NTOABOMA—“Kesi” means big. If your cottage was situated about a mile or two away from Ntoaboma proper—midtown—then you lived a mile or two away from Ntoaboma Kesi. In everyday parlance, the “Kesi” was often dropped for the simple convenience; Ntoaboma is a strong many syllabled name enough. One would usually say, “I live about two miles from Ntoaboma”—not Ntoaboma Kesi. In fact, this was one of the marks of a native Ntoaboman. The easiest way to tell a stranger in Ntoaboma is when he speaks of Ntoaboma Kesi.
Around midtown, satellite cottages abound. These are extended family homes and are uniquely named. This convention applied automatically to the street that led to the family house. If a house was called Kwemor Ohie Flenflen (Look At Your Silly Face) the street immediately leading up to it was also called Kwemor Ohie Flenflen Street. Cottage names in Ntoaboma can be exceedingly descriptive—sometimes they are chosen to amuse the casual passer-by.
Within the cottage, the kitchen was the central block. This architecture had its anatomical inspiration written all over it. In there, one condiment reigned supreme—salt! For hundreds of years Ntoaboma men and women exchanged special foodstuffs like yams for salt from Ada since the reign of Nene Adjomani I (the famed protector of the Songhor). The salt Ada produced traversed the West African region, if not the entire continent. Those days, you ate some salt from Ada or you were at risk for catching an embarrassing disease – goiter. More, a modicum of Ada salt stood at the center of a mouthwatering diet in Ntoaboma. The famous Ntoaboma tilapia from the Amu River—what the more educated than his Ancestors (the Metha) call the Volta—cannot taste the same without salt from Ada. For this reason alone, the Songhor Lagoon occupied a special part of the appetite of Ntoaboma men.
Even those within Ntoaboma’s reach who couldn’t afford Ada’s salt directly, bought koobi (salted fish) from our illustrious pulchritudinous market women in exchange for several other goods. So massive was the salt trade route through Ntoaboma that one of the ancient chiefs in Ntoaboma, Nana Kokro Kablima I swore to Nene Adjomani I to advance all his seven hundred strong battalion of seasoned Ntoaboma men at the sound of war drums in protection of the Songhor Lagoon. That treaty lasted for centuries before 1895—but that is another story!
Growing up in Ntoaboma the freshness and piquancy of the salt from Ada was still felt in Ntoaboma and all its surrounding economies. My grandparents kept a salt jar (djegoe) in which a couple of dried peppers rested entirely aloof on settled rocks of salt. There is perhaps a Voodoo religious explanation for this configuration of salt and pepper, but I am completely blank to its wisdom, having been exorcised several times a day, every single year, in my upbringing by the heaven-seeking Metha, the Mission School teachers, who were responsible for forming the minds and hearts of the next generation of Ntoaboma.
But as much as I can remember, there was not a single gari-soakings—a meal of gari soaked in a carefully salted cool earthenware-pot water with a douche of cow milk—without the ritual opening of the djegoe. Every afternoon after my mission school indoctrination, the djegoe was consulted without fail. Only the adults at home understood exactly how much salt a meal needed. The self-discipline with which the djegoe was carried was unparalleled. As a child, you had the privilege to climb the stool and retrieve the djegoe above a shelf neatly kept out of your reach—no way you touched the djegoe without permission. This was law.
However, since the mission men arrived in Ntoaboma the culture and the economics around salt changed. It’s terrifying what the “mission” of three men from across the oceans (Ayevu) carrying the image of a bear-chested ghost nailed to a cross can do to century’s old trade on a condiment like salt in Ntoaboma. What they brought to Ntoaboma was not just a cross. What they brought was not new, but a refined piece of what has always been known but discarded. Granulated sugar! The culture of sweets will come to replace the piquant culture of Ntoaboma. It is rumored that it is with this sugar that the three Ayevu (cunning dogs) managed to trick the most notorious chief of Ntoaboma, like a father would trick a baby in pilolo, to permanently lease the grounds for the construction of the first Presby Church in town. Such was the beginning of the power that a beguiling granulated sugar will come to wield in Ntoaboma.
Although the djegoe still commanded its place in many old kitchens, much of the new Ntoaboma that sprung up in midtown replaced the djegoe with a tiny shakable can of granulated sugar carefully placed within any baby’s grasp, and which shared the same space with a tiny jar of loose granulated shakable salt. The rocks of salt are no longer anywhere found. In most newly constructed homes for new-weds in Ntoaboma the preeminence of Ada’s salt is usurped by the sweeter tasting and finely granulated sweeter condiment. In fact, my own grandmother’s Akpeteshie (rum) business, which relied entirely on sugarcane molasses suffered as sugarcane planters sought more attractive prices from sugar making buyers.
The history of sugar in Ntoaboma is this straightforward. Certainly before granulated sugar, salt and honey were common—and cheaper bottles of Akpeteshie too. But granulated sugar, and its covariate forms like cubed sugar, ice cream, Fanta and Coke, have certainly become more than major additions. They have become replacements. Sugar has replaced salt in all gari-soakings. It has replaced salt in kooko (porridge); even porridge for babies. Nowadays, in Ntoaboma, a new born might frown at the mother, with vehement resolve, if the kooko is without a copious dose of granulated sugar. The power of granulated sugar even over babies is a fascinating phenomenon to behold.
This Christmas in Ntoaboma the communal grounds situated in midtown are home to a nice store—an ice cream store—owned by a childhood friend. Certainly he is managing the new ice cream trade route through Ntoaboma to every other tiny village. He owns a new van with an air-raiding siren that proceeds 10 miles before it. As I stared out from my grandfather’s old minivan, which I’m struggling to fix, I saw several Ntoaboma men emanating from the store, dedicated to licking a cone of ice cream out of existence, masticating the remaining containing cone with triumphant joy while still licking their lips for remnants. The sight of the happiness of long-sleeved muscular men lodged within the tiny solitary confinement of an ice cream cone was frightening.
I realized too that the children with these men acted a tad bit different from the kids who still lived with the old traditions of Ntoaboma one or two miles away—in Ntoaboma’s satellite communities. When I inquired why the children were also so enamored by their ice cream cones I was informed quite harshly that these children didn’t want kaklo (agbeli kaklo or any other kaklo for that matter); they didn’t want dzowe; or even tatale—none of the notable local delicacies. No. At all! The children, having been raised in good Christian homes, wanted nothing else but ice cream, Fanta and Coke to go with their Jollof rice and deep fried chicken thighs.
In fact, many cottage Ntoaboma men have actually revived the name Ntoaboma Kesi to culturally and politically situate this part of town, now harboring remarkable men and their children, separate from the rest of the Ntoaboma. It is fascinating that of all the things that could bring about the social stratification and gentrification of Ntoaboma in just a century, it is a condiment like sugar—not a V8 Land Cruiser, not a private jet, not a government post—which having replaced the many century’s old salt, is fast becoming the very mark of “civilization” itself. The sight of ice-cream-eating-men-of-Ntoaboma-Kesi (icemonks) would have shocked my great grandparents were they alive today, but here these men straddle along just fine, around the sacred center of Ntoaboma’s city square, minding their own business. It seems a historical aberration. There’s something emasculating and surreal about icemonks munching on ice cream cones and walking the once famed streets of Nana Kokro Kablima’s koobi eating thoroughbred battalions.
Plus, these days a native cannot navigate midtown without some trouble. The street names now remind you more of Accra than Ntoaboma. On Christmas day I arrived at my cousin’s home in Ntoaboma Kesi (for I have come to accept the cultural and political delineation explicitly). A huge deep freezer occupies a prominent corner of the living room. On this very hot day, I was in need of an earthenware-pot-cooled water, but I was instead directed to the freezer to fetch some ice. The deep-freezer (made in China) was replete with ice creams upon ice creams, and of course Coke and Fanta. “You too?” I nearly exclaimed. Sugar is a powerful drug, or so it seemed, since it has encroached upon the minds and hearts of the very best—and the very close—at the expense of the djegoe and its commanding lessons of self-discipline.
I got my ice from the freezer alright, and it cooled my water just fine. But the artificial taste of the water was thirst-hypnotizing, unlike the thirst-quenching and refreshing taste of Ntoaboma waters, or Ntoaboma rain waters, gathered for days within the earthenware pots of Ntoaboma brand pottery. This iced-water lacked taste, it was as if the very life of water had been petered out and what was left was the mere atoms frozen in place. How can anyone live like this?
But then again the icemonks in Ntoaboma Kesi including my dearest cousin have accepted with the coming of sugar to Ntoaboma, not just the ice cream as a delicacy—they have accepted everything else associated with preserving sugar beverages. Surely the freezer must come with the ice cream. Unavoidably, this freezer is also used to freeze our fine Ntoaboma tilapia—fishing out as many tilapia has become common. The new thinking is without the equal restraint of yesteryear. Tilapia is probably better fished, salted and dried as needed. The new thinking is that more is better. Certainly, now in Ntoaboma, even yams are frozen for years, growing as many as possible on as much land as possible without self-control. Obviously, in an increasingly over-refrigerated world even the last paramount chief who died of diabetic complications was frozen for over a year so an unnecessary expensive and elaborate funeral can be planned for him, before he was buried frozen stiff! Like the Metha, the icemonk is chockfull of these insanities.
What the icemonks have essentially achieved with their sugar replacing salt appetites in Ntoaboma is not exactly clear. But what they have destroyed abound in Ntoaboma Kesi alone for all to see. One can only imagine the decadence brewing inside other such communities as a result of the singular desires of such independent men. These icemonks have changed Ntoaboma; they have changed what the freshness and piquancy of salt was to preventing goiter and preserving fish, and have chosen rather what the sweetness of sugar is for causing diabetes and wasting energy for freezing ice cream. Granulated sugar has taken over Ntoaboma in much the same manner as bags full of extra-fine “Colombian sugar” have taken over America’s New England youth.
Like the Metha, the icemonks have created an unnecessary dilemma in Ntoaboma to which they must now proceed to find a solution. Will that solution entail a fetching from the past or will it continue its maddening march forward with more insanities, expecting what cannot change to change without changing the base desires of men—those men who perceive happiness from the solitary attraction of an ice cream cone?