The "Working in Ghana" Project

Carpenter/Palm Wine Tapper

[Mr. "Kojo," a man in his early forties, lives in a simple thatched house in Legon, a suburb of Accra. His household includes his two wives, two brothers, a cousin, one sister, and five of his wives' children aged 13 to 2. Mr. Kojo has worked at two jobs for the past twenty years--carpenter and palm wine tapper. He has completed middle school. Philip Awekeya interviewed him under a tree at his household.]

I begin each day at about 4:30 a.m. The first thing I do when I wake up is say my daily morning prayers asking Almighty God to bless me and members of my household with health, good luck, and strength so that we may go through the day's activities successfully.

When I finish the morning reflection, I put on my bush attire, pick up a four and a half gallon container and set off for the bush to collect palm wine from trees I felled and set collecting pots beneath the previous day. Whenever I remove the palm wine from each felled tree, I bore a fresh hole in it, and fire the region of the new hole properly in order to facilitate the free flow of the liquid.

At about 7:00 a.m. I return home with the wine, which I supply to my regular customers. My senior wife is first on the list, then four others around the neighborhood. On good days the container I carry to the bush gets filled up, but on bad days it may be only half full.

I leave the house a second time at about 7:30 a.m. to report at my official work place, a carpentry workshop. At the workshop there is usually nothing new for me and my colleagues to do. We carry out routine repair of office furniture, change faulty locks on office doors, and occasionally, build new chairs and tables to replace office furniture that can't be repaired.

Since there is very little work for us to do, we nearly always leave about noon for the remainder of the day. When I return home in the afternoon I rest for about forty minutes before picking up a hoe or cutlass to begin work on my maize and cassava farms. I work on the farms till about three in the afternoon when I set off for the bush, sometimes with my laborer, to fell new palm trees and collect palm wine from those being tapped. We usually leave the bush for home when it is dark. As soon as I reach home, I have a quick bath and take my last meal. I go straight to bed so that I will be able to wake up early the following morning to continue my routine work.

The work I do requires a lot of time and energy. It leaves little breathing space for me to enjoy any leisure. From dawn to sunset I keep moving from one point to another, performing one task after the other. I do all these things not because I enjoy over stretching my self but because what I earn as a carpenter is far too small to meet my family's needs in terms of feeding, clothing, and settling of the children school fees. It is hell to be a low income earner in this country. As things stand now, I must do many jobs to avoid being a topic of discussion by my neighbors.

Yet even as I strive to put all my energy to use to earn just enough money for the family, I sometimes run into serious financial problems. The palm trees that I fell may not contain enough water to yield a good quantity of palm wine. But the owners of the trees usually will not reduce their price for the tree. This palm wine tapping business is just like lotto. You either lose or gain, depending on how much palm wine you get from each tree you fell. You cannot determine what you will get from a particular tree merely by looking. You know only after it is felled and the tapping process has begun. With all these frustrations staring me in the face, I would not advise anyone to take up palm wine taping if he can lay hands on some other job. I tell my children to work at school so that they can become either medical doctors, lawyers, and accountants. That way they can avoid the kind of drudgery which I am going through to support them.

The conditions under which I work are quite unpleasant. It is not easy digging up a single palm tree, much less several of them. Even after a tree is felled, the boring of a hole is another difficult process which requires skill. When a hole is bored you have to struggle to fire the region of the hole in order to facilitate free flow of the palm wine. My assistant and I get quite a lot of bruises from the rough bark of the palm trees. Besides, the smoke from the fire makes my eyes red as if I am a drunkard. In spite of all these problems, many people enjoy my stuff. Many a time, people openly recommend my product as the best available. From these good comments I derive some satisfaction from what I do in the bush.

I have an excellent working relationship with my colleagues back at the carpentry workshop. I enjoy cracking jokes with my fellow workers and take instructions from the works foreman without complaints. I also work satisfactorily without much supervision, and because of this my supervisor likes me. In my own enterprise--the palm wine tapping business--I have one man assisting me. I treat him like a brother and not like a hired hand. We share food at the bush and discuss our family affairs openly. Though he calls me "master" I do not treat him as a servant.

Unlike other jobs where people stand the chance of gaining promotions to senior grades, I have no such opportunity. There are already quite a number of carpenters who came to work there before me and who are at the foreman level. My chances of gaining promotion are quite slim.

I feel uneasy talking to people about my pay. It is woefully inadequate; yet many outsiders think we collect plenty of money at the end of each month. What I receive each month cannot take my family through five good days. I had to find an alternative source of income by taking on palm wine tapping and farming. Otherwise my wives and children would have to "chew grass" or perish.

I belong to two work associations: one is a wing of Ghana Trade Union Congress, and the other is the local area Palm Wine Tappers Association. I play very little role in the first one because its activities are centered in few hands, people who call themselves the executive officers. The only time they call us to meetings is when they want us to go on demonstrations to back up our demand for pay increase. I serve as the organizing secretary of the local Palm Wine Tappers Association. We hold meetings once a month to discuss prices for our products, given the current prices of palm trees.

My wives and children like what I am doing to bring in additional money to support them. The women in particular are happy with me because they are able to have something doing through the sale of palm wine which I am able to provide them from my personal effort.

I feel honored and happy about my social standing in this community. Many people share their social problems with me. Some call on me for advice or counseling. Others simply approach me to share experiences and jokes. I have time for my neighbors though I am often trotting from one point to the other to put things straight. I also enjoy sharing my farm products with needy neighbors without waiting for them to make a request.

It is an open secret that things are difficult for most workers in this country these days, even including those officers who drive to work. What, therefore, remains for one to do is not to sit down, fold one's arms, and keep complaining minute per minute that our pay is far too small. Rather one should stand up to the challenge by taking on extra work in addition to one's official job so as to earn additional money to keep one's head above water. I have no room for self-pity. I must at all costs survive not through the mercies of friends but through my own determination, sacrifice, and hard work. In short, my philosophy to life is to give less comfort to my body in order to derive greater benefits for my children in later years.