I am what I am

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
This was a saying one of my primary school teachers taught my classmates and me to say in response to the targeted name-calling in which so many young children are wont to indulge.  At the time it seemed clever and useful, a salve to ease the sting of whatever insult had been hurled at you.


The more interested in words and literature I became the more I realized it wasn’t true; hateful words do hurt.  And while the bruises inflicted by sticks and stones will eventually fade away, the wounds brought on by words, though not outwardly visible, can remain open for years and fester.

I grew up in 1970s America.  It was a fascinating time to be a Ghanaian immigrant.  The roar of Black Power that had charged the civil rights era forward with solidly clenched fists and spherical Afros was fast becoming a purr of Nefertiti charms on gold chains and Swahili words used to commemorate the days of Kwanzaa.

Whenever I was called the “N” word—nigger—it always caught me off guard.  I’d look left, then right, in search of whom, I do not know.  But surely they could not mean me—me? a nigger?—the description simply didn’t apply, not in my definition of self.

The one word that did apply, and was quite curiously often used as an insult was “African.”  Many a classmate, in anger or spite, had called me an African.  The harshness of the tone in which the word was said, coupled with the context, left no room for doubt; it was to be interpreted as something negative, intended to shame. 

“Oh, shut up you African.  Go back to your jungle.”

It was always a perplexing situation in which to find myself because, well, I am an African; but for me, it was and continues to be a source of pride.  In response, I bought and wore a t-shirt with the words “Made in Africa” emblazoned on the front.  It was my attempt to reclaim the pride and humanity that their slight was attempting to steal, and display it for all to see.  Nevertheless, until I did that, it had been extremely hurtful to hear my origin, my identity spoken of in such a derisive manner.  It just felt so random and ridiculous, based in nothing more than ignorance.

But then, that is the very nature of prejudice, isn’t it?  It’s random, ridiculous and based purely in ignorance masquerading as superiority, or insecurity masked by hatred.

As I grew older, I realized that many Africans themselves were plagued with the disease of prejudice.  I would hear members of one ethnic group harshly stereotyping other ethnic group in their country.  Igbos and Yorubas; Hutus and Tutsis; Kalenjins and Kikuyus; each had something nasty to say about the other.  Though considered kinfolk, brothers and sisters by virtue of national boundaries, they disliked or mistrusted one another for no good reason except ethnic identity.

Many of these ethnic tensions can be traced to colonial times and the direct policies of “divide and conquer” that were instituted by the colonial rulers, a classic tool of oppression.  But that was then, and this is now, an Africa predominantly comprised of independent, self-governed nations.  Which, of course, makes these lingering prejudices all the more tragic. 

Among the many African immigrant sub-groups in the Diaspora, Ghanaians were by and large considered the most nationalistic.  The prevailing thought was that we were less divided among ethnic lines.  And somehow in my mind that made sense because it seemed as though Ghanaians, more than any of the other African nationalities I’d encountered were—pardon the use of canine terminology—mutts, a mixed breed of ethnicities. 

A number of Ghanaians I know can boast of four grandparents from four different ethnic origins.  This was a source of tremendous pride for me, especially when I heard news of ethnic conflicts in places like Nigeria, Sudan, Rwanda, or Kenya. It made me feel as though we Ghanaians were progressive, moving steadily toward the sort of self-love that those who’d colonized us had hoped to keep at a distance.

These days when I read all the ethnic hatred that is spewed in comments and posts on the Internet, I am filled with tremendous sadness.  I can hardly believe it is the same country whose citizens had once been filled, first and foremost, with national identity and pride.  I’ve read the description “ayigbe dzulor” so often it is starting to feel commonplace in various conversation threads. 

Yesterday I phoned my friend, Paul Afoko, a politician from the north and asked him, “What does ‘pepeni’ mean?”  The word seemed to come up in nearly every comment thread in response to articles about the president and the government.  Paul confirmed what I already suspected based on the context in which the word was often used, that it was an ethnic slur against northerners.

Paul explained the origin of the word:  apparently, northerners were considered exact and straightforward people, meaning precisely what they said; they were very “pepepe.”  Somehow, along the way, the word “pepeni” evolved into a slur.

“I think we northerners should embrace the word,” Paul told me.  I’d heard that argument used again and again by black Americans about the “N” word, and I wasn’t so sure I agreed.  There is, in my mind, nothing redemptive about that word.  Paul reminded me that when it comes to slurs, “pepeni” is not of that ilk.

“Instead of being offended by it,” he said, “we should take it as the compliment it once was and use it ourselves.”  I could see his point.

Later that day, during another similar conversation, I learned of a brazen young man, a northerner, who once had “pepeni1” inscribed on his car’s number plate and drove all through Accra announcing who and what he was.  I laughed, recalling the “Made in Africa” t-shirt I used to wear once upon a time in defiance, and suddenly all the pride I’d ever felt for this country and my people came rushing back in full force.

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