A young woman came to the porch with a large tray of wrapped corn on her head and I was offered a piece. It was luke warm, which was perfect in the scorching heat. Was this Florence, my cook, and was this considered lunch? In case it was, I didn’t want to ask as though it weren’t enough.
I carefully unwrapped the plastic bag and savored each kernel one row at a time. The cob had been steamed in saltwater and tasted divine. Fresh from the refrigeration unit, Salomey also brought two cold water bags to go with it. (Note: Rather than using water bottles, you chew a hole in the corner of a half liter plastic bag and drink.) After perspiring in the heat all day, I was truly grateful for both.
Taking a break from gluing tea boxes, leaning back against the wall to enjoy her own food, Salomey asked, “Do you like mez?”
The Ewe accent on the word maize threw me, particularly since I’m used to saying corn. It took me a moment to respond in the affirmative.
Jimmy added, “It is sweet, yes?”
This wasn’t the kind of sweet I know. The kernels were a starchy, somewhat tough and tasteless. I smiled and said, “I really like the salt”
Apparently this was funny. I wondered, is the taste for salt an American thing or were they just pleased that I enjoyed it? I decided that since they liked it too, they must be happy to have pleased me.
We made about 30 more boxes while the family talked about their day in Ewe. At times some syllables sounded French and others Spanish. This offered no meaning. I was just grasping at any inroad to understanding. Emmanuel eventually did break into English after a phone call. He told me that Florence had delivered lunch to my house and that Jimmy would take me there. This was good news on two levels. First, the corn was a drop in the bucket after toast and coffee 6 hours prior. Second, I doubted I could remember which network of paths took me back to my house. Thanking Emmanuel, I finished gluing one more box and followed Jimmy “home.”
The Introduction to Florence and Her Food
Florence was waiting on my porch with Sampson (a boy of nearly 18, perhaps) who she introduced as her grandson. I was excited to meet someone famous and told her so. Receiving her sideways glance, I explained that I had read about her cooking on the Village Volunteers web site.
Straightening her back a bit, she asked, “I’m on the Internet?” ending the question with a pleased “Hmm.” Half smiling to herself as I unlocked the door, she followed me inside.
(Florence was not as unhappy as her picture suggests. I eventually learned that smiling for photos is considered unnatural by many Ghanaians.)
I unlocked my room to access the plates and water, followed by both Florence and Sampson. I hadn’t yet unpacked so my large bags were a point of interest to my guests. Seeing Florence stretch her neck to see inside the one left unzipped, I felt the need to defend what appeeared to be an obscene number of belongings. “These are donations for the school and clinic,” I blurted.
Florence curiosity was thinly disguised. She kept one eye on the bags as she continued her preparations, dishing food from coolers and containers.
At the table just around the corner from the front door, Florence took warm plantains from a cooler and placed them on the bowl that Sampson retrieved from the dish rack in my room.
With a slightly raised eyebrow she asked “You like them fried?”
“I don’t know yet, but they smell delicious!”
A flash of worry crossed her face. “Ah. You are a vegetarian?”
To her relief, I said that I would eat fish. I had a feeling this will be my best source of protein for the month.
After cutting the plantains just like a mother would for a child, Florence dished out a Ghanaian stew consisting of fresh fish from Volta Lake, cabbage, tomato, red chili pepper and a green vegetable local to the area. The food was delicious but every spicy bite elicited a bought of coughing which made it difficult to breathe. Before I gave up meat, I used to throw down hot, spicy Buffalo wings like nobody’s business. Once, on a dare, I even drank a bottle of hot sauce called Scorned Woman (as in “Hell hath no fury like a…”). I guess I’m long out of practice. I worked my way through anyway, enjoying the flavor if not the lack of oxygen. Florence continuously apologized and I tried to reassured her that I liked it. I’m not sure she believed me through the choking and heavy perspiration.
I was the only one eating at the table. Jimmy had stepped out promising to return shortly while the other two sat on the couch and chair staring silently at the far wall. Florence’s head eventually lolled as she massaged one temple. I asked if she had a headache and offered some pain reliever. She sat up and gave a single nod of acceptance, not wanting to appear too eager. The mother had turned to child. Grabbing a trial size container of Excedrin from the toiletry bag in my bedroom, I gave her the bottle to take home. She lowered her eyes and accepted with a simple thank you. Aside from helping this woman who had fed me with such care, it felt good to break through the weirdness of hearing myself chew and cough while others waited for me to finish.
Once through, Sampson filled my dish with a small bit of water from my room. At a long wooden hutch just outside the bedroom door, Florence soaped it up while Sampson retrieved more water. The soapy water was tossed out the main door and the dish was rinsed, dried and put back in my dish rack. All this effort was required for one bowl and a fork. I offered to help but was told to rest and “feel free.” Feel free? I’m not sure I can ever get used to this.
Getting acquainted, Florence asked how many children I have. I could tell from her raised eyebrow that having none was not the right answer. Of course “Why don’t you have any?” was the next obvious question. I tried to explain that I graduated from college rather late in life and that I wanted to use my education without the commitment of having children. Had I started younger, maybe things would be different but Tim and I have decided not to disrupt the life we love with such a drastic change.
Well, THAT was definitely not the right answer. Not only did I feel as though I had somehow disrespected the whole of motherhood, I had also made my husband out to be a villainous cohort in our selfish desires. It was time to switch the subject.
“What will you make for dinner?” I asked.
Florence suggested pasta, perhaps due to my trouble with the Ghanaian spices. She assured me that Jason, the previous volunteer, had loved her spaghetti. That was just fine. It sounded easy enough and I was so full that I couldn’t think of food for some time anyway. I did tell her that I was eager to try more of the local dishes so she gladly listed off the things she’d make next including fufu, banku, red red and abolo.
Jimmy and I made our way back down the hill and, before we arrived at a door adjacent to Salomey’s porch, he taught me that butterflies, in Ewe, are called what sounds like colcolch and the lizard is called a gecko. Gecko I understood. Colcolch is how I remember it now – and that doesn’t mean it’s correct. I’m not too worried. There will be plenty of time to learn.
This is just the beginning of my journey…