“Silimiŋa how are you? I’m fine. Thank you!” The Northern ‘Jingle,’ which makes me suspect they are taught this in school. Especially as they rarely give the foreigner a chance to answer. Listen to it here: https://clyp.it/v1qomppu/widget
In Ghana, foreigners, as in people from beyond Ghana and its neighboring countries, are rare. And there is no stigma or prejudice intended when referring to someone by skin color. Here, that’s the way to get a foreigner’s attention. Black Americans can fly a little under the radar but can be picked out by the way they carry themselves or dress and definitely once they speak. Exactly in the same way that, when in the Philippines, I can be picked out as not fully Filipino by the way I act and speak. In southern Ghana, the term used is Obroni and in the northern regions, it is Silimiŋa. A handful of times I have also been called Nasara. I have been told it is Mamprusi, Dagomba and a quick online search lists it as an Islamic term for Christians from the word Nazarenes. An interesting term worth looking into for when I have unlimited data. Fun facts, in other African countries, there are terms for the white man/foreigner too, for example:
- Nigeria: Oyinbo by Yorubas and Bature by the Hausas.
- Swahili speaking countries: Mzungu
Obroni and Silimiŋa, today, mean ‘white person.’ But the terms are used for any foreigner, meaning even black Americans get called Obroni/Silimiŋa. As a mixed race individual with brown skin, to be called ‘white’ feels odd indeed. It is a label put on me that I do not identify with. I can only imagine the feelings black foreigners have when referred to as ‘white.’ Especially when, for example, you take the USA’s history into account and the unfortunate racism that still exists.
I have heard on the grapevine, asked northern Ghanaians, Fulanis (tribe of nomadic herders, primarily in West Africa)and spent about 10 minutes on my phone trying to find proof of what I am about to say but came up with nothing. So, as to the accuracy of the following, I do not know: Silimiŋa originally means ‘he who comes from the horizon’ and is either a Fulani word, Mossi (largest Burkinabe tribe) word or a word originally used by northern Ghanaians to call Fulani. Regardless, if any of this is true and were still the case, then call me silimiŋa till the end of days! It sounds too exotic to pass up! But no, now it means white person, whether you actually are or not. The closest I have come to having a Ghanaian give me a different definition was only confirmation that silimiŋa does not literally translate to baŋ piƐlli (white skin). So for the rest of this entry, obroni/silimiŋa have their modern, skin color meaning.
With English-speaking Ghanaians, I take the time to explain that I do not like being called obroni/ silimiŋa and that I am in fact, not white. Their response? “But you are not dark/black like me.” This explanation loses any credence because the terms are used for black Americans too. So, although the words now refer to skin color and may never be separated from this, they really just mean ‘foreigner.’ And still, who wants to be pointed out as a foreigner all the time? Especially if you have come to live and work in a country other than your own. It is a stark reminder of no matter how much I integrate, I will always be a foreigner. This and the fact that I do not identify as white, are the main reasons I dislike being called obroni/silimiŋa. The third reason is I hear it every day, multiple times – it gets annoying.
There seems to only be two options: black or white. Because I refuse to be called white and am not black, it is as if there is a void that must be filled because then, what am I? When I say I am brown and half-joke they can call me baŋ tankpau (brown skinned), they laugh and exclaim ‘like dirt?!’ This association to them, is unacceptable. Where as I am there thinking, I am brown, like earth. Ha, semantics.
I try not to let it get to me but I have my good and bad days. The hardest part about this, is that it is yelled to you. All the time. For no reason other than the fact that a foreigner has been spotted. The original intention must have been to greet, given the importance of greetings in Ghana (*embed link*) but today, usually none is made or the jingle is rattled off on repeat. Children are definitely the worst, as they tend to travel in bands. Get one kid yelling and the rest join in. But they are also just children. When an adult calls me this as I walk or cycle by, I feel like they should know better. But again, they mean no harm by it. On bad days, I ignore the person(s) completely. I do not even turn my head to acknowledge I have heard them. Which, to anyone without the ‘greeting culture’ seems like a reasonable ‘response.’ In Ghana though, to ignore, is rude. I have even been called out by others nearby telling me “hey, he/she is greeting you.” I respond to that person and say “No, that person is yelling at me.” On my good days, I wave or in jest, call back to them ‘baŋ sabli’ (black skin). Down south, it is ‘obibini,’ which apparently our LCFs got called because they were ‘foreign’ to our homestay village. Reactions of locals at being called ‘black skinned’?
- kids, at first, will stare in shock because they are surprised a foreigner knows anything in their language. They bounce back fast though and continue yelling. Especially the southern kids.
- Adults laugh when they hear me call kids this
- Adults are pleasantly surprised and also laugh when I call them this
I emphasize that in Ghana, referring to someone by their skin color is not a bad thing. Which, to a certain extent is a good thing. I say certain extent because I cannot tell you how often I have been told by Ghanaians that they want my skin (or hair). Also, the amount of whitening products I see everywhere (despite being banned) suggests a dissatisfaction that is more than skin deep, pun intended. But that is a topic for another blog. In the end, I need to let the reference stop having an effect on me. It means nothing to me, so why let it bother me? Watch this space and check in on how I feel about it in a year.
**Disclaimer: The content of this blog is mine alone and does not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Government, the Peace Corps, or the Ghana Government.**