I learned a new word in Ghana: Abruni (ah-BROO-nee). I learned over time that it could have many meanings. Here are a list of some of the potential meanings of the word, "Abruni."
DESCRIPTIVE: In short, it is the term for "White person." I took it at face value at first. It was neutral and benignly descriptive. It was no different than describing someone as tall or quiet.
GRACIOUS: "Abrunis can't make mistakes." It is a Ghanaian saying about white people who visit Ghana. It is an interesting statement and takes a while to fully understand. At first I thought it was an exaggerated form of praise, like white people were in some way super amazing and were incapable of mistakes - an over the top compliment that smacked of flattery.
Then it hit me. It was not that Abrunis were incapable of mistakes, but rather that they were bound to make many mistakes, be unintentionally offensive, and stumble through endless faux paus. It was a gracious understanding that the series of mistakes the white people were about to make were unintended.
GROUND LEVELING: I then learned it was even more complex than the graciousness of the Ghanaian people. It was not exactly letting white people off the hook. In a conversation with a local Ghanaian, Kofi, I learned that it is more like an understanding. I told Kofi that I felt like it was as though the meaning of the term, Abruni, meant that the white person was identified as a welcomed outsider who must come to understand that they do not know anything, must know they are going to make mistakes and that the Ghanaians will be gracious forgive the mistakes. Kofi gave me a huge smile and two thumbs up as if to say, "Nailed it!"
EXPECTANT: When a group of us Abrunis took a guided walk through several villages around lake Bosomtwe, we were called, "Abrunis" a lot. There was a new meaning as we were constantly asked for money and water bottles. It started to feel like Abruni meant, "Give me something."
CONTEMPT: One time while walking through the villages, a child said, "Give us money." I said, "No, I am sorry, we have no money for you." Then he said, "Abruni." It sounded like he said, "Jackass," there was so much contempt in his voice. It was as though I had owed him money and refused to pay up.
That one made me pause. It was at that moment I felt like I was a Poverty Tourist, mining pictures of villagers for free. I felt like I might be perpetuating a form of exploitation that has been such a part of the history of this country. As much as I felt that the direct contempt for me personally was unwarranted, I also felt like what I represented deserved no small amount of contempt.
AFFECTION: Ending on a positive note, the most common meaning of the term was that of affection. Most of the time I felt like being called an Abruni meant, "The lovable American." It was supported with high fives that end in finger snaps or hugs or big smiles and laughter. The dominant feeling I had between me and Ghanaians in general was affection and mutual appreciation.