Chale; “friend” // Wote; “let’s go” in Ga language
WORDS BY ANNA ROBERTSON
STORY BY MAGGIE SCARDIFIELD
DESIGN BY JON FLEMING
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ANNA ROBERTSON + MAGGIE SCARDIFIELD
The first time I visited Ghana I came as part of an AusAid development initiative, and stayed for a little over a year. I landed a job in a Ghanaian think tank and spent my year working on good governance and democratic consolidation projects in Accra, Ghana’s capital. Outside of work, I developed an unhealthy addiction to West African textiles and wax prints, which led me to establish YEVU, an ethically produced range of men and women’s clothing. After a year of living and breathing print and politics in Accra, I returned to Sydney. I brought YEVU back with me, hoping to share a little of Ghana’s magic with my friends back home. It was a totally new project for me and I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew my friends would love it, yes, but apparently Sydney did too. We ran a Pop Up for the first time last October and I was overwhelmed with the response. We sold out within a week.
The success of the first YEVU Pop Up allowed me to go back to Ghana. I spent November based in Accra again, sourcing fabrics and producing the next instalment with my dedicated team of seamstresses and tailors (YEVU 2.0). This also meant a return to Ghanaian food.
Accra is a huge, sprawling urban mess of highways, dirt roads and traffic jams. It’s vibrant and noisy, and I love that the city is so irreverent to the coast that it looms over. It’s a fight to get around, and on average I’d negotiate about 5 taxis a day. Conveniently, street vendors sell a whole manner of snack foods (and everything else you could possibly need) at traffic lights – so a Fan Ice (vanilla icecream squeezed out of a sachet) is never too far away on hot days.
I’d describe my relationship to food as impulsive and unpretentious. Ghana has definitely made me more adaptable, and far more patient. If you order food out at a chop bar or local eatery there, you can expect to wait up to an hour, if not more. I actually don’t mind it; it means you can drink more Clubs (a longneck for about AUD$1.50) and get to know the people you’re dining with a whole lot better. When I got back to Sydney, eating out seemed so rushed.
Everything consumable in Ghana comes in plastic, commonly referred to as a ‘rubber’. You can get your morning coffee in a rubber and drink it with a straw, alongside your egg omelette that’s also eaten from a plastic bag. Water sachets are ubiquitous and the sachets of gin (‘strikers’) are my favourite. Needless to say, there is a bit of a pollution problem.
In Ghana there is variety on offer if; A) you want it, B) you have the cash to afford it and/or C) you know where to find it. In Australia, we are spoilt for choice and spoilt by access. In Accra, seeking out particular foods is time consuming and at times, extremely frustrating, but the rewards can be so sweet! Spending over an hour in three negotiated taxis to find an unmarked Indian restaurant, hidden behind a petrol station on a street with no name (in a suburb where none of the streets have names!) is an unbelievable way to work up both an appetite and appreciation for the food you’re about to eat!
Ghanaians are very proud of their food, and it’s one of the most obvious forms of patriotism I found when living there. The traditions around food preparation and eating are well embedded. Yam is a staple (my friend once found herself at a Yam festival where everyone was hilariously dressed as yams!) and before cassava was introduced, yam was the main component of Fufu (a starch ball of dough-like consistency eaten with soups; a staple of the Akan ethnic groups). Most of the cooking here is done outdoors, around an open stove. Fufu is pounded by both men and women and often prepared on weekends for weddings and funerals, which are huge social events.
Food is always prepared and eaten communally, and generously shared. You are always “invited” to share in someone’s food here (where we say “would you like”, Ghanaians will say “you’re invited”). A stranger in the street will invite you to share their light soup, and colleagues at work will invite you to share their homemade Banku. The eating of Fufu is an experience. Not one single drop of
“A stranger in the street will invite you share their light soup, and colleagues at work will invite you to share their homemade Banku.”
soup is wasted. It’s like a Ghanaian knows the exact proportion of Fufu to soup, so there is just the right amount of dough left over to mop up the remaining liquid. If by chance, there is soup left over it will be drunk from the bowl. It’s messy, satisfyingly so.
The roots of soul food are apparent in the streets of Accra. A couple of my favourites include Kelewele – plantain chips seasoned with pepe and deep-fried until golden brown, often eaten with groundnuts; and Krakro – spicy plantain balls mashed together with roasted cornmeal and ginger, then deep-fried.
Wakkye however, is my favourite. A smoky mess of beans, rice and stew – it usually comes with noodle and Gari (kneaded cassava), and in the right season, with pear (avocado) and leaf (cabbage). It’s the ideal comfort food (pictured.) Groundnut soup – a big bowl of hot peanut butter soup, is also amazing. That said, once when eating with a colleague at a chop bar called ‘House of Fufu’ in Kumasi (the capital of the Ashanti region,) I found the world’s biggest snail in my soup! It was 4 inches long! After being convinced by my friend of the health benefits, I bravely consumed it whole, mopped up by the fufu, and surprisingly enjoyed the grassy flavor.
A large tilapia fish is always shared and Banku (fermented corn/cassava dough) is used to mop up the fish, onion, tomato and chili salsa. This meal, like most in Ghana, is eaten with the hands (right hand only). To prepare to eat, communal bowls of water and soap are on every table and everyone washes before eating, pouring jugs of water on each other’s hands. It’s one of my favourite eating experiences, it’s so communal. Once a non-sharer, I’ve been wholly converted. You couldn’t find an odourless part of Accra. The frying of fish, the cooking of Waakye, the burning of rubbish and the scent rising from the open sewers on a 35 degree day are the most common, and when combined, it’s a serious assault on the senses!
During my time in West Africa I had some of the most incredible experiences. There’s a spontaneity that comes with living there that can become addictive. Once, when hosting a BBQ at my place in Accra, my friend Quaye brought a live chicken in a plastic bag. He slaughtered it in my backyard, and as we started to prepare it to cook, all the electricity went out (as it often
“as we started to prepare it, all the electricity went out… The de-feathering + cutting of body parts was all done by candlelight, resembling some sort of fetish ritual.”
does). The de-feathering, cutting of body parts etc., was all done by candlelight, resembling some sort of fetish ritual. No one here plans ahead – you just take each day as it comes. I had to get used to that, and when I returned back to Sydney in October I craved that way of living so much.
Tearing apart freshly caught lobster atop a 17th century German castle overlooking the Gulf of Guinea and under the clearest night sky, is another one of my favourite memories of food in Ghana. My friends and I were travelling and stopped in at this tiny little fishing village, aptly called Princess town in Ghana’s Western Region. Joseph, the caretaker of the castle, was an extremely talented chef. He used the very limited local ingredients to churn out the most amazing bean and curried egg stew to accompany our lobster that had been caught straight off the beach. It blew my mind. It’s very unusual to blend flavours from other parts of Africa (or the world for that matter) with traditional Ghanaian fare, but he had somehow got his hands on North African spices, and this fusion was such an amazing surprise, especially being in this remote part of the country, atop an astonishingly beautiful and eery castle.
Finding a green component in a typical Ghanaian meal is rare – most of the food here is beige and brown, and fried or prepared with palm oil. Ordering a salad for the first time was an experience – it came wet with ketchup, mayonnaise and canned baked beans, I couldn’t actually see the salad! Obesity and diabetes are on the rise, and although awareness around this is growing, I guess the association between health issues and diet are not necessarily made by most. The government and NGO’s are pushing for healthier eating, with advocacy campaigns like ‘Vegetables are medicine’ (pictured), and articles in local newspapers encouraging the consumption of fruit and veggies.
A friend introduced me to what I think was the only vegetarian restaurant in Accra. With a focus on nutrition and fresh local ingredients, it twists tradition a little and is a very peaceful place. Brown rice is served instead of fried or white rice; tofu instead of goat is served with vegetable stews, salads (sans mayonnaise!) and fresh juices including beetroot and lemon. It’s hidden in the deepest part of Makola market (one of the best places to buy fabric,) so it’s a real find.
A budding horticulturist friend of mine, Sidik, has also built a seriously impressive mushroom farm in the middle of the city (pictured). It’s unusual to find people going against the grain with food production here, so I think it’s amazing that he’s been able to make a viable business out of it with just a tiny amount of space and a lot of passion. He brought a fresh crop to our first YEVU shoot and cooked them up for the team! He also sells his mushrooms to Rita Marley who lives in the hills of Accra. Apparently she cooks a mean mushroom and chicken stew!
Akpeteshie is a popular local spirit brewed from distilling either palm wine or sugarcane, and will knock you on your ass. It’s typically drunk by men, and is supposed to make you strong (sexually!). It’s often mixed with spices, bitters and lime. I drink it with ginger, biting into a raw clove of garlic before every shot. NB: it numbs the better part of your face. ‘Fee Hii’ – a tiny spot (bar) in Osu that was introduced to me by a couple of hard drinking Ghanaian friends is my favourie place to drink it. The akpateshie sold there is notoriously good, and we knew if a Friday evening started there, it was going to get a little messy! If I was after something a little more civilised, I’d make a pit stop at ‘Republik Bar’. I love this place because all the drinks and food are made using local ingredients. The akpateshie (sugarcane variety) cocktails are mixed with hibiscus, mint and passionfruit, and are dangerously easy to drink. It hosts a lot of live music too, from old school highlife to afrobeat, so it was an obvious standout.
People are impeccably dressed in Accra. Clothes are always ironed and whites never have a mark on them. I don’t know how they do it. I’d always get home from a day out looking like a total grub! Ghanaians take huge pride in their appearance, and matching prints (up and downs) on men and women are everywhere. The best days are Sundays, the most stylish day, because everyone’s going to church and you’ll often get whole families wearing head to toe matching print – a big inspiration for the YEVU collections.
Nima is a suburb close to the area I used to live and a favourite place for me. I loved driving through this part of the city on my way to work in the morning. It’s total chaos – there are people everywhere! The development of this neighbourhood was unplanned by the government, so although I don’t underestimate the challenges that would be faced living there, it makes for a vibrant landscape. Children bathing in the streets, hundreds of street food venders and a lot of colour and music pumping into unpaved laneways. A lot of immigrants from all over West Africa have settled there, and as a result there’s a high concentration of Muslims and mosques. The call to prayer while the sun set over this part of the city was always breathtaking.
There were times when Accra defeated me, and when that happened, I headed to Jamestown for a reminder of what I loved about the city. Jamestown is one of the most historic parts of Accra, inhabited by the Ga people, and is built right on the coast in Central Accra. It’s a fishing community, so the beach is covered in makeshift housing, fishing nets, drying fish and amazing wooden canoes constructed out of whole tree trunks. Remnants of Ghana’s colonial past are there, with old decaying forts and colonial style housing lining the streets. This area produces the most boxers in the world, so there are outdoor gyms everywhere (and lots of shirtless men). We shot the second YEVU collection here, with part of the shoot in Ussher Fort, built by the Dutch in 1649 and right on the sea edge.
YEVU has popped up for their third and final instalment this Summer:
January 16th – January 25th
302 Cleveland Street, Surry Hills, Sydney.
Shop Hours: Monday – Sunday, 10am – 7pm.
For full details visit www.yevuclothing.tumblr.com or follow @yevuclothing on Instagram.