Memoirs of an Elghana former volunteer


Volunteer David RussellDavid Russell is a Teacher of over 3 decades of service in the State of Massachusetts, USA. He volunteered with us ( as a teacher in Kumasi, Ghana.

OK, they call me "bruni."  It can make me uncomfortable.  The wonder is that there are not more frequent sharper challenges.  Hospitality is a matter of national pride, and I consistently experienced it from acquaintances and from strangers. When I arrived at Kotoko Airport in Accra one of the first things I saw was a giant banner “Akwaba!”  I was to hear this Twi word for welcome many times during my stay, and it was not just something people said.  I was amazed by how welcome I felt.

After school on the day before I was to leave Kumasi, as I gathered in the kitchen with the gang—Rose and her daughters, the cousins from next door—hitherto unexpressed words were voiced.

"Bruni! " At least 100 times—and perhaps as many as 200—that single word or its translation, sometimes in brief phrases, was addressed to me during my stay in Ghana.  "White man!"  "Bruni! Buy something!"  Reliably from young kids, basically as an exclamation of surprising discovery, several times followed by a daring touch of my arm and escape.  From adults rarely, but when used usually presented with some edge. "White man, how's your life, white man?" probed a woman around my age as I passed her on the street near my house.  "Run faster, bruni!" I was admonished as I whisked along with the 25 or so Ghanaians of the Neoplan Fitness Club that I had been invited to join on Sunday mornings. Sometimes most matter-of-factly. The friendly primary school headmaster at St. George's, the school where I taught during my stay, once offered, "Good morning, bruni.  I didn't greet you yet today."  My Ghanaian colleague Joe Mensah chuckled at the choice of address.  

One afternoon Awuraa Abena, a 17-year-old from the house that I stayed in and with whom I spent a lot of time, asked, "Why when people greet you as 'bruni' you don't greet them back?"  I was taken aback.  Had I seemed rude? I didn't think so. Yvonne, an 18-year-old cousin from the apartment next door offered something of a defense for me.  "When you're out with me you usually wave."  Harriet, her older sister, concurred.

I thought that the way I had been handling it made sense.  When a little kid came up to me with a big smile and shouted, "Bruni!  Bruni!" I smiled back and said, "Hello!"  When a call came from a long distance, sometimes I pretended not to hear.  Mostly, yes, I turned and lifted my hand in a pleasant wave of acknowledgement.  "Yes," I intended to communicate, "I hear you."  The corners of my mouth were usually raised a bit.  The shouting of the single word didn't feel like it required a verbal response.

I was vigilant at trying to be non-offensive.  I was, like it or not, a representative of Americans and, especially for people I didn’t get to know, of white people.  Since contact with the likes of me is almost nonexistent for most Ghanaians, I wanted to make sure the impressions I left were positive.

As I moved around, I didn't look for any special attention.  I relaxed and kept my eyes mostly ahead of me, careful to avoid any impression of staring. Especially when someone from my host family took me off the streets, through alleys and such where my appearance was the most startling, I just tried to mind my business. Mostly I think it worked very well, though I'm sure there were times that people felt invaded or exposed by my sudden appearance.

The elephant in the room of this discussion is the stark reality of racial inequality.  Why is it that I was ambling through their communities and not they through mine?  Per capita GDP is currently something like $40K in the US and $500 in Ghana—maybe 80 times higher in the US! The gulf in what is normal in standard of living is stark.  In my middle class household in Kumasi there was no sink; dishes and clothes were washed in basins.  "Bucket showers"—washing and rinsing with water taken cup-by-cup from a bucket—are the rule.  At my private school, when I went to the office as directed to get a red pen for correcting papers I was required to sign it out. When I was given four thumbtacks to display a map, I was expected to return them.  In my Sunday morning fitness club my two-year-old sneakers were among the best.

 "The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living," wrote a famous 19th century philosopher; I certainly felt this weight during my month in Ghana.  For three centuries the European slave trade robbed Africa of untold millions of people in their prime years.  This was followed by colonial conquest.  Though Ghana chose the slogan "celebrating 50 years of African excellence" to celebrate its anniversary of independence last year, the gap that took so long to build is not in danger of disappearing.  A determined citizenry, years of political stability, and the recent discovery of oil notwithstanding, our realities remain as different as black and white.  How many people told me they want to come to the United States?

OK, they call me "bruni."  It can make me uncomfortable.  The wonder is that there are not more frequent sharper challenges.  Hospitality is a matter of national pride, and I consistently experienced it from acquaintances and from strangers. When I arrived at Kotoko Airport in Accra one of the first things I saw was a giant banner “Akwaba!”  I was to hear this Twi word for welcome many times during my stay, and it was not just something people said.  I was amazed by how welcome I felt.

After school on the day before I was to leave Kumasi, as I gathered in the kitchen with the gang—Rose and her daughters, the cousins from next door—hitherto unexpressed words were voiced.  "Send me dollars!" said Harriet.  "Me, too!" joined Yvonne.  "I want a walkman," urged Awuraa Abena.  Meefia chimed in, "I want a laptop."

While I was able to elicit laughs—"I'll send a BIG bag of dollars!"—it was clear that the requests were not brought up in jest.  I have vastly more, and since we had become fast friends during these four weeks, it seemed reasonable, I surmise, to them to request that I should share more of what I have.

We all knew that despite our pledges to stay in touch and my statement that I hope to return, momentarily we would again be separated by thousands of miles and disparate life circumstances. The physical chores that we in the US can find so demanding are a joke compared to what Meefia and company routinely, uncomplainingly, carry out daily.  It isn’t fair.

In the midst of repeated requests for financial assistance the next morning Harriet stated, "David, I wish I had hair like yours."  "Grey?" I teased.  "No! Like your daughters'." Yvonne also, "Yeah, David, I want your hair."  I playfully tried to pull it out to give her.

What does this mean? I wondered. Harriet and Yvonne seem to be proud young women, but these hair comments mixed with the yearnings for the riches of America made me think about how it may be hard for them not to associate white with better.  OK, maybe they were just frustrated with taking care of their hair—Yvonne with Awuraa Abena's help had just impulsively removed the "plaits"(extensions) from her hair.  Or was there something more?

Spendilove, one of my seventh grade students, had described to me at school recently that many Ghanaians use chemicals to try to lighten their skin—I later noticed such products at the convenience store around the corner—and think that being light "is something special."  On TV the light-skinned announcers and actor/actresses are in much higher proportion than in the population at large—rare. When Joe Mensah, a teacher at St. Georges saw the 700+ page book I was reading about Africa he announced, "that's why the white man's always getting ahead."  On another occasion I expressed amazement to him at how a digital camera operates.  He responded, "You're the white man.  You should be the one who understands."

I shouldn't be surprised by these comments, I suppose.  I remember seeing an interview in the Eyes on the Prize video series about the American civil rights movement.  Activist Amzie Moore explained that as he was growing up, "it seemed that the white man was superior because he had everything."  Evidently, even in their proud black nation, Ghanaians can have a struggle not to attribute the 80 times greater US per capita GDP to racial characteristics.

"Are you tired yet, bruni?" I was asked by an unseen bystander while on a run with my Sunday morning fitness group.  "Not yet!" I shot back spiritedly.  But when I ponder global inequality, I can get weary.  Why are things as they are?  How can they be changed?

Martin Meredith, author of the tome The Fate of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence that Joe observed me studying, concludes after an extensive review that "In reality, fifty years after the beginning of the independence era, Africa's prospects are bleaker than ever….even given greater Western efforts, the sum of Africa's misfortunes…presents a crisis of such magnitude that it goes beyond the reach of foreseeable solutions….Time and again its potential for economic development has been disrupted by the predatory politics of ruling elites seeking personal gain, often precipitating violence for their own ends."

Are the prospects so gloomy?  Another ambitious volume, The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time by Jeffrey Sachs, supports a different perspective.  In this book, according to Sachs, he has "identified the specific investments that are needed; found ways to plan and implement them; shown that they can be affordable; and addressed the counsels of despair who claim that the poor are condemned by their cultures, values, and personal behaviors."  His question is "Will the world act?"

Sachs addresses analyses such as Meredith's.  Yes, "by almost any standard, Africa's quality of governance is low."  But, Sachs contends, "the problem for Africa, however, is that African countries on average grow less rapidly than other developing countries at the same level of income and the same quality of governance, but in different parts of the world…..This slowed growth is caused, in my opinion, mainly by Africa's adverse geography and deficient infrastructure."

Even if Sachs is right—and I think he is—that "there are practical solutions to almost all of their [poor countries'] problems" and that extreme poverty can be eliminated by 2025, it is not easy to maintain optimism, not for international supporters such as myself, and not, I imagine, for many Africans and Ghanaians themselves.  One of my goals in traveling to Ghana was to learn more about how the people there understood their place in the world, what they made of their prospects, and how they persevered.

I asked my students at St. Georges' if they felt more hopeful or worried about their futures.  Almost unanimously they chose hopeful.  Why was that their overwhelming, immediate response, I asked.  Two answers were offered.  First was belief in God.  Christianity is omnipresent in southern and central Ghana—bus drivers offer a prayer that riders join in on before embarking on the journey—and it is a source of strength.  The second reason for hope that my students identified is confidence that their hard work and determination to become educated will yield results.  They are not, by their description or from my observation, pessimistic or fatalistic. They embody the spirit of the currently popular Ghanaian political slogan, "forward ever, backward never!"  I'm going to ask the same question about future orientation to my American students this fall.

My last night in Ghana I sat at a plastic table outside a roadside restaurant in the capital Accra with Agyapong Gyamfi, the Volunteers Manager of Elghana, the organization that placed me in Kumasi and which organizes placement of international volunteers around the country.  30-something and a speaker of several languages, my dark-skinned companion and I spent a few hours enjoying the pleasant evening air and animatedly exchanging thoughts about Ghana, the US, and the world.

As Agyapong spoke of his faith in the people, a boy walked up to us. Perhaps 16, he displayed to us a stack of DVD movies held between his hand and bicep along his forearm. Agyapong gently gestured him away and continued.  "He's probably been doing this all day, walking many miles, trying to make a living."  A most ordinary pursuit in Ghana, but, as such, noteworthy.  I had given a brief post-lunch talk to the assembled students at St. George's the previous day, and in it I had highlighted the "hope, pride, and determination" I had observed among them.  I saw it here again in this young entrepreneur. 

I don't know when I'll next be called "bruni." I don't know what will become of the people I encountered during July 2008 in Ghana, the people I shared a home and classrooms with and those anonymous ones I interacted with or observed on the streets.  I don't know if the yawning chasm between our worlds will ever substantially lessen.

I do know that I cannot know. I do know that all I can do, all that any of us can do, is to try, to summon up our hope, pride, and determination.  To live the best we can with love.

One day I was taken to the central market in Kumasi, the largest one in West Africa, by Yvonne and her mother Mercy to buy some kente cloth.  In this crowded, bustling maze of hundreds of peddlers, sightings of pale faces are especially rare.  As I passed him a young man declared, "white man!" He labeled what he noticed and what we both knew.  My presence was not ordinary.  On this occasion his phrase was accompanied by a smile and what felt like a measure of respect.  "Check you out crossing boundaries like it's nothing!" was, I think, the unspoken commentary.

I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to live as a "bruni" in Ghana for a month.

Note: In commenting on an earlier version of this piece, Mr. Gyamfi pointed out that the actual word is “obruni” rather than "bruni," but I’ve kept the word written as I heard it.


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