You know when Snapchat makes you remember every memory that you’ve ever stored on the app? A no longer existing relationship, an issue that weighed heavy on your heart a year ago but is no longer a problem, friendships that have faded, way too many singing videos? My Snapchat memories are full of all that, too. But flashbacks of food that I once cooked made me cringe the most — like when I made West African jollof for the first time in 2016. First mistake — I used a general recipe opposed to a Ghanaian one, outright dishonoring my ancestors before I even turned the stove on!
While the flavors were all there, so was an excessive amount of oil — probably enough to fry up some ripe plantains if I wished to. And let’s not even talk about how much time I spent slicing and dicing vegetables that I never even saw in most jollof once I actually got to Ghana...
Studying abroad in Ghana in 2018 for four months was, without a shadow of doubt, the best decision that I’ve ever made culture and travel-wise. Most of my most cherished moments were made over ice cold water sachets in a hot dorm room with people I plan to keep around for eternity. The memories that I treasure most are missed by people who never get to see how a Ghanaian woman kissed by moonlight can so effortlessly carry a bucket full of contents on her head. Or those who look down at their phone while the young man at the coconut stand chops the large drupe for them, opposed to watching him reenact Fruit Ninja in real life right before their eyes.
One of my few challenges very early on around Legon was learning where to get jollof, waakye, and fruit that I enjoyed the most; there were so many options and everybody thought that their stand was best!
I quickly learned the perfect time to be outside of my international dorm every weekday if I wanted fresh bofrot before Bofrot Lady sold out. I would wait patiently as the person in front of me ordered half a dozen or more Ghanaian doughnuts, causing me to internally panic; there was no way I woke up 30 minutes early only to hear “it’s finished.” Unlike at my favorite red red stand (which is Ghanaian black eyed peas stew), I thankfully never heard those two words from Bofrot Lady.
One morning, I was fortunate enough to watch Bofrot Lady make her highly requested breakfast food. She arrived late and moved faster than she normally did outside of my dorm, opposite of the slower pace common to the country. Her husband was there to help, handing her what she
needed before she even uttered a word. He quickly turned the doughnuts over in the oil when she had her back turned just a second too long for one batch.
Despite being a little bit behind schedule, Bofrot Lady so delicately dropped yellow-ish white heaps into a large pot of cooking oil. Every so often, she would turn the lumps around. And like a scientist with x-ray vision, she would use a large spoon with holes in it to lift the fermented dough out at just the right moment, placing the perfectly fried balls aside to further drain.
Some mornings, I would eat my bofrot in my first class. On Friday mornings when I didn’t have class, I would eat them downstairs or up in my room on the very top floor; those days always seemed to last longer — gave me more time to savor and take in.
My time in Ghana encouraged me to keep making jollof. Fast forward to 2019 and my jollof was the perfect texture, but it looked like a baby threw up blush orange grains on a plate. And it had ZERO flavor, even after I spent way too much time on the stew as I tried to get rid of the pungent taste of plum tomato.
There have been so many moments along the way that made me feel defeated because I couldn’t make proper Ghanaian jollof. Or laugh with Ghanaians who joked in Twi. Or make fufu that didn’t taste like a starchy disaster.
But when I could laugh with friends in Ghanaian English or bargain for a tee-shirt in an art market like a local or make batches of fried plantains that tasted just like my favorite in Accra, it hit me that it’s not just jollof. While the end goal is a bomb pot of rice, the in-between moments are what most make a person who they are. What make ME. Do I give up at the first sign of difficulty or do I power through? Do I see every unsuccessful batch of jollof — or opportunity in life that I go after — as a step holding me back or one that propels me even closer to my purpose? The greatest reward is not what I get in the end but what I gain along the way.
The Twi-speaking schoolgirls who I taught English in Ghanaian grasses would grumble in frustration when they could not comprehend a lesson that I created. But they would always pick their pencil right back up. The children playing soccer would not stop kicking the ball, no matter the number of times that it would land in the street and not inside of their make-shift goal. I never stopped practicing on my own head, giving myself box braids for the first time in October of 2019.
Africa and North America are separated by the Atlantic Ocean, but the lessons that I have carried back from the Motherland are closer than I could ever articulate. Moving to North Carolina from Connecticut in 2013 presented norms that I had to get adjusted to, like public transportation not
being available in small towns and experiencing four seasons in a single day. After studying abroad in Ghana in 2018, I became alright with lectures not starting right on time while my peers at my home university would sigh in frustration and leave the classroom if professors did not show up within 10 minutes. I left Ghana with the ability to not let a downpour damper my entire day. FORREAL — I was drenched mid-day one time while in Ghana. When it happened back on my home university’s campus, I literally laughed it off once I got to my dorm room and just changed into dry clothes. I learned which country’s plantains not to buy because I’m not a huge fan of frying green ones.
It is 2020 and I made a batch of Ghanaian jollof in January. It’s no longer too greasy, too dry, or lacking flavor. I made the mistake of cooking with palm oil in January, but I did not judge myself like Gordon Ramsay would because I recognize that progress is progress — even if it’s slow. Baby steps are still steps.
And isn’t that partially what life is all about? If you are “only” 50% done with your bachelor’s or master’s degree, can finally afford a passport but not a vacation right now, finished a book after one year of picking it up and putting it down because life happens, or anything else, you should stand on your truth and be proud! Clap for yourself. And do not downplay your milestones when others celebrate them with you. An old church saying goes, “I’m not where I want to be, but thank God that I’m not where I used to be!” I stand by that wholeheartedly.
I most recently made two more pots of jollof; the one in May was PERFECT and the one in July... Well... It was delicious, but I forgot to rinse the rice beforehand and that ruined its texture! (Rice rookie move, I know.) At any rate, though, even the most impeccable chef has messed up more than once. I am still working on being content with not knowing exactly what God has ahead for me a couple years down the line, let alone tomorrow. I can say — in peace and with faith — that seasons dedicated to resting and creating are just as important as those where the whole world gets a front row seat to the exciting parts of my life. In fact, dare I say, more important. I am still growing, even when only me and a select few see the wings first forming on the inside of my body. I am still learning, even now, when I decide that going back to school — at least in the foreseeable future — would be counterproductive to all of the progress that I have made so far. I am still living — even from my bedroom in my parents’ home instead of on an African beach, giving a business pitch in Colombia, or eating rice and peas in Brixton, England.
Oil may burn your fingers and arms when you are still perfecting a recipe, but the scars that they may leave do not have to be where your story ends. And sometimes loving yourself means stepping completely away from the pan before you’ve even perfected the recipe, realizing that what you are striving for hurts you more than the grease does. Drawing back is sometimes
necessary, even when you have a line of hungry consumers demanding more of you than you could ever offer.
Reaching this mindset has not been an overnight process. And some days, I feel previous seasons wanting to sabotage this current one and my future promises. But I strike those thoughts down with the resolve of a sharp machete making its way through a mature coconut, tasting the sweetness in forward. My purpose boils like a pot of beans threatening to spill over, a feast that me and many generations to come will bear the rewards of. There are layers of me that still need to be peeled back and stripped away, but there are also so many more parts of me just waiting to be uncovered and utilized.
There were a couple of times when I bit down into Bofrot Lady’s work of art and found the center to be a bit too sour or thick for my personal liking. I am still learning in more ways than one how something (and someone) can be perfected but not perfect at the same time.
A Ghanaian genius — with a million Michelin stars in my mind — has made a few batches that fell short. And yet, she still holds a community together with just her hands and transportable kitchen. So why can’t I also miss the mark every now and then?
I’ve learned that with the right people cheering you on from the bleachers of life, you can see yourself as unstoppable as they and God do.
I no longer look at my Snapchat flashbacks as memories to be ashamed of. After all, how could I ever despise the very flames that helped glaze me?