My Sister

Aburi Craft Shop in Ghana
Aburi Craft Shop in Ghana


“Sister! My Sister! You must look at my shop!” called the tall, lean proprietor of a woodcarving stall. I smiled at him hesitantly and kept walking, and he started to follow me, carrying several of his carvings along. I was surprised that he left his shop to do so.

“No, Sister, you must come over here,” cried another woodcarver, motioning me to come to his shop containing woodwork looking very similar. “I have the very best prices.” When I kept on walking, he, too, started to follow me, leaving his stall unattended. Both of these young Ghanaian men walked uncomfortably close to me, sometimes touching my arm to shoulder to get my attention. Even though I did not say anything to them, they kept up a constant chatter, touting the superiority of their goods. Although it was a warm, humid day in May, my difficulty breathing had less to do with the weather than with my discomfort at such unwanted physical closeness.

It did not take long before I had four or five men following me around the National Cultural Center, the largest souvenir market in Accra, Ghana. Jumbled together under this vast open air pavilion were various stalls and shops other selling souvenirs ranging from masks to statues to musical instruments to paintings to woodcarvings. I had been looking forward to shopping here. For me, part of the pleasure of travel is to be able to take in the sights, smells and textures of the local culture through their markets. My plan was not only to look, but also to buy some souvenirs. I was quickly realizing that shopping here would reveal unexpected psychological difficulties for me. At home in Minnesota, I was used to fitting into my surroundings to such an extent that I was nearly invisible. As a white American in Ghana, however, invisibility was not an option.

I traveled to Accra, Ghana in May of 2006 to present a paper at the African Literature Association Conference. I am an English professor and although my specialty is American literature, I have read a significant amount of African fiction and I have long been interested in the art and culture of the region. This was my first visit to sub-Saharan Africa, and I was looking forward to making connections with local people. I was certainly meeting many people in this shopping center and we quickly became close—physically close, that is. This was not what I had in mind, though. I was hoping to be seen as an individual, not simply a walking cash machine.

As I walked on, some of the hawkers would drift away, while others would take their place. I stopped at one particular stall to admire the fertility dolls. I picked one up to admire it. I wanted to know more about the origin of these dolls. Which ethnic group were they from? The Ashanti? The Ewe? Or were they widespread among the myriad of peoples making up Ghana? How were they used?

I was about to ask the man tending the shop some of these questions. Before I could do so, though, he said to me, “Because you are my mother, I will give you a special deal.” His mother! Offended, I quickly left the stall. I had gotten used to being everybody’s sister, but I was not ready claim this grown man as my son. I was far too young (in my mind at least) for that.

I moved on to the next stall, which carried a wide variety of traditional African masks. I knew very little about masks, and was afraid of buying one that would bring a curse upon my house. I asked the salesman what the masks meant.

“I am looking for something to bring me good luck,” I said.

“My sister,” he responded. “If you buy these masks you will bring ME good luck.

I laughed at his response. As much as I wanted to bring him good luck, though, I was feeling too overwhelmed by all of the new sensations and the constant attention to continue shopping at this point. Although I had been in the city for less than two hours, I desperately needed some invisible time. I found at least partial refuge in a café bordering the market. As I sat on the shaded porch sipping my Pepsi, I began to breathe easier. There was only a railing separating me from the crowds, but behind it, I felt safer.
I learned later that this market has a reputation for particularly aggressive salesmen. Although my time at the market was perhaps the most extreme experience in terms of numbers of hawkers, I found that any time Westerners stepped out of the protected confines of the five star hotel or tour bus, we were the center of unwanted attention. Intellectually, I perfectly understood that the Ghanaians were desperately poor in comparison to the American middle-class tourists and that they were simply trying to make a living. Because of my academic background, I was acutely aware of the power dynamics between Westerners and formerly colonized peoples. When reading books by African authors, it was very easy for me to identify with the African characters and to feel outraged by the arrogance and unearned privileges of the whites. I learned to despise the colonizers, especially those who led luxurious lives in their white enclaves, completely separate from the African people—except for their servants, of course. I was always on Okonkwo’s side. I was finding, however, that it was easier to make human connections through the books I read than it was with the real people I was meeting.

This became even more clear to me the time I decided to go for a walk along the beach. The narrow strip of sand along the waterfront did not belong to the hotel; it was public property. A tall wrought-iron fence separated the beach from the hotel; the gate was zealously guarded to keep out non-paying guests. I walked on the warm sand, happy to be taking in the breathtaking spectacle of the Atlantic ocean shimmering in the sunlight. I noticed numerous small stands and businesses lining the beach. The proprietors motioned to me to come check out their goods, but for the most part they left me alone physically.

Within a few minutes, however, a tall, muscular young man walked up to me and began following me.

“Hello? How are you? Where are you from?” he asked.

I answered his questions briefly and kept walking. He was not carrying anything to sell, so I was confused by his presence. I did not know what he wanted from me. If he was selling something, I did not know what it was. Surely he was not trying to pick me up; he must have been twenty years younger than me.

He continued to talk about himself and ask questions about me. I thought that my minimal responses and closed body language would be enough to make him go away, but I was wrong. I think of myself as a nice person and did not want to give offense, but I did not know the social codes of the culture. If I told him explicitly to go away would it be taken as a sign of racism? Not knowing how to get rid of him politely, I simply continued to walk. He continued to walk alongside me.

After awhile, we came to a very shallow stream of water. The water came up to my knees, if that. The man motioned for me to get on his back.

“I will carry you across,” he said.

Are you nuts? I thought. You can’t really expect me to hop on your back. Can you?

But I merely replied, “No, thank you,” I said. “I can walk across myself.”

He looked offended. “You think I cannot carry you. You do not know that I am a man.”

I was very aware that he was a man; that was exactly the problem, but I just said, “I am fine” as I slogged through the shallow water.

“Now your feet are wet,” he said sadly, shaking his head, once I made it across the stream.

I continued walking for a few minutes, but then I turned back. I was becoming more and more uncomfortable and wanted to go back to the hotel. When we got back to the main beach, he motioned for me to follow him into a restaurant. Because it was in between meal times, there were no customers in the cool darkness of the building. The man spoke briefly to a woman who was working there. I surmised that this was his restaurant, or at least that he worked here and that his goal was to get me to buy a meal here. If so, it seemed like a lot of work for one customer.

He motioned for me to follow him to the back part of the main room, where he turned on a low faucet for me to wash my feet. This seemed like an odd thing to do, but still eager to avoid offense, I walked to the faucet and took off my sandals. For a moment, I enjoyed the feel of the water on my legs. But then, the man until he bent down and started rubbing my feet, trying to wash them for me. I stiffened and pulled back from the water. What was he doing? I wondered. By this point, my need to get away trumped my need to avoid offense.

“I have to go now,” I said and started to walk away.

“Stay and have some lunch,” he replied. “The food is excellent.”

“No, thank you,” I said. “I really need to get back to the hotel.”

I was not lying. By this point, I was desperate for the psychological safety of the hotel. I hurried up the gentle slope to the hotel gate. As I did so, I was followed by several hawkers selling their paintings. Normally, I would be interested in looking at the paintings and might have purchased one. At this point, however, I needed to get away and was relieved when the hotel guard let me in the gate. When I looked back on the beach, I saw that some of the men were pressed up against the fence, continuing their sales pitch through the bars.

Because I was on one side of the bars and they were on the other, the scene reminded me of a zoo. However, I’m not sure who was on display and who was being watched. Perhaps Western tourists like me were like exotic creatures—like Panda bears, perhaps–best kept behind locked gates.

As I slunk back to the safety of the hotel, I felt simultaneously relieved and disappointed in myself. Surely, it must be possible to make genuine connections with local people. I, however, had failed to do so. Because of the fraught history and massive economic differences, the Ghanaians saw me as a target and I saw them as harassers. Like the colonialists of the past whom I had always despised, I sought refuge from harsh reality in the protected confines of economic privilege.

Author: DebraB

I am a Professor of English at Concordia University-St. Paul. I have a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. My research interests include American literature, contemporary literature, Middle Eastern literature, African literature and feminist theory.

3 thoughts on “My Sister”

  1. What a great piece of writing! I too have felt like this before which is why I appreciate your honesty. At first you are exhilarated by the “otherness” but then it becomes too “other” and you wish you were back where you can feel safe. Your liberal open mind or what you think of one is suddenly not so liberal and open minded anymore when you add perhaps a bit of fear and annoyance and all you want is some space around you. I have often felt this way in South African townships where you stand out like a sore thumb, or when you’re being chased by a bunch of street vendors just like you describe. Then we go home and process it and write a beautiful story about it (I had an encounter with some women I helped transport firewood). The stories are always beautiful, but while we are in them we most often would rather not be, if we’re honest.

      1. They can be, but they are also very inspiring and vibrant. You get the good and the bad. I always came back with such great stories to tell. One day I spent an entire day there, having brought my car and meaning to just help with a quick errand, but my friends there, recognizing that they could potentially get the use out of my car for the whole day, kept me going to different places for this that and the other. It was hilarious. Or, at the time, mostly annoying, because I didn’t recognize it for what it was until afterwards.
        Still, I don’t want to downplay townships, especially Alexandra. They are poor, and they are crime-ridden, and you have to be careful. Although the people they are most dangerous for ar the people who live there.

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