Hidden cullinary gems of urban Ghana: the coconut and “broke man”

In most travel guides, tourists are pointed in the direction of some of Ghana’s beaches, the pleasantness of the people, the relative safety of the streets, the few nature reserves, animal sanctuaries and national parks, museums and monuments, the forts and castles and their linkages to slavery in the West. In the last decade, Ghana has also become known among tourists, planners, researchers and activists from the international set for places like “Sodom and Gomorrah”, “Mensah Guinea”, “Abuja” “James Town” and other slums where visitors are taken in by fascinating stories of the resourcefulness of slum dwellers. Even riding the minibuses known locally as “tro-tro,” appears to be an experience worth detailing for prospective travelers.

In as much as all these are manifest and tangible features that delight the tourist, what most people visiting the cities of Ghana are oblivious to before departure, but quickly appreciate upon arriving and wandering the streets of Accra and other cities of Ghana is the ubiquity and convenience of the coconut and “broke man.” A “broke man” is a healthy meal of charcoal-roasted sliced plantain and peanuts. These two dishes are the most under-appreciated feature of the city yet, arguably, hold the most value for residents and visitors alike. Coconuts are more associated with the idyllic images of the Caribbean islands and the leisure of the beaches of Rio. Hardly a travel guidebook on Ghana tells you anything of the respite and refreshment a coconut or “broke man” quickly affords.

Early in the morning, young men pushing carts, wheelbarrows or lugging sacks full of the fruit are often seen as a nuisance, frustrating the morning traffic and deserving the loudest horn touting to warn them off the roads. Obviously the drivers have no use for them — yet. From an hour before noon, as the sun’s heat forces its way into the consciousness of the drivers and pedestrians and parches their throats, the coconut gains currency in tandem with the trajectory of the sun. Business picks up as the heat intensifies and winds down with dusk.

The ubiquity of the coconut sellers is made possible by the inescapable absence of shading trees and plants on the sidewalks, which, with the exception of the so-called “ceremonial streets,” makes walking or riding in Accra and other cities an exercise in dehydration. The scorching heat and stifling humidity combine to legitimize the coconut hawking business over and above the persuasions of modernity and place branding which otherwise seek the obliteration of these pavement sellers. The thirst brought on by the heat and humidity is quickly drenched by the sweet nectar from a coconut readily available from the nearest hawker. Whilst extolling the virtues of the coconut, it is worth pondering the mystery behind the reticence of the bureaucrats to ensure the construction of pedestrian-friendly pavements and walkways in the city.

That said, there are nuanced differences in the regime of coconut peddling, revealing interesting nested arrangements of transportation and retailing of the coconut that serious planners should take into account in implementing local economic development strategies. Hierarchies are observed in the stocking and transportation of the coconut that require critically analytical eyes to detect. The “sack luggers” are at the bottom of the pile and do not have much stock per day. At the end of the working day, they pack the unsold drupes and lug them back. The luggers are preceded by the “wheelers” using the barrows and sometimes using small tables to display their wares. Again the wares are packed and wheeled back after business before the day is concluded. At the apex of the retail hierarchy are the “carters”, using improvised four-wheel pushcarts and lockable plywood boxes, popularly called “chop boxes” which are used to stock unsold coconuts to keep whatever remains of the day’s stock. The chop box will be replenished the following day by the next “truck” consignment. Admittedly not all vendors strictly follow this modus.

The typologies also tell another story of the degree of tenure security. The chop boxes represent annexed spaces with a higher degree tenure security based on informal approval from city authorities. Revenue collectors from the local government are aware of these operations and routinely collect money (officially and unofficially) from them. The luggers on the other hand, have the least form of tenure security, facing the most harassment from the development control task force of the city government. The sack operations thus ensures flexibility in their mobility and at the earliest sign of trouble from the task forces pack their wares on the shoulders and take flight. In between these two are the wheelers who suffer frequent demolition of their tables but salvage some of their wares using wheelbarrows.

The coconut shares pride of place in the daily refreshment of the city at work with “broke man.” A “broke man” is a meal of plantain and peanuts, roasted right before the client. The meal came by its name from the predominant patronage by the urban poor euphemistically referred to as “broke man”. Today the patronage is evenly spread among the rich and the poor.

Coconut 3
A vendor prepares the popular “broke man,” a meal of plantain and peanuts. Photo: authors.

At every corner of the city – from upscale neighborhoods to poor localities – lunch is served in no time as office workers clad in suits, taxi drivers and street sellers all queue for their “broke man” orders.

A trademark of vendors of “broke man” is their pleasant disposition as they attend to the buyer. It is really difficult to tell what brings on the cheerfulness — the prospects of the tidy daily profit, or (even if ludicrous to think) the heat from the charcoal grill. The conviviality sometimes extends to giving advice on marital issues as the buyer chooses to sit close by to have the meal, rather than take it away.

As business lulls, conversations can get longer as the inevitable baby, strapped to the back during the peak period of lunch hour, is taken on the lap to be breastfed or placed on makeshift bedding very close to the operations. As the meal is made to order and patrons differ in their taste of ripeness of the plantain, unsold wares are in the raw state and brought back the next day. When the plantain is too ripe to be roasted, it is turned over to other food vendors who then process it into its fried variant, known as tatale, which is traditionally served with beans stew.

A note of caution: although the diet of coconut and “broke man” may be exotic and novel to the traveler, the absence of sanitation facilities in close proximity to the point of sale for the vendors remains a public health challenge to the consumer. The fact of the “broke man” being roasted in front of the consumer does not guarantee proper sterility. Neither does the shell of the coconut protect the consumer from contamination. Given the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention’s count of 27,900 cases and 217 death by cholera in 2014, serious caution must be taken and local planners and business promoters alike must be concerned. Conversation about this concern for hygiene of the roasted plantain is on the rise and Accra and other cities in Ghana must also have this conversation quickly. The ubiquity and utility of the coconut and “broke man” deserves their “convenience spaces” in equal measure.

 

Joseph Ayitio is researcher and urban planner living in Accra, Ghana, and a fan of the overarching social implications of planning and urban design in African cities. He is particularly interested in expanding dialogues on African urbanism and how the hybrid governance of formality and informality produce city forms and urban economies. tiolabe23@gmail.com

Kwadwo Ohene Sarfoh is an international housing consultant and urban planner. Currently living between Ghana and Liberia, he is supporting the government of Liberia to develop a national housing policy. He also has interest in slum upgrading and prevention, municipal infrastructure and finance, urban revitilisation, local governance and local economic development in Ghana and abroad. oksarfoh@yahoo.com

Main image: coconuts stacked on a cart in Accra, Ghana. Authors.

 

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