Exchange Is Not Robbery: More Stories of an African Bar Girlby John M. Chernoff
While living in West Africa in the 1970s, John Chernoff recorded the stories of "Hawa," a spirited and brilliant but uneducated woman whose insistence on being respected and treated fairly propelled her, ironically, into a life of marginality and luck as an "ashawo," or bar girl. Rejecting traditional marriage options and cut off from family support, she is like many… See more details below
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While living in West Africa in the 1970s, John Chernoff recorded the stories of "Hawa," a spirited and brilliant but uneducated woman whose insistence on being respected and treated fairly propelled her, ironically, into a life of marginality and luck as an "ashawo," or bar girl. Rejecting traditional marriage options and cut off from family support, she is like many women in Africa who come to depend on the help they receive from one another, from boyfriends, and from the men they meet in bars and nightclubs. Refusing to see herself as a victim, Hawa embraces the freedom her lifestyle permits and seeks the broadest experience available to her.
In Exchange Is Not Robbery and its predecessor, Hustling Is Not Stealing, a chronicle of exploitation is transformed by verbal art into an ebullient comedy. In Hustling Is Not Stealing, Hawa is a playful warrior struggling against circumstances in Ghana and Togo. In Exchange Is Not Robbery, Hawa returns to her native Burkina Faso, where she achieves greater control over her life but faces new difficulties. As a woman making sacrifices to live independently, Hawa sees her own situation become more complex as she confronts an atmosphere in Burkina Faso that is in some ways more challenging than the one she left behind, and the moral ambiguities of her life begin to intensify.
Combining elements of folklore and memoir, Hawa's stories portray the diverse social landscape of West Africa. Individually the anecdotes can be funny, shocking, or poignant; assembled together they offer a sweeping critical and satirical vision.
"This volume, like its predecessor, is a valuable resource; especially so given the lack of ethnography focusing on African youth. This alone makes Chernoff's book a welcome contribution."
"Exchange Is Not Robbery stands alone very successfully. Neverthelss, readers who enjoy it may well want to read Hustling Is Not Stealing too."
"Exchange Is Not Robbery is the sequel to Hustling Is Not Stealing, an oral history about an illiterate young west African woman called 'Hawa'. John M. Chernoff, a musicologist, began taping Hawa's rich, exuberant stories in 1977. He first met her in Accra, Ghana in 1971, where she made a precarious living as an ashawo womana bar girl or hustler working at the fringes of prostitutionhaving run away from an abusive marriage that she was sold into at the age of 16. The first book related her experiences hustling in Accra and her migration to Togo and then Burkina Faso. Exchange Is Not Robbery catches up with her in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso's capital, not far from the village where her father is from. No longer young, she realises her ashawo lifestyle can't go on forever. Her tone is darker and less playful than before, though flashes of her old self remain. 'So, you know, our people, they used to say that I'm naughty!' she tells Chernoff in English, one of the 10 languages she speaks. 'They don't know what kind of a person I am. Ha!'"
Victoria B. Tashjian
"John Chernoff's books are important and passionate social documents that show how Hawa and many of her fellow citizens are capable, socially advanced and wry survivors; the challenge left to readers is to ask why these qualities in adversity are so necessary, and how things should be changed to enable ordinary Africans to enjoy the freedom they deserve."
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Read an Excerpt
A STRANGER AT HOME
Ouagadougou : Love That Makes One Sick
The time I left LomÃ©, my friend Mama Amma and I traveled to Ouagadougou. You know, I have a brother there. He is not my father's son; he's the son of my mother's big sister. When we dropped at Ouagadougou, we asked a driver at the lorry park, and he showed us a Gurunsi woman, and when we asked her, she knew my brother. She paid the taxi fare to carry us to my brother's place. Then we slept there.
And what got me annoyed: my brother was so gentle with his wife, and he was trying to play some fucking things with us. Mama Amma used to laugh at me on this case, but I always used to be annoyed. The way my brother was with his wife: evening time, they would bring the chairs outside. Then they would put their table in front of them. Then they would bring their television and put it on. And their children were also sitting behind there. Then she and the husband would start eating. Sometimes she would cut the food and put it in the husband's mouth. They were always doing things like this. And we were all sitting outside to eat, you know. So I used to be annoyed. I used to heat! What is he doing all this for? When we are eating, we are eating. If we finish, they are together: they can do whatever they want. But not the time when we will all come around to eat.
And then there was another woman, the first wife of my brother. He divorced that woman. I used to feel pity for her. Then I used to be annoyed more. Ha! When he divorced her, the woman said she would never marry again in her life. She would stay in the same house and die there, because she had children, and her children were the first senior children for my brother, so she wouldn't leave the house and let the other bad woman come and treat these children in some way. So she was there. They would give her chop money like the other one. They would buy her dresses. They would do everything for her. They gave her a place to sleep. So as they were doing that with the food, you know, it was like they were teasing that woman. So I used to be annoyed! You know, I used to take it sometimes as if I was that woman. Ha! I used to tell Mama Amma: "No! Shit! Even this kind of soup, which they play romance with, how can we eat it?" Then I would say, "Let's go out and eat." Ha-ha!
And at my brother's place, every time he wanted to be giving advice to people -- to be quiet, like the way he is, and he doesn't know how to drink, only Coca-Cola or Fanta. He wanted to be -- shit! I used to get fed up there. The first day when we arrived in Ouaga, you know, the day when we went to his place, they gave us a room, with air conditioning. It was a nice place. Ask Mama. It had a bathroom, everything. And they had another section to the side, like a quarters, for the children and the maid. But the way this man and his wife received me the first day, I wasn't happy. I told Mama, "Mama, as for me, I can't stay here."
Mama said, "Why? Hey, you have nice brother like this."
Then I said, "What kind of nice? Don't you know Africans? If you see that an African man smiles a big smile, it's not in his heart. If you look at his eyes, you will know. As for this man, he is just making all this on face. So I don't agree with him."
Then she said, "Oh, but they are nice." And this and that.
OK. The day we arrived, we were tired, so he let us sleep. We slept to the time when we wanted. The next morning when they took their tea, they put our own on a table, coffee and tea and bread and butter, and they took napkins and covered it. So when we woke up, the children said, "You people's coffee is here. Let us bring you hot water."
But still I wasn't happy. Evening time, they had that nyama-nyama television. Ha! The way you will see the Mossi people inside, they sing like they cry: wo-ee, wo-ee, wo-ee. Ha! Then my brother and the wife wouldn't get tired and go inside the room. They would start doing something. So when I was seeing all this, I used to get annoyed.
So one night, I finished my bath, and I was outside to dry. I was dry, but you know, at that time it was starting to get hot, so I was outside the house.
Then my brother was asking me, "Wouldn't you feel to sleep yet? "
Then I said, "No, I don't feel to sleep yet."
Then he said, "Ah, as for us, we sleep early."
And I said, "Oh, I want to take a small breeze outside."
Then the wife said they were going to sleep, so if I'm going to lock the door, I should be sure that the door is locked. Then I said, "You can lock it."
Then my brother said, "Why should you answer like that? Why should you give her an answer that she should lock the door?
Then I said, "Yes, I'm not feeling to go inside. And I can't be sure the door is locked, because I haven't locked a door like this before. I haven't seen a door like this before in my life."
Then my brother said I was giving her cheek, and I said, "I'm not giving her cheek. She is giving me cheek, because she thinks your room is better than everybody's room. And she thinks I haven't seen a house like this before. That's why she's telling me to look at the door. She is not right to tell me I should lock the door. I'm not a child. I should know the door, where to lock it."
And my brother said, "Eh-h, you know, if you have a problem with my wife, you shouldn't make it with me."
Then I said, "Why did you ask then? If she does something, I can ask her a question. But why should you answer? Why don't you let her answer? "
Then my brother said, "No. If you want to get a problem with me, maybe if it's the way we used to sleep early, and you don't want to be sleeping at that time, just tell me. I will tell the people. When you come back, they will open the door."
Then I said, "If I want to go out, you can't tell me not to. But I don't know. I think I have been giving you respect, but I didn't know that you are somebody like that."
Then he said, "Hey, what are you saying? "
I said, "Yes, I'm talking something. I didn't believe that you would tell me this. I just came. I just arrived. Maybe I'm tired or something like that. But the day when I'm feeling to go out, I'm not afraid of you. I can tell you that I'm going out. If you tell me, â€˜If you go out, don't come back,' then I'll pack my things and go. That's all."
So he said, "Oh. Thank you very much. I'm going to sleep."
Then I said, "Thanks, too. But if you sleep also, you have to lock the door."
"So you won't stop? "
I said, "No, you have to lock the door, because I'm not--I'm not feeling like sleeping inside self. I will go and sleep with the children over there."
So he didn't lock the door. He just closed it. I also didn't go inside. I went and slept with our small 1 brother in the quarters.
Morning time, the wife was the first person to be talking about this case. They didn't say it in front of me. They just started making, "Mm-hm, mm-hm, hm-hm." Like that. Yesterday the door was standing unlocked, mm-hm, hm-hm, and that and this, mm-hm.
Then I said, "Hey, you people, if you are talking about something, you know that I am the one who did it. Say, â€˜Hawa, why didn't you lock the door yesterday?' Because I have told you that you should lock the door, that I am not going to sleep there, that I am going to sleep with the children. So it is not a palaver to bring hm-hm-hm."
Then my brother said I wanted to become a chief on them. Ha! I wanted to control them. Then I said, "No, it's not that I'm controlling you people. But if something happens, and you know exactly the person who did the thing, don't go behind. Just say it in front of the person. If she has an answer, she will give you. So I think, even, I think the way you people are, I think you have made your family house. So if you people don't like me, just tell me to go away. I don't want this. If you know that I am the one who did this thing, why don't you ask me? So I don't think we can stay together."
Then my brother said, "I'm not sacking you."
And I said, "Yes, I know you haven't sacked me. I'm sacking myself."
You know, when we arrived, I had told them Mama's sister had run away from school to Ouagadougou, and when I was coming, Mama's mother said Mama should follow me and come to Ouaga and find the sister. So I told them I was going to lead Mama Amma to look for the sister.
Then I took Mama Amma and we went to a bar, Bar de Tante. We met a girl from Bolgatanga. Her real name was Saana, but in Ouagadougou we used to call her Woman. Yeah? I knew her from Accra. She was a Frafra girl. Woman. You know, she liked this record: "Any time I see my woman, yeah, any time I see my girl." She had a record changer, and she bought the record of that song, more than twenty -- the same record. Ha-ha! The same record! So she used to play it every time, and everyone was calling her, "Woman, Woman."
So we met Woman at Bar de Tante, and we told Woman that we wanted a room. She said, "Oh-h, we have a room at our house. Only today the person left. This is the key the person gave me because I wanted to change to that room. And my room, some girl wants to take it. But if that will be the case, as she already has a room, and she just wants to move from her place, so I will give you people that room. As I know you, Hawa, it is not hard."
So I said, "OK, thank you."
She said we should wait for her. She was working in the bar. They closed at one o'clock. So we were sitting there up to one o'clock. We got drunk! People were buying us drink. We were drinking. Ha-ha! Me and Mama Amma. So when we went to the landlord, he was a nice man. But he was fucking. He didn't ask for any money. He just said, "OK. Where is the key? "
Then Woman said, "Here is the key."
So he said, "Give it to them. Every month, you people will pay four thousand."
So we just got the room like that. Then we went back home to my brother's house, and I told my brother, "Mama has seen her sister." You see? I didn't tell them the truth. Mama doesn't have a sister. I knew what made me come. I said it: I was coming to see my father. And the reason why I told them that Mama was looking for her sister was because I knew, by all means, if I say only that Mama has come with me, and then I go and hire a room to rent, my brother will ask why should I leave his house to go and rent a room. That's why I wanted Mama to follow me to Ouagadougou, so that I could get a room outside. Uh-huh. Then when I got the room, I came and told them that Mama had found her sister.
Meet the Author
John M. Chernoff is the author of Hustling Is Not Stealing and African Rhythm and African Sensibility. He spent more than seven years in West Africa, based in Accra and Tamale, Ghana, where he also studied popular music and the culture and music of the Dagbamba people.
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