Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Name Calling

I've been called a lot of names since I arrived in Ghana. Not all bad, most of them just descriptive and some very flattering. It has expanded the ways in which I self identify, and has helped show me much about Ghanaian culture and how I fit into Ghanaian society.

First and foremost is Obroni, the word for white man in Akan, which I hear pretty much everyday. When I hear it I smile and reply "Obibini!", or black man. It usually invokes laughter and I've made quite a few friends this way. There isn't a gender differentiation in Akan, as far as I can tell, so it works for both men and women.

Another version I hear is Kwesi Obruni, or white man who was born on Sunday. In Ghana people are often named for the day of the week on which they were born. For boys, Kojo is Monday, Kwabena is Tuesday, Kweku is Wednesday, Yao or Yawo is Thursday, Kofi is Friday, Kwame is Saturday and Kwesi is Sunday. So, when I hear Kwesi Obruni, I correct the person and say "Kwabena Obruni".

Another name I've been called, one which I find more than a little unsettling, is "Massa". A short form of "Master", perhaps used in reference to master and slave relationships, though I don't know for sure. It could just be used in the way that "Mister" is used, but for younger people who have not yet attained "Mister" status. It's a name thrown around liberally in conversation in the newsroom. It denotes a certain level of respect, and is often wielded in arguments just before a counter salvo. No one blinks when it's used and I'm probably the only one who feels strange about it.

People sometimes call me Jesus. I think it's because I'm white and have a beard, but it may also be the cherubic glow that accompanies me as I go. I find this name particularly strange, because Jesus, if a real person, would have been from the Middle East, and wouldn't have shared my complexion. It's another strange sign on this post-colonial road. A religion imported by white people, destroying traditional belief systems, setting up new acceptable social norms and creating an idealized whiteness for Africans to worship as their savior.

One man at work, a Kwame from the "Kwame and Kwame Show" has taken to calling me Jesus of Canada. Which, I guess, is to differentiate me from the other Jesuses.

Jessie, my JHR colleague sometimes calls me Eeyore, the pessimistic donkey, because, apparently I expect the worst. Like lost baggage to stay lost, tro tros to leave later than scheduled and hotel room bookings to go missing. I guess it's true, to a certain extent, but at the same time really annoying. This pessimism keeps me from maintaining my first-world standards, which I know are not applicable here. I expect things to go awry, and when they do, I'm not disappointed. In the newsroom, when the power goes out, and journalists lose the story they had been working on, they don't get upset. They expect things like this to happen. They wait for the power to come back on and start writing again.

Other names include Kevin, Kwabena Kevin, Canada Kevin, Kev, Obroni, and the old stand-by White Man. If I hear any new ones I'll keep you informed.


Peter said...

I can't believe nobody told me you had a blog. I recently finished reading a copy of "The fate of Africa" by Martin Meredith and have become pretty interested in Africa.

The person who finally told me about your blog was Kate, as her and Megan and I were eating dinner in a Chinese restaurant here in Montreal. Kate says hello, by the way.

ps: Megan thinks your haircut is spectacular.

Kevin Hill said...

Ha! Hi Peter. I've been reading that book here, in Africa, and just sent a copy to my Dad via Amazon for Xmas.

Glad to hear that you're hanging out in a Chinese restaurant with Kate in Montreal. I look forward to hanging out in similar circumstances soon.

...and thanks for the haircut support, Megan, I think I may have just unintentionally put Coupe Bizzarre out of business.

Kate said...

eek - hope my pessimism hasn't finally rubbed off on you - please tell Jessie it's all my fault...

Daniela said...

throughout the pacific, 'foreigners' are usually called by the name of their country. so you would be called 'canada'. in papua new guinea, an australian that had been shot by Japanese fighters during WWII died in a local PNG village. They burried him, and in local fashion, they write the names of their ancestors on a big board, so they wrote his name 'australia'!!! also a professor who lectured last week told us that the village he lived in in the solomon islands, was renamed 'chicago' , his home town, before he left!! pretty crazy eh mr. kelvin klein! haha!