Oyinbo, Obroni, Salminga…WT#!! I AM NOT A WHITE MAN!
Hi, its me Ratchet Jones. Three years ago I was just arriving on the continent for the very first time from USA. I didn’t know what to expect. On some level I was looking for a connection, I guess. I think I really believed that I would be welcomed and loved like the prodigal son. I’m laughing now even as I write this because I can see how naive I was. I came from the west with Alex Haley’s “Roots” and Nettie from “the Color Purple” as my references. I do have a family member who has lived in various countries on the continent but I really had no understanding nor emotional reference from her experiences. I came expecting an almost instant connection to “my people”. It was beyond my comprehension at the time that I could be seen as a stranger, let alone a white man (Obroni).
On my first trip to Africa, Nigeria specifically, several times I was referred to as Oyinbo (Obroni). I didn’t know what it meant. I simply smiled and considered it a greeting one might use to welcome a sister or brother from abroad. When I found out much later that it meant white man, I was deeply insulted. On a subsequent trip a young woman no more than twenty approached me calling me “Oyinbo” as if it was the name my mother had given me at birth. Feeling like I had been slapped, I looked at her and asked why are you calling me that. She seemed to be just as irritated by my question, she replied without hesitation, “That’s what you are!” In this instant I contemplated insulting her with references to where she may have been born. (Smile) I did not! I took a breath and asked, “Do I not look like you?”
How is it that I can have the same face, the same nose, eyes, cheekbones, lips and hair and yet my own do not recognize me. They look at me with glossed over eyes as if I do not breath and bleed as they do, as if I have come from another planet. How is it that they do not see their own reflection when they look at me as I do when I see them? When we come “home” to Africa, no memory of who or where our people are, nor our language… we are so excited, so happy to just be on the soil. We look at each and every African as kindred, expecting that they too will receive us as such.
In Ghana the word is Obroni. Here in northern Ghana,the Dagomba people say “Salminga”, which is white man in Dagbanli. Many try to justify Oyinbo/Obroni/Salminga by saying it means foreigner and say I should not be insulted, but in truth it is a word that means white man. In truth the last thing an African American would want to be called is a white man. In America if you have one drop of black, negro, African blood you are not white, the one drop rule. This is an antiquated but unforgotten fact. The constitution equated a black man with being three fifths of a person. So yes Oyinbo/Obroni/Salminga touches a nerve. It is about identity, heritage and belonging. For generations in America that differentiation has been made crystal clear even for those who may bear more of a resemblance to their stronger European heritage. I was born a negro girl. Negro became Colored then later became Black and now I am African American in America. No matter the occasion or situation my African identity is always the portion of me that defines me in America. Here in Africa it is my American identity that is seen first despite the fact that my skin, my hair, and my features bear witness to my African heritage.
What I have learned is that, like in any relationship, time and familiarity are what forge bonds. Just as a mother and her newborn are pretty much strangers at birth, it is the continued interaction and shared experiences that build the love and kinship. This same thing is what has happened with me in Ghana. Collectively our understanding of each other is growing and together we are learning to see in a different way and we are bonding.
Until next time….Same time, Same place next week.