Sunday, July 1, 2007

Gari, Batik and Politics...

Apologies to all for the longer-than-usual silence – surprise power outages, village stays, and course registration have prevented some good blogging, but hopefully I’ll make up for it this week.

So last week I did a village stay in Kafaba, a biggish village about 40 minutes south east of Salaga with a population around 1500. I stayed with the family of a big contractor in the district who proposed to me and offered his family home for the visit. I said no to the first offer and yes to the second, although I was a bit concerned that they would think it was a “meet the parents” type of situation. Funny enough, when we went to check out the village, the contractor’s father and my landlord for a week (nickname: Boga) also proposed to me. As much as I would love to be the fourth wife of an 85 year old man, I had to decline on that one when thinking about my grandmother having a heart attack upon receipt of my bride price ;)

With a fairly low level of education in the village, the majority don’t speak English. My Gonja being quite limited to greetings and a few simple questions and nouns, I needed some help in getting around and asking questions. My favourite tour guide was Mutaru, just a few days older than me and waiting for his JSS results to start Senior Secondary School in the coming months. I really enjoyed our conversations and he has become a very good friend who will hopefully visit me in Salaga. Unfortunately, he wasn’t available to show me around as often as we would have liked so I spent quite a bit of time with Dramain, one of Boga’s sons. He stopped schooling at Form 3 of JSS and is now working as a farmer. He showed me around his farm, took me to Okusu, and introduced me to Adisa and Atawu (keep reading for details). I didn’t get to actually do work on the farm with Dramain so I was going to do some with Mutaru but our plans got interrupted (big surprise!) when he was sent to do an errand. I'm hoping to go with Soma and Z (my host brother and father here in Salaga) next time they go to farm.

Village Politics

When it was first confirmed that I’d be going to Kafaba for my village stay, everyone I talked to in Salaga would say “your friends, they are there.” I really didn’t know what to expect when first meeting “my friends,” an American family learning Gonja in Kafaba. What I found was a really lovely and welcoming family in Tanner and Rebecca Leibee, who have lived there for almost two years now and had two adorable sons in that time-span, Dale and Camden. Rebecca’s sister Grace is also staying there for a few months to help out with the young boys. I am so grateful to have met the Leibees because, having lived in Kafaba for quite a while, they are very integrated in the community and have an excellent understanding of the community issues. I learned buckets about village politics and Gonja culture from them and certainly wouldn’t have been able to get so much information from just any community member. I visited with them quite a lot during my stay (often their friends from Kafaba) and we discussed many topics ranging from Ghanaian politics to our families to the ridiculous amounts of MSG found in Chinese restaurants.

One story they told me is about a recent Assemblyman election. The Assembly is kind of like city council, 70% of the Assembly members are Assembly men or women elected from all the areas of the district and 30% are government appointed members. (I believe our district’s Assembly is about 48 people in total and our Presiding Member (someone elected by the Assembly to represent them) is Paulina, a strong and well-read woman from just outside Salaga.)

While Kafaba is made up of many different tribes, the bulk of the community belongs to one of two Gonja clans, we’ll call them Imam’s and Boga’s. Imam’s clan was the first one in Kafaba so the Chief will always be someone from Imam’s clan. The Assembly member for Kafaba, however, is a very different story – he or she is supposed to be chosen in an election open for anyone to run. Since both clans wanted one of their people to represent the village, the Chief gathered everyone and they decided that the clans would take turns in the chair. In the last two rounds the Assembly member has been someone from Boga’s clan so this time around, it was certainly time for Imam’s clan. One person came forward and everyone in the village agreed to vote for him (democracy at its best…). Just days before the election, a man from Boga’s clan got his family together and said he would put in his name since it should be a free election. They all agreed to vote for him since he’s their clansman and it got quite dirty from here. There was money being thrown around everywhere with people trying to buy votes. In the end, Imam’s guy won by something like 12 votes out of 800. The two clans wouldn’t even look at each other for a month after this whole charade! These days, they’re all civilized with each other and can even be found throwing around some jokes but they still don’t really “hang out”… although I don’t think they ever did, even before the whole election thing. It’s hard to say who is in the “right” in this situation. The guy from Boga’s clan was right – anyone should be free to run in the election and be chosen if voted for by the people. Then again, they had all agreed to rotate and it was certainly time for Imam’s clan to be in the chair. The Assembly member has a lot of clout so whoever’s clan is “in power” is actually… in power. For example, all the people chosen from Kafaba to take part in the Youth Employment Program belong to Imam’s clan. Something like 6 or 7 of Imam’s family members (which is pretty much anyone in the clan since they’re all related somehow) started government jobs a month after the program was introduced.


Being right on Volta Lake, fishing is a big income generator in Kafaba. Many fishermen have moved to Kafaba from other areas, most notably the Volta Region. With the low rains last year, the water level of the lake is extremely low and the size of the lake has decreased significantly, causing many problems (including the energy crisis I mentioned in the last blog entry). Many fishermen have moved out to where the edge of the water is now - an “island” called Okusu - -and set up temporary homes there. This was the first time I walked to an island, the only obstacle being a 25-feet patch of knee-deep water to wade through. It’s easy for me to say since we were just taking a leisurely stroll with no time limit or end goal. If I were a student living in Okusu, trekking in a few kilometres through swampy marsh to get to the nearest school would not be the most appealing prospect, especially when my parents are struggling to catch enough food to eat and a little more to sell in the market. I tried and tried to find some fish to bring back to family and friends in Salaga but even the fishermen couldn’t help me! The biggest fish they’ve been catching these days are 4-5 inches long. When the rains come and the lake goes back to its normal size, the fishermen will have to move back to their homes in Kafaba and surrounding villages.

Gari Processing

Since cassava is one of the main crops in the district, gari processing is a popular activity in many areas. I met Adisa and Atawu who were processing in front of their compound and was quite happy to learn about one of the big income generators for women in the district.

The whole thing starts with the cassava, which is grown on their family farm. They pay to have the cassava grinded down to little chunks by a machine not far from the compound. The grinded cassava is then put through a mesh to sift out the chunks and stringy bits to produce an almost powder. This part is pretty straight-forward and not difficult but can get tiring if you’re doing it all day. After the sifting, the gari is roasted in a big… wok? This is the tough part because the roaster must sit next to the fire constantly mixing the gari. If the powder sits for just a second too long, it’ll burn. Apparently gari that is roasted properly can keep for up to three years. Adisa said they can produce up to 20 pans of gari a day, each pan holding about 12 bowls. I sat with Adisa and some other women at the market where they were trying to sell their gari, maize, groundnuts, and other assorted goods. Adisa was selling her gari for 8000 cedis (about $1) a bowl so if she sold everything she produced on a regular day, that would total 1,920,000 cedis (about $240). It sounds like a lot for one day’s work, but keep in mind they’re not processing gari every day and can’t always sell everything they produce. Abiba, one of Boga’s nieces, was also selling gari in the market and I didn’t see her sell a single bowl the entire two hours I was there.

After watching for some time, they finally let me give it a try. My roasting skills produced some nice burnt gari that they put aside in another dish, probably to feed to the chickens ;) I was much better at the sifting and actually did it for quite some time while Atawu went to prepare lunch. That said, the fact that they will roast and sell the gari I sifted isn’t saying much about any future as a gari processor since the sifting is like playing in a sandbox. As payment for our not-so-hard work (and probably more for the entertainment I provided), Adisa and Atawu gave us a handsome gift of three fried fish. I can’t say I’ve ever tasted a fish so delicious. It was delivered fresh in a bucket when we arrived at their compound (probably not long after it was caught), fried with some salt and oil, and hot from the pan into my mouth.

This eating food straight from the source is one thing I could get really used to. Dramain’s cousin has a small maize farm beside his house. We went to visit and he chopped a few off the stalk for us to take back to Boga’s. We threw them on the fire and, minutes later, enjoyed some delicious corn on the cob.

I’ve always thought it was neat to be able to grow your own food and I don’t think I’ve fully appreciated the concept of depending on your own hard work for the daily meal until now. Then again, it’s easy for me to say because if my vegetables don’t grow, I can easily run down to the market and buy some substitutes with no problems. We read a lot about diversification and not putting all your eggs in one basket but it’s certainly something else to see first-hand how important it is to depend on more than just the weather for your basic needs. Dramain showed me a hay-weaved storage shed on their farm that got blown down by strong winds and took a bunch of yams with it.

So those are just a few experiences from my first village stay and I’ll hopefully be doing another in August. I took a few photos - - and even a video of the maize pounding (but you’ll have to wait to see the video because there’s no way it’ll load on this connection!).

I’ll end off with a quick recap of my day yesterday. It started with a trip to the slaughterhouse down the road from my house with Soma. We watched three cows get slaughtered and, surprisingly enough, my stomach didn’t even think of doing a flip and I still have no hesitation in digging into a nice juicy steak. The most impressive thing was the speed with which these butchers can work. In about 20 minutes, a cow went from bucking and fighting for his life to having his stomach poured out and hide washed off as a second cow was pulled into the little building. (Don’t worry to all my vegetarian friends and those of you with easily disturbed stomachs; you won’t be seeing any pictures of this in my photo album.)

After that eventful start to the day, Mel and I got a crash course in batik material and even got to make some of our own! Our lesson came from Madame Janet, Apoorva’s host mother last year and a Rural Enterprise Projects (REP) client who does batik, tie-dye material, and soap making. (REP is the organization that Kathryn, Carleton’s first long-term overseas volunteer, worked with from August 2006 until just a few weeks ago.) We started at 8 a.m. and left just after 4, all satisfied with a day of work and quite ready for a good nap. I documented the day with photos, which you can find here: (see captions for explanations). It’s a pretty straight-forward process and would be a super fun activity to do at home if we could figure out where to get all the chemicals and whatnot.

So we’ll leave it at that for now. All the Ghanaian JFs, long-terms and support staff will be gathering next weekend for our mid-summer retreat and I’m ridiculously pumped for that! We’ll have a day off on Saturday to be tourists and visit Mole National Park. Hopefully I’ll have some sweet wildlife photos to share for the next update :)


gien said...

that was a delightful read about sustainable living and your village experience. - Super photos too ;-)

amsing said...

Kafaba was a first Muslim colony, when the Gonjas crossed the Volta at Kawlaw (that big mountain at the junction of White and Black), and entered the Salaga area. It is a 'peace village', where supposedly the Muslims brokered a peace between the Gonja invaders and the local peope, presumably the Mpre (or Mparba). I found at this blog interesting, that someone actually had gone there and lived there for a while. I have never been there -though at many other places in G>onja - and have this on my program for my next trip to Northern Region. For me what is interesting, what Muslim families live there, and their history, but I guess Evonne would not be informed about that.
Andrea Massing