Bazungu are human beings too!

Most people that come and live in east Africa for longer than a few weeks agree on one thing: being called a Muzungu [white person] all the time is frustrating. Being constantly referenced in conversation (to you or about you) by your skin colour rather than your actual name is a little tiring. Being the centre of attention relentlessly, because of your colour, is exhausting. When I arrived, even professional people would sometimes address me as Mzungu in conversation. Men would call out ‘Mzungu’ and laugh at me when I walked by in town.  The Boda Bodas [motorbike taxis] would holler for my attention ‘Mzungu we go?’ Captivated children would follow me in the street as if I was the pied piper, yelling the classic ‘Mzungu, how are you?’, daring each other to run up and touch the strange women in their midst.

When I first moved to Uganda it made me angry, because in Australia this would be considered racism.  I have adjusted a little since then. It also doesn’t happen as often in Kamwenge these days.

People are a bit more used to me, and many know me personally. Men don’t call out as much because they know I am married, and some have been seen by my husband at the MH clinic. Many of the Boda Boda’s are now my friends and greet me with ‘Hi Kim’ (or the equivalent Rukiga greeting). Our staff know it is unacceptable to use that term…

But it continues. However, now that I am a little more adjusted to the African psyche, I try not to get quite as annoyed – at least not in the village [emphasis is definitely on the trying…]. People are often just excited. I am a mystery to them, especially in a place like Kamwenge. Many haven’t had experience with someone who doesn’t have chocolate brown skin. The interesting thing is that Ugandans very commonly refer to people very frankly by their appearance, a characteristic or tribe.

“The fat one”

“The brown one” [the one with slightly lighter African skin]

“That Munyankole woman” [a tribe in west Uganda]

“The mad one” [the one with mental illness – that I will never get used to…]

I must confess that a year in Uganda has influenced me a great deal. While in Australia I will (hopefully remember to) never use these statements, in Uganda I have found myself quite regularly using similar descriptions when speaking with friends and colleagues. It is not offensive here.

The other day I attended a funeral in a very remote area of Kamwenge district. A friend of mine, someone we are working with in our community programs, lost his wife in childbirth. Devastatingly and unnecessarily. I wasn’t sure about going; I was conscious of the fact that my presence would disrupt and bring attention, and I didn’t want to be insensitive. But I’m glad I made the decision to go, as it meant a lot to the community that Bosco (a MH staff member) and I were there.

When we arrived, I went and sat on the ground with the hundreds of other women that were there, refusing the chair in the marquee where the family members and VIPs were sitting. I thought it would detract attention from me, and would be a strong unspoken message about where I see my role in the community.  So many people had not seen a muzungu before. There were many lingering looks, chuckles, whispers, and the occasional freaked out wailing child who perhaps thought I might eat them (??). Many came up and touched me. Others actually shook my hand. People wanted to know if I could speak Rukiga. All in all, there was quite a bit of fuss made.

But then there was a group of wise old village women observing all of this, not that I was aware of their presence at the time. Later, Bosco gave me a rough translation of what they had said to the younger crowd, and it made my heart soar:

“Leave this young girl alone! Don’t look at her all the time, don’t laugh at her! You are making her feel shy, look you can see she is embarrassed…

…Bazungu are human beings just like us!”

Yes, we are.

4 responses to “Bazungu are human beings too!

  1. On reading your well written buzima, Kim, my thoughts were full of empathy and understanding. 25 years as an expat of having people asking me where I am from, the sense of never really belonging or fitting in because my ‘twang’, ‘accent’ ‘speech’ gives me away. Sometimes I find myself deliberately speaking ‘posh’ to avoid being asked ‘that question’.
    The nature of human beings seems to be that anything different, unusual, not of the norm. ie colour of your skin or your accent or the way we dress, is something to mock, make fun of, be rude about, be frightened of, be aware of in an accepting way that can lead to some marvellous exchanges of thougths and ideas and so forth. It all helps to make us aware of how we treat / respond to / relate to / react to people we come in contact with and I believe being more aware and sensitive helps to make us better communicators, more caring and alert to others and their needs. Bless you in your ‘frustration’ and for your insights. Much love. Robxx

  2. Wow Kim, that’s an exciting breakthrough. It’s just a pity that this has only happened in one small corner of Kamwenge. It’s a pity that you can’t take that group of lovely, wise women with you wherever you go.

    I remember a similar experience when I sat and got to know a group of men, most of whom where truck drivers waiting for work. After chatting over a period of a few weeks, they got to know the answers to a lot of the routine questions that get asked all the time, and they would answer them for me whenever someone new came along so that I didn’t have to go through it all over again. It was cool because they would anticipate the questions that were going to be asked and would answer them before they got asked.

    It’s such a nice moment when they see beyond the wonder of our skin colour or where we’ve come from, and start to treat us like any other person… I started to really feel at home then.

  3. Lyndon Mukasa

    A very interesting account. It got me thinking about a lot of different aspects to how human beings relate to each other. I think that your experience reflects a lot of similar experiences of people all over the world who look different from the local populations where ever they are staying. Difference will be some thing that human beings all over the world will always recognise. It really comes down to the nature of how people interpret difference in their community.

    From my perspective when it comes to interactions between peoples, it is the meanings behind the understanding of these differences that really matters. Unfortunately in too many parts of the world people interpret difference as something to fear, to hate and as something to reject. Moreover in many cases difference can be used to objectify,fetishise, dehumanise by those who are motivated to do so. In too many occasions across the world physical difference in the form of skin colour frequently crops up as a measure of worth and a marker of a particular value or preference in society. This reflects an understanding of difference that has become stratified and poisoned and it is from this that a lot of our prejudices originate.

    However it doesn’t have to be that way. As your experience has shown, there appears to be a lot of curiosity about the way you look and interpretations and understandings of this difference appears to be in its early phases. It is great that there are people there who already have an understanding of how difference can lead to fetishisation, dehumanisation and perhaps even prejudice by individuals who are motivated to do so. I only wish that the sentiments expressed by the wise village women were more commonly expressed by other individuals all over the world to all types of people.

  4. I loved this blog post. Thank you for sharing about your experience. I feel a lot of these same emotions when I go visit friends in Kenya and each time I return have to remember why they are using mzungu.

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