Once, in the ‘bad old days’, returning home from the US, as I was boarding the plane I was staggering under the considerable weight of my ‘hand luggage’.
It included a gallon of cooking oil, sugar, soap and toothpaste!
At that time, those were some of the items famously termed ‘essential commodities’ – or ‘essenco’ – and all scarce in Ghana.
Few indigenes coming home could resist the compulsion to bring back as much of the ‘essential commodities’ as possible, even in one’s carry-on luggage, supposed to be a small, light bag.
I must say that airline airport staff abroad, normally known for strictness, were sometimes extremely understanding and allowed such outrageous, heavy bags being passed off as ‘hand luggage’.
Their attitude indicated that they sympathized with the plight of their Ghanaian passengers.
Then there was the time in Germany when I persuaded my official guide to assist me to comb countless department stores in search of a toilet seat cover of a particular colour, much to her bemusement.
And yes, that WC accessory too, came to Ghana as hand luggage.
After that long, tiring search, I couldn’t risk it arriving in Ghana broken in my suitcase!
Another time, returning from London, my hand luggage, consisted of an ice-chest full of partly cooked chunks of cow leg, for soup.
Admittedly in no way can cow leg be termed an ‘essenco’, but, surely, a soul deserves a treat every now and then, whether good times or bad!
Furthermore, doubtless Ghanaian soup aficionados will agree that one simply can’t compare the size of a European cow’s legs to those of the usually anaemic, famished-looking local cows!
Nevertheless, such peculiar episodes were not limited to my travels in America or Europe.
During a trip to Sierra Leone for a seminar, I bought such quantities of groceries in a shop that when I went to pay, the checkout girl, obviously mistaking me for a Sierra Leonean, asked genially, “you going to spend some time up-country?”
I could only laugh.
I didn’t feel like enlightening her.
Another memorable experience was a curious ‘barter’ arrangement agreed while I was visiting Kenya, when one of my Kenyan hosts, an airline official, fell in love with the Ghanaian costume.
She admired my outfits so much that she asked if I could have one made for her on my return home, as she wanted to have at least one to show off in Nairobi, to demonstrate her West African connection!
I don’t remember whose idea it was to do a barter, but fortunately, her airline had a Nairobi-Accra route, so we struck a most unusual deal: I would send her an outfit and she would air-freight to me some frozen fresh beef – the packages to be sent through her airline colleagues.
As I recall, I sent her two lovely ‘kaba-and slit’ sets; and I think I received two or three big packages of prime beef from her.
Kenya has always been known for its quality beef and abundant supply.
But perhaps at this point I need to explain that I wasn’t in the rich, ‘frequent flyer’ class.
My trips were all for professional courses or programmes, with ticket and other expenses paid for.
Still on the subject of travel stories related to soup, the London-Accra ice-chest strategy apart, pity a gentleman, Mr T, whose similar, but reverse plan, Accra-London, and involving a suitcase, ended in anguish.
His careful investment in expensive smoked fish and akranteԑ (grasscutter/bush meat), turned into a failed venture.
His story: After a holiday in Ghana, Mr T had bought and packed a big, suitcase full of the said soup pot components, for which he paid an excess luggage charge at the Kotoka International Airport (KIA).
Clearly, he was salivating at the prospect of the many pots of efie nkwan (‘home soup’) that he and his family would be enjoying during the winter months.
Imagine his shock, horror and near tears, when on arrival home in London, he opened that suitcase and found inside, not its precious contents, but something entirely different.
As if by magic, all the smoked fish and bush meat had vanished from ‘his’ suitcase; in their place were useless men’s clothing and other worthless things.
He said it immediately dawned on him that in his haste to leave Heathrow Airport and head home, he had picked up the wrong suitcase from the baggage carousel, a suitcase similar to his!
Not surprisingly, numerous, frantic phone calls to the airline yielded no result; they couldn’t trace the owner of the unwanted suitcase and Mr T never saw his own suitcase again; all his efie nkwan main ingredients were ‘Gone with the Wind’.
Mr T said he would never stop cursing that unknown wicked fellow passenger who had benefitted from such an immense windfall, and who evidently had no intention of coming to claim his own wretched possessions.
But this is 2021 and how times have changed; and for the better!
Evidently, Ghana is now going through a ‘hand-to-chin’ period.
Nevertheless, it’s a very different kind of hardship, and to me it’s nothing like the bad old days, thank God.
On a recent visit to the KIA, watching some passengers from London coming through the Arrival Hall, it was evident that things are very different now.
Arriving Ghanaians were carrying mostly light hand luggage; some none at all.
Even with their main luggage, I didn’t see any heaving trolleys skidding around because of the weight of the ‘essenco’ passengers would have felt compelled to bring home those times.
Surely, it’s a reflection of how far we have come that even the expression, “essential commodities” has vanished, despite the current rising cost of living.
Yes, we have indeed come a very long way.
May there never be a return of those days symbolised by the outlandish hand luggage of Ghanaians arriving at the KIA.