Nostalgic Paradise

By Emilie Opoku
May 2, 2023

You can take the woman out of Ghana but you can’t take Ghana out of the woman. With God’s will, she’ll find a way to remain her authentic self.

Fresh meat pies sit on the counter, African face masks hang against the walls, lavish beaded jewelry put on display, and the sound of Ghanaian music echoes across the room. The Afribbean market is my mother’s favorite shop for one reason alone: it’s where her dreams begin. I follow her around the store as she starts throwing typical items into the cart – cocoyams, plantain, fufu mix, goat meat, and kobe fish.

At least twice a month, my mother and I go on scavenger hunts. We’ve done this for as long as I’ve been able to walk, and this time is no different than the last.

My mother is notorious for taking hours upon hours to complete simple errands. Time is simply an obscure construct to her – if you’re willing to step out with my mother, you might as well clear your schedule for the entire day. There’s no way to quantify how long the excursion is going to take. She takes as much time as she pleases, collecting everything she needs to return her home. I often find myself riddled with impatience for my mother’s ridiculous shopping habits. But if you ask her, it’s an exhilarating adventure.

While we’re at the market, Serwah’s mind leaves the present and sneaks into a realm of familiarity, into a nostalgic paradise. I’m holding the basket for my mother as she gallivants about the room. She pauses our shopping to make conversation with an old friend from our small community. I shake my head in annoyance. We’ll definitely be here for a minute. They start speaking in Twi, catching up on the usual.

“What are you doing here?”

“How are your kids?”

“When are you going back to Ghana?”

This woman is chatting as if we don’t have a mile long list of groceries.

Joyce Serwah Opoku is the epitome of a Ghanaian woman. My mother grew up along the streets of Ejisu. While she never had much to begin with, her mind has always been one of the most valuable assets known to man. This woman will change for no one. I’ve never seen my mother do an American thing in my life. Eating every meal with her hands is the only way of life my mother knows. She walks to the beat of her own drum. When it comes down to what matters the most in this lifetime, Serwah Opoku has always known that she can only rely on her intuitions to carry through.

A wave of relief washes over me when I hear the conversation end.

“Bye bye yooo.” Like, we came here for a purpose. Girl, stay focused.

We walk over to the produce stand. Serwah notices how the price per pound of yams went up. She calls for Mr. Jacob, the owner and  a dear family friend. They start bargaining back and forth in Twi. As they speak, I try to keep up but I’m not quick at translating. My mother gets her way eventually. I take that as a cue to make my way over to the register, because we do have other places to be. Serwah snaps out of her blissful state, and finally realizes it’s time to move elsewhere.

Next, we head down to the 99 Ranch Market. The smell of fresh seafood swarms around us as I witness my mother dipping back into a state of nostalgia. Here we go again.

Serwah strolls over to the counter. She picks out a couple tilapia and asks for the fish to be cleaned properly. We continue to shop around until the fish is ready for pick-up. 

My mother loves frying fish. It’s one of her specialties. I remember afternoons of sizzling oil hitting the pan. She raves about how she used to sit outside back home, just frying fish. There were always polarizing forces trying to block Serwah’s inner peace. The stress of living paycheck to paycheck and taking a second job to make ends meet had nearly sucked the life out of her. Frying fish offered a moment of tranquility amongst all that noise.

Surrounded by a world of intangible realities, my mother wasn’t about to let the typical American diet be imposed upon her. It was already hard enough that she wasn’t able to attain higher education, so she had to settle for working in retail. Once she became a mother, all her other aspirations fell astray. It was more important to Serwah that her children make something of themselves. She refused to compromise whatever parts of herself she had left for a burger, french fries, hot dogs – any processed food, for that matter. So long as she had God on her side, Serwah could create her own Ghana in America.

This is my mother’s sole mission. By sticking to her traditional patterns she is able to transverse from the intangible into a realm of familiarity — a place providing her safety despite appearing foreign to the white American eye, whose gaze looks at her and tells her to abandon Ghana, to abandon her home, to abandon herself.   

Even though I find the smell of seafood nauseating, I don’t mind the place because it gives my mother a dose of serotonin. As they bring out the fish, she smiles wide with her gap teeth. We pay and depart for the India Bazaar—truly a cross-cultural adventure for us today. This place holds a rich essence, similar to that of the Afribbean Market; both of them lack any aspect of whiteness. We listen to Bollywood music play over the speakers while looking for the tea my mother cannot live without.

Every night before my mother left for work, she had me prepare piping hot tea. It was a soothing force, as she would come back in the morning to get ready for her second job. All I wanted to do was make sure Serwah was taken care of, because she’s constantly taking care of everyone else. So long as she carried that tea with her, she would keep pushing through our everyday struggle. It wasn’t anything fancy but two tea bags, mixed with evaporated milk and a splash of honey. She’s been able to conquer homesickness, depression, and worst of all, grief after the passing of her mother & father. My mother is like Superwoman to me, but even superheroes get exhausted sometimes. The heat of the tea forged a strong fire within Serwah’s heart, and I am in awe of how determined she is to keep that fire lit.

Then we step right into Fiesta. Serwah meticulously picks out dozens upon dozens of habanero peppers. A random woman watches as my mother grabs handfuls of peppers.

“What are you planning to do with all of that?” The woman asks.

My mother blankly replies, “Oh, nothing.”

I give a slight chuckle. A woman of my mother’s magnitude prides herself on never revealing secrets. These precious, powerful peppers are sacred to her for their richness in color, flavor, and quality of life.

When I had COVID-19 last year, Serwah had crafted the perfect pepper soup to help me get better. I was taking my medications, of course, but nothing hit the spot like my mother’s home remedy. That soup opened up my airways and cleansed my aura. She finishes bagging up her peppers and heads over to the produce aisle for banana leaves.

“Why are we getting these again?” I ask.

She replies, “Heh, I need it for my banku.”

Personally, I’m not a fan of it, but banku is a traditional dish made of cassava flour. I used to watch Serwah spend hours in the kitchen making it. She used her hands — calloused from working day in and day out — to knead the dough. Then she would divide the dough into smaller sections, and use those dark green banana leaves to wrap it up.

In the end, venturing across town for an entire day is somewhat worth the chase, though I wish she could put a little bit more pep in her step. We visit a couple more places before we finally make it home. The backs of my feet are aching immensely. I’m worn out. I look over to my mother and roll my eyes as she grins from ear to ear. The scavenger hunt fuels my mother’s desire to continue living in a country that felt foreign to her. It gives her the powerful feeling of familiarity, harnessing and protecting her cultural identity as a Ghanaian immigrant living in America. She bargains for goods, has routine conversations in Twi, and makes sure to pick up things of pertinence to her everyday life.

Serwah isn’t fazed at all as she lays down on the couch and says to herself , “ye da Awurade ase. ɛnnɛ ya yɛ adeɛ.”

We thank God. We’ve done well today
. ■

Layout: Ainsley Pleko
Photographer: Tyson Humbert
Stylists: Sonia Siddiqui & Avani Sunkireddy
HMUA: Mariela Mendoza & Deborah Oyawe
Models: Kelsey Nyandusi & Estelle Isaac

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