Settle in for a long post, folks. I could go on forever about this topic!
The term “obruni” refers to any foreigner, but is often used to describe a white person. Since Ghana’s population is approximately 99% black, white people obviously stand out. Being an obruni in Ghana is like being a celebrity anywhere else. For better or worse, people want to chat with you, ask you for money, take pictures of you, or simply “take” you as a friend. I’ve been followed by herds of children, harassed by shopkeepers, and shouted at by taxi drivers. On the more positive side, Ghanaians are extremely friendly and helpful. My coworker, for instance, had her husband drive me to the bank even when it was out of his way.
As someone who has never experienced a minority, I have found it challenging to stick out so much. I have a tendency to be introverted and don’t particularly like being the center of attention. There’s nothing I enjoy more than anonymously walking to class, listening to my iPod. Here, I’m never invisible. When I take the 20 minute walk to work, I’m stopped by people on the street, shouted at from vehicles, grabbed, and occasionally followed. About half of the time, I don’t mind or even enjoy the attention. I like chatting with the plumber near my house and hearing about his cousin in Michigan. I find it hilarious how excited children get when they see me. The other half though, I find myself annoyed, grumpy, or uncomfortable about it. Sometimes I walk home from work praying that no one bothers me. It never happens.
So what exactly is happening on my commute? The first and most common interaction I have is a Ghanaian pointing out my skin color. Often times, I get “obruni,” in which I respond with “obibini” (Meaning “black person”). This responds seems generate laughter or indignant harrumphs. I also get the English versions, such as “white lady,” “white woman,” “white,” or the weirdest, “white flesh.” I don’t like being simply called “white” as it often seems to be an accusation. Whether I’m bother by the name calling depends on the persistence of the caller and the tone used. Some Ghanaians will shout their racial term of choice at me fifty times, even after I waved or greeted them. Others will move on after one shout, or ask for my well being. Obviously I prefer the latter. To an American, pointing out race seems rude and taboo. Here it’s a form of identification and considered normal. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, just different.
Next, I’ve experienced a lot of grabbing. Ghanaians have no sense of personal space and do not understand that Westerners aren’t comfortable with being grabbed at. It’s sweet and fun when a child grabs my hand while walking to school. However, I feel uncomfortable when a woman grabs my arm to drag me to her clothing stand, or when a man tries to grope me on the street. Like the name calling, context is everything.
I also get hit on or proposed by the extremely persistent Ghanaian men. It’s an interesting paradox. I’ve never been so desirable to the male species, yet feel so unattractive. I’m constantly sweaty, dirty, sunburned, and bug-bite infested. I never wear make-up and my muffin top is expanding from the Ghanaians’ carb-laden diet. It doesn’t seem to matter, as I get hit on at least once a day. The only reason I’m getting this many proposals is because I’m white. I have met many Ghanaian men who claim to only date white women (including my host brother). I find it strange to only limit yourself to such a tiny proportion of the female population, especially for those who have never traveled outside Ghana and only have limited experience with foreigners. While average back at home, I’m seen as exotic in Ghana. I’m frequently called beautiful, asked if I’m married (Tip: Always say yes), am proposed to, or asked out on a date. The doctor I saw during my first week even offered to “insert me with beautiful babies.” Usually I just laugh it off or claim I already have thirty other husbands. Sometimes, it becomes really bothersome. I particularly hate the “kissy noises” that only seemed to be reserved for white women. In general, this sort of attention has me wary of Ghanaian men. This objectification makes me feel like a piece of meat or a zoo animal rather than real person.
Last, I am asked for money constantly, usually by children. Some Ghanaians seem believe that all white people are rich. I can understand why as most of their experiences with foreigners comes from television/movies, volunteers, and tourists. Television rarely shows poverty in the west, most volunteers are unpaid (the funds must come from somewhere!), and tourists obviously have enough money to afford a vacation. So white people are almost always overcharged be vendors, shopkeepers, and taxi drivers. I jokingly call it the “obruni levy” and can be avoided using bartering. More troublesome, is that parents teach their children to beg white people for money. It’s always shocking to me to meet a child who knows no English other than the phrase “Give me money.” Someone clearly went out of their way to teach the child to beg. I’m even more irritated when I notice the child is wearing a private school uniform, which means the kid’s family is probably not strapped for cash (Private school fees are VERY expensive here). I have no problem giving a few cedis to the disabled man I see on my way to work as he genuinely needs the money. I do take issue with parents teaching their children to ask white people for money without true need.
Now that I’ve gotten the negative experiences out of the way, let’s talk about the good. For every grabby, demanded person, there’s a lovely one who genuinely wants to get to know or help you out. For example in Kumasi, a man talked to a taxi driver for us in order to make sure that we weren’t being overcharged. Also, everyone that I’ve talked to has been helpful with directions or pointed me towards someone who could help. Ghanaians always want to make sure I’m comfortable, giving me the best seat or providing me water. Many of my experiences here have proved time and again how hospitable Ghanaians can be.
Last fun tidbit:many Ghanaians are unable to distinguish between nationalities. To them, white people look all the same. I’m frequently asked if I’m from Germany, Australia, Sweden, the UK, and even China. Sometimes, I like to play along and say, “Yes, I’m from China.” I would have thought that the accents would be a dead giveaway, but apparently not. Also it is often assumed that all the white people in Ghana know each other. While driving past white people (whom I’ve never met), taxi drivers always ask if I want to stop for my friends or if I’m meeting them. The drivers are always surprised when I say that I don’t know them!