Almaz Ohene

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Guest Post: ‘Photography Shop’ 📝

I was away from here for long enough to forget what living in a casual state of insanity was like. For to live amongst white people, is to divide the mind. Perhaps it is only now that I have gained perspective; shielding from the cold in this tiny, cluttered, inaccessible council flat. Eating nutrient deficient produce (labelled ‘organic’), feeling the familiar nausea and pains of disappointment with the lack of access and this life that I have been dealt. Yes, maybe it is only now that I can view my experiences of Ghana, with perspective. The kind of perspective that comes from chilling sobriety.

For the reprieve of being in a Black Majority Nation with heavenly humidity, space and slow-down, there is a price. ‘Balance’, some would call it. A tax, to me. Or a debt owed to society: for daring to exist outside of its norms, for challenging its structures, for existing where I should not be known or seen. Being a Black, Disabled, Queer, Diasporan Woman in Ghana, is not for the faint of heart. Nor is it for anyone else, for that matter. Who wants to live a life of oppression, isolation, flagrant disrespect, dehumanisation and frustration? Especially not if you have to pay for the ‘pleasure’.

I was in the mall – the place where folks go either to browse or to be noticed. The place where you cannot buy biscuits, unless you have a sure way of paying your rent for the month. A place that divides the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. In the social strata within Ghana, I, a disabled woman, am meant to be firmly placed within the very bottom of the latter category. That is to say, I am non-existent in the minds and assault the sensibilities of the general society. Unseen, unheard… and grateful for that consideration. After all, I wouldn’t want to draw such attention to my flaw (aka God’s error). God forbid…

I was trying to get some passport photos taken. I was so grateful for the photography shop’s presence in the mall. For once, capitalism and colonisation had served me (the mall is one of the few mostly wheelchair accessible, social places in the city). Perhaps it was my glee at something going according to plan in this slow-paced, haphazard city, but I was slightly taken aback by the silence that fell over the shop, as I entered. I was almost unnerved by the pointblank stares of everyone in the waiting area, the staff and my own reflection in the computer screens. I say almost, as I had long gotten used to psyching myself up before ordering an uber to leave the compound. Putting on my armour of ‘I don’t care’, ‘I am a GODDESS’, ‘I am drop dead gorgeous’, ‘They’re just being annoying’, ‘It’s just lack of accustom’ and ‘You are being paranoid, because you are the odd one out’. Several layers are required for contact with the outside, you see. Each one with its own complicated strengths and weaknesses. 

That’s the thing. I had to wear layers here in the UK too… But the configuration was different. Navigating ‘self’ as a disabled, contextually dark-skinned, large-bodied, Black Woman, in the belly of the beast, is often ‘race first’. Here we know that ‘all Black is Black’, and the attempt to remove oneself from that paradigm, inevitably proves futile. Yet, what happens to that default understanding, when all is quite literally Black? How do we configure our armour to face the world?  

What I had been fighting – the invisible ‘beast’ – is now, not so apparent. Surely that would and should open up possibilities about who I could become… what I could now shed. Conversely, the battle, the weapons of war, became more diverse and powerful. The opposite was true: there is welcoming simplicity in navigating the complexities of race and secondarily Disability multiplied by Gender and Sexuality. For in Ghana, I am an aberration in the landscape. An obstacle to progress and refinery, in the colonised mind. I, single-handedly, undo all the attempts at advancement and civilisation, as seen through the eyes provided to Ghanaians, by our oppressors. I am sin, the fall of man, the gentile, the worst tragedy of all, the reason we need Jesus and Allah… 

When you speak to the average Ghanaian, they will usually tell you one of two things:

“We don’t really have many (sorry to say) cripples here.”

“We don’t discriminate against persons with disability, here. We treat everyone the same.”

Subsequently, none of those opinions mattered in that photo shop. None of it mattered as I broke the silence to greet an elderly woman (with a very expensive lacefront and lashes), who had turned around to stare at me, from less than two feet away. None of the theory (or my armour) could prepare me for the dead silence from the audience or her steady gaze as she ignored my greeting and instead leaned back slightly, to look me up and down. I grappled daily with the pain of ‘coming home’ to be with ‘your people’, only to be rejected – not for your foreignness, not for your accent, not for your poverty level, not even for your size… But for this universally understood thing, that across all social groupings, makes you not foreign, but: a ‘thing’ to be pitied, whilst simultaneously being marvelled at – for its audacity to be seen in broad daylight, playing at human.

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