The Trouble with Words (Part II)

Obroni is the Akan (or more specifically, the Twi language) word for foreigner, literally meaning “a person from beyond the horizon”. It is often colloquially translated into “white person” or “white man”.

I lived in the Middle East for 18 years, submerged in a culture and environment completely different from that of my parents. I was not born in the Middle East and I was not born in my parent’s home country of Ghana. I was born in the United States. It was not until I left the Middle East for the University of Michigan, and a couple of years into my college experience, that I became familiar with the concept of ‘third culture kid’ (TCK). Finally, one word that explains almost everything without embarking on the tiresome story “Well, I grew up here, my parents are from over there yonder, but I was born yonder, and then my parents up and left there to go there.”

There is the view that TCKs are spoiled, well-traveled nomads with trinkets of their global experience as themes in their apartments. This might not be a completely erroneous view, however, it is glamourized. There is another side of being a TCK that is lonely and lit with confusion. You can be reminded of your TCK-ness when there is a 4-7 hour time difference between where your parents are and where you currently are, when you haven’t seen your childhood friends in over a decade, and your best friend in six years, and you see your boyfriend once a year for 4 weeks. Once you’re hit with the TCK bug it’s with you for life: a battle between your accustomed sense of ‘adventure’ and your desire to develop a sense of home/belonging/peace.

Acclimatizing to a new culture is generally an easy process for the TCK. Most of us have developed an anthropological mindset; we are problem-solvers, observers, listeners, empathic, inspired and innovative. To be thought of otherwise, told otherwise, is a very difficult thing and dare I say, insulting accusation.

When I visit Ghana, which is where I am from most of the time, the last thing I want is to be pointed out as someone who doesn’t belong. And that is what being called obroni does for me. Much like obolo, there is little hesitance to call someone obroni and little you can do about it.

Something I am frequently told is that I can’t be Ghanaian because my parents did not teach me ‘my own culture’. I have been told this within 10 minutes of encountering another Ghanaian. First, that is a horrible accusation of irresponsibility to direct towards my parents—forget that it is ill informed! Certainly, my parents did not raise me to be American (whatever that means). In fact, any Ghanaian child who was raised in the US probably heard variants of “We aren’t American”, “We will not tolerate any American behavior in this house”, “All the children on Full House are rude!”.

I’ve been called obroni by family, during an internship by colleagues and office superiors and as I walk casually from point A to B. In fact, humorously, complaining about being called obroni will certify you as obroni, having preference on what you will eat will make you obroni, having an opinion that differs from the group you are with—obroni, asking that a colleague not call you ‘sweetheart’ or ‘my wife” –obroni, looking like you could be obroniobroni. Anything that you might say or do that deviates from ‘the norm’ and you are bestowed with obroni.

Before writing this post, I did some reading on the etymology of obroni. I’d encourage anyone interested to do the same. My post, however, is based on my personal experience with the word. And for me, obroni has less do with being white (I am black (and proud)) and is more a poorly informed belief about another person, an oversimplified understanding of different cultures, and an abrupt rejection of an individual’s duality.

For example, rejecting the idea that I could be both Ghanaian and American because the two are mutually exclusive, that adopting all or some of one culture is a complete rejection of the other, that I cannot prefer pizza to waakye and say I am Ghanaian (humor intended but I have been told this).

I don’t wear traditional wear often. I’m more of an emo spirit and I like navy blue, black and gray—these colors are not readily featured in our cloth. My apartment is not filled with Ghanaian art and craft. I don’t have the flag of Ghana on my porch, although I do own the Ghanaian flag and it is the only flag I own. I don’t know how to do any Ghanaian dances although I have attempted Azonto. I don’t like gari (dried cassava), I will run away from anything that has palm nut oil, and I will not, I repeat, I will not eat fufu!

But is this what makes a person Ghanaian? If it is there are some Peace Corps people I need to sit down with. I don’t want to be judged by outwards displays of culture. Not only because I think it is unfair towards me, but because it is disservice towards our culture because it ignores the sophistication of what makes us. What makes deep culture? Attitudes towards elders; approaches to problem solving; notions of courtesy, manners, friendship, leadership; concepts of time, fairness, justice; communications styles and rules like facial expressions, tone of voice, personal space, conversational patterns in different social situations.

Bottom line: I am Ghanaian. It is not up to anyone to decide that for me. The fact that I have been exposed to different cultures does not make me less Ghanaian, it makes me more Ghanaian in the best possible way. My exposure to cultures only helps me appreciate and understand the finer details of my Ghanaian culture. My choice not to eat fufu on Sundays does not make me less Ghanaian in the same way that wearing navy blue and not pink does not make me less of a woman.


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