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.