My First Christmas in Ghana Meant Even More to Me Once I Lost My Mother

My last Christmas with my mother was spent in the West African country she called home. Memories of love and good food sustain me now that she’s gone.

Grandmother, mother and daughter sit for photo in Ghana

Pamela Appea 

Christmas is my favorite holiday. I love everything about it: going to church, the sumptuous dishes, baking cookies, and cakes, gathering with family and friends, shopping, and lots more. In all of my childhood memories of Christmas, the holiday is pretty much synonymous with my mother. 

"Mummy," a Ghanaian immigrant, raised me and my three siblings as a single parent. I am the youngest. She always made sure to make Christmas special, through food, family, church activities, and social gatherings. Tragically, I lost my mother when I was in my early teens. She was only 48 when she passed away from an asthma attack. 

Growing up as a biracial, half-Ghanaian, half-British child in Canada, and then the United States, I was an incredibly picky eater. In my earliest years, I turned my nose up to anything Mummy made that was “spicy” or too different. Basically, I was the kind of child whose preferred meal was mac-and-cheese from the box or plain white rice without seasoning. 

I now appreciate just how patient my mother was when it came to my culinary journey of trying—and appreciating—Ghanaian dishes even if she didn’t live to see my evolution. Mummy always used to say my spice tolerance would mature when I was older. I never understood what she was talking about. But, of course, my mother was right. 

Mummy hadn’t seen herself as a natural cook in her teen years. Perhaps that is why she was so patient with me. My mother told me a few times when I was older she would teach me the recipes in her repertoire, that in addition to Ghanaian dishes, included British, Canadian, and American staples, plus lighter ‘fusion’ versions. It breaks my heart that my mother never wrote any of her family recipes down.

Going Home

As a young teen, one of my most cherished memories is of going to Ghana for Christmas for the first time.  I loved meeting my grandmother, who was the no-nonsense matriarch of the family, the mother of six children and an early widow, and scores of other relatives. Money was tight in our family, but in a last-minute Christmas miracle, Mummy borrowed the large sum that covered the roundtrip plane tickets. It was the first time she had returned to Ghana in nearly 20 years. Unfortunately, it was also the last Christmas my mother and I would celebrate together. 

On that first trip to Ghana, I learned to appreciate Ghanaian food and culture in a way that I hadn’t before. I remember eating sweet ripe mangos fresh from the mango trees. (Although, perhaps, we probably ate too many in one sitting!) I also started to enjoy munching on fried plantains. We also ate a record number of chocolate bars, Ghanaian along with Swiss and British chocolates that relatives brought over. At the time, chocolates from “abroad” were considered to be extra-special treats. 

For main courses, fish is a huge component in any traditional Ghanaian kitchen and the family ate fresh fish pretty much every day. Of course as a choosy eater, honestly, I complained a lot about fish bones and whatnot. But of course, now I appreciate how good I had it. That Christmas there was always the chance to eat freshly-prepared spicy peanut (or groundnut) stews. We typically washed our meals down with soda and bottled water, another luxury. It was the holidays after all.

Naturally, there were things that I did not like. For whatever reason, I never took to fufu which is an essential side carb-heavy staple served with many traditional Ghanaian meals. The adults loved fufu and used it to sop up the stew. I suspected fufu gave me stomach problems, but who knows? My relatives were baffled at my distaste for the fundamental dish (and, honestly, even today I am not a big fufu fan which is kind of a sacrilegious thing to say) With that said, I did appreciate how hard the women (it was typically the women in charge of fufu prep) worked to pound the fufu—a labor-intensive task that took hours.

My No-Nonsense Grandma

My grandmother, the legendary Mrs. Alice Appea, was just “Grandma.” Back in the early 1970s, my grandmother, a social worker, and activist, who had previously trained as a nurse, co-founded the S.O.S. Children's Village, Tema. Fellow co-founder, the late Mrs. Mercy Adebi Busia, a groundbreaking social worker and educator from a prominent family, met with the Austrian philanthropist Hermann Gmeiner in order to secure funding and organizational support to open the first S.O.S. Children’s Village location in Ghana. Gmeiner was well known for founding S.O.S. Children’s Village (SOS Kinderdorf International) and assisting with countless orphanage locations around the world. 

For the large holiday feasts that Christmas, we sometimes ate outside with all of the S.O.S. Children’s Village residents, house mothers, staff, and other community residents and supporters. There was always a lot going on. My grandmother was the kind of grandmother who loved nothing more than brisk walks around the S.O.S. Children’s Village making sure that everyone was doing okay and that everything was running smoothly. 

Despite my grandmother’s busy schedule in coordinating these huge events, she was also the kind of grandmother who made sure to slip her youngest grandchild—me— a piece of chocolate under the table during the long religious celebrations and holiday feasts. Spending time with my mother and her large extended family in Ghana was a memory I’ll never forget.

Connecting Through Food

Today, when it comes to my children and our holiday meals, both have been somewhat picky and spice-averse eaters as well. In my own kitchen, if I was making a stew and mentioned the word “Ghanaian” my kids would automatically balk—again, because of the perceived spice level. I’m looking forward to the day when I can actually name and celebrate when I serve Ghanaian-American stews and talk about upping the spice game with my children. Perhaps one day.

One step at a time. When making holiday meals, It’s sometimes hard not to become emotional when I sit down at my own family table. I will always remember and honor my mother’s culinary legacy.

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