Sunday, September 12, 2010

Pictures of Household Items in a Typical Ghanian Compound


At last I get to have a voice on this blog. Some things we all miss now that we are home, but as for me, I’m a big fan of Internet that will upload my pictures. Constant electricity and all that.

I want to share the images I took of a few household items that can be found in a typical Ghanaian compound. I am a person who believes that a picture can speak for itself, but sometimes there might be a little bit more to say than the caption, especially if you are not familiar with the context.

All of these items I became familiar with not on one particular day, but throughout the entire three months I spent living with the Baffour family in their compound. When I say compound, I am referring to the family complex building. The typical Ghanaian home is build around a cement patio area with all of the rooms and cooking space facing towards this communal outdoor area. That was one of my favorite parts about Ghana, the actual building structure of the home facilitated interaction and family bonding. In most cases, eating and socializing is done in this open-air middle area. There are no corners of the home to hide in, and it is so hot in the rooms that people spend most of their time outside. The pictures I selected represent the items, but also show some background that reveals the physical features, such as the bright colors that are a beautiful feature of Ghanaian buildings.

Some of these items were more difficult to master than others, like the pestle and mortar, but each of the things represented in these pictures have a special relationship to me and to the Ghanaian home. Without blabbering further, let’s get to the pictures.

Large Bucket:

This black basin was our compound’s large bucket. They come in all kinds of bright colors, and the more typical one is a bit more flat, but they serve a number of purposes. Our more important use for a large bucket is to do laundry. You fill the bucket up halfway with water, pour in a detergent like Omo, and then swish it around like a washing machine and scrub out the stains with a bar of soap and the palm of your hand. After leaving the large bucket, the laundry goes into a smaller one for rinsing. Laundry in Ghana takes a long time and is a rather intimate experience chatting with your family, which is something we seem to have lost in modernization. Another use for a bucket of this size was for the hawkers trying to sell various goods at the market by carrying the supplies on their heads. They can also be used for rinsing dishes, mixing ingredients for cooking, and catching the rain when you can use as many buckets as possible.

Small Buckets:

The smaller buckets could do everything that the big one can do, but maybe a little bit more. We used them for the final steps (rinsing and wringing) of the laundry. They can be used to catch the rainwater or to fetch water from the well since most families do not have running water. We also used them for dumping water on our feet before we climbed into bed at night to wash away the layers of red dust. I think the most useful function for the small buckets around the compound was for bucket showers. If the electricity was off—so was the water, and sometimes just the water broke for a week. You grab your small bucket, dip it in the bins storing rainwater, and that is your shower for the day.


The clothesline is reserved for only the wealthier compounds in the village. With a family the size of ours, it seemed pretty necessary. Twine ropes were strung from one side of the compound to the other. Traditionally, they would not have used a line and would have done with many others do—lay out the clothes on a bush or out on the ground and turn them over like a pancake till they are dry.


This broom is far more than a bundle of sticks. As we were immediately informed upon arrival, we do not know how to sweep. The sticks are from a special palm plant out in the bush and must be completely dried out. When they are bundled together with a tie at the top, they become stronger as a unit. If you want to get into tiny cracks, you hit the broom against your hip to make the tie grab higher to bring the sticks together. If you want a lose sweep, you let it relax. Every morning just before sunrise the women of the household sweep the cement compound of the days worth of dust and dirt. Cleanliness is very important to them, and because most of the living quarters are outside it can get pretty dirty quick.


We used this lovely blue cooler everyday. It is pretty genius, and I’m surprised we have not yet picked up on it here. Ghanaians use coolers to serve their meals in. It keeps the dish hot, which is more “sweet,” or appetizing, to the natives. It was good for us too. The hotter the food, the safer it was if we were buying from street vendors.

Propane Stove:

This propane stove was our life. It was the only way we could cook a meal or warm our food. Many of the wealthier Ghanaians had propane stoves because of convenience, but it does cost an occasional 5 cidi to refill the gas. This particular stove of ours was temperamental, and to this day I’m not sure which direction was “higher” and “lower” for the flame. If you look closely you can see oil splatters on the bright yellow wall behind it. If you are going to eat a Ghanaian meal, plan on taking in a lot of oil.

Charcoal Stove:

While our compound did not have one of these, it was more typically found in the neighbor’s house than a propane-powered stove. It is powered by charcoal. The bottom chamber is where you light a match and a fan the flames to heat up the upper chamber. I’ve even seen someone make a cake on one.

Fufu Mound and Stick:

Fufu is the signature traditional meal of Ghana. The cement mound you see pictured is where you set up to pound it. The stick with the claw like end is used to mash cassava and plantain in various stages to form this interesting doughy starch. It takes two people to pound fufu, and it is usually a couple who makes it. In fact, asking someone who is not your husband to help you has sexual connotations. The man is the one who pounds with this stick you see, while the woman is the one who “drives” the dough in a bowl. She flips the mixture over between each pound, and if you are a skilled Ghanaian couple, she won’t get her hand crushed. Also notice in the picture with the stick the slope of the ground. Many compounds are laid out on a slope so that water will drain properly.

Kitchen Window/Garbage Disposal:

I referred to this kitchen window as our garbage disposal. Whenever you had bits of rice that were not wiped off of the plate, you had to fling it out the window for the animals to eat. It was a great light source, and the romantic set up induced a few Disney themed musical productions when we were cleaning up after dinner.


Everyone has a lantern in Ghana. When the power can go out for weeks at time, there is no other choice. One with a handle was preferable because you could hang it up and illuminate a room. I never saw a native use a flashlight during my stay.

Pestle and Mortar:

My relationship with this traditional cooking skill was a challenging one at first. Many field study students manage to break the grooved clay bowl when they first get here, and I did manage a pretty good crack. It is how they grind down their vegetables and spices for their stews. The hourglass wood mallet you see is used to go back and forth along the grooves to break down the vegetables. You have to perform this blending process sitting down on a stool with the bowl on the ground.


The stool is not just an important household item; it is also a symbol. Traditionally a stool represents power. Even the legends about Kwame Nkruma and the golden stool creation myth about Ghana were founded on this idea. Stools are everywhere in Ghana for doing laundry, sitting around, or cooking. The one pictured here was my favorite one in the house. Usually the wood is just left unpainted.


Ah, the radio. Music is an important part of Ghanaian culture, and a radio does not rely on electricity to work. Therefore, radios entertain all Ghanaians during their daily chores and activities, and also during the early hours of the morning when I am trying to sleep.

Rain Catchers:

These large basins were designed to catch rainwater by being situated under a bent rain gutter. These bins were massive, containing maybe fifty gallons of water each when full, and are the main water sources for Ghanaians.

Rice Ball Cauldron:

I thought this set up was one of the most interesting household items in Ghana. The pot you see is curved more than a typical pot for the specific task of making rice balls. The metal rods are used to hook onto the side, and then the big loops go under your feet so to secure the pot. After establishing that firm hold on the pot, you can use that canoe paddle shaped stick and mash the rice against the sides of the cauldron. By doing this you can form balls of rice for soups, which is always a family favorite for locals (and me).

Shower Shoes:

Everyone in Ghana owns a pair of flip-flops for the shower. You can also use them for doing laundry, but it keeps your feet from being burned on the cement while also keeping them from coming in contact with bugs and various bacteria’s that could be present. Some are even made out of recycled old tires. It is offensive and informal to wear shower shoes when going to your daily activities. It reminded me of wearing pajamas in public.

Sweat Rag:

Ghana is five degrees off of the equator and is always humid. You sweat. A lot. Everyone has some kind of bandanna or hanky with them to wipe off sweat drips or the seat they are about to sit on. A clean one is also required for school uniforms. Try going without one for a day. I dare you.

Yam Strainer:

This flat, metal spoon you see is what they use to fry up yams and plantains, which are two of their main starches in their diet. Oil is a central element of Ghanaian diets, and this little tool helps fish out fried food, but allows the oil to be saved for another night.


The Machete is an absolute must of every household, no matter who you are or what you do for a living. To us we might think of it as duct tape in America. It is essential for farming (which is the job of most Ghanaians), weeding to help prevent snakes, preparing chicken, or even sharpening your pencil at school.

(Field Notes 88.4)


  1. Hi Rachel -

    Thank you for taking such incredible photos and documenting your experience in Ghana. Without your hard work, I would never know what my son's experience was like!

    Forever grateful,
    Chase's mom

  2. In South Africa, they would use those brooms to sweep the dirt. They'd do it to clean the yard and leave a cool pattern in the dirt.

    Fufu in SA was called Mealie Pap. Mmmmm!


  3. Chas, sounds like I need to go to South Africa someday. Chase's mom, I'm happy that my obsession with photography can be of some benefit, even though it probably got annoying to my poor group!

  4. hey, i love your pictures. I served a mission in Cape Coast Mission. I met that girl with the really curly blonde hair that is in some of your pictures! Thanks for capturing the beauty of Ghana.

  5. Thanks for this! I'm leading a workshop about sustainable development and we want to challenge teams to design a safe water storage system using items found in a typical Ghanian community. This helps a lot.

  6. love your blog! Check out mine on events in Ghana, photography etc

  7. Sweat rag... my best friend when I was in Ghana.
    And I had an awkward encounter with shower shoes as I wore them to church one week when I was away for the weekend and had no other shoes.... yeah not a very good idea. My host family asked me the next time to make sure I brought Sunday shoes for my weekend at their house. Makes for a good laugh now, but at the time I felt terrible!