Wednesday, May 03, 2006

A restaurant at night

I’m in the city of Gushiegu, about an hour and a half north-east of Tamale – depending, of course, on the rains, which can render the roads near impassable, transforming them into a sloppy stew of red dirt and grey gravel that can spell disaster for rural communities throughout the north.


I’m sitting in a restaurant here, jotting down notes in my daily planner, trying my best to capture the experience of what should be the most mundane of activities – like eating. But it’s not mundane, and it never is, and that’s part of the magic of travel.

The restaurant is small and open-air. It consists of a white plastic table surrounded by dining room chairs, another table with picnic coolers filled with drinks and day-old food, and four young women who are making the feature dinner. They’re gathered around a single large pestle, and each strike of their mortars pounds boiled yams into a submissive starchy paste – the staple food of fufu. The pounding is perfectly timed, each blow striking an empty spot in the pestle. As a result of this coordination, they inevitably form a beat; or maybe it’s more accurate to say that they form an inevitable beat, given the omnipresence of music in Ghanaian culture – there’s always music, and when there isn’t, there really is: it’s there, hidden in the daily activities, drifting down the streets, permeating the air. As if to further back up my train of thought, the sounds of evening prayers begin to float into the restaurant, mingle with the pounding, merge with it, and a new song is born.

One of the women, without interrupting her pounding, starts speaking loudly to her companions. Her words emerge in time to the beat. I’m unsure if she’s complaining or singing – but I think the answer is somewhere in between. She is, in effect, reinventing hip-hop (or is it that hip-hop is predated by the music of fufu pounding?).

Another woman calls out to me, “Saliminga! How much?” I hesitate, then throw out a random number. A steaming plate of fufu – 4,000 Ghanaian cedis worth, to be accurate – quickly appears before me, and I tuck in. Fufu, itself, is a starchy non-entity – it’s simply the tasteless vehicle for the accompanying soup’s flavour. In this case the soup is my favourite, peanut, and my fingers scoop with gusto. Slurping is not just allowed, but encouraged – required, in fact, to keep the soup from running down your wrists.

My colleague from work arrives from prayers, and sets his own bowl of fufu on the table. His meal contains an additional component: entrails. “What are those?” I ask him. He responds, “intestines.” I ask what animal these used to belong to. “Oh, cow,” he says, then pauses in contemplation, reconsidering his answer. “Or goat. Or maybe sheep.” I secretly hope they’re sheep, but refrain from asking the woman to top up my plate with them.

I finish my meal, wash my hands in a large bowl on the table, stand, pay the woman, and walk out of the restaurant, all the while trying to perform these actions according to the ambient beat. But I know I don’t get it. It can’t be consciously performed with, least of all by an outsider. That’s fine, though. As much as I want to learn and integrate, I’m still an outsider. That certainly won’t lessen my appreciation of the organic music of Ghana. I walk down the street, and open my ears for the next song.

50 comments:

Kim said...

Do you remember that "song" I had from the world music class I took that I sent you back when you first found out that your were going to Ghana, "postal workers canceling stamps"? We discussed that day how in Ghana and in other parts of Africa music, as we call it here anyway, is just part of life, resulting in this organic music that you speak of. I'm so glad that you've been able to appreciate and experience this!

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed the pics. Take care.

Pencilla

Anonymous said...

I wanted to check out some info about Western and noticed on the main page that UofW was supporting a project in Ghana. I just could not resist checking out your blog. Duing the 3rd year of my undergrad, I participated in a Cross-Cultural internship to Ghana in 2000 . I spent my internship in Jagna, a small village in Northern Ghana, maybe you have been there...or perhaps you will have the opportuinty to go there at some point. As I look at your pics and read your blog, I long to return to Ghana...Thanks for the pics, they bring back so many wonderful memories.

Anonymous said...

I came across your blog from the UWO site. I spent six months in Accra back in 2002/03, but spent time travelling through Tamale on my way to Bolga and Mole...the description of the restaurant and the fufu brings back a lot of memories. i prefer the balls of rice over fufu, but i could definitely go for some groundnut soup.

Lesley-Anne Steeleworthy
Halifax

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