I remember making my way through Kotoka International Airport when I first arrived in Ghana, passing through customs and having the agent start speaking to me in Twi. But what my dark skin concealed, my blank stare betrayed immediately—I was a foreigner.
On my last trip to West Africa—The Gambia to be precise—I arrived with the arrogance that while my white travel companions would clearly be identified as foreigners, I would seamlessly pass for a local. Ha! Not even close, and I wasn’t going to make that mistake again. But Ghana is shaping up to be a different experience.
People consistently speak to me in Twi, tell me I must be Ghanaian when they learn that I’m not and generally leave me alone as I go about my business, which to me is the ultimate sign of fitting in. But just as I start to feel like I’m flying undetected under the radar, a well-timed “Hey, American girl” hollered in my direction brings me back to reality. And when it comes to bargaining, there’s about a 50% chance that I’ll be quoted the obruni (foreigner) price. Well, you win some, you lose some.
I hadn’t given much thought to how Ghanaians perceive me, until the former YMCA intern asked me how my new co-workers reacted when the newest Canadian intern arrived and I wasn’t white. The answer is that they didn’t react at all. But since it’s been two months, and we’re all comfortable with each other now, I thought I’d ask some of them what they were thinking. It turns out that my co-workers have excellent poker faces! Everyone expected me to be a white woman, and their reactions upon my arrival ranged from a few people who didn’t have any reaction at all, to very surprised:
“Wow, I was shocked! You looked like a Ghanaian, like you had never stayed outside (of the country).”
“You look like a Ghanaian, except the way you speak.”
“It was as though I saw my sister.”
“I knew you were black, so I thought you were a half-caste, but you look totally Ghanaian.” (Half-caste means mixed race.)
No matter how Ghanaian I may look, apparently it’s my walk, in addition to the way I speak, that gives me away. North Americans walk too quickly, I’ve been told, because we’re conscious of time. It’s the concept of time that, for me, makes working in another country a completely different experience from just travelling.
In my time here, I have spent hours driving around Accra with co-workers hand delivering mail; going to meetings which weren’t actually scheduled meetings but more like drop-bys, where we hoped the person we needed to meet with would be in; and learned that when I’m 10 minutes late, I’m actually a half-hour early. Each time, I found myself asking, wouldn’t it have been more efficient to send the mail via post and call ahead to make sure the person we were meeting was in?
But, I’m in Ghana, where the personal touch of a hand delivery can’t be underestimated and sometimes dropping by is better because having a meeting scheduled isn’t a guarantee that the other person will show up.
Youth Challenge International builds the skills and experience of young people by involving them in overseas international development projects in partnership with local youth-serving organizations. YCI currently has projects in Ghana, Tanzania, Guyana, Guatemala and Costa Rica. A number of YCI volunteers and interns will be blogging on this site. For more information please visit www.yci.org or follow them @YouthChallenge.