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09/15/2010

Both sides of the fence

Ghana-2010-1792

A village chief at a celebration in Cape Coast in western Ghana. Photo by Antoinette Sarpong. 

By Antoinette Sarpong

Sometimes, I wonder what my life would be like if my Ghanaian parents hadn’t raised me in Canada. From a shaded hut at a Cape Coast beach resort, I couldn’t really picture it.

I probably wouldn’t be sipping a banana smoothie, or eating a Spanish omelette for breakfast. That $3.65 meal would likely cost more than my entire day’s wage. I probably wouldn’t feel so guilty for enjoying it so much either, but I did, a little bit. That’s the reality of straddling a cultural fence.

On the other side of the resort fence, female vendors were carrying meat skewers and plantain, with the utmost poise, in pans perched high on their heads. They did this completely undisturbed as massive waves came crashing in inches from their feet. I’m not sure I could do what they do and I’m pretty sure my parents decided to immigrate to Canada so that I wouldn’t have to.

One of the vendors with plantain perched on her head entered the resort. She started circling a table full of blonde-haired tourists as they pulled their wallets out to pay for their coffees. She greeted them with a huge smile on her face I hadn’t seen the whole time she was outside the resort. She exchanged a few words with the tourists, and then she reached into her nest of plantain and brought one closer to a young man’s face for his inspection. He smiled, politely refusing it, but another girl sitting across from him shrugged her shoulders in his direction and reached into her wallet to retrieve a few coins, which she exchanged for a few plantain.

Then the vendor approached my table, where me and my Ghanaian mate, Sly, were desperately trying to get the attention of a server, any server, to bring us our bill.

“Good morning,” said plantain girl.

“Morning,” we replied.

“Plantain?” she asked, waving a bag in my face.

“No, thanks,” I replied.

“Won’t you buy one to help me eat?” the girl said, with a slightly accusatory tone. “You have money.”

As she stood there staring at me, the waves came crashing in on the beach again, along with my guilt.

“I’m sorry,” I said, truthfully. “We just ate. We don’t want any. Maybe later, okay?”

“Where are you from?” the young girl asked.

“She’s Ghanaian,” said Sly, seemingly in defense of some “deep pocket” insinuation behind the girl’s line of questioning.

“She is not Ghanaian,” laughed the girl.

“Why do you say that?” I asked.

“You don’t sound Ghanaian,” she said.

“I am,” I said. “I was raised overseas.”

“Where?” asked the girl. “America?”

“No,” I replied, holding the actual answer ransom, for no particular reason other than to end the conversation.

I’ve always felt like I’ve happily sat on that fence between Ghanaian and Canadian cultures. Throw in some seasoning from years of travelling, and the cultural concoction that makes up my personality, it’s hard to pinpoint to any one locale. Here in Ghana, I’m often viewed just as obruni (the local lingo for a white person), as the next camera-toting tourist, once I open my mouth.

Then, I go back to Canada, or Japan, or Australia, or anywhere else I’ve resided. When asked where I’m from, my response, “I’m Canadian,” is usually met with a barrage of follow-up questions, mostly consisting of:

“Were you born in Canada?”

‘Where are you really from?”

“Where are your parents from?”

So sitting on this side of the globe, being asked, basically the same questions, I’m beginning to get a better sense of who I am, as a person, as I not only define the answers for complete strangers, but for myself as well.

I’m a person, who grew up in a household where we didn’t waste food, water or electricity because those are things that are never guaranteed in life.

Ghanaian.

I’m a person who loves getting an Earl Grey from Tim Hortons for the morning drive to work and I know all the words to the Tragically Hip song playing in the background.

Canadian.

I’ll be annoyed if the service is questionably slow or surly—Canadian—though I’ll probably be running late myself—Ghanaian.

I’m a person who eats fried plantain one day and salivates for a burger the next, which could place me on either side of that cultural fence.

At a nearby park, a festival was underway. We decided to join. Ghanaian highlife music signaled the procession of village chiefs. As the music got louder, Ghanaians on both sides of the resort fence started dancing, with complete abandon, almost instinctively. Still waiting for the bill, I joined them. I may not necessarily know which side of the fence I should really be on, or why I even needed to choose sides in the first place when my position afforded me such a unique point of view.

So I decided to simply enjoy the view from my ledge and do as Ghanaians do: just dance.

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Africa Without Maps


  • There's so much more to Africa than predictable headlines about war, famine and AIDS. From Ghanaian beauty pageants to music in Malawi, Africa Without Maps provides a rare glimpse of life in Africa from Journalists for Human Rights interns on the ground.

    Funding for the jhr bloggers is provided by the Government of Canada's Youth International Internship Program.

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