When to Eat

Its amazing how you can think you can understand a culture, and then something happens that helps you realize, you’re still just a tourist. This week-end Suzanne and I attended an Ashesi Student function at one of the nicer hotels in Accra. Event start time: 6:30, so we understand that to be Ghanaian Time and not Obruni Time, so it could start anywhere from 7 – 7:30, but really “start time” is a foreign concept, no I mean literally, its really a foreign concept. Unlike in the states where events are time based, or schedule based, here they are relationship or people based. When enough people arrive, the event can start. Last night was a perfect example.

So we saunter in about 7, and I’m not kidding there are four students, two obruni teachers from the school, and a Ghanaian teacher, who Is on leave from a college in the Midwest, and us. The last hour or so the sky has been filling with lightening, but so far no thunder is heard so everyone assumes the rains are not coming.

[Students the next morning at the Research Fair]

About 7:45 enough students show up, and by 8pm the programme begins. There are 150 place settings and at most 60 people. The tables are all set, but mostly empty, its outside and the cool pre-rain wind has charged the air. Two buffet lines are ready, and flames keep the food warm and whipped by the wind, fire lashes out and flare about the sides. Then the programme starts with the introduction of tonight’s MCs. Public events like this always have an MC (usually two, a man and a woman), even movies, plays, and apparently student celebrations. The MCs warm the crowd, bantering about this and that to a backdrop of gathering storm clouds and flashes of lightening.

A prayer is given, the vice-president is invited to speak, then the event organizer. Suzanne whispers “Oh, I hope they start soon, so we can eat before the rains come.” Silly girl. The rains do come, as the event organizer is giving the schedule for the night. How ironic, since its raining and now everyone is rushing inside. I keep thinking about the 90 we spent milling around waiting for the programme to start when we could have been eating. Silly boy. Its really raining and now I’m I’m the hallway leading to a not quite large enough room in a different part of the hotel, that the programme is moving to. I catch the student leaders talking.

“So what should we do?”

“I guess we could eat first, and then do the dancing.”

“EAT FIRST, who does that?! Ah!” She walks away disgusted.

Wow, I think, this really is a different culture. The students see me watching them and ask what they should do. I say, “well in the states, we would usually eat first and then do the programme.” By the look on their faces you would have thought I was suggesting that we eat first, oh wait a minute…I was.

“If we eat first, then everyone will go home.” Oh, so eating is the terminal event, I realize, the last thing people do at such a gathering. I guess that makes since, especially considering Ghanaian Time, and that events are people driven and start when enough people come, and not by schedule or time.

We were to attend an Out Dooring last Sunday. An Out Dooring usually happens 11 days after a baby is born, and in the traditional since, the first time a baby is brought outside the house, or outdoors to greet its family. It was Stephen, our guard’s son who had come last September. I gather he either had trouble raising the money for the Out Dooring, or the child was sick. But now it “looks like he will stay” as they say, or “he likes it here,” meaning that the child will live, as if the choice not to was his. The invitation, a printed envelope (to put money in and bring), said 7am prompt, but I’d asked Stephen what time it was going to start obruni time. He laughs and said, 7:30, so we left at 7:45, and later I learned the time had changed to 8, which means maybe 8:30, but we never got there, as our car over heated and we had to limp home. I was sad, I’d looked forward to seeing it, to taking pictures, and yes, even blogging about it, and now I was going to miss the whole thing. I’d even had Eric drive me out over the week-end to the remote place so I could find it early on a Sunday morning. I had our other guard call to let Stephen know that we could not come, so that if they were waiting for us, they could go ahead and start.

[The Envelope, please]

Back to the hotel and the student celebration. The rain stopped, and so they thought about moving back outside for the dancing, but then it started raining again, and about 8:45, we gave up and went home. It had been a long week—most are these weeks—and Suzanne was tired and hungry. I’ve learned to eat before I go to these events, because while we know the food is coming, we just don’t know when.

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