Missing Ingredients

by Elizabeth Johnson

30 min read


Hajia Sumaya Abdallah is a 50 year old woman who lives in Tamale and runs Sumaya's Kitchen, a popular local chop bar that has been serving food to the community since the 1940s. Hajia Sumaya is married with two children and works with 20 other women to run her Chop bar started by her grandmother. She describes herself as a happy and content woman who wouldn't have found the kind of confidence and contentment she has if he had not taken over the Chop bar.

‘The tip of a pen is too small to fit everybody'
I watched as my mother pinched the tip of her right middle finger with her left thumb and index finger to help me visualize the smallness she referred to. These were the concluding lines of her pep talk. One I had heard over and over. We sat in our usual spot against the backdrop of the bustling chop bar. That was the day her words finally made a home within me. The day I made the decision that I wanted to be a part of a legacy my grandmother had started some 70 plus years ago. To have my own ‘regime’ and breathe my own kind of breath in an already existing life.

It was not my plan to want to take over the chop bar and run it as I am doing now. I always thought that by default, it would be a part of my life. A part significant enough to demand my presence and attention but not my full devotion.

I remember finishing Tamale Polytechnic (now Tamale Technical University) with a diploma in secretaryship and immediately hitting the job market. While in school, I spent a good portion of my free time at the chop bar making myself useful, but the goal was to work in an office. Coming from a family of 10 other siblings, all who are very educated and working prestigious white color jobs, my goal was to follow in their footsteps. It did not help that my friends and I would sit and daydream about our near future working our prestigious white color jobs.

After finishing Polytechnic in 1998, I spent about two years looking for a job. I practically applied for every job I heard about. I also applied to the university to further my education and tried the fire service, immigration and other forces but nothing succeeded. During this period, my mother and one of my older brothers tried to convince me to consider taking the chop bar as my full time job. Of Course at the time this made no sense to me and caused a little friction between my brother and I.

Audio 1 - How it Started

My regime will enter its 20th year at the start of the new yearr(2022) and if you ask me of any regrets I have, my response will be that I regret not listening to my mother and brother earlier.

It is impossible to say exactly when this place was started. There have been two regimes before mine spanning something over 70 years. The business was started by my grandmother, Hajia Sanatu Natogma somewhere in the 1940s. After getting married and having he first two children, she decided that it would be beneficial to start her own small business in order to earn some money of her own. My grandmother always recounts how she started making and hawking Tou Zaafi which sold quickly. After a while, she was offered a space in front of her brother'shouse which is very close to where the chop bar is located now. My grandmother used the space very well, setting up a small stall and selling her Tou as we call it here. Her food sold out very fast and with time she decided to add Fufu as a second meal. At the time, the business was too young to employ workers, adding on the Yam Fufu presented a challenge but my Grandmother found a way out. Everyday, when the yam was boiled and ready for pounding, she would call the young ladies that sold water in bowls on their heads. The deal was that she would offer them a pay equal to the amount of money they made selling the water in exchange for their services of which they were more than happy to provide. The way we make fufu has evolved over the years. I have been able to acquire a Fufu processing machine that makes the process faster and easier. In the last stage of making the Fufu, we still do pound it. No matter how we evolve, there is a texture that pounding offers the fufu. A texture that makes food feel like tradition.

Video 1 and 2 - fufu Making process, machine and final pounding

These days we do not have to negotiate with young girls selling water, water is not even sold that way any more. I have a team of about 20 women employees who work here everyday.

Audio 2 - Genesis

Together we get to work by 6 in the morning to cook and get food ready by 10 am for our eager customers. I am very involved in the food making process because there is a certain way I like the soups to taste. A trademark that must carry on for as long as the chop bar exists. A few of these women have been working here as far back as when my grandmother started to accept people. For her, it started with accepting young girls from our extended family. Many of them started with my grandmother even before my mother joined her at the age of 10. My mother and I have continued in the tradition of taking in young ladies from extended families. Some of these women are older than me, others have left after marriage but many have stayed on with us. We are more like family here and I can count on all of them to give off their best even when I am not here.

Video 3 and 4 - women getting food ready early in the morning.

The chop bar is now called Sumaya’s Kitchen. Like my mother, I have continued to make some changes and additions to help the place evolve with time. During my mother’s regime it was known as Mma Zenabu’s Chopbar and gained great popularity. My mother added on Rice balls and Banku to the menu and did some extension work to the building itself.
In my earlier years, I decided to add on waakye, jollof rice and plain rice but these did not move as fast as the soupy foods and so I packed it in. I later introduced soft drinks which were good additions. Currently, I am working on my own Sobolo recipe which will be added.

Video 5 - Woman serving food

Sumaya’s Kitchen currently sits in between a gas filling station and the popular Hamadiya mosque very close to the space where my Grandmother first started. But before it became our chop bar, it was an inoculation center. I remember coming here as a young girl running around with other children while many foreigners got vaccinated. The area gets its name from the fact that this place first existed as an inoculation center. The locals called it Saaga Saaga which meant
injection in one of the local languages. This evolved to Sakasaka. When the center collapsed, the place was abandoned and my Grandmother got interested in taking it up as a space for the chop bar. With the help of her uncle, they secured the space and we have been here ever since.

Audio 3 - The evolution of things

It is almost impossible to count successes without counting failures. Every individual, family or business will have a mix of both. It is just the way life goes. The chop bar is successful in itself by existing for all these years. It is older than me and will continue to exist after me. My Grandmother and mother have encountered their own failures in running this business. I reflect on my grandmother’s life and see how much drive and intention it must have taken to want to work. There are reasons that go beyond just wanting to use her time productively as a young married woman and mother. Many of these reasons I will not know but many that have led to paving the way for me to have an education and have the privilege of choice to decide to take over after my mother.

Within the issues that exist, more reflection has helped me understand and appreciate how my Grandmother’s decision to sell food paved the way for a more enabling and supportive community. As a married woman, I appreciate my husband's adaptiveness to my busy and demanding work life. My father too was supportive to my mother who went on to have 11 children and grow a business.

As a woman, the challenge to run a business and maintain a home at the same time comes with its one challenge but the women I work with inspire me everyday. We are all in this together and will do everything in our capacity to keep things going smoothly.

Religion is an important and integral part of our lives. During the month of Ramadan we do not run the chop bar. It would be unfair to have women keep their homes, come to work and do all this on an empty stomach. The month of Ramadan is a paid leave month but every now and then, we come to cook and share for free as a way of giving back to our community.

Audio 4 - Traditions

The chop bar exists as a safe haven for women. We work with energy that always suparsses the physical. Men have never worked in this space and I plan to keep it that way. Our foodstuff suppliers also come from a generation of women passed on from my grandmother down to me. It is only the meat that comes from butchers who are men and these are relatives as well.

It is my plan to introduce the use of gas cylinders for cooking. Since the time of my grandmother, we have used firewood which comes with its challenges. I also intend to introduce more locally made drinks as I earlier mentioned and get the chop bar onto the internet space for more visibility. I believe we have an interesting story that surpasses the simplicity usually attached to feeding people and I look forward to telling it more.

On the question of who will take over the business from me, I cannot give an exact answer. I never knew I would be doing this when I just completed school. I have a daughter who says she wants to be a caterer.That is very positive when you think about it isnt it? It is almost a give in. But Life is very interesting and so anything can happen. I am positive the chop bar will continue for many more years but the future is impossible without the continuation of the present and so for now, I focus on my regime and the rest will take care of itself.


Elizabeth Sekyi lives with her husband and five children in Agona Kwesi Twum Krom, popularly known as Agona KTK in the Central Region of Ghana. At 36, she describes herself as a self sufficient and industrious woman alway happy to challenge herself to do better. Her dream is to see that her children do not lack anything that will prevent them from chasing the dreams they have for themselves and so far she is happy with the way things are going. Her happiness does not mean she is comfortable. It rather inspires her to do more.

Audio 1 - Introductions
Elizabeth Sekyi introduces herself to us, She speaks Gomoa Fante.

I was a teenager when I started farming independently. I have been doing this for 21 years now and everyday, I find joy in my farm.It feels very fulfilling to be able to get up and have something to do. As a mother of five, I consider my farm the 6th child. One I take very good care of and who in return, ensures that I am able to have a sense of independence and security for my children. I am a married mother of 5 who farms and maintains a home. In addition to this, I make and sell palm oil and plantain chips. I do not deny that it is all a lot to do at a time
but the drive to give my children more is enough motivation to keep going.

Audio 2 - Why I started farming
In this audio, she speaks about the fact that her parents could not support her to go to Senior High School and that she started farming at 18. She is speaking Goma Fanti.

When I turned 18, my mother gave me a portion of her farmland to start my own farming. This was a very symbolic moment in my life. It signified that I had reached the stage of womanhood where nurturing was inescapable and since I was not yet married nor with children, farming was a way of helping me understand what it meant to nurture. But this was just a subtle significance as compared to the ushering into adulthood that my mother’s actions signified. I was to fend for myself through farming , its success and failures depended on me and my survival depended on it.

I have fond memories of my childhood. Both of my parents were farmers. My mother’s mother (my grandmother) was a cook and a farmer who also introduced her to the profession. Being the first of 7 children, I had to grow up very fast to support my farming mother. There were times when I had to take charge of my siblings while she was away. My mother taught me how to weed, to clear a farm, to plant and nurture seedlings and to harvest. I learned from her by instruction
and by observation. When we were in school, we would rush to the farm to see if my mother needed help. As a child, helping my mother on the farm meant that she would yield more harvest, sell more and have more money to buy us Christmas gifts. The new clothes and shoes were always a favorite. Till this day, I have fond memories of receiving my crispy new dress and shoe for the festive season. This is a tradition I have carried into my own marriage and experience with my children over the years. The responsibilities I had as a young woman is all
that has added up and made it possible for me to do all that I do and do it well.

Audio 3 - Childhood Memories
In this audio, Elizabeth Sekyi talks about fond childhood memories of receiving Christmas gifts from her parents thanks to proceeds they get from farming.

Given the chance, I would have loved to pursue a higher education. After Junior High School, I had to stop because my parents could not afford it any longer. There was also some priority given to my younger siblings especially the boys to help them finish at least senior high school. This was how I joined my mother on the farm full time helping her with farm work while supporting with domestic activities as well. Some of my siblings are living and working abroad, others are
married and living with their families in other towns.

Video 1 
In this video, Elizabeth Sekyi takes us to her favorite place on her farm, the resting shed. She describes it as her office where she rests, brings harvests and even cooks for her children when they arrive from school.

It is amazing to think about how far I have come as a farmer who started out with just a few crops such as cassava and corn on my mother’s farm. Now, I farm a lot more crops such as Garden eggs, Cucumber, Cabbage, Tomatoes, pepper, Cassava, Turkey Berry, EggPlant (Aubergine) and even Oranges, Plantain and Banana. My farm is no longer a small portion on my mothers farm but a vast piece of land that also hosts cash crops such as Oil Palm, Cocoa and Coconut which I oversea for a company in Accra. The arrangement with this company (company name withheld) is that I act as caretaker over their vast cash crop farms and in return gain a percentage of their profit. I am also able to do my personal farming on their land. I do not share any profits of my own farming with the company. Also do not own the land but this is a very good arrangement because all year round we are assured of an income. The company also has a dam which we are free to use. They also assist in the acquisition of needed chemicals for our farms.

Audio 4 - Farming then vrs now
In this audio, Elizabeth discusses how farming has evolved over time.

I am in total control of my farm, every decision to be made is my call and this makes me feel very in control of things. I love the balance it creates for my children. At home, my husband is the head and he has the final say and makes the final decisions. I have a very accommodating and supportive husband who goes out of his way to ensure that I have the necessary support to run my farm and make great harvest. My husband is an equally industrious man who supports
our family. He works in the field of building and construction and is a Veterinary officer as well. He is also a Pastor in our church and also farms. It is important for my children to see our dynamics, how each of their parents has a space in which they are the lead. When we are home, I perform my role as a wife making sure that there is food for the family and that the house is kept in inorder. On the farm,my husband is in my support unit and allows me to be in charge. This balance is very important for the family institution.

I have five Children. 4 girls and a boy I do not know if any of them will end up farming yet but what I do know is that it is very important for me that they all attend school. My first daughter, Mavis is 21 and is working towards becoming a nurse. In January 2022, she will leave home to go to Nursing training College. Beatrice, my second girl is 19 and has already moved out of home. SHe works and lives in Swedru. Her plan is to work hard enough and raise money to add up to the little that I have to enter the University. She wants to attend Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology and pursue a course that will help her get permanent and good work in the Bank she is already working with in Swedru. My last three kids, Ama, Nancy and Junior are all climbing their way up the educational ladder. Ama is waiting to enter Senior HIgh School, Nancy is in JHS 2 and Jnr is in KIndergarten.

Video 2 - Elizabeth takes us through her palm oil production process.

Video 3 - Palm Oil processing 2
In this video, Elizabeth and her mother, Diana, continue making palm oil. The nuts are from their farms and the palm oil is prepared for selling. They do this twice a week.

Aside from farming, I make and sell Plantain chips. I also make fresh palm oil. I have been doing the Palm oil with my mother for about five years now. We are lucky to live close to the processing factory and we make our palm oil from our farm yields every two weeks. I wake up very early in the morning to Fry my plantain chips and package them up before I get the kids ready for school and myself ready for farm work. I enjoy what I do and whenever I am bored, I watch Telenovela or a film on TV. Those series are very entertaining.

Audio 5 - Future Plans.
In this audio, Elizabeth discusses her plans to invest her money in her children's future. She also says that she intends to do farming as long as possible and has no plans of learning a new skill or trade.

Soon after I started farming at 18, I got married and had my first two children. It was not long after that I knew I needed more financial freedom. I did not want to rely on my husband for everything. I also wanted to save so that I could support my children very well. I opened a bank account, learned about how to save with a bank and started. This has been one of the best decisions I have made.

I am happy with the progress my life has made. These days, I spend my time on my farm or on my mother’s farm helping her to organize and care for her seedling beds better. Farming evolves with time due to changes in the weather patterns and crop adaptations to the soil and it gives me joy that I am able to help my mother.

Diana Sekyi's Story - Living the best version.

At 53, Diana Sekyi is a mother and grandmother closest to her first born daughter. She lives with her second husband in Agona Kwesi Twum Krom popularly called Agona KTK where she farms and processes palm oil with her daughter Elizabeth.

I always have to pause whenever I am asked the question of what I would have become if I had an education. I pause not because it is a bad question per say, but because it brings many things to mind. First, it brings to mind the fact that the person asking may be asking with the idea that my life would have been better if I had some education. It also brings to mind the different scenarios that could have existed if I actually did go to school. As humans, it is very easy to
depict a better alternative when presented with the question or idea of what ifs. It is always as if a better version of my life exists if I had the privilege of going to school or growing up in the city or having fewer children. But who is to say that I am not actually living the best version of my life.

Audio 1 - why she could not attend school.
In this audio, Diana Sekyi elaborates on why she did not go to school explaining that after her sister , who was also the first born got pregnant while in school , her father vowed never to send any of his daughters to school.

I never went to school, I only grew up with stories of what school was like and the opportunities it offered. At the time, as a young girl, I yearned to be a part of a progressive system and would imagine myself finishing school and getting a good job, the kind that an education offers. Now, if you ask me what I would have become if I attended school, I do not know, maybe a teacher or a nurse or still a farmer. I have siblings who went to school who are not really using education to earn an income.

My parents had 11 kids. My father was a blacksmith and my mother farmed and sold food in front of our house. She would eventually give up the cooking to concentrate on her farming but that would be later in her older age when both of these occupations demanded a lot more energy and time. It was already decided that no daughter of my father would go to school even before I was old enough to start school. My father made this decision when my older sister, his first child, got pregnant while in school so from a very young age my mother taught me how to take care of the home in her absence. She also taught me how to take care of my younger siblings and run her food business while she was at the farm.

Audio 2 - Genesis
In this Audiom Diana sekyi describes how her inability to attend school made her start farming with her mother at a very young age. She also explains how he mother first taught her hot to sell food before taking her to the farm.

I started farming at a very young age. I would follow my mum to the farm and help in every way possible. I have fond memories of my mother telling me the tomatoes or garden eggs we used to cook were the ones I planted or cared for.

After a while, my mother felt that I was old enough to have my one farm and make my own money and so she offered me a piece of her farm land to grow Cassava and Corn. This is how I started farming at a very young age. I don't recall what age exactly but by 1983,during the famine we had in Ghana, I was 19 and I was already an independent farmer for a few years.

Audio 3 - The need to farm.
Diana Sekyi explains how a negligent husband pushed her to take farming more seriously so that she can pick up all the responsibilities of raising her children and giving them her best.

After getting married and having kids, I started to cook and sell again and do small scale farming. This is how I supported my family. My first husband and I had seven children and unfortunately he wasn't a supportive husband. I think I would have been overwhelmed and clueless as to how to raise 7 children on my own if I did not have a mother like mine. There is also something about farming that blesses you with the patience and skill to nurture things to life.

I learned a lot from my mother. How to not rely on one source of income, how to multitask and most importantly, how to perceiver in the presence of obstacles. Aside from having a mother who taught me how to be independent at a very young age, I watched her work extra hard to provide for her family when my father could not. I also watched her work hard to make sure her children, especially the girls who came after me, could go to school. I guess all this made it easy for me to navigate life on my own.

Audio 4 - Childhood memories- 1983 famine
In this audio, Diana sekyi describes one of the hardest times in her childhood and how they survived it. She describes the famine of 1983 in Ghana and explains how food was scare right from farming to buying of basic ingredients for cooking.

Just like my parents, my first child with my first husband was a girl. It was important to me that she had access to education so I made it a point for her to go to school and also learn how to farm. It offered her options. Although I was unable to see her all the way through to the university,I see the difference education has offered my daughter. She is now also a farmer, one of the best on the trade in town and she is working hard to make sure her children get an
education to the highest level. Currently, her first daughter is waiting to enter nursing school and she has made this possible through her farming. I am a proud grandmother and mother seeing how my daughter is very focused on giving her children everything they need,including an education.

Audio 5 - A supportive husband.
In this audio, Elizabeth Sekyi talks about how supportive her second husband is. She elaborates on how he helps her keep her farm, purchase and apply pesticides among other things.

I am grateful for farming and for the fact that my current husband persuaded me to go back to farming after many years of selling food. Farming has offered me a sense of identity and power and an income that does not make me rely on anyone. My second husband is very supportive and I farm with my daughter as well as process and sell palm oil.

Video 1 Diana Sekyi and her daughter, Elizabeth Sekyi are in this video. Diana tells us about her cucumber nursery and how she cares for it. She also discusses when they will be ready to be transferred to the main farm.

I enjoy working on my farm and coming home for a good rest. It is what keeps me active, happy and alive. I enjoy the family bond farming has created between my daughter, my husband and her husband. We all understand how farming has helped us survive and provide for our children. We all understand how to support each other and where everyone's power dominates. My power is on my farm and everyone follow my lead, everyone is there to help. At home, the dynamics may be different, we follow the lead of the husband as long as he is committed to the home and making decisions that are favorable to all but that doesn't stop us from picking up initiative and planning our day to favor ourselves. I saw my mother do it, I have done it and I am watching my daughter do it.

It is most exciting to see my granddaughters do it as well, going for what they want and all this would not have been possible if we didnt farm.

About the Project

In Ghana, the cultural connotation of food is closely linked to women. From the unearthing of raw food to the serving of food on the table and sometimes feeding into a young child’s mouth, women are woven into the process of food and its making. In the already existing history, market women have a special place of being actively involved in the fight for independence however; this project looks beyond the bracket of market women and the direct links to political history. It seeks stories on identity, resilience and continuity from generations of women farmers and chop bar operators. The interesting commonality between women and food is that they are an important aspect of society that has become the basic need for progress. While these basic needs are important to the making of life and its continuity, the problem arises when society views these basic needs as a default to its structure so much so that they are disregarded.

This disregard is evident in the telling of history where women are written out and underrepresented and where food and the concept of it is underexplored in fishing out relevant stories that explore experiences and continuity in the lives of the everyday people. The project Specifically, finds families who have for generations either cooked to serve to the public or farmed food for sale. By hearing these generational stories of women and their relationship with food, the idea of feminism to the everyday woman will be highlighted touching on other important and related ideas such as identity, independence, resilience and continuity. The wealth that exists within moving between generations of families who have many years been in the same business, in this case either farming or cooking ) is that the stories will touch on how these women managed to stay active at the backdrop of political, economic or natural happenings that one way or the other affected movement and livelihood. It will also be interesting to hear how again at the backdrop of social evolution, they have stayed in business.

In seeking more of the ordinary it is an important part of this project to move beyond geographical locations in Ghana that have been highlighted more in our history. Examples being Accra, James Town, Cape Coast and Takoradi. The selected stories for this project will comefrom less mentioned towns bringing a new perspective to life and experiences within Ghana. The final product of this project is a collection of mixed media reportage of pictures and essays retold by the research after recorded interviews and short audios of these women’s voices will be added for a much more wholesome experience. The photographs will show the women farmers and
cooks in action while telling their stories and also feature few pictures from their family archives if they exist.

Writers Notes

The stories collected in this project reflect the lives of the everyday Ghanaian woman and their thoughts on life and navigating it within the complexities of individual, cultural and societal expectations. While these three stories do not do justice to the totality of women living in Ghana, they do help reflect on the position and progress of women who’s stories have been left out in the discourse of topics like feminism as well as in the documenting of histories and contemporary narratives of women in Ghana. Collecting these stories meant spending a day or two with these women and by doing so, experiencing life from their perspective. This experience highlighted the various bubbles we live in as women in the same country and how these different bubbles represent totally different worlds and how these worlds advance. There is a lot to navigate on the topic of feminism and what it means to these worlds and it is my hope that reading these stories will help raise questions and ideas on how we navigate feminism.

The stories are from the North and South of Ghana. From the Northern Region,in Tamale we meet Hajia Sumaya who runs a chop bar passed on to her from her grandmother and mother. From the Central Region in a town called Agona KTK we meet Diana Sekyi and her daughter, Elizabeth Sekyi who have been farming all their lives and come from a generation of farmers. Through the similarities and differences that are seenin all these stories, we celebrate women and womanhood and how food, either through farming or cooking has helped these women carve their own identities and take charge of their own lives.


I would like to thank The House of Everyday Feminism for the opportunity to do this project. This is my first solo grant and project and I will be forever grateful to them for believing in this project and having the patience to see that it is delivered. I would also like to thank my Mother, Janet Folagbade and sister Alice Johnson for their immense support to this project, to my mother for helping get the Sekyi Family and my sister for helping edit the sound audios. A special thank you also goes to Ama Tawiah for stepping in and supporting photography and to Esinam Damale. I also want to thank Mr. Mashood in Tamale who helped connect me to Sumaya’s Kitchen and to Mr. Yamoah in Swedru who helped connect me to the Sekyi Family and helped with translation. Most importantly, to the women who allowed me into their homes and lives and spoke to me so honestly and freely. I thank you all.

House of African Feminisms (HoAF) is funded by The Goethe-Institut in Sub-Saharan Africa
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