Ghana : My Family and Other Animals

Ghana : My Family and Other Animals

I have now been in Ghana for about two weeks, and I think the time has come to say something more about normal life here. The obvious place to start is with my hosts who are, I think pretty representative of an average Ghanaian family, and certainly play a crucial role in my time here.

Staying in a host family was one of the things which most excited me in the run up to my placement. The idea of sharing my life with another family, of coming home and chatting about my day, of being part of the mundane and exciting alike, was simultaneously exhilarating and nerve-racking. In fact, I think this is one of the greatest strengths of the ICS programme. It helps volunteers – British and (in this case) Ghanaian alike feel rooted in the communities they are helping. We aren’t bussed in do-gooders who return to air-conditioned flats cut off from the realities of life in our placement countries, whatever they may be.

(There is a certain irony to the fact that the placements which most interest me, in the Occupied Palestinian Territories are also the only ICS placements which do not include staying with host families, for security reasons. If Palestine had been an option, I would have gone there without a second thought, and not experienced life in a host home. If…)

As it is, I am happily residing in the house of Catherine (Kate) Achap, in Kalipohini. The house is home to three generations, though it could be two. Catherine runs the household, and also is a small time shop-keeper, selling mainly drinks and sweets to the locals. Her husband, a retired gold mine engineer, died in December of 2008. Her eldest daughter (whose name I don’t know), lives in another town, but the rest of the family lives at home.

Theresa is the second oldest and is currently studying Media and Mass Communication at college. She seems to be away form home a lot though, so I haven’t seen her all that much, but I understand that, when she finishes, she wants to be a teacher or work in bank, because such jobs work well around family life.

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Family Life – Pascal and Theresa make Fufu by mashing Yams with water

Next in the family is Boniface. He was the first of the family I met and continues to be very friendly, showing me around Kalipohini and generally looking out for me. He and his friends are often hanging around, gathering fruit or just relaxing, but he is ‘meant’ to be studying engineering. I can’t help wondering if that is his attempt to live up to the legacy of his father. He must have been about 11 when his father died, which would have an undeniable influence. He is also much better at making small talk than his younger brother, Pascal, who is in his mid-teens and is the quiet type. He wants to go into business when he is older. Perhaps he and Theresa can start a family bank.

The family is completed by S., who, at 13, loves science (she reads ahead to find out what they will study next), which bodes well for her future. She is actually the daughter of the absent oldest sister, while her father lives and works in Italy. Apparently it is quite normal for peripheral family members to live with the core like that. As the youngest girl in the house, S. spends most of her time (when not at school) helping to ‘keep house’ and run the shop. It is quite likely that even in the 21st century, this is how she will spend most of her life. Gender roles in Ghana are pretty strictly defined.

[Here, writing was interrupted due to a power-cut]

Along with the family itself, we have numerous human and animal hangers on. The most present of these are Mr Ibrahim and his five-year-old daughter, who seems to spend more time here than at her own home. She is precocious and social, often traipsing along after S. and helping with her work. Her father views the Achaps as part of his family, and I have spent many an hour chatting with him and playing a board game which is a cross between snakes and ladders and frustration, and seems to be ubiquitous here.

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Alex relaxes in the kitchen, away from the hustle and bustle of the porch.

Along with all the people, there are a lot of animals. Foremost are the dogs (although the chickens are the most vocal). We have Sparky and Bamba, who are related to each other (I think Bamba is Sparky’s pup, but I’m not certain of that) and have been with the family for a long time. Next, there is ‘little Blackie’ (so called because he is Brindle), who is a few months old, and whom the family are supposedly training for Ibrahim. I confess I haven’t seen much actual training going on… Finally, and most recently, we have acquired a PUPPY!!!! Puppy is not officially named yet, but I have taken to calling him Alex, which seems to fit. He also seems to rather like me, following me around, and chewing on my flip-flops or shorts. When he runs he bounces from his front to his back feet in pairs, which is most endearing. Other regular parts of life include Guinea Fowl (which look ridiculous) and goats wandering around.

Every time I think I have the measure of the house I learn something new. It took me a week to discover they have a rather nice lounge, and coming off it, what is currently a trunk room, but must once have been another bedroom. That room, I discovered only this weekend, has an en-suit bathroom! This is a bit of an irrelevance, since the water was cut off a few years back, and it has been an ongoing battle, not yet won, to get it turned back on. Still, even without running water, it is a very comfortable house. They have a fridge freezer, and an oven (which they choose not to use), multiple televisions and so on.

But the building isn’t what makes my host home a nice place to live. What makes it a good place to live is that they make me feel part of the family. It’s about coming home to the latest large and spicy meal. Of course, it has challenges too. I find the lack of small talk very odd – people don’t chat about their days here, preferring silent contemplation (perhaps I just live with a family of introverts). I also struggle with the insistence of the family to bring me a chair/get up and offer me their seat whenever I come over, and their refusal to let me help with cooking or cleaning. These are uphill battles in a culture which focuses on generosity and has very strictly delineated rolls for men and women. Just the idea that I should cook or help wash up inspires laughter.

I have said before, I am not here to change the world. I will not remodel Ghanaian society over night, and nor would I want to. But I know that being here is already changing me. I can see that different ways of living are no less valid, as long as everyone involved is a willing participant, and I am happy to be part of something which really is a community. I am recognized by friends of the family when waiting for a taxi, I am introduced on my first visit to church. I am a part of life here, and the value of that really cannot be understated. It is like nothing I have done before.

A Bottle of Scotch

A Bottle of Scotch

It was one of those autumnal Fridays where winter seems still far off. The sun shone. The leaves were red and gold, the hedges still green. And then, suddenly, out of a literal and metaphorical blue sky, winter. With a phone call.

One Friday, 31st October 2014, I found out that my cousin, HW, had died from diabetes related complications. He was 31. And I hardly knew him.

My father got the call, hung up the phone and told my mum and myself. To start with, I was simply lost for words. I had to check that he was talking about who I thought he was talking about. It seemed totally unbelievable. When finally words did come, they were brief. My siblings both uttered the same first word as I did when they were told. Fuck.

None of us really knew how to process, because none of us had seen it coming. My sister seems to have been hit hardest of the three of us – perhaps because she doesn’t think there is anything else but the here and now, perhaps simply because she was the closest in age to H – but all three of us were astounded. I didn’t even realise H was diabetic (though it was, I know now, far from being a secret). But even so, people don’t DIE of diabetes! They live with it. It sucks, but they live with it. And H had always been fine. No, not fine, mythic.

H was 31 when he died – nine years my senior. When I was a child, visiting my aunt and uncle, he was a cool, detached teenager. In fact, I can’t imagine him in anything other than very baggy jeans and skate shoes. When I was in my teens, he was in his early twenties. He was always that step ahead.

We never saw as much of H as I would like. Like his brother, he was independent and superficially very different from his family. At the big gatherings, he and C would make brief appearances and little else. I never really got to know him, and that is perhaps what saddens me most. H was by all accounts, an amazing guy, and that I will never now get to know him is one of the worst things.

But there were glimmers of the man he certainly was. The man I might have got to know. H spent the last few years in Bristol, where he was part of a strong artistic community. I knew his work as a photographer first. He once did a 365 project, and I am very pleased that his flickr is still online. There are photos there which I shall, in due course, want to copy. So, I was rather surprised when we went to an exhibition he put on a few years back, entitled Shades. I had expected more photography. What we got were sky lines and silhouettes, hot air balloons and security cameras, barbed wire and the occasional dinosaur. I am incredibly pleased that not only did we go, but also that I have one of his works hanging on my wall. A piece of his creation. Of him.

I loved the ideal of H which I had. He had a flair I couldn’t help bur admire. When I was having a pop-punk phase, it was H who put me onto the more raw, politically charged branches of the nineties punk revival, which had peaked when I was a toddler. I don’t think I will ever listen to Rancid without thinking of H (although that sounds far less of a compliment to his taste than he deserves – I was just never that good at Punk).

If you want to define the idea I had of H, though, there is one occasion which stands out. In April 2011, plans to open a new Tesco in Stokes Croft, combined with a police raid on a squat, resulted in nights of rioting. I can’t help thinking that H probably had some sympathy with the rioters. Certainly, the punk in him would have seen eye to eye with their ideal. But his response, rather than getting involved in the protests, was to pick up his camera. And a model. In a backless top. The photos he took are brilliant, with police trying incredibly hard not to check out the gorgeous girl H brought along. They are clearly failing.
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That, I think, sums up the version of H I lament not getting to know. Likewise, it explains my other great objection. The artistic soul should not fizzle out because of an insulin imbalance. A life so well lived deserved to be lived more fully, or spent more dearly. On the Saturday night, I bought a bottle of Scotch, and my sister and I held a wake. H will get a funeral of course. It will be very proper, and I am sure God will show up, but I can’t help thinking H would have wanted something else (as well, if not instead). So Lucinda and I drank and talked the night away. As I said to her then, what angers me most is the anti-climax. It was a death not fitting for such a life.

But this is the way the world ends.