YEN speaks to a family that has survived on 43 years of selling kelewele

YEN speaks to a family that has survived on 43 years of selling kelewele's Richard Quashie, head to Labone, in search of a famous kelewele vendor by the roadside.

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But the interesting part of her story is that she has been at the same location, selling the same thing for over four decades.

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This love story begins as most of mine do, I see or hear something and I set out to google it. My colleague passed a comment about a lady who had been selling kelewele at Labone for over 20 years.

20 years of selling finger food is quite a feat; I understood the Ghanaian obsession with kelewele, I personally loved it, but 20 years was a really long time for one person to be selling it.

Kelewele for the uninitiated is chopped up ripe plantain mixed with spices and deep fried. “Labone Kelewele”...and yes, there it was, exactly where my colleague had said the stall would be.

A Google Search results page for "Labone Kelewele" /
A Google Search results page for "Labone Kelewele" /

When the Google results page loaded, a map appeared: top right, option two. And from the look of things, everyone seemed to have a good story to tell about her.

It was not a short ride, but the vendor was easy to sport. There was a crowd in front of the shop as it was rush hour for her business.

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The kelewele was being sold over a table, something I later found out the AMA had played a major part in - and the place looked as regular as most finger food vendors in Accra look. There were three women behind the table at the time of my visit with a older lady with a matriarchal look hovering over them.

A customer purchasing kelewele from the vendors
A customer purchasing kelewele from the vendors

The lady behind it all - "Ole Lady"

The older lady was leaning in her seat, wiping away at her lips - she had just finished supper prior to my arrival.

She was the Ghanaian granny personified: in her late 60s, hair wrapped in a scarf, wearing a wax print in traditional kaba and slit style. And this was no simple kelewele joint, this joint has been run for over 40 years - under the same woman.

The chief vendor - and matriarch of the Tormegah family - is a 68-year-old lady by the name Abigail Tormegah, but she is called “Ole Lady” by her children and most of her customers.

I was just a child before the business was started… this is a generational thing”, Delfina Akosua Tormegah, the eldest among seven children, says. Delfina Akosua Tormegah, the eldest among seven children, says. “I started with her from my childhood, I come in to help her right after school”.

Delfina Tormegah, the eldest daughter of the owner of the business
Delfina Tormegah, the eldest daughter of the owner of the business

Abigail Tormegah told me she has been running the business for 43 years, Akosua is just 42 years old.

Ole Lady came to Accra with her husband in 1969. She was born in the Volta Region and they had moved here to seek greener pastures but she started the kelewele business in 1974.

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So you have been doing this one job for the past 40+ years. Any other things?”, I asked her, still baffled. “I have no other work, I never went to school so I don’t have any other work, so the one I have is the one I have to hold on to”, she replies with a delightful tingle in her eye. She was proud of herself - who wouldn’t be?

Another daughter of Abigail attending to customers
Another daughter of Abigail attending to customers

It is a good work,” she adds. “If it wasn’t good, I wouldn’t have still been doing it”.

But it surely can’t have been all rosy.

Bumpy roads, problems with AMA and continuity

Her business was set in Greater Accra, and the Accra Metropolitan Assembly had a way of leaving everyone who works in Accra with memories - and she had received her fair share.

The AMA has been coming to worry us since, I had a little container but it was destroyed by the AMA”, Abigail Tormegah narrates. “But it is due to the kindness of one ‘Bernabeu’ that I am still operating here”.

According to her, when the AMA in 2015 moved in to clear them from the area, they demolished her stall alongside property of others, but one samaritan, Bernabeu, who was her customer intervened for her.

Bernabeu had spoken with the AMA to allow her continue selling at the location, but on the condition that she did not set up a permanent structure. “When they broke up my first kiosk, the AMA warned that I could only continue selling if I wanted to sell over a tabletop”, she says. And ever since then, she only sells from a table top, and even though the AMA still worry them occasionally, there had been no ruckus as the one in 2015.

Throughout our conversation, Ole Lady expressed gratitude for how far her business had come. She reminded me that all of her children had gotten education up to the Senior High School level through proceeds from her venture. “I, alone, look after my children. It is from this kelewele business that I have sent all my 7 children to school. It is all from the kelewele, I don’t sell maize, I don’t work in an office, it is just the kelewele business.

The matriarch has added frying of yam and potatoes to her trade
The matriarch has added frying of yam and potatoes to her trade

She, however, added with a look of regret that of her seven children it was only her last born twins who have had the chance to get a tertiary education.

But that is not her only regret or fear - she fears her children would not continue her trade after her.

She looked away from her eldest child, who had been listening intently as though she was hearing the story for the first time - and told me, “my children as very lazy”. I had quizzed her on how the business would continue through her children.

I don’t know if my children can continue this job after me”, she says, “for now, they are very lazy. Even when it is raining, they want to run away from the job. It is through my strength that I force them to stay and work.

And the rain does bother them a lot as she points to a pile of rubber sheets they use to cover their stuff when the showers threaten.

Delfina, her oldest daughter however shows some extra commitment to the business.

Have you done any other job apart from helping your mother?” I asked.

I haven’t chosen any different job, because if I should leave her, she would lack help”, Delfina replied with a defiant look on her work. She seemed happy with the job, she proudly told me they serve more than 100 people daily.

I should come and invest in the business then”, I joked. This was when she registered her worries. “This is a rubbish job, it is not an easy job. We are only here, because this is what we are used to doing now”. The 42-year-old also remarked that her own children don’t really come out here to help.

This is where the frying goes down
This is where the frying goes down

It seems Ole Lady’s worries about how the business would survive after her are genuine. I turned to the matriarch, and asked if she had some apprentices she was training apart from her children. “I don’t have people I train. It is not something that I can teach others. You just have to know how to cut the plantain, spice it it and make sure it tastes nice for the the consumer”, she says.

At the end of the day something had been stuck with me from my conversation with the kelewele “franchise”. I started evangelizing to friends and family; no one found the story of the kelewele seller at Labone nearly as interesting as I did. They had no fond memories of kelewele vendors, they couldn’t connect to the story of Delfina, Abigail and the rest of the Tormegahs.

But there was something beautiful about the perseverance of Ole Lady and her family.

I could only hope the business continues as she wishes it would.

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