The Bush Path to Salvation
“To be a man”—Frederick paused before turning the key in the pickup’s ignition—“it’s not easy-o.” He started the engine and revved it a few times. “It’s not easy,” he repeated dejectedly and we began the slow, jostling journey along the red dirt bush roads away from one of his rubber farms.
I’ve gotten just as used to bracing myself against the passenger-side door while Frederick steers through endless potholes and gullies as I’ve grown accustomed to his fervent treatises about anything, really, at all—money, drunks, justice, salvation, obligations. “No, you work very hard, Frederick,” I said. I could tell that no matter how I responded, a rant of some sort was about to fill the truck’s cab. After hours in the sun, I was fully prepared to nod (and bounce) along and be the listener for whom he so yearns.
“Yeah!” he locked onto my affirmation eagerly. “To be a man, it is more difficult than to be a woman.”
Gah. Well, I was prepared to nod along. Damnit. “Really? I don’t know,” I waded carefully. “I think Beth works pretty hard for your family and her business.”
He backpedaled immediately. “Oh! Yes, yes—wifey works hard-o. But“—of course there was a ‘but’—“in Ghana here…” and Frederick proceeded to explain the circumstances of men here in Ghana: they can work and work and work, but any money they make is always easy-go to wives, parents, workers, fuel, school fees. Women, he says, can make money for themselves; they buy clothes and petty petty this and petty petty that. He went on to grumble about the “chop money”—300 cedis, or $150—he gives Beth each month for food and soap and things around the house. (Otherwise, their funds are kept separate, which he says is typical for most families here.)
“Yes, but“—of course I had a ‘but’—“she runs her business and she does so much around the house… I don’t know how she makes so much bread and cooks and cleans all at once!” Each morning when I walk into the kitchen at 5:30AM, Ruth is chopping vegetables, frying eggs, juggling hot bread pans, cleaning dirtied dishes, and selling fresh loaves all at once. Meanwhile, Frederick prepares for the day and points at his watch when he’s ready to leave before his egg sandwich is quite finished. (I sit helplessly in the corner trying to stay out of the way.) When we arrive home in the evening, Beth is kneading the next day’s dough, has dinner on the stove, and is often laughing along with her children and the other boys who help her with her business. (I usually join in with the kneading; I’m never quite sure where Frederick goes until dinner is served.)
Sure, maybe Frederick is the greater bread-winner in this family, but Beth is so much more than a money-squandering bread-maker; she is a diligent multitasker, ambitious business owner, and powerful mother. Frederick’s the big man in the house, but Beth runs the home.
And so Frederick’s harangues against “wifey” sort of rub me the wrong way, I guess you could say.
But I’m not here to buffer or counsel or preach. As much as it breaks my heart—and it does, it cuts deep to see parents argue, resent, and belittle—I still must be a bystander.
As I’ve stood by—bouncing along pot-holed roads, kneading loaves—I’ve gleaned a lot about life “in Ghana here.” I’ve been harsh on Frederick, but now I think his story will redeem him, at least a little. He really is an incredible man.
Frederick was born in 1974. He barely remembers his own mother, who died in childbirth when he was still very young. His father went on to marry two more times and have a whopping total of fourteen children. Rather than supporting his own nine sons and five daughters, however, Frederick’s father devoted any and all of his wealth to his sister’s children. Ghana is a matrilineal society, which means that Ghanaian’s are part of their mother’s family rather than their father’s; men, therefore, are expected to support their sister’s children just as they would their own. In Frederick’s case, however, his father supported his sister’s children far more than he did Frederick and Frederick’s siblings. Frederick’s mother’s brothers, meanwhile, also did not support Frederick.
Any and all wealth that Frederick has acquired has come from his own sweat and saving.
And sweat and save, Frederick did, does, and will. Although most Ghanaians who lack support from their parents (due to death, poverty, neglect, etc.) cannot afford to attend Secondary School (High School), Frederick earned a scholarship and completed SS, where he met Beth, in 1994. Without financial support, however, his schooling stopped there. In 1996, despite the disapproval of Beth’s brothers—they thought Frederick had no future—Frederick and Beth married. Without a wedding (this is a costly, imported tradition that only some Ghanaians choose to afford), they began their life together here in Adjumako.
Frederick worked odd jobs—farming, working at the GREL factory—and gradually saved his meager wages. Eventually, he gathered his funds and bicycled twenty miles to Takoradi, where he purchased two pigs—a male and a female—and paid for their transport back to Adjumako. While he started up his pig farm, he also rented a small plot of land on which he farmed palm trees for their oil. With the money he earned from selling the pigs and palm oil, he built a house for him and Beth out of mud, bamboo, a coating of cement, and an aluminum roof. Realizing the “power of the rubber,” as Frederick has put it several times, he began to work on rubber farms and learn the trade for himself. With the encouragement of Mr. Aikins, who Frederick knew through his church, he rented land to start his own rubber farm about ten years ago.
Today, Frederick lives in that same house with Beth and his three children, Franklin (13), Kwame (11), and Maddie (8). The home now includes a sitting room with a television and computer, a bread kitchen with two types of stoves (clay and gas), and an attached three-room addition, which he just had built in the last year.
Though his father did not ever support any of his children, Frederick alone supports the elderly man and houses him in one of the new rooms. Frederick is acutely aware that had his father invested in his education like he had in his cousins’ schooling, he would be leading a much more comfortable lifestyle today. Nevertheless, though friends and family alike point out to him regularly that he is not at all indebted to his father, Frederick provides for him with the assurance that someday God will recognize this forgiving generosity.
Another one of the three new rooms is where I currently stay. Frederick will turn it into a bedroom for Franklin and Kwame when I leave, but for now he insists that I make it my own. He regularly points out that I am here to learn, and says that there is no better mission to support than education. If someone had supported him in his education, he says, he would have been “a free man” long ago. “You will be someone someday,” Frederick has told me many times. “You try-o. You make me so happy.” An outsider, Frederick has warmly let me in, no questions asked, no rent accepted.
The last room, Frederick intends to turn into a classroom, where Franklin, Kwame, and Maddie can study at desks and practice their typing on the family computer. He hopes to finish the room soon so that I can help them improve their English in the new space. Until then, I gather the kids each night in the sitting room or the kitchen, where we prop up a large white board and I write for them spelling words and notes about contractions and apostrophes. Maddie usually can’t focus for the life of her; Kwame is an annoying know-it-all; Franklin thinks so hard with a furrowed brow. Oh, they try-o.
They are all their father works for. Frederick has filled nearly forty acres of rented land with rows and rows of rubber trees (a fraction of which are now mature, but in time they will pay). Every rubber tree he has planted has been with those kids in mind. He houses his neglectful father, he welcomes strangers, he funds his extended family, he lends to his workers, he has made someone of himself and so many other people have benefited. At the core of it all, it’s his kids that Frederick works for; their future trumps all.
And I mean that: all. As much as he cares for his children, he sees little of them, working early mornings and late evenings for the rubber that will someday send them to University. No, Frederick is not perfect. He is hypocritical and often impatient, jaded by his past and tired of his present. He toots his own horn even as he proclaims his own reticent humility. He rails against those who “enjoy too much”—women who buy clothes and men who give gifts to their girlfriends (and drinkers are the worst of all). He asks “but what is money?” and says that there’s plenty more to life, and yet at the heart of every conversation are cedis and pesewas. He thinks about “one day, one day, one day” without considering today, and the life and family he’s missing out on in the here and now.
“To be a man-o,” Frederick has sweat and saved and farmed and fathered. He has been disadvantaged and used, but now he’s got homemade bread every morning, a humbly growing home, a beautiful, hardworking wife, and three bright children. Yet his life is strangled by his lonely fight for a better future— a fight that need not be lonely if he took a step back and realized he’s got wonderful company, a future that is constantly another acre of rubber trees, another month’s pay away,
I know my perspective taints this story. I am a twenty-two year old American female and college graduate. I am the daughter of two hardworking, divorced parents and the sister of three of my own siblings. I hear in Frederick’s rants an exhausted Dad. I wonder what Beth and my own mom would talk about if they could bake bread together. I see in Franklin, Kwame, and Maddie my own brothers and sister. I am an outsider standing by in a world that rings bells deep inside.
Maybe that’s why I want happiness so damn badly for this family. Not just later, I want it for them now. I want Frederick’s children to hear his terrific laugh; I want Beth to feel supported in her business; I want Franklin to take a break from kneading to play football with a friend.
Yes, I believe Frederick’s rubber will brighten his family’s future. But I also believe it’s taking from them their present. A creeping loneliness seems to lace this house even as it expands. Please let the years to come be bright enough to fill these new rooms with light, with laughter.
It’s not easy-o. It’s not easy.