The household consisted of a mother and father, two grown sons and three teenaged nieces. The mother was raising the nieces for her brother, teaching them the skills they would be expected to know when they themselves became wives and mothers. Arkuh Bernard Tettey (at right), who would later become such an important part of my life, was a nephew and cousin of the family, and was also living with them at that time.
In addition to these eight humans (ten including us), the buildings inside our compound housed some twelve goats, two cats, six roosters, numerous chickens and two dogs, all of whom held down important jobs. In fact, nearly all animals in Ghana have jobs—very few families there can afford to feed an animal that is not earning its keep. Typically, such useless creatures end up in the dinner pot, whether they be bovine, canine, or even feline. (Many Ghanaians eschew these last two; but there is a traditional belief among some that those who eat a cat’s head and then go to a foreign country will not die until returning back home to Ghana.)
Ghana’s more fortunate goats supply milk and wool—at least, I’m assuming they do. I never actually saw either being harvested. The less fortunate ones become tasty ingredients in the various stews that are the mainstay of the Ghanaian diet. The goats in our compound were also the last line of defense against garbage, of which, consequently, there was almost none. In fact, the garbage can for the entire family plus the two of us was a bucket about the size of the waste-basket I had in my bedroom as a child. Even more impressive was the fact that it only needed to be taken out once every few days. Precious little gets wasted in West Africa. Things get used and reused until they are useless, and then they are turned into something else. This high ecological standard plunged me into a state of shame that still sends me into a heightened frenzy of reusing and recycling each time I return home.
But getting back to the goats, we mostly saw them when they were let loose to practice their skills as garbage disposal units. Later in the evening we would hear them being herded back into their shed by the girls, who uttered little grunts that sounded like, “Ungkh! Ungkh!” to keep them moving along.
The cats, on the other hand, roamed freely at all hours. This freedom was a professional necessity, since they were both pursuing successful careers in pest control. They must have been well-trained, too, because I never saw so much as a mouse-dropping the whole time I was there. Both cats were also moonlighting as waste management technicians by snapping up the bones and other tidbits of food that we humans flicked onto the ground as we ate under the open skies.
The chickens, I imagine, offered up their feathers at some point, though I never actually witnessed the process. But they were most notable for the success of their egg factory, the products of which Megan and I were the grateful beneficiaries most mornings, since the mother of the house was tireless in her efforts to find things we liked to eat, and had discovered early on that we both liked scrambled eggs. The chickens sometimes turned up in the various stews we were served as well.
I wish I could say that the same was true for the roosters, who didn’t seem to serve any useful purpose at all. They didn’t even function as efficient alarm clocks, erupting instead with their indescribably loud and obnoxious crowing at random times throughout the night. This cacophony inevitably inspired the dogs to begin howling, which created a combined chorus that sounded disturbingly like young children screaming in terror and enraged rhinoceri bellowing in excruciating pain. It took some getting used to.
We never actually met the dogs, since their job description dictated that they snarl and snap at any non-family member who had the audacity to enter their compound. It mattered not a bit that we were invited guests—we were told that they would attack us if they got the chance. Consequently, they were only allowed to patrol and stand sentry outside their pen late at night, when we were safely tucked away in our room. If we ventured into the courtyard, they were likely to assume that we were nefarious strangers who had somehow breached the compound wall.
To be continued....