I sit here in a local coffee shop I have discovered, one that serves specialities like a mouth watering honey and banana smoothie, and a delicious lemon and orange iced tea. Today I have arranged myself at a little round wooden table in a cool window spot inside the air-conditioned café, looking out over the sunny terrace shaded by a welcome leafy tree. Last week I sat outside on the terrace for a couple of hours whilst I worked on a design brief. Engrossed in my project, it wasn’t until I came up for air that I noticed that I was melting in the heat, cooking like a roast chicken inside my summer dress. Gazing out at the cacti and pot-plants, I reflect on this past month. It has been a colourful string of many experiences, a steep learning curve and an education. Although this is the third time I have come to Ghana, my eyes have been opened in a whole new way, looking through a new lens: A lens called ‘I live here’. In the past as I have travelled, been on extended trips, and even lived abroad for a number of months, but something about the longevity of ‘I live here’ conjures up a fresh perspective. I have been wide eyed as I have eagerly imbibed every site, scenario and situation, not as a short term novelty, but as my new life.
I have been learning new cultural nuances, traditions and customs, not because it is interesting to know, but because it they are important: because I need to know. In England I blend into the crowd, I know how to drive anywhere I want on our orderly streets, I know how to shop in any supermarket chains I choose, and I inherently know how to behave, dress, and speak in a way that is culturally ‘normal’. Here, I stand out somehwhat as I walk down the street from my home to the local tailor, people waving and calling out to me ‘Obruni!’ – white person. I am figuring out new fashion styles, where the shops are, and what is available in the supermarkets. I am finding that it costs a small fortune to by an iceberg lettuce and a broccoli! And I am learning how to navigate the local market, how much to pay for tomatoes, papaya and beans. I am learning how to speak ‘twi’ so I can communicate better, and haggle over prices.
I am gaining understanding of an entirely new way of life, full of new concepts. I am keenly watching social interactions, noticing where people’s priorities lay, and observing how respect is given and received. As I become increasingly aware, I am peeling back layer upon layer of societal norm, grasping wider breadths of realization with deeper and deeper comprehension.
Something in the permanence of ‘I live here’ also asks new questions of your identity and purpose. It breaks the shell of ‘I know how to go about life’, and when everything I do is alien to all that I know, it begs the question ‘who am I?’ Without realising it, the daily running around and societal normalities we take for granted play a part in defining us. Learning to live in another country strips those things away and causes you to address who you are at your core.
Each morning I wake up early to enjoy the cool air (which is relative – it is still hotter at 6am in Accra than it is at midday in English high summer). I sit outside on the veranda to read my bible and stay secure in who I am. One verse I have continually remembered to myself is; ‘I praise you because am fearfully and wonderfully made’ (Psalm 139 verse 14). Although I may sometimes feel like a small fish in an unknown ocean, I know I am made exactly the way God intended me: Obruni skin, English accent and all.
So as I learn about everything around me, and how I fit into it all, I have enjoyed exploring! I have spent many of my days involved in the renovation of our house, but have made time for my adventuring spirit to slowly explore my way around town. Accra is a alive with colour and vibrancy, from the fishermen bring in a catch down at the beach, to the bold fashion, to the flare of Accra’s hip bars and nightlife.
But my favourite explorations have been my trips to the market to buy fruit and vegetables. I love everything about the marketplace, from the vibrant colours to the earthy rawness. I love the people I meet, and laughter I hear. I love the chaos of back to back stalls, and the order of beautifully presented vegetables.
So, as you sit, where ever you are, let me take you on a journey into the market with me into the marketplace….
The breeze through the window of the ‘tro tro’ is refreshing as I sit sardined in amongst the other hot perspiring passengers travelling along side me as we nudge our way through the busy streets. Turning the bend of the broad winding street, swarming with traffic and people manoeuvring in and out of each other like a brimming beehive, we arrive at the market.
Colourful vegetables spill out from the edges of the market like an overturned toy box, shapes and colours of all kinds piled haphazard on make shift stalls which stretch the length of the street, almost tumbling over each other in their vibrant display. There is buzzing activity everywhere I look, my eyes opening wide to take it all in. The breeze gushing though my open window stills as the vehicle comes to a brief stop, allowing us to exit out of the sliding side door, stepping into the embracing heat, the dusty road scratchy under my sandals. This is Makola Market: Accra’s most vast and renowned market, an urban epicentre of trade, retail and culture.
There are people everywhere. Women in large straw hats to shade their faces from the scorching sun, line the streets with their wares. A carpet of large purple onions spread out on the floor in front of me like the rich weave of a sprawling rug. Rebellious threads are desperate to escape the cheerful blanket, as insurgent onions sneak away from the group and head towards the passing traffic. Stepping around the sea of purple onions, and through a corridor of traders, we enter into the market.
Beyond the initial stalls continues the brilliant chaos of vibrancy, cocooned under the shade of a vast canopy which brings shade and some degree of containment to the bustling marketplace. Jostling between people coming in the opposite direction, some broken tables, a giant pile of root vegetables and a thin man in an oversized shirt carrying an ominous looking metal bowl on his head, I slip into the depths of the stalls. The air is hot and thick, dense with humidity and the earthy smell of vegetables. Holding my stomach in, I squeeze around a woman carrying a huge sack of potatoes on her head, and past stall upon stall of fruits and vegetables – piles of giant yam, protruding carrots and mounds of plantain like monsters fingers.
Many of the women in the stalls are joyous and friendly, smiling and laughing with us as we bustle though the corridors of vegetables, pulses, crabs and fish. They welcome us warmly, particularly interested in this fair skinned woman they are encountering! The giant snails that often find their way into my lunches and dinners are here in their multitudes, scooped on top of one another in a basket, like a party of kids in a ball pool.
Watching my feet, I step off a ledge, over a small rock jutting out, and onto the bare back earth. Looking up again I am greeted by a small mountain range of bright red tomatoes, and a round faced woman, smiling behind them like the rising sun. Her face breaks into a joyous laugh as my Ghanaian companion greets her. Her wide smile produces plump shiny cheeks and twinkly eyes. My friend speaks with her in the local language of ‘Twi’ and introduces her to me. I notice a gap between her front two teeth as she greets me warmly. “Akwaaba! Ete sen?” – “Welcome! How are you?”. “Me da ase!”, I reply, “Me ho ye” – “Thank you, I am well”. She laughs with glee as I respond to her in Twi, and waves the tomatoes around as she begins to fill a white plastic bucket with the juicy fruits, before pouring them into a bag. We buy a tin full of tiger nuts too, a nut found in Northern parts of Ghana, rich with a nutty milk when ground.
A thin uneven corridor between the stalls maintains a route at the side of me, which after paying for our bag of tomatoes and bidding farewell to the beaming tomato seller, we take. As we walk I feast my eyes on collections of pineapples and hairy coconuts, hoards of glossy chilli peppers, and a sprawling tsunami of knobbly root ginger, and careful arrangements of dried smoked fish. Lazy sacks of potatoes hang low from wooden beams and rafters. Heaped hills of chickpeas and loaded baskets of limes with thick pocked skin catch my eye as we turn onto the market’s main thoroughfare.
The sound of the surrounding market is deafening as some machinery nearby whirrs into life, whizzing tomatoes into a liquid puree. In addition to this, meat is being hacked and chopped, the noise of the passing traffic reverberates through the canvassed cocoon, and the voices of buyers and sellers shout to be heard. Through it all, music is plays over the hustle, with an infectious tune, riddling my helpless bones with an intoxicating urge to dance as we go. My rhythm filled body moves to the beat, my face beaming with the joy I feel, much to the glee of the surrounding sellers, who enthusiastically join me in enjoying the music.
The packed earth creates a path about a meter wide which leads further down into the market, and then out the other side into the bright sunlight. A woman appears, glowing with the dusty light behind her, carrying a large bowl. She walks slenderly up the path and then disappears into the belly of the market. Behind her a little girl, maybe 2 or 3 years old, runs a few feet up the earthy path, with a little boy hot on her pursuit. They are both semi dressed, with carefree laughter, no worries and no shoes. The little girl turns and the roles are reversed – she chases him back out into the bright sunshine.I feel a something gently stroke my leg and turn around to find a lovely little boy curiously examining my calf. I turn and smile at him, bending down to greet him.
The tradeswomen gather around to see the little bond the two of us are creating, and start giggling like chucking hens as they excitedly decide that this is a sign I will become pregnant and give birth to a boy! The child’s mother adds that I am welcome to take him home if I like! …I have to say I am tempted! But I wave goodbye to him as his mother scoops him into her arms, and we continue to move on through the market.
A beautiful young girl approaches us carrying a gigantic metal bowl on her head. She is a ‘Kaya Yo’, a Carrier Woman. The Kaya Yo Women help market customers with all their purchases by carrying the load in their bowls, balancing them perfectly upon their heads. Although small and petite in frame, they are able to carry immense loads on their delicate heads. Many of the Kaya Yo have come from rural villages in North of Ghana to work here in the capital, often ending up living and sleeping here on the market floor, or surrounding streets. Their days are hard, and conditions are poor. Some of them are children. The sweet young woman who comes to help us, has the most beautiful smile, and shy loveliness in her character.
It is here in the market that many women work to gain their livelihood. It is not an easy life for the Kayo Yo who sleep on the market floors, nor is it for the Market Stall Trades Women, and so many families who live in the shanty homes beyond the market stalls. The Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi when recently asked during an interview who her heroines are, said, “[they are] the nameless women in the market, who are holding their families together. They are traders and their husbands are out drinking somewhere… It’s those women I admire. I am full of admiration for them.”
Our lovely Kaya Yo joins us in our journey through the market, eager to carry each bundle of vegetables we buy. I keep asking her if she is ok, but she just laughs at me asking, and continues to carry the load with an unfathomable grace and elegance. Behind her quiet smile I notice a strength in her eyes, but I can also see a sadness there.
We continue up the path, and out of the market into the brilliant sunshine, my eyes blinking, dazzled by the light. Stepping out, we duck our heads under the celebratory Maggi umbrellas and bunting. Maggi is the ‘do it all’ seasoning, pounded from dried fish, herbs and spices, to form an oxo-cube-like creation. It is used in much of the cooking that takes place in homes across Ghana. The bunting is bright yellow with red writing, and exhibits itself unashamedly across the entire length of the market.
A red umbrella also advertising the seasoning, shades a large table of gigantic yam and the weary seller who reclines on a wooden stool in front of them, leaning back against the knobbly giants.
The traffic lurches past, cars and trucks awkwardly jostling past each other, honking their horns in abundance. The dusty street, aggravated by the bedlam of activity, creates plumes of powdery air, which swirl and settle on anything it touches. The wicker brooms for sale, shaped like a fan of flattered chopsticks, would not be much use against this hustle and bustle.
My friend chooses the last of the vegetables from one of the outside stalls, the voluptuous woman in a tight vest top and apron handing her bags of beens, potatoes papaya and pineapple, and we say goodbye. We seemed to have gained the attention of surrounding sellers who also wave farewell, asking as we go if we want something from their stalls – maybe a yam or a prickly pear? We decline and continue away from the hustle. One seller shouts ‘I love you!’ as we wave goodbye.
As we hail down a passing tro tro, and climb into a hot back seat, squeezing ourselves in along side other journey goers, I exhale, and I feel a tinge of disappointment to leave the exuberance. But after a hot journey, back at home we all enjoy our freshly bought fruits and veggies.
So as I sit in my cool window spot in the cafe, I am thankful for the vibrancy all around me. I am thankful that I feel so alive as I explore my new home, amongst the richness of colours and the chaos. I am thankful for the joy that comes with the beauty and diversity of daily life.
And sat here in the privileged air con of the cafe, I think about the Kaya Yo women. I am stopped in my tracks. I am humbled and heartbroken as I think of their lives, challenged once again to practice gratitude in my own life. My life is bursting with options, opportunities, freedom and choice. I do not live hand to mouth, or worry that I will be raped as I sleep out in the street each night. Everyday I take for granted my access to a clean toilet and shower, and at night I lay unafraid in fresh sheets.
The extremities I see all around infuse into my mind and permeate my thoughts. I am reminded that life is fleeting, and that all I have is evanescent in the light of eternity. My deep desire is that I do not waste my days here on planet earth or cling selfishly to anything I possess. So, as I continue to live each day in my new homeland; as I continue to learn and to absorb, be inspired and be challenged, excited and saddened, I will continue to hold it all up in my hands to God, and ask him, “Father show me your heart. Show me how I can best use this one day, one week, one life”. And as time continues, I know he will.