EXPAT CONFUSION: THE PROBLEM DOES NOT EXIST

by missfootloose on August 20, 2009 · 21 comments

in Expat life, Food, Ghana, West Africa

Whether you’re an expat or not, don’t you just love and adore good repair people, technicians, mechanics, computer geeks, healers of mind and body, and so on?

photo © by Becs

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.

BURNING UP

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

And here are some more good places to eat in Accra. And don’t forget the Blue Gate, the one I rhapsodized about in this post. But I regress. Then again, I have time. Because:

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.

* * *
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.

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{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

kobico August 23, 2009 at 9:07 am

When I lived in England last year, the water heater broke. The letting agent insisted it was just a restart issue and refused to call a technician. After several days of no hot water and repeated calls, he finally called in a technician, who had to replace the … thermostat!

Reply

Anonymous August 23, 2009 at 10:51 am

How I understand you predicament. In the Dominican Republic repair men always came in groups of 3 the supervisor, the “actual” repairman and the little helper with their box of favorite tools, hammers in every size possible. They also had a habit that whenever they decided they needed another tool which of course was still in the shop (read bar) they would all disappear for quite some time. Once I learned that trick I always blocked that and just made the supervisor go, see, he was the only one that was allowed to drive the car. I assure you, now he was always back in 2 minutes. I also learned to never leave them alone with those favorite tools because I had seen the disastrous results they had done at friends’ house.

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Amélie August 23, 2009 at 6:00 pm

I can relate! I was also an expat, growing up. My parents would have great stories to tell!

I remember one time, when we were living in Beijing, we couldn’t figure out the heating system. In the winter, if we left it off, within an hour the room would be too cold. But if we turned it on, within an hour the room would be way too hot. We couldn’t figure out how to set it so that it would keep the room at a particular temperature, and not overheat it.

The people in charge of “fixing” the heating were no help. They did not understand the concept of a preset temperature. They looked at us as if we were stupid, and said that if we wanted less heat, then we should just turn it off. More heat? Turn it on. they didn’t seem to see the benefit of not fiddling with the heating throughout the day!

Not as bad as a useless oven, of course, but frustrating nonetheless.

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Mary Witzl August 24, 2009 at 5:23 pm

Say what you will, that oven would come in VERY handy the next time my in-laws came for a visit. I’d explain away my burnt offerings by telling them what your repairman said. They’d have to go along with it.

In the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, charges vary greatly whenever you have a repairman in, depending on whether you are a Turkish Cypriot or an expatriate. What you pay could be £1000 or £100 — no prizes for guessing who pays which.

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♥ Braja August 25, 2009 at 1:54 pm

I wouldn’t know where to begin…..so many stories that fit this bill :))

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Lauri August 25, 2009 at 5:23 pm

Please don’t speak of repairmen… I spent last month with a dimunitive plumber arriving every morning at 9 am. The month is through and I have a new toilet, a sink that is crooked on the wall and a shower that I must climb into but can’t use since he dropped one (of four) of the glass shower doors and it shattered into a million pieces. Now I wait for the replacement which will cost nearly as much as the whole shower did. And worst still…he is coming back!

Reply

Jungle Mom August 25, 2009 at 6:38 pm

Oh I do have stories but… I lost it when I read this,
“In tropical climates underused brains grow mold like the shoes in your closet, and vigilance is of the essence.”
This could only be written by one with first hand experience of the tropics! I always say that if I sit still too long I will turn green and fuzzy. Speaking of which…time to get offline and move!

Reply

Elizabeth Bradley August 25, 2009 at 9:53 pm

You had me in giggles. No thermostats in the entire country, we like our food burnt. That’s too funny for words. I’m glad you got an operational stove. I’m fine as long as I’m cooking with gas, I hate electric stoves.

Reply

GutsyWriter August 26, 2009 at 3:15 am

As usual, a delight to read. I liked the part about being the good wife who cooks for her husband. I said the same in Belize to the guy repairing my stove. “My husband won’t have a nice home-cooked dinner tonight if you don’t fix it now.”

Reply

Miss Footloose August 26, 2009 at 4:33 am

I enjoyed all your stories.

Anonymous, I have to remember that trick of not letting the whole gang go.

Lauri, I hope there is a happy end (somehow) to your shower saga.

Thanks all of you for sharing your stories. I love to be entertained.

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Vanessa Rogers August 26, 2009 at 5:05 pm

My great grandma would burn her food purposefully. I was told later that often older people do this because their body is lacking in some nutrient that the burning creates…

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Kaiserin Sisi August 27, 2009 at 11:24 pm

It doesn’t matter where we are or where we have lived, our problems are universal :-). I lived in China for 4 years and my days were never dull…

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LadyFi August 28, 2009 at 1:39 pm

Pure hilarious genius!

I can definitely relate to the mould in your bed and wardrobe!

My present cooking skills comprise mainly of burning food, so it’s obvious that I would fit right in in Ghana – and that I have no thermostat! 😉

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bettyl August 29, 2009 at 8:05 am

I believe I’d need a LOT more wine!

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Brenda August 30, 2009 at 2:55 am

I had an oven with a thermostat problem and they told me to put a brick in it. I did, but I can’t say whether it helped or not, but that was the solution. 🙂

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Rinkly Rimes September 2, 2009 at 9:28 am

I think I’d eat at Sweet Mother every night! It looks …..interesting.

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Miss Footloose September 2, 2009 at 11:09 am

Vanessa, That is very strange! I should look that up! Thanks for sharing.

LadyFi, we had lightbulbs burning in the bottom of our closets to fight the mould. Don’t know if that really helped or not.

Kaiserin, your majesty 😉 you have had / do have an interesting life!

Brenda, a brick in the oven? Mmm

Rinkly Rimes, you’ll never know what you might find cooking in the pot there 😉

Thanks all, for your stories and comments!

Reply

Pearl September 3, 2009 at 12:56 pm

An absolutely delightful story.

🙂

“In Ghana, we like our food burned.”

Of course they do! Why are you creating problems?!

🙂

Thank you!

Pearl

Reply

Claire July 16, 2011 at 3:46 pm

I would be frustrated too, but I probably would have laughed uproariously when he said we like it when the food is burned! Who says that?!

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