This series of posts documents two ordinary folks attempting to get out there and do good. Over the next few months, we’ll follow them through the setbacks and triumphs of their endeavor to take the inspiration of Mountainfilm and turn it into something tangible. (To catch up. start here.)

This is kind of a difficult subject to write about. Having frank and open discussions about race is something that most people shy away from in most cultures, and Americans are particularly skittish. But, here goes.

After one has been in Ghana for a bit, they’ll begin to recognize a word that is being repeated or directed at them constantly: obruni. Obruni is the Twi (one of Ghana’s native languages) word for white man. Now, there are arguments about the etymology of the word. Some claim that obruni comes from a conglomeration of words that means “one who beats,” which is disturbing given that the area was home to the majority of the Africa side of the slave trade. More level heads agree that the word is simply the direct translation of the word “white man.”

Effectively, this means that we are showered with calls of “Hey, obruni!” constantly. Sometimes this is adorable (a chorus of school children smiling and laughing and falling into fits of giggles when we wave at them), but sometimes it’s not (the drunk man stumbling out of a bar, calling us obruni, then following us to work and posting up on his bike outside of the office for an hour). This isn’t the case in metropolitan areas like Accra, where the white man isn’t such an uncommon site, but is certainly the case in our town, where foreigners rarely make appearances (and if they do, they keep themselves sequestered to cars, the mining hotel, and the mine offices).

Now, I am pretty conflicted as to how I feel about being called obruni all the time. On one hand, the word usually isn’t used as an invective. In fact, it is almost always accompanied by a smile (but not on every occasion, by any means). Aside from the fact that the constant barrage of “Hey, obruni!” when we go anywhere in our town makes you feel really exposed, going by a moniker that means “white man” strikes me as, at worst, insensitive and racist and, at best, really freaking awkward. Being somewhat of an awkward person already, this strikes dread in the part of me that wants everyone to like me. I wonder, even if their “Obruni!” is a friendly one, if there is some underlying resentment or hate associated with the fact that I am white.

There’s also a part of me that believes that I am just overthinking the whole obruni thing. We’ve been told that we should answer shouts of “Hey obruni!” with “Hey obibini!” “Obibini” meaning “black man.” This strikes me as an imperfect solution and I’m not entirely comfortable with shouting “Hey (insert color here) man!” in any context.

Anyhow, I understand that waxing poetic about it here won’t change anything. Maybe I am making a mountain out of a molehill. Or maybe there are deeper cultural currents here that I don’t understand. Everyone seems to think it is pretty normal. One day I’m sure obruni will be dropped, but until then, we still answer every shout of “Hey obruni!” with a smile and a wave.

 

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