About Me

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I teach abroad and continue to pursue the life I was given as if it was my last. Many people think it is. In my spare time, I enjoy lapping up ice cream, reading spy novels, and euthanizing manta rays.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Being White

Mzungu is the local word for white man in Uganda. It comes from South Africa (if memory serves me correct) and is used widely throughout the region. Adults use it. But children reaaaallly use it. White people (namely: me) are a poster here in Uganda. We stand out. I've seen one other white person on campus in three weeks. A campus with 8,000 African students and many hundred more staff. All black. Mostly tribal. All very intelligent, educated, and well-dressed.

Mzungu means many things here. I've gathered it can be a positive and a negative moniker. It can be construed as racist and uneducated, a simple acknowledgement of one's skin is never going to go straight to the heart and warm your soul. Aren't I more than just white? Don't I have a soul, a personality?

To the taxi drivers and street vendors, it means I have money. It means I am a client. A client of the first order. But it also means I am an outsider. I can be taken advantage of. He doesn't know our rules. The prices. The routes. The skinny. He is gullible. He is a fool. I don't know their country and therefore am prey. I am a mzungu.

To the children I bring happiness. I am a mzungu. So a mzungu is hope. He has money. He has goodness in his heart. He gives us things. Food, clothing, perhaps some pocket change. He is friendly. He is not dangerous. He smiles. He waves. He has money. The mzungu is good.

To the educated class, uttering mzungu is derogatory. "...judge a man not by the color of his skin but by the content of his character," right? To imply the person's character, his depth, her spirit...just by the color of the skin is not right. It is not right. Not then. Not now. Not ever.

And yet the word is everywhere. It's on the tongues of the locals, the proprietors, the tour guides, the children, the elders, the street urchins, the orphans, the politicians. The mzungu dilemma is one I am struggling with. I am not a mzungu just as anyone I meet is not black. We are all more than that. We are all individuals.

How does being white help me? How does it hurt me?? These are the questions I ask myself each and every day. In places, I am served first; cashing money, at banks, in nice restaurants. My skin means money. My face is a social class. But I am also a target. For the hustlers, the thieves, the scammers, the thugs.

I kind of like riding the 14-seat minibuses that stop every twenty yards. In that cab, I am a local. I pay the local rate. I ride alongside locals. We can gripe about the same potholes, about the same traffic. We travel together. Skin does not matter. The fifty cent fare brings us together. We can talk about our day. I can ask them where to go. I can be honest. I can be friendly. They are the people of Kampala. This is how they travel.

But I am a hypocrite. I do have more money than most here. I can ride private taxis and eat at nice restaurants, take the occasional trip upcountry, see gorillas, see lions, pay a driver. I'm being hypocritical. My situation is never going to be the same as a local. Maybe that's the reality. Maybe I really am a mzungu and all that that means.

But that's not right. I am here to discuss such things, not accept them. I am here to talk about those issues, those differences, meld two societies where possible, highlight similarities and encourage indviduality, showcase culture and challenge stereotypes that injure and defame.

This conversation is not going to be solved in one blog. It's not going to be solved in one post. But it's been on my mind. I am not a preacher or a disciple. I am not standing on a pulpit or talking to a congregation. I am just aware. More so each day I live here. Aware of what standing out in a crowd can mean. And how it feels.

As I write this, a boy from a nearby home comes by and knocks. For the third time in two days. His name is Ben and he wants something. I am not sure what. Companionship? A friend? Money?
I am grading papers, drinking coffee; completely in my morning routine. He finally asks for drinking water. He is thirsty. I boil some but have nothing to put it in. I ask him to get a cup and bring it over so I can fill it. Doesn't he have water at home? Why does he come to me?? Where are his parents??? Why isn't he in school today????  Like I said, these things happen to me all the time here. I can tell he wants to come inside and spend an entire day here. Someone wouldn't come over three times in 24 hours just for water. Things aren't that dire for him, are they? Or are they?

Nearly all Ugandan people treat me with respect, courtesy, curiosity and appreciation. On campus, I may be an oddity but I am also a member of the community.  So this is not a tirade. This post is not a complaint. Only an observation. I am not entirely comfortable with being a mzungu. And I am not entirely sure what the word is going to mean to me in nine months.

To be Continued...


  1. I appreciate this post more than you know. We are given the opportunity to question such things on a daily basis. Embrace it.

  2. Your blog reminds me so much of my time in Kenya. Congo is so much different from East Africa. The people here, perhaps because they were colonized by the French, don't make me feel like a freaky white skinned minority. It's a relief. Every day that I lived in Nairobi, I felt like a one-woman freak show with dollars.

  3. Interesting comment about the different countries, Lori. The people are - for the most part - great. I am just not comfy yet with the whole 'white guy' reference every time I step out of the center of Kampala. I got stares in Korea and other parts of Asia as well but here it's more palpable within the language. It's like saying 'dude' in English. It has so many meanings depending on the context.

  4. My roommate was Korean, and she had a robust outburst on the street one day when we were being harassed as usual. She emotionally erupted because our harassers thought she was Japanese. Just imagine a white woman and a Korean woman walking together on the streets of Nairobi. Double the fun!

  5. Or, imagine a white woman with a Japanese husband walking together and staying in the same hotel room in Nairobi and parts of the southern U.S.

  6. I love reading the things you write..