Being Ghanaian, Part 1: Fufu

4 June 2012 - Bree

Although this blog post’s title would certainly suggest that more parts are to follow, I’m not sure that any will be as important and relevant to being Ghanaian as making fufu. Fufu is a staple of the Ghanaian diet, cheap and versatile.* It is made by boiling yams or cassava, and then pounding the result into a doughy ball. Sometimes plantains are added for a different consistency and, I’m sure, taste.

This is Hiki (Short for Hikma and pronounced Eeky). Hiki She’s never been away from Tamale, but likes the idea of travel. She also thinks being away from friends and family would be difficult, and has declared it her duty to never let someone from a foreign country feel unwelcome or alone. A while back, she invited me to her house to make fufu with light soup. And today, I will pass that knowledge onto you.

To make this dish, you will need




Hot Peppers

Spices like salt, pepper, and a Maggie boullion

White eggplant, which will be called garden egg

And dried fish sold on the side of the road, bones included


First and foremost, it’s important to understand what a yam is. It’s not what is sometimes referred to as a sweet potato, nor is it orange. It’s white, and, in Ghana, it’s huge. The two yams we used were about 2 pounds each and realistically would make enough fufu for 6-8 people. However, since I would guess fufu-making burns about as many calories as the combined total of all the days you’ve spent at the gym this week, and will take you all morning to make; forcing you to skip breakfast because it’s not like you can just grab a scone and a latte on your way into town, 4 pounds of yam will actually just be for you and a friend.

To begin, make a fire. Do this outside.FireWhile the coals are heating, peel the yams. First, chop the ends off, and then, in a downward motion, start peeling.  This should feel like hacking the bark off a tree. If it doesn’t, your knife is too sharp. Try a butter knife instead.

Chopping Ends Off the Yam Peeling the Yam

Next, chop the yams into cubes, put them into a large pot, and set them over the fire.

Chopping YamYams Over Fire

While the yams are boiling, cut the garden eggs, tomatoes, onions and peppers into halves or quarters. Boil them as well. Once soft, these ingredients should be ground into a fine paste. This can be achieved either with a blender or a rock.

smooshing the veggies


tomato mixture

Strain the resulting mixture back into a pot using about 4 cups of water. In other words, no chunks, seeds or peels should end up in your soup. My theory is that without such excess, there will be more room for fish bones, which will be added later. Additionally, add tomato paste, salt/pepper and Maggie boullion cubes.


Then bring the soup to a boil.

Boiling soup

By now, your yams should have cooked fully. Remove them from the heat and strain the water. Let them cool a bit while you prepare your giant mortar and pestle by rinsing the dirt out. Then start adding the yams, a few at a time, and begin pounding. The intensity with which you should be doing this might be compared to driving a stake into the ground with the sole intent of reaching China.

Adding the yams

with intensity

Ideally, you will have a partner for this activity; one of you will pound the yams while the other adds water and turns the mixture over. Try to get a nice rhythm going; watch the fingers.

fufu pound

As you are pounding the yams, they will go through several transformations on the road to becoming fufu. In the beginning, your yams will be dry.

fufu start


Pound them until you feel them becoming too dry and too sticky, then add a bit of water. Then add more yams. Keep doing this until you have a 2 pound ball of yam, for roughly 1 hour. Then do this again for your friend’s portion.


softer still

getting there

closer still

nearly perfect now


Your end product should look like this. You should also be sweaty, tired and starving. If not, you have cheated in some way and are a lazy American. Throw everything out and start again.

finished fufu


As a final step in preparing this meal, you’ll want to add the dried fish to the soup, which has been at a constant rolling boil now for about 2 hours. You should try to pick the bones out of the fish, but you will have no luck in doing this.


Since the fish has already been cooked, you’ll just need to give your soup a couple of stirs and you’re ready to eat. Make yourself a large ball of fufu, then pour the soup on top.

fufu with light soup

Your meal will be incredibly hot. Eat it with your fingers, and enjoy.

*Think of fufu’s versatility in the same way you would when you think of rice; always the same, but pairs well with a variety of things. Now take that variety and cut it in half. Now make it more soupy.


In the last blog entry, I promised you guys more information on share taxis. This is by far the cheapest form of transportation in Tamale if you don’t have your own. Share taxis are the same as regular taxis, except you don’t call one or tell it where to go, you simply get in and go. If the taxi is empty, this can sometimes be confusing to the driver, who might assume you want to pay him $3 instead of $.50 to get into town. To avoid this confusion, it’s best to get into the passenger seat. And never, under any circumstances, give him your destination location. If other people are already in the taxi, you don’t have to worry about this; all taxis drive the same route and stop at the same place in town, where they will turn around and continue their journey back out of the market.

I also mentioned that our street, Jisoniyaali, is pronounced Jason-ee-ell-ee. However, I’ve been mocked and corrected for this pronunciation many times by cab drivers and passengers alike. When I figure out how to actually pronounce it, I will let you know.

The compound chickens, of which there were 5, have all died except for 2. I think they drink the sewer water. Meanwhile, the mother hen has hatched more eggs. There are 4 black chicks, one brown, and one yellow with brown speckles.

Our compound dog, Skeeto, has also since passed away. There is some speculation as to whether or not he was poisoned. Our neighbors certainly seem to think so, and as a result we now live behind a very large gate which can only be opened from the inside. Michael and I are both looking forward to coming home past Ghanaian bedtime.

The puppy, who was once called Don’t Forget Me, has gone on to a neighbors house where “he is a very good watch dog.” He has a new name: Pit Bull

As always, your comments are much appreciated. Let us know what’s new with you guys, too.

P.S. As much as I will complain about Ghanaian inefficiency and lack of food containing anything of nutritional value, fufu is definitely one of my favorite Ghanaian dishes. I have the hips to prove it.

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Our House

24 April 2012 - Bree

This is our house.

The power’s out momentarily, so the fans have stopped. They’ll usually keep the house down to around 90 F during the day. I suspect it’s about 105 F in here currently, and according to the interwebs, I’m probably not far off. There is a restaurant with air conditioning up the road, but getting there would require me to first take a share taxi to the bank and then back to the place, which is just ludicrous. More on share taxis later.

We live on a street called Jisoniyaali (Jason-ee-ell-ee). The house is in a compound with 5 other homes, one of which seems to serve more as a storage unit/barn. I’ve seen our neighbors in and out of it when they’re cooking outside, but I’ve also seen them put the chickens in there before they go to bed.
These are the compound chickens.

Most of the time that Michael and I spend at home is spent playing video games over the projector, or burning the bajeebus out of ourselves in the kitchen whilst making increasingly delicious foods. Admittedly, I do most of the burning while Michael makes most of the delicious food. The kitchen is small and the stove doesn’t have a simmer setting, so it’s a 2-person job just to keep anything from getting crusted into the bottom of a pot or pan. The kitchen counter top, which used to be Michael’s desk, is sloped (not intentionally, I think) so round foods must be watched carefully. There’s no AC, but with the fans on, it’s bearable in most of the house except the kitchen and the bathroom. For those of you wondering, yes, we have an actual flushing toilet (when there’s water; today, there wasn’t). When we first got here, the toilet did look like this, and it took three days to get a replacement seat. All props go to Michael’s mom, Sharmin, for finding it.

The people who live in our compound, with the exception of another expat living next door, are all one family: grandparents, parents and three children aged about 15, 10 and 8. The children speak English very well, as do the parents. However, the grandparents are a little bit more difficult to understand. I think the grandmother is always trying to get me to give the children some tasks for money, and up until last week she didn’t actually know my name. To be fair, I’ve been calling her “grumpy old lady.” Not to her face. She’s normally friendly to us, but still rather callous in a lot of ways. When Michael and I come home late (late is anything past 10 here) and have to move the makeshift gate, which consists of a fairly heavy wooden table and something like the piece of a wooden fence, to push the moto into the courtyard, we tend to wake her up since she and her husband sleep outside. (She sleeps on the floor – sometimes with the kids, and her husband sleeps on a wooden bench which is no longer than five feet and about a foot wide.) So she’ll get up to help us, but you can tell she’s incredibly irritated with how rude and incompetent we are.

The two younger kids, Anita and Junior, are on some sort of break right now. I haven’t quite figured out what it’s for, but I’m told that they’ll have a month off now, a month for Christmas and three months for the Summer. They generally get up at about 6 am to chase one another around for an hour right outside our bedroom window. They also love knocking on the door and then running away. They’re good kids though, always coming to help us carry our things when we’re coming home. I’ve started giving them candy, but decided to do it randomly, and not as a reward for carrying our things. I think they’re actually kind of confused by it.

There are two dogs who live in the compound, Skeeto and, it’s my understanding, Don’t Forget Me. Skeeto is about a year old and lives the majority of his life chained to his doghouse. The family lets him off the leash during the night to keep watch over the courtyard, which is incredibly convenient when we come home from any of our post-sunset adventures on the moto. He, like all the other animals here, has made it abundantly clear that he’s not interested in being snuggled. Even Don’t Forget Me isn’t sold on the idea, and he’s only about 12 weeks old.

As I’m sitting here writing this I can hear the traffic on the street, and the sheep bleating somewhere nearby. The chicks are outside tweeting without pause while the mother hen leads them around the courtyard scratching at the dirt for food. The fan is back on, steadily humming its sweet tune above my head, and the heavy curtains which have kept out the harsh mid-day sun are slowly swelling up like sails with a cool evening breeze. Rain is in the air.


Feel free to leave your questions and comments, and keep your eyes open for more frequent updates.





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I Don’t Want a Pickle

24 October 2011 - Michael

So I bought a motorcycle.  An Apsonic 125-20.  It’s pretty slick.

In fact, it’s got more features than my truck.  Keyless entry (seriously).  Remote start.  An alarm.

I haven’t been able to think of a reason that any of those features would be useful on a motorcycle, but they’re there.

It also speaks French.  Everytime I put on the turn signal it says “Left.  Turning left.” In French.  It also welcomes me when I start it up, and says good night when I turn it off.

She needs a name, so the best suggestion will earn a chance to write a guest post on the blog.  All entries must be in by next Monday.

PS: It came with a helmet.  And yes, that’s a giant plastic bag over the seat.  I’m waiting until the rainy season is over to take it off.

23 Replies

Dasiba! or Antire! or Aninwula!

18 October 2011 - Michael

Which title above applies to you depends on the time when you read this.  ’Dasiba’ is “good morning.”  ’Antire’ is “good afternoon.”  ’Aninwula’ is “good evening.”

No matter the time, your response is “N’aa.”  Say it as though somebody just complimented you, but you’re being bashful about it.  The same kind of tone you would use to say “Aw, shucks.”  Then there are about 7 more stages behind each greeting, all with different expected responses.  I’ll keep giving short Dagbani lessons in each update so that y’all have something that you can instantly forget every time I post.

I figure since I’ve really not done anything but work since the last post that I’ll just make this post about my job.  Some of you still don’t know what I’m doing here, so this seems like a good chance to explain.  Hell, some of you still think I have an MBA and work in the financial sector.

So I’m working for a company called Innovations for Poverty Action.  The name of the company is highlighted because it’s something called a hyperlink.  That means that if you click on it you will be taken to the company’s homepage, specifically to the project page for the project I am working on.  I’m about to explain that project, but their version is probably less sarcastic and condescending.  You can also click all around their page for even more information about the hundreds of other projects and dozens of other countries with which IPA works.

So, IPA is an organization that specializes in what are known as randomized controlled trials.  Think about what you know about development work.  People go to foreign countries, live in a village for a while, build some wells, and leave.  Nothing wrong with that, it certainly makes a difference, and the world is a better place for their work.  But how much does it cost?  How much gain do we get from it?  Are there other projects that would have given us more bang for our buck?

Up until recently, there really hasn’t been much rigorous statistical analysis of development programs.  We’ve been pushing programs that we think work, and that we’ve seen results for, but without any kind of scientific analyis of the costs and benefits.  Just as in medicine, where we run things through double blind trials to control for placebo effects, IPA is trying to do the same thing for development work.  Of course, there’s no placebo for a well.  People figure out pretty fast whether they’ve got a sustainable source of water or a sugar pill.  So instead, we use control and treatment groups, randomized throughout a population, and compare the results of that treatment between the two groups.

Imagine we were testing the efficacy of a program that provided de-worming pills.  We would take a few communities and survey all the households.  Then, we would randomly select half of those communities.  We would give free de-worming pills to one half, and none to others.  Then, we’d come back in a few years and see what effect that had on our groups.

Of course, things aren’t that simple.  There are ethical issues involved with providing treatments to some groups and not to others.  You can’t just divide communities in half, we would have spillover effects and community discontent.  There are logistical issues – imagine taking medicines, cash, goats – and anything else that might help the poor – to remote villages in areas with no infrastructure.

Anyway, that’s the gist of what randomized controlled trials are.  They’re catching on, too.  The leaders of the two most well-known RCT organizations – Dean Karlan (IPA) and Esther Duflo/Abhijit Banerjee of JPAL, have just published books that have been pretty well received.  There’s even some Nobel talk, but that may be premature.

I guess that I originally promised to talk about my job and have not even breached that topic.  That’s okay.  Mull over RCTs for a day or two, then I’ll post another update.

I hope you’re all well.  Please leave comments.

9 Replies


10 October 2011 - Michael

Almost as soon as I landed in Tamale, we were off to Kumasi for an all IPA-Ghana staff meeting.

Kumasi is about halfway between Tamale and Accra, and is famous for (among other things) Lake Bosomtwe (pronounced Bo-Som-Chi), a huge meteor-formed lake.  A guy came and gave a speech at the hotel on our last night, and explained that apparently planes are magnetically drawn towards the lake, to the point where they start vibrating.  So it’s magical too.

The drive from Kumasi is about 230 miles, which of course took about 9 hours.  It was an interesting drive, too.

About halfway there two goats used our bus to commit seppuku.  It was pretty gnarly and harrowing.  I was sad for about an hour, until we passed another bus that had suffered a blowout and careened off the road.  Two corpses hung out the back.  I’m pretty sure they were the first dead bodies I’ve seen outside of a funeral context.  I don’t know if I can describe in words the way it made me feel.  The fragility of life had never been more apparent – I was suddenly incredibly conscious of our driver’s attention to the road.  We were in the middle of nowhere, too, and I’m sure it took days or weeks for those men’s families to be contacted.  It’s hard to get used to how much more accepting of death people are in the developing world.  On the bright side, I was no longer as concerned about the goats.


Lake Bosomtwe is surrounded by dense jungle and mountains.  I wish I’d gotten a better picture.  It was the most dense jungle I’ve ever seen.  If you look closely in the picture above you can see Bosomtwe in the distance.

The hotel was beautiful, too.  It sat right on the water, and had a huge open dining area just 50 feet from shore.  Remember when you were a kid and you used to tape a playing card to the wheel of your bike so that it sounded like a motorcycle?  That was the exact sound the AC in my room made.  I can’t complain though.  Listening to that noise was the only chance I had not to be drenched in sweat.

We had activities too.  We played ping-pong (don’t let me forget to tell you about the Tamale Table Tennis Tournament in a future update), billiards (though based on the quality of the equipment and the Ghanaian understanding of the rules I don’t think it’s a popular game here), dominoes (see my comment about the billiards), and had a boat ride.  I skipped out on the boat ride for some reason that escapes me now.  We also ate a different dish of Ghanaian food every day.  Sort of.  You know how people joke that Mexican food is just beans, cheese, rice, meat, and tortillas in different configurations?  The same joke can be made of Ghanaian food except that the ingredients are only rice, chicken, and sticky cassava stuff.


These guys were all over the place.  Supposedly they’re tasty skewered and grilled.

Coconut thingies

These are some kind of coconut like things.  They were also all over the place.  I don’t know if you can eat them.


On the last night, they hired a local drum troupe to entertain for us.  I have some really awesome video of them playing and dancing and singing.  My new camera takes amazing video, too, and I did a really good job with the cinematography with the fire highlighting everything they were doing.  And it’s in full HD.  So imagine all that while remembering that the internet here is terrible.  I did find out that the Vodaphone shop is really cheap and has full broadband, so at some point I’ll head over there and upload all the videos.

Anyway, almost everybody danced.  Ghanaians are incredible dancers.  The expats not so much.  But we all had fun nonetheless.

On the way back we stopped at a little truck stop for some grub.  Wally, the office dog, really enjoyed it.

Thanks for reading.  Please leave comments.  Be back tomorrow for another update.  I’m kind of out of pictures, but I can talk about stuff and maybe take some pictures tomorrow to keep you all entertained.

18 Replies


9 October 2011 - Michael

Welcome to  It’s taken me longer to get all of this set up than I had originally planned, so I’m going to break up the first few updates.

The trip here was long.  Austin to New York to Istanbul to Lagos to Accra. I got halfway through a biography on Richard M. Nixon.  Had some pretty good Turkish food in the Istanbul airport.  I arrived in Accra at about 11:00 PM, and headed to a hotel to take a nap before leaving for the airport at 3:30 AM.  Got to Tamale around 8:00 AM on Friday.

Tamale is really beautiful.  Everything is incredibly green, there are fruit trees everywhere, and the people are some of the friendliest I’ve ever met.  It’s also painfully hot.  I don’t think I’ve stopped sweating since I arrived.  In Dagbani, the local language, “Antire” means good afternoon.  The stock response, regardless of time of year, is “N’a, wuntana,” which translates to mean “Yeah, it’s hot too.”  This is the cooler part of the year, too.

Alright, enough talk.  Let’s see some pics.

George, the office monkey.

This is George, our office monkey.  A while back he bit an intern.  He hadn’t had his rabies shots, so the intern had to get stuck with rabies vaccine.  I think that’s just about the coolest story ever.

Horsies at the market

On my second day I decided to head down to the market to check out the town.  I was sitting on a restaurant balcony eating fufu (more on that in a future update) when all of a sudden a parade went by.  I had some pretty cool video of the parade, too, but it was going to take three hours to upload so I guess you guys don’t get to see it.  I asked my waiter what the parade was about and all I understood was that it had something to do with the former vice president’s wife and an election.

Drummers on a bus

This was part of the parade, too.  Y0u can’t really tell in the photo, but the guys on top of the bus all had drums.  The aforementioned video was of these guys drumming on top of the bus, so just imagine how awesome that would have been if the internet here were faster.

Lady with stuff on head.

I feel like people who haven’t traveled a lot in the developing world think that people carrying stuff on their head is exotic.  I thought so too at first.  It turns out though that it’s just a really convenient way to carry stuff.  You guys are the weird ones for carrying stuff with your hands.  Also, that police officer has an AK.  There was a crazy lady about 10 feet to the left of this shot, too, but I didn’t manage to get her in the frame.

After lunch I decided to head to the local market.  This guy was right near the entrance.  I asked to take his picture and he vehemently said no.  His friend (the guy in the orange) thought the situation was hilarious, and insisted that I take the picture.

The market was amazing, and has probably been the highlight of all my time here so far.  It’s a sprawling complex of alleys lined with all sorts of shops.  People selling dried fish, banku (more on that soon), spices, veggies, and all other sorts of provisions. The guidebook mentioned that there were fetish shops where you could buy all kinds of weird animal products, including the skins of endangered species.  So, I decided to head into the deepest corners of the market to find them.

Fetish Shop

Success!  This guy was the only one of about four who would let me photograph his shop.  He had weird snail shells, ram horns, crocodile skins, and a bunch of other unidentifiable stuff.

Fetish Shop 2

…and on the wall, a cheetah skin!  I don’t know what any of the others were, but the cheetah is pretty unmistakable.  So that’s pretty weird.  Someone killed an endangered species so that this guy could sell its skin to someone so they could make some kind of potion.  Culturally pretty cool, but certainly sad for the cheetahs.

Alright, that’s it for this time around.  The next update should happen tomorrow.  In fact, I’ve got enough pictures and stories for about four updates, so I’ll try to keep them daily for this week.  I hope everyone is well.  Leave me some comments and let me know what’s going on in Austin and wherever else.

11 Replies