I’m not white, I’m yellow!

Posted on February 1, 2011 by


DSCN4295I can’t quite work out what the feeling is that has been bothering me since I stepped onto the African continent. As I have travelled and spent some of my years in different countries around the world, the reaction of the local people have been completely different from what I experienced here in Ghana. For the first time, throughout my journey, I am being called ‘white’. Calling a white, blonde hair and blue eyes person ‘farang! farang!’ on the street of Bangkok has never bothered me. But being called ‘abroni’ in Twi (a dialect of the Akan language, spoken in Sourthen Ghana) or ‘blefono’ in Krobo (a language spoken in Eastern Region) has provoked me! Who am I in this context? Do the words ‘farang’ and ‘blefono’ mean the same for a Thai and a Ghanaian? I tried to explain to them “No no! I am not white, I am yellow!”. But the fact that I am ‘blefono’ was not based on my skin, nor hair, nor my English accent. Though my research work, I have come to realise that how Ghanaians see me, is no different to how Thais see a ‘farang’. Power relations are reflected through physical appearance before conversation ever begins. The power of one race over another: a simplistic form of power seen throughout our history. I arrived in Ghana to conduct research on waste management for my thesis. This thesis is my own and for my own MSc. However, the research will contribute to a project supported by the European Union to provide guidelines for the governments of West African countries on handling solid waste. There have been only few of waste management studies in semi-urban settings, and thus I was located in a small town called Somanya, in Ghana’s Eastern Region. Thanks to Ghanaian hospitality I felt at home right from the beginning of my stay. Somanya is not a tourist destination – I was the only blefono in town. In less than a week the whole town know who am I and why I am there. During my research, many questions were thrown at me: “Will you come and help us manage the waste?”, “Will you give us some funding to buy more rubbish bins?”. I tried to explain that my work is only a small part of the jigsaw that is the whole project. I told them that I could not promise anything would be implemented after I left. Based on this they concluded ‘it will up to God and fate, we shall pray for you!’.

Being a blefono researcher elevates a postgraduate student like me to a privileged position. In locals’ eyes, I was equipped with knowledge and the capacity to change their whole society. For them I was smarter, not to mention having access to funding. I sometimes had private conversations with members after a female group discussion we had as part of my research on perception and role of women in waste management. Some of them asked if I could take their children with me back home. I knew it is only a jocular question, but still it brought home how they see better opportunities in me and where I came from. This made me consider the idea of being superior, something which never occurred to me before as a person from another developing country. This Ghanaian conception of white as superior is inextricably linked with history. This became clear to me when I visited Cape Coast and Elimina castles, two of the main slave castles during the colonial period. Ghana was one of the main sources of slaves for trans-Atlantic slave trade. The power ‘whites’ held over the indigenous people was, at that time, fear, but the power they hold today is in the form of opportunity and hope. Development work in Africa is heavily dependent on foreign aid, which continues to increase unlike in other parts of the world. I discussed this issue with colleagues back when I was working as a vocational development officer in a post-DSCN4389Tsunami relief project in the south of Thailand. Today we are feeding those in need food and they have to open their mouths and chew it. But one day, there will be no hand feeding the food and it might be too late for them to start to learn how to fetch their own food. The food – foreign aid – is a limited resource, and politics can all-too-often affect the way and generosity with which this cake is sliced.  Aid should be spent wisely and effectively. What I learnt from my time in Ghana, apart of course from much about the problems of waste management, is that the key to sustainable development is not about sending the right aid on the right beneficiary, but instead helping those in need to raise their own capacity to a level at which they are able to support their own system. An article in Africawatch [1] included an excellent interview with Eveline Herfkens, an executive coordinator of the UN Millennium Campaign. She tackled the mainstream development régime.  She discusses the ‘tie aids’ system whereby aid is given only under certain conditions by the donor countries. This system gives power to the North over developing countries, leaving no choice for recipients but to follow policies from the donors. She also expressed that ‘Africans should speak up and defend their own interests’. The attitude towards development has to change. It is not about us (the whites) to come and develop you, but it is up to you to develop yourselves. This applies not only to the people of Africa but also other developing countries: they should have more to say, and believe that they can improve their own situation themselves. …At the end of my stay, two of my Swedish friends came to spend two nights with me in Somanya. I walked around and introduced them to my Somanya friends: “See….I am not white! I am yellow!”.


[1] Interview Development, November 2010, p.52 [Africawatch]