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.