Hey Obruni

Blessing, Benedicta and crew

I’d like to admit defeat. Those of you who fervently read my blog (all three of you) might remember how I predicted that I would never meet anyone who had never seen a white person before. Within a day I’ve already disproved myself. My first day here, I played with some neighborhood children. Their constant playful catcalls of “obruni! obruni!” were an invitation for some sloppy multilingual banter (my Twi and Ewe consist of about two words each at the moment). In the process, a child came out of one of the houses delicately balancing a toddler on her shoulder. The toddler took one look at me and burst into a fit of tears. I figured that he was either jealous of my designer shorts from Target, or that he’d never actually seen a white person before. The latter suspicion was immediately confirmed by the other children as they playfully chided me for scaring the vulnerable kid. I thought it was hilarious. I also suspect that I’m in the honeymoon phase of being a minority.

The next morning, I awoke suddenly to a chorus of roosters and goats. I looked at my watch. It was 4 am. The community’s livestock had been startled by something. All of the sudden, an amplified voice resonated throughout the neighborhood. Edem had conveniently neglected to tell me that he lived right next to a mosque. Exasperated, I thought, “I plan on doing this for four months? I thought I didn’t have to deal with this shit until Mali.”

My room for now

Though it was still dark outside, the heat seemed very close to what it had been at noon the previous day. My sleeping bag was now a pool of sweat. I had only used it underneath me as a protective chaff against the bare mattress, as its intended use would have undoubtedly left me with heatstroke. I wondered whether or not I would actually be more comfortable outside, where at least the heat didn’t have an enclosed box to unforgivingly radiate. It was far too dark to take a walk, however, and the streets surrounding Edem’s home disperse into hundreds of separate dirt paths that all seem identical to me. Also, the term “street” is kind of a misnomer, since there are no street signs and none of the pathways have names. I decided to sit outside on the cement patio and wait for the sun to come up.

A bowl of fufu and stew

Due to jet lag, the humidity, and the cruel alarm I received at the hand of the local mosque, the next day is a bit of a blur. Edem’s friend Daniel showed me around. We eat fufu, visit Makola market, a school where his cousin works, and hang out at his house (where the aforementioned childhood trauma occurred). I take a walk around the neighborhood and am immediately approached by an elderly man with a “proposition.” Intrigued, I take him up on his offer to hold court beneath a large mango tree. Here’s his pitch: he sells merchandise to clients in Benin that he makes himself, but adorns with a “made in USA” label. He wants me to lend my American vocal talents to his project so he can appear more authentic. He promises me 20%. I weigh the pros and cons: 20% of some unknown product vs getting deported for being an accomplice to counterfeit merchandise. It’s an easy decision. Still, I have to applaud the guy for his resourcefulness. His charm quickly turns darker however, when I realize how much others in the community look down on his knavery. They ask for his name and address and seem genuinely concerned. I don’t rat him out.

Daniel outside of the school computer lab he helped build

At Daniel’s house, I meet Matthias, who besides being Daniel’s cousin, holds some hilariously misogynistic views that he’s not the least bit squeamish declaring. He also espouses some interesting generalities about “white people.” As I find myself getting defensive (on both accounts! Easy there), I think of how many people process Africans in a similar way. I give him a bye, but make sure that he knows I won’t be so kind in the future. Seemingly content, he hands me a bottled drink from his satchel. As I look at the label, the men laugh uproariously and mock me for my naiveté. The label says something in French about bottled water. The purple liquid inside was clearly not water. The bottle had been repurposed. I ask myself, “what do I care about more, protecting my vulnerable G.I. tract or appreciating this man’s hospitality?” I make a quick decision and take a sip. It’s delicious. The strong ginger stings my lips as hibiscus and other unidentifiable sweetening agents sooth the burn. Matthias, noticing my initial hesitance laughs and says emphatically, “you drink tap water in the U.S.? Then you’re fine here.” I’m too polite to correct him.

I ride home from Daniel’s house as the sun goes down. The air, as always, is dense with humidity and smoke, the landscape dotted with hundreds of kerosene lamps. The tro tro, adorned with a “respect jesus” decal, weaves manically between cars and men and women hawking various goods that rest gently on their heads. In this climate, one’s head is clearly the most effective transport vessel for goods. Giant bowls of food and water, chickens and other small livestock, toilet paper and used cell phones give new meaning to the phrase “cranial capacity.” Amazingly none of them are hit by the onslaught of traffic, even though our driver does not slow down with pedestrians literally 10 feet in front of the vehicle.

View from Edem's patio at sunset

Once I’m home, exhausted, I retire to the patio where I started the day. Edem comes out to chat. We discuss his work and cultural differences. Suddenly, he looks up. “You know you are here for a reason. God has brought you here for a reason” he says. Reflexively, I make a lame joke to soften the declaration. Edem doesn’t laugh. I’ve never seen him say anything with such conviction. He repeats it again, “God has sent you here for a reason.” Intimidated by the thought, I smile politely, say goodnight, and go to bed.

The next morning, I wake up at 4. Once again, the call to prayer reverberates warmly throughout my room. I picture hundreds of neighbors kneeling groggily by their bedsides. Satisfied, I doze off smiling.



Here’s audio I recorded of my daily wake up call:


One thought on “Hey Obruni

  1. Patty McLaughlin says:

    I love the photo with the 4 girls. Excited to hear more.

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