The first time we brought ActionMan to Mensakrom he was almost three. We celebrated his third birthday – after a cake hunt – at Kumasi Cultural Centre, with palm nut soup (abenkwan), plain cake and lemonade. It was during a short interlude in the city; we spent most of our seven week holiday in the village. Typical of many villages it has no piped water or electricity, no sewerage and no clinic (tho lots of churches!). The villagers are cocoa and subsistence farmers.
In Mensakrom we lived with Nana and Serwaa in the family compound that DadaK’s father built in the 1950’s, a central courtyard surrounded by rooms made of wattle and red mud, and faced with concrete – much of which has now fallen off. Two sides were bedrooms, one side was a kitchen and the fourth had one bedroom and otherwise was general storage for foodstuffs and wood.
At the time we were there (1998 & again for three weeks in ’99), all of Nana’s children but one, and all their children, lived in Mensakrom – around 50 people. These days, only two sons and their children remain, plus a widowed daughter-in-law. That’s still a lot of family, because some of Nana’s grandchildren have married and have their own children now, but quite a few of the grandchildren have also grown up and left the village to work in the cities.
With fewer family there, for DadaK and Gyamfi the village is no longer very inviting place. They have only returned once, briefly, since they arrived in Ghana in March, and they didn’t take the children. They were reluctant to take us there, both repeating “There’s nowhere to sleep, you can only go for a day”. I understand their reluctance. Although Mensakrom’s probably not more than 150 ks from Kumasi, it’s quite a journey to get there. But family is important to me, and I thought it would was totally unacceptable to come to Ghana and not visit DadaK’s brothers, Asiedu and Nkrumah, and their wives, Ohemmaa and Akosia, with whom I’d spent a lot of time on our previous visits.
ActionMan’s illness delayed our trip for a couple of weeks – no way was I going bush with a sick child – and it was hard to convince DadaK that it was really important but finally, and rather suddenly, the day came. DadaK can be spontaneous when it suits him, and one weekend when Bra John had stayed over until Monday, he asked me at about 8.00am Monday if I wanted to go to the village that day. Bra John could drop us, he was going to his home village a few K’s beyond Mensakrom.
By this time ActionMan was responding well to his second round of antibiotics, so I decided it was safe to go, and a good opportunity, and started getting ready – on the understanding that it was a same day return trip. Why was I not suspicious when DadaK walked past me with a towel and spare T-shirt? All I took was money, gifts and my camera.
We didn’t actually get out of the house until about 10.00am. ActionMan, already engrossed in his Play Station Portable (PSP) and still feeling a bit tired, wasn’t really enthusiastic about getting out of bed. Bra John wasn’t around so I couldn’t tell what the schedule was. Sister-in-law Akosia, who had come from the village to stay for the weekend, seemed to be taking her time about getting ready. No-one really seemed to be in a hurry, and no-one really explained the program to me. Perhaps they assumed I knew.
It turned out that Bra John and Akonta were already at Kejetia lorry park in central Kumasi waiting for passengers for the trip. At first I thought they were going to collect us on the way, as they’d have to travel through AsuoYebuah on the Sunyani road. It wasn’t until we were walking out of the house that I realised we were going to meet them in Kejetia. This entailed waiting at the local shops for a taxi to the junction, then waiting at the junction for a trotro to Kejetia, then sitting in Bra John’s trotro waiting for it to fill with passengers and be loaded with cargo and luggage.
I have realised this is probably one of the advantages of government buses – they run to a schedule. Trotros leave when they are full, even if they have to wait several hours. When we arrived, DadaK initially wouldn’t let us leave the trotro in case it left without us, although having got us seats, he promptly disappeared himself with no explanation. ActionMan was not impressed. He was hungry because Serwaa hadn’t cooked for us – there was no time to prepare a meal before we left – and at each stage of our journey I’d put him off buying food because I knew we’d be able to get some at Kejetia. And there we were stuck in the truck. I wasn’t impressed because I needed to go to the bank. Turning up in the village without money would possibly be worse than not going at all.
Actually, as I mentioned in my last post, you can’t starve when you are sitting waiting in a lorry park. There’s plenty of snack food around, but ActionMan wanted a meal. It would also be difficult to be bored, although I think AM managed it. Kejetia is all colour and movement and noise. Even though I’ve had plenty of these experiences by now, and not just in Ghana, I’m still fascinated.
Hawkers walk past with bofrots, ice cream, biscuits, iced water, pens, pineapples, chocolates and bread. Toothpaste or herbal remedy salesmen pop into the car and after a short prayer, discourse on the wonders of their product to the captive audience. While we waited for DadaK to rematerialise, ActionMan purchased five large bofrots but it wasn’t enough. I tried to find out from Akonta if there was time for me to dash to the bank, but Akonta’s English is extremely limited and he just nodded and smiled, so I wasn’t confident and stayed put.
Eventually DadaK returned and after some lobbying, I established that Bra John would stop at an ATM on Sunyani road for me, and yes, we did have time for ActionMan to have a proper meal. So we got out of the trotro and followed Akonta through the crowds to a cafe where he bought his favourite Ghanaian food, ampesi with yams.
I still naively thought that we were terribly pressed for time, but even after a sit down cafe meal, we had to keep waiting for at least half an hour. we didn’t actually roll out of the station until around 1.00. It was starting to look like we’d be having a very brief visit.
We headed north-west on the Sunyani Road, turning off well before Sunyani at … somwhere I can’t remember teh name of – get back to you on that! The road, as we traveled, got narrower after each major town. After ???, the next main stop was Goaso, then Akrodie where the road narrowed to a single lane and the asphelt surface disappeared. Akrodie is probably not more than 10 ks from Mensakrom, but the road is so rough it takes about 20 minutes to get there. Except when you reach the forest reserve that surrounds the village. There, for a few k’s the road is level and graded. Perhaps for the benefit of the logging trucks?
Generally though, this is the kind of road where a 4WD would be useful, but instead, what did we see but a shiny new sedan in a lean-to carport made of sticks and palm leaves, beside a very poor looking and run down cluster of huts. A rags to riches story there, no doubt.
Along the Akrodie-Mensakrom road Bra John had to slow down several times for hens and their chicks crossing the road. We got to Mensakrom around 4.30 and found the whole place over-run with chooks and their offspring. I think there were more birds than people. DadaK pointed out some guinea fowl chicks that had been hatched by regular hens, and in the distance when we arrived, I saw some adult guinea fowls dashing across the road, at exactly the place where I’d seen them dash on previous visits. That was my first and last sighting this time. They are elusive birds.
By this time it was obvious that we would be staying the night and – voila! – a bed mysteriously became available. Akonta still has a house in the village, and AM and I got ushered to his room. Small, with a very hard mattress and no windows, but it had a mosquito net, which was just as well given the huge gaps between wall and ceiling. DadaK bunked down with Akonta in the next room. I’m not sure who had to vacate for them, I think it was one of AM’s adult cousins.
DadaK then took us on the obligatory tour of introduction, which I’ve had to go through every time I visit the village. First we went to Akosia’s place, to learn that Nkrumah was out, and then went to every household that was important, which seemed to be most of them, to be introduced and shake hands with whoever was around. Asiedu also was out, but we caught up with him later. His wife, and the widowed sister-in-law (Kesewaa) were both away, so we didn’t get to see them at all.
During the tour, in which I only remembered a handful of people, it started to rain. Shortly after, someone came to tell us that our food was ready. On DadaK’s first stop after Nkrumah’s house he had asked the woman to cook. We retreated to under the awning of their general store and started eating cocoyam and nkontommre (cocoyam leaf) stew, red mud puddles forming all around us. After we finished Asiedu turned up, offering us food, and when we finally went to bed we found Akosia had left rice and stew for us – so there was no shortage of meals, only of appetite.
My lack of appetite was at least partly related to renewed shock at village living conditions. I kept thinking to myself, “I can’t believe I lived here for over a month! I can’t believe it!” I have had to remind myself, since, that I enjoyed it a lot, even though it was uncomfortable, and I was disappointed that we’d be spending most of our time in the city this time. The forest is beautiful, you get used to the conditions, and it’s not at all a bad thing for a soft westerner to get to experience how cocoa producers really live.
The rain made the general squalor more noticeable and less bearable. It’s a squalor born of poverty. People do their best to keep their homes swept and clean, but with mud buildings, mud floors, livestock having access to everywhere but bedrooms, and monsoonal rain, high standards in housekeeping are impossible to attain. Nana’s old compound looked in bad repair, the room my brother had slept in now had big chunks missing from the wall, and there were more cracks and holes in the concrete porches.
I did notice some improvements. The yard around the school had a trimmed lawn instead of bare dirt; Asiedu and Akonta had dim, battery powered lighting in their rooms; and there was a bore hole and pump right in the middle of the village. The SDA church had a new porch, and the primary school had classrooms made of concrete, rather than earth-floored, palm-roofed shelters. The school toilets that we always used on our visits were still clean and well maintained (concrete is a wonderful thing!).
While I was squirming and thinking “get me outta here!” ActionMan was having a great time. He got thoroughly wet and muddy in the rain, pulled out his slingshot and crept around aiming at small birds, and then one of the village boys made his day by producing a monkey.
I don’t know what species, or even whether it was fully grown, but it was very cute. My background mind-gabble of “I want a hot shower and a flush toilet”, switched abruptly to “Rabies! Monkeys = rabies! Rabies! Eek!”
We’ve never had rabies shots before coming to Ghana. You have to have them at least six weeks ahead of travel, and I never manage to get organised in time. Also I’ve heard they’re pretty heavy duty, although of course, so is dying from rabies. I think I’m really just in denial about the whole thing. But then, local people know about rabies. They would notice if an animal was sick or dangerous and get everyone out of the way. It’s another case of not taking unnecessary risks and you’ll be fine. In any case, you need a course of injections after exposure, whether ot not you’ve already been vaccinated. Luckily most of the time we’ll be close enough to big cities for that to be feasible.
I calmed myself down by reminding myself, over and over, that if the monkey was rabid, someone would have died by now and the monkey wouldn’t be around. By the time we left the next day I was almost reconciled to it. And three weeks later, we are both still alive.
ActionMan was entranced by it. Typical first world child, he kept trying to buy it. Fortunately the owner was away, tho I don’t think Akonta or DadaK would have allowed it anyway. By the next morning the monkey trusted him enough to let him feed it banana and he carried it around everywhere. In a school geography assignment he had to email home the next week, he wrote that even though Ghana is poor, one of the good things about it is that you have the freedom to own a monkey.
The rain cleared overnight and so the next morning he got to have a better shot at killing small birds. This was the main reason he had been wanting to come to Mensakrom. DadaK won’t allow him to use the slingshot in the urban environment of Asuo Yebuah, in case he hits a human being, instead of one of the numerous lizards he’s aiming at. DadaK suggested a spot he could try and sent him off with one of the teenage boys who wasn’t at school.
The spot was a tree full of weaver bird nests beside a swampy but pretty pool just down the road from the village. “Bilharzia! Schistosomiasis!” and occasionally “Are they endangered species? Is he creating orphan birds? Should I allow this?” went my internal gabble. Those of ActionMan’s acquaintance who are critter lovers will be relieved to hear that he didn’t hit a single bird. And I don’t know yet if he’s acquired any parasitic water snail diseases. I’ll deal with that if it happens.
The first time we stayed in Mensakrom some children came to show me a tiny bird one afternoon. I don’t think it was a weaver bird, it was too small. I was appalled when the next thing I knew, they were pulling out all its feathers in preparation for roasting it on the coals. Now I’m more used to the idea and I can rationalise it. I’ve read that rainforest dwellers are notoriously low on protein, due to the shortage of large animals, so they can’t be as picky about their food as we can in richer countries.
Children in particular seem to be at the bottom of the pecking order when it comes to food. On our last visit, one of AM’s small cousins was diagnosed with scurvy, and I caught two older boys scraping droplets of egg white into a frying pan, from the eggshells left over after Serwaa had made our morning omelette. Another time they were scraping burnt rice off the bottom of a cooking pot.
Although our SDA family won’t eat snails and so forth, traditionally Ghanaians living in the rainforest have had to eat almost anything that moves – snails, rats and other rodents, monkeys, mouthful-sized birds – or starve. Travelers in Ghana with an interest in exotic fare can take advantage of this, although in some cases they must be a bit discreet. For example I believe it’s not that hard to get cat or dog, but you have to be careful who you ask.
Recently I met a Kiwi in Tamale who had eaten cat for the first time just the night before, with enjoyment, and was intending to try dog if he got the opportunity. I would have been more shocked if I hadn’t read a blog post on exactly this topic only a few months ago, so I was over the worst of the “eeuw, gross” reaction by the time I met him. He urged me to try it too if I got the chance: “You only live once”. It’s a life experience I can do without. But – aha! I have one over him, or we’re quits, because he won’t eat snails, and I have. Rubbery, but okay if properly cleaned before cooking.
I can’t see ActionMan eating cat or snails, and if he did shoot a bird he’d probably hand it over to someone else to cook and eat. He’s gone off meat a bit, he tells me. “I don’t feel like eating it after seeing all the chooks and goats wandering around everywhere”, he says. Fine by me, he’s getting a reality check about meat-eating.
Our stay in Mensakrom was all too short. We left around 10.00am the morning after we arrived. Bra John gave us a lift to Akrodie, we caught a car to Goaso and then a trotro home. I’d accomplished the main business of visiting the rels, giving them some cash in discreet farewell handshakes, and giving Asiedu’s daughter, who’s named after me, a new dress and having our photo taken together. I don’t know if we’ll go back before we leave Ghana. I understand DadaK’s reluctance and now share it. But it’s a good place for a boy to fool around, and I’ve just found out we can’t get ActionMan into school here, so we’ve got the time. So maybe ….