After spending four years studying Math and Economics I yearned to travel, experience a different culture, and learn about life beyond the Western world, so I bought a plan ticket to Ghana. On April 15th 2011 I became a voluntourist (a.k.a. an individual who travels abroad and pays to volunteer for a short period of time) at an orphanage about an hour Northwest of Ghana’s capital, Accra. I immediately regretted my lack of research and felt that I had mistakenly signed a business agreement with the orphanage, in which I gave them $400 in exchange for allowing me to bathe children in the morning, hang out with other Western volunteers at night, and in between snap photos to prove I helped poor children in an African orphanage. Essentially the orphanage was making money by prostituting orphans to white tourists who thought they could change an orphan’s life in two weeks. In this environment I felt lost: I was not learning anything about Ghana hanging out with Western volunteers all the time and was a client of these ‘orphan prostitutes’, nourishing their attachment issues and encouraging their dependency on white people for everything from a soccer ball to a college education.
After two weeks, I ventured to the one place I always go when I’m upset: the kitchen. Usually I bake cookies or a cake to boost my spirits, but the kitchen in the orphanage had neither an oven nor any ingredients necessary to bake a cake. However here I found remedies that were better than any carrot cake cupcakes I have ever baked: three caring Mamas, several beautiful children, a large bag of freshly ground red pepper, and a lot of love. During my first visit to the kitchen the Mamas let me follow them to New Market, a village that hosted a large market on Tuesdays and Fridays. Several hundred women flock here to buy and sell food; tents covered half a square mile and were filled with hand-picked peppers, yams, collard greens, cabbage, tomatoes, garlic, and okra. We started in a shop that sold tomato paste and other canned goods, wandered through four-foot-high piles of yams to a table to purchase carrots, chives, and red onions, then to the frozen meat tent where Mama Gloria ran up, hugged her sister, and laughed a lot before buying a few pieces of chicken. All the women I met at the market where sincerely happy to meet me, wanted to know where I came from, and chuckled as they tried to teach me to speak the local language, Twi. That morning I fell in love with the market and its fresh food and cheerful women.
Over the next few days, I spent as much time as possible with the Mamas in the kitchen: I stirred the tomato paste stew that simmered over a huge metal bowl on the fire, I wrang soap out of clothes that Mama Gloria washed for the children (not part of her job, but what she calls ‘sacrifice work’), and I smiled while Mama Gloria and Sister Agnes danced around the kitchen, encouraging the 6-month old orphan, Rejoice, to dance along with them. But I was not the only one helping in the kitchen: five orphans were always in the kitchen cleaning the dishes, fetching water, and cooking food. I have never had the pleasure of learning from five young girls with such work ethic, sharpness, and appreciation—they helped because they were grateful for everything the orphanage provided them.
During my last week at the orphanage, I cooked dinner for the volunteers and taught the Mammas how to prepare a classic Western meal: tomato sauce and rigatoni. Two other volunteers joined me in the kitchen, and one observed that in Germany she would never sit for 30 minutes and watch water heat to a boil. I realized that the majority of time the Mamas spent in the kitchen consisted of waiting, but there was delight in the waiting. That afternoon we watched ten pounds of fresh red and green tomato chunks melt into a creamy sauce, let nothing other than the aroma of garlic fill our heads, and after several hours observed the Mamas trying the sauce and licking their fingers in the attempt to enjoy every last drop.
I am still unsure if Western volunteers provide a net amount of good to the orphans, but I hope that reading with Diana has enabled her to recognize a few more words, and encouraging Clement to drink water made his fever go down more quickly. What is very clear to me is that any help I provided the orphans was miniscule compared to what I learned about Ghanaian culture. In the kitchen, the Mamas introduced me to the pleasures of a culture that values making new friends at the market, enjoying the hours spent waiting for soup to cook, laughing as the six-month-old tries to dance, and appreciating all that you have.
Alex Milling (usually) writes about booze for Small Kitchen College. She’s a senior at Northwestern, where she loves the dining hall’s Hot Cookie Bar.