The Obruni Dilemma

Integration. This word is said over and over again during Peace Corps Training. It’s the very basis of Peace Corps. It’s the reason we have a minimum service of 27 months. We pride ourselves in the fact that we live long enough in communities to share their languages, their customs and their thought processes. We start to crave their foods, tell their jokes and wear their clothes. We are given local names, accepted into families, and crowned as Chiefs or Queen Mothers in our villages. Integration is held central to how successful we view our service, which is why, I think, so many volunteers struggle with the fact that nearly all of us are treated differently from our Ghanaian brothers and sisters – even up until the last day of our service.

It’s a common conversation among us PCVs when we get the chance to get together and gripe. We want so desperately to be seen as nothing more than a member of our villages that it frustrates us to no end when we’re given special privileges. A certain trotro driver will always give me the front seat in his car when he sees me. After waiting 3 hours in a bus line, and still about 50 people away from the ticket counter, I’ve been pulled aside and given the last ticket. I was invited to an exclusive dinner at an expensive hotel after a funeral I attended solely because I was the only white face in a crowd of 500.

While I can sometimes brush these interactions off as practice for when I’m inevitably a celebrity or a princess, most of the time they leave me with a feeling of blended unease, annoyance and guilt. I’ve certainly struggled with it a lot since I arrived in Accra last June, and in a way, it’s become magnified the longer I’m here. Like, alright guys, I’ve been here a year, when are you going to start treating me like a normal person? I’m trying to integrate, remember?

But then again….what would I say? “Please, don’t treat me so well. I’d much prefer that 6 inch wide back seat slot with no leg room or ventilation next to the toothless drunkard than this front row window seat that has a real seat cushion and its own door.” “No, sir, I know it’s the last bus of the day and the only place I have to sleep tonight is that open gutter reeking of sewage, but I simply can’t cut the line and buy the last ticket that you’re so kindly offering to me just because I’m white.”

This, my friend, is what I like to call the Obruni Dilemma.

Many of us foreigners in Ghana become annoyed at, or even reject, these open gestures of hospitality and welcome simply because they point to the fact that we’re different. They put us at a crossroads: do I accept this kindness (which, quite honestly, would make my life a lot easier) but was only offered to me because I’m white? Or do I insist upon receiving no special treatment because I want desperately to be seen and treated as a local (despite the fact I glow in the dark)?

I recently took it upon myself to dissect this Obruni Dilemma, and came to some relieving conclusions. In many ways, my passion to integrate has blinded me to what integration really is. Being treated differently doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m not integrated. I still like to think I am to the degree I can be given one certain fact: I’m white. I’m American. I’m a guest. Who am I to say that Ghanaians are not allowed to treat me with the respect their culture has deemed appropriate for guests? And more so, who am I to assert that the fact I’ve lived here one whole year has somehow made me Ghanaian? I’m not (clearly, I’m a redhead for christ’s sake). Saying I am after a total of 27 months in country would be an insult to an extremely rich culture that has been around for thousands of years. Although I honestly forget I’m white sometimes (true story, sometimes I’m shocked by the amazing reflectiveness of my skin after being at site for a long time…have I mentioned I’m pale?), doesn’t mean my Ghanaian friends have, nor that they’re required to. I think integration isn’t about being treated the exact same way as a culture or ethnicity to which you are a guest, but it’s more about understanding their reasons and motives behind treating you differently. In the past I’ve weighed the former so heavily that I didn’t even realized I’d achieved the latter. Ghanaians aren’t doing what they’re doing to point out to me that I’m different. They’re not doing it to annoy me. They’re doing it because it’s polite and they want me to have as enjoyable a time in their country as possible.

Now…it’s important to differentiate between expecting this kind of treatment, and simply accepting it when it’s offered. I do not expect special treatment. Ever. Quite the opposite, in fact. I’m flooded with relief on those days when I’m shoved in the back of the tro with a strange lady’s baby (aka nugget) on my lap and a goat under my feet. But now, when it’s given to me, I will strive to accept this treatment with gratitude instead of annoyance.

And hey, when I become a celebrity someday, I’ll also be a little more prepared for that red carpet treatment.