Gardeners World – Ghana
“Come to my garden!” my companion was insistent. We were squatting in the dust together outside her makeshift bedroom, eating fatty cow’s hoof, tomato broth and pounded plantain and cassava from the same bowl with our right hands.
I was curious. As the weeks had passed by I had received many pressing invitations from the villagers to visit their tiny ‘farms’, or vegetable gardens and crops. Daily life in the verdant, landlocked region of Brong Ahafo in Ghana is dependent on each family’s patch of land for the daily meal. ‘Farm’ referred to planting, not animals, and the comedic goats and short-haired sheep roamed free through the mud hut and rough hewn wood buildings of the villages.
On their garden farms, families grew cassava vines with their delicate yellow blooms, yams with their decorative five-finger leaves and kokoyam (Pacific Island’s taro) from the lily family. Such tuber cultivation was man’s work; women turned their tireless hands to production of the small, yellow egg-shaped aubergines, tomatoes and red and green pepe (chillis), found in every Ghanaian dish without exception.
On this Saturday morning, I accepted Madam Felicia’s invitation, and we meandered past the school building shelters along the red earth road to the farm. Madame Feli had been given the patch of land by a local benefactor for the students to cultivate.
On the way, Madame Feli recruited a local young woman student from our school named Mercy with a terse command, as I suspect Mercy was the only one of us who fully understood the workings of the garden – over a city girl sent by the government to teach in a need communities for a pittance and a blue-eyed wanderer, off to see the world.
We turned abruptly onto an overgrown track I had not noticed before. Side-stepping writhing piles of brilliant orange caterpillars, and with a niggling awareness of vipers, we threaded our way single thread though lush greenery, grass at shoulder-height, tall cassava saplings seemingly wild in the weeds.
I was yet to understand that no plant was unclaimed, no resource wasted. To the ignorant eye it appeared that we were in an expanse of grassland and wilderness; in fact we were passing through many families’ subsistence crops, with the absence of fences or marked boundaries that I was growing accustomed to in middle and lower-class African life.
I stopped to examine the palm oil palms, a handsome species, with thin, dark muted-green spikes protecting striking black and orange palm nuts in great clusters. Ghanaian women bash this fibrous, unwieldy fruit in hollowed wooden stumps to produce vivid red palm oil and palm nut soup.
There were scattered bushes of small, bitter berries, added to fish broth to ‘give you more blood.’ Ghanaian women and TV health programmes often talk of edible green plants giving one more blood; the dark green, irritant kokoyam leaves, thick Ghanaian spinach and these green berries.
To my western eye, the colour suggested richness in iron, so I was intrigued by the popular local conviction – the end result of enhancing the blood through consumption of dark green veg ultimately the same, even if the medicinal reasoning was different.
Arriving at the destination I valiantly took to weeding, to the endless amusement of my companions, who felt a slight white woman was not equal to such a task. Weeding refers to chopping down the rampant grass and other unwanted foliage with a ‘cutlass’, a straight African scythe.
The chore is used in schools as a punishment and an alternative to lawn mowers. The students don’t mind; they have weeded their family farms since they were old enough to wield the blade.
Mercy and I pushed our way into the scratchy interior of the yam vines, in pursuit of a tuber. It was late July and a little to early in the season to harvest. I yelped in pain as an unseen critter sank something sharp into my mud-covered toe. After that I was swiftly relieved of my duty of hacking the yam from the cloying earth; to my regret, as I had been very proud of my efforts.
Making our way back after our cursory garden visit, Mercy elegantly balancing the yam and cutlass on her head, I reflected that over the weeks and months I had come to recognize that almost all of the foliage around me was edible or medicinal.
Ghanaian’s know the names and varieties of the useful plants around them but when questioned on the names of beautiful blooming plants, they said vaguely, “they’re called flowers”. Even the precious frangipani were shrugged away, whilst I stood enthralled beneath the tree, nearly beside myself to be living in a land, where such a treasure – not to mention mangoes –fell unwanted and rotted in the ground.
Maize and papaya grow on every verge in both city and village alike. Sugar cane and plantain abound alongside every road. Ghana is a garden; each woman reliant on her plot for the food in her bowl.
Domestic food production in any way, shape or form.