No New “Friends”

In Accra, The Art of Travel Spring 2015, Strangers by Lydia Cap3 Comments

“Strangers are not really conceived as individuals, but as strangers of a particular type.” This line towards the end of Georg Simmel’s essay resonated with me because as a white person in Africa, I feel I am not seen for who I am but for my skin color and how locals can use it for personal benefit. I have been in Ghana for nearly three months, and although I have met strangers who have assisted me and been very kind, I have yet to meet someone who did not ask for something in return.

When a stranger strikes up a conversation with me, he or she will always ask where I am from. Once I tell them I am from the United States, there is a 95% chance one of the following comments will be made: “US! Land of the rich man!” or “Will you marry me so I can get a US visa?” or if I am speaking to a female, “I want you to find me a rich white boyfriend.” I have been told these comments are only made to spark conversation, but it is still incredibly awkward because, based on how I was raised, it’s inappropriate to ask someone you have just met such serious and intimate questions.

If I end up starting a conversation with a stranger, it is usually to ask for help. On the first day of my internship way back at the beginning of the semester I got lost in a busy market while trying to find the Tro-Tro station. Luckily, someone who was also heading to the station saw me and told me to follow him. He did not go out of his way to guide me, so imagine my surprise when he followed me around once we got to the station, asking, “Do you have something for me? One cedi, two cedis? I helped you, now you help me.” I have been in this situation many times since; the majority of people will only help if they believe you can pay for their (minimal) efforts. Some people will even force me to let them help–simply because they think I can afford it because I am white and therefore believed to be rich.

Although these two types of interactions with strangers are extremely annoying, the worst by far is the number of people who want to be my “friend.” There are some days when anyone and everyone I walk past will stop me and ask for my phone number so we can be “friends”. I have an international phone that I won’t be using after May, so I wouldn’t be too upset about giving out that number but the problem is that if you give out your number here, people will call you repeatedly until you finally answer. I haven’t given out my number once, and I still get random calls and texts from people saying hello and asking me to come to church with them.

In this post I generalized all strangers in Ghana as seeking personal profits; I know there are helpful strangers in the country, but it is hard to stay positive when I have yet to find any. Whenever I leave the house, I am bound to have a conversation with a stranger because of the novelty of seeing a white person walking down the street. The majority of these conversations leave me feeling uncomfortable or used, and I have noticed I am unwilling to leave the NYU campus unless it is absolutely necessary. When I do leave, I prefer to do so in a large group because the hassle isn’t worth bearing alone. I find myself stuck between a rock and a hard place: I want to spend time exploring Ghana before I leave, but the frustration I feel towards these strangers makes me want to hole up in NYU dorms and never come out.

Comments

  1. Lydia, you say that, “If I end up starting a conversation with a stranger, it is usually to ask for help.” I suggest that to a way to have a conversation in which you don’t feel used is to start dialogue with a native just for the sake of discussion. I do not know the culture and therefore my comment is only based upon my interpretation of this post, but only starting conversation for help, is asking the stranger for something that they subsequently feel they need compensation of some sort for. I implore you to just ask a native- one that you find some small source of comfort in- questions, about their culture their land their history.

  2. Hey Lydia,
    Interesting post. To a much lesser extent I know how you feel—it’s hard to start a conversation with a stranger when all they want to know is where you’re from etc. However, I try to keep in mind that I’m a stranger to them—strangers I meet do not intrinsically know what I’m thinking or what I need. Therefore, they base our interaction on what they’re accustomed to it being, in France that means we talk about NYC and in Ghana that seems to mean that people ask you for your number. I guess that I found your post particularly interesting because you’ve picked up on the way that people in Ghana react to strangers, and be in annoying or not, it is an interesting cultural difference. Being a stranger in France for so many months has made me realize that I will probably treat strangers differently when I am back in NYC. How about you?
    Good luck!
    Rosie

  3. Wow what an interesting post. Thank you for sharing this! I did not realize the struggle would be so real for a non-person-of-color in Ghana. I’ve heard stories from some of my friends, but I’d never imagine this. I’m sorry this is making it harder for you to enjoy Ghana, and I hope things become easier with the little time we have left. I’d imagine that having people wanting to be your friend and go to church with you was fun for a short period of time in the beginning (I think I would like that), but to be the third month of incessant hounding is quite a hand full.

    Do you ever give money to local Ghanaian? What did you do in the train situation? And have you ever taken up someone’s offer to go to church (if so how was the experience)?

    And those /are/ very intimate questions, and since you don’t find them flattering , how do you respond to them?

    I have more to say, but I would like to know how you respond. Thanks for posting Lydia!

    Mike–

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