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Talking Food in Bolgatanga

From the Fall 2015 Issue “Food Fight

By Jason P. Rancatore

BOLGATANGA, UPPER EAST REGION, Ghana—The kitten was making noise. It sounded like coughing. The kitten had vomited various parts of what was once a gecko—following its instincts: hunt, kill, and eat. But the results were strange. While he thought he knew how to eat the gecko, it turned out that he needed to learn to chew it a bit more first.

Instincts can be peculiar that way. Market day isn’t just on Saturdays. It’s every third day. Humans rely on sets of routine practices and concepts to get through their daily lives, even when they know they are operating within new contexts where they should expect differences. Just as the kitten was relying on what it thought it knew about hunting, killing, and eating, we rely on an understanding that market day corresponds to a repeating day of the week rather than a repeating number of days. These temporarily confounding moments are not necessarily bad, as they can lead to a reorientation of practices and concepts, turning the strange into the familiar.

Food is a central part of this entire social process. Indeed, it can tell us quite a bit about a host of different aspects of society. Food is economic. Its production organizes labor, determines profit, and consumes energy. Food is political. Its distribution is unequal, its access uneven. Food is social. It is shared, given, and critiqued. It is a source of conversation, joy, excitement, pride, identity, and nostalgia. Food can be viewed this way not just in Bolgatanga, but around the world.



Two years ago, a group of Volunteer Services Overseas (VSO) professionals primarily from the U.K., but also including citizens of Canada, India, Ireland, the Netherlands, the United States, and Uganda, arrived in Bolgatanga, known locally as Bolga, a town of about 65,000 in northern Ghana. VSO had placed volunteers in Ghana since the 1960s, and the country was the first to receive Peace Corps volunteers in 1961.

Bolga is the capital of the Upper East Region, located on the main road that eventually runs north to Ouagadougou, the capital of neighboring Burkina Faso. As such, it is a major hub for trade and development activity in the Upper East Region. The volunteers’ mission was to work on various development projects based in and around this regional capital. While these projects differed in their specific objectives and issue areas, all the volunteers eventually became, to some extent, familiar with the Ghanaian context. Food-related experiences were an incredibly visible way this group came to understand cultural similarities and differences: in particular, going to the market, the availability of certain foods in major cities away from Bolga, and the practice of eating.

Along the road that goes east from Bolga to Bawku, there are regular “spots”—or local bars—often near food stands. Some spots have goat meat or sausages, thought to be beef, on sticks. Spots are defined by some plastic chairs and wooden tables—rarely with any distinct signage other than advertisements for Ghanaian beer brands, such as Star or Club. Often, they’re more easily identified by landmarks, nearby stores, or some other distinguishing characteristic, e.g. the one with the blue lights. At one particular spot, the menu lists Gulder beer, not always available, in large brown 600 ml bottles. It is rarely ice cold given the occasional power outages. Suddenly, a truck appears at the spot. It’s heading into Bolga. Market day is tomorrow.

There’s no set time for the buying and selling to begin. But if the goat market is any indication, the prized goods are sold in the early morning. By 9 a.m., dozens of Ghanaians are walking toward the market. There are smaller markets in nearby villages, but the Bolga Market draws many from the surrounding area. Often goods (large aluminum bowls, even a desk) are carried on people’s heads or on wagons pulled by donkeys. Sometimes they are driven by school-age boys. Goats are transported many different ways. Small goats may be tied up in a bowl packed on the rear of a bicycle, in the basket in front, or around the rider’s neck. At the market, goats, sold and on the move, are packed systematically onto the roofs of vans. By 9 a.m. there are already throngs of people, and the narrow dirt pathways are often packed and hard to navigate without knocking over someone’s goods. It can get uncomfortable squeezing through crowds, and transactions can feel rushed—but rarely loud.

By late morning, there’s still decent food availability, and the pathways aren’t swollen with people. The harmattan—seasonal winds blowing from the Sahel—and rain are the major climatic features. These never interfere with the buying and selling on market day, though a customer might be damp and trudging through mud and newly formed small streams or blowing brown snot.

At first glance, the Bolga Market is an utter maze. The area has multiple entry points—none marked in any way. Yet it’s impossible to mistake the market for anything else. The borders of the market are roughly the main north-south road on the east of town, the main east-west road on the south side of town, the inter-town lorry park to the west, and the first wide road to the north—perhaps five city blocks long and four wide. Within this area, dirt pathways usually run in a grid-like pattern, but encroachments like wooden stands, shipping containers cemented in place, and makeshift shelters, in addition to foot traffic, have made the byways more meandering. At a building near the market, with a row of first floor shops, bikes lean, unlocked against the wall.

Entering, there are first fruits and vegetables: various onions, tomatoes, some kind of dark, leafy greens, cabbage, garlic, and green peppers. Hot chili peppers are widely available and very spicy. Iceberg and romaine lettuce are sometimes available. Okra is quite common, as are soybeans, eggs, rice, groundnut (essentially peanut) paste, and plain bread. Seasons bring different goods in terms of fruit and vegetables—watermelon late in the year, an abundance of mangoes in March. During the dry season in the middle of the year there is noticeably less produce. Some days, only onion, tomato, and some leafy greens are available, and may even sell out early. Meat and carbohydrate staples, like yam or cassava, remain readily available year round, though at higher prices.

It is possible to buy all sorts of goods like these in bulk, but a broad area of the market is confined to individual or household consumers. Within that area, there are subdivisions based on types of goods—household items, furniture, meat, vegetables, grains, goats. There is no map to guide the way, just trial and error.

At most stands, vendors display piles of goods on tables—short stacks of green peppers, clear plastic bags of pasta, or groundnut paste. Each carefully measured unit corresponds to a price. For rice, there is a price for the size of the container used to dispense the grain from a large bag. This could be an old tin can or a large bowl, then poured into a plastic bag. Imported rice, often from southeast Asia, such as Vietnam, sells at a premium compared to locally grown rice. The local rice mills still do not always get all of the small rocks out in production. Eating local rice is often an exercise in taking care not to crack a tooth. Plain bread is done in the style of a short baguette and good enough with a spread of groundnut paste and banana.

No single vendor satisfies all or even large combinations of any of these items. Vendors participating in certain segments of the market have only those items. So, no single vendor would have vegetables and rice. Stores in buildings in Bolga can function as bodegas with multiple kinds of goods, but not in the open market. The quality of produce also varies widely from stand to stand, often more widely than price. So tomatoes might be best from one stand, green peppers from another, cabbage from a third.

Haggling can occur, and is typically about price, not amount. Still, for those familiar with the shopping routine, there’s pretty much a fixed and fair price that most locals are prepared to pay, despite the fluid nature of the market and the lack of any signage. Moreover, if the price at one vendor seems a bit high, there’s always another in the area. Many customers have a set of a dozen or so vendors they visit regularly, not to mention a ritual formality with each. There are three different greetings depending on whether it is morning, afternoon, or evening—bulika, wuntanga, and zaare, respectively. Amounts are largely standardized. For example, a vendor will lay out stacks of four tomatoes, and they will all be the same price. For beans and groundnut paste, small amounts are put into one of the ubiquitous clear plastic bags. Not quite as ubiquitous as the opaque black plastic bags, that in a pinch, could cover your hand to allow you to eat with your fingers. One might do this at a roadside spot with a bowl of kenkey and pepe (dumplings with hot chili sauce) and no soap or hand sanitizer around.

Recognizing price requires some math. The old “new cedi” was switched to a new “Ghana cedi” currency, and each is divided into pesewas or cents. This involves dividing past amounts by 10,000. That is, if the women vendors ask for 10,000, that means 1 Ghana cedi, while 5,000 is 50 pesewas. Eventually, even a newcomer begins haggling using the old terms as well. A customer might point to a stack of tomatoes and ask “2,000?” A response might be to point to small piles and large piles and say, “2,000, 5,000.” One new Ghana cedi was worth about 60 U.S. cents two years ago. A stack of four tomatoes that cost 2,000 would be about 12 cents. That can also get you a large slice of boiled yam, a few fried plantains, a small half loaf of bread, a handful of groundnut paste, or a couple of eggs. A few new Ghanaian cedis a day would allow for enough calories to survive, which is largely attainable, even by a labor force that is somewhat transient, going wherever labor is needed.

Even children are involved in the market, often carrying their food products for sale on top of their heads—soybean kebabs, boiled yam, water. The water comes in factory-grade bags filled at filtering stations. A sack of 30 bags costs a few cedi. These children can often be seen in the market during school hours, indicating the significance of the twice-weekly market to society, family, and individual survival. Valuable life lessons in sales, business, and management, not to mention nutrition and agriculture, are clear byproducts.

And then there is the appearance of Obama cookies. President Obama’s visit in the summer of 2009 brought with it fanfare, billboards, T-shirts, even cookies. Some depict the President’s likeness, others the whole First Family. They are a basic, inexpensive sugar cookie, though a chocolate flavored variety also exists. After Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize in the fall of 2009, Ghanaians considered him to be a source of pride. After all, a man with African heritage became the President of the United States.



All over Ghana, wherever there is transport of goods and people, there is food. Lorry parks, bus stops, taxi ranks—these are all places where food is brought in to be transited or sold. Travelers on buses, tro tros (mini-buses that leave as they fill), and taxis all purchase food for their journeys or on their way home. On the way to or from Bolga, if ever wagashi (a cheese-like food) is for sale, it cannot be passed up. Larger cities to the south, Tamale, Kumasi, and Accra, have a wider selection of goods. In Bolga, a couple of stores have items of greater extravagance, such as boxed wine from Spain or Tetra-pack sterilized, long-conservation milk that requires refrigeration only after opening. In these other larger cities, there are numerous markets and even broader varieties of food, often imported. Vacuum-packed blocks of cheese, for example, are expensive—in the tens of cedis and rarely found in Bolga. Any trip to neighboring Burkina Faso is met with requests for cheap, but tasty, baguettes, as many as any visitor can carry. There are restaurants in Bolga, but hardly ever frequented by local customers. They are a luxury.

From two years of observing market conditions in Bolga, it’s clear that food is widely available, even in this relatively undeveloped region of a developing country. And relationships quickly form between vendors and customers. The buying and selling of food shows a division of labor along gender lines, while the use of children in these transactions suggests a willingness to endure opportunity costs. The lack of focus on nutrition and the value of meat suggest cultural values at work. Meat is highly prized, especially by men. In the development community, the idea of selling livestock for grain is common to mitigate food insecurity. To a certain extent, households will probably do this, but the mechanism is far from automatic in a society where patriarchy reigns supreme.

To be sure, there are hungry people in northern Ghana. In remote villages, availability of reliable food sources remains a problem. In Bolga, there are perhaps half a dozen paved roads that lead out of the town. The rest are dirt and hence susceptible to flooding in the rainy season.

Despite these challenging realities, hunger is on the decline overall. The process of development, of course, is stutter-steps, sometimes brought about by luck or circumstance, not even trajectories caused by a certain confluence of factors. In the case of Bolga, being the administrative capital means that roads lead to the town and development projects have offices there. Markets for goods can be sustainable.



There is a slower pace of life in Bolga, and a prime advantage is that there seems to be a greater understanding of what goes into food and a discussion about what this means for local Ghanaians. While the question is rarely asked, there is a basic understanding of what a mother needs to feed her children and husband. While nutrition and the study of carefully balanced diets are hardly at the top of people’s minds, there is a sense of what it takes to maintain a healthy lifestyle—a certain amount of meat, a certain amount of banku, a mix of fermented corn and cassava dough cooked in hot water into a smooth, whitish paste.

Put simply, we, as members of the global community, should be interested in maintaining and sustaining such healthy lifestyles. The way we do this should not resemble the kitten’s encounter with the gecko, acting on pure instinct. Scholarly research and strengthening higher education in the developing world have a role in guiding policy to address issues of food insecurity and malnutrition. In addition, the voices of Ghanaians should be heard. It is not enough to validate one’s survey instruments with the use of focus groups in a two-week study and claim that the truth has been extracted. This is a start and can tell us something interesting about the population, but to gain a sense of how a country operates on a day-to-day basis, there is no substitute for wide travel and extended experiences. Diplomatic postings are years in length—so that individuals gain some sense of perspective on the countries where they’ve been sent. We should expect that same level of time, energy, and resources committed to gaining knowledge about development processes—whether that research is sponsored by international agencies, development organizations, or universities. Professional networks in this field, all working on the same country or region, should be encouraged to meet and consult across all sectors, including government, university, private, and non-profit.

Even with extended stays, caution should be exercised. As diplomats know, people say different things depending on the audience. To gain the people’s trust requires first building relationships—over time and through shared experiences. This is exactly why networks of people who have spent years in a country should be talking to each other.

What Ghanaians want depends on the Ghanaians, their relation to the researcher, and the context. Not surprisingly, Ghanaians, like most Africans, want development to work for them. To deliver on this requires two conditions—that they will not be exploited and that they will have some measure of control over whatever resources are allocated for them. The level of trust in a relationship where these two conditions are possible requires years of shared experiences. Development organizations should either find people with those backgrounds or invest in them so that they gain these invaluable insights into the societies they seek to help.

As a lower-middle-income country, Ghana can sustain an environment that is improving access and availability of food to feed a nutritious diet to its population. But that’s becoming an increasingly difficult equation. The cedi has plunged 25 percent in value against the dollar in the past year, the worst-performing of 24 African currencies tracked by Bloomberg. It’s now worth barely 25 U.S. cents. At that rate, the national minimum wage—above the earning capacity of most rural farmers—is barely $1.80 per day, though the average cash expenditure on food and non-alcoholic beverages for a family is $2.61 or 93 cents per person per day, according to the Ghana Statistical Service.

It will, however, require looking closely at what development economists have pointed at for years—employment rates, population growth, market efficiencies, and the spread of market and nutrition information. Keep in mind that the World Bank’s re-classification of Ghana to the ranks of the lower-middle-income is solely based on gross national income per capita, a figure that is skewed by its increasingly valuable mineral resources and oil. In addition, these statistics should be placed in their context with a variety of benchmarks to discern the sources of change (or stability). While there are concerns of an “oil curse,” and a potential for the majority of the benefits to accrue to the more developed southern regions of the country, many Ghanaians do believe that the production of offshore oil will ultimately benefit everyone. Many in the less developed northern regions sought to have their voices heard by government officials and non-governmental organizations so that an equitable portion of the expected oil revenue will  assist the development of their part of the country.

It is ultimately the responsibility of Ghanaians to determine how economic arrangements should look in their communities. It is certainly possible that there are enough resources to address food security and nutrition issues in Ghana effectively. To do so, it is hard to imagine that we will not see serious investment by the government and private sector. This is not just about farm machines, industrial equipment, and the resources to supply, repair, and fuel these machines. Investment needs to be made in terms of the Ghanaian people—building skills, education, and leadership, so that government officials, farmers, mechanics, teachers, and small business owners understand the diverse ways in which they can adapt to the needs of a growing population and make critical decisions that most fit their way of life.



Jason P. Rancatore is a political scientist at Northwestern University who recently returned from two years in northern Ghana.

[Photo courtesy of Ethan Zuckerman]

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