Anthropological fieldwork is most satisfying when something comes along and umpends your sense of what’s what. You’re going about your routine, plotting out the steps you’ve learned of the quotidienne dance of the everyday, priding yourself on knowing the invisible code of normalcy—and suddenly someone departs from the script you thought you were working with. In the instant it takes to say, I’m sorry, what?, the curtain at the edge of the reality you thought you understood is drawn aside and voila: it’s so much richer and more complicated than it was a second ago.
Isn’t that extraordinary? Isn’t that thrilling and delightful? It’s the stuff of galaxies discovered and laws of the universe illuminated on a maddeningly, fascinatingly complex and contradictory human scale, and it takes patience and a particular skill in putting your head back on straight after repeated double takes that I think is severely under-appreciated in the halls of Science-with-a-Hard-Capital-S.
Be that as it may: imagine my delight when the curtain was drawn aside a few months back when I was trying to extricate myself from what I thought was an instance of my least favorite genre of encounter: Ghanaian Man Tries to Convince the Fast Loose American Lady to be His ‘Friend.’ [See pictorial example of said genre below, Cape Coast, circa 2005]
At this point some background is in order. My fieldsite, itself a microcosm of Ghana (or indeed, the world as a whole), is one of extreme socio-economic contrast: an elite private tertiary institution—among the best in all of west Africa—set on a hill above a rural town of about 2000 subsistence farmers with seven feuding families, five failing schools, three untreated wells, one deplorable public toilet, one unbelievably rutted road, and no library. That this is a harsh and reductive description does not escape me. For a person without a farm or easy access to one, it’s also essentially a food desert—nary a fresh bit of produce to be found for sale on most days aside from tomatoes and pineapple.
One day near the start of fieldwork I walked into town to buy some odds and ends—a broom, some of those tomatoes, dish soap. In all but the most hectic urban contexts in Ghana, greeting the people you meet on the road, even if they’re a complete stranger, is de rigeur; in a small town like this, whose main drag takes all of half an hour to walk from end to end, you greet nearly everyone you pass. Good morning! How are you? Maakye, o! Ete sen? Please Auntie, I am fine.
Years ago when I first came to Ghana to study abroad, it took me a long time to learn the nuances of such encounters, the necessary and strategic modulations in the body language of politeness. The combination of the study abroad officials’ insistence that ‘greeting’—a hopelessly vague term for a broad and varied category of interaction—was absolutely necessary, combined with the not-so-gentle chiding of men on the street—Hey! Obruni, you don’t want to greet me, or?—made me feel I was being judged as incredibly rude unless I stopped to shake hands and make small talk with absolutely everyone I met. Unfortunately, this meant a lot of uncomfortable conversations with men (always, men) whose intentions were less than stellar. My suitemates and I started papering a wall with the numbers of these men, procured in our gambits to avoid giving out our own numbers.
Many such men—born into cultures where male prerogative and entitlement are nigh-unassailable, and raised on a steady diet of decontexualized American films full of unimaginable luxuries and oversexualized female actors—are, perhaps understandably, upset when the obruni they have at hand is not interested in slowing her roll to allow herself to be objectified, give them the money she most surely has, agree to marry them so that they can get a green card, or share her phone number so that they can be ‘friends.’ Their angry reactions—Ah, why not? It’s nice to be nice, o!—are surely, to them, utterly sensible.
What I have gleaned from what I instead experience as constant, aggressive, unwanted male attention on the street is at least a modicum of insight and empathy into the experience of aggressively exoticized ‘minorities’ stateside, who don’t have the luxury of being targeted for their ostensible privilege, nor the privilege to return to the luxury of anonymity when they’re fed up.
But I’ve also come to see it as a rather offensive exploitation of the foreigner’s effort to avoid offense. Just as many Ghanaian men have learned to strategically read whiteness as a sign of potentially lucrative and sensual connections that are their absolute due (including the rasta who followed me home once, insisting he was ‘owed the white women’), I’ve learned over the years to strategically interpret the flow of streetside signifiers in literally walking the fine line between demonstrating politeness and maintaining my sanity: to whom I can just nod in passing, whom I should stop and greet fully, whom to head off at the pass with a hearty hello and guileless apologies that I’m really in a hurry, sorry-o.
So when, broom and tomatoes in hand, I was returning through town (Good morning. Fine morning!) and came into view of a man in early middle age with short dreads, I thought-without-thinking: rasta, avoid engaging, you have somewhere else to be.
But after an hour’s worth of running the greeting gauntlet, I was tired. Instead of the fleeting exchange of pleasantries I had in mind, I found he’d somehow blocked my way. I started the usually effective insistence that I was running late, sorry, must be going, but he interrupted to say, quite out of the blue—‘Hey, so I’m an organic vegetable farmer, I make my own tofu!’
I’m sorry, what?
As I attempted to lift my jaw from the road, Tofu Man went on to explain that he was from the Caribbean, and, along with his Liberian wife, was proseletyzing for vegetarianism in town. (Heaven help me if all the pushy men in Accra ever learn that the easiest way to stop an obruni in her path is to lob the words ‘organic,’ ‘vegetables,’ and ‘tofu’ at her feet!) He informed me he grows only organic vegetables on his farm from seeds supplied to him by a friend in Jerusalem, where he used to live. (Naturally.) He complained at length about monsanto and GMO produce coming into Ghana and the general (to his mind) Ghanaian apathy towards these developments as amounting to the very depths of moral degeneracy, and his various struggles to convince people in town to give up their meat and oil before it kills them.
‘These people don’t understand green!’ he nearly shouted. I was still standing at the edge of the curtain with my mouth agape and so could only manage a feeble, ‘Green?’ ‘Yeah, I got me some collard greens, mustard greens, bok choy—you like boy choy? Chinese bok choy?’ Somewhere in the midst of his diatribe-cum-sales-pitch, his wife came up and joined us. While I was still trying to get my head around it all, he interrupted his own line of thought to say, ‘You a vegetarian? You got a nice flat belly, not like these Ghanaian women here, yeah you’re real nice, I’d like to marry you.’
Ah. Yes. Back to the expectations of the genre.
I countered that his wife—who was after all standing right there—might object to that.
She narrowed her eyes and shook her head sharply, ’No, we aren’t like all these people here, all their church and does it make them good people on any day but sunday? Mmm mmm, no ma’am. We’re very open minded, not like Ghanaians, mmm mmm, no.’
If I hadn’t already been rendered speechless—!
And yet, what a fascinating departure from that genre, what a fascinating enlargement of the picture I had of town. Here in the heart of what to all appearances is a struggling, marginal town—close to Accra and its kaleidoscopic cosmopolitanism, and yet all-but cut off from its economic largesse—was a multicultural polyamorous organic farming family who make their own tofu. I’m not sure what it all means, but it sure is interesting—and, as always, so much complicated than how things first appeared.