As a white American, it’s impossible not to feel like an outsider in Ghana. The only other “obronis” I see in an average work day are the ones who cook breakfast at the same time as me in the morning, and the ones who greet me when I get back home in the evening time. At times, it can be difficult to deal with the sense of isolation associated with spending a day being stared at. Sitting on the tro in the morning, I feel like a zoo animal caged into my role as an outsider with the invisible bars created by the staring eyes of the four million citizens of Accra. “Why are you here?” their gazes seem to ask. “What are you doing?” I remember watching the monkeys at the Oregon Zoo with similar questions. “He is an abnormality from my daily structure. I’m not used to this sight, and I wonder what makes him tick.”
Three weeks of this culminated with a night of heavy contemplation. Back home, it is difficult to tell tourists apart from residents. Walking down the street in Portland, people of all different races and social groups walk by, each one seeming to fulfill a certain niche in the city that is just as valued as the next. A Mexican-American teen punker may skate by an aging European-American hippie while a middle-aged African-American adjusts his suit outside a law-firm building, and none of it seems out of place. Here, Ghanaians are much more uniform. “Obibinis” recognize their own – and outsiders – with a quickness I have not previously experienced. How do I deal with this? I asked myself. Do I accept my role and try to be the best monkey I can be (whatever that would mean)? Or do I instead attempt to break free from the bars of preconceived notions?
The answer, or perhaps a glimpse at a possible answer, presented itself to me as I walked to work this morning.
I got off the tro and began the ten minute walk up Royal Castle Road. Almost immediately, an elderly woman kneading bread alongside the road catches my attention and calls me over. She loves the red ribbon adorning my neck, a national symbol of mourning in Ghana. “Who gave this to you, Obroni? Where did you get this?” she asks me. I tell her I attended the week of mourning celebration at Children’s Park last Friday, where ribbons like mine were so abundant it was nearly impossible to walk out without one. She smiles and gives a little clap. “I like it,” she tells me. “It’s good.”
“Me daase,” I respond. I wish her a good day and she nods saying “see you later.” I know I will. As I walk away I feel the internal shift in perception as a landmark in my daily sights transitions into a role of friendship, one that will no doubt be solidified during the remainder of my stay over half-understood conversations and delicious home-baked bread.
Another twenty yards or so down the road, I stumble upon Eva, the receptionist at the Public Agenda. “Obroooooni” she opens in a singsong voice, “I made you joloff this morning, but I’m going to the bank right now. Reach into the first drawer of my desk.” I thank her profusely. The deliciousness of her cooking and the generosity in her constant gifts to me will without a doubt assure her the status of a saint. “Oh, Obroni Skyla,” she laughs, and walks off.
I don’t even make it another three blocks before my attention is drawn to my right. Three young children run around, waving like crazy. “Heyyy Obroni!” Their smiles are huge and take up almost as much of their face as their bright, shining eyes. Their happiness is contagious. I can’t help but smile and wave just as enthusiastically back, “Well hey there little Obibinis!” They cheer at my response. I’m not sure whether they’re cheering because I know what an obroni is, or because I know what the opposite of an obroni is, or just because I acknowledged their existence, but it doesn’t really matter. Even their stoic mother cracks a smile as she turns the maize on her grill over, roasting it all to a salty delicious brown. I resolve to check back to see if my friends, and that maize, are still around during lunch time.
Just before I turn off of Royal Castle Road, onto the little side street where the Public Agenda office resides, I come across a laborer. He is shoveling some rubble into a wheelbarrow. I saw him and his friends working all day yesterday to tear down a wall, and now I see they have moved on to the next phase in the job. We make eye contact and he puts down his shovel. “Obroni, ete sen?” he asks me, testing my knowledge of Twi with a phrase that means, more or less, how goes it? “Eye (it’s all good),” I confidently respond. “WonsoƐ (And yourself)?” He is excited that I am able to respond and we have a brief – very brief – Twi conversation, until we reach the limit of my Twi knowledge. He takes great delight in teaching me a new phrase, which I don’t completely understand to begin with but pretend to fully absorb anyway.
We point at the red in each other’s outfits. “We are in mourning,” I say. He nods vigorously. A smile, a fist bump, and I continue on my way to work.
Finally, I come across Janet, the lady across the street from work, who I buy coffee from every day. It’s no surprise when she waves me over with a big smile. As I walk over, a couple people of about my age dance around with some sort of homemade telescope. They laugh and shout things in Twi at me that I don’t understand. I’m not sure how to respond, so I just laugh with them, mimic their telescope with a hand to my eye, and continue over to Janet. We exchange pleasantries, some small change, and some instant coffee. “Don’t pay them any mind,” she assures me. “They just want you to join in their game.” Looking back, I see they have found another passerby to surround, one who speaks Twi, and they play with their cardboard viewing device for a short while before the girl walks off laughing.
I enter the office, find Eva’s delicious breakfast she’s prepared for me, and sit down to enjoy it with a sashay of water. My mind retraces my steps to the office, touching upon each person I encountered on my walk. In just a short ten or fifteen minute walk, I had made several new friends, and reconnected with a few old ones. I opened my journal and tried to write some notes on the heartwarming quality of Ghanaian acceptance.
I thought about the bars I had so unmistakably felt around me the night before, the inescapable condition of being regarded as a foreigner, forever seen as an outsider, forever seen as an obroni. This morning though, thinking about all the friendly faces and friendly calls of obroni, I begin to see those bars in a different way.
It’s clear that I’m going to be stared at for the rest of my time here. The bars constructed by judging eyes will always be there. Perhaps, though, the bars created are a lot wider than I previously imagined. Perhaps they are wide enough for me to walk right through. And perhaps those creating the bars are ready to extend a hand in friendship as soon as I walk out from behind them. Perhaps the “bars” are more like a “doorframe,” a starting point to help us both understand each other a little bit, before we begin to become better friends.
Like I began, I don’t think I stumbled upon an answer to the uncomfortable feelings associated with being constantly pigeonholed into one specific role in this city. I just think that I may have tripped over some rocks of Truth, little hints about the correct way I should handle my situation, as I weaved between the stray dogs and goats this morning.