My Mom and Empty Water Bottles, Empty Prego Bottles and More...
About a week ago, I threw away a water bottle sitting on the kitchen counter. I had no use for it. It was empty, and I didn’t remember putting it there. But it turns out mom did because not too long after I tossed the empty bottle in the trash, in walks mom asking what happened to the bottle that was sitting on the kitchen counter.
“You threw it away didn’t you? What is wrong with you and throwing things away? You American people…” That was mom. I just looked at her, shook my head and smiled. Yes, I had thrown it away, on purpose! I knew she probably left it there for a reason; but mom is fond of doing that, and who can really blame her? She lives in Ghana, a place where everything is valued, and nothing is ever thrown away, even after it has served its intended purpose. Unless it is completely useless – and even then it can often times someway somehow be found useful – only then do you throw it away or burn it in the pile of trash. In other words, nothing under this sun is useless to a Ghanaian woman like my mother.
And before you go labeling my mother and incurring my wrath, let me put it to you like this: my mother is no village woman! Oh no! My mother was raised in the city, educated in the city and lived most of her life in affluent parts of the city, up until the time she met and married my father; in the city. Then, she moved to Durham, North Carolina to be with my father, and continued to live in the (outskirts of the) city. She is well-travelled and has seen more of the world than I could ever imagine possible. Yes, my mom (in case you haven’t caught on yet) is a classy, educated, city chick!
But, she is not wasteful. After more than 30 years, she is still shocked that American grocery stores throw away boxes of cereal simply because they have reached their expiration date. And she most certainly can't get over the fact that I once threw away a blender jug at Dulles Airport in Virginia. Mom had come to visit and was returning home when she purchased the jug. As she put it, she already had the Oster machine and jug in her kitchen, all she needed was the blade. However, since no department store, Walmart or Target was selling the blade as a single unit she bought the jug with the intent of taking out the blade when she got home. I’m sure she was going to find some use for the jug (maybe a flower vase).
Anyway, so mom mistakenly had the jug in her carry-on bag. I just happened to follow her all the way to the security ropes to witness the “uprooting” of the jug from her bag. Flushed with embarrassment, I tried to hide but it was too late. Mom was pointing at me, telling the security personnel, “no, don’t keep it. My daughter is standing over there. Yes, the one with the braids standing over there…. No, I said no! Don’t throw it away. What is wrong with you? I said my daughter is standing right over there; she will take it home and keep it for me.” The security guy walks over to me with the jug in his hand, a smile flashed across his face, his eyes sparkling with irritation. Mom’s voice carries a message to me across the line in fante, “take it home for me. Next time I come I will ask for it.”
And she did, a year later. It just happened that a lady like myself, there was no way I was walking from the security check-point, all through the airport, then all the way through to the parking lot, holding an Oster blender jug in one hand and my XOXO handbag slung over my other shoulder; so I threw it in the nearest trash bin I could find and went on my merry way sure that in a year mom would have forgotten. Of course, she did not forget!
So, again, this night, I have thrown mom’s empty water bottle (one of those 8oz bottles from DeerPark) into the trash bin where I’ve assumed it naturally belongs, and now she is asking for it. I ask mom what she needs the bottle for anyway. She says she was going to refill it with water. “Refill it with water?” I ask ridiculously. “There are new bottles of water in the fridge. Why are you filling old bottles with water?”
But I have asked a foolish question. Apparently, I have lived in America too long. So says mom. I have allowed myself to become America instead of allowing America to become me. The America in me throws useful things in the trash bin. It is as if I have forgotten that things have more than one use even if they were created with a specific purpose in mind. Mom found uses for everything she ever bought while I was growing up. Milo tins, once empty, became gari or sugar measuring cups. So did the Ideal Milk tins and Carnation Milk tins. The powdered milk tins could be wrapped in fancy decorative paper and used to hold plastic flowers that sat on window sills. Or, they could measure groundnuts, palm nuts, and all kinds of nuts. Bournvita plastic bottles became Shito bottles. I used to carry these in my chop-box in secondary school. (Now she saves Prego Pasta Sauce bottles for that when she’s visiting.) Empty Ziploc bags were washed out and reused for the next meat/fish packaging. This one is not mom’s fault; it’s the Coca Cola Company’s fault. Empty Coke, Sprite and Miranda bottles were put back in crates (cartons) and taken to the store in exchange for a full crate of refilled bottles. I always wondered whose mouth had previously been on the bottle I was happily sucking on in the moment. Old dresses became rags we used to clean the kitchen floor tiles. Old pants fraying at the ends were cut and they became shorts that were still good to wear. The shoes of older siblings became brand new to the next recipient and so on.
Ghana is not a wasteful country, and rightly so. Matter of fact, from what I hear; not too long ago, neither was America! In Ghana, many don’t have the luxury of throwing away boxes of cereal simply because it has reached its expiration date. Nor do they have the luxury of buying Ziploc bags and throwing them away after a single use. Some things are precious. In some places, believe it or not, the things people trample upon in other places are considered luxuries, and not just among the poor. My family was anything but poor while I was growing up. As far as I was concerned, I used to say we were rich until I actually saw how the rich lived. I guess you could call us an upper middle-class family. But, even we knew that slaughtering chickens was not something you did everyday simply because you felt like eating chicken. If we got to kill a goat at Christmas, that was a festive occasion. And when we had cow meat in our soup along with fish (salmon for instance), pork, turkey and a mixture of goat meat and goat intestines, it was a good day. Trivial spending was not the order of the day.
So I can understand why mommy does not want to let the empty water bottles go. She is first a Ghanaian woman before anything else and she values resources even in places where resources flow in abundance. I have come to learn that I must respect that. I may never be as money/resource conscious as her because I have been blessed (by her sacrifices) to live a much better life in a much better place in a much better time. Nonetheless, I can at least learn to leave her empty water bottles where she puts them so she can refill them with water until she is satisfied that she has gotten the utmost use out of them – then I can throw them away.
Life is about trying to understand others, not about trying to change them to become who we are. When mom visits, I am constantly reminded of this. I learn to see her for who she is and for what she has given so that I can have. Because of her, today I have the luxury of tossing the Mayo bottle just because it is 3 days past its expiration date. And I can appreciate the fact that even though my soup has all sorts of meats and fishes floating in there, I don’t even recognize it as a blessing, just an everyday meal I think I deserve because I work really hard for my money. But most of all, I appreciate that I can question mom’s need to hold on to her empty water bottles because I can afford to forget.