Running through Winneba, I’ve Never Felt So White

Running through Winneba, I’ve Never Felt So White

I’m not a runner.

I’ve never been a runner.

Yet, nearly every morning, I’m out of my house between 6 and 6:30 (sometimes, #thestruggleisreal), running shoes on, jogging through this little Ghanaian town I now call home. It’s just about my only exercise option in a place with no Western-style gym. Running wakes me up and becomes a fantastic way to learn how to navigate the area. It forces me to put a smile on my face and say, “good morning.” I’ve come to appreciate that faking smiles can brighten moods.

I came to Winneba, Ghana in early April 2015 to work as communications officer for a local non-profit, Challenging Heights, which works to rescue children who are trapped in modern slavery and prevent child trafficking. I quit my job as a television reporter and anchor in the U.S., sold my belongings and headed to a continent I’d only imagined.

I realized that no matter what I was wearing, my Caucasian presence alone would draw attention.

I looked forward to becoming “anonymous” after years of sales clerks or restaurant waiters asking me for shout-outs on the news. I knew that as a Caucasian woman arriving in a small West African town, I would garner curiosity, but I hadn’t anticipated just how much attention. Instead of only loyal viewers knowing my face, just the paleness of my skin draws gaping mouths and shrieks from small children. My morning jogs serve as a constant reminder of how glaringly
white I am.

Dana runs by this roadside stand on Roman Road in Winneba most mornings; the women sell wakye (rice and beans) for breakfast.
Dana runs by this roadside stand on Roman Road in Winneba most mornings; the women sell wakye (rice and beans) for breakfast.

In Winneba, a coastal fishing community of just over 60,000, it doesn’t matter if you’re wearing earbuds and trying to block out the world with music as you run. Just about everyone continues their usual “greetings,” and expects a response. Some say good morning, but most just shout, “Obruni!” The Fante word literally means ‘white person.’ Some people, especially young men, actually yell, “white lady!” trying to get my attention. Other times, it’s “brah” – which means, “come.” Yes, people demand that I stop and “come” to wherever they are, no matter how focused I am. I typically pretend I don’t hear the demands, and only smile at well-wishers as I’m forced to dodge men who try to grab my arm as I pass. “Iko,” some say with a fist pump and a smile – is “how are you” with the acknowledgement that you’re working.

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Having a white lady run through front “yards” each morning isn’t enough to deter some judging looks or disapproving head shakes. Running in Winneba, I’ve discovered, is rarely done. It’s something that footballers may do before or after practices. It’s something that school children do if they’re training for athletic competitions. But it’s not something your average fish monger or fruit seller takes up as a hobby. They get enough of a workout balancing massive loads on their heads as they walk through town toward market.

Winneba is situated on the coast of Ghana. Its tradition as a fishing community remains strong.
Winneba offers coastal views on morning runs. Its tradition as a fishing community remains strong.

Running in Winneba makes it painfully evident how much of a luxury running for exercise is. Instead of fetching water or firewood in the mornings before work, I tie up my laces and hit the pavement.

“You are sweating!” people tell me as I run by. “Where are you going?” or “You are jogging,” are also directed toward me; as if it doesn’t matter what they say to me, as long as they say something to this strange white woman. I sometimes nod or smile through the sweat.

I try hardest to win over the women of Winneba. They’re the ones who most often stare openly and often critically as they set up roadside stands for breakfast. Sometimes they furrow their brows or purposefully look away, chin in the air, to express distaste in my actions and clothing. If shorts are worn by women in Winneba, they are long. Women typically stick to dresses past their knees, or occasionally wear pants. Running shorts are not a common sight.

When I first arrived, I struggled with whether I should bear my knees and potentially cause a stir. But very quickly I realized that no matter what I was wearing, my Caucasian presence alone would draw attention.

A view overlooking much of the town of Winneba. The buildings are homes and businesses, with fish smoking ovens. Running offers prime opportunity to explore and learn to navigate through town.
A view overlooking Winneba; the buildings are homes and businesses. Running offers prime opportunity to explore and learn to navigate through town.

Sometimes the jog is difficult – putting on a smile through sour moods is hard. But you can’t help but chuckle watching unclothed children rough housing covered in soap suds as they bathe in the streets.  Then, I’m shaken awake and delighted by school kids who quicken their pace and join me for a few dozen yards. Others may be taking their family’s garbage to a massive trash burning pit, but a little girl will giggle and step in stride with me just for a couple of moments. It’s mind blowing how they keep up, wearing just flip flips or nothing at all on their feet.

For some people, I’m the surprise and highlight of their morning routine as they spit toothpaste into the open gutter near their home.

Running through different areas, I catch quick glances into Winneba daily life. People reveal personalities that are so universal. Shy little ones who lean back as their eyes follow me – to the boisterous children who insist, “what is your name!” There are older men who look straight ahead, and others who smile warmly and ask me if I am having a nice life.

For some people, I’m the surprise and highlight of their morning routine as they spit toothpaste into the open gutter near their home.

As the strange white lady running, I’ll continue to stand out. But with each day, each run, I watch the sunrise glisten, smell the fish prepared for the market, hear horns honk and preaching blast through speakers, and become a little more a part of this town I now call home.

Top photo credit: Andrew Moore

About Dana Wachter

Dana WachterA passionate storyteller and traveler, Dana Wachter seeks to understand the diversity of cultures and stories that define us. After nearly seven years as an award winning TV journalist in the U.S., she moved to Ghana. As the Communications Officer for Challenging Heights, Dana translated her writing and video skills into activism for the local NGO in its fight against modern slavery, and children's rights initiative. She is now based in Ontario, Canada, as a freelance journalist, videographer and communications professional.

2 thoughts on “Running through Winneba, I’ve Never Felt So White

  1. Jenna
    March 28, 2017
    Reply

    Hi Dana,

    I really enjoyed reading this article. There is not much insight into the culture, daily life and atmosphere of Winneba. My father lives in the area and I am yet to visit from Australia.

    I would love to follow your journey on what will be nothing short more of unusual westernized fads, your volunteer contribution and everything else that comes in between!

  2. Neila
    November 18, 2015
    Reply

    Hi Dana,

    We met awhile back at the beach- I’m the one from Atlanta that’s working at UEW. Lydia shared this link and it popped up on my feed.

    I just wanted to say that I enjoyed your post. I am also a runner and run 3-4 times a week in the area. I purposefully avoid main roads because of the attention I bring and stick to the dirt backroads- makes me feel like I’m trail running. While at first I was a spectacle when I ran by, now it’s normal and I’ve forged relationships with people on my route. Even though they are short exchanges- I try to practice my Fante- I appreciate them very much and they’ve become very important to me. I run at 7am as many children are on the way to school- their smiles and “good mornings” make my day.

    When I do deviate from my 3 set routes and venture out to the main road, I often get asked “where’s your friend?” I think they are referring to you and your running partner!

    Run on!

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