Tuesday, 2 June 2015

''You don't look Ghanaian''

Check out the audio version of this post below!

I've apparently stopped looking Ghanaian. 

And I am not talking about the numerous times I have been erroneously described as Nigerian, including one bizarre encounter when a strange woman leapt out of a queue she was in and forcefully hugged me, all the while insisting I was the long lost Nkechi - "or, at the very least, Nkechi's sister!" (I've been Nigerian a number of times, but this was the most dramatic circumstance yet).

When the Nigerians "claim" me as one of their own, I am told I could be an Igbo woman anyday, and that it is as a result of any one or combination of the following: my height, complexion, eyes, cheekbones and, lately, my natural hair. I don't know how true any of it is, but it certainly always makes for interesting conversations. 

But as I say, I'm not even talking about these peculiarities here.

I refer instead to the statement that often gets levied at me every time I am in Ghana, so ubiquitous as to keep rearing its head in various settings, by turns amusing and perplexing me: "You don't look Ghanaian." 

I have heard that statement one too many times, sometimes even expressed in an accusing tone by the speaker as though, somehow, I'm also to blame for their getting it wrong. It has been uttered in 'formal' settings (such as passport control in Accra's Kotoka Airport and the Ghana High Commission in London) and informal contexts (meeting friends of friends, and of course, the many times I've randomly been 'Nigerian', 'South African', 'Sierra Leonean' and once, - whilst transitting through Madrid - 'Guinean'). As much as these various encounters would have me believe I'm rocking some kind of 'global African look' (and I will have some lipstick with that, please), the main thrust of this post is how this perceived lack of "Ghanaian-ness" about my person has coloured what would otherwise have been unremarkable events in Ghana. Let me illustrate with three examples from a particular trip home.   

1) I went to sort out an internet data plan at one of the telco offices in Accra and encountered two male customer service staff. At first, I was being attended to by only one customer service rep who treated me with acceptable professional courtesy. In the course of our transaction, he was joined by a colleague seeking his opinion on something. As soon as the second rep joined, the professional courtesy hitherto shown to me whimpered, withered and died quite the death as they started trading comments in Twi about me. There were crude sexual innuendos interspersed with giggly observations that I looked like I needed the nearest swimming pool (moments after I dabbed a bead of sweat on my forehead with my hanky). Then from this last, they started to wonder how my body would look in a swimsuit. Despite the incredulity that was coursing through me, I stood there quietly and re-arranged my facial expression into one of careful neutrality, waiting to see where it would end. That they could be so crass wasn't nearly as surprising as the realisation that such commentary was first of all being passed on the assumption that their target was none the wiser. You know, because somehow or other, she didn't look Ghanaian - and by extention, couldn't possibly understand the Twi that was being spoken. Oh, but I have never enjoyed reading the riot act more vigorously than I did when I revealed my Twi-speaking status at the end of our transaction.

2) Arranging a flight from Accra to Kumasi, the airline office couldn't say if a plane would be available to fly us on the selected date, even if one made a confirmed payment! Oh, but wait! They would be more than happy to arrange "a refound" if we arrived at the airport and found there to be no plane on the day of departure.


Then, giving me a critical onceover, an assistant added helpfully that, if it indeed happened, they would process my "refound" quicker because I neither looked Ghanaian nor like I lived in Ghana. I was speechless for a moment. Until, irked by how much the word "refound" was bandied about, I eventually snapped, "it's refund!", left and booked my flight with a rival airline who would actually have a plane to fly us on the day! (Side note: I will blog about  the first part of her observation soon, this selective appraisal of which customer deserves better service on the basis of perceived foreigner privilege, instead of great customer service for everyone). 

3) Over lunch with a friend, I questioned the "freshness" of a piece of chicken that was supposed to have been grilled that very day and yet tasted anything but. The waiter exclaimed, "Ei madam, so you can tell it's not fresh, eh? But you don't look like the kind of Ghanaian woman who cooks oo..." Oh, shame! But the eejit wasn't to know that I have been honing my cooking skills for a very long time. Besides, who, even if they do not like to/cannot cook, can't tell when they're eating a poor excuse for the real thing? At least he thought I was Ghanaian...so yay, progress. 

They are but few examples, often compounded by other moments of intuitive knowledge which make me wonder about these criss-crossing encounters. Why should the baggage handler on the tarmac at Kotoka Airport say an instinctive "welcome home, sister" to me, but the immigration officer minutes later inside the terminal give my Ghanaian passport extra scrutiny whilst insolently asking, "are you sure you are even from here?" Why should the market woman haggle good-naturedly with me in Twi, but a taxi driver blatantly ignore me in the same respect, choosing instead to negotiate in English when that is not the language I approached him with, all the while quoting an inflated price on the presumption I wouldn't know any different. Like I said, criss-crossing encounters. 

So what gives? I can be bemused by non-Ghanaian strangers insisting I'm Nigerian, South African, Guinean and goodness knows whatever else. But it sure does throw a spanner in the works when it is inferred that I don't look Ghanaian...by Ghanaians...in Ghana.

Pray, tell, good people of the world - what is this crucial Ghanaian look that has gone walkabout in my life?


Anonymous said...

Gotta love Ghana. Surely you've been mistaken for eastern African too?

Davida said...

There was one rare occasion when I was Kenyan...