Mma Kana

My mother is coming to Ghana for a week. She has no idea what an honor it is for this village to have “your mother, your real mother?!” come to Sankpala. I have not seen her in almost a year, which has been somehow unbearable at times. I sat with one of the Red Cross women and planned a cultural dance that she will organize for when she arrives. For the umteenth time, she turns to me and asks what I will bring to Sankpala before I leave. She doesn’t mean education, which is all I am here to do, she means the borehole one previous volunteer raised funds for. Or the half built ‘accommodation for strangers’ from the first volunteer almost a decade ago. Why don’t you go to the school and check out all the moringa trees we planted. A look of horror creeps onto her face, am I kidding? Trees? Is that a joke? Well, what does Sankpala need, you have electricity, three dams, numerous boreholes. Sankpala is just fine. She goes on to tell me how poor the people of Sankpala are. I shake my head.

I dealt with a lot of guilt being a middle class white American in college. But lately, I have come to realize that, while Americans have far more material wealth than Ghanaians, we work very hard for it. Just an observation, something to think about. My mother for example, runs preschools in Queens and is raising 6 kids on top of a stack of Masters degrees and licensers to show for herself. I woke up today thinking about my mother, and Zelia, Abukari’s wife. No one works harder in Ghana than women, and still the comparison of their lives are stark. Can’t help but shake my head.

Ghana: Zelia wakes up at 4 in the morning, shortly before the call to prayer. Her and her husband’s junior wife sweep the compound with the help of Amina, the only girl awake. They start to wash the dishes from the previous day as the sun begins to rise.

NY: My mother is also awake by 4. Not because she has to be, but because there are so many things racing through her head, she just can’t lie down anymore. She shoots out of bed, makes a cup of coffee, and starts making lists. Grocery lists, to-do lists, menus for holidays months away. It helps.

Ghana: Now it’s 6, everyone is awake. Her and the other wife bathe their (jointly) 10 kids, I’d be surprised if they remember which ones are their own by now. The girls make breakfast while the boys wrestle over nothing in one of the rooms. Once they have eaten and are off to school or farm, Zelia is pretty much free for the next 10 hours. She may shell some groundnuts while gossiping with a dozen women she has known half her life. She may farm her plot of land for an hour or two before it’s too hot. If it is the day before market day, she will probably prepare the rice she will be selling. She will also take numerous naps.

NY: It’s 6, she is dragging her four boys out of bed by their ears. “Well, you shouldn’t have stayed up all night playing those Nintendo games!” “Maaaa, it’s called Wii,” John responds from under his covers. “I don’t really care, get downstairs and eat breakfast.” She kisses her baby on the forehead, who is stumbling across the hallway in his Spiderman tighty-whities. “Good morning Michael,” she whispers, then opens the door to the attic and yells “Frank! I’m not asking you again to WAKE UP. If you miss anymore school you are grounded again, for real this time.” She gets no response.

She throws lunches in paper bags, ham sandwiches for everyone except John, who is on this vegetarian kick, so he gets a PBJ. The bags are overflowing with juice boxes and little baggies filled with cookies and chips. Stephen is at the kitchen table, finally doing his homework. She quickly combs through all their overgrown hair (they refuse haircuts because all the cool kids are growing out their hair), check their teeth for grime, and throws them all in the Mercedes as they are still dressing themselves. She drops them off at their respective schools. “Take care of each other!” she yells after them, as John knocks Michael over the head with his book bag. The little guy is too tired to respond.

She stops at the bodega around the corner for a pack of cigarettes and another coffee, and drives to one of her schools. There is a cell phone pressed to her ear, she is talking to the assistant director, mentally reading off some of the to-do lists she wrote that morning and seeing if the special needs children arrived ok. “Heidi, were the assistant teachers outside to get them off the bus?…Are you sure?… I mean outside, not on the stairs but actually on the sidewalk to bring them in…Good. OK, I need a head count for all the classes.” Heidi rattles off all the numbers, she did a head count seconds before she called. She reassures her that there is a new cup of coffee sitting on her desk waiting for her.

Just as she steps into her office, a series of unfamiliar numbers show up on her phone. It is probably her daughter, the one half way across the world. “Maria?” huhuhuhuhuhuh. “Maria, what is WRONG? I can’t even hear you, you’re crying so hard.” Hold on, just give me a a a a momomoment. “OK, honey,” she says, as she sits at her desk and mouths to Heidi that it’s her daughter. MOM, the girl finally is able to blurt out Alhajihasatoilet,hehasatoilet! ThiswholetimehewasmakingmeusethatDISGUSTINGlatrineandIjustnowsawthathehasatoilet! HESNOTEVENUSINGIT! “OK, calm down, I can hardly understand you. Remember honey, you are in the Peace Corps, were you expecting to use a toilet for two years?” But that’s not the POINT! ::sniff sniff sniff:: “I really have to go, is there anything else that is bothering you? You sound really upset.” YES. Implat. ::sob::. “You, what?” I’m ppppplaaaaaaaaaat. ::sob, sob:: “I really can’t understand you.” The girl attempts a deep breath. I’m FAT mom, I said I’m fat!. F-A-T, F-A-T. fat fat fat. “You are? I mean, ok, let me call you tonight when I’m out of work. Then we can talk all about it. But 130 pounds is not fat in the real world, darling.”

She takes a sip of her third cup of coffee and walks around to each classroom to do another head count. The next five hours consist of endless meetings with the lawyers and human resources, budgeting for numerous programs, more head counts, meeting with grumpy parents and dealing with the lines of teachers outside her door with their lists of complaints. “Come on your break!” she hollers “You have 20 kids in your classroom!” Her personal line rings, few have the number. It’s Whitestone Academy. “Ms. Karlya, your son hasn’t come to school again today, this is 8 days in two weeks. If he doesn’t come tomorrow he may face expulsion.” My mother grates her teeth and assures the nice lady that she will talk to Frank that night.

Ghana: It’s noon, Zelia makes lunch for her few kids that don’t want to buy chop at school. She sits on a prayer mat under a tree and watches her youngest daughters make dirt and stone soup out of tomato tins on their own little fires.

NY: It’s 1, my mother has forgotten about lunch and is about to faint because her blood sugar levels are to the floor. She sneaks away to one of her other schools. “Heidi, I’ll be back at 4.” She enters her other office and there is an array of olives, cheese, crackers and fruit on her business partner’s desk. “Jeanne, your son is on line 3, he has been trying to reach you all morning.” My mother puts Joe on speaker, who is awaiting his next class at law school in DC. “Mom, I’ve been trying to reach you all morning!” he cries. “Sorry, I’m all yours,” she says between bites of cantaloupe and cheddar cheese. He talks fast, highlighting the exams he just conquered, the fact that he is thinking of moving to a new apartment and the next trip with his girlfriend. She throws in affirming ‘uh-huh’s’ as she reads over curriculums. “So I just need a few hundred for this trip we are taking. Mom. Are you listening?” She takes off Heidi’s reading glasses (she can’t find her own), and leans toward the speakers, “Can we talk about this tonight when I get home from work, I can’t think about it right now.” She listens to him roll his eyes, “Ok, mom, love you.” “Love you too, by-ye.” She turns to her business partner Angela, “The lawyer is coming in an hour.” Angela’s eyes light up.

“Ooh! What should I wear?”

Ghana: It’s 4, Zelia and her daughters fetch water before preparing dinner.

NY: It’s 4, my mother pops another Valium. She is driving to her third school, where they are doing construction on the back rooms. Her cell phone, which lies on the bottom of her over-sized purse, is ringing in the back seat. She digs for it while her eyes are still on the road and flips it open with her chin. “Mom?” Michael squeaks. “What’s wrong?” she moans. “Mooooom, John was throwing rocks at me the whole walk home.” “OK, put on Mary.” She rattles off in Spanish to Mary, the nanny, making sure that the boys are not watching TV and that they get an after school snack. “Ok, gracias para todos,” she says as she pulls into the driveway of the school, and hangs up.

As she opens the door, her phone rings again. It’s Heidi. “We had an incident,” she says. A teacher opened a can of fruit and left it on the table and one of the children sliced his curious little fingers on the lid. “We had to bring him to the ER. Here is his fathers number.” My mother sits at her third office and calls the father. She is able to explain that a three year old slicing his hand on a can of fruit is as normal an occurrence as bumping your knees riding a bike. But, she will reimburse him for the months tuition, if necessary.

Ghana: 6 o’clock, Zelia starts the hour process of making TZ, what I affectionately call play-dough, that is served with stew. I stop by and bring the oil that she needs to make dinner for the cultural celebration we will be having when my mom comes. I tell her I will be leaving in a few days to pick her up, and in Dagbani she asks me what I will be bringing back for her. The junior wife laughs, who is washing clothes, and asks me the same thing. Bye-bye! I say without answering them. By 8, all her children are fed and bathed and they are all sitting in the compound under the stars, listening to the radio before they pass out one by one.

NY: 7 o’clock. My mother drives to her apartment, pours herself a glass of red wine, and checks her emails to see if anyone has sent in resumes in response to the Monster ads she posted that day. She reads through a dozen and then opens a bag of Tostitos for dinner. She smokes one last cigarette and passes out while watching a movie-on-demand.

Goodnight beautiful women that make the world go round. Tomorrow is a new day.

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