Expat Housing: The Problem Does Not Exist

by missfootloose on October 22, 2011 · 17 comments

in Ghana, life abroad, Trials and tribulations

This repair shop can do it all

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

Unfortunately good ones are not always easy to find. Like people in general, technicians and their cousins come in all types and flavors, but the one I met in Ghana, West Africa, surely was unique. I now live in Moldova but I still love to tell this story. So here it is, a repost from two years ago.

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, the capital of Ghana where my prince and I arrived a few weeks ago.

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 home maintenance service. 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 stove expert 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 guys from the home maintenance service 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 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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{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Judy October 22, 2011 at 9:01 pm

I am no intercultural expert but one thing I have learned from experience is that there are some cultures where it is unacceptable to a) say you don’t know something b) say you can’t help someone. Better to prevaricate or spin some wildly unlikely story. In my better moments I breathe deeply and tuck it away as a funny incident to relate to friends. In my worse moments I rant, rave and make both myself and the subject of my frustration miserable.

Most of my stories relate to safety, or rather the lack of it. Like the guy who installed my new gas stove and then proceeded to check for leaks with a lighted match, the repairman who sent his 15yr old assistant to clean my AC unit which involved crouching on top of said unit with a dust pan and brush where it hung on the wall outside my 9th floor apartment, or the contractor who had no plug on his drill and just stuffed the 2 bare wires into the electrical socket ….

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missfootloose October 22, 2011 at 10:33 pm

You give me the shivers with your tales! So glad you survived them! It is hair raising to see the lack of safety precautions taken in some places.

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naomi October 23, 2011 at 7:28 am

oh boy. I had a draft post about this very thing … but yours is MUCH funnier!

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maria altobelli October 23, 2011 at 7:59 pm

Oh, yes, Wonder Oven. I know it well here in Mexico. In fact, I know it so well that the thought of actually baking in a real, honest-to-goodness oven with a functioning thermostat again gives me the willies. I’d be sure to burn everything I’d bake.

Maybe I’ve been an ex-pat too long.

Fun post as always. Maria

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missfootloose October 26, 2011 at 9:57 am

So now you don’t bake at all, Maria? Or have you managed to learn to do it without a thermostat? Remember, in the olden days in wood-burning stoves there were no thermostats, and somehow women baked pies and cakes and bread. Of course they had control over the fire . . .

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jenjenk October 25, 2011 at 7:30 am

that is HILARIOUS!!!! You have the patience of a saint!!!! I think I would’ve lost my mind [and the repairman would’ve lost his life] if I had to deal with that!!!

[and funny you should mention, I, too, seem to be a far more erudite woman after a few glasses of wine…]

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missfootloose October 26, 2011 at 9:59 am

One thing you learn as an expat (well, most do) is to have patience. This situation sure asked for a lot!

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Turkey's For Life October 25, 2011 at 10:06 am

In the Turkey, the repairmen ALWAYS arrive with a youngster in tow to carry the tools. We need a plumber quite often for our solar panels on the roof. They NEVER have ladders and use our dining chairs (!!) to build a ladder/tower to get up there. It seems to do the trick. 🙂
Julia

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missfootloose October 26, 2011 at 10:05 am

I hope you have insurance for when people get hurt on your property! Or maybe you should invest in a ladder.

Take a photo of these guys on a stack of chairs! There’s a post in there somewhere 😉

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GutsyLiving October 25, 2011 at 3:14 pm

In Belize, I had guests for dinner and was busy preparing my NY cheesecake. Just as the new oven heated, I heard a massive explosion. My sons came rushing into the kitchen and propane gas was leaking from the pipe. Hubby turned off the gas immediately, and the following day, we took the stove into Castillo’s in town by boat. Try taking a stove to town on your boat. They replaced it and told us those Mexican stoves were being recalled for gas leaks.

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missfootloose October 26, 2011 at 10:06 am

What an amazing tale! You could have been seriously hurt. “Try taking a stove to town in your boat,” would make a fun title for a story 😉

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Lady Fi October 26, 2011 at 10:26 am

I’d fit right in as I always burn food! We recently got a new oven and the food is no longer burning as it used to… Mmm… maybe ovens really do work better with functioning thermostats! 😉

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Mara October 26, 2011 at 2:09 pm

The latest repairman in my house fixed the heating and hot water thingy, but forgot how to put on underwear or fitting trousers. Not a particularly nice sight from where I was standing!

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missfootloose November 4, 2011 at 12:46 pm

Did you get a picture?

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marja October 27, 2011 at 11:50 am

oh your writing is hilarious You’ve got quite a gift I am would love to know what was going in in your stove but you’ll never be able to find out. You had quite some experiences. I love the pot with the big mouth on your picture. Groetjes en ik hoop dat alles goed gaat in Moldova. Ik ga volgend jaar naar nederland op vakantie dus ik ben erg happy. doei

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Michelle O'Neil November 4, 2011 at 1:29 am

A very funny post!

Next time I burn our dinner I will tell my family we are eating Ghanaian style tonight.

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missfootloose November 4, 2011 at 12:35 pm

Don’t give them any wrong ideas 😉

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