Sunday, April 1, 2007

Being Obroni

“Hey white!”

I looked to my right and saw a woman gesturing angrily for us to move out of the way of oncoming cars. We were so startled by her comment that we quickly obeyed and moved onto the nearby foot path.

Every day I travel to work on tro-tros, rickety buses that when filled to capacity are hot, dusty, and uncomfortable. Within five minutes of being squashed like sardines into a seat, sweat rolls in droplets down my cheeks. I look around me and everyone else is glistening in much the same way.

Most of the time, I am the only white person on the bus. I pay the same price to ride on the bus as everyone else, I get just as dirty, and I sweat just as much. But somehow I am different. I am white. After two months in Ghana, I personally think I’ve earned the right to be “black.” By this I mean that I deserve the right to fit in and no longer be seen as an outsider.

I am an Obroni. Translated directly, it means white person. I am reminded of this fact about 5 times a day. Little children I walk past will point and say “Obroni, Obroni!” The expected response is for me to turn and wave. For children I always oblige. They wave back.

When adults yell out Obroni it can mean many things. Sometimes they call out “Obroni” and want me to buy something they’re selling. Other times they call out “Hey Obroni”, and they just want to point out that I’m different from them. For this no response is necessary. Still other times, it’s to identify they want my attention. “Obroni sit down. Obroni come here. Obroni come pay.”

Somehow the term Obroni softens our separate identity. It’s a foreign word for us, so even though we know it is said to identify us as being a different, it doesn’t sound harsh. Sometimes, it’s even endearing.

Last Friday night we traveled to the University of Ghana to attend a play. Accra has no sidewalks so we’re used to walking along the side of the road. As we entered the main gate, carefully making our way past fast moving cars, we heard the call.

“Hey white!” It was the first time anyone had ever called us this. We turned stunned and alarmed. The woman’s words were harsh and stung in our ears. We obeyed her command, but the anger of her voice lingers even now.

At home we are cultured not to overtly identify people as black or white. Sometimes at home I will use every word possible to describe someone before finally saying, “…you, know who he is, he’s black.”

We worry that calling someone black is a racial comment. Here, most of the time, it’s simply used for identification.

I hardly notice skin colour anymore. When I meet new people I sometimes think of who they remind me of back home. None of the people I’m thinking of are black. I notice my whiteness, but only because I’m constantly reminded that I am not black.

- Janet


dave said...

In the arctic, Inuit refer to white people as "Qallunaat", (sometimes written 'Kabloona'). It roughly translates to "big belly, bushy eyebrows."

A friend of mine, who always found the science of "Eskimology" (the study of Eskimos) hilariously patronizing, wrote a great article called "Qallunology". Very funny. It looks at western culture with National Geographic eyes.

I always thought 'Qallunaat' sums up the white, western world in a way no other term can.

Anonymous said...

Janet, a very interesting blog. I can imagine how you feel. Even here in Saint John there are so many black people that I am sure most of the time they do not feel different. Mark and you are certainly having quite an experience.
Love, Prissy

Ishmael said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
lv4dnce said...

nteresting Article. My husband recently returned from Accra and Cape Coast, however we are African American. So since you think that you have earned the right to be "Black" after two months? What about all of the Black people in America who have constantly been identified by their skin color all of their lives? Have we earned the priviledge of being white? Food for thought. By the way Light skinned Black people are also called "Obroni" by children.

Vasudevan said...

Hi, I was in Ghana for around two years. My daughter was studying in Soul Clinic English School. Though being Indians even she was many times called obroni. But those were friendly addressing. The people are quite friendly and lovable. Would definitely visit Ghana again.

Sshaman said...

As an African American I too find it offensive that you think you earned the right to be called Black because you perspired on a bus with Black people for a couple of months. Your mission while in Ghana was undoubtedly noble and I am sure you have a good heart. However you are woefully ignorant about the history as well as the present treatment of those of African descent that informs attitudes towards those of European descent. That history and that treatment can't get wiped out by a few sweaty bus rides, no matter how nice a person you may be.