Ironies and Oburonis: Navigating Foreignness in Ghana

Meetings

Ghana began on the plane.

It was 1am on my connection from Casablanca to Accra, and I was sitting next to a sleepy-eyed toddler and his mother, who alternated in impatient tones between English and her indigenous language as she struggled to buckle up her squirming child. Confident in my usual ability to get a smile out of young children, I beamed down at him as he turned to look curiously up at me. Instead of the shy grin I had anticipated, his face cracked into a frightened grimace and he let out a whine as his lower lip began to wobble. Startled, I looked away, and into my mind popped the recollection of an early 20th-century psychological study that showed white children bursting into tears when brought face-to-face with a black person for the first time. The study was intended to demonstrate that black physiognomies ‘naturally’ provoked reactions of fear and disgust in white individuals, even from an early age – an interpretation that conveniently backed up the researchers’ own racist ideology. While attempting to quash the distasteful reference, I couldn’t help wondering what had brought on the little boy’s reaction: was this his first close encounter with an oburoni? Did his parents, like those of Kunta Kinte in Roots, threaten to call the white man when he was naughty, to steal him away from his home? Or did he just have stomach ache?

As a student of the history of ‘racial’ ideas in the Americas, arriving directly from a fieldwork stint in Washington DC, it was difficult to resist the tendency to view my brief six-day stay in Ghana with the rest of the EUROTAST network through the lens of New World conceptions of ‘race’ and ‘otherness’. As any good anthropologist knows, all social situations are best understood through local frames of reference; yet, in the virtual absence of these, our observations of unfamiliar societies often turn out to give us more insights into the quirks of our own mentality than those of the local culture per se.

The first day at the University of Ghana in Legon was an exercise in trying to fit in – or, to be more precise, in trying to stick out as little as possible for someone who, in physical appearance, dress and gait (not to mention ability to deal with tropical heat), could pass for nothing other than a total foreigner. Wandering aimlessly around the lush green campus, I slowed down to fall into step with the other students, strolling calmly and unhurriedly from bungalow to bungalow, and stole surreptitious glances at the assortment of outfits on show, from brightly coloured wax print dresses, long embroidered tunics and vibrant head wrappers to skinny jeans and plain blouses. For the most part I was politely ignored, save for a compliment from a female student about my leather sandals. I was reminded of the brief exchange a few days later when, in a conversation over breakfast with a visiting Ghanaian professor, the question arose of why foreign students to the university generally fail to integrate socially with the Ghanaian student body. In response, the professor quoted one of his colleagues, who had suggested that foreigners in Ghana dress so strangely in their attempts to deal with the sub-Saharan sun that the Ghanaian students simply cannot bear to be seen with them.

The first cultural test came halfway around my solitary tour of the campus: “Excuse me? Excuse me miss?” Well conditioned by trips to Latin America and the Caribbean to ignore the advances of strange men, I instinctively stiffened and kept walking. “Hi, sorry – excuse me… You were on the plane last night?” I stopped and turned to see a young man, smiling gently, embarrassed: “Erm… You fell on me? Remember?” My mouth dropped open. Indeed. Half-asleep and going round a sharp corner on the shuttle bus I had fallen squarely on this man, practically flattening him. Blushing at the memory, and at the fact that I had automatically assumed he was trying to chat me up, I shook his hand and introduced myself ruefully.

As narcissistic as it feels to compare one’s own perceived attractiveness in different countries, it seems worth remarking on the fact that West Africa is one of the few places I have been where the conjugation of light-skinned+young+slim+female was not merely unattractive to the vast majority of men, but on many occasions did not even register on the scale of sexual interest. My colleague Colleen Morgan has written an insightful piece on the ‘third gender‘ inhabited by white women in the Middle East, which is partly dictated by religious mores, and partly by a certain social inarticulacy in dealing with foreign women embodying roles and attitudes that are at odds with local cultural norms, and with their depictions in the Western media. In Ghana, on the other hand, we merely lacked any of the criteria that would qualify us as attractive – a fact that would seem, on the surface, to be contradicted by the billboards advertising skin ‘illuminating’ creams throughout Accra (although this would not be the first time that media and commercial portrayals of beauty standards have flown in the face of local tastes). A case in point was a trip to the arts market in Accra with two colleagues: a Texan American and a Nigerian British woman. Although we were all treated as oburonis (i.e. wealthy foreigners), the Ghanaian men were clearly fascinated by our confident, beautiful ‘African sister’, whom they lavished with compliments and appreciative sideways glances, while her two pale friends looked on, feeling sweaty and anaemic. On another occasion, a stall holder generously told me and two friends (a Mexican and a New Zealander) that we weren’t bad looking for oburonis, but that we would need to put on a considerable amount of weight to be considered remotely desirable by West African men.

A great deal has been written in the blogosphere on the meaning of the word oburoni: Does it mean ‘white’? Or ‘foreign’ in a broader sense? Does the word have racial undertones, or is it strictly cultural? Is it pejorative, or affectionate? Should we embrace it? Problematise it? Or simply accept it? Six days is too short a time to allow me to go into the sociolinguistic complexities of the term, but it seemed clear that the word was generally used very simply to designate someone who obviously wasn’t from Ghana, as evidenced either by their skin colour, dress sense, accent, or some other marker. The term can apparently even apply to expats returning to their country of birth – which can of course be irksome, since it serves to constantly signal one’s conspicuousness and inability to fit in with the crowd, even when, in our own eyes, we are just the same as everybody else.

In the UK or the US (and perhaps even France), where questions of immigration, cultural assimilation and integration are polemical, this perpetual signalling of foreignness would be viewed as a serious breach of social etiquette. Propriety dictates that we should either treat perceived difference (cultural/ethnic/linguistic) as irrelevant (since the person could easily turn out to be a fellow legal citizen and become offended), or else we should attempt to show an interest in the specifics of a person’s background, to demonstrate our cultural awareness and our openness to bridging the gap, so that the person no longer feels foreign. Not so in places like Brazil – a huge lusophone island in a sea of Spanish-speaking neighbours – where the word gringo is used not only to designate North Americans (as is usually the case in hispanophone America, with a certain overtone of prejudice), but to name anyone who is not Brazilian. Given the country’s endless human diversity, foreignness is not usually read on the skin, but rather in one’s lack of fluency with cultural, social and linguistic codes. As in Ghana, Brazilians were quick to explain that the term was not meant unkindly (they have other words for that), yet it never failed to provoke tension and annoyance in those addressed by it. In this sense, the word acts as a Rorschach test, stimulating our personal insecurities and private interpretations. In West Africa, this can be hardest to deal with for members of the African diaspora, who ‘return’ to their ancestral homeland, to find not only that are they not recognised as African, but that they are equated with whites, the historic oppressors (as discussed in this excellent blog entry).

Most uncomfortable for visitors to Ghana – as to many parts of the world where local economies depend on Western tourism – is how the word oburoni becomes intimately bound to an assumption of personal wealth, and an expectation that your primary function in the country is to expend money at all times. While to an extent true – since for many tourists the success of a trip is measured in the quantity and quality of trinkets brought back to show friends and family – this blunt portrayal is unflattering to say the least, and can be profoundly alienating when even the friendliest of interactions and gestures are brought under suspicion of being just another ploy to help money change hands. This sits uncomfortably with the origins of the word, which etymologically derives from the Akan word boro for ‘horizon’ or ‘overseas’, and appears to have come into usage with the arrival of the first Europeans, leading in turn to centuries of forced migrations, colonial exploitation and economic inequity.

... Life goes on

Today, the continuity of these histories still seems uncomfortably evident at the slave forts on the coast, which are a big attraction for oburoni tourists in search of the memory of the colonial past. While the purpose of these visits is usually to mourn, rather than to laud everything that the castles symbolise, like any other tourist hotspot they are surrounded by stalls and local artisans hoping to profit from visitors to the sites. For the most part this is business as usual for the traders, although when sales are low, tensions can bubble to the surface. As our group piled onto our bus to leave Cape Coast castle, fending off the sellers who were attempting to haggle with us for wooden instruments, or pressing ‘gifts’ of shells and beads into our hands, a man who had unsuccessfully been trying to market his wares, and was being pushed back by our Ghanaian guide, cried out angrily: “I am no white man’s slave!”. As an international research group that studies the legacies of the transatlantic slave trade, the terrible irony of the statement was not lost on us.

Such are the contradictions inherent in ‘returning’ as a tourist to sites of colonial activity, memory and atrocity. As the bus drove on and the voices of children calling oburoni! oburoni! faded behind us, my mind travelled back to the sign that greeted me off the plane in Accra – the same word that hangs inside Cape Coast castle, hailing foreign visitors who pass symbolically into the fort through the Door of Return:

Akwaaba

Welcome to Ghana.

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