28-31 July 2010
Since coming to Bongo one word I have been commonly hearing in reference to me is Solemiya. In the local language of this region, Gurune, it means a white person, be it a man or a woman. So any man or woman who has lighter skin than a typical Ghanaian and has a straight hair is called Solemiya. There are different words for these in different dialects of Ghana and the one most commonly used is Obruni. Though it denotes a racial difference it is interesting that it is not used in a racist way. When I am walking on the road many children greet me by saying "Solemiya Zaare (or sometimes using English word for Zaare i.e. Welcome". It is used by older people as well because they do not know English. But one thing for sure is the special attention given to the person while saying this.
The habit of greeting everybody whether you know him or not means that one may end up in unwanted encounters. When a Solemiya walks on the road, then he or she needs to be very careful with the people who are approaching or coming near. I have experienced three kinds of unwanted people till date and I shall explain them one by one.
The first kind of people run after you and make a show of trying to help you and try to earn something by the way of tips. One day when I was waiting for the shared taxi to get full, a person greeted me and started telling me that he was very sorry that I was having to wait. He told me that he will see if he can find some passengers so that taxi will get full as early as possible and leave. I told him that I was not in hurry and I would wait. He started calling loudly for passengers and when taxi became full started asking me some money as a tip. I was so confused by this that when the real person who collects the fair in advance came I could not trust him immediately and paid him only when I saw that other passengers were also paying him.
The other kind is mentally disturbed people who keep on moving around the village but know for sure that Solemiyas can have some pity on them very easily and give some money to them in order to be just free of them. So when they come to know that some Solemiya is walking on the road and sat with his friends at a restaurant then they will go there and start making a show of themselves. One old man in Bongo when he sees a Solemiya, follows them where ever they are going and at some time just stands on his knees and start begging. When I first came across him, he persistently followed me throughout my round of Bongo. When I entered a compound of a house he also entered inside. I had to give him some money just in order to be free of him.
The third type is little children who might come towards you offering some help (of course with an intention of getting something in return) and you by feeling pity on them just pay them something or give them chocolate etc. I think that it is the most dangerous practice because one is promoting them to become beggars even if they are not. There is a large number of cases where foreigners have done sexual abuse of children in Africa just because of the ease in getting them.
All of these three behavioural patterns are due to the deep rooted belief in the thought that white people are rich and are a great nuisance while walking on the road. There are also many positive welcomes however.
The one which I appreciate here more is the welcoming of a guest and it is more open hearted. Many people greet and say "Zaare", while just passing by with no intentions to become close to you but just in good faith.
I found that even if people know your name, while speaking about you to some other person, they will speak about you as a Solemiya. I found this being frequently done in the office. As I work with District Assembly, a large number of visitors keep on coming to the office. The day before there was one football match organised between District Assembly Staff and National Social Personnel (it is local government promoted young volunteers organisation) and I was going there with my colleague. I heard him telling his boss that he was taking the Solemiya to the football match. I found it strange but then it was obvious his boss did not know my name (and didn't know how to pronounce it as well. Double difficulty!) but knew that a foreigner is working with him so it was natural for them to use the word "Solemiya".
But what I like the most is the way small children say loudly "Solemiya Zaare!!!". It is out of pure curiosity and their natural tendency to attract attention. Once I was standing in the Bolgatanga market and trying to search an address which my friend had texted me on my mobile phone (here sending an SMS on mobile phone is texting), when a little girl came near me and called loudly "Solemiya Zaare" trying to attract my attention. I looked at her and she was really very sweet and cute with her curly hairs neatly braided and decorated with ribbons. I said "oh, thank you, my little princess!". Her parents apologised as she disturbed me but I told them that she was a really very beautiful child and I did not mind that. The family walked away smiling proudly.