“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.