Once our van headed east out of Ghana’s capital, Accra, towards Mafi Zongo, civilization as we knew it petered out fast. At first, we were on an empty highway and every few minutes we’d whiz by a lonely barefoot pedestrian. But they were miles from the nearest town. Where were they walking? Next we turned into a one-lane paved road and finally we turned again onto a red dirt track. It was really a footpath because, we learned later, most people don’t have cars in this part of Ghana and so walk the 5 miles from village to market. (Ohhh, so maybe that’s where those people were going.) Thick fields of cassava plants pressed in on either side of the road. At night, you couldn’t see a thing in the darkness except stars and glowing embers from kitchen fires every few yards. Electricity hadn’t reached the countryside yet.
A trip to Africa tests you. By that I mean RURAL Africa, not the fancy Abercrombie & Kent trip with a private jet tour and 5-star safari that arrived in my email inbox this morning. (It costs $79,995 per person. What, they didn’t round it up to $80,000?) Anyway… a trip to rural Africa tests you mentally and physically. It tests your First World values, perceptions and attitudes. Our little village, Mafi Zongo, was as diametrically opposite suburban Texas as possible…and not just geographically. I’d add culturally, ethnically, structurally and financially to the list, as well.
Or so I thought.
Sarah, a couple of friends and I spent 10 days in Ghana, living in the remote village of Mafi Zongo. And did we pack a lifetime of experiences in that week! We built an outhouse, attended village meetings under a mango tree, and hauled buckets of water on our heads. School kids laughed at our teaching style, while the teacher scowled. (Actually I don’t think he liked us or our lack of classroom discipline.) We danced the Abgadza to tribal drums with the village women (which also made the children laugh) and hugged, held and photographed every kid in town at least a dozen times. The elders blessed our visit with libations to their ancestors (explain THAT to the Presbyterian missionaries) and sent us off to Accra with kente cloth souvenirs. Whew!
We lived like queens- literally. The matriarch of the village gave us rooms in her home, the nicest in the village with a generator and –get this- a flush toilet, if the water was running that day. And we even had a cook!
The first few days, they served us food from Accra- white bread, rice and lots of hard-boiled eggs. Fine, but where were the local delicacies? I wanted to try cassava –harvested right by our village, said to be the finest grown anywhere in the world- and coconuts, and what about mangoes from the tree outside our window? Meal after meal, nothing like that crossed our plates. But then one day, the cook set a big white bowl on the table. She smiled and proudly said it was a local stew she’d made herself.
The bowl made the rounds of the table. Everyone inspected it closely, their eyes widening. Then –to be polite- they placed a small spoonful onto their plate. When it arrived at me, I did the same, poking around the red grease, seeing bits of fish floating around some vegetables. Not very appetizing.
Then I took a bite. Wait…those vegetables were okra. And this wasn’t stew. It was gumbo. SEAFOOD gumbo! I grew up eating gumbo! It’s comfort food to me. It means lunch at college in New Orleans. And family dinners around the kitchen table. Here I was, eating the same meal, in a remote African village.
Suddenly all those history lessons became personal. I had a direct connection with our 16 year-old African cook. Hundreds of years ago, a gumbo recipe had traveled from Mafi Zongo or someplace similar, onto a slave ship out of Cape Coast, across the Atlantic to New Orleans, with each successive person slightly tweaking the recipe to her own taste. And now it survives in my kitchen in Texas, where we eat it in 2013, not very different than the version still being served in West Africa.
In the spirit of the Ghanaian stew Sarah and I ate, here’s a New Orleans gumbo recipe heavy on the okra and spices. Compare it to this West African recipe found online. You’ll see the similarities.
- 1/3 cup vegetable oil or pork lard (preferred)
- 2 1/2 pounds (8 1/2 cups) okra, quartered and sliced
- 1 teaspoons black pepper
- 1 1/2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
- 2 cups chopped onions
- 10 cups chicken stock
- 2 cups chopped tomatoes
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 6 cloves garlic, chopped
- 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaves or 1 tablespoon fresh
- 1/2 cup pureed tomatoes
- 1 pound sausage, andouille (preferred) or Polish, cut into 1/4 inch slices
- 1/2 cup chopped green onions
- 2 1/2 cups white rice
- In a large sauce pan or Dutch oven, melt the fat. When hot, add 6 cups okra and cook for 3 minutes. Add the black and red pepper, stir and cook for 10 minutes on medium heat, stirring occasionally. Add onions, cook for 5 minutes, then add garlic. After cooking until it becomes transparent, add chopped tomatoes and puree. Stir . When all ingredients are mixed, add thyme, chicken stock and sausage. Increase heat and simmer uncovered for at least 45 minutes or until the broth has thickened. (It will have the consistency of soup, rather than gravy.) Add salt, if needed. For the final 15 minutes of cooking, add remaining okra and green onions. Serve in bowls over rice.
Interesting fact: According to Wikipedia, the U.S. sweet potato is indigenous to the Americas and part of the Morning Glory family. It’s not closely related to the yams of Africa, however.