My favorite thing to hear over my shoulder as I walk away from a Ghanaian that I just met is “Obroni te Twi paa!” which roughly translates to “The foreigner speaks Twi very well!” Twi is the most widely spoken of dozens of local languages in Ghana, and Obroni is often also translated as “white man.” Keep in mind that English is the official language of Ghana and nearly all of these people speak more English than I do Twi.
To be clear, what these generous Ghanaians say about me is not even remotely true. I am able to navigate two or three sentences worth of polite greetings or perhaps a sales transaction in Twi, but beyond that I quickly become lost. Despite my shortcomings, locals never cease to be thrilled to hear me try. These halting Twi interactions have opened so many doors for me here.
I tell my photography students at the University of Ghana that you need to make a connection with your subjects to get the best photos. It can be tempting to try to be invisible and capture moments without people ever knowing that you’re there, and that can work occasionally. But I think many of the best photos come after the photographer has created a relationship of trust with the subject.
This advice is all the more important for camera-wielding Obronis to keep in mind here, where many people are justifiably suspicious about the motives of foreign photographers. In the Madina market near Accra, I saw one of my photographer classmates get angrily chastised by a woman working in the market. “I don’t want to be in some magazine in your country!” she scolded him with impressive insight and acuity.
On a recent visit to the Kumasi Central Market, also known as Kejetia, my shaky Twi skills were put to the test. One of the largest outdoor markets in all of Africa, the KCM may be the most vibrant and hectic place in Ghana, which is really saying something. As I explored the market, I stopped and spoke with dozens of people. I was rewarded with some wonderful interactions and this collection of portraits of the people (mostly women) who work in the market. Each one of these photographs is the result of using nearly every single Twi word I know.
Next week I plan to return to Kumasi and bring all of these folks prints of the photos I took of them. I can’t wait to see them all again and learn more about their stories.