So, after another drug-induced night of sleep, courtesy of Big Pharma, I’m once again sitting in the restaurant of the Guest Quarters at the University of Ghana. My choices for breakfast are decidedly simple and simultaneously stress-inducing for a Westerner who, more often than not, has a panoply of choices for something as basic as a toothbrush, let alone breakfast. Here, you can have eggs or eggs: fried, scrambled or, perhaps, boiled; bread – brown or white. This is included in the nightly rate of $55.00 U.S per night (How soon before we start quoting rates in the Chinese yuan?), but for an extra two cedis I can have oatmeal porridge. Today I decide on scrambled eggs – done really nicely. Ghanaian cooks are reputed to be prized around West Africa, and yesterday’s lunch certainly confirmed that reputation – fried cassava fish with joloff rice and fried plantains all done to perfection.
But back to breakfast and drugs. My morning drug of choice is coffee, which is in no way intended to make light of addiction, but simply to underscore how deeply habituated I am to coffee, which is addictive, and how ritualised my behaviour around my consumption of it has become. Often I find myself thinking about, and looking forward to, my morning cup of coffee the night before! In an effort to assuage my Western guilt I only buy fair-trade, organic, shade- grown coffee, thereby by killing two metaphorical birds of the environment and exploitative labour practices with one cup of coffee. I even roast my own beans and have even – dare I confess? – attended coffee school – yes, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa, coffee school – run by a coffee proprietorship in Toronto whose practices ensure that coffee growers receive a fair price for their beans. So, I’ve learnt about roasting and I’ve learnt about grinding; I’ve learnt about Ethiopia (some say it’s Oromia) being the place where coffee was first brewed, and I’ve learnt that there are over 800 different flavours in coffee, which far exceeds those found in wine. But I didn’t learn that traditionally coffee drinking is a communal activity; that you would roast the beans along with cardomum and cloves; that you would also burn incense which you would pass around alongside the pan of roasted and now smoking coffee beans (for many people in traditional coffee cultures, simply inhaling the aromatic smoke from the roasting beans is enough) to the accompaniment of women ululating. Nor did I learn at coffee school that coffee is a ritual food used to honour and worship Waaq, the pre-Abrahamic, indigenous divinity of the Oromo people of Oromia (presently located inside Ethiopia), and that Waaq’s symbolic colour is black (like the roasted beans), as is the colour of the holy and sacred (within Oromo culture, that is), as well as the colour of spirit and soul. That the smoke from the roasted beans drifts upwards to Waaq, whose abode is the sky – this I did not learn. I did learn, though, that the price of coffee is determined in New York and that if the buyers of coffee would only pay a fraction more to the growers in Africa and around the world – something like 5 cents a kilo – they would be better able to feed their families and build schools for their children. Hence fair-trade organic. The growers have a fighting chance that way, and I can feel a bit less guilty about my habit. I think.
Imagine, then, how my heart sunk on observing that my morning drink – my first, and often only, hit of the day will be coffee courtesy of Nescafé of Nestlé fame. The same company implicated in the baby milk scandal of the 70′s in Africa. Nestlé, at that time, encouraged mothers to stop breastfeeding so that they would turn to Nestlé powdered milk to feed their babies. There was only one small drawback– mothers often didn’t have the money to continue to buy the milk after the first promotional offers, or didn’t have access to potable water to mix the milk, or both. Result? their babies became malnourished and died. In English and French the Nescafé tin assures me that it is “Classic Pure Instant Coffee.” The tin is chockablock with information about coffee breaks and stimulants and the importance of anti-oxidants which apparently abound in coffee. The image of a beautiful, young, African woman complete with – you guessed – café-au-lait skin and braided hair drinking a cup of coffee completes the branded image. A website address will provide you with more information on the benefits of coffee, if you so need, and several West African countries are listed with contact phone numbers. The print is fine and there is a lot of it, so it would have been very easy to miss that Nestlé, the parent company, has been around since 1866. I do the calculations – some twenty-eight years after the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade and eight years before the abolition of slavery and trading in slaves in Ghana itself!
This is all about trade, isn’t it? It has always been about trade.
This is not my first time drinking instant coffee courtesy of Nescafé. Indeed, combined with evaporated milk, which is how it’s drunk in the Caribbean as well, it has its own charms, but the Nestlé baby milk scandal (and ensuing boycott) throws a long shadow here in Ghana, since it is so illustrative of how the world, and in particular the corporate world, continues to exploit Africa and Africans. The dumping of toxic waste in certain African harbours comes to mind, not to mention the illegal scouring of the sea beds along the coast line of Africa by international trawlers resulting in a paucity of fish for the local populations, in turn resulting in young men turning to piracy etc., etc., etc.
I look at the brown granules so reminiscent of animal turds (No Waaq here) and think of the long process – let’s call it the three E’s – exploitative, exhaustive and extractive — that brings this product of Africa back to Africa. Like myself. Different colour. Different quality. Different taste. Processed. As much by the three E’s as this coffee I now pour hot water on and stir. But when I roast my beans, watch them turn from green to brown to black and inhale the smoke, perhaps I take a little bit of Waaq, a little bit of soul, a bit of the sacred back into myself. As I grind the oh-so-black beans, I am aware of how we, New World Africans, were ground fine between the grindstones of history, and as I drink the black and not- at-all-bitter (if made properly) brew, perhaps I become a part of Waaq – for that moment – hopeful that my gesture of caring for someone whom I know not at all, in Africa, South America, or Jamaica – wherever trade attempts to erase the human – does matter. It is unfortunate that the caring can only be expressed through trade – through paying a bit more for coffee, but it is what we have at present, and I want to believe that Waaq knows and sees all.
My god, all this before my first cup of coffee.