I can’t wait for you to read this guest post written by the talent that is Ophelia Akanjo. In Homecoming, Ophelia details the relationship between a young girl and her father, and the comfort that can be found in food.
When I was eleven, my father came home again. It was one of his yearly—or almost yearly visits. July was still young and so the rains hadn’t yet been convoked. His coming was for me, a quandary because on one hand, it meant frequent beach visits and gratifying taxi rides to school. But on the other, it meant being engulfed in excruciatingly awkward, father-daughter moments, superfluous attention from friends and extended family members, and toilsome home cleaning sessions that left me enervated. But even so, my father’s coming meant being in the presence of many piquant foods.
My mama, in her usual way of making things seem better than they actually are, first assembled the local masons to plaster the deep cracks of our house, which usually hosted an army of ants, and then fetched the neighborhood’s painter to repaint the entire house, as if those were the only fixings the house needed. It was a house that was waiting to fall apart given the right circumstances. The ceiling had been leaking for years and for years, we employed the use of plastic containers to prevent our house from being inundated with water during heavy downpours.
Mama always said, “your father is very stubborn. If he listened to my advice, the house would have been built well.”
To her, my father’s nephew whom he hired to supervise the construction process of our house was nothing but a larcenist. Apparently, he’d used majority of the money for his personal expenses. Therefore instead of hiring professional workers for the job and purchasing quality building material, he did the opposite.
Father’s coming was wrapped in special things with food being the most prominent on the hierarchical list. Food was an instrument of hospitality in mama’s house and indeed in many Ghanaian homes. It was a demonstration of care. Consequently, the absence of meat in food was often a sign of pecuniary hardship. Therefore, many hosts refrained from this even if it meant squandering their last cedi.
When I arrived home from school one Tuesday, perhaps two weeks into my father’s visit, mama was in the process of making pela, my favorite food. Pela is to say the least, an intricate meal. It is made out of powdered black-eyed peas.
Though my father had given me enough money for the day, and I had eaten well at school before returning home, hunger still lingered. It was the kind of hunger associated with abundance. The kind of hunger that made you eat more than you needed because it had greed for a cousin. Even when I didn’t need more food, my want for it was enough to summon this hunger.
In order to make pela, mama had to mix the powdered beans with water until a thick consistency was achieved, pour small portions into plantain leaves, and then cook in boiling water until it solidified. she then served it with red powdered pepper, mixed with salt and shea oil, and then serve with a side of fried fish or fried meat—although with fish is my favorite option.
My mother was an exquisite cook; she seemed to be a content one too. As I sat on a wooden stool opposite her, she delved into the protracted process of pela-making, while frying red snapper. She passed to me the mortar and pounding stick and gestured that I continued pounding the dry pepper into powder. After sometime, she sent someone to fetch my father who was probably in the company of his friends at a bar, commonly called a drinking spot. His guest, a man of about forty-five with tambourine-like cheeks, whom we checked on every few minutes or so, was waiting for my father in the living room.
This guest was a self-appointed uncle of mine who made claim to being my father’s brother in the way that people from the same village usually said of one another. It was doleful though, because he was the only one in agreement of this unwarranted kinship. My father didn’t view him in that manner. I know that much. Besides, we all knew that his visit to my father was mostly motivated by his desire for money and air-hauled gifts from America. He came for the overpowering scented Irish Spring soaps, plain white singlets, tee-shirts, and caps that had “I love NY,” inscribed on them. I, however wondered if he knew whether New York was a place or if he thought it was a thing—a thing that people just wore.
When I entered the living room to catch a breather, I sat in my school uniform on a hoary, single cushioned arm chair that was masked with new fabric. My father walked in a few minutes later to attend to his guest while I sat still in hopes of shrinking myself or better yet, in hopes that I would become invisible to the two men now seated on the couch adjacent to me. But it wasn’t long before I was commanded to go and change out of my uniform and either go finish my homework or help my mother in the kitchen. As I stepped into the corridor, I heard the so-called uncle of mine use my grades as his conversation starter.
He was among my list of most detested teachers at school because he saw to it that he embarrassed me among my peers, every time he set eyes on me. I knew then, that my father too, was going to make my grades his conversation starter later in the day when he spoke to me.
He and I didn’t talk much, my father. We never seemed to have anything to say to each other. I was always afraid of his presence because even though he didn’t say much, his words, when he said them were piercing and painful. Perhaps he too was afraid of my silence because I never allowed words to speak for me. My eyes always did the talking. Maybe he too found them piercing and painful. If there was anything we had in common, it was food. And more precisely, our love for pela.
When his guest left, managing to finally acquire some American gifts from my father, mama announced that it was time to eat. She even suggested that my father and I eat together. How could we, who barely said a word to each other, eat together? But on that night, we did. That night, pela and red snapper tasted like a peace making treaty. The pela was supple and delicious enough to have been eaten without fish. But there was mouthwatering savory fish and pounded pepper, which had to be vanquished. And so, without much eye contact and with the presence of gawky, anxious laughter from both of us, our hands dove into the same bowl.
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