No sooner had I posted the most recent Ghana Sign of the Week than the Hot Temperature Pork Show was painted over.

It’s now a little red shack. I hope I’ll still be here to see what it becomes.

In the meantime, I’m glad I photographed it for historical documentation. Pictures to be posted in three weeks.


I am, by nature, compulsively on time. Even in Ghana, where people tend to be an hour late, I cannot stop myself from arriving earlier than we had planned to meet. It means I’m often annoyed or disappointed, but I am unable to stop. I want to be there on time. I want to know what happens on time.

When I am teaching or directing, I make it a point of arriving half an hour early. This is a Power Thing. I do it to case and take possession of the joint, or to put it in terms more generous to me, so that I will be settled in and connected to the space by the time the people I am leading enter it. I become part of the space, in a sense.

It has become a ritual in my JHS class for Mefia, Sophia and Letitia to arrive early. Occasionally someone else is there, Thelma or John, but those three are the constants. They even stop in to visit before the primary class on some days. The half hour we are there together before class starts is usually spent on scrutiny and interrogation. The scrutiny is about my appearance, in one way or another. “Madame, now your hair is longer! Will you cut it again?” “Madame, today you are wearing earrings! And also a necklace!” “Madame, this is the first time I have seen you in trousers!” I started to wonder if adolescent obsession with appearance was a cultural universal, but I’ve since come to believe that the cultural universal is adolescent *scrutiny*, the sudden close observation of the world around you. I’m sure an adolescent psychologist said it long before I did, but every now and then we must figure things out for ourselves.

The interrogation consists in the three girls asking any question that comes into their minds. These range from, “Madame, are you a virgin?” (they asked that very early on, and being unsure of my relationship with Ghanaian culture at the time, I was unsure how to answer;I have since concluded that the correct answer would have been, “No, I am not. May I ask why you’re asking that question?”) to “Do they have funerals at your place?” to “So, Madame, why do white people always have cameras with them everywhere they go?” I answer these questions in as much detail as I possibly can, sometimes too much. Last week Sophia asked me why, when I said the word ‘what,’ it sounded like ‘whad’–why I didn’t pronounce the ‘t’ clearly to Ghanaian ears. Now, one could just say “I have a weird accent”; unfortunately, I’m a compulsive teacher and studied linguistics for a period in college. As such, I gave a brief lecture about the “flip” phoneme, which can sound something like a ‘d’ or a ‘t’ or an ‘r’ in English pronunciations, and which tends to show up a lot in transcribing American accents. It’s flattering, though, that the three girls always seem intensely interested in my answers.

This week the interrogation included from Letitia the question, “Madame, since you have been here, have you been going to church?”

“No,” I answered.

Mefia and Sophia looked startled. “Why not?” they said, almost simultaneously.

“Because I am not a Christian.”

All three gasped. I had had occasion to share this fact with Juliana, and she took it with equanimity, but Mefia, Sophia and Letitia were deeply shocked. “Madame, why are you not a Christian?”

Every Ghanaian with whom I have discussed religion has asked me this, and I still have not found a worthy reply. “Because it is not what I believe,” is what I answer, and what I answered here.

“But you believe in God?” Around this point, John walked in.

“No, I do not.”

“Madame,” John exclaimed, “are you joking?”

“No, I’m serious,” I said.

They stared at me. “Madame, how can you not believe in God?” Mefia asked.

“Do you believe that God created you?” asked Letitia.

“No, I do not.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t see any evidence or reason to believe it. But I respect that you do.”

“Madame, does your mother believe that God created her?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“Ah.” That seemed to clarify a few things for Sophia and Mefia.

“What are you, Madame?” Mefia asked.

“I guess if I were anything I would be Jewish. My family–my ancestors were Jewish. But I don’t really think of myself as religious.”

“Your parents are Jewish?”

“Not my parents, my great-grandparents.” I took a moment in Teacher Mode to explain about the persecution of Russian Jews by the Cossacks and the early twentieth century influx of Jewish immigrants through Ellis Island. They all nodded with a focus and solemnity I have come to rely on and will miss terribly.

“But Madame,” said Sophia, “Jewish people believe in God.”

“Yes,” I said. “That is why I’m not entirely Jewish.” They were very confused by this notion. I guess it is, all things considered, pretty American. “Why are you Christians?” I asked.

“Madame, because we believe in God.”

“But why?”

“Because of our parents,” Mefia said. “Our parents are Christians, so they have taught us.”

They were startled to learn that some people in the United States change their beliefs from those the parents raised them with. I tried to give several examples, leading John to respond, “Madame, then you are all confused!”

Eventually the idea of atheism became too much for them, and they started asking me about Jewish rituals, about what it was like to go to synagogue. I’m no expert and I had to compare everything to church, in which I am even less of an expert, but I explained things in the piecemeal way that I could, describing rabbis and cantors, the Jewish commitment to learning and education, its openness to other religious beliefs (I learned all about the Noachide laws from reading Faye Kellerman novels, go me), the observation of Yom Kippur. These girls love learning. I will be destroyed if they do not go to Senior Secondary School.

This conversation allowed me to realize, finally, that not everyone is trying to convert me or assault my beliefs in Ghana. Many are, but some aren’t. It’s just beyond the experience, beyond the imagination, of a young person who has spent his or her whole live in Southern Ghana that people might have different beliefs. There are Christians, there are Muslims. *Maybe* there are traditionalists, though in the Greater Accra Region even those are few and far between. But Jews, and people who don’t believe in God, are simply unimaginable. How could you not?

People are trying to understand.

My turn.


This stand has been at my home taxi rank since I came to Ghana.
I noticed the painting on the lower half of the stand offering “okro with pig banku,” but I had not noticed the upper label until last week.
I have lived here for five months.
I am an embarrassment to the force.

Fourth in our Things I Like About Ghana serial.

Overall, I complain of Ghanaian food in many ways. Much of it is very similar. It uses approximately eight times more oil than I can stomach. I’m not clear on how Ghanaians survived before the invention and widespread manufacture of tomato paste. Salt is thrown in by the overflowing handful. Everything has meat in it, and meat is butchered without any scrutiny or selectiveness. Vegetables are only served when they are cooked beyond recognition. Starch runneth over and pretty much everything is spicy beyond standard American tolerance, even as my tolerance for spice has greatly increased in the last few years.

But there are many things I love, as well. Local food is made from fresh ingredients (less the tomato paste), not processed. Portions are generous, and things you eat were generally cooked on that day, or at worst within the last three. There *are* plenty of vegetables, which you must acknowledge even when you long for something lighter and fresher. And you get to eat it all with your hand.

My favorite things to eat in Ghana are rice and vegetable stew (vegetable stew as made by Joyce, that is; what I’ve had elsewhere or cooked by others isn’t nearly as good); omo tuo (rice balls) with groundnut soup (groundnuts are peanuts; I now know how to cook this and fully intend to when I return to the States); kenkey (deliciously fermented corn dough) and stew; red-red (black-eyed peas with gari–toasted ground cassava that tastes strangely like cheese–served with fried plantains); and tuo zaafi (TZ), a strange, pounded millet dough, with soup. With the sometime exception of rice and stew, all of these are eaten with your hand.

Your right hand; eating with your left hand is completely taboo. And I’m often criticized for the fact that I chew foods that come in clumps, like banku or fufu or TZ, rather than just taking a pinch and swallowing, and my pinches are seen as too small and the shares of soup I pour over them too stingy. But nevertheless, as long as you wash, there’s a certain joy to just sitting down and plunging your hand into your food. I think I’m really going to miss it.

“You have learned words in Twi,” Sarah said to me while the kids were out on break. “Which one do you like the best?”

“Of the words?” I asked. Even with someone I like and trust, and Sarah comes near the top of that list, I am always startled when a Ghanaian asks the sort of question I would ask.

“Yes. What is your favorite?”

At that moment I could call to mind only a few words of my approximately forty-word Twi vocabulary. I considered for a minute. “I guess the one I use the most is ‘me daase,'” I answered. Sarah nodded, satisfied, and a moment later Osei ducked his head in to ask if break was over. We said yes, and he ducked out again to scream the news to the rest of the children. Several of them came to check with us, to be certain that Osei was telling the truth, before coming back in.

I had not realized how frequently I say “thank you” until I learned the term in a new language. Although my default behaviour in Ghana is tremendously rude, I have remained a compulsive thanker. I thank tro-tro mates, taxi drivers, storekeepers; I use “me daase” to decline “you are invited”s, as is the custom, and use it equally to decline most other forms of sales offer when I’m feeling charitable.

It shocks half the people I encounter: “You say ‘me daase’!” It continues to shock Ghanaians that an obruni, even in five months of living here, might have learned a single word. It’s irrational for me to get angry at the Ghanaians for that shock; I should be condemning the multitudes of obrunis, particularly those doing business in Accra et environs, or those who run volunteer organizations to Help the Poor Africans, who don’t bother to learn a single word. (I’m not entirely safe from that category, myself–somebody doing a genuine homestay in these last five months might be speaking passably fluent Twi by now.) And most of the time, I do speak English, as the phrases and random words I know have pretty clear limitations. I even use English for things I do know the Twi for–“two eggs, please,” for example. (“Mienu cosiya, pa’cho,” since I know you were wondering, though I’m guessing if I actually looked at a Twi book the spelling would be totally different.) But as soon as I learned “me daase,” the switch was almost instantaneous. It is possible that in these last five months I have said the words more than I have said my own name.

“Why do you thank the taxi drivers?” Davis asked when I mentioned this. “Why do you thank them for doing their job?” There’s a point there, but there’s still a part of me, rather deeply buried these last few months, that values kindness, that thinks there can’t be any possible harm in thanking people compulsively–it’s not as if there is really extra work or strain involved for me. (The difference between kindness and self-sacrifice is one I need to think about quite seriously.) Thanking can do nothing negative in the world, as far as I can tell. I’ve put a great deal of negative energy into the world recently. Why not balance it out, even muttered to cab drivers as I alight at the Madina Estate taxi rank?

In Ghana, a person with a decent amount of any sort of food–be it a package of crackers or a bowl of red-red–is as likely as not to look up from her eating and say to you, “You are invited.” You are invited, quite regularly, to join in another person’s meal, to share another person’s food. To accept, you simply sit down and join the person, perhaps washing your hands first with a bottle or sachet of water; to decline, you smile and say “me daase,” to be polite rather than just saying “deh bi.”

It’s one of the best examples of cultural kindness, rather than individual kindness, I’ve had the privilege to witness. I try to do it myself. I don’t do it nearly as often as I should, because I tend to save eating until I’m absurdly hungry. But I am learning.



On the other hand, I am *totally* going here.


On Friday after class, Alex and Yousef got into a fight.


This is my main problem as a teacher, or one of them: I have stopped thinking fights are a big deal.  You either grow up with them as part of your culture or you don’t.  Most people who grow up in urban Ghana do; most students I’ve ever taught did.  I didn’t, so I don’t understand the importance, and it’s a really difficult mindset change.  I’m willing to let people settle their problems the way they feel they’re best settled.  If there are weapons involved, or victims–people who haven’t agreed to a fight getting caught in one–my stance totally changes, but in terms of a hand-to-hand brawl between a couple of angry, resilient teenagers, who cares?  Whose business is it?


This view has probably been helped along by the physical desire to do violence that has increased over the time I have been in Ghana.  When I cap my Obruni Capacity for the day, I start being ready to deck and injure anybody who calls out to me.  Be that a two-year-old inside her mother’s shop or a young man blocking my path.  At the moment these feelings aren’t particularly healthy, but they put me more in sync with desperately testosteronical adolescent males.  And they’ve instilled in me a desire to learn  boxing and/or self-defense when I get home, which I think will be favorable to my human development.


Anyway.  As a teacher, I have to act like I care.  This can make life difficult.  Especially because I’m a female teacher and not very physically strong or imposing.  Most of the other students were involved in separating them, Samuel taking the lead, many of the girls involved in trying to calm Alex down.


Yousef is a reject.  I’ve known that since he came to his first interview.  Something drew me to him, and I admitted him to the club.  I’ve seen moments of spark, but I’ve also been a failure, overall, at Drawing Out His Potential or whatever it is that an artistic teacher is supposed to do with introverted rejects.  I cast him as the King in our play, but Ghanaian students, unlike American students, think it’s perfectly appropriate to say to the full assembled group, “Madame, I think we have to change this actor, because he cannot do it!”  As Annie did the instant we finished our first read-through.  (Of a play that the kids created themselves, are directing and designing themselves, and have added an extra day to their weekly schedule to do dance training for, that last entirely of their own volition.  Just to make clear that I have accomplished something.)


Annie, in fact, found it appropriate to call me up two nights ago and say, “Madame, you must forgive Alex, and you must speak to Yousef’s headmistress and tell him that we do not want him back in the club!”


I responded, “Well, actually, Annie, I am treating both people involved in the fight equally.  I’m speaking to both their headmistresses, and I am speaking to both of them, and giving them one more chance.  As long as they do not get into a fight again, I want both of them to stay in the club.  I spoke to Alex today, and I went to speak to Yousef, but neither he or his headmistress was at school.  I’ll go there tomorrow.”


“Have you forgiven Alex, Madame?”


“Yes, I have.”


It was all true except for the part about the headmistresses.  I have no intention of speaking to either.  Both boys claimed the other started it.  Most of the class sides with Alex, but I wasn’t there (I was cleaning up the space after class when I heard the commotion outside), and they’re all so hostile to Yousef already that I don’t trust any of them on this.


Teaching is confusing, and teaching teenagers is more confusing, and it doesn’t get any less confusing because the teenagers are Ghanaian.  I write this post simply to say that.

One-Word Storytelling is a theater exercise in which participants sit in a circle and tell a collective story, with each person in the circle saying only one word at a time.  No one is allowed to tell anyone what their next word should be; you must listen carefully to everyone to make sure that what you say makes sense.  I did this exercise a couple of weeks ago with both of my classes.


Once upon a time there were some animals walking in the forest.  So they wanted to go hunting.  They were sitting down under a mango tree when they saw a snake.  The animals were hungry so they were happy to see the snake.  They were very anxious to enjoy the snake.  They chased the snake into a big tree.  None of them were able to catch the snake, so they got the rope and went to climb the tree.  The snake saw the rope and coiled on the tree.  They didn’t find the snake.  Instead they got the rope back to the ground and went to the restaurant to get some rocks to enjoy it.  So they were very serious and they got to the waiter who served them a food and they enjoyed it.  So they were very satisfied.


Once upon a time there lived a beautiful lady called Amanda.  She was very intelligent.  She was disobedient but she came to home after visiting her boyfriend’s pad.  She was helping her mother when her brother came from USA to Ghana.  She welcomed him nicely.  She and her boyfriend started doing bad deeds.  When her mom came and caught them she asked her, “What are you doing here?”

Amanda answered, “Mommy, what are you trying to say?  Are you telling me off?”

“Can’t you see that I am serious angry with you?  Make sure you don’t repeat that horrible thing again!”

What instructive literature we do create.


Put this on the list of places I’m not going.