Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Obruni! Obruni!

By Alyssa NedrowIn Accra, Ghana

"A friend recently told me about a unique bird found in her country. And what is remarkable about this bird is not that it nests, for all birds nest, but that this particular bird nests in a community all unrelated to each other and all of different colors. This community of different colors and different birds has one common goal: to care for each other. We are a world of people. We are human beings. And if there is one thing that human beings have in common, it is the desperate need to be free."
      -The Color of Friendship

Prior to departing on my Ghana adventure, as a white female I had prepared myself to be among the minority. I was excited to embrace and experience this new status and willing to see what I would learn from it. Upon arrival our group was instantly welcomed by the Ghanians, bombarded with “Akwaaba”, meaning “welcome”, and “Love Ghana!” The kindness was overwhelming and at the same time the perfect welcome to this new place. Instantly, people addressed our group because the majority of us are of lighter skin. Our first drive through the city, young children walked up to our bus asking for money. This is an something we would come to experience almost every day. It is commonly assumed here that because we are white we are rich. 

The next experience I faced, and was made apparent of my minority status, was during our visit to the Makola Market. As we walked deeper into the market the vendors got more intense. Many would yell, “Akwaaba” or “Obruni”, meaning “white person.” Now the term Obruni is not meant as a racial slur or to be discriminatory, it is simply a term stating the fact that we are white. As they would yell Obruni some would grab our hands trying to get us to stop and buy something from them. This would certainly not be the last time I heard “Obruni!”

As a group of four of us pulled up to Street Sister’s Crèche for our internship we could hear the children chanting “Obruni! Obruni!” Pulling into the drive-way the children automatically swarmed our car welcoming us. The minute we exited the car they surrounded us and latched on to any part of us they could. Many of them grabbed my hand and turned it over while rubbing my skin just looking at it. One young girl even ran her hand up and down my arm and said, “paint.” This moment alone made me realize that these kids do not have a lot of personal connections with white people and that our skin color intrigued them. Little did they know that while they were admiring the color of my skin I was admiring the color of theirs. My whole time spent at Street Sister’s was extremely eye opening. I always had one of the kids holding my hand and following me around. The girls would have us sit down and ask to play with our hair, one of the older girls even asked once if it was real; since so many women here have hair wraps and weaves they were amazed that our hair was our real hair. It was quiet shocking to see this new perspective. 

Aly Fosset, junior at Ohio University, gets her hair done by some of the girls at Street Sisters Crèche.

Unfortunately, not all people had the same innocent views and reactions to us being here as these beautiful kids. Although a majority of the Ghanians are extremely hospitable and welcoming that does not account for all. For instance, many cab drivers and street vendors believe that since we are white and not from here they can exploit us and over charge us. Taxi drivers will say they know the location we are trying to get to and then get lost in attempt to charge us more than our original fare. Another issue is that for what ever reason a majority of the taxis drivers do not actually know how to get to places within the city, usually not even more than 3 miles away from where they picked us up. 

One night on our way back to the hotel from a night out for one of our group member’s birthday, 5 of us crammed into a taxi. Since, we had one extra person we had one girl sit on someone’s lap, it did not seem like such a big deal since we were only a few miles away from our hotel. About a block away from our hotel the police turned on their lights and yelled to the driver to pull over. First, let me explain that the police presence here is not very strong. Before this event the only thing I have ever witnessed them do is direct traffic and guard governmental buildings and pay tolls. My immediate thought was, “Oh goodness. Why are they after the driver?” 

The driver told us to all exit the cab and we were immediately prosecuted by the Ghanian police, asking us where we were from. They then began to ask us if we place an extra person in a car at home. They hammered at us that it was disrespectful to do such a thing here. We continued to apologize and explained to them that since it was late we did not want to break up the group. The two men continued to hassle our group, never saying a word to the driver. They then began to search our bags and pockets for drugs. I can honestly say it was one of the most frightening moments of my life, and although none of us would ever have drugs on us, I couldn’t help but think what if they arrested us? Once they realized we had nothing on us they told us to get back in the cab and go home. Back at the hotel is when I realized that we had just be targeted and completely racially profiled. Although the police stopped us for having an extra person in the cab, in actuality they saw it as a chance to exploit us and because of our race profile us as potential drug smugglers. 

Although, this particular experience was not the best it was extremely eye opening. People are racially profiled every single day and in many cases they are not as lucky as we were. Say for example the taxi driver had drugs on him, the minute he saw the police lights he could have placed the drugs in the back seat and claim they were ours. Most likely, the police would have believed him and the rest would be history, we would be sent to jail and pressed with charges. Thankfully this was not the case. I have always been aware of the issue of racial profiling but until that particular experience it was one that I could never personally understand. Like many things on this trip it has completely opened my eyes and has made me become even more grateful for all that I have. The wealth of knowledge I have gained on this trip is something I will take with me for the rest of my life. Although I had a bad experience with the Ghanian police I can say that this trip has been everything I expected and more. I will honestly miss being a part of the minority and hearing the excited sound of “Obruni!” as I pass the most adorable kids everywhere I go. 

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