THE FIRST TIME SOMEONE SHOUTED “Obroni!” at me in the street, I assumed it was a friendly greeting. “Yes, good morning!” I replied.
When it happened again I asked someone what the word actually meant. “You are obroni,” I was told. “You’re a white man.”
What power a word can hold. For the first time in my life, I was part of an ethnic minority. And when somebody called me that, I felt as if they were thoughtlessly stuffing everything that I am into those three syllables: ‘We know what he is, he’s an obroni.’
At the time, I didn’t know the word’s true significance. It isn’t just about skin colour, although every Ghana travel blog written by white westerners will give you that impression.
One night, for example, at an open mic poetry event in Accra one of the poets was dressed in a kente costume, identifying her as native to the Akan ethnic group of soutern Ghana. But when she spoke it was obvious that she was from the USA.
Her poem recounted the brutal revenge of a young African girl on the white men who inflicted slavery and rape on her village, but the response from the audience of mostly young Ghanaians was a mixed bag: some heckling, a smattering of laughter, some bemused silence. The performer had been aiming for maximum emotional impact and I suspect she was shocked at her poem’s reception.
When someone behind me sighed, “Oh, chale, as for these obronis. . .” I realised he was referring to the performer, a black American. It was the first time I had heard a non-white person called that word.
And finally I understood: someone from Utah, say, who knows he has Scottish roots, goes to Scotland to find out more about his heritage. In the spirit of kinship, he decides to express his feelings of belonging by performing the speech from Braveheart in which Mel Gibson loudly declaims “They’ll never take oor freedom!”; facepaint, kilt, mangled accent and all.
It would be absurd. An audience of Scots would be, at best, amused by the in-authenticity of the presentation. Similarly, the Accra audience was sending the black American performer a clear message: you are not One Of Us.
I have since read blogs and heard anecdotes from other black American and British people who have also been called obroni. Generally, they don’t much like it (who does?). Often, what has brought them to Ghana is an ancestral link, but to be labelled ‘obroni’ is to be told you do not belong.
As usual, I turned to my wife for clarification. Not only does she speak Ga and Twi, two of the indigenous languages, she also studied sociology at the University of Ghana.
“You white people think the word obroni was created for you,” she began, warily because our conversations on race sometimes turn heated. “That’s because you are the most different-looking foreigners who had an impact on our culture, so it has come to mean westerner or white man.
“But it is the corruption of an expression that existed long before Europeans came to West Africa. It refers to anyone who comes from ‘beyond the cornfield’ or from over the horizon.”
I subsequently learned of another possible origin in this article by musician/writer Wanlov the Kubolor (left). He believes the word obroni was a corruption of ‘abro nipa’, meaning ‘wicked person’. Is the word itself a warning from history about the treachery of the white European?
In any case, nobody I meet uses the word by either literal definition. Put simply; all white people are obroni, but not all obroni are white. Anyone who is culturally different is an obroni, including those who look Ghanaian but grew up somewhere else: Lebanese, Indian and Chinese people here are also referred to as obroni.
Confusingly, even those known to be Ghanaian but having a lighter skin colour are also called obroni. Curiously, Nigerians are described specifically as ‘anago’ in Ga and ‘alata’ in Twi.
I have a friend who was born in Ghana but is a quarter Lebanese. She has been called obroni all her life and she hates it. When she corrects them in Twi, pointing out that she is of mixed heritage, locals amend the label to “half-caste”. “No!” she insists, “I am Ghanaian!”
It is even more painful for her because, having experienced a more hostile form of racism from the Lebanese side of her family, she leans more towards her Ghanaian identity. That must be difficult to reconcile.
Consider, similarly, the black American poet I mentioned earlier: I wonder what she took from the experience of her rejection by the crowd of students in Accra. Her ancestors were enslaved and transported from Africa against their will, but those hecklers were unwilling to let her feel African at the expense of her American identity.
The episode signals that one cannot erase parts of one’s own identity in order to ‘fit in’. Not only will it eventually lead to an identity crisis, but the you will never impress your credentials on those you wish to impress. Better to establish one’s own identity and allow others to recognise and accept or otherwise.
My kind Ghanaian in-laws, our friends and the neighbours who have made me feel at home in our North Legon suburb know me as a person rather than as a word.
Sure, there will always be a few who will try to make one feel like an outsider, someone forever condemned to remain ‘beyond the cornfield’.
But in a sports-hungry country where the English Premier League is a big draw, this Liverpool fan is invariably greeted with pleasant cries of the club anthem “You’ll never walk alone!” as I stroll to watch a televised match in the bar at the end of the street.
It’s not much, but it beats obroni.