Sunday, March 20, 2011
I am writing this on the road back from Cape Coast to Accra. We have just spent the weekend on the beach; long stretches of sand and coconut palms, a few local villagers walking to and from Elmina, a small and delightful fishing port. From the chalet they are silhouettes, carrying large basins full of yams or firewood through the palms with the sea breaking behind them. We ate fresh grilled lobster and squid, grouper and snapper under straw lidded canopies, walked the isolated sands and rested. This morning we drove to Elmina on the way home to buy fish. It is an enjoyable half hour if you like haggling and checking the species covered in ice in big pails. All the while the sellers assume you will pay four or five times the price a black skin can afford. Even with the help of a six foot female who calls herself the Queen of Togo, the bartering is in favour of the locals. Not that I mind. The redistribution of wealth is built in to skin colour. If I can buy fish at half shop price and they can sell it to me at twice local price, then who can complain? We are a bit late at the market so there is no squid or octopus and few of the more exotic shapes and colours but we buy two plump and richly red snappers, some silver fish which are flat ribbons, moss green grouper, barracuda and a bag of whitebait. I like it at the market, the bustle and noise, the shouting of wares and the smell of a fresh catch. It is redolent of childhood forays with my father to North Shields from Newcastle on the electric train, to fish off the quay at seven in the morning, catching crabs and coley and the occasional cod. It’s strange how smells which might turn the nose of someone new to them become familiar, embracing and latterly nostalgic.
As I write we are half way to Accra and have just passed a couple of young men trying to sell grasscutters. I must look them up. One of my first Ghana blogs included a description of grasscutter stew. The grasscutter appears to be a large rodent, a bit like a coypu but they are sold by the wayside in smoked form. Imagine quite large bellows, flattened or spatchcocked, except the bones are visible like x-rays against the deep brown of the charcoaling and on being held in front of the vendor this gourmet’s delight obscures half of his body.
The skin colour based interchanges mentioned above work rather badly for mixed race individuals Someone with a fair skin (for Ghana this means, say, Lebanese brown) may be the subject of racist abuse in Europe and then find himself or herself similarly dealt with over here, in reverse. A victim in both worlds. In general I have found Ghanaians remarkable in their ability to laugh at the racism they have experienced abroad, though I would have exploded with outrage, I am sure. I interviewed a woman the other day who had been a supply teacher in the UK only a few years back. She had arrived at one primary school and the receptionist told her to pick up an apron and join the canteen staff in the kitchens. When she revealed her identity, the woman was embarrassed and said that because her name was so English sounding (traditional English names are common in coastal Ghana from the slave trade and gold mining) she had expected a white woman for the teaching job.
Managing staff can be difficult too. Skin can get in the way. Ghanaian culture, for example, has little evidence of what we might term depersonalised critical dialogue. To manage anywhere in the world you need to establish the criteria upon which you judge a person’s performance. But to tell someone that their performance is under par even when citing previously agreed and understood criteria can be taken very badly and the race card can appear. We carry our skins like badges as we traverse the world. A lot of the time and energy is spent in finding ways to disclaim responsibility for this birth-packaging.