Update from Ghana - December 2010
The first thing I notice when I step out into a Ghanaian street is myself. In most places I spend my time—my house, my neighborhood, the Junior High School at which I teach – I’m the only white person around.“Oburuni”-white person-was one of the first Twi words our Bridge Year group learned when we arrived, because we hear it constantly from the mouths of pointing children and adults who seek to catch our attention as we walk by (although Cam and Pallavi are not Caucasian, they are usually still considered oburunis).
As five relatively light-skinned individuals, we all attract a lot of attention. People of all ages and walks of life want to befriend us, to touch us, or simply say hi. We cannot walk anywhere without being called to. “Oburuni” is the most frequent greeting, but people address us by a whole variety of terms – small boy, white lady, sweetheart, angel, sir, auntie… the list goes on. My most amusing experience was a young man who tried to attract my attention by calling out “White lady! White lady!” When that failed to elicit a response, he proceeded to yell, “Black lady! Black lady!”
Even among my friends and host family, I cannot forget the color of my skin. My family often refers to me as oburuni or “Akua ‘bruni”, an elision of my Twi name, Akua, and oburuni.
Calling attention to difference is often taboo in daily interactions in America, but in Ghana, it is the cultural norm. This does not only apply to comments regarding race. My homestay father often refers to my sisters as ‘the small girl’, ‘the dark girl’, and ‘the fat girl’. These comments are not meant to be derisive; they are simply a factual way of describing someone.
In addition, greetings are an essential part of Ghanaian culture. Each of the three Twi teachers as well as every lecturer we have had has emphasized the importance of greeting people you know, and often people you don’t know. This is one of the reasons why Ghanaians are characterized as incredibly welcoming and friendly.
Although it is common to greet strangers and to refer to people by their appearance, being greeted as “oburuni” is a complex issue because of the connotations of light skin. Whiteness connotes more than foreignness; it also connotes privilege, wealth, and education. The Ghanaians I am close to aren’t afraid to tell me this straightforwardly. “They think you’re rich cause you’re white!” one teacher at my school informed me. My siblings often echo this sentiment. Whether Ghanaians actively call attention to us because we look different or because of their underlying assumptions about oburunis it is often impossible to distinguish. However, these stereotypes do influence my every day interactions with Ghanaians.
Tro-tro mates and street vendors often try to overcharge me. As I walk around, children and occasionally adults grab my hand and ask “Ma me sika!” – Give me money! A friendly “Menni sika” – I don’t have money – will precipitate a friendly conversation, but the initial address makes me aware that it is widely assumed I have “sika bebree” – plenty money.
This stereotype has been compounded again and again by Western media that finds its way to Ghana as well as the white people living in Ghana. The American life that is depicted in Ghanaian media is one of privilege.
More important, however, is the impression made by white people living in Ghana. The majority of oburunis are either students, tourists, businessmen or ambassadors. It takes money or opportunity to travel to Africa, so visitors are generally well educated and wealthy. Furthermore, white people are not typically integrated into middle class Ghanaian society to which our host families belong.
I was made keenly aware of this fact about a month into my homestay. I was walking home from church on a weekday afternoon. I knew my way around by then, and I imagined that I looked very comfortable and purposeful, no longer startled by the occasional child calling out to me or chicken running across my path. As I turned onto my street, a man approached me and inquired, “Are you lost?” His question was genuine, and he was exceedingly polite, but I was rather taken aback. “I live here,” I responded. “Oh. It’s just that your people don’t usually come here”. I’m only about a 45 minute walk from the University, which is widely known for its many foreign students and Western visitors.
Bridge Year has given us the incredible opportunity to immerse ourselves in a community that is virtually inaccessible for the average foreigner (despite the fact that in many ways it is quite Western). We’re trying, albeit often unsuccessfully, to live like an average Ghanaian. With that said, it’s impossible to integrate. Being so visible has a massive impact on our experience, bringing a unique set of opportunities and challenges.
First, it calls attention to us constantly. As our last Twi teacher put it, if we responded to every person calling oburuni on the commute home from downtown Accra, we would never leave downtown. We’ve become acquainted with university students, police officers, countless food vendors, tailors-an endless assortment of people. On my 20 minute walk home from Zongo Junction (which inevitably takes longer because of the number of people I converse with), seemingly everyone knows me by name. Nearly anywhere I go in the city, I will be greeted by someone who remembers me. On my commute home from work one day, the young man sitting next to me in the tro-tro told me he recognized me from a concert I had attended a month earlier. Though I was inclined to disbelieve him at first, he went on to describe our Bridge Year group. Because we’re noticed, even the most minor of our actions are observed. For instance, if I trip on the road (which I have done several times), I can be sure that a dozen Ghanaians will be watching and ready to respond with “Sorry-o!”
Furthermore, our actions resonate further because we are, in a sense, representatives of Western society. We were told at orientation that we would in a sense be ambassadors from our country, but I could not imagine how true this is in Ghana. We must always be alert and cheerful, or we’re at risk of snubbing someone and giving them negative perceptions of ourselves and our culture. For instance, if I fail to greet someone before asking for directions, I can count on being reprimanded with “You don’t know to greet?!” or even “At your place [America], they don’t teach you to greet?!”
Finally, people notice us in ways they wouldn’t if we had dark skin, and they automatically assume that we are privileged and educated. Combined with our drive and desire to take full advantage of every opportunity, being an ‘oburuni’ has afforded us unique opportunities. About a month into my stay, I walked into a private school because I wanted to inquire about recommended reading for preteens and where one would obtain these books. I wandered into the central compound, where I stood looking rather lost for a few minutes before a nice staff member politely inquired what I wanted. I responded that I was looking for the office, and he informed me it was closed but if I came by the following Monday morning I could meet with the headmaster. While I certainly cannot assume that skin color played a role in this interaction, the totality of my experience has testified to the fact that Ghanaians are particularly eager to talk with and assist us “oburunis”, who often have a completely different set of life experiences.
As a white girl from America, it’s been fascinating for me to be a minority, to be noticed, to be subjected to stereotypes every day. I’ve always been able to slip through a crowd, to stand in a bus line, or to sit in a restaurant without inducing stares or making scores of acquaintances. But here in Ghana, I’m in the minority, a very small, very visible minority. In Ghana, I will always be not only Lindsay, but also “oburuni”.