One day at the Tamale office meeting:
Boss: “Okay, so who wants to join the monkey feeding committee?”
Abu, whispering to me and Salifu: “I want to join the hongin committee.”
Me: “The what?”
Salifu: “You know, hongin. Hongin out.”
He writes: “hanging”
Me: “Oh! Americans say hAAAAAAngeen.”
Salifu and Abu vainly try to suppress their snickers, and the boss glares at us.
Ghana’s official language is English, and most people here speak it well. As in other English-speaking countries, however, the English spoken in Ghana doesn’t sound the same as what you hear in America. Newly-arrived Americans often struggle to understand, and be understood by, Ghanaians. To aid understanding, ex-pats often adjust the way they speak, trying to adopt Ghanaian vocabulary and accent.
Are ex-pat attempts to speak “Ghanaian English” offensive? It can be nearly impossible to get around without it. As one of my ex-pat friends said, “You do what you have to do to be understood.” On the other hand, trying to emulate another accent almost always has awkward results. I cringe at the thought of trying to copy a British, Australian, or Southern accent, and would be truly annoyed if someone insisted in speaking to me Sarah Palin-style. Trying to change your accent can imply that the person you are speaking to is not sophisticated enough to understand other English accents. Several of my friends have been criticized for using Ghanaian accents in the workplace, on the grounds that it is condescending.
I’ve had experiences in both directions. I’ve discovered that I will never be able to access money unless I direct taxis to the “bonk”, rather than the “baaaank”. But I’ve also been mortified when making a call to a Ghanaian, introducing myself with a slight Ghanaian accent, only to have the person respond in perfect BBC British English.
I conducted an informal survey of the Ghanaians I work with, to see what they thought about ex-pats adopting Ghanaian accents and words. Here’s a sample of the responses:
“You should try to make your words more clear for us.“
“It’s exciting and not offensive.”
“Sometimes, when you try to pronounce it like we do, it sounds mocking.”
“People expect you to try to change your accent. It’s helpful. “
“For those who are well-educated, they may feel like you are talking down to them.”
“When expats try to speak pidgin, it’s funny.”
“You should start normal, then if they don’t understand, then you can say it with the accent.”
“When you go out in the community, it marks you as someone who has been here a while.”
“When she speaks [without the accent], the guy is always turning to me and asking, ‘what did she say?’”
“You don’t use ‘aba!’ right.”
The Ghanaians I spoke to, all in our Northern office, had a range of education levels and experience abroad. They generally agreed that it’s not offensive when ex-pats try to speak in a Ghanaian accent. However, a couple of them noted that when a person does it in a mocking way, or uses a very severe accent with a highly educated person, it can be offensive.
All of them thought that it was fine for ex-pats to adopt Ghanaian vocabulary, such as “small small”, “somehow”, or “this thing”. In fact, most said they don’t notice it as being different from our normal vocabulary. Learning local languages or even pidgin was universally lauded, although I was advised not to use pidgin in partner meetings.
My conclusion, based on these responses and my own experiences, is that the idea that trying to copy a Ghanaian accent is offensive is overblown, at least here in the North. An honest effort to adapt your speech to make yourself better understood is often helpful, and at worst, will make you sound a little strange. One caveat might be using a particularly dramatic accent in a work setting, as some may see the implication that they can’t understand an American accent as an implication that they are not educated.
Some tips for Americans speaking to Ghanaians in work settings:
1. Start by telling the people you are talking to that they should let you know if you are speaking too quickly, or if there is anything they don’t understand.
2. Speak slowly.
3. Enunciate your words.
4. Don’t try to copy exactly how Ghanaians say every word, just those necessary in order for them to understand. For example, you don’t need to say “wah-tah” to ask for water. Go ahead and say “waa-terrr “, in all it's nasal glory.
5. Pay attention to how you talk to people. It’s easy to get in the habit of talking one way to taxi drivers, and carry that into other conversations, where it is less appropriate. Talking in a Ghanaian accent won’t actually help that Australian guy understand you any better.
Just so you all know, we expats were being ironic about racism before “hipster racism” was even a thing.
If you sit down for beers with a group of expats living in Ghana, race and culture will come up sooner or later. We ironically call ourselves Salimingas. We ironically call each other out for chewing our fufu. And we ironically sing and dance to the “African Man” song, professing our need for “ a strong, black man to handle my love…”
Most white people in America have the luxury of not thinking about race if they don’t want to. And let’s be honest—most don’t want to. (If you are white, test yourself: when was the last time you thought of yourself as white? Do you feel uncomfortable calling yourself white?) White people in Ghana don’t have that luxury. The way people see you and treat you reminds you that you are the “other”. In Ghana, this isn’t at all subtle. I’m pretty comfortable saying I’m white in part because small children tell me I am every day.
Race is a much more present topic for white Americans in Ghana not only because we suddenly find ourselves the minority, but also because skin color and race are often talked about in frank and open ways that would be startling in the states. The other day I was at the bank with a surveyor, and he told our place in the queue of Ghanaians was “just behind that colored guy.” My first impression was to think he meant the one guy wearing bright orange robes, but the ostentatiously dressed man was nowhere near where he pointed. My next thoughts were a) wow, “colored” is an antiquated term, and b) …um aren’t all those guys colored?, which I immediately felt racist for thinking. My surveyor clarified that, like the term “fair”, “colored” referred to people with slightly lighter skin. (Side note—as in the states, skin tone among Ghanaians is not completely neutral. Use of skin lightening crèmes is extremely widespread among Ghanaian women.)
Wait, WHICH one is the "colored guy"?
Being able to talk and joke about being white in Ghana is an important mechanism for coping with it. When small children climb out of the sewer and reach out and touch you, you can get annoyed that your skin color makes you a petting zoo object for kids that just climbed out of a sewer, or you can laugh and ask them if white skin feels any different than black skin. When people yell “white man” at you, you can quietly seethe, or yell “black man!” back. When a taxi driver quotes you a price three times the market rate, you can get angry, or you can pull out your most dramatic Dagbani accent and yell “oh, aba!!” (why, or wtf!?) When that driver later tells you he wants to marry “a white”, you can get annoyed or tell him your other husbands wouldn’t like you to marry again.
Is this bad? In the states, “hipster racism”—making stereotypical statements about race with the implication that it’s okay because you aren’t actually racist—has been roundly condemned in the blogosphere. The logical fallacy here is one that might be ascribed to hispterism in general: you may be drinking PBR ironically, but you are still drinking PBR. You may be saying racist things ironically, but you are still saying racist things. Either way, you are contributing to the proliferation of the object of your irony. PBR won’t go off the market just because you were being ironic when you drank it, and stereotypes won’t go away just because you are being ironic when you voice them. Hipster racism naively—and wrongly—assumes that racial stereotypes no longer have the power to harm.
This doesn’t mean that all racially- or culturally-based humor need be taboo. Such humor can be effective at addressing problems that otherwise might be difficult to talk about. And let’s be honest—when the Ghanaian dancers at AllianceFrancais dress up in white face and chase women with comically inflated butts, it’s actually kind of funny.
In determining what humor is harmful, here are some things I think should be considered:
1. Whether the humor perpetuates the stereotype or challenges it. Humor can be a powerful tool for bringing up stereotypes and revealing their absurdity. Teasing a child about touching you, or calling someone “black man”, can humanize you and make the person think about what he or she just said or did.
2. The connotations of the stereotype. Somehow I doubt white people in Ghana will suffer much if they have a reputation for chewing their fufu. Stereotypes about groups being lazy, or uneducated, or mean, etc., have a lot more potential to harm.
3. Whether the group targeted disadvantaged. The truth that a lot of white Americans may not realize, or may be uncomfortable with, is that power matters. Racial stereotypes have a lot more power to damage when they come from a privileged majority than an underprivileged minority. That is not to say that minorities get a free pass—I have been personally hurt by racism directed at me by members of a minority race in America—but the stereotypes held by these groups have never prevented me from getting a good education or good job, or having access to goods and services. The power of negative stereotypes rings hollow for groups that have the advantage of power and privilege. Members of privileged majorities have a greater responsibility not to be nonchalant about the impact of the stereotypes they throw around.
4. Whether the group targeted is you. Laughing at yourself is generally braver, more therapeutic, and less likely to cause harm than laughing at others. Targeting your own demographic isn’t a blanket pass, though. You should be aware that your comments reflect on others of your group. I was once horribly disgusted by some comments a black American made to me about his race. I later wish I had asked him if he would be comfortable with someone referring to his mother, or sister that way. That’s a good rule: if you wouldn’t find the joke harmless and funny if directed at someone you care about, it’s not funny if directed at yourself. Next, you should be aware of what a statement about your own group might imply about other groups. For example, if I say that if Americans who had to wait two hours in line at GCB would riot, I am also making a statement about Ghanaian’s willingness to do the same.
In general, I think that race and racism should be talked about a lot more everywhere. But an important corollary is that when it comes to those issues, people need to listen and think a lot more too. I’ve heard Ghanaians insist with absolute certainty that white people aren’t charged higher prices in Ghana. Similarly, I bet there are a lot of people who aren’t aware of the extent to which racism affects minorities in America on a daily basis. For instance, there are still plenty of businesses where black patrons aren’t welcome.
I once posited that it is harder to be black in America than white in Ghana. A friend of mine (also white) thought the opposite. The point is, racism is hard on everyone. Humor related to racism should be a tool to ease that burden, not increase it.