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The Voice of the Black Community


American 'Obruni'
Black Americans considered Anglo in Ghana
Published Thursday, June 5, 2014 7:12 am
by Cidney Holliday

Second in a series.

At the start of my second week in Ghana I have been many places and seen so many different things.

I think that one of the most challenging things for me to work with has been my level of incompetence with the languages spoken here. There are many beautiful dialects and languages spoken all across the world. During spring break I went to Taziè, France with my school. There were many Portuguese, French, and German students there but English was the dominate language. There is a dominating expectance that people should know some English here in Ghana, but I felt somewhat dumb that I don’t in return know any Fante.

Fante is the language spoken in the region of Ghana where our guest houses and internships are located. When I hear the language spoken it all seems so fast and confusing. However there are certain words I have come to know. For example Akwabaa means welcome. I saw this word for the first time when exiting the plane from London. It was painted alongside Ghanaian figures and beautiful landscapes in the airport in Accra.

Another word I have become very familiar with is “Obruni.” This term translates directly to ‘white person.’ I have had some people tell me that the term doesn’t solely mean white person as in white skin, but any ‘Anglo-acting’ person, including myself.

Children in the area will run up to our group, a multiracial group of young people, and yell ‘Obruni! Obruni!’ and run away quickly laughing and waving the entire way home. As an African-American I thought that they would see that my skin was like theirs, my heritage is shared in this land- I am not a ‘white person.’

One evening a group of friends and I went out to a night spot. I was talking to a person of my own age; he also called me an Obruni. I told him, “No I am not an Obruni, why would you say that?” He told me that I should not be offended; this word is for all foreign people. He told me the word ‘Bibini’ meant black woman, and black means all black people collectively.

He told me I wasn’t quite a black person, like a Ghanaian woman, but a ‘Bibini-Obruni:’ a black-white person. On the streets walking to markets, with its organized chaos and multitude of scents of colors and textures, I have been called “mulatto,” “my African American sister” and some words which I did recognize as Fante, but didn’t care to have translated for my own sake. 

My fellow African American students from Davidson have talked about colorism and what it means to be black-skinned in a nation full of others who look similar to you, but still clearly differences in skin tones and aesthetic features. Now that I have been here a week I have wondered hard about what does it actually mean to be dark skinned, light skinned, or even African American. 

We, as black Americans, categorize, assign, and praise and shame each other for principles I feel we cannot quite put our finger on when put in a place where we are technically part of the majority.

When I work at with the school children, they are always amazed that we, the African American students, are like them in color but not in language. I had a 10-year-old student at the school I work with named Vanessa, come to me and ask, “Madame, you speak Fante?”

When  told her no, she said “So you Obruni?” When I told her no again, she paused, thought hard, and then expressed that I was indeed an Obruni.

These thoughts even coming from people much younger (or older) than me resonate on a very deep and retrospective level for me. It’s like everything I have been taught to know about myself, regarding race and skin color, has all been flipped.

It’s an amazing experience to be here, but complicated nonetheless.  

Cidney Holliday, Davidson College Class of 2015, is on a six-week research mission on Catholicism in Ghana. She is a graduate of South Mecklenburg High School.


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