A couple of friends have criticized that I am overly negative toward Ghana and Ghanaians. They say I have a warped view of their country and people. Their only defense is that perhaps I am treated differently because I am “white” or an obruni.
“Yes, exactly!” that’s my answer.
As a white person, I constantly feel like I am a target for tricks, scams, and sob stories.
For instance, last year I was walking on the street to the A&C Square when a two men called out “Chinese man!” from their car. Thinking I should be friendly, I approached them. Turns out that – surprise – they had a business opportunity to share with me. I agreed to meet them at a restaurant to hear their case. They wanted me to help them buy equipment from China using money that I presumed was illicitly obtained from Cote D’Ivoire. One of them explained that he had a connection to release over a million dollars. At that point, I realized this was a live “419” scam. (Usually 419 scams are done via email.) I think they wanted me to help move a million dollars out of Cote D’Ivoire. I politely concluded the conversation and ignored all future calls from them.
Perhaps that seems like an obvious case of scammers. As I explained in a previous post, two years ago, while working for someone with great credentials, I was introduced to someone with a high position in one of the political parties who had a scheme to buy gold at a 20 percent discount to the market rate. I just needed to raise $200,000 to make the first purchase. Since the my colleague comes from a well-known family in Ghana, had worked in the US for some prestigious firms, and was on the board of a well-known philanthropic organization, I seriously considered working with his friend. Fortunately, my skepticism got the better of me and I halted my efforts. I later learned that gold is a dangerous trade for us obrunis. One of our customers from the UK — the wife is British-Ghanaian and the husband is European — confessed that they were swindled out of $200,000 – $300,000 (4.4 to 6.6 billion Ghana cedis) in a scam involving gold.
When you are not dealing with business folk of questionable repute, then you must be careful of police who seem to make up reasons for stopping and searching your car. For instance, an obruni friend who used to work for a local bank used to be chauffeured around town by a company driver. The company driver complained that he was always stopped by police whenever my friend, the obruni, was in the car; when he was driving other black co-workers he was rarely bothered. Of course, police stop all drivers — black and white — because they are looking for a little dash for missing paperwork, “running a red light”, broken tail light, etc. They seem to ask us obrunis for more.
Unlike the US, the police deter crime by setting up checkpoints (“barriers”) along busy roads. Typically, the police do not patrol areas looking for criminals. As my main taxi driver explains, these roving police usually stop people “looking for money.”
Lately, the police have been especially annoying. Usually the police at the barriers do not ask you to get out of the car. When Raymond came to visit in September we were stopped and searched twice in 48 hours. They said they were looking for “drugs” and then proceeded to look through our pockets and wallets. It has happened again since Raymond left. When the police want to be very annoying, they will threaten to arrest you. The police are expecting you to pay them something to sort everything out and avoid going to the police station.
I’ve recounted these stories to friends here. They say the appropriate reaction is to act indignantly and talk back to the police. Basically, it’s like confronting a school bully and showing him that you aren’t easily pushed around. This is is stark contrast to how you behave with American police. Talking back and acting indignantly to American police officers can earn you a charge of assault and arrest.
Every day interactions
Aside from police and business people, the next group that you must be careful with the man on the street. As a foreigner in a foreign land, I think it’s reasonable that you pay a “tax” for being a non-local.
For instance, I used to take a taxi from Airport Residential to the Accra Mall. It’s a 20 minute walk. I was charged 5 cedis while Ghanaians usually paid 3 cedis. I find it annoying is when I travel with a Ghanaian and the differential treatment becomes obvious. The Ghanaian will usually help me negotiate a better rate; the driver then will complain in the local language that they are both on the same side and he/she shouldn’t not be helping the foreigner. I don’t like how the taxi driver is explicitly saying I should be treated worse.
My remedy is to find people that I trust and can develop a relationship to obtain more favorable rates. Not only does this apply to taxi drivers, but it also goes for printers, barbers, and fruit sellers. The best option for an obruni is be invisible. This means finding a Ghanaian who can negotiate and pay for goods and services. I suggest you find a woman because they are more thrifty than the men.
Lastly, an obruni must be careful with acquaintances and “friends”. Hanging out with other expats with active social lives, I’ve learned that they are targets for a number of romance scams. Basically a woman or a man will feign romantic interest in an obruni. The black person — not just Ghanaians — will then lay the groundwork for a future “emergency” request. (The US Embassy in Accra even has a warning on their website.) These can take the form of:
- Sick parent or child
- Tuition/school fees
- Travel expenses
- The need to pay bribes to release a relative
Apart from the scams, there are longer term responsibilities that obrunis must be careful of. For instance, a lawyer friend of mine told me that one of his clients got a local girl pregnant and was being sued. That may not be a scam but a gift that keeps giving.
In Accra, it’s also common to see (ugly or fat) white women with athletic, black boyfriends. This is more of an arrangement than a scam. I’ve heard of two ways the black man can go: a Ghanaian (short-term) way and Nigerian (long-term) way. The short-term man will enjoy being treated by the white woman where ever they go. She will pay for meals, clothes, and probably be given some pocket money. Since most of these women work at NGOs, they are, by definition, poorly paid. The most the black man can get is probably less than $1,000.
On the other hand, the long-term man will be the one treating the white woman while she is here. He will be the one paying for meals, outings, and gifts. The goal is create the illusion that they are developing a real bond. When she returns to her country, he will then explain that he has an emergency or a company that he wants to start and ask for her assistance. At this point, she is living in the real world of dollars, pounds, and euros. The stakes can be a lot higher than $1,000.
The most common refrain you will hear is that “there is no money in the system.” Ghanaians seem to believe that outside money and/or government funds are needed to propel the economy. People seem to have a zero-sum view on how money is to be made. The pie is a given size. If I can take more from you, then I win.
On the one hand, I understand how Ghanaians think that obrunis can afford to pay more. For most of us, it’s true. On the other hand, Ghanaians should recognize that scams, constant requests for dash, and differential pricing leaves a bad taste in the foreigners’ mouths. If there is no money in the system, then the best thing everyone can do is make the country a more hospitable place to do business. All foreigners will need to hire at least three people for a small operation – a driver, a cleaner, and a personal assistant/fixer. A medium sized business may employ 20-50 people and a large business could employ more than 100. Each employed person has a family to take care of including school fees, food, rent, and taxes.
Living in the US, I have learned that the pie can get bigger (or smaller). If we work together, it’s possible for both of us to make more money.