Saturday, May 20, 2006

My Wonderful Family

As I've possibly already mentioned, I'm staying in Tolon with a family. The villages here are made up of compound houses. These are comprised of a number of separate rooms, joined by a wall on the perimeter, and the rooms exit into the central courtyard area that has a single entrance to the exterior. The walls are all made of clay/mud/cement, covered in plaster and then painted. The ceilings have corrugated metal paneling on top of raftes, covered by straw and mud - I'm not sure if that is for aesthetics or practical purposes; but either way, the rain clangs horribly when it pours. Seeing as the rainy season is starting, it's been raining quite a bit here.

The head of the household is Alhaji Mahama Asumah; he used to have the title Afa-Asumah, which many people still know him by. However, since he has travelled to Mecca, the title has changed from "Afa" to "Alhaji". It took me the longest time to get that straight! Alhaji used to be an Agricultural Extension Agent at MoFA, which is how I came to stay with his family. He is a very well-educated man and we have interesting discussions about Ghanaian politics, the challenges that the district farmers face, the local culture...well, practically everything! He is very open to questions, and seems to genuinely enjoy teaching me about Ghanaian life. Also, he is my Dagbani teacher. We have spent quite a few hours with him teaching me new words, and me struggling with the proper pronunciation of them. Slowly but surely...

Alhaji is married to three wonderful women! Amama, Mariama and Ayi (in that order, Amama being the senior wife). Then there are the children and other relatives - of whom there are too many to even recount! I've learned about 85% of their names and family connections. Amama has 4 children, 3 of whom no longer reside in the household. Her youngest, Nana, turns 20 on May 20th (there are no birthday celebrations here, but I supposed that's only practical with the amount of people to a household!). While I'm totally thrilled to have begun to understand the family structure, I'm sure it will be quite boring to read.

More interesting, is the family dynamic. The wives cook dinner (I'm never around for lunch except on the weekends, but I think it mostly consists of heated leftovers from the night before). They have a rotation where each wife cooks 2 evenings - I believe that the woman who cooked dinner, has the opportunity to spend the night with the husband in his room. The women each have their own rooms that they sleep in with their children and any cousins. For instance, Amama's brother's daughter, Karima, was attending school in Tolon and therefore she stays in Amama's room. Similarly, Mariama's sister, Sahada, and her baby, Rahma, stay in Mariama's room.

Which brings up another interesting custom. For the first 1 or 2 children born to a woman, she returns to her family's house without her husband. There she remains until the child is 2 or 3 years old and the husband calls for her to return. However, for the 3rd child and any child afterwards, she will remain with her husband. Alhaji had a first wife who he divorced; however, the second-born of that marriage is Amadu, and he lives in the compound as well with his wife, Fusina (she's pregnant and due any day!!) and their 2 daughters, Rehana and Rahima. For both her first children, Fusina returned home but for the child on the way, she will stay in the Asumah household. (And I know it is terrible to favour children, but I must confess that 4-year-old Rahima is possibly my favourite).

Alhaji understands the importance of education, so although he married 3 illiterate wives, he sends all of his children to school. They are adorable strolling off together in the morning with their matching uniforms (which cost a good 25-30 000 cedis apiece - so much for "free" primary education. With all the associated fees for uniforms, shoes and books, there is still a fairly high percentage of families who cannot afford to send their children to primary school, let alone secondary school! And from Senior Secondary school, maximum 10% go on to higher education of any kind). Haha, so there's my little rant concerning the utter impossibility of reaching the development millenium goal of free primary education, especially by 2015 - and Ghana is considered to be one of the developing countries making the best progress.

I've heard it is not uncommon for literate men to marry illiterate women here; which makes sense owing to the slight discrepency in the percentage of men and women who have received an education. If a family can only afford to send one child to school, it is more likely to be a son. However, I think this causes some issues within the marriage- mostly because the illiterate wives do not necessarily understand the importance of receiving an education. Whereas we put such an emphasis on schoolwork and learning, the daughters are at the beck-and-call of their mother's until they are older (learning to cook, wash, etc.); and the sons spend much time in the field, particularly during the rainy season. I think Alhaji would prefer to make studying a top priority for the children, but that would interfere with the wives' responsibilities to oversee the upbringing of the children. Although, that's just an opinion. And some of the children do make a lot of time to devote to their studies, so it could purely be on an individual basis.

There are still so many customs and traditions that seem so contrary to everything I've grown up with. For instance, the women do all the cooking and washing...but they believe it is their responsibility. It is not that the men force them to do it, but it seems almost like they are born to believe they are inferior to men (taught by the community, both men and women). Coming for a world riddled with feminism and equal rights, it is quite an adjustment to now live in a community where women are inferior. I suppose it is only fortunate that being a "Saliminga", a foreigner, I don't fit in with the natural heirarchy of the community - while I am still a women (the constant marriage proposals can attest to the fact), I am seen first as a Westerner.

Beyond simply trying to understand the family dynamic, I've also been trying to find my place in the family. I've been making an effort to bond with the women, but it's sometimes just easier to sit and talk with Alhaji. Seeing as Amama, Mariama and Ayi are illiterate, they've never really learned English. They speak a bit, but much of the time we find it difficult to communicate our exact meanings. Although, I must say that my gestures have become much more creative! Most of the time though, some of the children are around and they can always translate for me. So besides having Alhaji as a teacher, I've been learning Dagbani from the entire family! Sometimes I learn so much that it becomes too difficult to remember all the phrases - so each day I've been trying out new ones. We all have a good laugh at my initial attempts at pronouncing the words. However, I've found this to be one of the most accomodating places to learn a new language - everyone is so impressed with the little I speak and are very excited that I am even trying to speak the language in the first place.

I've managed to bond a bit with the women by having them teach me to cook (mostly TZ and braa). But I find that they've been cooking all their lives and their hands are much less susceptible to heat - so some of the things they do, I just physically can't. Such as, Mariama will just pick up a metal pot that's been sitting on burning coals for over an hour, with her bare hands and not even flinch. I, on the other hand, still get burned when I touch the end of the ladle that was sitting in the pot for 10 minutes. It's slow slow learning. I also insist on doing my own wash, and Khadija (one of the daughters) has been showing me the proper way to do it. Everything the women do standing (sometime they sit); but mostly, they stand and bend at the waist. Just cooking and washing are a work-out! Although, that might just be a testament to how out of shape I am. Well, not for long!

Showering is an adventure - I enter the little stall equipped with my brush, soap and half a bucket of water. When it's been raining, the air gets quite cool (relative to the intense heat, that is), and the water is cold. So we've been heating our water over the coals a bit before washing. In less than 2 weeks I've already become somewhat acclimatized to the heat!

But back to family-bonding. So above is how I've been spending time with the women. I also dance with Mariama as she sings. It consists of some bouncing around, and bumping hips at regular intervals. Everyone got so excited the first time the Saliminga danced! But now, we'll dance a few times a day. I've been spending some time drawing with the young children. They love the varieties of pencils I've brought with, and we all sit down around my sketchbook and draw together on one page. The women around my age and I just talk, cook, buy cloth. I've spent quite a bit of time with Khadija, Karima and Nana, and they really are such delightful company!

I've also been spending some time with the boys around my age, and a bit younger - Jina (nickname for Mohammed) is 18, and we play volleyball with the local boys. I'm really impressed with how well they play! But I've definately managed to hold my own in the games, and I'm proud to say that I'm one of the few who can successfully serve overhand. I think it makes the whole game more enjoyable because I know that they aren't just letting me play because I'm a foreigner (well, I suppose to some extent they are because I've never seen any of the local girls join in the games). I've also played football (aka. soccer) with some of the men of the community, and Ahamed who stays in our house (he's one of the sons of the neighbouring chiefs, and I believe that I'm staying in the room that used to belong to him; he now sleeps with 2 of the other boys). Wow, are they ever FAST! I have some issues just keeping up with the pace, especially since I'm definately not used to exerting myself in this kind of heat. But it could have been worse, and I've been invited to play in future games. I'm really looking forward to watching the World Cup with them, especially when Ghana plays Italy on the 12th! (Everyone reading this should watch the game!!)

But my favourite bonding experiences are in the evenings. Everything is very quiet and mellow; looking up you can see a magnificent display of stars, despite the horrid glow of the fluorescent lighting (electricity being both a blessing and a curse). But much of the time, we'll sit around a giant tub of ground nuts and converse for hours while shelling them by hand (you should see the calluses I've developed just from shelling nuts!). It's extremely relaxing to just absorb yourself in the conversation and monotonous activity. Oh, but the stars are just so beautiful! Sometimes I'll even just lie on a bench and stare up at them, and the kids will come and play with my hair (they really seem to love it, and I can't wait for it to grow longer - I've heard that hair grows very quickly here). Within the scarce time that I've been here, I already feel like part of the family and I think that they've begun to accept me as such, as opposed to a temporary guest.


At 4:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Darling Debs - so wondeful to read your experiences of Life as a real African! You are amazing and I sense that the family is enjoying the way you embrace their culture and way of life non- judgementally.
Way to go Debs...
African Aunt

At 5:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

PS... I hope you knew who the African Aunt was:)

At 2:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

hi debra,
were at beckers on w end and spoke with eric there - he sent me this link - its excellent and v impressive - i want to see the photos when you're back
karin back in a month
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At 2:03 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

thanks for taking us on this treat.
Oh, how I wish I could have done someting like this. The next best is reading your well written and beautiful rendition of your experience. You right so well of something so rich and enlightening.
We will be checking your blog regularly now and would love a moment under the stars with you.
You say little about your work so lets add that piece next time.
Lorraine and Larry

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