white lady

February 26th, 2018

So, this white girl went to Ghana.

My time in Ghana was one of my most interesting of cultural exchanges. I’m still processing what I’ve seen and learned. I’m sure I’ll be back, and I wonder how it’ll be next time, now that I feel more prepared. These are some of my experiences that were specific to me being a westerner, a woman, and as a white woman, and if nothing else gives me another perspective on the bigger picture that is gender and race relations in the world at large.

The countryside and the mountains and the waterfalls are super cool and beautiful, many to rival those of Southeast Asia, but there is not a lot of tourism in Ghana. The few white people outside of Accra are mainly volunteers, and apparently there was a surge of NGO’s out of Ho and to the north, at one point a few years ago, so now there are even less white people in the Volta Region. So, if you are fair-skinned, you are noticed, and often spoken to. Ghanaians are very polite and it’s rude not to greet anyone you pass by, really, so it’s also easy to get into a conversation. This midwestern girl enjoyed saying hello to everyone, honestly. Riding through the villages on a motorbike and waving at anyone I made eye-contact with felt appropriate, for some reason. It seemed less rude to wave than not to. Even though I was that silly white girl on a motorbike behind a small Ghanaian man, and probably was a little bit laughed at, it’s fine. It was a lot of fun. My coworkers made fun because it was a little Miss America-like, but the weird celebrity status of being white isn’t easily ignored, especially when it’s brand new.

On a trip out to a couple different villages, we were seeing if these clusters of people off the national grid would be interested in solar electricity. Even though I was working with the reproductive health project, I went along on this day to see what the whole experience is like. I rode on the motorbike with Mr. George, a regional social worker who knew the area well, and then Julien and Senyo were on the other bike, our engineers. It was fascinating to see how the meeting with the villages was coordinated. We rode through a few villages, a lot of corn, and some jungle, and arrived at a group of thatched roofed houses, and a group of women and elderly sitting in the open middle area around a tree. They pulled out some more plastic chairs and aligned them across from another row of chairs for the Chief and other representatives from smaller villages in the area. There were some lengthly introductions and then we began our presentation on how installing solar panels would work, and Julien and Senyo took turns explaining the process and how much it would cost, and among the response of questions were things like if it would still be viable during the rainy season, and if they would be able to watch television, and Julien replied, yes, with enough panels. Before we concluded, they wanted me to speak. I didn’t have anything to do with the solar panel project, but I was working with the organisation and besides, I was there as a friend, and to learn, and I told them I was very happy to be welcomed to their village and it was a pleasure to meet them. They encouraged us to take pictures and were happy to pose/ignore the camera.

They gave us some alcohol from the sugarcane they processed right there in the center of the village with an old heavy metal machine, and some coconuts to take with us, and after many handshakes and thanks, we hopped on the bikes to the next villages, and I waved hello to everyone we passed by and nearly everyone smiled and waved back to me.

We went to another village and sat under a tree in plastic chairs and talked more about solar panels. This was a little more informal because most of the village had left for a funeral. (Funerals usually occupy most of the day Friday and Saturday). Christmas music played on a radio while a few women and young people worked, and we ate more coconuts with them. They chop off the top so you can drink the water, then they cut it in half and carve out a spoon so you can eat the coconut meat. I was very full on coconuts after that. But I think they were happy that I ate practically all of what I was given. And it was delicious and made my body feel great.

We rode back to the compound and I waved the whole way. We stopped to pee on the side of the rode at one point. Closer to town, Mr. George was hungry so we stopped and had fufu, steamed dough with a meat sauce that you eat with your hands, and a beer. The meat was grasscutter, an animal that reminded me of a possum and a mole and a rat, a favourite in the region. Closer to the compound, Mr. George and I had another beer and he told me that he loved me and wanted to marry me and asked if I would come see his many acres of farmland. I thought it was a strange yet normal that this 70 year old man proposed, and I told him marriage and children were not a priority for me and that I wanted to go to school and work and travel a lot more than I wanted to get married, and just no, basically, of course. And we went back to the compound and I told Christiane and she thought I was joking, or maybe that Mr. George was joking, and laughed it off. Until he called me the next day many times and she found it inappropriate and had Senyo tell him to stop.

Apparently, Mr. George has been married three times and is currently getting a divorce. He did not seem to find it inappropriate to come onto me like this. He did stop calling me and I did not see him again before I left.

I do not know if this would have happened were I not white. It certainly has to do with me being a young woman, and the presumption that patriarchal culture takes in reducing women to objects that satisfy their desires for pleasure or status. I do not think that Mr. George is not a sweet man, but a man that was taught that he can have what he wants, especially when it comes to women, and largely due to the fact that he has land and money. This does not negatively colour my experience, but was part of the culture. I am not unaccustomed to unwelcome propositions from men, and I try to handle them with grace, and I find it both interesting and unsurprising, albeit, annoying, that Mr. George felt so inclined. But as other encounters show, there is an attitude among Ghanaian/African men that has the air of patriarchal power that is more overt than in the western world.

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One evening, we were walking on the street after having a drink after work and the city was out of power. (This was something to get used to – power outtages are pretty normal there, though, and many businesses have generators.) We were headed to a busier street to find a cab. It was pretty dark and I was thankful for the flashlight I carried with me at all times, as suggested by the organisation. I was smoking a cigarette, which is not cool in Africa, so I rarely did it public, but on this occasion I did, and¬† a man in a truck was driving by and shouted at us/me to not smoke on the street. I thought he was just being annoying, and when he beckoned us to his car I was just going to ignore him, but Juliet said we should go over to him, simply because he was a man and he was older. Begrudgingly, I crossed the street with Juliet and we approached his car, only to find out, as I suspected, he was just trying to engage us, just because. He didn’t have anything to actually say, and I quickly dismissed him and kept on walking. I found it fascinating that Juliet was so compelled to obey him. At home in the States, I would never feel it necessary to go up to a man in his car just because he wanted me to.

At the drinking spot that night even, Christiane and I went to sit down and Juliet went over to a guy that addressed her as we entered. We both thought she already knew him and was saying hello, but when she came to sit down after speaking with him for a few minutes, she said she didn’t know him, and that he had called her over to invite us to sit with him and his friends. Christiane and I were both like, um, what? No, absolutely not. Of course Juliet had told him no, but she said he was very persistent until she could pull herself away. This was a huge cultural difference for me, an American, and Christiane, a French woman, and we talked a little but about how men act differently in bars around the world. Yes, men can be forward everywhere you go, but here there was a presumption about them that was very off putting to me as a foreigner/American/Western woman.

Cabs are the main form of transit in Ghana. They are mostly old beaten up cars and there are never meters. You should just know how much the ride costs and expect the driver not to cheat you. It’s obviously easier if you’re a local and I’m lucky I had Juliet with me to help me get around. It wouldn’t have been impossible to do on my own, but it was a lot easier because she spoke the local language, Ewe. Sometimes, though, the driver would assume she wasn’t Ghanaian, partly maybe because of her association with me, but she’s also had people question her otherwise, probably because of her accent, because she speaks very proper English with her adopted mother, Christiane. English is the langua franca in Ghana, but most still speak it in a pretty broken way.

There’s a decent amount of cabs and they’ll drive by and ask you where you’re going and then agree or not to take you. You should know how much your ride will cost and give the driver the exact amount or expect appropriate change. You often have to ask for your change in some places like restaurants or drinking spots, but cab drivers are usually pretty good about being fair. And since I was with Juliet I’m sure I was cheated less than I would’ve been on my own.

One night we were picked up and the driver was very excited I was a white lady. He told us that he used to have a white lady and that she was a cop in the States and bought him a phone, but he lost the phone and her contact information, so he couldn’t get the car she said she’d buy him. He was keen to learn proper English he said, and proposed to be our driver. He was really very sweet about it all and I told him he was funny, and he said his name was Isaac, which means laughter. He was very pleased with himself and very kind, really. Juliet and I enjoyed him, despite that he had some other passengers in the car, some guys that were not so affable, so we got out of the cab quickly and didn’t get Isaac’s number.

The next morning we had to stop at the shop to get water so we didn’t pay attention to the car that tried to pick us up. The next night, Isaac happened to pick us up again. He told us he had tried to give us a ride in the morning and we realized we hadn’t recognized him. He said this was the third time he’s met us, though, so it was a sign, and we agreed to take his number and call him when we needed a ride. We then would call him when we needed a ride to work or when we needed a ride home, so this was great because the compound was on the outskirts of Ho and across town from where we were staying, and not every cab we hailed would take us either way. So Isaac became our driver and was very pleasant to ride with, and would tell me all about Ho as we drove around. He did speak English pretty well, but Juliet could speak Ewe with him if needed, and with his friend Eckens, his ‘brother,’ who often accompanied him, Juliet often did. Isaac was 23 and Eckens was 18, and Juliet¬† 22. They were all so young to me, but so sweet. Isaac explained that he had stopped going to school and was driving a car lent to him by a cousin or brother or something of the sort. He told us he was the oldest and only boy in his immediate family, and he really wanted us to come see his village and meet his mom.

Me and Juliet discussed it and we agreed it would be nice to have a driver, and he really came in handy when we had to leave early, or had to make a stop on the way to work, or had to stop at Juliet’s before going to mine. He was very accommodating and accepted whatever we offered him as payment. I probably overpaid him often, but I was really very appreciative. I’ve spoken with others who’ve traveled abroad and how they, too, often find a local guide/driver they use consistently. Forming relationships is part of connecting to where you are, a natural inclination of being human. And for us, especially as girls, having a driver we could trust was really a blessing.

Shortly after we met Isaac and Eckens, we went to a drinking spot in our neighborhood with them and we had a drink or two and some food and danced a little bit, falling in love with the song ‘Angela,’ a popular Ghanaian pop song. They wanted us to take their picture, but posed like they didn’t see the camera. It was a fun chill time. We would listen to that song often as Isaac drove us, even though his stereo system worked on and off, we’d play it on our phones.

We would call Isaac in the morning and he would come and get us and take us to the VEG compound. Usually he picked up other riders on the way because that’s just how it goes. We would still pay him but sometimes we would buy him a drink or he would want us to bring him back a souvenir, from like the bead factory, instead. Him and Eckens went with me and Juliet to meet another American lady, Heather, who was working on a dental hygiene project, and her Ghanaian boyfriend, TiTi, at a newer club. Ghana does have a middle class but this club was very fancy for where we were. That night though, there was a Prophet in town speaking at the park, so it was possible that literally everyone else was there instead of the club, because the club was actually completely empty. It was trying to be very Vegas-like, with bottle service and a dress code. However, they also had tables outside, with hookahs, so I suggested we did that, and everyone was eager to comply. They were brand new hookahs, and quickly I gathered that I was the only there that had smoked hookah before, so they all requested I teach them. Again, smoking was not that common, even though the Ghanaian flag has the Rastafarian colors, I didn’t see weed as very popular, except with TiTi and Heather, mentioned that a huge bag would cost them the equivalent of a US dollar.

We had a great time over hookah and drinks and talked all about Ghana and the States and I talked a lot about my travels and my life and what it was like to be an American visitor there. It was funny, too, because TiTi and Isaac knew each other, and TiTi vouched for Isaac’s good nature, and encouraged us to go see his village. We discussed how he was inviting me because I was white, but that a village visit is worth it, anyway. TiTi spoke English really well and I asked him if he had lived abroad, and he said his good English was due to movies, that he watched a ton of American movies, anything he could get his hands on, and had never been out of the country except once to Togo. Heather told us they had met a couple years ago and had been friends and just recently gotten into a relationship. She talked about her visit to TiTi’s village as a white woman, and how it really can be a status symbol, despite their true affection. Christiane had also told us about the white lady scams that often happen; African men sometimes take advantage of older white women, and vice versa in a sense. I put together that Africa for white women is similar to what Asia is for white men. It’s tricky to explain, but white men, regardless of attractiveness or even wealth, really, have a status in Asia that makes it really easy for them to get an Asian woman, not to belittle anyone’s intercultural relationship, but just saying, it’s a thing. And in Africa, it’s quite easy for a white woman to find a man, and I think on either continent it’s an interesting situation, especially in terms of gender roles/dynamics and the intersection of affluent cultures and poorer ones. I think Heather and TiTi have a genuine relationship, they seemed very respectful and into each other, but Heather told me later that she often had to slyly pay for things to not dampen TiTi’s pride, and cautioned me that if we met up with his brother in Accra, that I should do the same.

We went out to dancing to Mirage again and Isaac showed us his skills. It’s great how everyone is so excited to dance, dance together, and for each other. I placed myself between the table and a wall so as to avoid being approached, even though I felt safe with TiTi, Heather, Isaac, Eckens, and Juliet. Only once did a guy come up to me and ask for my number, and I rebuffed him, but TiTi was offended and told me that as the eldest male of the group, the guy should have approached him, first. Interesting power dynamics between men, there. TiTi took me to buy cigarettes and while we were doing that a guy started talking to us and I felt real bad energy but TiTi gave him a cigarette and handled it well, and as we walked away TiTi told me he was a bad guy gangster type. It seemed like an awkward peek into the seedy nature of some sort.

Isaac drove us home and TiTi made him promise to always wait until we were safely inside to drive off. The next day we had lunch with Christiane and Isaac helped us by refilling her propane tank. He very much respected Christiane and called her Auntie, and would go get her beer if we asked him to, which was very nice because its not so easy to find a place where you can take away beer, you always have to give them empty bottles in exchange, or pay a deposit on the bottles and promise to bring them back. Christiane encouraged us to go see Isaac’s village and so that Sunday afternoon, we went. He was very excited and despite the rains that came, we got there and met his mom and dad and all his sisters in the hut where they were cooking. None of them spoke English and I spoke what little Ewe I knew and they were very pleased. Suddenly, it was requested that we meet the village Chief. I suppose we should have expected this, but some how I didn’t think of it. So Juliet and I were welcomed into the Chief’s house and asked what brought us to the village. The Chief spoke a bit of English, and I explained that Isaac was driving us around and that he wanted to show us his village, thus, there we were. He spoke at some length in Ewe and Juliet translated a bit, but then said she would tell me more later. He was definitely excited and proud of Isaac as a good example of their village. They insisted on giving us plantains, (we should have brought him something to drink), and we went on our way. The rains had stopped and it had cooled off, and they said it was good that it rained because the dust going back into Ho would be less. Isaac wanted to share with me some of their local gin, so we had a shot at little shop on the way. This was now my second village experience and my second shot from the host, who always drinks from the cup first and then offers it to you.

The whole experience was very moving and I was very emotional afterwards. Isaac was talking more about how much he would miss me after I left, and suddenly it was all a lot, this being a white lady in Africa. Although I didn’t encourage any romantic feelings, he was sweet and forward about wanting to take care of me if I wanted to move there. I had to ask him to stop speaking like this, and to just enjoy the time I had there, and I had to have Juliet speak with him Ewe to make sure he understood. Really the whole thing was making me sad and I couldn’t pinpoint why. Juliet told me that the Chief had interpreted our visit and Isaac being my driver as if I was taking Isaac into my home to be my personal driver, and that I would potentially take Isaac to the States with me, and that Isaac could be a good example of their village abroad. He went to say even that when I have children that one of them could marry Isaac. I was glad they didn’t assume I was Isaac’s girlfriend or that there was anything romantic between us, and it was kind of funny because I’m only like 5 years older than him, but that Isaac took me to his village to show me off, and that he wanted to show me his village because, what else did he really have to show me? All combined into some really weird feels about the intersection of the First World and the Third World.

I started feeling really bad about what my life was. Yes, I felt very welcome in Ghana, but I couldn’t deny what a privilege it was to even take such a trip to such a different world. And even though I don’t feel like I have any money, compared to Isaac, I probably do, just because I’m American. And yes, it is more expensive to live in America and depending on who you speak with, the wages are comparable, but you must also consider our lifestyle, and that Americans live more on the idea that they have money than that they actually do, but even credit is a privilege. I suddenly wished I could give Isaac all that his Chief expected me to, even if it seemed bizarre, and at the same time I also resented this notion that I was a ticket out or up or whatever, just because I was a western woman. Was it not okay that I was just visiting/volunteering? Should I have had more to give? But shouldn’t they, as anyone should, know not to expect hand-outs, either, because that’s not really how life works? Why do I feel so bad for the life that I live? That it was relatively easy for me to graduate college, and that I live on my own in the city with a lot of stuff and a lot of traveling, and partying, and reading, and writing, and ultimately live pretty luxuriously compared to how so many people live, was suddenly somehow hard to stomach. But as soon as I started feeling bad for those without all those things, I felt bad about feeling bad. They don’t necessarily want you to feel bad for them. Just because they live on less doesn’t mean it’s worse way to live. There is no better than. It’s just a little different than.