“We don’t mean it to be rude at all,” explained YCC teacher Derrick, smiling his luminous smile, “it’s just, you know, it’s unusual to see a pale person, and so the people get excited.”
YCC’s Director, John, laughingly explained at YCC orientation that volunteers will begin to think there is a national song in Ghana that goes something like this: “YEVUUUU!”
What does this strange howl mean? The answer is easy: “WHITE PERSON!”
My Brandt Guidebook claims that the literal translation of “Yevu” is “Trickish Dog,” though the author insists that the meaning is non-offensive.
Others claim that the term comes from a mangled interpretation of the Portuguese phrase for “Move along,” which was the main thing the Ghanaians heard the Portuguese imperialists say, back in the day.
Regardless, if you are a whitey like me, anywhere you walk in Ewe-speaking Ghana at any time of day, you will hear a child or adult holler: “YEVU!” every two minutes, minimum. If you are closer to Accra or in the Western region of Ghana where they speak Twi, the song will be switched to: “OBRONI!” and will mean exactly the same thing.
Sometimes I won’t hear it at first because it’s coming from so far away, but a chuckle from my Ghanaian walking partner will cause me to scan the horizon and see three tiny children waving wildly in the sun-baked distance yelling: “Yeeeeeeevuuuuu!”
Other times, the label is shouted right in your face, with swarms of children running right up to you, literally chanting in unison: “YEH-VU! YEH-VU! YEH-VU!” while trying to hold your hand or obtain some treats. The lead photo of this article was taken yesterday at just such a moment.
Among the Ghanaian yevu-yelling adults, there’s often a merry twinkle in the eye and a smile on the lips as they say, “Yevu! Eh Foa?”
“Eh Foa” is a test to see if you know how to answer the Ewe question for “Are you well?” If you correctly answer, “Ehhhh,” meaning “yes,” the speaker will often explode into happy laughter and applause.
At least once a day I hear a “Yevu!” holler followed by, “White man!” I am very much a woman, thank you very much, so I always kind of glare at that particular speaker, rapidly dropping my friendly wave until the speaker stutters, “White WOMAN! White WOMAN!”
Now here’s the hilarious cultural disconnect: every time the other volunteers and I try to explain to Ghanaian friends how UNHEARD OF it would be to do the equivalent “look at that unusual race!” thing in America, we are met with stares of utter confusion. The equation just doesn’t compute. Here’s how the conversation usually goes:
American: “If you came to America and were walking down a street filled with white people and every third white person yelled to you: “BLACK PERSON!!!” well, that would be absolutely AWFUL in our society! It just wouldn’t be allowed to happen! I think we’re trained from a young age that it’s offensive to draw attention to skin color.”
Ghanaian: “Really? Hm.”
American: “No, you don’t understand: it would be AWFUL.”
American: “No, SERIOUSLY!”
Note: as thoughtful readers might point out, though race is rarely explicitly called out in America, the judgments made with body language or subtle remarks sometimes seem to scream more loudly than an actual shout!
So how offended should we feel, being called “Whitey” by a hundred strangers a day? In reality, as Derrick wisely pointed out, “Yevu” in Ewe-speaking Ghana is just a good-spirited term of excited observation. In Ghanaian culture, the idea that such a shout might be seen as rude (oooh how it offends some volunteers!) is utterly alien.
In truth, hollering “YEVU!” upon spotting your first pale face in two weeks is akin to saying: “Hey– there’s a nice rainbow in the sky! Come look!” or perhaps, “What an amazingly strange looking trickish dog! Come check it out!”
Bow wow, tee hee hee, and long live our good-natured fascination with humanity’s variety!
The author, Lillie Marshall, is 6-foot-tall National Board Certified Teacher of English, fitness fan, and mother of two who has been a public school educator since 2003. She launched Around the World “L” Travel and Life Blog in 2009, and over 4.2 million readers have now visited this site. Lillie also runs TeachingTraveling.com and DrawingsOf.com. Subscribe to her monthly newsletter, and follow @WorldLillie on social media!