One evening, we were sitting in the living room after a delicious dinner of fried plantain and bean stew, the conversation shifted towards the constant money problems many people in Kissehman face.
Unemployment in Ghana is high and jobs are often badly paid. Starting a business such as opening a bar or selling clothes is a solution for some, but others lack the financial means as they also have to provide for their families and friends:
“Ah! You know Charlie, it’s tough, when you don’t have money, you can’t invest. But when you have money, you have to give it to all the people who took care of you when you were broke. So what should you do?” (Charlie, meaning dude or friend, is a common way to address a friend in conversation).
“I know Charlie, I know. You need to give money to your mother, to your younger brother for school, to your friends who lent you money last month. And if you have a girlfriend, you don’t have money for business anyway, she will spend it all. Black women are just after money.”
“Don’t tell me! In Africa, if you don’t have money, you can’t have a woman.”
“I know, I know, that’s how it is Charlie. That’s Africa. That’s how Black people are.”
That’s how Black people are – the statement has become one of the key sentences in many conversations with Ghanaian friends and acquaintances in Kissehman. In everyday speech, Blacks as well as Whites are dealt with as distinctive categories, each tied to a whole set of assumptions, prejudices and ideas about what being Black or being White implies – assumptions that usually remain unquestioned.
Carved into the language
The distinction between Blacks and Whites is carved into the language – English as well as local tongues – as for instance the constant use of the Twi-term obruni meaning White person shows: Ghanaians keep reminding me of my foreignness by calling me obruni. While the term itself has no negative connotations and isn’t meant to offend, it continuously puts the emphasis on my otherness, distinguishing me – the foreign White woman – from them – the Black local residents.
Among the diverse assumptions associated with Black and White skin there are many positive images linked to White people while Black identities are often constructed in contrast to these.
Black men, for instance, are often portrayed as womanizer and unfaithful husbands who cheat on their wives and fail to take care of their children. Black women are said to choose a man because of his money, to strive for luxury, to be unable to economize and to betray their boyfriends if a man with more money comes along.
Whites, in contrast, are thought to be educated, reasonable, honest and faithful. White people, many seem to assume, know how to deal with money and have functioning relationships and families.
Obviously such images are constructions that only reflect a tiny fraction of reality, but they are very present in everyday speech and affect the mindsets of many people I’ve met. My observations match what Anthropologist Jemima Pierre finds in a recent study on race politics in Ghana.
Identity construction in the context of White supremacy
In her book “The Predicament of Blackness: Postcolonial Ghana and the Politics of Race” (University of Chicago Press 2012) Pierre argues that Ghanaian’s notions of Blackness, beauty and power, constructed in a framework of global White supremacy, use Whiteness as a point of reference. However, Ghanaians are not aware of the way the context of White dominance influences and determines their social and political structures.
Her findings cannot be fully understood if we don’t take into account the centuries of colonialism, oppression and slavery that have ravaged a whole continent. Looking back at the days of the Gold Coast’s struggle for independence, Pierre suggest that Kwame Nkrumah, rather than being the revolutionary hero bringing about radical change, actually failed to uproot the remains of the colonial system – a failure that has far-reaching consequences for modern-day Ghana: Still today, rather than basing identity constructions on African values and traditions, notions of Blackness depend to a great extent on White concepts.
Ben Talton, associate professor of history at Temple University in Philadelphia who is reviewing Pierre’s book in this blog post, reminds us though that the focus of Pierre’s research is limited in terms of time and place as she studied notions of Blackness only in the coastal area – the region in which colonial influence was strongest – and doesn’t consider past movements of resistance within the area that were strong by the end of the 19th century and during World War II.
Also, Talton argues, looking at Northern Ghana reveals that there are different approaches to concepts of identity. The light skin of the Fulani, for instance, is considered beautiful for reasons that have nothing to do with colonial rule or White supremacy. A broader historical and geographical focus, he suggests, would help to see alternative ways to interpret Ghanaian’s understanding of Blackness, beauty and power and to account for the diversity of identity constructions within the country.
His argument is a very valid one to be raised as focusing exclusively on the White influence on Black identity construction would present a one-sided and partial picture unable to capture the great diversity of answers.
This is also true for Kissehman. The citations at the beginning of the article represent one way of interpreting life among many – I have also met people who create a meaningful life by focusing on their origins, who value the rich cultural heritage of Ghana, who are proud of a country that, after a brave struggle for Independence, succeeded as first Black African nation in throwing off the yoke of colonial rule, who cherish Ghanaian values such as generosity, hospitality and the culture of sharing and who identify with Christianity and their local church rather than with White concepts.
The century-long history of colonialism and White supremacy cannot be erased within a time period of a few decades and will long have its effects on African countries, but the tendency to privilege Whiteness is only one of many possible ways of dealing with the issue. It shouldn’t stop us from looking at the diversity of alternative identity constructions based on African culture, ideas and accomplishments.