14 August 2006

Black & White

This indepth report on race and its classifications of myself and other JFs lacks the political correctness that would censor a similar work in another environment. We are, after all, merely a product of our surroundings.


The warnings were present at our pre-departure sessions in Ghana; from here-in, everyone would be referred to as white, no matter what their background or cultural heritage, which in the case of this round of JF's, was as diverse as the various communities from which we had originated.

Disregarding this info, I was expecting people to be able to differentiate my white colleagues from myself on the ground, but what I discovered shocked me.

Obruni & Salaminga are terms used to define white people, and calling any one of the JFs this term upon our arrival back in Canada will surely result in a back-handed slap to some portion of the head, after hearing the term profusely for the last four months. Either that, or the person will respond automatically without a second-thought.

Such a blatant recognition, or dis-classification of race is a rare and impossible occurrence in Canada, whose extreme political correctness cloaks any obvious recognition of physical differentiation. Such is not the case in Ghana, especially in rural areas.

Upon arriving in Ghana, I was surprised that what they had told me at Pre-Dep was correct; I would be confused with a white person on a regular basis. Few people would detect my Indian heritage, and when they did, they would refer to me as 'India-man' hardly less jolting than being referred to as white.

In the first weeks and months, travelling to the north from Accra and throughout the Northern Region, I became accustomed to several different terms for 'white man', ranging from obruni, to salaminga, to local terms for Sunday-born, which should have prepared me for the name I received upon my arrival in Damongo:


From my initial days exploring my new home, the children's calls perplexed me.

"Kobruni Fatha" they would scream with huge grins on their face, in as high a pitch as possible without making my ears bleed, often followed by an equally high-pitched "hallow!"

The english term, loosely translated is 'white priest', which, just like the term Sunday-born, hails to Ghana's Colonial and Missionary past in which the first white settlers were primarily focused on religious conquerings and assimilation. The fact that it was being stated by the youngest of children was proof that it is a term still taught in the schools and in the home, and generally, any presence of whites in these rural areas had primarily religious purposes for the past century.
Why this term is used in Damongo is beyond me. Damongo sees its share of Westerners thanks to Mole National Park, which sits just 25kms down a dusty trail to the north. These people rarely leave the bus, however, and buy oranges and water through the window to the women who have the baskets propped on their heads making for an easy transaction.

Even more astonishing (and further evidence that the term white is a blanket term to cover people who are not black) was the continued confusion between myself, and a UVic JF, Dan Beck, who also calls Damongo his home. On book-swapping or battery-charging trips to his home, I would enter his neighborhood, and often be greeted with: "Dan Aninwulaa", or "Good Evening Dan". People could not differentiate us, even though when seated together, similarities are hard to come by.

Dan encountered the same phenomenon when walking down the dirt path to my home, often hearing "Kyle Maraaba", or "Kyle welcome!" Even in the market it became a problem when one would be referred to as the other. An attempted explanation in our poor Gonja would simply bring a look of confusion and dismay upon the person who was greeting us in the first place.

Despite the inability to differentiate non-blacks, many people have absolutely no problem spotting a Westerner from the furthest distance, or in the poorest light. Even I, whose tanned brown skin has darkened several shades since my arrival in May, am noticeable in the darkest evenings when the moon is blocked by the cumulus clouds of the rainy season and my visibility extends not an inch beyond my eyes. In night time situations where it is hard to discern ground from open sewer, I step carefully, and it is perhaps my awkward movements that make me so obvious to those around me. "Kyle Aninwulaa" says my neighbor, who I didn't even know was there until she spoke, seemingly into my ear, causing me to jump. "Awoo", I say, stuttering from surprise, in cordial response to a Gonja greeting.

Whether it is night-vision or obruni radar, the classifications placed on my shoulders have been pretty interesting for the last four months. Even more so considering that India is the second-largest investor in Ghana, and other noticeably different cultures, such as Lebanon, China, and Japan, are well represented. Perhaps it is evidence of the lack of foreign investment in the north, or the low levels of interaction between foreigners and rural Ghanaians.

Whatever the case may be, we are but a product of our surroundings, regardless of the colour of our skin.


Blogger elorm said...

dont take it personally.. obroni is used to refer to any person who is not from Ghana. Im of ghanaian heritage but even my family calls me an obroni because of my british accent and light skin.

23 May, 2009  

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