One of the things that made me quite different from Africans was my skin color. To some people that was a big deal when traveling in West Africa of Africa in General but to me it really didn’t mean a thing. I felt just like a Ghanaian when I was living there. I dressed like them, I ate the food they did, I took public transport everywhere, and I was broke all the time (which was a major commonality between West Africans and myself). On one occasion, a friend of mine, Max, mentioned to his girlfriend that he was not my type because he was the wrong color. She commented “But she is white???”. Max replied, “SHHHHH, Don’t tell her that!” I think that statement characterized my state of mind when traveling to Africa.
However, although I felt this way, Africans can ensure that your color is quite important as to who you are as a person. The treatment can range from the impression that your color implies royalty or, in contrast, it could represent a target for exploitation, money and sometimes-even meanness. My friends and I joked that when you are traveling around Ghana all the people see is white skin with a big fat dollar sign tattooed to your forehead.
Although being white is an extreme advantage working and traveling in Ghana, one has to be leery of scams and people looking for handouts. For example, I had one little girl come right up to me and say, “Aobroni, GIVE ME MONEY!”. Although I was offended slightly and didn’t give her a cent, I understood how they were brought up to think and how some people still have not gotten past white dominance in West Africa.
Being brought up Canadian and always taught that race and color were not important factors, it was difficult to integrate into their way of thinking. Most travelers who end up in Ghana accept it and deal with it, maybe not fully understanding why it is that way. However, when you live there for 12 consecutive months and want to blend in, it becomes very difficult. Especially when you are dealing with the same every day life and people are still looking to you for a handout. There were a few times when I came home from a day out working (I met companies daily) frustrated and in tears. On more than one occasion I asked my husband to get out the shoe polish because I wanted to camouflage my color.
It was an intensely deep personal experience to be confronted with this situation on numerous occasions. At the start of my year I was frustrated with the people around me and why they couldn’t understand that I was their equal, and I wanted to be treated the same as everyone else. By the end of my twelve months I came to understand that it was I who should change the way I viewed them. I expected them to treat me as per my standards of how Africans treat each other. However, I didn’t realize until late in the year that maybe my standards were different from their standards. Maybe it was an honor and a sign of respect to be treated differently. Maybe there was hidden animosity against whites in some people’s eyes, but it is not a widely held view. Maybe living diversity is not changing how others view you but how you would view yourself through their eyes. All I know is that people I knew loved and respected me, my African family welcomed me with open arms, and maybe I used my cultural boundaries of conservatism to dictate an African reality for myself which was unrealistic.
I guess in the end, understanding that my goal of fitting in and being treated like an African was unrealistic and could never happen, led to my greater understanding of the people around me.