Monday, August 18, 2008

On being Ghanaian I: Invitation to Meals

A couple of interesting events occurred over the past weekend but I'll share the first one today and save the other tolis for later. What I'm about to share happened on Saturday as I was on my way to meet my friends and fellow Ghanaian returnees Akua and Eunice for lunch at the Asanka Local chop bar/restaurant in Osu. I found my way to the 37 tro-tro station where I was excited to get the most prized seat in any tro-tro - the front seat. Having verified that the seat belt was not working, I settled (un) comfortably into my seat. After the mate had shouted the irritating "Osu, Osu, Osu, last two" for about five minutes, I was joined in the front of the beat up mini van by a young man who i'd guess to be in his late twenties or early thirties. He greeted me with the usual "good afternoon", to which I responded, "good afternoon" though I'd really rather have said "fine afternoon".

As I sat, I noticed a hawker selling local cookies baked to a crisp khaki brown, packaged in a flimsy transparent plastic bag and sealed with a knot. I had not seen these cookies in so long that I simply had to have some. My journey from Ashale-Botwe to Madina had cost me 30 pesewas (p) whilst the tro tro from Madina to the 37 lorry station charged 50 p, so with only 20 p in change, I was inordinately pleased when the hawker told me that the bigger package of what one of my good friends later reminded me is called "Ayigbe biscuit" or Ewe biscuits cost 50 p whilst the smaller packs cost 20 p. I happily exchanged my 20 p for the 2 wafers in the pack. The taste of the biscuits did not match the excitement I experienced for havng bitten into my first ayigbe biscuit since I left Ghana for the US six years prior.But as I had paid for them, I continued to exercise my mandibles. About halfway into my snack, and just before our van languorously pulled out of the overcrowded lorry station, our gentleman and fellow front seat passenger bought some plantain chips. As soon as he tore open the plastic wrapping, he said "Madam, you're invited". I beamed and carefully took out one crisp stick and chomped on it. My smile persisted, and thankfully did not reveal the curious mix of shame and amusement that I felt. I half told half asked him if I had behaved rudely by not inviting him to my snack. He reassured me that all was well and entreated me to have some more of his. This time, I declined politely if sheepishly, and instead of eating his plantain chips, resumed the business of finishing my ayigbe biscuits.

When we reached the stop infront of Papaye restaurant in Osu, I hopped off the van, and as I walked down a side street towards Asanka Local, made a mental note to invite people to my meals thenceforth. However, tens of minutes later, when Eunice, Akua and I sat down to enjoy our lunches, none of us invited the others to her meal. It did not occur to me then, and my best guess is that after their time in the US, they too have lost this element of Ghanaian-ness which they've not relearned in the past year that they've spent at home.Upon later reflection on the day's happenings, I convinced myself that there had been no need for that courtesy during my lunch date with the ladies seeing as we were all about to eat. However, even this line of reasoning was challenged by something that happened the following day.

I was at home with my sister Adwoa and we'd decided to eat the leftover food from the previous night.Before I complete my story, let me dwell for a bit on the joys of eating leftover food in a traditional Ghanaian kitchen. In many Ghanaian homes, mine inclusive, it is common practice for meals to be had in the kitchen. On the day that the meal is prepared, the mother serves the food by dishing into plates, and in general, when food is left over, whoever chooses to eat it the next day serves him/herself. Often the person who eats the last portion of food does not transfer it onto a plate but eats directly from the aluminum pot as it reduces the number of items to be washed after the meal. On this particular day, having the good fortune to benefit from the last bit of rice in the pot (after Adwoa had served herself), i dished some garden-egg sauce onto he corner of the rice pot,i pulled a wooden stool from a corner and sat.With my warm rice pot expertly balanced between my thighs, and my hands washed, I finished my meal to the last grains of kanzo (tr: hardened or crusty rice which sticks to the bottom of the pan). There is something so deeply satisfying about this way of eating that I will choose it anyday over the alternative...a well laid table, my own plate and cutlery,knees under table, napkins on laps, elbows off the table...the fear fear of committing a dining faux pas....

Back to the main story,I was the first to eat, but again, I forgot to invite Adwoa. It really did not cross my mind and even it if had,I'd probably had reasoned that since she was about to eat the same meal, I did not need to invite her to mine. Surprisingly,when she sat down to eat her meal, she prayed (another rite i had not observed) and then she invited me saying "Sister Maame Esi you're invited" Shucks! Was my own sister, my ekyirba, ten years my junior going to make me feel bad for not being as nice as she?

Later, i recounted the whole invitation concert (Ghanaian slang for funny incident) to my friend who in jest rebuked me for being an ehwua (tr: person who actively or passively expresses interest in other people's food and by so doing compels them to share). I maintained that my troski-taking,front-sitting, snack-buying acquaintance had willingly offered his snack but my friend reminded me that the invitation is merely a polite gesture, not to be taken seriously, and in all cases, the inviter did not expect the invitee to accept. This reminded me of a related conversation i'd had with this same friend a few months ago when he'd jokingly explained to me that when an akan man says "wo ato me", it is quite different from when he says "bEEma, twe akongua bra ma yEndidi". The first, which means "you're invited" is only a polite greeting or acknowlegement and nothing more, whilst the latter is a genuine invitation to dine.

It seems then, that not only do I have to remember or relearn how to invite people to share my meals, I also need to distinguish between true calls to feast and false invitations. To be a true Ghanaian is not easy charlie! As the Nigerians will say Nah wah o!


  1. Well i guess culture is culture...the US is a place without traditions and culture...everyone is into themselves...I hope I also remember my manners when i come back home....I admire your humility....and this is a beautiful piece

  2. This blog is really interesting -a preparation of sorts for when I finally return home.

  3. ooh sister maame esi,
    you've kai me some "menners" paa oo!
    Lawd have mercy, i knew i had lost it when i forgot the ever so distinct-tasting ayigbe biscuit existed...gosh i miss ayigbe toffee, alewa, kube cake (i found a variant in brazil but not the same), condensed milk toffee, hausa koko, asaana famously called ghana malt (that dark drink sold in dark brown bowls), ayilo, a real good yo ke gari, tatale, adunlee aka "monkey tail" (don't even know if those exist anymore, used to spend my sunday school "collections" money on them), Kakro, abooloo and shrimps from aburi, there's this drink made out of the same millet mix before it's made into hausa koko, i can't seem to think of the name. man, used to tear the joint up with bread when i spent school holidays in Bolgatanga. I could go on and on....oooh Gh, how i miss it 13 years and counting, lawwwd have mercy, next, year, def next year...

    For the mean time, keep this coming girl, i can only live the gh experience vicariously through your blog. Medaasi if I never said it 'cause i really appreciate it...

    and oh i'm eating omu eni abenkwan at the moment so..."mi nsa nka ooo"

  4. Hahaha - oh the nuances of Ghanaian greeting/niceties.

    Yes, many a time I have been on the offering end with a returnee blood relative who took my polite greeting to mean, "yes I really want you to come and 'short' my khebab/red red/agbele kaakro/yoryi by indulging as if I planned this meal/snack for the two of us". I'd scowl and say "susu", but then I'd feel ashamed because my actions would contradict the generous spirit of my words.

    So these days, I swalow my displeasure and make do with trying to skillfully maneouvre them out of my meal :)Good times lol.

    P.S. I always enjoy reading what you write - it's real, well-written and highly entertaining. Keep it coming!

  5. Hi! You've been added to the Association of Smith Alum Blogs ( If that's not ok with you, or if you know of someone else we should add, please email us at
    ~Sarah & Amanda

  6. Great account here, Maame Esi. You make me wish to be in Ghana rydi.

  7. Hahahahahaha. This was interesting. extremely funny chale. But you paa, when people "invite" you, it's not to be taken seriously. You just dey like cho!
    Man, I'd forgotten how well you can write. Anyway, this is the guy you left the US without telling. Who used to live in your "area".

  8. i swear .. i have been here longer than you but u have reminded me of things i had forgotten kraaa wow was nice to read this piece.. got me giggling a couple of times too... nice... guess next time i will have to invite or just give a warnig

  9. i mentally gasped when i read the part about picking a chip from your partner in the front seat, but only because he was a stranger. i suppose he was thrilled anyhow. i've been living in gh all my life and i honestly thought that "ato me" was a genuine invitation to join the party. at least that's how i use it.

  10. haha this post CRACKS me up.
    I can vividly recall an incident that occured in a church van one Sunday morning. As usual, I was running late, so I grabbed a snack that I could eat on the way to church. Just as the van takes off, I opened up the snack and turn to my Jamaican friends who are sitting beside me and I go: "you are invited"; their response: "invited where???" I was cracking up at my little razz self; thank God I had some Ghanaian counterparts in the bus who understood and explained what I meant. I still felt razz but what can I do?!?! As the adage goes, "you can take the girl out of the village, but you can never take that village out of the girl"