Tuesday, June 16, 2009

A day in the life ... married into a Ga compound in Accra

I haven't always been an expat princess, living in a big airconditioned house with swimming pool and servants. I knew a very different Ghana once. I came to Ghana as a volunteer and I got married here. And I moved into the family compound. For 5 years. Below an excerpt from the old life:

I’ve been up all night. There’s a power outage that’s persisted since the evening before, when the hum of music, laughter and buzz of the naked lightbulbs everywhere were simultaneously silenced, our busy little world falling into darkness. And heat. “Ohhhhhh!” the unanimous disappointed shout comes up from the neighborhood like so many fans at a football match. “Light off, oh!” Candles and paraffin lamps take over and the night takes on a hush. Bedtime comes early.

3am I’m woken from a broken and sweaty slumber, my light cotton nightgown plastered to me – a nocturnal street preacher has chosen our street to tout his doomsday warnings. In Twi. At the top of his voice. At 3am… Am I the only one who finds this an absolute outrage?! I lie silently, noticing the peaceful breathing of my little boys, and Abina our ‘housegirl’, the three of them oblivious to the shouts and to my frustration. The only other beings awake are the eternally confused crowing cocks. They add their annoying squawks to the night preacher’s noise. I suppress the urge to run out there and demand quiet as a personal right. Am I the only one who finds this untolerable!? The answer is yes.

I live in a Ghanaian compound in Osu, the centre of Accra. 56 of us live in the compound. I am the only one who is not Ghanaian. I’ve come with my personal baggage. Apparently I am the only one who hasn’t trained my brain to sleep peacefully through the sounds of the night.

It’s 6am and around me the compound has slowly come to life. The first sounds are the incessant scraping of the brooms. All the girls are given the daily chore of waking before dawn and sweeping the entire compound with hand made reed brooms. This instills discipline and an appreciation for cleanliness I’m told. By now Aunty Josephine is awake as well, singing her church hymms in an unashamedly off key pitch as she starts preparing for a day of selling minerals on the roadside. The sound is strangely comforting. She’ll soon be joined by Aunty Akwele, Sister (‘Sta) Narde and Kofi Mommy. In Ghana all women are given the title of either Aunty or Sister depending on their age or status. When a woman gives birth to her first boy, she is henceforth given the title of ‘his mother’. In the compound I will forever be Kobina Mommy.

By 7am the entire compound is busy like a hive. I lie on my straw mat, grateful for the coolness of the concrete floor underneath, and soak up the pulse of life around me. The children have gathered in the corridor just outside my window, queuing to shower in small groups, each with his or her small bucket of soap, toothbrush, paste and a ‘sponge’ made of brightly coloured plastic mesh. The first time I went to the communal shower without the obligatory sponge, the children found it so funny they laughed at me until some of them fell to the ground in an exhausted little pile of brown bony limbs. I stood mortified and clueless. This has characterized many of my experiences in the compound. There are rules of conduct that one must know, by instinct. Obrunis like me – we just don’t get it.

The children are the best teachers. And at once the most brutal. I love them for this. They taught me on that fateful day that the only way to get clean is to scrub with a sponge. Now I know.

This morning they are debating whether Ronaldo or Ronaldinho is the better football player. It is quite a heated debate and everyone has something to say. Even the littlest ones pipe in, just managing to say the names of the players aloud. My boys are out there in the queue, waiting for the morning shower, under the early morning sun.

I’m up and fumbling around to make a coffee in our kitchen which is essentially a 2 x 2 ft corner of our sitting room, or ‘hall’ as it’s called in Ghana. Through the curtain is the ‘chamber’ where the five of us sleep in various configurations nightly. In all the rooms around me there are families of four to eight in similar or smaller rooms, managing to live out the domestic reality of compound life.
Through the window I peer at the courtyard where all converge. It’s Saturday and all the women are washing. Sitting on low stools they bend forward, hands immersed deep in soapy suds in huge basins. Beside each a mountain of the week’s dirty clothes. The chocolate brown and manila government issue school uniforms prominent in each pile.

Aunty Maude has set her two girls the task of washing today, as she prepares for baking. Aunty Maude is a nurse at the government hospital, but supplements her income by baking bread and pies. She sells these to others in the compound and neighborhood at large throughout the day, as we all smell the warmth of yeast and sugar in the ovens and are loured in… she also provides cakes for weddings, funerals, birthdays and any other occasion. Aunty Maude also makes the best banku and fish in Ghana. She knows I like it and makes it for me as a treat often. Aunty Maude has been has been my mentor, my guide, my sister, my friend and my mother figure in the complex world of adjusting to compound life. She is a testament to human kindness and selflessness. When I gave birth to my son in the nearby hospital, she sensed by nervousness and stood by me through everything. She helped me bathe my little boy and sat awake many nights with me when he was ill. She has a knack of taking control of situations with a sense of calm akin to Zen.

I will forever admire her. Once when I had severe malaria, I told Aunty Maude in a hallucinatory haze that I would surely die. I’d never felt as sick in my life. She just changed my sheets, gave me my medicine and smiled that peaceful grin. I knew then I’d make it.

Some Saturdays after pay day Aunty Maude goes to the market and comes back with a feast of ingredients. Then she sets up in the open pit kitchen on her small stool and sets to work cooking soup in a massive cauldron for everyone. The children scramble to help her with her bags when she arrives back from market. They are as excited as western children on Christmas morning, their eyes aglow. They push and shove and manage to get the bags to the kitchen. They help unpack, and at once find what they’ve been looking for. The game today will be snail races. The large slimy snails are set out on a chalk drawn line on the concrete floor. The children then cheer on their snail toward the finish line. Most snails do not even head in the right direction, but that’s hardly the point. They laugh and joke and poke fun – they even name the creatures. However Ghanaian children do not have frivolous sentiment for the animals they play with. When tonight’s soup is ready, they are fully aware that their snail did not escape the pot. It is the same for the rabbits and the goats that come home over Christmas.

At 9am I emerge for the day. The children are dressed and fed and are engrossed in a game of oware or ampe or football, each sucking a small mango.
When I walk out the compound gates and hit the streets I am an obruni. A visitor. I may head to the craft market or go to a coffee shop with friends, but by evening I will be back here, in the compound that has absorbed me into it’s fold. That has so many stories to tell and so many lessons to teach me. I’ll be home. In my Ghana.

This article was published in "Obruni Where Are You Going?" a Mirror Productions publication, by Light For Children Ghana
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posekyere said...

Holli, this story is so authentic, so captivating.
I would love to read the rest of your story, from the Osu compound to the expat lane.
Thanks for sharing your story.
Bless you!!!

The pale observer said...

Thanks Posekyere!!! I'll get it all up here one day. Either that or write a book... :)

Anonymous said...

This is really interesting. So I am interested in hearing more. What happened? and how come you are no longer there?

marian said...

Holi, this is such a beautiful piece!
OMG. I am from Osu too and I am Ga. I know exactly what you are talking about. Well, I am making NY my home now. I laughed throughout the story. It is interesting to read a live I have known so well through the eyes of a foreigner. I was cracking up about the sponge bit and then those poor athlete snails!!!! Back them, I couldn't wait to leave.....but now, having lived in the miserable US of A, I am yearning for home bigtime and your story warmed my heart. Africa is truly a loving place.

Naa Sakley

Kajsa Hallberg Adu said...

Hi Holli,

I think you capture so well the feeling of being lovingly emerged in Ghanaian society, but forever being a stranger too.

Do write a book about your experiences! I would be so interested in hearing more about your differnet Ghanaian lives - volunteer, Kobina maame and expat etc.

Anonymous said...

I love the new banner photo! Aunti T

Ali said...

Great entry! I check your blog almost daily, so keep em' coming :)
As a new blogger, I am just wondering how you got your banner picture to stretch like that? Was it like that before? Or is there an option to stretch a photo?

Thanks in advance!

The pale observer said...

Hi Ali - thanks for reading the blog! I will also visit yours now. The picture at the top is a normal one that I enlarged and then cropped it down to a rectangle and then simply uploaded it. Please let me know if you need more info on that. My e-mail address is listed on the left side of the blog. All the best!

Ali said...

Thanks so much for your help! My blog is not up and running yet, as I will not be in Ghana until October. But as I was procrastinating one day, i decided to begin its preliminary creation!

jan said...

I'm so glad I found your blog, (thanks for commenting on mine - so I did find yours). So captivating and eloquently written, and not to leave out enlightening.

: )

NT said...

Those were the good old days...though i suspect the "good old days" still exists in certain areas of Accra.....Good Post!

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