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?

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My name is Narmer Amenuti (Dances With Lions). I am an Educationalist, an Investigative Historian and a Culture Critic from the Sankoré School (of Critical Theory). I am East African by birth; South African by training; West African by choice - all of which make me, African by nature. I am also a student of Ancient African Rhythms and a passionate dilettante of Science. ~ Success Corrupts; Usefulness Exalts! ~ Narmer!

8 COMMENTS

  1. Good to comment on the possible harm of certain habits that we acquire from babyhood and in later life fail to give enough thought to until it is too late. We humans get so easily sort of addicted to so many things.

  2. How else would one approach a subject like “modernity” and its vicissitudes with humor? How else would one critique a fast changing culture and caution a pumping of breaks of a fast moving vehicle of globalization without wagging the finger? Sometimes such topics are best tackled from a personal story with a jovial flavouring. Narmer Amenuti delivers a compelling essay about sugar and its invasion of Ntoaboma as metaphor for explaining away some of the blindly generated problems of a fast-paced drive for globalization.

    This is a lively essay about the butterfly effect of the entry of granulated sugar in Ntoaboma, about what dietary changes it wrought on the culture of food, and the concomitant problems – health and social – that ensued from its tricky introduction. But the more I write, I spoil it.
    Enjoy!

  3. Sugar has the same effect on the brain as opioids. The same system manipulated by drugs like heroin and morphine. This is why highly processed, sugar-laden foods can make (some) people lose control over their consumption. They hijack the same brain pathways as drugs of abuse which release dopamine into the blood. Salt isn’t great either. Which is why I think this essay is a well balanced piece. In that, both sugar and salt have historically been added to food to taste.

    Salt has had a better record, in addition to supporting the obscure places in our palates, it’s also an extremely valuable ingredient for preserving food – it is a better preservative than ice and many other methods. Sugar has not been treated with the same discipline. Perhaps because it’s a stronger more potent drug. And we tend to eat it now in much more quantities than it should be intended for. Definitely the same discipline we accord the use of salt should come in handy with handling sugar. But both are exceedingly dangerous when taken, especially continuously, in larger and larger quantities.

  4. You are correct Solomon Azumah-Gomez. Too much salt is bad. But on the bases of Ada’s naturally iodined salt one can argue that it is essential. Of course the nutritional consensus is that children shouldn’t consume any more than 2g a day and adults, no more than 6g a day.

    Sugar, on the other hand, has very little place in a person’s diet – it has literally no use. No recommendation is worth the paper it’s written on. More, we treat sugar as if it’s a necessary ingredient. As if it must be in your kooko, or tea, or porridge, when it shouldn’t.

    So yes, I think salt is causing some trouble as well, although I think it has reared its ugly head in our culture more recently because of the attitude with which we have approached it. The self-discipline with which the older generations used salt is no longer respected. That discipline has been replaced with a liberal attitude thanks to the culture of Sugar Consumption. If one can consume a copious amount of one, then surely one can consume huge amounts of the other. Right?

  5. Certainly sugar is more a problem now than salt is – even with the cardiovascular diseases of salt over-intake the jury is still out. I do not want to lead the argument into a debate about salt and sugar and which one is worse. That will be counter-intuitive to the import of your essay actually. You make an important point. The acquired appetite and addiction for sugar has come with many other “habits,” not all “good” as the modernists would like us to believe. More is not better! And perhaps salt was a better preservative than a deep-freezer that housed several other disease causing agents like ice cream. The metaphor of ice cream eating men taking over Ntoaboma is seriously placed although I believe that some ice cream deserves me, in particular. All to say that this essay is timeless.

  6. Yes this essay is timeless. I say so because it has spelt out thê dangers that can occur if one continues to Indulge in too much consumption of sugar and salt in diet.

  7. Emma Ama Gladzah, I have cut my sugar intake. Because of Narmer, I can’t quite look at sugar and salt the same way. But on a larger note the lesson in this essay can be expanded. Sugar represents the symbolism of our departure from tradition, nationhood and self-discipline, which salt, largely coming from Ada represented in the nations discourse – at least for ethnicities within the expanse of the Gold Coast terrain. Sugar meant do whatever you like at any cost, to your community (the sugar was being imported, unlike the salt) and even to yourself (the healthcare choice). I think the essay has raised an important issue about the symbolism of sugar and salt with respect to colonial terrorist occupation. A fine thesis!

  8. Dade Afre Akufu, it is remarkable that I am yet to read a thesis on Africa’s condiment trade (Salt-Sugar Trade) in the same proportion as the Spice Trade has been correctly examined. Absolutely, this topic is useful, especially in the sense that it coincides with an unpalatable period in Africa’s colonial history. The more we know about it, the deeper we can understand some of the “pale” periods in our history. If you find information, be kind to share.

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