In early 2009, Dayle and I were traveling into Congo. Our first stop was at the Shalom University of Bunia. When we arrived at the Bunia airport, we found that the university had sent a driver for us. Dayle introduced herself to the driver and asked him, “Who are you?” He responded, “I’m the driver”. But Dayle, of course wanted his name so she asked, “But what is your name”. “Bahati”, he responded. A few minutes later we were on the campus of the university conversing with some of the professors. We saw the Rector’s wife coming, who we know well and who is a close friend of the families of the professors we are taking with. One of them says, the Rector’s wife is coming. Dayle looks up and says, “Oh, its Feli!”.
Note that in this story Dayle prefers calling people by their names, but the Congolese prefer using titles like “driver” and “rector’s wife”. Congolese and many other Africans prefer titles over names. The wife of the most prominent MAF pilot in Bunia is known as “Mrs. Pilot”. The staff of the University almost always call each other by a shortened form of their title. So they are “Rector”, “The Academic” (for the academic dean), or “The Administrative” for the Administrative Secretary. When we lived in Burkina Faso, I was known up and down the street we lived on as “Matthieu baba” – “Matthew’s Father”. Everyone knew who Matthew’s father was, but few knew my name. Men there are often there are known as the father of their oldest son. Just the other day, a police officer in Ghana addressed me as Obroni – white man in Twi. He was not being smart or demeaning, just friendly.
To my American ears, titles sound formal, aloof or demeaning. Calling someone “White Man” even sounds bizarre. But to many Africans, titles are completely natural. Plus, the preference for titles gives them an edge in understanding some parts of the Bible. “Jesus the Christ” makes a LOT of sense to them because Christ is a title, not a name. But many Americans understand Christ as a name.
Not a few missionaries in West Africa have been irritated by being called “White guy”. When we first arrived in Burkina Faso, we used to be irritated by the incessant cries of Toubabou (white man / white woman in Jula) or Nasara (same in Moore). I have even found blogs by Westerners living in Ghana telling their experiences with being called “White”. I just followed the case of two missionaries figuring out how to deal with always being addressed as “Whites”. At first they were irritated. But after getting advice from other missionaries and local people they trust, they got some degree of acceptance. Better, they started using titles more themselves. When in Rome, do as the Romans – or when in Ghana don’t do as an Obroni.
Parts of this blog post were taken from a post originally published in April 2009.