Black and white?

Black and white?

A group of expatriates were at a young child’s birthday party last week. A cluster of mum’s sat chatting, some holding younger children while their older siblings were off enjoying the party. It was a mix of nationalities, from Ghana and all the corners of the globe. A Ghanaian mum had to attend to her older child in another room and asked her friend, a white woman, to hold her baby, which of course she did. The baby, typical of her age, was distressed when her mum left the room, and the white woman did her best to settle the baby. Anyone who has held a friends baby knows this can be a tricky job.

A white toddler came up to the white mum and the crying baby and said,

‘She’s crying because you’re not black’.

The white mum was horrified. The baby cried because she was separated from her mum, not because of anyone’s colour. Children are not meant to be racist. That is the preserve of narrow minded bigots, isn’t it?

When I was told this story we all asked ourselves how could this happen? What was this child being told at home to come to this conclusion? What strange messages was she picking up, living as a white child in Africa? We were confused and disappointed. We are all doing our damndest to bring our kids up in a world where colour doesn’t matter.

But does it?

Regular readers of this blog will know of the honesty around skin colour in Ghana. Accra is a sophisticated city and nationalities are discussed as a matter of interest. ‘Where are you from?’ Is a fairly typical opening line. But beyond the sophisticated, educated people, colour is a simple, descriptive word.

“Obruni!” ‘White man!”

It used to drive me crazy when I first arrived that I had been classified solely on my skin colour. I had spent a lifetime of avoiding the use of colour to describe a person. I know in many parts of the world the descriptive use of skin colour is heavy with innuendo and stereotype. I understand why we avoid it, a complex history of horror, disadvantage and exploitation.

But here, in a country where slave forts sit as bleached memorials to all that is evil in the human spirit, they are words.

Over time, I‘ve recovered from my knee-jerk, politically correct response and realised, it’s just a word. When they call me ‘Obruni’ in the markets, I respond with a smile, ‘Bibini’ (‘Black man’). And when you’re the only white person in a market, it’s quite a useful description.


Yep, they must be talking to me.

It is quite liberating, the simple honesty of the words. Yes, I am white. Yes, you are black. It is only when these words are paired with derogatory adjectives, prejudice and stereotypes, that things become insulting.

The soundtrack to our morning routine is the BBC World Service radio. Several weeks ago, amidst the continuous reporting of the missing Malaysian airways flight and trouble in Ukraine, it was reported over 250 school girls had been abducted by the northern Nigerian militant group Boko Haram.

Days passed and there was little mention of it. The Nigerian government was silent on the matter. Were they embarrassed they had no idea where the girls were? Were they closing their eyes and hoping it would all just go away? Even if the world media had no new leads, why didn’t they just keep reminding us:

‘Over 250 school girls have been kidnapped by Boko Haram.’

Are we so needy for new information it barely surfaced as a daily news story? Are we so anaesthetized by the problems of Africa that it took a groundswell of protest for this to become newsworthy? The world was transfixed by a missing plane, and as heartbreaking as that is, there was other news.

Imagine if over 250 school girls were kidnapped from a school in the US, Britain, Australia, Germany.

It would be an outrage.

And we tell our kids that race doesn’t matter.





6 responses to “Black and white?

  1. I wondered the same thing Chris. I heard of the kidnappings like you, weeks ago, and then was a little baffled when it seemed like ages later, a hashtag & regular news coverage followed. I imagine there are hundreds of other stories like this around the world that don’t get covered whether it be in Africa or the Middle East or Asia. Perhaps they get picked up when people become tired of the regular run of news (the plane crashes and earthquakes) and the media needs something else to bring back their audience. It’s sad.


  2. News from Africa is not News, is seems unless economic interests are threatened. The combination with ‘Muslim bad guys’ has made it sllightly more interesting. I also wonder what happened to news about the recent genoside in South Sudan. So sad.


  3. When I first arrived in Senegal I had difficulty remembering names as they were unfamiliar to me. Sometimes I even had difficulty repeating them back. After three weeks in the company guesthouse, I was embarrassed that I wasn’t using the guards’ names. I had been introduced to them on the first day but had not retained their names. I asked the guesthouse manager who was a friend what their names were and, particularly, what was the name of the guard who was on duty. He wasn’t sure who was on duty and asked me to describe him. He was much taller and more solid than the others so I described him as the tall, solid guard. His response was, “Oh, you mean the black one”. I was momentarily thrown! The man to whom I was speaking was black, all the guards were black, we were speaking in French (not a first language for either of us) but it seemed impossible that we had misunderstood each other. It seems however that this man was blacker than the others and it was mentioned to differentiate him from the others. It’s not taboo to refer to someone’s racial origins. In fact, in Senegal when you are introduced to someone it is essential that you use both their first and last names as this allows people to understand from where the person comes and from which ethnic group which in turns allows them to establish their relationship. Djola for example have “joking rights” with their “cousins”, the Serrere. They do not share the same language but their “cousinage” allows them to tease each other mercilessly regardless of their social standing, insisting, amongst other things, that the other is the slave whilst they are the king. This type of talk would never be allowed between a Djola and a Wolof or between any other ethnic groups which were not “cousins”. Even as a “toubab” my last name is important to people. Reference to physical attributes to which we would never draw attention “at home” are also common. Once I asked the guard to look out for a Senegalese woman who was visiting the house for the first time. When I told him who it was, to be sure he had the right woman in mind, he asked, “The fat one?” Again I was taken aback but there are multiple interpretations. Was it a compliment? Here skinny married women are not only said to be unhappy but to be so mean and bitter that their bitterness is consuming their body fat. To be full figured is highly attractive and implies wealth . Was it an insult? Standards are changing and Western “norms” are becoming African “norms”. Was it simply a description? I do find it very refreshing that people here are unfettered by a “Political Correctness” which obfuscates. Happy to say that here the Nigerian kidnapping is in people’s consciousness as it seems to be in Australia (at least according to enquires I’ve made). Let’s hope it stays that way until the girls are returned to their families.


  4. The toddler was probably stating a fact, black and white can, and should be allowed to be used as a description, no judgement involved. When in Ghana, black babies would I often cry if I held then, just because I was white. Have you noticed they don’t seem to suffer the same kind of separation anxiety our white babies do when handed to someone else, they are much more used to this. When I last went to Ghana with my half white, half black baby, it took her 2 weeks before she stopped screaming every time she was handed to a black person,they were not used to that.


    • I think you are right Sonje, the shock we felt was from the political correctness around using words of colour to describe people, whereas the toddler was stating a fact as simple as obruni and bibini. Thanks for your comment.


  5. So true! the same thing for Nigeria. But may be because I’m not politically correct enough, I’ve never been shocked by such situations:) black or white – the same thing as tall, or long-haired, or plump, it’s just an objective thing, we just go with it, and here the attitude is much more healthier and simple.


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