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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

On the importance of Roquefort:
Or Seeing Accra Through New Eyes

Sometimes we all need a little perspective to appreciate how lucky we really are. After living here for some time, many expats find themselves in the trap of focusing more on the things that irritate or inconvenience, without appreciating all our blessings. For example, we see clearly how hawkers on the street go out of their way to aggressively try to sell to us because we are foreigners, but we grow blind to how wonderfully warm and hospitable people here are. We see all the things that don’t work as well or as fast as we’d like them too, and don’t appreciate how amazing it is that so many things do work at all. Recently my husband and I were visited by two friends, Garron and Hannah, who are currently living and working in Rwanda. This was the first time we had people visit us who already had experience elsewhere in Africa. Seeing Ghana through my friends’ eyes helped remind me of just how fortunate we are here.

More than a decade after the most recent genocide, Rwanda is still repairing itself. Most of the physical repairs have long since been made, but mending a national consciousness takes considerably longer. The process has created lasting changes to the way of life. Although Rwanda was a Belgian colony, and the colonial influence left behind the French language, many Rwandans who fled ethnic tension since the late 1950s had settled in the surrounding English-speaking countries. When generations of these expatriated Rwandans returned as part of reconciliation, the mix of English and French speakers in the country shifted dramatically.

Other efforts to control the memory are more intentional and calculated. Either by popular assent or political decree, people no longer publicly refer to themselves as ethnically Hutu or Tutsi; all are Rwandan. Each Saturday all citizens are expected to report to the local neighborhood gathering place, and the entire unit works together on some public works project, such as cleaning up roads or digging bore holes for improved water supply. Investing with your labor in the collective good of the country is one active strategy to try to create a sense of nationalism and unity over the fabric of former ethnic tensions.

Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, has only a few hundred thousand residents, compared to Accra’s more than 2 million. Accra, in terms of population, is roughly the same size as Chicago. Whereas Accra is mostly flat and coastal, our friends describe Kigali as the hilliest place they have ever seen. Garron and Hannah were amazed at how bustling and commercial the streets of Accra were. Everywhere you look things are for sale, from caged African grey parrots to African Cup of Nations t-shirts to mangoes. Even on a Sunday, when the streets are comparatively deserted as everyone goes to church or visits family, they found Accra busier than Kigali.

Our friends were particularly were eager to visit one of the several cosmopolitan grocery stores in Accra. There are approximately 3000 foreigners living in Kigali, but many more reside in Accra. Foreign populations often correlate closely with the availability of international or luxury goods, because resident foreigners have cosmopolitan tastes and salaries sufficient to purchase more expensive imported goods. Before they moved to Rwanda, our friends had lived for some time in Belgium, where they cultivated an addiction to good cheese. They tell us they can get only a limited selection of poor quality cheese in Rwanda. I promised an impressive selection of fine European cheeses at our grocery stores. Indeed, I find the selection of cheese at two of the big grocery stores here in Accra vastly superior to the cheese available at our local Dominick’s back home in Chicago.

As we were talking to the grocery store, Garron and I were discussing the diplomatic corps. He had gone through the full application process but had to decline by the time they finally offered him a posting. I had thought seriously about joining after college, but decided instead to pursue a Fulbright and a career in research. As we entered and walked through the store, I told him that Ghana is officially considered a “hardship” posting in the diplomatic corps, meaning those who serve here get paid an additional hefty bonus on top of their world-wide base salary. At about this point in the conversation we reached the cheese counter, where Garron stood transfixed by wheel after wheel of gorgeous imported cheese.

He looked at me amazed; then, with comic flare, he said, “It ain’t hardship if there’s Roquefort at the grocery store.”

That became a sort of slogan for our adventures around Accra. That, and “Like Country Come to Town” to describe any moment they stood, mouths agape, when confronted with some unexpectedly modern feature of Accra, like its giant shiny new mall complete with a huge department store and a massive supermarket. Or the food court, complete with internet café, where you can get café pastries, hamburgers, grilled chicken, pizzas, and ice cream sundaes.

When they packed to head back, we had to buy them one of the regionally produced plastic luggage bags, just to fit all the food items they wanted to take back. Among other things, there was Diet Coke, Diet Cherry Coke, Doritos, Chocolates, a box of Cereal, some olive oil, some spices, several different kinds of cheese, a packet of taco seasoning, four donuts, and Lebanese flat bread.

Many people who first discover that I have spent so much time living and traveling in West Africa think that I have a very exotic or adventurous life. But the funny thing is just how normal it can all seem to be. You know you have lived somewhere, really lived there, not just visited, when you find yourself past the honeymoon phase, when you can see both the good and the bad of a place. For example, for the past two weeks or so we have had only intermittent running water at our home, despite the fact that they almost doubled the cost of water in the country in December. Most days this was okay, we would get water in the morning for showering, and I would boil up and store a bunch of drinking water in Nalgene bottles in the fridge, enough to last the day. If we were very lucky running water would last through dinner time and allow us to easily cook and wash our dishes. If we were unlucky and the water went out sooner, then we would wash dishes the next morning.

But for the last 48 hours we haven't had any running water at all. We have taken "bucket" showers each morning, and only slight, water-conserving bucket rinses in the evenings to try to rinse of the grime and sweat of the day. We have a salad planned for dinner tonight because it doesn't require water (like boiling pasta) and doesn't make too many dishes. If this continues much longer we will be fortunate enough to be able to afford to eat out at a local restaurant, and leave the water and dishes problems to them. But of course, not everyone is so lucky.

Which is all just a long way of saying that I love Ghana, and that I have truly lived here, lived enough to be both enamored and disappointed with things here. But sometimes you need a pair of fresh eyes to help you see beyond the power and water shortages to really focus on how completely blessed we are to live in this country where we have access to so much, where people are incredibly kind and hospitable, where there are problems but still good people willing to sacrifice personally and fight to make their country better.


katiez said...

I just got back from the U.S. and so many people ask WHY am I living in France (any place other than the U.S. is implied - I can imagine the intensity of the question when you are asked)
They just don't seem to get the fact that the earth is vast with so many places to live! I wish we had started our meandering earlier (this is our 4th country)...
Appreciating other cultures helps one to understand one's own - both the good and the bad...
Hope you get water soon!

Erin said...

Your comment brings so many brief yet defining moments back to me.

The first time I went abroad I was 16 and my grandmother took my cousin and I to London and Paris. When we got back to school and were talking about what we did over the summer, the boy in front of me in class asked me why I would want to go to Paris, they "dont even speak our language over there. They are so different." And all I could say is, "Yes, and that is exactly why."

And when I made the decision to go to Ghana for my study abroad, and people wondered why, my mother told me, that with each decision like this I might find myself more and more drawn to other people who, like me, took great joy in being outside of their comfort zone.

I am sorry people give you grief about living in France. And yes, I am constantly having to tell people that yes, they have stores in Ghana. No I dont ride an elephant to work. Yes people have soap (in fact they shower twice a day).

And yes, the water is back. Woohoo!

Laura said...

Another great essay, Erin.

Nina said...

Hi Erin

Presumably you have seen the website cum blog, which is all about African food, but with some emphasis on Ghana?


Erin said...


Thanks. I'm glad to hear you liked it. As much as I try to focus on food, while here I find it hard not to talk about social issues of life in Ghana more generally, with a slight food twist for good measure.

Nina, I had not seen Betumi before, but thanks for pointing me towards another great online source of info about African food traditions.

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