The Eye of the Beholder

I’ve struggled with many things in Ghana. Site issues, nutrition, staying motivated, isolation, health – but the biggest issue has been my perception. My perception of myself, how others perceive me – Ghanaians and PCVs, and my perception of others.

First, my perception of others. As a Volunteer you have to put on thick skin when you enter the country. You have to prepare yourself to live in a fishbowl for two years. The easiest way to deal with it is to be tough and pretend that it doesn’t affect you. Every single time I step foot outside of my house someone yells OBRONI at me. Not my name – which they all know, not my real name – which they don’t know, and not American. They yell “white person.” Honestly, it shouldn’t affect me, but it does. When you pass by the same people every day who do in fact know your name, who do in fact know that you have lived in town for now over 8 months, it hurts that they categorize you simply as white person. It would be like working for a company for 8 months and your boss and coworkers still don’t know your name. So, when I live my house, I put on my sunglasses and my thick skin. The sunglasses are for hiding my laser glares which I love to shoot at people, especially when they don’t greet me.

So, when I put on this thick skin I’m also putting up a wall. That wall has a sign outside that reads: “Call me Obroni and instantly get on my bad side. It takes at least one real conversation to make it back to neutral.” I instantly throw people into the deep craggy pit that is my bad side, just based on first impressions/one word. Obviously, this is something I struggle with. I perceive others badly the second they open their mouth and utter obroni. Most people honestly don’t know white people often consider it offensive. Ghanaian culture is very blunt about appearance. They are calling me white person, because well I’m white. But, a lot of times you can feel an undercurrent there as well. For instance, a lot of people assume I can’t speak the local language and try to cheat me. Or they will hassle me, because they can. It gets annoying. My town is the worst apparently – everyone tells me this. It is taking time, but I’m working on not getting as upset when people call me Obroni. Little story for you, the other day I was getting a tro. The guy at the station was hassling me and calling me obroni and foreigner. He was mocking me in Twi and English. So, I turn around and tell him in Twi that I’ve lived in Wenchi for almost a year now. I know what he is saying, I know the price of the tro, I know where I am going. I then point to my skin and tell him obviously he is color-blind because I’m black and not an obroni. The entire tro erupts into laughter and tells the guy in Twi, “oooo white woman done told you.” Sometimes, you have to learn to roll with the punches and sometimes you gotta come back swinging.

How others perceive me – Ghanaians and PCVs. My entry into cultural integration has been through clothing. I feel that Ghanaians treat me differently and are more welcoming to me when I am wearing batik or African prints. Language is of course another big factor, but the two combined is how I slip into the culture. If you look and sound the part, it is easier to become the part. There is a fine line between looking like a tourist who picked up some overpriced batik outfit in Accra and actually looking Ghanaian. You have to balance the batik, with the American styles, with the Ghanaian attitude. You have to ooze confidence in what you are wearing, you can’t just wear it. If you are going to rock a headwrap, you can’t be self-conscious about it – everyone can tell. Hold your head up high and let everyone know that you know exactly what you are doing. If you pull money out of your cleavage or a wrap around your waist – you are in! Shove a cell phone down there too while you’re at it. Having the right style with the language makes a huge difference. And let me tell you, wearing batik and wearing it well to the market when you are shopping for fabric – that’s a guaranteed way to not get cheated!

PCV perception matters, no matter how much you don’t want it to. You work with these people for 2 years, you have to at least get along. Honestly, it is difficult sometimes. I swear everyone in Peace Corps is so incredibly different. In college, you spend the vast amount of time with people who are somehow similar to you. Same major, same college, same interests. In Peace Corps, people come from such varied backgrounds, varying degrees, and parts of the country. I never expected to be the only person like me. I’ve always been around at least two or three people who were pretty similar to me. Not here. It isn’t a bad thing, I’m just not used to it. It was very jarring for me, especially coming from Oklahoma. No offense Oklahoma, but we are pretty much all the same person – varying shades of redneck, throw in some oil or natural gas somewhere, a touch of country, a taste of city, and just enough crazy to keep everyone on their toes. The people in Peace Corps are so much different and I wasn’t expecting that. It is like reliving high school and college again. Making new friends, trying to get everyone to like you, wanting to be popular, not wanting to make too big of a splash, want to get involved – but not overstretch yourself, and try not to let that one weird thing about yourself be revealed until you have at least one or two good friends.

Just like everyone else, I want to fit in but stand out. I want to shine, but not outshine anyone else. I want to be Ghanaian but keep my Oklahomie-American roots. I want to walk around town with confidence, but still be humble and respectful. I want to be sassy, but not mean. Honestly, it is kinda exhausting.

My perception of myself. This one has been very difficult. Let’s just say I don’t always view myself in the right light. I go to the market, to town, to the big market wearing Ghanaian fabrics because I want compliments, let’s be honest. I want people to tell me I look nice. Because there really isn’t anyone else to tell me something like that. Plus, I want more husbands. When I notice Ghanaian men whip out their cell phones and snap videos or pictures of me it is annoying, but also a confidence booster. Who doesn’t love a little paparazzi action every once in a while? It makes you feel special. But you know that it is because you are white, not because you are pretty, but because of the color of your skin.

Some days it is very difficult to feel beautiful, especially when it is hot, dusty, and muggy. You always feel covered in filth and clean is a feeling best reserved for two years from now. (Actually this only occurs during harmattan and middle of dry season.) You look in the mirror and see a great tan until you realize it is actually the dust from the harmattan or road you were just on. I wear makeup in Ghana, so that I can feel beautiful every day. I want to look in the mirror and like what’s looking back, even if it is smallsmall. But why? Why does it matter here in Ghana? I work with farmers who honestly couldn’t care less what I look like. Why? because it makes me feel good about myself. It helps me feel confident. I have to feel confident if I am going to teach farmers new things. You have to look and act the part, if I don’t look confident in what I’m doing – no one is going to believe what I teach them, even if I’m white. Alright, I’m pulling at straws a little bit. I want to look nice on the outside so I can feel better on the inside. There. I said it.

But I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Since landing in Ghana, my perception of myself has skyrocketed – in a way. My body type is coveted here, thin frame, big hips and rear, tall, and a small waist. The big hips and big rear are ever so popular – with the ladies! Baby got back. I haven’t truly seen myself naked in a mirror in probably over 11 months. I have no clue what’s going on back there. And I don’t care! That’s the best part. My shape is considered beautiful here. Big is beautiful, thin is not in. Getting fat is a compliment. I can’t read magazines here, I can’t watch TV, I don’t have all the negative body images flashing in front of me like I constantly saw in America. I’m beautiful just the way I am. I don’t feel pressured to always be working out or slimming down. I can eat whatever I want, because I only have a limited selection. My clothes fit me because they are made for me. No more shoving myself into jeans (although I did do that this week) or frowning at sizes at stores. I’m no longer a number, I’m no longer defined by my size. (Now I’m define by my skin color – which is just as backwards, but we already addressed that.) I feel beautiful in Ghana. I feel beautiful because I’m allowed to be me. Not what the magazines want me to be. I wear makeup for myself. I dress in awesome fashions for myself. And you know what? I’m not going to let anyone tell me otherwise – I’m beautiful just the way I am. Thank you very much.


2 thoughts on “The Eye of the Beholder

  1. “I’m no longer a number, I’m no longer defined by my size.”

    I know you’re struggling with other things, but I must say that the quote above is something that really struck me from your post. I’m not happy that you’re defined by your skin color – but I AM glad to hear you no longer feel defined by a size. 🙂

  2. Well done..You’ve taken a good long look at things and decided that you like YOU and that is good. You’re doing good work and coping with life in a very different culture with sometime difficult people. Kudos to you.Keep being you and always remember to be safe.

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