Being a white male from the United States, it's hard to imagine life as a minority. Here in Ghana, it's a reality. In fact – at my secondary school, I'm the only Caucasian male student.
To be politically correct, Obruni simply means 'foreigner', and is supposed to have nothing to do with the color of your skin. Caucasians, Asians, and sometimes even African-Americans are considered 'Obrunis'. Therefore, this post is a bit of a mash-up between Obruni and Caucasian stereotypes – as I experience a bit of both.
Common Obruni/Caucasian Stereotypes
• Stereotype #1 – Obrunis Don't Know How to Eat Ghanaian Foods: This stereotype is partly true – when I first landed in Ghana it was difficult getting used to eating with my hands and even today I have trouble with the art of swallowing fufu. In addition to the learning curve, Ghanaians also eat most meals 2-3 times faster than I do.
Pollo is not eaten in any special manner. I mean – all you do is put it in your mouth, bite, chew, and swallow it. Come on – I may be white, but I'm not photosynthetic…
• Stereotype #2 - Obrunis Can't Run Fast: While this stereotype isn't true, I will say that in general, Africans include many of the world's fastest runners. Case and point – since 1991 only one Boston Marathon winner hasn't been from Africa.
But that doesn't mean we can't run!
It's almost amusing – how tweens and kids less than half my size think they can run faster than me. The first time I accepted racing challenges, I beat each of my challengers hands down – partially due to the height advantage.
After ten races (100 yard dash), a teenager of my height wanted to race. I accepted, but my energy was gone. He won by around 8 yards, meaning to this date the kids think that I run slowly for my height.
• Stereotype #3 - Obrunis Don't Exercise: Whenever I go jogging, people on the street laugh and yell things like, "Don't hurt yourself Obruni!" In general Ghanaians are used to foreigners using private cars with drivers or taxis as transportation. This makes the trotro experience all the more enjoyable, and people are shocked that I can find my way around Accra.
• Stereotype #4 - White People are Naturally Better at Swimming: Ghanaians tell me multiple reasons for this including their 'higher bone density, lower fat content, and higher muscle mass percentages.'
I don't buy it. When push comes to shove, I know that skin color has absolutely no effect on potential swimming ability. If you need proof, simply look at the dark-skinned people of the Caribbean - a large proportion of them can swim.
However, as I was verifying my thoughts on Google, I came across an article discussing ethnicity's effect on swimming ability in Americans. I was shocked to learn that African-American children are more than 3 times as likely to drown than Caucasian children, and that almost 70% of them aged 5-14 cannot swim.
As the article states, this has nothing to do with different body types. It's more likely because during the 1920's swimming pool boon, African-Americans were highly discriminated against, and weren't allowed to swim. Therefore they never learned how, and never taught their subsequent generations how to swim.
There can be no doubting that a very high percentage of Ghanaians do not know how to swim – even in coastal towns such as Accra. If you need proof, simply look below at my photo of the University of Ghana Olympic-sized swimming pool.
Regardless, I attribute Ghanaians not knowing how to swim to cultural norms, rather than a genetically different body type.
•Stereotype #5 - White People are 'Made of Money': This stereotype is obviously untrue – we're actually made of oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorus.
Bad humor aside, Ghanaians are generally shocked to learn that there are beggars and poor people in America, and that the American Dream doesn't always become a reality. I try to be as honest with them Ghanaians as I can, because unrealistically high expectations of employment and income in the United States may only serve to hurt them in the long run.
People at school also think that I have enough money (and a duty) to buy them food and drinks during break . But let's be real – there are close to 50 people in my class. I don't think it would be fair if I bought for only one or two kids, and if I bought for more than that it would only serve to reinforce the stereotype… and I'd quickly become broke.
•Stereotype #6 - White People Don't Know Prices: Like some others on this list, it is partly true. I admit that I probably pay too much for consumer goods sold in the market without a price tag – including my soccer ball, socks, masks, and clothes in general. But it's all part of a learning how to barter well by myself – a useful life skill if I travel to many countries around the world.
However, it's a whole different issue when it comes to fixed price goods such as food and transportation. Last week, I rode a $.30 trotro home. I gave the mate $2.00, and he handed me back $.20 of change.
Solving my problem was easy due to the crowded environment of the trotro. I simply yelled, "Mate – 2 cedi!" Others started to nag him and he look flustered as he gave me the rest of my change.
• Stereotype #7 - White People Hate Black People: This misconception is brought up primarily after I am offered a wife or girlfriend (more on that in a future post). After I respond with a casual "No thank you", the conversation often degrades to a rousing, "Why; you don't like blacks?"
This couldn't be further from the truth. I mean – use logic: If I didn't like black people, why on earth would I be spending 10 months in Africa?!?!
•Stereotype #8 - White Men such as Myself Come to Ghana for the Prostitutes and Drugs, and We Plan on Bringing Home Multiple Wives for our Satanic Lifestyle: …No comment.
Note: The above stereotype isn't very common, and usually comes from 'borderline-insane' homeless people.
Finally… Despite these stereotypes, Ghanaians absolutely love Obrunis. Most of these stereotypes are simply due to lack of exposure to Obrunis and Caucasians besides in television and movies.
And I'm sure we all know how accurately people like Eminem, Justin Bieber, and Lady Gaga portray American lifestyle…
Race and skin color are much touchier subjects in America as compared to Ghana. In Ghana they aren't things to be offended by – merely facts of life.