Hustling is not Stealing: Stories of an African Bar Girl / Edition 1

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The prospects of a sixteen-year-old West African girl with no money, education, or experience might seem pretty depressing. But if she's got a hell of a lot of nerve and a knack for finding the funny side in even the worst situations, she just might triumph over her circumstances. Our heroine Hawa does, and she did. In the 1970s, John Chernoff recorded the story of her life as an "ashawo," or bar girl, making a living on gifts from men and her own quick wits, and here presents it in Hustling Is Not Stealing, one of the most remarkable "autobiographies" you will ever encounter.

What might have been a sad tale of hardship and exploitation turns instead into a fascinating send-up of life in modern Africa, thanks to Hawa's smarts, savvy, and ear for telling just the right story to make her point. Through her wide-open and knowing eyes, we get an inside view of what life is really like for young people in West Africa. We spy on nightlife scenes of sex and deception; we see how modern-minded youth deal with life in the cities in villages; and we share the sweet and sometimes silly friendships formed in the streets and bars.

But mostly we come to know Hawa and how she has navigated a life that few can even imagine. The first of two funny, poignant volumes, Hustling starts with an in-depth introduction by Chernoff to Hawa's Africa. From there the book traces her remarkable transformation from a playful warrior struggling against her circumstances to an insightful trickster enjoying and taking advantage of them as best she can.

Part coming-of-age story, part ethnography, and all compulsively readable, Hustling Is Not Stealing is a rare book that educates as thoroughly as it entertains.

"You can see some people outside, and you will think they are enjoying, but they are suffering. Every time in some nightclub, you will see a girl dressed nicely, and she's dancing, she's happy. You will say, 'Ah! This girl!' You don't know what problem she has got. Some people say that this life, it's unto us. It's unto us? Yeah, it's unto me, but sometimes it's not unto me. When I was growing up, I didn't feel like doing all these things. There is not any girl who will wake up as a young girl and say, 'As for me, when I grow up, I want to be ashawo, to go with everybody.' Not any girl will think of this."—from the book

Winner - 2004 Victor Turner Prize in Ethnographic Writing

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Editorial Reviews

The New Yorker
While studying West African music in the early seventies, Chernoff befriended Hawa, a high-spirited, illiterate Ghanaian woman whose street-smarts and garrulousness inspired him to record a series of autobiographical interviews, which he has transcribed and edited. From the time she leaves an unhappy arranged marriage at the age of sixteen, her life unfolds as a picaresque series of exploits that illustrate her ability to live by her wits as an ashawo—a “semiprofessional” prostitute—supported by the men she meets in the bars and discos of Accra and Lomé. A resourceful heroine and loyal (if capricious) friend, Hawa is also a connoisseur of local mores, and tartly observes the daily collision of this world with that of the European men among her boyfriends. Casually weaving urban folklore into her engaging tale, Hawa displays an eye for detail and a narrative exuberance that mark her as a gifted storyteller.
Publishers Weekly
Chernoff, a longtime student of Ghanaian drumming and author of African Rhythm and African Sensibility, met the pseudonymous Hawa in Ghana in 1971 and started taping her stories in 1977. Born in Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso) in the 1960s, three-year-old Hawa lived with various relatives after her mother died, eventually joining her father's family in Kumasi, capital of the Ashanti region of Ghana. At 16, she refused an arranged Muslim marriage and started making her own life. Moving to Accra, she became an "ashawo" woman-variously described as a hustler, bar girl or "pay-as-you-go" wife. When economic conditions deteriorated in Ghana in the early 1970s, Hawa migrated first to neighboring Togo, and then to Upper Volta, when anti-Ghanaian sentiment mounted in Togo. While emigration was a survival tactic, Hawa also viewed it as an opportunity to see how other people lived and hear their tales. Indeed, there's a restlessness that pervades Hawa's stories, whether she's describing her girlhood, her girlfriends, the men she's lived with or people who've tried to get the better of her. In Chernoff's admiring eyes, Hawa is a classic trickster, cleverly resourceful at manipulating bad situations for her own ends. Her story is a "giddy celebration of her will to dignity." Hawa and her ashawo friends are poor, but they're "not about to let their poverty spoil their life completely." Chernoff follows his lengthy and insightful introduction with hundreds of pages of transcriptions of Hawa's somewhat repetitive anecdotes as well as a glossary. A second volume, Exchange Is Not Robbery, will chronicle Hawa's travels after Togo. (Dec.) Forecast: Anyone studying West Africa, marginal cultures or ethnographic field techniques will want to read Chernoff's unique oral history. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
This true story of a young West African woman named Hawa both captivates and informs. As noted by Chernoff (African Rhythm and African Sensibility), "We try to see through the statistics by looking at one person's dilemma and resolution." Chernoff thus presents lived experience as oral history in Hawa's own words, as she reveals diverse languages, landscapes, customs, and the historical and/or current culture of the times. Hawa, who was sold into marriage when she was 16, had to contend with several senior wives and the servitude that came with being the last wife. She ran away several times from this abusive situation, finally choosing to live independently as a "bar girl" (ashawo), or sex worker. Chernoff, who recorded Hawa's story while in Africa in the 1970s when Hawa was in her twenties, uses an in-depth, concise introduction to set a strong foundation for understanding the young woman's experiences. The first of two planned volumes, this book is as much about pain, anger, poverty, abuse, and a static life as it is about hope, faith, dreams, determination, perseverance, and an African woman's self-recovery. It also demonstrates the long historical ritual of resistance among women of color. Essential reading in academic and large public libraries.-Kim L. Morrison, Univ. at Buffalo Libs., NY Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226103525
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 11/1/2003
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 496
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

John M. Chernoff, the author of African Rhythm and African Sensibility, studied drumming in Ghana for seven years. He worked with David Bryne on composition and performance of The Catherine Wheel, and he produced three CDs of Dagbamba music on Rounder Records. He was also associate producer on two internationally distributed films, Drums of Dagbon and Africa Come Back.

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Read an Excerpt

Hustling is Not Stealing: Stories of an African Bar Girl

By John Miller Chernoff

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2003 John Miller Chernoff
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0226103528



Like a Letter

You know, I'm not bad as such. But when I was little, I thought my way was very bad. My mother died when I was three years old, and my father had no other wife. He had children with other women, but my mother was the first wife of my father. I had brothers and sisters, and we all had to leave. We didn't live together. This one lived with the grandmother, and another one lived at the family of my father. You know, my family: they are very many. My mother's side is a big family; my father's is big, too. So all my brothers and sisters who were with my father, they just shared us like that. We didn't go together. So I had to be handed there, there, and there, to the families. And no one could hold me.

Yeah, when my mother died and my father didn't have a wife, they sent the children around, but when my father married again, they came back. We were many children. The time I stayed in our house in Kumasi, we were about eighteen. But four were big girls, and they married, so we were fourteen children in the house. All of us were there in the house. The other children didn't stay with people. No, no, no, no, no! All my father's children stayed with my father.

Only me. I was not a good one, so I had to go around all the family. Only me! I used to go around. First I stayed with my grandmother in our village in Upper Volta. She was my mother's mother. I was there until I was about four or five. Then I went back to my father in Kumasi. I was there for some time, and then I went back to Upper Volta. I was about six when I went to my village again, to my grandmother. I was a small girl.

Then they sent me back to Ghana, and I was staying with my aunts in Kumasi. My father was also working in the cocoa farms, in Brong Ahafo. I stayed with him in the village there. I was always going around. And always: my aunts and uncles. Sometimes I would go to stay with them, and they would do me something, and then I would say that they didn't look after me well, so I would make a palaver to go and ask for myself to find another place.

And they thought, all of them - they knew!- that I was a bad girl. I could not live in one place for one month: they had to send me back. And I thought it was because I was bad. Yeah, they said I was very bad.

But I didn't know why I was bad. I asked many questions. And anything I saw, when they said, "We don't do this," I wanted to do it and see what would happen. And all this was trouble for the families. So they had to send me like a letter. They would just post me: there and there and there. Yeah, this is how they were.

It was only one good family I found in my family - my aunt. She was very good. She didn't mind anything. She was in Kumasi, at Fanti Newtown. That was the last place which I got to grow up.

My family was not all in Kumasi. They were in different places. I stayed in a village near Kumasi with my father's brother, with his wife. I stayed there for one month. They sent me home at twelve o'clock in the night! This woman had no baby, and every time she liked to beat me. She wanted to force me to do things I didn't want, and one night she forced me to do something, and I said I wouldn't do it. Then she started to beat me. And I said, "Yeah. God knows. That's why you don't have babies." Yes!

Hey! She was very annoyed that night! She told my father's brother, "If you don't send this girl away, I must go away." So he could not let his wife go away like that because of me: they must send me to my father, in the night.

I had to stand on the car road in the village. I was crying, and she started abusing me that I was the last one my mother gave birth to before she died - and because I was bad luck, that was why my mother died and left me-because I am a witch, and I am a bad-luck girl-and that and this-I killed my mother. Ha! I was about nine years old. And so when they sent me, we had to stand there up to one o'clock or two o'clock in the night before we got a taxi. Before we reached Kumasi, it was about two or three o'clock in the night.

It was my father's brother who sent me to my father, and he knocked the door. My father was sleeping. "Who?" he said.

"It's me."


"I'm bringing Hawa."

"Who!? You don't call your name; you say you are bringing Hawa."

"It's me, Adamu."

Then my father opened the door. "What do you want in this night?"

"No, no, no, no! We can't help it! Hawa had some bad talks against my wife, and my wife is packing her things." Then: "You know, we are together for a long time; she shouldn't pack her things in this night time because of Hawa. So I must bring Hawa."

Then my father said, "OK. Thank you. You are a nice guy. I thought you are of the same father with me, and a different mother. But if you choose your own, it's OK. For me, I'm all right. I cannot kill her. I have already borne her. I cannot kill her: she's not a chicken. If she's good, or she's bad: I like my thing." And so my father said OK.

Then this man wanted to sleep. My father said, "No, no, no, no, no. How she cannot sleep with you because your wife is going to pack away, I think if you sleep here, too, before you go home, maybe your wife will go away. So, bye-bye. See you!!"

Still, up to now, this man doesn't talk to my father because of this case. They had the same father but not the same mother. Since I was nine years old, up to now, they are alive, but they don't talk to each other.

Then I went to live with another aunt, and it was very funny. I lived with her for three weeks, then she sacked me. She sacked me like a thief! Ha-ha. She had plenty of children, OK? But every time she used to beat fufu by herself. She didn't want somebody to turn it for her; she didn't want somebody to pound it for her either. The fufu she will eat, she will beat it by herself. As for the rest, your own, you people can make it for yourselves. She would say, "Maybe you will sweat and your sweat will go inside." Or "Your hands are too dirty to turn it for me." So what she will eat, nobody will do it for her.

This woman was a very old woman. Every time when she beat her fufu and finished, she would relax for some time. Then I wouldn't say anything. I would put all her food for her in the room. When we beat our own and finished, then we would also put it in the room. So after resting, then she would wake up 2 before she would come to the kitchen to put the soup on the fufu.

And all this used to make me annoyed. You think you are neat. OK, we are going to see who is going to eat this one. So from there, before she would wake up to go and put the soup, I would change her own fufu to our plate, and I would put our own on her plate. Ha-ha.

So I think she had some sense, you know. About one week, when she beat the fufu, when I wanted to put it all inside the room, then she said, "Oh. Leave my own here." Then I left hers; I took our own inside. Then one day we took the same type of plate - the same color, the same size. She put her own inside one, then she put our own in the other one. Then she took her hand and rolled it on the fufu to press it down - down, down, down-with small marks on top of the fufu, because the plates were the same color. Then she told me to pack them 3 inside the room, and I packed them inside. Then I went and took a little of our fufu and put in the holes, and then I changed it to give her. I didn't know that she didn't put cassava in her own but she had put cassava in ours. This was the way she was going to catch me, no? So, when she put her hand and started eating, then she felt that this one is cassava, and she called us to bring our plate. So I took it there.

Every time she used to make two balls of fufu, big ones, for the children. And every time, when we put the soup, I know the one from her. I will start with that one, and we will eat that first and finish before we are all going to start on the next one. So the time she called us, her own was already finished. Then she said, "Let me see." Then we brought it; we brought only one ball of fufu, the second. Then she said, "Where's the first?"

We said, "We have eaten it."

Then she said, "He-ey! You people eat like dogs."

So she just cut a little bit and tasted it, and it was the same like what she was eating. Then she said, "Oh." Then we went out. She didn't say anything. She didn't ask me anything, either.

Then the next day, I thought in my mind that, hey, this woman is going to get my way and catch me, so I must stop for two or three days. So from that time, I didn't do it. Every day like that, I didn't do it. Then, one day I did it again. She didn't find out. The second day I did it again. The third day, she found out.

When she said we should bring our food for her to see, I said, "But why?! If you don't want us to eat, why are you calling us to bring the food to you again? I don't like this kind of living. If you don't want us to eat, don't give us! Every time we are eating, and then you have to get us up from the food to bring it for you to look at it. You know, if you are eating and you wake up and leave the food, then when you come back to eat it, you won't feel it again. In my father's place, they don't do that. Why?! Because-because you think you are neat past everybody. You are eating this fufu every day. You didn't die, no? Every time, I used to change your food, too, and we eat it. You eat what we pound, but you don't die. If you were going to die, you would have already died a long time." Haa-hee!

Then she said, "Go! Go! Go! Go to your father! Fucking girl! Fucking girl! That's why you cannot - to - to - to live with people. You don't respect. Go! Go! Go! Go! Go!"

Then I went out like that, you know. I didn't even take my things. I just went out, because from that place to my father's place was not far. I said, "OK. I will go to my father's house."

And you know, every time when I would do something like this, and they would sack me and I would come home, I used to be serious. Then my father would say, "Hey, Hawa, are you dead?"

"I don't want to talk. Nobody should talk to me. I don't want to talk today."

And my sisters, you know, and my brothers, when they saw me like this, they used to shout, "Eh! Hawa?"

Then I would say, "Tsk! I don't want that! Today I am serious." Then I would say, "Tsk, tsk. How they say that if your mother dies and leaves you, you will suffer, it's true. If suppose my mother was there, will I suffer like this?"

Then my father would say, "Who is talking there? Is it Mama?" You know, my grandmother's name was Hawa, so my father used to call me like that.

Then I said, "Yes. It's me."

"What is wrong? Did your auntie say something bad?"

Then I said, "Eh-h. If my mother didn't die, do you think every fucking old woman that you say she is your sister, then I'll go and live with her? A fucking old woman!? I wanted to pound fufu for her, and she said, 'No!' She has to pound it by herself. If somebody is passing and sees this, it's a disgrace for us who are living with her. They will say that we don't know how to do anything. Our grandmother is old like that, and we let her to be pounding fufu. It's not good. I tried to change her food, and then she too, she wanted to bluff. She just sacked me like a chicken! 'Go, go, go, go to your father!'"

Then my father said, "Don't mind her. So where are your things?"

I said, "I didn't take anything. I dash them to her. Let her keep them." Ha!

Then my father said, "Mama, I don't believe these words. You did something bad."

"I didn't do anything bad! Because every time she thinks she's very neat. And then, me, I used to change her food, that's all that I did. But I didn't do anything bad." Hee-hee-hee.


Excerpted from Hustling is Not Stealing: Stories of an African Bar Girl by John Miller Chernoff Copyright © 2003 by John Miller Chernoff. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Excerpt from "Junior Wife"
Preamble: Stories and Their Critics
Africa: The End of the Earth Where the World Began
The Politico-economic Techno-philosophical Socio-historical Global-Developmental Backdrop
The View from Ground Level
Cities as the Heavens of This Earth
Commodity Traders
Digression on the End of the World
Ethnography to the Second Power
The Brer Rabbit School of Feminism
Procedures to Protect Identities
A Note on the Text

Part 1: Into the Life
1. Not Bad as Such
Like a Letter
The Village of Don't-Go-There
More Aunts
A Brief Adolescence
Junior Wife
2. The Life
Paradise Hotel
Cheap Money
The Price of Tea
Janet's Baby
The Problem of Being Small
Married without a Ring
Reflections: After the First Year as Ashawo
3. Problems of Self-Empowerment
Repaying Rough with Rough
The Lebanese Twins
Deviant Sex
Really Deviant Sex
What No Girl Says
Butterfly Wings
The Man with Four Noses
Case Histories

Part 2: With the British in a Provincial Capital
4. The Chief of Bagabaga
Nigel's Courtship
The Two Wives of the Chief of Bagabaga
Jack Toronto
Roads Not Taken
5. Fucking English People
William and Abena
Reflections: Property and Family
Power Show for Cigarettes
Nigel's Mouth
A Beating among Friends

Part 3: Into the Life Again
6. Avoiding the Life
A Ghanaian Boyfriend
Reflections: An Independent Life
7. With Jacqueline
Into the Life Again
At Podo's House
The Turkey-Tail Man
8. A Bad Sickness
The Treatment
Love and the Banana

Part 4: Juju
9. The Sheer Ubiquity of It
Issahaku's Medicine
Christmas for a Juju
The Keta Girls and the Seaman
10. Witches
Babies as Strangers
The Witchcraft of the Senior Mother
Belief in Witches
Befriending a Witch
Interlude: A Special Child
Befriending a Witch (Conclusion)
Revenge of a Bedwetter
11. Child of the God
A Wonderful Man
Pennies in the Hair
Interlude: Village Playtime
Return to the Village
From Frying Pan to Fire
Reckoning with the God
12. Black Power
Calling the Lost People
The Master of the Dwarves
Showing the Power

Part 5: The Life in Togo
13. A Fast Boy
The Rich Biafran
Frankie and Antonio
Frankie's Game
14. A Nice Prison in Togo
Django and the Fucking Germans
Interlude: The Maidservant's Tale
Louky's Problem
Prisoners for the Lions
If All the Prisons Were like This
Fish from the Sea in Vaginas
15. I Remember Mama
The Trouble with Three Friends
Quarreling in Secret
Killer Girls from Ghana

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 21, 2004

    A Unique View from Inside

    John M. Chernoff's Hustling is Not Stealing is a unique and highly enjoyable insight into a woman who would too often be viewed in stereotypes or lost in statistics about the hand-to-mouth existence of people in what used to be called the Third World. Chernoff focuses upon the life of this woman, Hawa, describing her as small, cute, and a gifted storyteller. She becomes vividly real as she tells her tales of life as a bar girl, doing what she needs to do to survive -- and with great humor, dignity, and style! Chernoff begins with a comprehensive and fascinating introduction, which places Hawa's experience in the broad context of African realities, also explaining his own years in Africa as a student of ethnomusicology and of the social milieu in which Hawa's adventures take place. The reader is drawn in, sometimes laughing, sometimes appalled, often both at the same time. Hawa is frequently hassled by poverty and by those seeking to exploit her. But she laughs her irresistible laugh -- hee hee hee -- and gets her own back. She is no victim! As she travels through Ghana, Togo, and Burkina Faso, one gets a sense of excitement and fun, despite the hard times and dangers. Hawa comes off as a very admirable woman, and Chernoff's book is a real pleasure. His valuable scholarship is matched by his humanity. As you peek into Hawa's world, she comes unforgettably to life and becomes a friend. This book is priceless! I loved it!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 10, 2004

    Only Angels Have Wings

    A young contemporary Ghanaian tells her deeply sad story with strength and detail and in a voice that inspires instant respect. The tough iron of the human will emerges as Hawa rises up from the ashes of penury and abandonment and makes her way in a world that is indifferent at best, and much more amusing than one would think possible under the circumstances. Sociologist and ethnographer John Chernoff sets the stage for Hawa's unique oral history by sharing his love for the people of Africa today and by urging us to put aside our sentimentalities and preconceived notions. He, and Hawa, speak of an Africa that very few of us have ever known - a surprising and fascinating place that requires being street smart and savvy, and where a new generation of Africans is now blending western culture with ancient traditions. A must read for anyone who wants to better understand what it means to grow up in Africa today.

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