A lot of times we hear people unfamiliar with where we live refer to the continent of Africa in broad, sweeping terms. Especially when referring to things like daily life, development levels, and cultural phenomenon. Even the New York Times isn’t immune to it, writing this story focusing on a few young Ghanaian farmers changing how other Ghanaians look at Agriculture, but the story is titled “Millennials ‘Make Farming Sexy’ in Africa, Where Tilling the Soil Once Meant Shame.” That’s a little like writing a story titled “Millennial tech startups driving rent in North America to record highs.” Then you crank out 900 words on how unaffordable a 2BR apartment is in San Francisco. The specifics are hyper-local, and the themes are universal. But what does the entire continent of Africa have to do with that news story about a handfull of young Ghanaian farmers?
The point is that as continents go, you have to expect a massive amount of variation and diversity at that scale. Africa is a quarter larger than North America (Americans, imagine taking everything west of the Mississippi, copying it, and just slapping that on the Pacific coast). 54 countries. Literally thousands of distinct languages and ethnic groups that are descended directly from the first humans. Populations practicing every major world religion. We moved 2,400 miles from Lusaka to Accra, same distance as LA to New York, or London to Tblisi. It’s fair to expect some significant differences.
One immediately noticeable difference is food. The countries of West Africa lean into spice and really embrace it in a way that most of Southern Africa does not (excepting Mozambique). There’s also a lot of variation here. From our post on Zambian food in the last blog, the meal of nshima is THE national standard. Ghana’s national menu is expansive and packed with flavor. A basic starch for your sauce is about as far as the similarities go, and the starch ball itself can be rice, cassava, dried shredded cassava, yams, millet, sorghum, plantains, corn, or fermented corn. All totally different in preparation, flavor, and texture. Sometimes your starchy bit is cut and fried into spears or chips. Sometimes the starch is pounded and water is added to make a mushy meal called fufu. Plantain fufu is so stringy it’s probably what they use as a stand in for mozzarella in Pizza Hut commercials. Some kinds of fermented corn meals are tart like yogurt and smokey from the cooking process, a perfect compliment for sauce with fish. Fermented corn meals are called kenke, and even this has variations depending on where you are in the country. And of course, the soups with your starch can vary, though a groundnut stew, a peanut butter and tomato base around which you then assemble veggies and a protein, is probably the more common than things like okra stew or squash.
Ghana’s national menu is expansive, but national pride rests on jollof rice (click the link for a recipe). Conceptually, it’s easy: rice cooked in liquid that’s basically a spicy chicken and tomato soup. Somewhere in the neighborhood of jambalaya and Spanish rice. But the subtlety and importance can’t be understated. Ghana and Nigeria famously hinge a regional rivalry on whose style of jollof is better. Even place to place in Accra you never have the same dish the same way twice, sometimes smokey, or dryer like a risotto, or with a hint of fish stock. It sets a high bar, and for many Ghanaians that pick up lunch on the street each day, they have to stop at their favorite place on the way to work in the morning by about 8:00 or 9:00 to make sure they can get something for later. In the six months we’ve been here, I don’t think we’ve had a single meal we didn’t like.
If you know us at all, then you’re also familiar with bright, vibrant African print fabrics. There’s about a dozen different local names for them across the continent: pagne, chitenge, Dutch wax are a few. It’s a pattern printed on a single sheet of fabric. (interesting aside, all of those were originally produced by the Dutch in Indonesia and brought to their trading hubs around the world. But once it got here, it really took hold.) Zambia lies at a crossroads of designs from DRC to the north, which uses more traditional patterns, and South Africa’s more modern abstract prints.
In addition to the wax print cloth, Ghanaians have batik prints. This is cotton fabric dyed while using melted wax set into the fabric to create your own design. They take a piece of fabric, draw the designs with a type of wax, then use a wax-resistant dye to color the areas around the wax. Each piece is unique, colorful, and the cotton fabric is perfect for the 80 degrees Fahrenheit plus 80%+ humidity of Ghana’s coastal region!
Ghana has all these – and their own unique fabrics called kente and gonja. Kente you likely know with its bright golden yellows and zig zag patterns. Gonja is more of a striped woven textile usually in shades of blues, browns, whites, and other accent colors. Both woven from cotton, the same fabrics that people have been making for hundreds of years. The idea is that you weave both in long strips, and then connect the strips together to make outfits.
The patterns and color combos of both have distinctive meanings for both. Gonja might be casual wear, ceremonial garb, or something for a wedding. Kente strips can tell a story and wish the wearer good luck, a peaceful future, or celebrate a victory through hard work.
Many Ghanian offices replaced “Casual Friday” with “Traditional Friday” where Ghanians roll out some really fashionable designs made from traditional wax or batik print cloth or kente/gonja fabric. There’s even an Accra Fashion Week to celebrate the arts, culture, and style of Ghanaians. Not that Zambia didn’t have local designers making really interesting stuff, but in Accra at least, there’s a more pervasive desire to acknowledge traditions living in a modern world.
Truly, there are so many differences, as soon as we started thinking about writing about all of them, we were looking at the possibility of hundreds of pages of text. Instead of writing a novel, here’s just a couple…we promised to cover more in the future. Of course, you can’t skip talking about the weather. This chart should help sum that up easily.