One of the things I did to raise money for my International Service ICS placement to Ghana, was to spend four days living below the poverty line, on £1 a day. It was an eye-opening experience, which got me thinking a lot about how not having food security (let alone choice) feeds into a wider powerlessness encouraged by poverty. I thought about people in the UK who struggle to feed their children, and feel unable to provide the life every child deserves and I thought about the 25% of Ghana’s population who live below the poverty line (which works out as about 5 Cedis a day – roughly the cost of a loaf of bread to feed a family for one meal).
The problem is that I was only thinking about one part of life, drawing on an image I formed as a child.
Let me explain. When I was growing up, we were not especially well off. Our nice Cotswold farmhouse cost more than we could really afford, and this made money for other things tight – so it mattered to my parents that they were able to put decent meals on the table – that we never went hungry. It also mattered when, for whatever reason children will, I decided I didn’t want to eat. When I didn’t finish my meal, I would be admonished with talk of children starving in Africa. There was not of course, any suggestion that I should put my excess food into a Tupperware box and post it to Ethiopia or Chad. Rather the point was that I should be grateful for what I had, because other people were not so lucky.
Imagine, then, my astonishment on finding that my (generous and hospitable) host family here in Ghana routinely provide me with enough food to feed at least 3 people. While I didn’t expect my host family to be among the 25% of Ghanaians who live below the poverty line, I didn’t expect them to be quite so far towards the other end of the spectrum when it came to food. I didn’t expect such apparent excess. It sits uncomfortably. I can’t help thinking about the people in Tamale who haven’t eaten today, and feeling guilty that I have so much. I wish they could come and share my Fufu, Banku or Rice.
[These staples dominate our meals. Rice comes as normal, rice balls, Waachi (rice and beans) or Jollof (cooked in tomatoes and chilli) while Fufu and Banku have consistencies not unlike instant mashed potato, the former being more doughy. Common accompaniments include spicy tomato sauces, fish, ground-nut soup (a personal favourite), and sometimes a little meat. Breakfast is normally a large hunk of bread and a cup of instant, pre-sweetened white ‘coffee’. If I am lucky I might get a boiled egg or an omelette on the side. Lunches are generally biscuits or frozen yoghurt.]
At our in-country training, my cohort of volunteers was shown a TED Talk by the Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie, called The Danger of a Single Story. The talk explores Adichie’s own roots as an author, but its key point is clear from the title. All too often we are shown only one image of Africa. The same image, from news reports and films, from rock stars and NGOs. Africa is war-torn and poverty-stricken, beset by HIV pandemics and corrupt leadership. This is the Africa of DEC appeals and child soldiers.
This makes it easy to forget that this is a continent into which you could fit Europe, China, India, and the USA, and which is almost as diverse, in culture, in economies, in wealth. But more than that, just like anywhere else, every country is diverse. Ghana has its elites, its white collar workers, its working class labourers, just like anywhere else. But that is not the story the world sees. We see the naked children surrounded by flies, living in mud huts. We homogenise, we tell ourselves “This Is Africa”, its all the same, its a continent almost beyond hope.
When my host mama, Kate, refuses to give me smaller portions, knowing full well that I won’t finish all that she gives me, she is sharing a small part of the of the variety which is Africa. A part we in the West don’t often see, unless we experience it first hand. She is living generously, welcoming a guest into her family, and giving me plenty of food, on the basis that it is better that I have too much than too little. She, just like my own mother when I was a child, is proud of the care she can offer me. I should be equally pleased to accept my huge portions in the spirit in they are intended.