Oburoni: Blackness and Mental Colonialism in Ghana

English is the national language in Ghana. But, like in many colonial states, local languages are usually learned first and Ghanaians don’t really start learning English until they are of schooling age. There are a lot of tribal languages spoken in Ghana and it is quite common for a Ghanaian to speak English, 3 or 4 local languages, and understand 1 or 2 others. Fante, Ga, Ewe, Hausa, Dagbani, and many others are spoken with varying levels of frequency throughout Ghana. But the language that is most common in Ghana is Twi.

I’ve spent a lot of time here in Ghana. 2 weeks in high school, 4 months in college, and I’m one month into a 3 month visit right now. So I’ve had ample opportunity to pick up some Twi. Though I’m not great at speaking it (except for when I’m buying food at which I’m an expert), I can often surprise and impress people here with the amount that I can say and understand. But there is one Twi word that any Westerner visiting Ghana is all but guaranteed to learn and every Ghanaian expects us to know: oburoni.

Race is a social construct. They taught me that in school. But I never experienced it until I came to Ghana. Race functions differently here in Ghana than it does in the US. Because of Ghana’s distinct history and experiences with colonialism, race and origin are tied up in a way that they aren’t in the States. Since white people have also historically been outsiders and foreign born here (in a way that they aren’t in the US) being white is associated with being a foreigner or a non-African. This is evidenced by the word “oburoni” which is Twi for “white man” but also “foreigner.” To add an interesting wrinkle to this, I and many other black Americans, are considered oburonis here. And not just in the sense of being a foreigner; most Ghanaians consider me to be white.

Part of it is because I’m light-skinned. Most Ghanaians would be considered dark-skinned in the States. As there is not as wide of a range in the color spectrum here as exists in the Americas, Ghanaians have a different conception of what is dark-skinned and what is light-skinned. For example, while my buddy Freeman (pictured below) would be considered dark-skinned in the States, he is considered pretty light-skinned here in Ghana. So if he’s light-skinned, and he’s considerably darker than me, then obviously I’m white.

If he’s light-skinned…

… than I’m obviously white.

But it’s not just because I’m light-skinned. As “oburoni” means both “white man” and “foreigner,” I am also considered an oburoni because of my foreign origins. Many black Americans, even those considerably darker than me, are greeted as oburonis. And it makes sense. We come from the white man’s land, we speak the white man’s language, we eat the white man’s food, we wear the white man’s clothes, and we spend the white man’s money.

Last week I was talking with two men, one from Ghana and one from neighboring Togo, and they asked if I was a full white American or if I was part Ghanaian (I do generate some level of confusion here as well although most people are quite confident that I’m an oburoni). I told them that my father is black but my mother is white. The man from Togo wanted to know what part of Africa my father is from and I told him that he’s not from Arica and that he’s from the US. He burst out laughing and told me that there are no black men from America and that black people come from Africa. So though it does have a lot to do with what you look like, race in Ghana also has to do with where you are from in way that it doesn’t in the US.

During my first trip to Ghana in 2004, even though I was a light-skinned American travelling with a group of white people, I didn’t get called “oburoni” very much. That’s because I had a huge afro and I accumulated a lot of other nicknames like “Afro Man” and “Terry Bonchaka” (a recently deceased Ghanaian musician known for wearing his hear in an afro). Though I did get “oburoni” sometimes, Ghanaians more readily identified me as a black American descendent of slaves. Two of the names that people would call me were “Roots” and “Kunta Kinte” which was very confusing to me because black Americans tend to see Kunta Kinte as the African. In fact, “Kunta Kinte” is one of the many derogatory names that black Americans will use to ridicule Africans in the US. I came to realize that here Kunta Kinte is seen as the slave (of which most native Ghanaians are not descendants). It seems that nobody wants to identify with Kunta Kinte. But that’s another issue for another entry. “Oburoni” played a much larger role in my second trip to Ghana.

Black Americans have a lot of different reasons for traveling to Africa. For most of us, at least part of our journey here is a search for belonging. Our everyday experience in the US is one of hostility. A racist power structure constantly reminds us that we are not welcome; that the US is not our place; that we don’t belong. Some whites are even so blunt as to tell us to go back to Africa. So we do. In search of, among other things, belonging. And then we get here and everything is foreign to us. We don’t know the languages, we don’t know the food or how to eat it, we don’t know the drinks or how to drink them, we don’t know the clothes or how to wear them, we don’t know the geography, we don’t know how to get around, we don’t know how to act normal, we don’t know anything about this place to which we thought we belonged. And to affirm our discomfort and insecurity, we are told constantly, with Ghanaian exuberance, that we do not belong here. We are welcome, but we will never be of this place. And then we look at them and we say, “Wait. What? Oburoni? No that’s the white people. I’m black. I’m like you. Can’t you see that?” And they look back at us with confusion or amusement and reply, “No. You’re white. I’m an African. You’re not like me.”

I saw a lot of fellow black Americans really struggle with this during my semester in Ghana in 2006. As a light-skinned mulatto, I already had some experience with black people telling me that I wasn’t black so the oburoni stuff didn’t faze me as it did others. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t wish I and other black Americans were greeted as obibinis (Twi for “African”). It’s a tough pill to swallow. Not because we think we’re Ghanaian; at least not like the Ghanaians are. But because it’s a reminder that we have no place. The Lost Tribe of Shabazz.

There was actually a group of black Americans who were so bothered by the oburoni stuff that they refused to believe that I was mixed. It reached a pretty remarkable level of denial where no matter what I or others who knew me told them, they wouldn’t believe that I had a white mother. I believe that they looked at me and saw a black man and in likening me to them, they were able to affirm their own blackness in the face of local arguments to the contrary. They saw me and thought to themselves, “Anand’s black. Look at him. He doesn’t look like these white people. How come these Ghanaians can’t see the difference? Anand is black and so am I. We’re black. Let me go talk to him about how ridiculous it is that people think we’re white.” And then they’d talk to me and I’d say, “Well, actually, my mother’s white.” And they would think, “What?! He’s just as white as he is black?! But I thought he was black like me! I thought I was black like him! If he’s not black then what does that say about me? If he’s not black than maybe… No. No. He’s black. He’s lying.”

For my blackademics out there it’s kind of like DuBois’ double consciousness on steroids. Black Americans are conditioned to view ourselves not just through our own eyes but through the eyes of the other/oppressor. Then we come to Ghana, bringing that double consciousness with us, and struggle to understand how we are viewed through the eyes of Ghanaians (triple consciousness?). Of course, as colonial subjects, Ghanaians have gone through a similar conditioning and, though in different ways than in the US, also view themselves through the eyes of an other/oppressor. So we see ourselves through our own eyes, those of white America, those of black Ghana, and those of a colonial power (Quadruple consciousness? I don’t know. I just know it’s a lot of consciousness when I think I only need one). My boy, Hayling, wrote about this same concept during a trip to Ghana in 2007.

A Ghanaian friend of mine pointed out, and I have since observed, that educated Ghanaians were more likely to identify me as black; maybe not African, but black. But by and large, I was greeted and treated as an oburoni. Another Ghanaian friend of mine was shocked to learn that I’m considered black in the US. Though being called “oburoni” caused a lot of distress for some black Americans during my last trip, I pretty much accepted that race is a social construct and I’m an oburoni here. In my current trip to Ghana, however, “oburoni” has manifested itself in a different way that has troubled me much more than in the past.

Ghanaians have a well-deserved reputation for being extremely warm and hospitable. One of the reasons that I keep coming back is the genuine warmth that is so common here. Strangers greet each other on the street as they pass. People will stop and chat for five or ten minutes when they see an acquaintance even if they are running late for an appointment. If a car breaks down, you can expect that a group of strangers, who expect nothing in return, to quickly help the driver move the car off the road and may even help figure out how to repair the problem. Ghanaians treat each other with a level of humanity that is so uncommon in the States that it has actually aroused the my suspicion of my Western mind (“Is this guy trying to hustle me? Why is he being so nice?”).

So anyone who is recognized as a visitor should expect a great deal of positive, welcoming attention. And for the most part that’s what I always thought I was getting; a warm welcome. Despite the confusion and anguish it has caused black Americans here, when I and other Westerners walk by on the street and people yell “Oburoni!” it isn’t derogatory in the slightest. I and other oburonis are often greeted with excitement and, as I said before, warmth. But this trip has been a little different than in the past.

I’m living in Kasoa which is much closer to a village than what I’ve experienced before. People are much less accustomed to seeing oburonis as they are in Legon and Accra (where I stayed in ’06) or tourist areas (where I spent most of my time during my first trip in 2004). As a result, I hear “oburoni” much more often than in any of my other visits here. Even some people from the village, my neighbors, who know me, talk to me, and see me everyday, will greet me with an “Oburoni!” when they see me in the morning. As an oburoni, I received special attention in past trips to Ghana, but not to the level that I have experienced in the last month.

A week or so ago I asked my buddy Freeman (the light-skinned/dark-skinned brother pictured above) what was his take on all of the oburoni attention. His response was illuminating. “Yeah. So, they say that this thing, colonialism, is over. But I guess mental colonialism is still here.” Free explained that at a young age, Ghanaians are conditioned to believe that, not only do all oburonis have a lot of money and not only do oburonis have everything figured out, but that there is something special, magical, or more than human about us. I knew exactly what he meant because I had perceived it in a way that I hadn’t in my last two trips here.

I’m currently interning at the Cheerful Hearts Foundation which is a Ghanaian NGO that is, among other things, working to end child labor and trafficking here in Ghana. Most interns on the Labour and Trafficking project teach two days per week at local schools. One of the interns showed me a lesson that she was assigned to teach (by her school, not CHF) which basically stated that before white people came here, Africans didn’t have clothes and they used to walk around naked or wearing leaves. The lesson went on to explain that white people introduced clothes and methods to produce them. (For the record, Africans have been weaving since around 3000 BC).

Colonial Brainwashing 101 (Page 1)
(Click for full-size image)

Colonial Brainwashing 101 (Page 2)
(Click for full-size image)

I took pictures of the lesson plan and sent them to my Ghanaian-American homie, Nana Kwabena, who was understandably incensed. His quote that really hit me was “The worst thing about this is that they are going after the minds of young people. Our greatest future resource.”

A few days later, I went to a school and watched one intern play with a group of Ghanaian children. Another intern came out to take their picture. The children were extremely excited at the whole scene. I had a moment when one of the children looked from the young woman playing with them, to the intern who was taking their picture, to me and I could see the wonder, amazement, and excitement in his eyes. All from some small interactions with two white people. It was like I connected with his young soul for a second and I felt the colonial brainwashing that had already been imposed on his immature mind. I felt that he thought these two oburonis were something bigger, more powerful, and more magical than any obibini. I felt how you could drop a random white girl in front of him and he would listen to her in a way that he wouldn’t listen to a fellow Ghanaian. And I also felt that we was looking at me the same way. So I’m in a tough situation because Ghana’s future prosperity is dependent onthat kid realizing that he controls his destiny and that nobody is better suited to make Ghana what it should be than him. I’d love to tell him that, but I want to tell him that man to man, not oburoni to obibini. I’m afraid that any political message I try to send him would be received as more oburoni wisdom; undermining exactly what I’d hoped to do.

So on this trip “oburoni” is starting to sting. Not because I’m being called white, but because I’m being called more than black. This is extremely frustrating and painful as a black man. Though the process has played out in a different way, we black Americans elevate whiteness as well. Whether it’s by frying our hair, using “Kunta Kinte” as a slur, or pursuing lighter-skinned mates, we do it too. It’s painful to see that. It’s painful to recognize times when I have done it myself. But it’s particularly painful to be on the other side and feel powerless to address it.

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7 thoughts on “Oburoni: Blackness and Mental Colonialism in Ghana

  1. Pingback: Ironies and oburonis: navigating foreignness in Ghana | Anthropology While White

  2. I was looking up how to spell oburoni, and I stumbled upon this post. I had just spent the last 3 weeks in Kasoa with CHF, and a lot of what you said definitely resonated with me as well. Thank you for this!

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  3. Pingback: Twi 101 & experiencing firsthand the aftereffects of colonialism | Nguyen in Ghana

  4. Hello Anand – If this post is still active I’d like to echo the sentiment. I just returned from the Upper East Region. There, they called me something like Nasara which means the same as Oburoni. I was in Garu working with a farmers cooperative on Strategic Planning.

    Like

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