Passing Solidarity (excerpt)
It was the last week in November and using America’s Thanksgiving holiday as an opportunistic excuse, Barbara invited other IFESH volunteers to her home in Akrokerri to have dinner together. Located only a short distance from the Ashanti gold mines of Obuasi, the energetic idealists had their first opportunity to sit as a group and share their respective experiences with one another. Most of her expected guests were young single African American females, though she herself had already lived a full life: married, divorced, mother of a young man in medical school. With all her life's accomplishments she remained kinetic, challenging herself to a year of volunteerism in West Africa. Charismatic and magnetic, even her name was a call to pan-African action: Barbara Brown-Gathers.
Barbara wore a dress sewn by her personal dressmaker in Accra and cooked a feast that she spread across the table in her apartment. Her apartment’s design was nearly identical to Yoidette’s except for an additional room beyond what Yoidette used as her bedroom. In Foso, the same room was used as the Social Studies Department. For Barbara, it served as her kitchen where she baked a chicken to act as the meal’s centerpiece.
“Sorry the chicken is kinda tough. I think they get a bit muscularized walking up and down town all the time. Not like the plump, tender, lazy ones we’re used to back home. American chickens be all kickin’ back on a couch watchin’ T.V. with a bowl of corn feed next to them!”
“Are you kidding? You’re spoiling us with all this food,” Nakia adjusted her leg under the table and leaned her crutches against the wall. She’d broken her ankle when she stumbled into one of the open gutters that lined the sprawling multi-roomed bungalow residence the Tamale Teacher Training College constructed for her. She had it wrapped in Tamale, then traveled eight hours southeast to Accra to have the ankle set. Nakia would, eventually, travel back overseas to New York to have the ankle treated properly, but paid out of her own pocket for the roundtrip ticket to return to her post. She was that dedicated to seeing her work through. “Everything smells terrific.”
“Who you tellin’?” Yoidette reached for a slice of bread from a loaf nearby her.
Barbara sat back proudly, “That’s bread from Kumasi. Their bread is especially nice, isn’t it?”
“Looks the same as what they got in Foso,” Yoidette thought of the market women in the Foso bus lot who pushed similar loaves, meat pies and bananas into her van window before she left for her two-day getaway. A woman balancing a tray of boiled eggs would shout Kosua, kosua I have! A small girl balancing bags of water calls out Nsuo, pure watao! Yoidette pulled apart the thick white slice on her plate and recalled the Old Woman with a pyramid of loaves on her head, “Shoot, you can call it ‘brodo,’ ‘paanoo’ or ‘bread,’ but ‘breado’ is ‘breado!’”
Roland was sitting next to Yoidette and looked at her plate. “Looks the same to me.” The middle-aged man was a native of Sierra Leone but later immigrated to America. He was the descendant of early 19th century, repatriating African Americans, Jamaican Maroons and freed captives of British slave ships who resettled in Sierra Leone. He had a strong distaste for the exploitive relationship that his ancestors, known as recaptives, commonly levied against native Africans like the Temne, many times with British governmental support. He noticed parallels with African Americans who during the Post–Slavery Reconstruction Era and the James Monroe administration, similarly resettled in Liberia. Through IFESH, Dr. Roland C. Buck felt he could work in a more responsible way as a professor at Cape Coast University in their Department of Primary Education.
Barbara watched in embarrassment as Yoidette calmly picked crawling ants out of the bread, crushed them in between her fingers and continued to eat the perforated slice. “Oh my God! I’m so sorry. Yoidette, don’t eat that. I forgot to put the bread in the oven to get rid of the ants. I didn’t think I’d have to do that. When I bought it, it was sealed tight in a plastic bag.”
Yoidette was wrapped up in thoughts of market women selling raw beans, cured fish and sun-beaten, partially withered tomatoes, all covered in hungry flies. Barbara’s words finally registered and Yoidette responded with a tone that gradually increased octaves like a music scale, “That don’t mattah when the breado was sittin’ on the roadside for three hours before they wrap the thing up!” She then proceeded down the music scale, “Don’t worry about it. I’m actually quite accustomed to it. I’ve had to eat honey in Foso this same way.”
Lynn leaned across the table and attempted to reassure Barbara, “You seem very much at home here, Barbara. Everything looks fantastic. I love your place,” Lynn went to college near Memphis, Tennessee where she met her husband who also studied there but was originally born in Ghana. In order to facilitate their desire to relocate back to Ghana, Lynn secured her IFESH position in Tamale alongside Nakia while her husband, Augustine worked as a missionary stationed just outside Kumasi. Lynn turned to Augustine, “Isn’t Barbara’s place wonderful?”
Augustine had returned from washing his hands in the fully tiled bathroom that included a tub, unlike Yoidette’s residence. He had to walk through Barbara’s bedroom, which was the same space Yoidette had used as a common area back in Foso. Barbara decorated the recently painted airy rooms with tasteful accents of artwork, furniture and fabrics she dutifully shopped for at every opportunity. “Yes, it’s beautiful.” Augustine sat in front of a large serving platter of yams covered in palaver sauce. “You’ve adjusted very nicely to the Ghanaian way of life.”
“Not that nicely, let me tell you,” Barbara poured out a cup of freshly squeezed lemonade and handed it to Yoidette who had already begun loading her plate with fried plantain. “Some days are a real test.”
“Tell me about it!” Yoidette finished her bread, took a sip of the lemonade and looked at the glass, “You know, we have a lemon tree by the Resource Centre. I think I’ll make some lemonade when I get back.”
That night Lynn, Augustine and Nakia traveled back north to nearby Kumasi while Roland and Yoidette stayed behind to travel south in the morning. Helping to clear the table Yoidette stacked a few plates together, “That was great, thanks. And credit for the lemonade. I’m gonna steal that idea.”
“Well the lemonade is a nice, what do you call it, creature comfort. Along with all the help I get, I guess I can’t really complain. I don’t have to shop or clean or anything. The students make me feel really comfortable. I was feeling like, you know, a sista chillin’ in the Motherland. Then one day, I was watching a soccer game and this little boy starts calling to me, ‘Obroni, Obroni,’ over and over in this high-pitched, wispy tone.” Roland and Yoidette slowed at clearing the table as Barbara continued, “As a teacher and a parent it was killing me to ignore this child, but I was not about to respond to that. I told one of the older students to ask the child to stop calling me an obroni.”
Roland held used utensils in his right hand and pushed in his chair with his left, “Did he stop?”
“Yeah, now they call me Auntie Yaa, but I don’t know, does he still think of me as a white person?”
“Who knows,” Roland walked with the two women into the kitchen, “I thought my African accent would help me blend right in, but I seem to get price-gouged a lot.”
Yoidette was reticent, “It’s more than that,” she recalled during the initial IFESH orientation in Phoenix, Arizona when Barbara predicted she wouldn’t ever be called obroni because of her physical appearance. While Yoidette felt better to know she wasn’t being singled out, Barbara’s experience raised even more complicated questions. This was her day off, though. She didn’t want to think about such burdensome issues just then. Tomorrow would come soon enough and she’d be back in Foso. She scrapped the contents of a dessert plate into the trash bag. “Anyway, the bread pudding was reeeeally good.”
“Don’t worry,” Barbara seemed to relish the chance to lighten the mood as well, “that wasn’t from Kumasi.”