As all expats and travelers know, they’re not always easy to find in all corners of the globe.
Having just moved into our new house in Ghana, West Africa, I was soon presented with a burning problem and in need of a fitter. A shop in the neighborhood offered assistance, but what I needed was not available. Probably because I did not have a problem. I only thought I did.
According to my calculations, the problem
does not exist – Unknown
It’s big and black and gleaming. It’s state-of-the-art and brand-new. I stare at it in awe. It’s a monster stove, dwarfing the small, shabby kitchen in my new abode in Accra.
I love to cook, but I have never yet found it necessary to operate more than four burners at a time. This king of cookers has six. And boy do they burn! I find, in the next few days, that, with elements at their lowest settings, liquids still boil briskly and everything else burns. Also full of enthusiasm, the hyperactive oven ignores all thermostat commands to cool it. A lemon, this black monster.
I report the problem to the Field Support Unit, a maintenance service entrusted with the upkeep of all the project consultants’ houses, furniture and appliances. Five cheerful Ghanaian technicians come trooping into the kitchen to investigate the situation, discuss it, and mull it over. Since the appliance is new, the consensus is to get a repair person from the shop where the stove was purchased. The men depart.
Finally, after some days, a chubby Ghanaian technician with a sweet face and a shy smile arrives, accompanied by a “smallboy,” his assistant of perhaps twelve, carrying his toolbox.
I explain the problem. I offer my suspicion that the thermostat is defective, to which he does not respond. Perhaps he is stunned by my powers of deduction. He starts taking things apart with Smallboy watching, possibly hoping to learn something. Not wanting to breathe down the man’s neck I retreat to the living room and pick up Wine for Dummies. Intellectual activity is good for keeping the brain cells alive. In tropical climates underused brains grow mold like the shoes in your closet, and vigilance is of the essence. Wine helps too. A few glasses and I say the most brilliant things.
Back in the kitchen I find that the repairman has put things back together again. He offers me a timid smile and says he’ll come back next week; he cannot mend it right now. Smallboy is busily putting the tools back in the box.
“Does it need a new thermostat?” I ask, thinking he has to order one.
“I come next week,” he says, ignoring my question.
Weeks go by. No repair man shows up.
Fortunately it does not require the help of a 6-burner monster stove with an oven the size of a small Bed and Breakfast to acquire food in Ghana. You can go to Sweet Mother. She’ll cook for you.
Photo by Simon Albury
More weeks go by. The repair man remains elusive. Let me not bore you with the details of what it takes to get the man back in my kitchen, but eventually he arrives, Smallboy at his side. Once again he begins taking things apart, all serious efficiency. At least that’s what it looks like. I watch. I am somewhat mechanically challenged, so I have no idea what I am looking at except thingies and wires and shiny bits.
I want to be friendly and chat the man up a little, saying I’ll be really happy when I can use the oven again since I like to bake cakes for my husband. This so the man knows I’m a good wife and all. Being a good wife gets you points in lots of places. Being the quiet type, the repairman does not respond, or maybe he is just concentrating deeply on solving the problem and has tuned me out. He keeps on fiddling and I decide I’d better leave him to it for a few minutes. When I come back, he’s still messing around.
“Are you making progress?” I ask nicely.
“Madame,” he says, looking at me solemnly, “there is no thermostat.”
I’m not sure I’m hearing this right. “No thermostat? Why did you say last time you could repair it when there was no thermostat? And why didn’t your order a new one?”
“You don’t need a thermostat,” says Einstein.
“Of course I need a thermostat!” I yank out my instruction booklet from a drawer and show him where it explains all about the thermostat and its settings, in twelve different languages.
“I think the book is wrong.” His chubby face is full of loving-kindness. “There is no thermostat.”
“There is supposed to be a thermostat,” I state bravely. “It says right here in the book.”
He offers a helpless shrug. “The book, it is not for this cooker. This one has no thermostat.”
It’s time for a little mental rehabilitation and I retreat to the living room to let him get on with stuffing the stove’s innards – such as they are – back in their place. After some yoga deep-breathing (see photo) I return to the thermostat guru for another session of enlightenment. He’s screwing the instrument panel into place.
“I will need a thermostat,” I say firmly.
He does not wish to hear this. He shakes his head. “We have no thermostats in Ghana.” He looks at me wide-eyed and innocent. Behind all that innocence, other sentiments lurk. I can see it clearly.
“Then order one from the company in Europe.” A desperate suggestion, and I know it. “Or rather, I want a new stove from your shop, a different brand, one with a thermostat.”
“They also have no thermostats. In Ghana we have no thermostats.” His soft face, his vacuous smile, hide a stony determination. His mission is clear.
“In the whole country? There are no cookers with thermostats?”
He shrugs. “Not in twenty years time we get no thermostats.”
I cannot take this. I walk out and take refuge in the living room once more to resurrect my patience and have a sanity check-up. Finally I venture out of hiding again. The stove has been reassembled and is standing where it was in all it’s shiny black splendor, lording it over my shabby kitchen like Darth Vader.
The stove expert gives me a wary look. I face him squarely. “For twenty years,” I say, “Ghanaian women have been buying these very costly new cookers without thermostats and they do not complain?”
“No, Madame, they like it.”
“But you cannot use the oven without a thermostat!”
“You do not need a thermostat, Madame. It gets hot.”
“The food will burn!” I am beginning to lose it.
He gives me a pitying look. Apparently, I just don’t get it. “Madame,” he says, “in Ghana we like it when our food is burned.”
The end of the story is that I demand in no uncertain terms that the damned thing be returned to the appliance store. Einstein and his minion flee. The cheery Field Support Unit men haul the gleaming monster away and raid one of the houses recently vacated by another international consultant and bring me the stove therein. It is a four-burner bottom-of-the-line white American number with an impeccable thermostat performance that looks just right in my modest kitchen.
As the FSU men are hooking it up (there are only four of them this time), I tell them the story of the repairman from the local appliance shop trying to convince me Ghanaian women are happy to not have a thermostat in their ovens. They give me a puzzled look. Apparently this is news to them.
“You know what he told me?” I ask, pausing for a little drama here. “He said, ‘in Ghana, we like it when our food is burned.'”
There is a moment of silence, then the four of them go into paroxysms of laughter. The guy on his haunches, busy lighting the gas pilot light for the oven, lets go and rolls on the floor like a puppy, unable to contain himself.
It’s always such a pleasure to make people laugh. And in Ghana, it’s easy. He deserves Paradise who makes his companions laugh, it says in the Koran.
I’ll take a rain check on Paradise. Right now, on earth, all I want is a stove with a functioning thermostat.
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Repairmen: We love them, we hate them. You too have stories. I know this because I am psychic. So hit the comment button and spill ’em.