In Ghana, the air is thick with equatorial heat. Two seasons dominate the year: rainy and dry. I think of them as Wet Hot and Dust Hot. In Wet Hot, raindrops puncture the air so persistently that the holes they make in the grey sky seem permanent. Umbrellas are geometrically impractical, as the rain draws itself as a dotted line parallel to the ground, and perpendicular to the person standing upright. Rain perforates life, causing everyday tasks to constantly verge on tearing apart: an attempt to go to walk down the block to buy a meat pie from the lanky woman who wears a faded white blouse every day could turn into a battle that leaves your clothes doused, your shoes soaked, and your skin tingling from the pockmarks hot rain left behind.
My mother told us we were moving from Silver Spring to Accra while we were in the basement family room of our Maryland townhouse. I don’t know why she told us there: we spent more of our time in the kitchen around the table, but perhaps she wanted to tell us underground in the hope that the earth’s stability would stabilize us in the havoc the change was about to wreak. I was seven and on the couch squeezed between my older sisters. Beyond the point of being a baby but not mature as my sisters were at eleven and nine. I didn’t want to go. Didn’t want to leave my best friend Becky a few streets away, didn’t want to leave the playground up the block where I swore I saw a tornado. Didn’t want to leave our townhouse with the cold basement bathroom where spiders came out of the cracks and the guest bedroom where Auntie Ruth stayed and indulged me by listening to my dreams every morning. Didn’t want to leave the family room where I sat too close to the TV with my legs crossed and was scolded and built forts out of chairs and every blanket with my sisters. But go we did.
My memories of wet hot Ghana, in summer 1999, are blurred behind thick, opaque rain sheets. This was my ﬁrst time in the country; I was born in Massachusetts. Accra’s uneven city blocks slosh into a drunken grid, with landmarks bobbing at the corners.
My gramma’s house is Accra’s nucleus in my mind, though it sits quietly in a residential neighborhood decorated with fruit trees and palms. In my isolated and childish experience living there at age eight, it was the hub of all human activity. The two-story house is set back from the street, surrounded by a concrete wall that demarcated our property. The wall was a pinkish cream like the foam of a peach smoothie and shaped into wavy whorls, spades carved foamy out of stone and mounted on cinderblocks. The wall has been painted various colors over the course of the past sixty-odd years since my great-grandmother had it built, but I only knew it pretty in pink.
My mom’s mom, Auntie Grace, owned the house on Oroko Street where we lived in 1999. We call Gramma ‘Auntie Grace’ because she became an aunt in the neighborhood before she became a grandmother. Nicknames are given when you are young in Ghana, and they stick. In Kokomlemle, my mother is Baby, or Sister Baby. This is because she was Auntie Grace’s youngest child (or was, until her younger brother Felix came along, but by that time the nickname had stuck. We call Felix Jo-Jo). My mom complains that it’s not right: no matter how old she gets, she will always be a baby. One day she will be Gramma Sister Baby. I am Sister Baby’s baby. Everyone is a sister or an auntie or a mom. Gramma calls my sister to hear her voice and calls her “my mom” over and over again. For now, she knows that my sister is not her mother. It is unclear how long she will know.
Gramma has never been young in my mind. When my mother tells me stories about Gramma in the 1960s, ﬂighty and absent, squandering my great-grandmother’s fortune on the pleasures of society life, the smooth-skinned ghost seems very distant from the woman with strong hands and large arms who insists on cooking elaborate feasts for me every time I see her, in spite of the trouble that she has to go through to do so, and in spite of my distaste for some of the dishes she prepares. Gramma grips the pink plaster doorframe of the kitchen and slowly dips her wheelchair’s front caster from the raised linoleum ﬂoor in the hall to the depressed concrete ﬂoor in the kitchen. It’s chipping, a ﬂoor run down by brooms and my grandmother’s feet, her mother’s before her and my mother’s after, and now mine.
Below the kitchen, on the ﬁrst ﬂoor, here is an oﬃce space that was rented out while I lived in Accra. There were youngish men in starched white button-down shirts that were tucked into their long brown pants. I never knew what they did there: only that it was related to business and all seemed very oﬃcial from my perspective as a child.
Behind the oﬃce, separated by a courtyard, were the Boys’ Quarters. I was never allowed in the crouched houses with low roofs as heads tucked between knees. I couldn’t understand why, especially because there were children there who often stood dusty in shadowed doorways, watching as I trotted out or returned from church on Sunday mornings wearing white and blue gingham dresses with white lace socks and white Mary-Janes. We often encountered each other because there was a ﬂight of outdoor covered stairs that led from the ﬁrst ﬂoor oﬃce to the second ﬂoor where I lived with Grace (my mom’s mother), my uncle Jo and my aunt Constance (my mother’s older sister and younger brother), my cousin Fiiﬁ (Constance’s son), my mother, my father, and my sisters. My parents homeschooled me and my two older sisters while we were in Ghana, so aside from each other and our cousin Fiiﬁ, we had very few playmates. I remember walking up the outdoor stairs carrying my bright red tote bag from my youth group in America and seeing a young girl who must have been a few years younger than me staring at my bag with envy. I asked my mother if I could go play with her, but she shooed me upstairs. That year that we lived on Oroko Street, I never entered a single one of the houses there.
Visiting Ghana a decade later, I realized that Gramma must have earned her income from renting these cramped properties in a good neighborhood out to families with much less money than ours since she never worked while I knew her. When I was back in Accra in 2009, children living downstairs would unabashedly run upstairs to watch television with Auntie Grace, sweet kindergarteners, absorbed with their ABCs, not yet aware of the class diﬀerence between themselves and their landlord. They reminded me of myself at a young age. While as a child I saw that plenty of people lived in houses that were much smaller than ours, I had no concept of income, that they did not have as much money as my parents (middle class by American standards), and that their life circumstances aﬀorded them many fewer opportunities than mine.
This is an identity tension that I still grapple with today: dreaming in my big bed in my posh Philadelphia apartment (where interior concrete is exposed for style rather than function) that I belong among Ghanaian citizens in Ghana, but confronting the fact that while my skin color blends better into the crowd there, lending me comfort and belonging, my class separation from many of the people there (both because of my Ghanaian family’s home and because of my own American heritage) means that I am also a privileged outsider. It is apparent in my gait and my face, in the soft curve of my fatted American cheeks and the distinctly western drape of my clothes. When I was 17 I took a taxi with Fiiﬁ and my sisters to the Kwame Nkrumah memorial park, a historical monument to Ghana’s ﬁrst president. The park had two diﬀerent admission fees: one for Ghanaians and one for visiting tourists. Fiiﬁ had the three of us hang behind while he walked up to the gate and bought our admission tickets to the museum on the property so that we could pay the national price. Though I wore a plain grey t-shirt and jeans in an eﬀort to ﬁt in, my nationality crept past my simple disguise. Without opening my mouth to whine out my American accent, he explained, people would still be able to tell that I was not a national by my skin’s texture (cultured to a diﬀerent sheen by American rather than Ghanaian products for most of my life), how I held myself when standing to wait, and other subtle elements of body and body language that would give me away.
Fiiﬁ is also a nickname, little dingy to the steamer-ship of my cousin’s full name, Emmanuel Plange Rhule. I was born in March of 1992; he in March 1993. Fiiﬁ for short, and shorter than I, shoulders narrow enough and torso slight enough to ﬁt through a coat hanger at age six, a boy whose bones showed ‘fed enough’ and not a swallow more. A Ghanaian accent adds syllables and tones that complicate and beautify the most average of names: the ﬁrst ‘ii’ is a long, two-tone vowel that descends melodically into the hard and short second syllable. The name lends itself to being said in exasperation and scolding, the coarse “ﬁ” spat out angrily when the mischievous boy would dart away from responsibilities or turn up late after school.
On my later visits to Ghana, I would stand on the porch that encased the second floor of my gramma's house where we all lived, just a few miles from the Atlantic and body scratched by sea salt winds, wondering what I would look like and how I would feel if my parents had never immigrated from Ghana in 1988 and instead I had been born and raised there like a regular Ghanaian girl. I would have gone to Star Avenue Primary School on the next street over from Oroko street, then graduated to a boarding school for secondary school, maybe following my mother’s path and attending the prestigious Wesley Girl’s School. My mother would have been a high-powered ﬁnancial oﬃcer, my father a tenured professor in geography at the University of Ghana. My older sisters, now in their late 20s, could be married by now to cosmopolitan society Ghanaian men. Their days would be consumed with domestic tasks: planning meals, sending a girl to fetch groceries for the week, coordinating laundry, overseeing cleaning, organizing teas and visits for their friends. Church would dominate their Sundays, an all-day aﬀair that required putting on brightly-colored dresses with elaborate head wraps, spending six hours in a hot sanctuary with a sermon preached in three languages and a collection that lasted long enough to shame even the most reticent among the congregation sitting in the pews into coming up and pulling some crisp bills out of their pocketbooks.
Calvary Baptist Church seems carved out of the ground it stands on: oﬀ-white walls and a tan tile roof match the dusty specs on the road along its side. On a weekday the property is quiet, doors only disturbed by clergy and church workers slipping in and out, women in shin-length conservative dresses, and men in short-sleeved starched dress shirts with ties. Small groups of young men and women might trickle in and out on weeknights to sit together on wooden pews and pray for their families, their marriages, their careers. The property was peaceful then.
On Sundays, the asphalt parking lot ﬁlls up sedans, vans, SUVs, and hatchbacks. Others arrive on foot, and still, others clamber out of the tro-tro that winds past the church on its path. By ten or eleven AM, the church overﬂows with people through its two levels. Children tumble up and down the stairs to the second ﬂoor where their services are held, while adults quickly ﬁll up the seats in the sanctuary below. The sanctuary has windows that seemed three times my height when I was seven. When I was young, church ate up a baﬄing portion of each weekend. The few times that I sat in the adult service, I was amazed that anyone could follow the tri-lingual sermon. In the high-roofed sanctuary of the three ministers wearing blocky black suits in a line, one professing in English, the next repeating the same line in Twi, a third parroting the others in Ga.
The multilingual service tended to stretch on as it was interrupted constantly by exclamations of “Amen!”, inspired biblical readings, and spontaneous outbreaks of dancing and song. The most enthusiastic women would heave themselves out of their seats, large behinds swaying in fabric pink and green, drawing white handkerchiefs through the air in movements uncircumscribed, allowing their religious spirit to guide the enthusiastic waving when they were so moved. Church in Ghana is loud: each preacher has a hand-held microphone, and they sing into their mics with gusto, shouting out their gratitude and earnest, frantic pleas for the widows, the sick, and the destitute on their prayer list. The congregation, enthused by the communal spirit, murmurs their constant agreement. Christianity is Ghana’s majority religion: about 71% of the population is Christian, according to the Ghanaian Embassy.
* * *
When I lived on Oroko Street we had a watchman named Alaaji, who was part of the landscape below the porch. He always sat and was crumpled into his chair, unimpressive. I used to wonder how eﬀective he would be at keeping someone out of my grandmother’s house, as he seemed strong enough to lift an eye at someone breaking into the oﬃces on the ﬁrst ﬂoor or our living quarters on the second and not much more. I realize now the diﬀerence between a watchman and a guard. A watchman is useful in a culture where the fact of someone seeing you commit a crime is enough to deter you from it. American crimes are boldfaced and full of ego: bursting into banks with a gun in a ski mask with your identifying body unmasked, or robbing the register of a gas station dressed entirely in costume for absurdity’s sake. Crime in Ghana boasts no ego because there exists more decency there. If you are in need of food or drink, you ask for it, and others give. To break the communal hospitality by stealing merits shame. So in Ghana, they have watchmen. In America, if you are in need of food or drink, you ask for it, and others withhold it. There, stealing is a protest against the ungiving and unforgiving norm: I am taking my livelihood, even earning it, through these alternative means. So in America, they have guards.
* * *
In 1963, my father, Felix Ammah-Tagoe, was born on a stub on the west side of Accra. New Town is home to families and businesses alike. New York has the Hudson; Accra has the river that drips down its west side into Korle Lagoon. Felix lived in New Town until he went to college at the University of Ghana. His mother was a baker who grew vegetables by their house in the dusty land where raised beds built from two by fours were root’s haven. She baked bread so sweet that the scent edged on overripe mangoes. Felix loved his mother’s bread and loved their garden, fecund if not verdant under the equatorial sun. He left the places and people he loved to move to Massachusetts in 1988, where he pursued his Ph.D. at Boston University. All the while he dreamed of having a garden. Fourteen years, 425 miles, and 3 daughters later, he plunged a spade into Maryland soil to start his garden. It was nearly all clay and rocks but it felt just as fertile as his mother’s garden by the side of the house on a little street in Accra Newtown.
Felix is the ﬁfth of nine children: seven boys and two girls total. He wasn’t the ﬁrst émigré among the nine, but he was the only one who left Ghana to further his formal education. Felix wasn’t always a model student. For one month in elementary school, he skipped school and went ﬁshing every day with his brother Daniel in a stream that was so big and boastful it called itself the Alajo Sea. They would cook the little ﬁsh they caught and eat them. When his mother found out, she whipped him quite reasonably while his brother ran away. Now, Dr. Felix cites this incident as the root of his success; a willful, focused mother who refused to let her middling baby lose himself in the river. Daniel cites the incident as the bitter root of a shade over his success: he went back to school, but never racing through his lessons as Felix did. Felix was chasing knowledge as much as he was running from lashes.
When my father was in Ghana a few months ago, he and his brother Joseph Lancelot went to a restaurant with their brother Daniel, the kind of restaurant that is air-conditioned where food comes on big ceramic plates and not wrapped in foil or paper packets. The brothers had never been out as a trio, and Felix felt those brushes of satisfaction that one has from gathering with your siblings as an adult, beyond the strife of childhood, and in diﬀerent strife but still standing. While sitting and eating his rice and ﬁsh, Daniel remarked, “going to this restaurant is nice. I’ve never been to a restaurant before.” The statement was a shock to Felix, who visits restaurants enough to have been a regular: he orders veggie paninis at Panera and spicy vegetable fried rice from Szechuan Palace in a carton so overﬁlled that the four lids can’t close and they have to bind the top with plastic wrap to trap the rice grains escaping down the carton sides.
But Daniel, never beaten, never an émigré, never a grad student, never a businessman, had never been to a restaurant. This is not for lack of restaurants in Accra: this is not about the metropolis. This is about the diﬀerence a beating can make. The stark diﬀerence in experience should be evident to you.
* * *
When Ghana is dust hot, dust covers everything in Ghana and so everything in Ghana is covered in plastic. I miss this and wonder what my life would be if I kept walking up every day and seeing my Uncle Jo taking apart dusty radios and compact cassette players and every small electronic that his long ﬁngers brushed. Chairs, sofas, tables, benches, fans, broken car windows: cover them with plastic to keep the dust out. Sweep every day to get the dust out. If you lie on the ﬂoor and there is an imprint of dust around you, get back up and sweep it out again. Or call the girl from downstairs to sweep it out for you.
When I meet a white person who tells me that they studied abroad in Ghana, the skin on my cheeks tightens, preparing to stay ﬁxed in passable neutrality (or at least mild condescension, if not outright scorn) when they tell me about how much they loved The People. I’m curious always to know who they met while they were there: they loved The People who served them? Various types of servants, acknowledged and not—cleaning ladies, taxi drivers, women at open-air markets, men selling water bottles on the side of the street, one of whom may very well be my estranged uncle, Gramma’s fourth child. It may be hard for white people to understand why the way I feel towards Ghanaians is diﬀerent from how they feel, and why I am so open about my discomfort. I feel diﬀerently because the fact that relatives on both my father’s side and my mother’s side work the type of jobs that involve serving tourists makes me hesitate to make generalizations about The People of Ghana, though I don’t know these family members intimately. I feel self-conscious at the prospect of being part of the ignorant tourist mass rather than where my blood and my hair and my skin and my name say that I should be—part of the crowd of The People. When the possibilities of your life open in front of you and are directly rubbed against the actuality of your comparatively charmed western upbringing, the friction that comes from trying to reconcile your privilege stings. I feel diﬀerently because in participating when white tourists make generalizations that are de-individualizing and condescending, I condescend towards some version of myself.
I don’t feign that class existences are nonexistent between me and other Ghanaians. I can’t deny that I am part of the proﬁtable part of the system, in which others serve me and I can pay for their service.
* * *
In Ghana, my sisters and I spent afternoons tucked away at the British Council Library under neat bookshelves on carpeted ﬂoors, reading the Queen’s editions of books that we imagined our American friends had never encountered. Because Ghana was a British Colony until March 6, 1957 (just a few years before my mother and father were born), there is a large bureaucratic British presence there. The British Council Library was a hub for thirsty intellectual expatriates and bookworm American girls.
The British Council Library’s windows were tall and clean. There was a quiet and clean café that sold quiet and clean foods. They had pastries and cucumber sandwiches, and soda in hard, cold glass bottles that you stuck in a plastic crate when you’d ﬁnished with them. (I preferred the foods that were louder and left the mouth feeling less clean: meat pies with crumbling thick crusts that popped beef or chopped hard-boiled egg into your mouth with enough butter and pepper to last you for days. The tomato-based spicy blended soup, light soup, that burned going down and left your palate raw and burning for more. The greasy fried plantains that, when left to blacken before slipped into hot pans of oil, absorb fats into their dermis and become softer versions of themselves, except for at the edges where they curl crisp and black as they bob in and out of oil and expose themselves to air.)
When I lay on the library carpet, if I did not turn my head to look out the windows to see the dusty stone courtyard outside, I could imagine that my cheek rested on the matted fuzz of the Wheaton Regional Library in Silver Spring, where I whiled away my summers beside a waxing and a waning pile of books.
“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” My oldest sister was the ﬁrst to read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and she probably ﬁnished it in a day. The oldest and fastest-reading sister, books seeped into her body like water into cracks in the hot earth, disappearing so fast you could hardly be sure she read them. She was eleven at the time, tall and gangly with round moon glasses and shoulder-length pressed black hair. Soon we all read Harry Potter and adored it. I quite fancied myself little Hermione (HER-me-own as we called her), know-it-all that I was at that age. (I once shouted at Fiiﬁ when he annoyed me during a power outage, telling him that his opinion was not worthwhile because he didn’t even know who his father was. The cruel child that I was.) We worried that when we returned to live in the United States, we’d never be able to ﬁnd any editions of the book or learn what happened to Harry, Ron, and Hermione. Of course, 1999 was the year Harry Potter and his friends crowed gleefully at the top of the New York Times bestseller list for 17 weeks of the year. Such is the life of a child without regular access to the internet or western news.
We had the type of television that was a cube with three channels, so I watched the same suite of programs with my sisters over and over. We are sitting on the hard sofa of the family room/casual dining room adjacent to Gramma’s dark bedroom, watching one of ﬁve shows: “Knight Rider,” “Charmed,” telenovela “Esmerelda,” “North and South,” or “Key Soap Concert Party.” The ﬁrst four were reruns from foreign television: the ﬁfth was a Ghanaian variety show—think of the Ed Sullivan show or Showtime at the Apollo crossed with Saturday Night Live. Men and women would stand alone or in groups, doing stand-up comedy or dancing or singing. I never attended a live taping of the show, but I often saw the audience because the camera would cut from stage views to angled audience views, revealing bright-eyed women and doubled-over men who were proof that the onstage acts that I couldn’t understand (many conducted in Ga or Twi) were actually funny.
Popular understates Key Soap’s market dominance in Ghana—the body soap brand was ubiquitous across Accra and had a perceived if not an actual economic monopoly. All stores traﬃcking in household goods, from large, bright, air-conditioned grocery stores with automatic doors to tiny bodegas no more than a roof of corrugated steel over unsteady plywood walls, carried shelves and shelves of blue and yellow Key Soap boxes. When I was small their soap sold in hard yellow bars, gold bricks that caused incessant itching and burning for at least a day if even a small drop touched your eye. (Now, their website touts their vegan, gluten-free, non-GMO formula: often a happy coincidence in the developing world). The concert party serves as a massive advertising campaign (imagine if the “Tonight Show” were renamed Coca Cola’s Tonight Show”) as well as a disruption to the constant feed of western programming. Key Soap Concert party, throbbing with Ghanaian dance and Ghanaian language and Ghanaian jokes, was a national pastime.
* * *
Chale, wo te. My friend, let’s go. I only made one friend while we lived in Ghana. Her name is Blessing. I met her at church, as that was really my only exposure to other children: my mother taught my sisters and me as she knew our soft American ﬁngers would curl and drop our pencils, loathe to retrieve them, if our knuckles were rapped by Ghanaian teachers in the olden way. Fiﬁ still had to go to put on a uniform and go to school every day. Boys from whose skin brown was born, their skinny arms stuck throw yellow polo sleeves and legs popping out of brown shorts like bloomers. Skirts or dresses for the girls.
Blessing was the only girl I wasn’t afraid of in Sunday School, because she was the only girl who consistently smiled at me and never made fun of my accent. In a hot room above the chapel where children sat much closer than they ever did in my large and open kindergarten and ﬁrst grade classroom in Maryland, every child threatened to puncture the foreign ﬁlm that I imagined around myself. I felt that all of the others laughed at how I pronounced my own name, or poked fun at my red tote bag, or found my unfamiliarity with games to be uproariously funny. In actuality, it seems more likely that there were one or two bullies who worried me, but I projected their cruelty onto the rest of my class, unable to distinguish between friends and foes without the familiar structured setting of my Silver Spring kindergarten. I don’t remember what Blessing and I talked about most of the time, but I do remember telling her about my school in America and her listening to tales of September afternoons when instead of wet hot it was cool dry, the heavy goodness of a long-sleeved sweatshirt in a pumpkin patch, and what a pumpkin was, and why we would go pick them with our mothers and carve rough toothy faces into them to celebrate the time of year when we harvested all of our food.
After I moved back to the States in 2000, Blessing and I continued to write each other letters for a few years. Blessing had a slight smile and spoke quietly, and wore dresses as prim as my own. She had short curly hair tight against her scalp, a hairstyle that many Ghanaian schoolgirls sported in those days. At the time I treasured my long braids that dipped to the small of my back and couldn’t imagine chopping oﬀ my bouncy locks into such a boyish look. I recalled Blessing when I decided to cut my hair short after my junior year of college. Staring in the mirror at my nearly shaved head, I was astonished by how Ghanaian I felt I looked. My cheeks and mouth, fully exposed, widened into a tight, slight smile that was that of my little ally.
* * *
One day leaving the church in Accra, between me and the sun moved a crowd of young boys. I at the foot of a wide wooden stairway, and them descending. Among their turning faces, I saw a boy whose face reﬂected the sun like tin, odd next to the obsidian faces that absorbed it and gave sunrays a warm color that shone around them—his face was hard to look at, a glistening painful mirror. I wondered about this boy for years, his sculpted ﬂat nose so similar to mine, his lips without need of liner in their protrusion, oval head, his heart-shaped face.
Fifteen years later, I watched Jaime XX’s dystopic music video for “Oh My Gosh,” a shrill electronic sandstorm featuring albino actors, and understood that the tin-face boy was a black albino. He was laughing and speaking Ga and moving ﬂuently among his peers, among them and of them, spiting his dermis under the equatorial sun. His integrated existence poses a sharp criticism to the thick lines I draw between people who are black and native to Ghana and people who are non-native whites. Between colors, he bleeds through the clumsy membrane I set up mentally, a thick black line intended to distinguish between myself and white Americans in a way that ﬁrmly aligns me with Ghanaians. The white Ghanaian; not a missionary child or a mistake, but a man. I wish I knew his name.
Postscript: My uncle, Joseph Lancelot, died in 2016. My grandmother Grace died in 2018. I hope this piece helps keep both of them on earth a little longer.
These days, I am reading:
Crying at H Mart by Michelle Zauner
After the Rain by Nnedi Okorafor
The Window Seat By Aminatta Forna
The no recipe cookbook from the New York Times