Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The perils of being oboroni

April 24

The game of haggling or bartering reached a new crescendo during a cab ride in Kumasi last week. During the 20 minute ride through heavy traffic accompanied by heavy bickering between the front seat and back seat I realized many things; the game isn’t always played fairly and the ante is certainly higher when an ‘obroni’ is on board.

Let me preface the following story by saying that although bartering is a national sport and a cultural norm here, there are certain goods and services that everyone agrees are a set price. No doubt years of haggling were contributing factors in setting prices that are committed to memory rather than recorded. Such is the case for a cab ride from point A, my office, to point B, a roundabout in the centre of Kumasi.

The ride started smoothly. A Ghanaian colleague and I told the driver our destination and he agreed to take us. It was only after my colleague handed him twenty thousand cedis expecting change that the fighting began. A certain amount of haggling, often with a few dramatic shouts and hand waving is to be expected during any cab ride in Ghana, but non stop bickering, followed by accusations, threats and police officers is not what is considered ‘normal.’

Thrown into the roundabout of dispute over the aforementioned cab ride is the word obroni or foreigner. My command of the local language is now good enough that I could decipher what the driver was saying about me, about my presumed cash flow and also what my colleague thought of his presumptions. The same cab ride had cost us five thousand cedis less the previous day, I heard my colleague say, and I agreed with her, this time in Twi. The cab driver upped the ante, called my colleague ugly and brought the car to a full stop. He exited the cab, walked to my door in the back and motioned for me to exit. I remained seated and my colleague demanded that the driver take us to the central police station to have the matter settled.

En route to the station we met a police officer. Again, the driver stopped the cab, motioned for us to get out and began yelling at the police officer to settle our dispute. The commotion attracted the attention of a number of people, each with their own view and calculation of what the cab ride should cost. It was agreed that he was wrong, we were right.

Later I thanked my colleague for speaking up, for refusing to allow my skin colour to decide the price of the cab. Sometimes five thousand cedis is worth fighting for.

…and then there are other times when it’s not worth fighting.

Take a recent visit to the Kumasi central prison. After two months of letter writing and phone calls a colleague and I were finally granted an interview with the prisons commander.

We arrive, are asked to take a seat outside his office and as we wait we watch as a series of hushed phone calls take place. Finally it’s decided that my colleague will be taken to see the commander, I, however will not.

The white lady has to stay, says the commander’s receptionist.

I quietly fume, agree to stay and rant inwardly about discrimination and assumptions. Jesus glares at me from a poster on the wall, Celine Dion screams at me from the radio and I stew in my own frustrations while a colleague carries out what turns out to be an in depth, fabulous, once in a lifetime interview with the commander. I am so proud and quickly my anger fades away.

After the interview, much to our surprise and delight we are invited back to the prison the following day. We are stripped of our camera, recording devices, even our cell phones and allowed to see what was deemed to be too “sensitive” the previous day.

Sensitive isn’t exactly the word I would use to describe the Kumasi central prison. Although we were denied access to the cells and the women’s section of the prison, I saw enough to understand what was so “sensitive.” 1600 inmates live in a facility designed for 7 hundred, there isn’t enough room for the inmates to lie down (they sleep in 2 hour shifts), diseases are rampant, some are barely clothed and clearly malnourished. Hard facts will tell this story, not sensitivity. T.

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