Obruni Bank

One Ghana Cedi. You can't tell from the pic but the bottom one is a fake that our neighbour got in her change one day.

One Ghana Cedi, featuring past Presidents. The bottom one is a fake that our neighbour got in her change one day.

I’ve received an email from a friend in Ghana who’s just got a new job, six or so months after graduating with a Masters in Engineering.

It’s great that he’s got a good job and in his field, especially as it can take a very long time to get work apparently, but I confess I was shocked by the wages.

I knew the per capita income was low in Ghana, but still, I was expecting a graduate to do better:  it equates to around AUD$550 a month (US$360). Yikes, that’s less than I earn in a week, part time.  And I don’t have a Masters, just a BA. It shows up the gap, once again, between our countries and economies.

Compared to many of his countrymen and women, my friend Kwesi is doing well. And compared to a very small number of others, not. Only this morning I discovered, thanks to Qué?, a blogger in Accra, that outgoing Ghanaian President Kufuor has a retirement package worth literally millions more than that of outgoing US President Bush – in a country where the average per capita income of US$1,400 is just 3% of the annual US PCI. Shocked again.

Thinking about these inequities brought my mind back to the day, a few months ago, when I calculated just what it had cost me to live in Ghana for 3 months. It averaged out around AUD$75 a day, which at the time was about the same in US dollars but now is more like US$50. This comes in at AUD$525 per week, a little less than Kwesi’s new monthly income.

AM and his cousin Owuraku working on the dog house.

AM and his cousin Owuraku working on the dog house.

While travelling I met some Australian girls who’d come to Ghana for three months as volunteers on their gap year between high school and Uni. Travelling in a group of six, sharing beds in cheap hotels, eating street food and travelling in tro tros,  they got away with spending less than AUD$15 a day. Be warned, if you are going to Ghana because you are visiting your in-laws, and with a child or children, you will not be able to do the same. For a start, comfort, safety and familiar pastimes become more important if you have your kids with you, and that will add to your costs. But more significantly, your money is no longer your own.  Well, it feels that way.  As a rich westerner who is part of the family – and you are definitely rich by local standards – you have obligations.

My Ghana expenses included:

  • Food – including hotel meals, street food, fruit, birthday cakes and party food, and giving my sister-in-law Serwaa GHC5 – 10 each day so she could cook a morning meal not just for us but for everyone else as well (DadaK footed the bill for the evening meal). One time I tried to save money by going with Serwaa to do a bulk shop at Kejetia market. This did not work out as I’d hoped, she still wanted money every day for the little things we hadn’t bought, like tinned fish and tomato paste.
  • Gas for the gas cookers. DadaK paid the elecricity costs.
  • Filtered water, including both bottles for the water cooler and for sachets before we got it working. DadaK paid for the rest of the water that was bought from a neighbour who had a bore.
  • Mosquito net, pillows, toilet paper.
  • Gifts, gifts and more gifts for all the family in Kumasi, the village and Accra, and a few neighbours, including cloth or clothing for everyone in the Kumasi household, occasional treats such as chocolate or bread or soft drinks, exercise books and pens for everyone under the age of 25, rebuilding the roof of AM’s cousin Afia Serwaa’s hair salon, and of course cold hard cash (which in Ghana is limp, crumpled, dirty and even sometimes counterfeit).
  • Travel within Ghana, by tro tro, taxi or private bus service for long distances.
  •  Cloth, clothes and souvenirs for me and AM and for family and friends back home.
  • Mobile phone and lots of credit – mostly so AM could call friends in Australia on a regular basis. I gave the mobile to Maame Yaa when we left. It’s hard to believe, but AM is one 14 year old not addicted to online chat, messaging, Bebo etc. I, his middle aged mum, am the one who does that kind of stuff (not Bebo, ok, I use Facebook). So he had to be able to make calls, in order to get some respite from his culture shock.
  • A new laptop cable that I promptly lost after spending weeks trying to find one to buy. This included a tip for the guy who helped me locate it. Luckily the old one held out until about two weeks after we  got back to Oz.
  • Swimming pool entry occasionally, internet cafe charges, books, DVDs (they’re very cheap there).
  • Timber for AM’s woodwork project – a dog kennel, and money well spent in spite of the fact that the dogs didn’t want to sleep in it.
  • Payment for the lost-wax bronze casting workshop AM did at Kumasi Cultural Centre. Ironically, he mostly created nasty weapons which we didn’t try and bring back to Australia, but gave back to the bronze boss, who incidentally turned out to be married to one of DadaK’s in-laws. In Australia, this would earn you a discount. In Ghana, it seemed to mean we ended up paying more.
  • Paying all the expenses of everyone who accompanied me anywhere, with a few notable exceptions, like my engineering friend above. This is one of the reasons we didn’t travel around very much.
  • A few nights hotel accomodation when we went on our trip north.
  • Medical expenses when AM was sick. Not enough to bother the insurance company with, but it all adds up.
  • Nana’s wheelchair.
  • Dash (tips).

It did not include:

  • Air fares, vaccines, anti-malarials & other meds, visas, travel insurance.
  • Getting all my photos developed back home and posted back to family and friends in Ghana (don’t laugh!).
  • The interest on the debt I managed to accrue while away – surprise, surprise –  and am still paying off.
  • The cost of all the clothes, shoes, books and other items I left behind or gave away.
  • Postage on a couple of small stools I got sent back to me in Australia – aaargh! Never again.

My expenditure has no doubt been good for the Ghanaian economy, albeit in a small way. It was certainly good for the family and for Nana, although I think it gave them a vastly inflated concept of how much money I actually have.

Financial obligations play an important part in family relationships in Ghana, and probably much of Africa and the poor world. It’s interesting to note Barack Obama’s Kenyan relatives’ expectations. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that “in Kogelo, birthplace of President Obama’s late father, many hope the inauguration in the US of a Luo will bring running water, a paved road and a police station. Tribal tradition dictates that those who find wealth or power should share it with their clan.” I can’t help wondering in what ways exactly he will fulfill his obligations and at what point, if ever, enough will be enough. (And also whether that’s a reason why Kufuor got such a massive payout – for all the rels. Still doesn’t justify it, though, in any way.)

DadaK has been sending money back to his mother ever since leaving Ghana in the ’70s, and it seems like the money has mostly vanished. Apart from the house we lived in, and perhaps a few nephews’ improved education at boarding school, there’s nothing to show for it. Family members to whom he sent the money almost always seem to have had different agendas to him for how it would be spent. I don’t find this surprising but he finds it infuriating. As well as that, his cattle all died (allegedly killed by eating  from the village dump); the well he built was neglected because his brother wanted to charge the villagers for access, then was superseded by a new government well; and the gun he bought so they could hunt bush meat was used to pay someone’s debt.

Periodically I’ve helped out, usually when Nana’s been ill; I haven’t financed any money-making or philanthropic projects. My latest donation was for Nana’s funeral expenses. I don’t expect it to be my last, however. Apart from anything else, one of AM’s cousins has been named for me, so I now have an obligation to send gifts to her.

This financial drain can cause conflict in mixed relationships if it’s not carefully managed, and it can become even more stressful if you actually go and visit the family. DadaK was constantly worried about money while we were there, because he felt that the family were expecting total financial support from us but not being completely open about their own sources of income. I was worried about money too, but of course I also had white guilt to contend with, which made it harder to be firm about what I was prepared to give. Knowing that the average weekly wage was less than I earn in an hour, how could I not share generously with AM’s blood relations?

My namesake in Mensakrom

My namesake in Mensakrom, in a dress I bought for her.

However as the weeks in Ghana passed and my bank balance dwindled I too started to get tetchy about money, to the point where I was only half joking when I called myself the Obruni Bank. (Obruni means white person/foreigner). The family found the term hysterically funny, probably because I was naming the truth. In fact Obaapa almost beat me too it a few years before, by nicknaming me Afia Sica (Afia=Friday-born female, Sica=money). I’d just like to say for the record here that my income is pretty average and I probably earn less than most Ghanaian-Australian taxi-drivers. Perhaps that’s why I don’t find this nickname as amusing as the one I invented myself.

White guilt reality check: no matter how much money I pour into my Ghanaian family, it’s not going to change the global economic system and power structures that create such inequality – and I have my own life to support here in Australia, where my weekly rent costs about 30% of the Ghanaian PCI, and almost half of my weekly wage (which is why I have a flatmate!).  I need to also remember that although sometimes it looks like they only want me for my money, there are real bonds of love and friendship between me and my Ghanaian in-laws.

I’ve written all this because money’s  often an issue in mixed relationships where the partner’s from a poor family in a poor country, but it doesn’t get talked about much at all. I strongly encourage non-African partners /parents to go to Africa and meet your in-laws, especially if you have children, or are planning to have them. It’s a wonderful, rewarding thing to do that will give you great insights into your partner’s culture, values and family idiosyncrasies. But you do need some warning about potential challenges, and the money stuff is definitely a big one. Don’t let it hold you back.

I also wanted to give you some idea of what the real expenses are, of this kind of travel. I suggest that if you are visiting poor relations in Ghana – or probably anywhere in Africa: examine your budget carefully, establish early on how much you are able to afford to fork out in expenses and gifts, make that clear to the family, and staunchly ignore any twinges of guilt about your little forays to the pool or lashing out on souvenirs. That’s what I plan to do next time – I wonder if it will work?

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6 thoughts on “Obruni Bank

  1. I really admire your frank assessment of your relationship with your in-law.
    A bit of realism on the part of us all[Ghanaians outside of Ghana] will go a long way towards helping our families and in-laws to understand that we are not cash-cows but that what ever effort we make is actually a sacrifice on our part.
    Love your blog.
    Thanks for your openness.

  2. Very interesting. We send money back to Aditya’s parents for some of their expenses, and we pay for everything when they visit us here in the States, but we aren’t expected to pay for other family expenses when we visit in the family in India. That might have more to do with their wealth level (Aditya’s family has climbed up to upper-middle class from lower-middle class this past generation), though, than any significant cultural difference.

    I agree that it can be difficult not to give when the comparison between what you have and what they have is so stark. Did you have any problem with beggers while in Ghana? That’s the big problem for Westerners visiting India, I think.

  3. I’d say wealth & education have a lot to do with it. But it seems pretty widespread, most Ghanaians I know complain about this happening when they visit family in Ghana.

    I’d almost forgotten about beggars – it is confronting, especially the number of disabled beggars – blind people being escorted along traffic queues by helpers – who I’m told the beggar pays to help, or people without legs scooting around on modified skateboards between the cars at traffic lights. But it’s really only in the city centres, and I imagine it’s not as bad as India, from what I’ve heard.

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