japanese Mushi Pan, a tiny steamed cake often made with red bean. All the recipes, though, called for miniature ramekins or silicon baking cups in which to steam the cakes. Neither of these are exactly a dime a dozen in Accra right now, and so I resigned myself to stymied steaming.

But then, on an impulsive trip to the new Shoprite in Accra, inspiration struck in the kitchenware aisle: silicon ice cube tray!

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I sliced it in two to fit in my saucepan, and started experimenting with gusto. Because of course, that’s what you should do in the midst of conducting career-aligning dissertation research in a marginalized post-colonial setting, right? Bake tiny cakes?

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But the answer is, as I wrote about when it comes to my obdurate clinging to butter: right. You do what you need to, within reason, to keep your whole self in balance. Emotional equilibrium is important no matter the context, and some contexts throw the equilibrium off more than others. (Some days I need more reminding of that fact than others, too.)

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Initially I used a dishtowel to keep the cakes from getting soggy, but I’ve found it’s not strictly necessary.

And so I’ve been taking the time to experiment with cake. Delicious, perfectly adorable, tiny little bites of cake.

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Months later, I’m still a little bit obsessed. They’re cute, they’re tasty, they’re filling, they’re adaptable, and perhaps best of all, they’re quick.

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I’d say I’m embarrassed at how many meals they’ve replaced out of sheer novelty and convenience, but I’m just so delighted at how well my little kitchen hack turned out that I can’t bring myself to be chagrined.

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I have found that to fill my six little tray pods,* I can use the following recipe in endless variations:

1 egg
2 tbs fat (oil or melted butter)
4 tbs liquid (usually milk, but yogurt and red wine have also worked well)
Hefty splash whiskey (my go-to vanilla replacement)

Dash salt + other spices to taste
2-3 tbs sugar
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 c additional ‘dry’ ingredients: at least 1/4 c flour + flavor: grated carrot, coconut, peanut butter, cocoa powder, powdered espresso mix, banana, etc.

Fill each pod 3/4 full, place in a pan with water to a depth of at least a quarter inch, cover, and steam for at least 8 minutes or until a knife in the center comes out clean and they pull away from the sides. Sneaking a dollop of nutella in each pod is definitely recommended. Let cool; eat all six at once. YUM.

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Counterclockwise from top right: banana nut, carrot cinnamon, red wine chocolate, chocolate espresso, coconut, chocolate peanut butter.

 And now, heartily self-indulged, I can return to the business of dissertation research with a full belly, a sated sweet tooth, and a clear conscience ready to grapple with deeper and heavier stuff than the tiny freight of cakes. Oh, maybe just one more…

*If you are not in a marginalized postcolonial context and have ready access to tiny ramekins or silicon cupcake liners—most of my readership, I’d venture to say—then I expect this recipe would work for two to three of those regular-size silicon cupcake cups, and probably five to six of the mini cupcake kind. You’d probably have to adjust your steaming time due to the greater density per cake for the larger cups.

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Fufu = love

A blog centered around eating in Ghana can only go so long without talking about the elephant in the room: Fufu, the closest thing one can find to Ghana’s national dish.

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There are detractors, to be sure—and indeed, calling fufu Ghana’s national dish falls, on the one hand, into the age-old (and grumblingly contested by non-asante persons) pattern of conflating the cultural markers of the Ashanti with Ghana as a whole, in spite of great cultural and linguistic diversity. On the other, it’s a mark of absurdity to pin it to Ghana alone; versions of fufu are eaten across West Africa.

Detractors aside, fufu is without a doubt the most popular iteration of the basic template for Ghanaian dishes (and indeed most food, worldwide): starch + stew and/or protein. It consists of cassava and yams or plantains, parboiled and pounded together into a springy gelatinous mound not unlike mochi in texture, and eaten (in order of popularity) with either light soup, palmnut soup, or groundut (peanut) soup.

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For all that fufu looms so large in the Ghanaian culinary imagination, it took active work for me to like it—or perhaps more accurately, an implicit decision that if it was this central to the psyche of the average Ghanaian, I was going to have to find a way to enjoy it. In this, I attempted to follow the example of my fellow-foodie sister, a formerly picky eater who has taught herself over the years to like bananas and fish and southeast asian cuisine, among other things.

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A large part of what I have come to appreciate about fufu beyond the mere gastronomic aesthetics is the ritual of its preparation and consumption. There are definite rules and etiquette to eating fufu.

Firstly, you use your hand to eat—your right hand, mind—not a spoon. There are those who use spoons—Ghanaians, even!—but this is akin to eating soba noodles with a fork. You can do it, but it just doesn’t taste quite the same; the whole experience is cheapened and made strange. A powerfully spicy light soup can leave one’s fingers tingling for hours, long after the flavors have faded from the tongue.

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Perhaps most importantly—and this posed the greatest initial challenge for me—one does not chew fufu. Rather, one plucks a bit of fufu from the larger mound, dips it in the soup, and allows the fufu to act as an internal spoon of sorts, a gelatinous vehicle to transport the soup from bowl to gullet to belly in one fell swallow.

I used to see this as a particular difficulty for non-Ghanaians who were disciplined about chewing their food properly growing up, but a close Ghanaian friend once laughingly related a story of her younger brother having considerable trouble not chewing his fufu as a child, and being repeatedly admonished to just swallow it—so like many things marked out as culturally important, it seems swallowing-not-chewing your fufu is something that must be actively socialized into children and foreigners alike. Indeed I am frequently asked:  ‘Do you know how to eat fufu?’

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I think I can safely answer that question with a a ‘yes.’ Fufu with light soup and goat meat now ranks high among my comfort foods here. When you’re really hungry, the weight and heft of fufu, its give, is deeply satisfying. When the occasional chilly night descends—or simply if one is feeling a bit down at the mouth or like a cold might be coming on—the soup is a deliciously warming and savory tonic. My absolute favorite version is the way my sister* makes it, with the most perfectly aromatic and throat-tinglingly hot and delicious light soup, piled high with no less than four kinds of protein. Oh, εyε dε! It’s sweet!

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In fact, living with her and my ‘brother-in-law’ was really how I came to understand part of what it is about fufu that makes it so important to everyone here. And that, unoriginal as it may sound, is: love. 

Making fufu is hot, arduous work—all that pounding! All those hours of soup-making!—with many, many layered steps. If someone goes to the trouble of doing that for you—and makes sure to add your favorite bits of crab and goat so it’s extra sweet and delicious—you know they really care about you. You can feel that love and concern with your fingertips and tongue, with every dip and satisfying swallow.

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When you go eat fufu elsewhere, even at some random chop bar where you have no relationship whatsoever with the cook, you can taste the echo of that love in the bodily memories the flavors evoke.

But just as much as this multilayered process is about love, it is also about obligation, and tradition, and hierarchies of gender and age. I had hoped to snap a picture of my sister and her husband sharing the fufu she made him for his birthday last week, but during the actual celebrations she and I were kept busy divvying up and serving bowls to all the assembled family and guests–in proper order of importance in the family tree, of course! The tangled notions around ‘tradition’ in the kitchen–both in terms of which foods count and who ought to be preparing them–are complicated and interesting enough to fill up several posts. Which they shall.

Next up: that labor-of-love process itself. Fufu is ready!

*Acquiring fictive kin is always gratifying, but here it is semi-institutionalized. My relationship with the fufu queen of this post goes back seven years and a lot of memories; hence, we are sisters, with many of the extended kin relationships that this position in the family tree implies. I was introduced by an American friend’s Ghanaian husband recently as “my wife’s sister.” This is so pervasive that two friends might be referred to as sisters by strangers witnessing the casual intimacy of such actions as, say, handing off bags when entering a taxi or leaning in close to share a thought. If such a person has come to visit and left again, people will ask: And how is your sister? I mean no slight to my actual biological sister, who I love dearly, but being pronounced someone’s sister by a third party is one of my favorite things. Sisterhood is powerfully comforting.

Aspirational vegetables?

The first time I came to Ghana for study abroad almost a decade (!) ago, the idea of Ghanaian vegetarian food was a complete oxymoron. ‘Salads’ in Accra were tiny affairs comprised of shredded lettuce smothered in mayonnaise. I did not envy the vegetarians among us their attempts to explain themselves; as in much of the world, the idea of being able to afford meat but actively choosing not to eat it was utterly baffling to most. ‘Vegetarian’ and ‘obruni’ seemed fairly interchangeable at the time—indeed for most of the Ghanaians I’ve met over the years, declaring that you don’t eat meat would be met with the same incredulity and horror as declaring that you don’t believe in God. In the highly conservative Christian culture that predominates in much of the country, there are few Ghanaians who would deign to admit either belief to their fellow citizens.

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Fast forward nine years, and there are dramatic—if circumscribed—changes. In neighborhoods like Osu, restaurant menus increasingly boast large and enticing salads, and you can even get a salad delivered. Honeysuckle, a British-style gastropub as popular with Ghanaian football fans (ie, Ghanaians) as it is with expats, boasts an incredibly delicious veggie burger. Accra now has its very own green market (with facebook presence, natch). Relatively sleepy-but-touristy Cape Coast sports numerous vegan joints.

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At the third annual Chale Wote Street Art Festival this past September, vendors in the food tents set up in front of the Ga Mantse* included Vegan All-Stars and Eden Tree Limited (motto: healthier people, better nation).

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But the existence of this veggie-friendly popup food court in the heart of Jamestown, one of Accra’s oldest and most marginalized neighborhoods, drew a stark contrast—one that was as much about pervasive (growing?) income inequality as it was about nascent vegetarianism. Chale Wote itself does an admirable job of responsibly integrating and including the wider Jamestown community in the playful subversion and re-imagining of the neighborhood (and the city at large) that the festival represents. But like all attempts at responsible engagement, it is a work in progress that raises uncomfortable questions.

Not least of all: how good do you really feel eating that $8 beet and avocado salad while a crowd of barefoot kids watches you and fights over the leftovers thrown in the trash?

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The first and most obvious answer is, clearly: not great at all. Pretty horrible.

But the second, harder, and I’d like to think better answer is: AWESOME. Why? Because sitting and eating an expensive, healthy, vegetable-centric meal that is beyond the purchasing power of the majority of people around you is essentially the state of the global food system as we know it. (Soleil Ho brings the righteous rage about this phenomenon in the US here.) The problem is, most of the time those of us who can afford the metaphorical beet and avocado salads don’t know it, not in that kind of visceral and immediate way. The jarring disquiet produced by such experiences forces the harder kind of reflection and stock-taking that is a tiny but necessary first step towards dismantling the inequalities staring hard back at us.

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What all of this seems to suggest is that the rise in vegetarian-friendly options here over the last few years represents a proxy measure of the ostensible rise of the Ghanaian middle class. There is a measure of truth to that—regardless of how complex it is to make any claims about changing class boundaries in Ghana, when the overlap between ‘middle class’ and ‘elite’ remains as dramatic as it is uneven. That said, vegetarians = elites with purchasing power is hardly the whole story.

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The first caveat is that there has been a kind of fringe vegetarianism in Ghana for a long time—and not just the economically enforced kind. The father of one of my best friends, for instance, has been vegetarian for health reasons for most of his adult life. Moreover, seemingly aberrant figures like Tofuman don’t emerge in a vacuum; there have been many people more or less affiliated with the vegetarian Rastafarian ethos in Ghana since Independence. If my anecdotal observations are any indication, I think these relatively more populist strands of pro-veggie feeling are also on the rise.

One indicator is the surprising number of taxi drivers who have expounded their vegetarian views to me in recent months. I have long found the taxi-driving community to be the true political and philosophical heartbeat of Accra, so this shift in perspective is nothing to scoff at.

Another is the emergence of restaurants like Health Valley:

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At first blush, it seems like a part of the flashier, ostensibly western-oriented gestures towards vegetarian options that exist elsewhere these days in Accra. The menu boasts whole wheat veggie pies in place of the popularly available heavy meat pies, meatless versions of popular dishes like fufu, and multiple kinds of deliciously tart fresh juices. Perhaps most notably, they use the local brown rice variety eschewed by nearly all restaurants and most home cooks, aligning them politically with recent pushes for cultural and economic sovereignty by way of embracing cheaper (and frequently more nutritious) unfairly maligned local products over better-marketed imports.

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But Health Valley is not in an upscale neighborhood like Osu. It lies within Rawlings park, inside of Accra’s sprawling and hectic Makola Market—in other words, fairly well off the beaten path for your average well-heeled foodie or aspirational middle class vegetarian. Perhaps the era when ‘Vegetarian Ghanaian food’ is no longer considered an oxymoron is not so long off after all?

*traditional council and chief’s residence for the Ga people who make up the majority of Jamestown residents

Bounty of the Tofuman

My relationship with Tofuman continues to evolve. Customer? Patron? Friend? Fellow ‘Jew’? Fortunately the tasty and unusual things he and his family bring my way usually outweigh the complications.

After that particularly text-heavy post giving the backstory on Tofuman, here’s some visual evidence of that bounty:

Delicious homemade tofu. So tasty–earthy and nutty and dense–that it’s a snack on it’s own:

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First meal with Tofuman tofu:

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Decidedly UN-baby bok choy:

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The Tofuman himself hamming (ha) it up with bok choy and an enormous handful of dandelion greens:

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Bok choy grown on Tofuman’s hilltop farm, frozen seafood from the coast via Koala Supermarket. A lot of international strands landed in this saucepan:

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Mysterious ‘sour cream’ and the oily tofu taco it melted into:

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What Tofuman refers to as wheat kebabs:

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Some of the nourishment that comes from the Tofuman farm is not edible (per se):

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Up soon, how the seeming strangeness of Tofuman’s one-man organic vegetarian crusade fits into broader shifts in the Ghanaian palate…or not.

…The [tofu] man behind the curtain

Anthropological fieldwork is most satisfying when something comes along and umpends your sense of what’s what. You’re going about your routine, plotting out the steps you’ve learned of the quotidienne dance of the everyday, priding yourself on knowing the invisible code of normalcy—and suddenly someone departs from the script you thought you were working with. In the instant it takes to say, I’m sorry, what?, the curtain at the edge of the reality you thought you understood is drawn aside and voila: it’s so much richer and more complicated than it was a second ago. 

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Isn’t that extraordinary? Isn’t that thrilling and delightful? It’s the stuff of galaxies discovered and laws of the universe illuminated on a maddeningly, fascinatingly complex and contradictory human scale, and it takes patience and a particular skill in putting your head back on straight after repeated double takes that I think is severely under-appreciated in the halls of Science-with-a-Hard-Capital-S. 

Be that as it may: imagine my delight when the curtain was drawn aside a few months back when I was trying to extricate myself from what I thought was an instance of my least favorite genre of encounter: Ghanaian Man Tries to Convince the Fast Loose American Lady to be His ‘Friend.’ [See pictorial example of said genre below, Cape Coast, circa 2005]

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At this point some background is in order. My fieldsite, itself a microcosm of Ghana (or indeed, the world as a whole), is one of extreme socio-economic contrast: an elite private tertiary institution—among the best in all of west Africa—set on a hill above a rural town of about 2000 subsistence farmers with seven feuding families, five failing schools, three untreated wells, one deplorable public toilet, one unbelievably rutted road, and no library. That this is a harsh and reductive description does not escape me. For a person without a farm or easy access to one, it’s also essentially a food desert—nary a fresh bit of produce to be found for sale on most days aside from tomatoes and pineapple.

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One day near the start of fieldwork I walked into town to buy some odds and ends—a broom, some of those tomatoes, dish soap. In all but the most hectic urban contexts in Ghana, greeting the people you meet on the road, even if they’re a complete stranger, is de rigeur; in a small town like this, whose main drag takes all of half an hour to walk from end to end, you greet nearly everyone you pass. Good morning! How are you? Maakye, o! Ete sen? Please Auntie, I am fine.

Years ago when I first came to Ghana to study abroad, it took me a long time to learn the nuances of such encounters, the necessary and strategic modulations in the body language of politeness. The combination of the study abroad officials’ insistence that ‘greeting’—a hopelessly vague term for a broad and varied category of interaction—was absolutely necessary, combined with the not-so-gentle chiding of men on the street—Hey! Obruni, you don’t want to greet me, or?—made me feel I was being judged as incredibly rude unless I stopped to shake hands and make small talk with absolutely everyone I met. Unfortunately, this meant a lot of uncomfortable conversations with men (always, men) whose intentions were less than stellar. My suitemates and I started papering a wall with the numbers of these men, procured in our gambits to avoid giving out our own numbers.

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Many such men—born into cultures where male prerogative and entitlement are nigh-unassailable, and raised on a steady diet of decontexualized American films full of unimaginable luxuries and oversexualized female actors—are, perhaps understandably, upset when the obruni they have at hand is not interested in slowing her roll to allow herself to be objectified, give them the money she most surely has, agree to marry them so that they can get a green card, or share her phone number so that they can be ‘friends.’ Their angry reactions—Ah, why not? It’s nice to be nice, o!—are surely, to them, utterly sensible. 

What I have gleaned from what I instead experience as constant, aggressive, unwanted male attention on the street is at least a modicum of insight and empathy into the experience of aggressively exoticized ‘minorities’ stateside, who don’t have the luxury of being targeted for their ostensible privilege, nor the privilege to return to the luxury of anonymity when they’re fed up.

But I’ve also come to see it as a rather offensive exploitation of the foreigner’s effort to avoid offense. Just as many Ghanaian men have learned to strategically read whiteness as a sign of potentially lucrative and sensual connections that are their absolute due (including the rasta who followed me home once, insisting he was ‘owed the white women’), I’ve learned over the years to strategically interpret the flow of streetside signifiers in literally walking the fine line between demonstrating politeness and maintaining my sanity: to whom I can just nod in passing, whom I should stop and greet fully, whom to head off at the pass with a hearty hello and guileless apologies that I’m really in a hurry, sorry-o.

So when, broom and tomatoes in hand, I was returning through town (Good morning. Fine morning!) and came into view of a man in early middle age with short dreads, I thought-without-thinking: rasta, avoid engaging, you have somewhere else to be.

But after an hour’s worth of running the greeting gauntlet, I was tired. Instead of the fleeting exchange of pleasantries I had in mind, I found he’d somehow blocked my way. I started the usually effective insistence that I was running late, sorry, must be going, but he interrupted to say, quite out of the blue—‘Hey, so I’m an organic vegetable farmer, I make my own tofu!’

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I’m sorry, what?

As I attempted to lift my jaw from the road, Tofu Man went on to explain that he was from the Caribbean, and, along with his Liberian wife, was proseletyzing for vegetarianism in town. (Heaven help me if all the pushy men in Accra ever learn that the easiest way to stop an obruni in her path is to lob the words ‘organic,’ ‘vegetables,’ and ‘tofu’ at her feet!) He informed me he grows only organic vegetables on his farm from seeds supplied to him by a friend in Jerusalem, where he used to live. (Naturally.) He complained at length about monsanto and GMO produce coming into Ghana and the general (to his mind) Ghanaian apathy towards these developments as amounting to the very depths of moral degeneracy, and his various struggles to convince people in town to give up their meat and oil before it kills them.

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View of one the schools in my study from the opposite hillside, near Tofuman’s farm

‘These people don’t understand green!’ he nearly shouted. I was still standing at the edge of the curtain with my mouth agape and so could only manage a feeble, ‘Green?’ ‘Yeah, I got me some collard greens, mustard greens, bok choy—you like boy choy? Chinese bok choy?’ Somewhere in the midst of his diatribe-cum-sales-pitch, his wife came up and joined us. While I was still trying to get my head around it all, he interrupted his own line of thought to say, ‘You a vegetarian? You got a nice flat belly, not like these Ghanaian women here, yeah you’re real nice, I’d like to marry you.’

Ah. Yes. Back to the expectations of the genre.

I countered that his wife—who was after all standing right there—might object to that.

She narrowed her eyes and shook her head sharply, ’No, we aren’t like all these people here, all their church and does it make them good people on any day but sunday? Mmm mmm, no ma’am. We’re very open minded, not like Ghanaians, mmm mmm, no.’

Well.

If I hadn’t already been rendered speechless—!

And yet, what a fascinating departure from that genre, what a fascinating enlargement of the picture I had of town. Here in the heart of what to all appearances is a struggling, marginal town—close to Accra and its kaleidoscopic cosmopolitanism, and yet all-but cut off from its economic largesse—was a multicultural polyamorous organic farming family who make their own tofu. I’m not sure what it all means, but it sure is interesting—and, as always, so much complicated than how things first appeared.

Kitchens in Ghana

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A colleague’s gorgeous kitchen
The hotplates at University of Ghana, Legon’s International Student Hostel
The view from outside my kitchen
A messy Ashesi off-campus dorm kitchen
The Governor’s personal kitchen at Elmina Castle

Stay tuned for more…