August 13, 2007
Final Kumasi transition complete and we have switched residences again, from peaceful quiet Tech campus back to noisy Asokwa. It’s not the cries of approval or dismay from tele-football watchers that disturb us, or the calls for ‘BISMARK!’ who still works at our old residence, Silver Ring, down the road from where we are now. Now, it’s automobile traffic passing by on the busy road outside our windows and early morning joggers waking us up weekends at 5:30 a.m. as they storm past in a pack, banging drums and chanting slogans, some of which are tributes meant for Allah (on Saturday) and Jesus (on Sunday). WTF?
But enough of that. Today when I went back to Tech to retrieve daddy pomco (my bicycle) which remained locked in Virginie’s foyer, I met some children on my way out who recognized me and wanted to become my “friend.”
Here’s something for an enterprising journalist: figure out why so many Ghanaians want the foreign addresses and phone numbers of the oburonis that they meet. For some, no doubt, they want out of this place and a chance for a better life in whatever country I come from, which, they are convinced, must be akin to Paradise. Explaining that suffering and poverty exist everywhere in the world and that life in Canada is hard for many, especially immigrants, is a futile pursuit. Besides, I can’t blame the Ghanaians for wanting to leave. I want out of here, too.
But half the population can’t read or write, so what do they want my address for? And what are the chances a seven-year-old is going to take the trouble of staying in touch? I’ve given my contact info — or, rather, my parents’ — out on more than one occasion, until it occurred to me that the kids I’m pretending I’m going to stay in touch with might be using the digits for a different, fouler purpose, like selling my information for a few cedis to a Nigerian con artist who forges passports. Or something. One common scam I’ve heard about is to call the parents of oburoni volunteers and tell them an accident has occurred and to send money for the hospital bills right away (Mom, Dad, if you get such a call don’t you believe it). Anyway, I don’t do it anymore. Give out the info, that is.
Instead I evade. Like when two kids walked up to me on the street down in Asokwa, outside the Jesus Café, all smiles and said, “Oburoni, give me thousand!” It’s a common enough encounter that Trish and I have both expounded in these pages. The days of wondering if this is a cultural propriety — something that Ghanaians do among themselves, share money, and therefore a sign of welcome and acceptance — or benign yet unseemly racism — being targeted because my skin is white and I must therefore have money to spread around as I walk through African streets — are over. We’re only here for a short while longer and I no longer care what ‘the right thing to do’ might be. So I smile at the kids who are smiling at me, shake their hands and tell them I’m not going to give them a thousand cedis but that I wish them well. We go our separate ways, still smiling.
Or when another pack of kids, the ‘friends’ outside Virginie’s place, ask me how I’m doing and what’s my name and I stop to talk. I met Florence, Lucy, David and Daniel this way. Florence recognized me from walking by her mother’s fruit stand just outside the Bomso gate at Tech campus. Such kids are always super keen to practice their English.
“HOW ARE YOU?”
“I am fine. And how are you?”
“I AM ALSO FINE. WHAT IS YOUR NAME?”
My name is Graeme. What is your name?
MY NAME IS FLORENCE!
Nice to meet you.
I AM LUCY!
Nice to meet you, too.
(Another kid, a boy, pipes up.)
I WANT TO BE YOUR FRIEND.
That’s very nice. What is your name?
YES, WE WANT TO BE YOUR FRIEND.
I see. What are your names? I know their names (gesturing to the girls) but what are your names?
I AM DAVID!
AND I AM DANIEL!
Greetings, Daniel. Nice to meet you all.
PLEASE, WHAT IS YOUR ADDRESS?
(This is where the evasion begins.)
I live over there. (Pointing)
CAN I HAVE YOUR NUMBER?
It is the second house. Number two.
CAN I HAVE YOUR NUMBER?
You mean my phone number?
YES, YOUR PHONE NUMBER.
You can find me at the second house over there. Or we can talk whenever we meet in the street.
I WANT TO HAVE YOU FOR A FRIEND.
YES, WE WANT TO HAVE YOU FOR A FRIEND.
Well that is very nice. Whenever we meet here in the street, we can be friends. I would like that.
(Pause. Consternation. Their questions have been answered, their English vocabulary almost used up.)
OKAY. BYE BYE!
Yes, bye bye, have a good day.
YOU ALSO, HAVE A GOOD DAY!!
And we’re all still smiling. I hear them chatter about oburoni as I walk away. I don’t bother to mention that I won’t be coming back.
Is this wrong, to mislead children and speak to them falsely so that they will stop asking for things, like money or salvation, that I am unable or unwilling to give? Possibly. Probably. But none of that changes their situation, or mine. It’s not in my power, nor my inclination, to change things for the people I meet. I came here to exchange ideas, learn some stuff, do a little writing. Locals, and not only the kids, often expect some material gain from my acquaintance. I can’t blame them. But I don’t bother explaining that I’m never going to be what they want me to be. (G)