Wednesday, February 18, 2009


The first thing many Ghanaians say when they come back to Ghana is, "I really missed fufu."  Like mashed potatoes or biscuits and gravy, fufu is comfort food and the only ones who can make it right are those who love it as much as you do.  If you saw a portion of fufu you might think someone had made bread dough and placed the satiny ball in an over sized bowl to rise before baking.  In southern Ghana, a "light soup" is poured over the top and fufu sits in its bowl like a rotund butter colored island rising up through the lake of fragrant stew.   

Eating comfort food in Ghana is no different from eating comfort food at home and even the most proper Ghanaians eat fufu with their fingers.  I think this is to honor the way that it is made and its status as home cooking -like fried chicken or chips and salsa or corn on the cob.  Before the fufu is eaten, a bowl of water is passed for rinsing the fingers of your eating hand.  Then you pinch off a bit of the fufu, scooping up some of the stew with it.  Some of the stew is absorbed by the fufu, so at the end all is finished.  

The making of fufu takes special equipment and teamwork. Fufu is made with a large mortar and pestle. The pestle is made from a tree limb or sapling about as tall as a person and as big around as can be comfortably grasped by an adult hand.  The pole is smooth, stripped of its bark and pounded on one end to look like a frayed mushroom cap.  This is the end that crushes and mashes the vegetables into just the right consistency, working them until the dough sticks together and forms a smooth ball. The mortar is a large flat bottomed bowl mounted on a low stand.  One person, standing above the mortar, pounds cooked wedges of cassava and chunks of plantain together with the pole while a second person sitting on a low stool next to the mortar moves the vegetables around the bowl in between strokes.  As the vegetables turn to paste the person sitting next to the bowl gathers and folds the dough, adding water as needed, until the mass turns into the smooth dense food ready to be called fufu.  The person sitting beside the bowl has only a tiny window of time to stir the dough before the beating stick comes down again.

Making fufu takes teamwork--and not your ordinary teamwork.  The person making the fufu is most often the woman in charge of making the meal.  The person pounding the dough is often a son or husband, student or helper happy to help with its creation.  There is a great deal of trust between the person folding the dough and the person pounding with the pestle.  The strokes are not anemic.  They are full of force and once begun are irretrievable.  If the stick isn't brought down in the same spot or in an even rhythm, there is danger of crushing the fingers of the person folding the dough.  Yet if the stick were not brought down sharply, it would take forever to make something that already takes awhile to make.  So together the pounder and the folder develop a rhythm and a functional trust, stopping occasionally to rest.  

Like many simple things we do in life, there is often a lesson within them. We share and trust every day. But the sharing and the trusting are so woven into the fabric of our life we are unaware of them. Seeing them in the light of an unfamiliar activity makes me think.  Sharing and trusting in most cases is incomplete. We share only so much as we can afford without discomfort. We trust only to the degree that we are willing to expose ourselves to risk of a bad consequence. So when we do not share, are not trusting or are not worthy of trust, we are perhaps made uneasy, but the cause of the unease may not be obvious. Surrounded by familiar things and routines, the chinks in our armor are not easy to see. They are lost in the gloss of the unremarkable routine surrounding them.

But when I see one person risk having her fingers crushed, trusting the person holding the pestle not to falter or mis-aim, the consequence of a mismatch between trust and fear is direct and clear. I know it's only fufu, but it makes me think about what complete trust in God might look like.  If my life with God is a work in progress, and if God will never falter, why should I snatch my hand away too quickly? What do I risk by mistrusting? Moving from familiar surroundings to an unfamiliar place, the hows and the whys of life aren't so obvious. Yet in our relationships we all recognize joy and can point to it. Maybe joy is in the life of freedom God gives us to trust him completely without worrying, to work with God at making a life without fear.

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