Village Life: Names

While travelling throughout Ghana, I acquired several new names. Ghanaians do not hesitate to announce that a visitor is in their midst, and children as well as adults called out the local word for “white person” whenever I passed. In the southern/central parts of the country where Twi is spoken, I became obroni. Although obroni directly translates as “person from a different land”, race is a huge indicator of belonging, and therefore visitor becomes synonymous with white or lighter-skinned person. In the Northern Region where Dagbani coexists with a diversity of other languages, I became salminga. In the Upper East Region where Frafra and Kusaal are spoken, I became nasara, literally “English speaker.” In practice, this word describes people with lighter skin, including asians, latinos, americans, europeans, etc.

Day in and day out people called out and chanted these names at me. Some people just wanted to announce my presence or get my attention, but often times, it felt like harassment. Regardless of whether I responded or not, I could count on renewed shouts of “obroni, obroni, obroni” or “nasara, nasara, nasara.” I just wanted to be left alone, to be a little more anonymous in a place where my appearance stood out so much.

However, most of these people were well-meaning.Taking the time to greet and chat with another person is an important aspect of life across the various regions and cultures of Ghana. As I hurried through streets with my mind on a mission, I was being rude by disregarding the social part of life. When people called out to me, they were reminding me: stop, acknowledge me, come here, let’s enjoy each other’s company.

Once I arrived in the village, I received my first unique name. Robert, my host, baptized me Awinpoka, which means God’s woman in Kusaal. After marriage, a woman moves with her husband’s family, oftentimes sharing the same yard or compound house with her in-laws. The husband’s family gives the wife a new name. What I thought was an innocent, welcoming gesture, others interpreted as a symbol of my marriage into the Apiim family. Many people soon learned that I did not favor the idea, and they loved to joke that I was Robert’s wife, which was guaranteed to infuriate me.

Marriage aside, names in the village are often symbolic and meaningful. Whenever I shared my actual name, people always asked the meaning of Jenna, a question to which I had no answer ( tells me it means little bird). They cannot fathom that my parents chose my name for its pleasant sound, rather than its significance.

Most children are given two names: a Kusaasi name and a “Christian” name. The Kusaasi name might reflect the day of the week on which the child was born. Monday is Atinidad; Tuesday, Telata; Wednesday, Alaridad; Thursday, Alamishi; Friday, ;Saturday, Asibi; and Sunday, Alahadad. (Forgive my phoneticized spellings of Kusaal.) This practice is common with other groups in Ghana. The Kusaasi name might also express religious beliefs. For example, Robert and Mary have included Awin, meaning God, in the names of their three children. The first born is named Awintuma, which means God’s work; the second born is named Awinpanga, which means God’s power; and the third born is named Awinyeye, which means God sees. Robert explained that these names indicate that he and his wife have abandoned traditional beliefs and taken up Christianity. Most children in the Apiim family are named for their birthday or for their devotion to God. Other Kusaasi names refer to unique characteristics or events of an individual’s life. For example, one of Robert’s great nephews is named Akumbo, meaning death will not lose. Akumbo’s mother died while giving birth, and his name serves as a reminder of this sad occurrence. The second “Christian” name would be better described as an English name. Common names include Mary, Sarah, Hannah, John, Gifty, Stephen, David, Lydia, Comfort.

A final fun fact about names in Kamega: when a man establishes a family, he chooses a new surname for his wife (wives) and children


Village Life: Water

Toilets are not the only thing missing. Like most villages, there is no running water in Kamega either.

A week before I travelled to Kamega, I visited women farmers in villages outside of Chereponi, a small town in the Northern Region right next to the Togolese border. This area suffers from water scarcity. Some villagers have to walk several kilometers to the nearest creek to wash clothing and to fetch drinking and cooking water. This tiny glimpse of rural life frightened me. Was I strong enough to carry water over this distance? How would I avoid dehydration?

Fortunately, water scarcity is not as severe in the Upper East Region. Kamega is endowed with several boreholes and wells, and the Apiim family fetches water from a borehole that lies two minutes from the compound house. The borehole is a water pump that draws water from far below the surface.

Women and young children (mostly female) are responsible for pumping and carrying all of the water needed for cooking, drinking, washing and bathing. They carry water on top of their heads in metal headpans, plastic or metal buckets or plastic jugs. They do not directly place the containers on their head. Instead, they create a cushion by wrapping a small cloth into a circle that they place between their heads and the containers. Surprisingly, there is a specific way to wrap these cushions; women always laughed and re-wound my cushions. When filled with water, the containers are incredibly heavy. Women often go in pairs or groups so that others can help lift the container onto the individual’s head. Once the women and children reach their yards, the water is deposited in large clay pots or tall plastic containers that look like trash cans.

The borehole and well have a reputation for being a place where women socialize. This is true. Women would greet each other and talk while they fetched water in the morning or late afternoon. However, this was more true for the hoards of children that fetched water in the late afternoon. The borehole was a popular hang out for these children, and they  would spend all afternoon playing by the borehole while they waited their turn. Mary would scold her children for playing by the borehole well past sunset.

I would go with Mary to fetch water for the yard. Pumping the water was no problem, but carrying the water on top of my head was challenging. The first time I fetched water my muscles burned from pumping the water, my head hurt from the pressure of the bucket full of water, and my arms went numb from nervously clutching the bucket on top of my head. As I grew stronger, I transitioned from a light plastic bucket to the 30cm metal bucket to the 34cm metal bucket. Unfortunately, I never managed the weight of the large headpans. Many women balance the containers on their heads without using their hands for support. I never got the hang of balancing the buckets on my head. I supported the bucket with both of my hands, and even then, I still sloshed water all over my clothes and the ground.

Village Life: Toilets

While waiting for my connecting flight in the Dubai airport, I received my first toilet culture shock. I walked into the last stall of a standard-looking bathroom to experience my first encounter with a flushing, porcelain pit toilet-basically a small hole in the ground surrounded by a shallow basin. I took a picture to send to my aunt and laughed aloud as I awkwardly tried to squat and position myself over the hole. With subsequent trips to the bathroom, I realized that all of the other stalls housed seated toilets like those found throughout the US-just my luck.

Travelling through Ghana has introduced me to an array of different bathroom styles. While some homes have their own private bathrooms, many people have to frequent a public restroom for their needs. Public restrooms are usually distinguished by what the individual hopes to accomplish. For urinating, there are separate female and male urinals. Some female urinals consist of a sloping floor ending in a drain, and others require women to squat on ledges that border a drain. Most female urinals are communal spaces that lack individual stalls. For defecating, there are flushing, seated toilets; manually flushing, seated toilets; and pit latrines. Toilets are private spaces separated by stalls. Oftentimes, the user will pay a small fee for use of the toilet and for a section torn the local newspaper that serves as toilet paper. These strange toilets have become familiar through practice and exposure, but my biggest shock was yet to come.

In Kamega, there are NO toilets. Anywhere can become a toilet. During the rainy season, people hide in the fields surrounding the compound house as they do their business. Some adults bury their feces, digging shallow holes with a hoe. However, after the harvest, fields are razed to the ground, and people can see far and wide. During this dry season, privacy is hard to find, and people will head to the bush to find a clump of shrubs or trees that will serve as a shaded toilet spot. Just as toilets are rare, so is toilet paper, and materials from the natural world (rocks, leaves, corn cobs, sticks) serve its purpose. Every yard in the compound house has an area for bathing, and it doubles as a urinal. The unroofed area is sectioned off by walls with an open space for a door.

Some may be embarrassed by such frankness about matters so private. Readers, please forgive me. Why do I share this information with you? Learning how and where to go to the bathroom has shaped my experience in Ghana. Anxiety-inducing, disgusting, hilarious these moments  reveal so much about the realities of daily life-not from the porcelain throne of up-scale hotels but from pit latrines tucked in street alleyways or from the free-range fields.

The next excerpt from my correspondence with home is not for the weak-hearted or the weak-stomached, but I feel the urge to share my own struggles with this…sorry.

Today, November 14th, has been an entirely off day. Since there are no toilets, we go to the fields to “toilet.” Now that the crops have been harvested, crop cover is gone and there is nothing to hide behind to do your business. My bowel movements are usually triggered by my morning binge of 1.5-2L of water to prevent dehydration. However, the urge to go is always sudden and leaves me little time to search for an appropriate place to poo. Today, unfortunately, I did not make it to my preferred spot, and I ended up squatting close to a path, very visible to the several people passing by (surprisingly one of the first times I was aware that people could see me taking a dump). Since it was morning, I was wearing a printed cloth around my waist, which is my form of pajamas in the village. Because I was trying to retain some decency, I let my cloth hang down farther than usual, but it dipped into my fresh pile of poop…so gross. My hands got messy while trying to balance on my legs, avoiding falling into my poop, cleaning my cloth and then wiping my ass. It was the worst.

Please note that it requires special strength and coordination to squat over pit latrines or even in the fields.

Village Life: Sleeping

Before arriving in Kamega, I tried to imagine where people slept in the mud and grass compound houses. On the bus, we passed by villages, but I had yet to enter these houses. I pictured 6 to 7 people lying on the ground in various directions to fit in the squat, round, window-less huts. I prepared myself for claustrophobia: darkness; hot, stale air; sleeping bodies sardined in a small circle.

Looking back, I definitely let my imagination run away with itself. In Kamega, the round huts house small livestock, indoor kitchens or pantries. People sleep inside the spacious rectangular rooms. Men with multiple wives and unmarried adult children often have their own rooms, while women sleep with their children or grandchildren and young siblings share a room. Some monogamous couples also share a room.

Most people sleep on thin mats woven from plastic fibers, and they cover up with a thin sheet. Very few  families own mattresses. In the past, they made mats from dry, reed-like elephant grass. When a person dies, their body will be wrapped in the grass mat and buried. In the adjacent yard, Ipalo was making an elephant grass mat. She wanted to be sure that there would be a mat for her funeral. Ipalo is the first wife of Attiah, Robert’s oldest brother. Wizened with age, crouched, slightly deaf and blind, Ipalo is the person to ask about Apiim family history. Her keen memory recalls hundreds of names and past events that shaped the present family. Despite her frail appearance, Ipalo, like all women in the village, is a powerhouse. Regardless of her age, she fetches water, cooks and maintains her own yard.

Where did I sleep? Robert kindly offered up his own room for me to sleep in. For the first two weeks, I slept in Robert’s room on a small student mattress (similiar to camping mats) under a mosquito net next to Awinso, my sister in the village. Awinso is Robert’s 15-year-old, great niece, and the family arranged for her to share the village experience with me as my closest friend and sister. After two weeks, the rainy season ended, and we were able to move our mats and mosquito net outside, sleeping in the breeze beneath the glow of nambo (the moon) and the twinkle of wobibi (stars).

Village Life: Construction and Shelter

This begins a series of descriptions about life in the village; more specifically life in Kamega, a village in the Bawku West District of the Upper East Region in northern Ghana. I tried to begin with a central description of agriculture, but this piece was too big to chew. Please forgive the rambling posts and the sometimes mundane content.

In Kamega, people have the freedom to build wherever they please, provided that they own the land or they have permission from the landlord. Like all labor, building is a gendered activity that is usually carried out by a group of men, oftentimes a party of friends and family members.

Building takes place during the dry season when farming has finished and the heavy rains have stopped. Men use hoes and shovels to unearth dirt and clay that is mixed with water and cement. This building material will form the floors and walls of the new structure. The men start by clearing out and leveling the floor space, and then they build the walls from the ground up, caking on new layers of the clay-cement mixture.

Most structures being built are compound houses where a single family or an entire extended family can live. These houses consist of a central, open-air yard surrounded by rectangular and round rooms that are connected by a wall. If multiple families or multiple wives (yes, polygamy is practiced) share the same compound, then each family or each wife will have their/her own yard. Walls divide one yard from the next; while at the same time, enclosing the entire compound house to unite the different yards.

Each room in the compound house serves a different purpose. Some compound houses have stalls off of the main entrance where cattle sleep or manure is collected. Round rooms near the entrance of the yard usually house small livestock like chickens, guinea fowls and goats. Within the wall, people hollow out little nooks for chickens to lay their eggs. Rectangular rooms with tall rectangular entrance are often bedrooms. Some will have windows on the walls facing the back of the house. Round rooms with tall rectangular openings serve as pantries, storage rooms or indoor kitchens. Small square stalls with a rectangular openings are bath areas.

At one point in time, every room was roofed by bundles of grasses woven together. Now, many families save up money to invest in zinc to roof the rectangular bedrooms. Unlike the grass roofs that need to be replaced every year or two, zinc lasts for several years and provides better protection against the weather. Round rooms are still roofed with grasses, and during the dry season, people go to the bush to cut huge bundles of grass that they carry back on their heads or bicycles. The process of collecting, weaving and installing the grass roof is time and labor intensive.

There are several other buildings in the village: schools, churches, stalls were seamstresses work and vendors sell, and a grinding mill. Schools and churches tend to be constructed from blocks of cement to form large, rectangular buildings. In these projects, large numbers of women volunteer to assist the construction of their church.

Village Life: The Senses

To form your own first impressions of the village, here is a collection of noises, smells, tastes, textures and sights that I experienced for two and a half months in Kamega.

Noises: roosters crowing, kids (baby goats) bleating, wings flapping, hooves clacking at the break of dawn; the swoosh of small brooms made from bush grasses; the clank of metal pots; the crackling of wood fires; the bubbling of boiling soups; the sizzle of cooking oil; the the soft thuds of a large wooden mortar and pestle; wind rustling the leaves on trees and the stalks in the field; babies crying; the hum and clickety-clack of motorbikes; the schwing of knives and cutlasses cutting through stalks; the throaty call of guinea fowls as they lay their eggs; the creaking frames of old bicycles; the laughter and chatter of groups of children;  the swish of laundry and dish water being thrown out; people shouting greetings from far away; the braying of donkeys carrying heavily loaded carts;  women calling and scolding children; the slurping of soup; angry voices yelling; the beating of drums at church; the stomping of dancing feet; radios blarring the national news; call and response songs of worship; the buzzing of swarming flies; the goji whining funeral songs; women excitedly gossiping at market; the call of bats at night

Smells: sour, fermented flour; smoke of wood fires; pungent, dried fish; roasting groundnuts (peanuts) and corn; ground chili peppers that make you sneeze; garlic, onions and tomatoes cooking in oil; savory scents wafting from a pot of soup; the dusty smell of tecara leaves; burning grasses; the toasted scent of cereals being ground at the mill; the stench of human and animal feces; the lemony scent of key soap; perfumes and oils that women wear to church on Sunday; the earthy scent accompanying the rain

Tastes: sickly sweet black tea saturated with white sugar and powdered milk; sweet white bread; rich egg yolks; smoky flavor of zem (ash from burnt stalks of millet used to flavor rice and soups); slightly sour doughs of boiled millet or corn flour; tamale-like mwada (dumplings made from corn and bean flour); starchy yams; spicy red peppers; saucy, tomatoey stews; savoury dawadawa seasonings; roasted meat; creamy and spinachy groundnut and bitte (local green) soup; slimy okra soup; rich, garlicy palm nut soup; creamy nerre (ground seeds of a melon) soup; spicy, salty jollof rice; mildly sweet bush fruit; dried baobab fruit that tastes like sweetart powder; kimmis (fried bread pieces)

Textures and sensations: plastic weave of prayer mats used for sleeping; fine mesh of mosquito nets; earthy feel of walls made from clay and cement; zinc heated in the sun; stiff,  waxed cotton cloth; metal buckets, pans and pots; flimsy, plastic mugs; itchy stalks of millet; beadlike grains of corn and millet; large wooden pestles made from tree seedlings; cool shade of the mango tree; dusty sand outside the compound house; small pebbles on the dirt road; prickly, irritating grasses; smooth plastic lawn chairs; wooden handles of hoes smoothed by wear; scalding heat of the sun; slimy okra; hard wooden stools and benches

Sights: savannah grasses dotted with trees; red dirt roads; compound houses of mud huts roofed with grasses and square rooms roofed with zinc; trampled foot paths through the bush; fields tall with maturing millet and corn; dusty, tattered play clothes; naked babies and young children; colorful, patterened cloth; women carrying huge pans on their heads; wells and boreholes where water is fetched; beautiful, red palm nut oil; vendors selling grains, seasonings and produce spread out on canvases; throngs of children dressed in school uniforms; women and children bent over, harvesting grains in the field; human and animals packed into a motortricycle taxi; long lines of women waiting for their grains to be ground at the mill; men transporting tied up goats, guinea fowls or pigs on their bicycles; grains and flour spread on the ground, drying in the sun; women parading in a circle as they dance at church; goats tethered with rope; flocks of guinea fowls headbobbing as they scurry about; a stocking cap slouched on the aged brow of the chief; old men sitting together, discussing under the shade; a person transporting a friend on the back of their bicycle; children crouched around a small makeshift fire to roast the spoils of their hunt or harvest; men circled around, pounding piles of corn, rice or millet with tree branches; mothers breastfeeding; people kneeling or bowing to show respect to elders; children seated around a common eating dish