1. In Ghana, a dinner guest told me, history begins with colonization. I asked him to explain and he said, “In our history textbooks, when we start learning, we begin with the arrival of the Portuguese and the British. We begin with slavery.”
2. One evening, I spent a few hours with filmmakers, proudly identifying as Pan-Africanists and they told me it wasn’t until recently that they stopped thinking of Jesus as a white man. “That’s what’s wrong with your people,” one said, meaning Christians in South America. “They still believe in white Jesus. A lot of Africans still believe in him too and that means the colonialism mentality—whiteness as godliness, it’s here and it’s there.”
3. Victoria asked me if British people were “pure whites” because they only speak English. “I don’t know what you mean by ‘pure white.’”
“Like, are there any American languages?”
“Well, the United States is a nation of immigrants so there’s no official language. People speak English but many also speak languages from around the world. But if you’re asking about native languages then yeah, there are many still spoken by indigenous—Native American tribes.”
“So real Americans aren’t white?”
“They look like you and me?”
“Umm . . . kind of. Let me show you a picture.” I pulled out my phone and showed her pictures of the Shinnecock on Long Island.
4. I’ve gotten a few shades darker since being here and one day Grace told me, “Eh! You are becoming African.”
“Really? Thank you.” Maybe it was weird to say thank you but that’s what I said, and Victoria picked up on it and asked, “You want to be black?”
I don’t want to be anything, I thought. I’m me but there’s nothing wrong with being black or having dark skin. We should love our skin. You should love your skin. But I understand there’s been centuries of teaching you not to love your skin so who am I to stand here and tell you anything and maybe I’m thinking too deeply about this question; and now I haven’t answered so there’s an awkward silence and I should have really answered her question by now. And maybe my inability to answer quickly says more about me.
“Um. . . I don’t mind getting darker. I think it’s amazing what our bodies can do and how they adapt.”
Was that a dodge? Should I have gotten into all the rest? Should I have told her that everyone in the U.S. wants to get tan but no one who isn’t black would trade places with a black man or woman?
5. There’s a music teacher that I sometimes run into as I walk to the tro-tro stop that runs uptown and downtown. As we walked he said, “You know you remind me of my ex-wife.”
“Oh, was she Latina?”
“No. Belgian. White like you.”
Another time a taxi driver asked me, “You are from Japan?”
Another taxi driver another time, “You are Chinese?”
A colleague, “You look like you could be half-caste.”
I tell a South African friend who is of Indian descent about the “half-caste” comment and she almost spits out the curry her husband cooked that night.
6. There are two New Zealanders in Ghana (so they say) and I’ve happened to run into both of them. One was less circumstantial because it was a twitter-friendship before it became an in-real-life friendship, and the other one I met when we took a taxi together in Tamale and decided to dine together that same evening.
She said to me, “I never felt as white as I have in New York.”
Before Ghana, she’d lived for years in northern Nigeria and then Lagos but she felt the whitest she’s ever felt in New York City? As a documentary photographer it’s not like she even spends her time in penthouses with international bankers or with ex-pats at swanky bars. She’s following herdsmen across the Sahara and she felt the whitest in New. York. City.
“I had rented a spot in a largely black neighborhood and for me I didn’t really think twice about it since I was coming from Lagos. So you know, I’d walk down to the Jamaican spot and everyone would just turn and stare like, ‘What are you doing here?’ I realized that as soon as they heard my accent they immediately lightened up. I wanted to wear a t-shirt that said: Not a White American but short of that I just made sure that people heard my accent. It was amazing how their demeanor completely changed after that. And then when I’d mention I live in Nigeria they were like, ‘Oh! Welcome!’”
7. There’s a young woman here on a research fellowship which lets her travel for a year to multiple countries. When we met at a women’s film festival she’d only been in Accra a week after arriving from the Netherlands. We had just watched a film about domestic violence in rural communities and how as spectators we become complicit in the abuse of women and children. It was heavy but there were moments of levity and laughter and the debate at the moment was to whether that detracted from the film’s serious message.
A woman in the back row raised her hand.
“I think we need to consider how Africans and black people across the diaspora use comedy as a way to cope with generational trauma. Let’s be real. Black people are the funniest people on the planet. They just are. But that’s rooted in slavery, colonialism, racism and the trauma of those experiences and how we’ve used art, be it dance or song and especially comedy to deal with that pain.”
After the session we ended exchanged numbers and went out later that week.
“Akwaaba. What do you think so far?”
“Oh my God, I’m so happy to be here. I love it.”
“Probably such a huge difference from Holland. Like even for me coming straight from New York when I landed I was like, ‘Whoa. Everyone is black. Cool.’”
“Yeah! I felt the same way. I text my sister and was like, ‘You’re going to love it here.’ It was difficult in Holland so it’s so nice here to just be and exist. Especially coming from a Jamaican family I just feel so at home.”
The next week I invited her to dinner at my place and she brought along a young and handsome Ghanaian man who would soon be leaving for work in London.
I asked him, “I’m not about to speak for black Americans but from what I’ve seen, like with our mutual friend, there’s a sense of solidarity with Africa. Generally, they care much more about Africa and its people than anyone else in America. I’m wondering if Africans feel the same sense of solidarity with members of the African diaspora, specifically black Americans?”
He didn’t speak right away, and I could tell he was considering so much in those moments of silence.
“I think — no. In my opinion we only really consider it if we are planning on visiting the U.S. We might think ‘Oh but there is violence to black people’ but we only think about it when it might affect us. I don’t think it should be this way. We should consider them more but maybe we are just happy to have what we have here and you know a Ghanaian will be happy to sell at the side of the road and make small-small and be safe than to go to America and struggle and be in danger. We don’t want to deal with all of that so we don’t think about it.”
When he was done, she turned to me and said, “You just opened up a whole can of worms.”
8. Ghana is incredibly religious. Almost every tro-tro has a sticker of “white Jesus” or of a message from Yahweh or a quote from the Bible, and shops have names like “His Holiness Fashion Shoppe” or “God’s Strength Grocery Market.” I’ve heard there’s only one strip club in Accra. Several taxi drivers have asked me if I’m a Christian or if I love God. Depending on my mood I’ll answer truthfully or not. At the same time, walk down Oxford street at night and you’ll see dozens of prostitutes, and if you go into a bar or by the beach you’ll see a usually white man with two thin Ghanaian women in skin-tight dresses on each of his arms. On Sunday mornings the city stops. Everyone goes to church and I even went one Sunday. I walked in and a woman was writhing on the ground with church members trying to pin her down. She had caught the Holy Spirit.
9. “They don’t believe that I’m gay,” she said and I was seriously confused.
“Wait. So you came out to your friends and they didn’t believe you?”
I want to be especially careful here not to give too much detail about this person’s identity. A quick Google search and you’ll see that homosexuality is illegal in Ghana—well, homosexual acts are illegal. The law mostly applies to men but vigilante justice exists in varying degrees around the country. Some Ghanaian men will pretend to be gay to lure other men and then beat them. Two women were “amorous” at the beach and were surrounded and beaten by a mob.
She works in a creative industry and I ask if maybe that makes it a more accepting space, and she said she came out to her friends but they don’t believe her since they haven’t seen her with a woman. She calls herself a “tomboy” and says the men treat her like one of the guys and she takes full advantage of that. They offer her more training opportunities and more work and give her more responsibilities than they’d give other women. The women even tell her, “You’re a man. Go be with them.”
I told her of the Pride Parade in the city and of drag shows and Stonewall Inn and the Cubbyhole. “There’s nothing like that here. And I don’t think there will be for hmm . . . maybe 500 years. I’ll be dead and gone.” She laughed.
10. “M’nuabaa!” Grace calls me her sister and it’s the sweetest thing. “You are my sister. If you need anything there will always be enough for you,” she told me one night and I think my heart exploded. I was showing her my SnapChat story the morning after I met with the woman from the story above, and you catch a glimpse of her standing in a room talking to some other friends.
“Oh! That is a woman or a man?” Grace asked pointing at her.
“She’s a woman.”
“Really? She is lesbian?”
“I don’t know. What if she was? What would you think?”
“This is not right. The Bible says it.”
“What if she was your sister?”
“I would not talk to her.”
“What if she was your child?”
“I would disown it.”
Grace and I continue with our morning routine and a few minutes later she asks me what I think.
“For me, I mean—I come from a different culture. I was raised Catholic but I wouldn’t call myself religious and where I come from it’s legal to be gay and to get married and to adopt children. I see it that if we are all children of God and if God makes no mistakes then he created gay people. And we are in no position to question God. All we can do is follow Jesus’ example—turn the other cheek and treat each other with kindness.”
“I’m not trying to convince you or tell you you have to agree with me; I’m just telling you where I stand.”
“Yes. I understand.”
I feel like a fraud for deploying religion and God, ideas I’m skeptical of, in a discussion like this with Grace. Maybe it was manipulative of me and dishonest but at that moment I felt I should meet her in her corner with ideas she’s comfortable with.
Grace leaves the kitchen. “I’ll be right back m’nuabaa!”