Thursday, March 19, 2009

Palm Tuesday

The spine of the road runs south from Kumasi with vertebrae like towns jutting from it in clumps. Townships are like this across West Africa, small, mobile, clinging to the road for dear life. They have almost entirely sprung up to fill economic niches – there is money to be made servicing weary travelers, though rarely much and the markets are overwhelmingly oversaturated. As cars slow as they pass through roadside villages, throngs of vendors mob vehicles, pushing identical wares. Economies of scale persist. One village sells only bread, mass produced, each loaf identical and priced identically. The next sell only dried banana chips.

I am traveling to Abogu, a cocoa farming village 120 kilometers south of Kumasi, though largely not on the Accra route. Abogu is one of the key villages that made up the old Ashanti kingdom, and thus constituted one of the seats of power for the old empire. These villages were selected strategically, often due to their proximity to important geographic features. In this case, Abogu lies at the foot of a small, though breathtaking, mountain that is thought to have mystical properties. The mountain is named Kidibo, and has been personified by the population. People claim to have met and befriended the mountain itself while wanderings the forest at night. To understand this notion, one must understand the characteristics of the animism that is still practiced in many more remote parts of Ghana. People’s conception of geography is that certain things, mountains, lakes and especially rivers (do to their movement) are living things that possess sentience. It is a sort of pantheism by which everything is endowed with a spirit that is capable of interaction under particular conditions. People respect the mountain, and understand it protects their cacao fields.

Cacao is enormously important to Ghana. A local proverb runs “Cacao is Ghana, Ghana is cacao.” It is the principle cash crop by which the country survives. It was first brought to Ghana in 1879, by a blacksmith turned national hero named Tetteh Quarshie. Quarshie had been living in Fernando Po and returned to Accra with Amelonado cacao pods, which he began cultivating into “black gold.” More colorful – read scatological- local versions of this story see Quarshie being prevented from leaving with cacao pods and so ingesting them in order to sneak them back to Ghana. Another version of this has Quarshie ingesting the pods accidentally, rather than purposefully and being surprised by the cacao plants that sprung up in his courtyard where he used the latrine some time later. This last version does not seem to give Quarshie enough credit, as he proved himself to be a very astute businessman, dominating the cacao industry in Ghana until his death in 1892.

At the moment, villagers only grow cacao. All of the value added processing is done elsewhere, but this may soon be changing. Villagers are well aware that the real money does not lie in actually growing the cocoa beans, but in the milling process that happens once the beans leave their village. The stranglehold of the cities in controlling cacao-processing stems from access to outside exporters. While villages have long demanded a relocation of processing plants, and the government now promises to meet these demands, Accra’s access to the Atlantic makes this difficult to implement. At the same time, cocoa growing has brought money and comfortable subsistence to the villages and increased international demand for cocoa beans over the last hundred years has seen standards of living continually improve in the villages. The status quo, while not an entirely equitable one, is not a terrible one.

Throughout the village one sees great piles of cacao beans sitting on tarps in the sun. Cacao grows in great silver sheaths that are broken open. The seeds or beans are then collected and placed in colanders under great weights and between layers of cloth to drain the water from them. The beans are then left in the sun to dry, before they are loaded into sacks and shipped out. I see two boys climbing a pile of dried beans, sacks in hand, while the proud parents look on. A passenger van pressed into service as bush-taxi and equipped with a loud speaker rumbles past, simultaneously broadcasting fares to Accra and loud gospel music. There is something surreal about the sea of dust and organ music that it leaves in its wake.

Today is Tuesday in Abogu, meaning that it is market day. Market day means everyone is in town, even if they do not need to go to market. The village itself meanwhile swarms with foreigners hawking all manner of wares. The pungent smell of dried and salted fish and a particular pungent root that is ground up and used as, and I am told conflicting stories, a medicine or an aphrodisiac fills the air. The smell of markets, across West Africa is unmistakable and remarkably similar from country to country. Market day is heavily embedded within village culture and is seen as something of a Sabbath day – and numerous superstitions outline evils that will befall cocoa farmers if they tend to their fields on said Sabbath. These superstitions seem almost overtly egalitarian, designed to prevent one cacao producer from gaining a leg up on his competitors, however the long handed down anecdotes, often of legendary status are known and often retold to assure adherence to this convention. Market day is important to village life in ways beyond simply the spiritual or commercial. Vendors bring not just goods but also news of the world outside the village. Issues of the day are discussed and anecdotes exchanged, often over palm wine.

Palm wine is an incredible substance. It is made from the sap of oil palms. Trees are tapped, the milky sap collected and fermented. Fermentation is very rapid; one might even say that it, in line with Ghanaian ecclesiastical sense, operates at a “Jesus-like” conversion pace. It usually takes less than a day before one has transformed a gallon of palm sap, into a gallon of palm wine. The strength, gaseousness and flavor of palm wine are dependent on how long one lets it sit. The freshest of palm wine has a negligible alcoholic content and is incredibly sweet. More mature palm wine can pack a punch, is quite bubbly, and has a distinct yeasty taste. The closest comparison I can come up with is a Belgian Lambique. Palm wine is served at “room temperature” (which here is generally outdoors, and quite warm) in Kalibashes, which are hollowed out gourds. One Kalibash was enough to make me feel groggy. More so than many other versions of alcohol, palm wine alters your perception of time, making everything feel as though it is moving in slow motion. The purity is not terribly high of the stuff, and the alcohol content tends to somewhat of a surprise, so one must be careful not to drink too much in a sitting lest one rue the following morning. For those that like to live dangerously, palm wine can also be distilled to create local liquors that hit well over 120 proof. This stuff is ingested only by the most dedicated of local drunks and can cause blindness, insanity and a multitude of other complications. Villagers tend to drink heavily in the country, in contrast with their tea-totaling urban counterparts. With the reverse of this true in Niger, where Islam was far more strictly interpreted in rural communities, I was somewhat intrigued by the juxtaposition of the two. With entertainment options limited in the country, palm wine and the converted living rooms where it is enjoyed are one of the few escapes from the monotony of agriculture.

As in much of the developing world, people live in close proximity to their animals. This means that, in country homes, living rooms and court yards tend to be congested with young goats, parades of chickens, goats, and the like. This is true in certain urban areas as well. Chickens tend to be omnipresent in urban gardens, and a trip to the Ashanti Kings home, (now more of a museum) in Kumasi saw the yard filled with peacocks. Peacocks apparently used to be quite common to Ghana, although the European craze for feathers during the 19th century nearly drove them to extinction. A veritable peacock holocaust if you will. Now they survive only as regal emblems – one of the arbiters of high social class. This seems somehow fitting. Peacocks are incredibly lazy birds and their plumage leaves them with limited mobility. They stand in stark contrast to the fast moving chickens and other fowl of the countryside, which seem to get their kicks by darting in front of oncoming motor vehicles and quite literally playing “chicken”.

The state of public health in the villages remains lacking. My traveling companion, a doctor at the hospital I work at, had come to visit his uncle, who through some peculiar family history is somehow over a decade younger than him. The uncle had contracted malaria and a prescription was dashed off to the nearest pharmacy. The drugs sent back were not those requested and could, I was told, could have caused further complications had they been taken. We traveled the short distance to the pharmacy to straighten things out, only to be greeted by a sign reading: “E.K. (and here I give initials to protect the guilty party): Amaning (sic) Liced Chemist.” The comedy of this was not lost on my compatriot. Thoughts of some magically endowed, though perpetually scratching pharmacist filled my mind before the reality, a very young, chemist appeared. The man put up a fight, but then eventually treated his mistake as being a very normal occurrence. This does not reassure. The pharmacist seemed more concerned with selling drugs than with patient health, a notion reinforced by the wide array of local “organic” cures present on his shelves (which the medical community in Ghana has been fighting to prevent from being sold, as many tend to be destructive to patient health). This scenario, I was told, is replayed ad nausea across much of rural Ghana. As far as village health has come in Ghana over the past few decades, and the state is growing more rigorous in how it licenses pharmacists, there is still some ways to go.

As the sun reached its crescendo across the afternoon sky, my travel companion and myself took our leave of the village. The ride was a slow going one, made all the slower by the dragging effects of the palm wine. As the coolness cast by the mountain fell further and further away, we were left with but the heat of the road and the attacks by desperate vendors as we fought traffic back into Kumasi.


Pessimistic Angel of Hope said...

Just curious, what would you say is the state of local economy? Is there a development of small scale entities that are self-reliant or am I being overly optimistic?

Champagne Socialist said...

I really enjoyed reading this! Especially love this picture, "...simultaneously broadcasting fares to Accra and loud gospel music. There is something surreal about the sea of dust and organ music that it leaves in its wake..." Looking forward to more descriptions!