Today, I want to share with you how I came to be me; the guy who cooks, who is interested in the family and who thinks we can do more to build relationships and marriages we can all be proud off. I was born in Anaji Estates in Takoradi, where I lived till 2006. I grew up in a family of four; My Dad, My mum and my sister, who is five years older.
My Dirty Laundry
By the time I was nine years old, I was washing my clothes. I was taller than my sister by then, and it came with its own rivalry. Mikelin was in Secondary school by then. Respect was thrown into the trash as we fought as often as we could find a reason to. So my Dad, James Mike, issued a decree that was not to be overturned in his lifetime. If he cannot respect those who wash his dirty clothes, then he will have to wash them himself. That was the last time anyone washed my clothes for me...unless I was sick. From my Handkerchief to my Suits, I do it all; I don't even know where a laundry is.
So While I was being taught the rudiments of respect, I was also being given a lifelong lesson. Some parents would have concentrated on negative and positive reinforcements to either discourage me from disrespecting Mikelin or encourage me to respect her. Reinforcements were used alright, but I was also made to learn that, when people serve you, the least you can do is to respect and show them appreciation. If you don’t, you risk losing their service over time. That lesson was learnt, but I also came to accept and relish the responsibility of taking charge of what I put on and how they look. I still wash my things and every single washable thing in my marital home till date (Calm down, It is a washing machine). It was a very simple measure, but it has paid off big time.
Madam Caro's Kitchen
When my sister went to Secondary school, I was left alone with my parents and at least two cousins who stayed with us at different times. They were always girls, either from my father's side or mother's side. My mum was your typical Caterer aside being a Head Teacher of a local elementary school. It was in the days of the Revolution; you needed more than one source of income. We had a small town bakery where Madam Caro’s legendary bread was baked. God bless My mum, Caroline. At every point in time, there was one pastry or the other going in and out of the Oven; from regular bread to cake to the more complicated ones like ‘Melting Moment’ – God only know what kind of pastry that was. It had the same mixture as a regular cake, except the flour was twice or more that of a standard cake mix. And you cover it with Breadcrumbs and press one peanut on top of it and bake it. Lord. That was heaven.
Anyway, I was a boy going into my teenage. I play hard and fight harder. In all truth, some fights were nastier than others. Those that got back to my mum got me a free ticket to be whipped. I told you she was a teacher, right? Canes were always available at home. ‘Madam wo ba no abo me ba no!’ To wit, ‘Madam, your child has beaten my child’ That was Kudjo Maame. My mum was ever ready to ensure that I was not rewarded.
However, as you may have known by now, in my house, you are not just punished for an offence and left to be; you were subjected to another form of corrective engagement that…well… growing up, I realised was the best for me. Typically, for the next three days after such misbehaviour, I would not be made to go out to play. So after school, it was my mum and me at home. The other ladies were doing one thing or the other. There was always something to be done in my house, gosh. My mum would look at me with 'those eyes' (ankikankye) a litany of instructions would follow: go light up the coal pot, clean up a sauce pan (the particular one described to me) and fetch water up to the median and put it on the fire. Go to the fridge and get tomatoes and pepper. I think we have onions on the shelf. No, we do not have some, I would say after going to check. Ok. Go and buy some from Naa Kokye’s mum. Go and look at the time and come and tell me what it is. I would go and look and come and report. It is 3:30. Ok, be back by 3:45 or don’t come back to the house at all, she would warn. So I have to shut my eyes to all the boys playing and the particular guy who is the cause of my doom and sprint to and fro. Before I know, dinner is ready and all my mum did was to sit and give instructions as to how to go about it. She is 71, and she's been sitting and giving instructions since 19 Kojo OO.
As a young boy who had countless reasons to fight; (from someone teasing me with my local name, being called dogo yaro because of my height to something as mundane as talking to my childhood Crush, Baaba), trust me, kitchen grounding was next to the air I breathe while growing up. It was, however, not just about cooking; it was more about everything done in the house. I would be tasked to whip the butter and sugar so we bake a pound of cake two. Then we did not have an electric Cake mixer so it was all manual until a Moulinex Mixer showed up in the early 90s in my house. I would be tasked to wash and clean the lettuce and carrots so we fixed Salad. I would be tasked to pound dried fish and shrimps so we could do a homemade shito. Before I turned 20, I could cook almost every food I eat. I still cook, and I enjoy it.
Back then, it was not a pleasant experience, but then who was I to revolt? I was lucky she was not giving me head knocks three days after biting someone in a fight. I was lucky she had not gone to report me to my teacher for an all new season of beating. Please don’t even hint it. Just keep up appearance and stay in the kitchen already. After two or three days of pressure and tension, everything goes down, I gradually find my way out to play with my boys, 80% of whom I was older than, until Allan or Nana Kentinka provokes me…Then the cycle starts
These were the formative stages of my life, and until I turned 15 and went to Boarding school, I had no option than to learn it the best way it was offered me. Who do you expect to Iron for your father? Who do you expect to wash the car? Who do you expect to weed around? You are a fully grown teen who is fed and money spent on. You want additional expenses to be incurred in bringing in someone to come and weed, Sweep and iron? Not in my father’s house. And that man hardly spoke; so when you heard the expression, 'wo Papa ba na ebetse' to wit, you will see what will happen when your father comes. That is the Season finale of the punishment, and it is usually grand and dramatic. That can make you sick at ease.
There were times my mother would be busy with a few home issues, but we also had to be in Mrs Opoku’s bakery to mix the dough for the bread. That was the only Bread Mixer in the entire estate. So my mum would pack everything for me to go and queue. When it gets to my turn, and she is not in, I would be by-passed until I start muttering and insulting people in my head. But she always came, we did it together, and we would carry it home in a wheelbarrow. Boy, we loved that thing. You would see a bunch of kids all wanting to help me push. There was a catch to it all – Potosuaba. This was the smallest bit of the dough that was left after kneading the bread, cut and designed into a doll and baked for you, for all your troubles. God, the good old 80s.
That was how I developed the interest in cooking, and being gradually conditioned, I came to internalise it. From an early age, I came to appreciate that cooking is not a two minutes job, so standing on my feet to cook a proper meal for a day or the week is something I do without thinking about the time cost. The first time I prepared shito after completing secondary school was in 2011. When it was done, my Ga neighbour walked to my house, asked if I was the one preparing the shito. She took a bit of it to eat her food and returned for the entire jar. GHC100.00 gone down the drain. From Palava sauce to the craziest recipe online, if I can find the spices and the ingredients, I can give it a try. I just love the whole adrenalin rush that comes with preparing something new and taking a picture and posting it online.
Would you not want to raise your boy like that? And for that, I am eternally grateful to my parents. They raised a man who did not have to use a woman’s ability to wash, clean or cook as one of the key requirements in selecting a wife. And that makes me eat with gratitude any food my wife sets before me because I know the effort that goes into preparing a simple meal. We compete with recipes and always try something new when we are together. I was single for two years in between relationships before I met my wife and there was not a single moment, cleaning, eating and surviving as a guy made me desire to find a woman at all cost. Those things were sorted. So when a woman came into my life, she was most often caught off guard realising that the usual trick in getting the African man was just not working on me. And Yes, I can be difficult to please. They did a good job in raising a complete man and you can do the same too with your boy child.
The Palm Plantation and the Making of Red Oil.
We had a palm plantation in my father’s hometown in Ashiem, close to Sekondi (Now it is replaced with Teak). At least once in a month, the entire family would go there to check on what was happening. When we go, we would harvest the palm nuts that were ripe, sometimes sell them to BOPP, or bring them home, depending on the quantity. When we take them home, people come to buy some, and we would also use some for domestic cooking, usually Abenkwan (Palm nut soup). After a few days, the vast majority of the fruits would be in the state ready to be converted into Palm Oil. We had a huge Dadzesan (Cauldron) in which we boil the palm nuts. The following day, who do you think is made to pound them in the equally massive mortar? Me and my cousins and any boy in the hood willing to pound in exchange for a loaf of bread. Before you could say, Jack, it was done. We love bread any day. After that, together with my mum and sometimes my dad, usually in the evening, we would all go through the process of preparing the red oil; which is just like preparing a palm nut soup. That was before the cold extraction machines came. These were the days of the revolution, and you needed to do multiple things to manage your cash outlay. We hardly bought red oil on the open market, until Zomi took over and we once in a while use it at home.
Oh, and when we were done, we would be left with the Adwe (Palm Nut Kernel). They have two-fold importance; the shell is used for lighting up the oven since they can be quite combustible while the kernel or the nut in the shell is sold to the Zongo folks who prepare another kind of oil with it – Adwe Ngo. But before you can separate the shell from the kernel, you need a granite stone to crack the shell up. And ooh the occupational hazards. For most of the boys, when the thought of our colour TV came to mind, something they don't have, and their need to watch Akan drama in our house, they discovered that helping me crack the shells up was in their interest. Sometimes, it was more desperate than that; You are home from school, your mum is still hustling in the market, and you do not have food in your house except Mama Caro’s bread which I am willing to offer on the condition that you help me crack the shells up. A cup of Blue Band margarine or two is enough for a day’s labour, and we can go and play happily thereafter. Oh and the football is mine, so if I am not done cracking the shells up, no one is playing. You should see the boys running to help. Mind you, there was a Cracking Machine for that kind of Job, but what was my use as a Primary school child? Always playing? Naah. You will do it.
Fix It… If It Breaks We Will Save And Get A New One
That was my father’s mantra; allow the boy to fix it. So every new gadget that was acquired, I had to study the manual and fix them. This was in the 80s and the 90s. Manuals were Major League hefty. No Joke. But you needed to read the whole thing page to page before you attempted to operate anything. From regular electronic gadgets to more dangerous things like learning how to operate a Giant Gas Oven that could bake a large volume of bread at a goal. Oh yea…that was the ish. We ordered it from somewhere in Accra…. A place they said was called Sowutuom, and it took an entire day to Reach Takoradi. And people came from far and near to see Madam Caro’s Gas oven. All silvery…. freshly painted. I could just stare at the oven unending…. An End of the Swish Oven with all its logs and the hustle of getting the fire started whenever it rained heavily, and the water went to where we stored the logs.
I loved to paint. When We finally built our four bedroom house and moved in, I single handedly whitewashed it in three days. I strained myself and broke down after that so a painter was contracted to do the actual painting; something I found a lot of faults with. I was 20 years.
All these have made me a hands on person. I love to try my hands on everything before I bring in someone to look at it for me.
In the late 80s and the early 90s, there was a craze in Takoradi about rearing pigeons. Most of the boys were rearing them. I remember the price of one was 800.00 Cedis, which is now about 8p or 2 cents. I went to ask my mum for money to buy some of the birds, and she came up with a deal. Sell my bread like others have been doing. For each quantity you sell, I will give you an extra loaf which becomes your commission. You can then buy your pigeons with the accumulated commission. I totally loved it. Saturday and Sunday morning, I will put some of the bread on a pan and hit the estate. I was tall for my age; I couldn’t balance the pan well on my head. Lord, I was a sight to behold. People would call me and buy the bread just because of that. And those who cared, would come home to query my mum for doing that. She would tell them, I opted for it because I wanted the money. Between 7 and 10 am, I could go two rounds. In about two weeks I had two birds; a male and a female. From that time, every time I needed anything, I would sell bread and earn a commission, or I would sell the bread so that I would be in good books and they would do what I needed for me. It worked perfectly fine for me.
Growing up, I have learnt it is important that at a young age, children are made to understand that everything one wants in life must be earned. They may not have to sell bread or anything – that was during the PNDC era - but there is always something you can tell your child to do in exchange for they want so they appreciate the importance of duly earning everything they have. It gives them a sense of real ownership, responsibility in taking care of what they have and the existential awareness that if they are only willing to pay the price and roll up their sleeves to work, they can get everything they want. In other words, their wellbeing is directly in their hands, and it is a function of the work they are willing to do. They learn that in life, you can be equal to others, but what comes and goes, is not tied to the largesse and benevolence of anyone but your own effort.
Someone may call all that child abuse… Haahahahha, such a big word for a Lazy Generation, don’t you think? Work the damn kid and he will grow up to be caring, supportive, all-rounder, responsive and responsible. The bible did not say to let the children ride; it says to train them up in the way they are to go….the path, the future and responsibilities and all that life will bring, so that when they are old and out of the home, they will not depart from the acquired virtue. No man will give to his wife what his parents did not teach him. No man will understand the import of becoming a particular man if they have no locus and premise upon which to build that ideal man. If you want a child to build an extensive vocabulary in English, you inundate him with books. If you want a child to be a Violin Maestro, you get him a violin and press him to learn.
If you want to raise a gentleman, do give him the tools needed to be one. Do not groom a woman to be a home woman, while your son is left on a free range to learn life on his own and later expect him to be the kind of man who understands his wife. How can he understand the woman, when he and the girl grew up on different sides of the home divide? How can he learn to treat a woman when it is enough for him to fight, walk on his sisters, disrespect them and still enjoy his privileges? How can he appreciate that helping with the house chores, is not emasculating, but a common sense approach to helping a family pull through the existential stress of modern day life? How can he be any different when all he had been told is one thing is considered girlish and the other boyish. Would he be any different from the familiar father who piles his ugly legs on the coffee table, reading newspapers and timing his wife on the length of time it would take to prepare dinner?
We need a new breed of gentlemen divorced from the mindset of yesteryears; men who are awake to the exigencies of modern family life. We need men who are willing and able to make a paradigm shift in the way they see the family, a woman's role in it and to accommodate the challenges that come with this social evolution in a way that absorbs the shocks that are a natural consequence of this evolution. We cannot create modern men with tools trapped in antiquity. We cannot build a future with rudiments that point to the past. It is like bringing a die-hard communist to head the Ministry of Economic Planning in a Capitalist country. The mindset will just not fit into the environment it is supposed to operate. There will be a fundamental dichotomy between thought patterns and the environment that thought is to be planted.
This change of mindset, I am sorry to inform you, does not start after saying I DO; it starts when he says his first, daa daa daddy. (and they always say daddy first)