22 April 2012

Bye, Muzungu!

I think one of the biggest and most ongoing adjustments to living in Africa is the fact that I stand out. A lot. As in, it's very hard [read: impossible] to be anonymous when you live in Uganda as a white person. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, it's just a fact of life. And it can take many, many forms.

Sometimes it's a creepy man that tries to grab you as you get off a taxi. Sometimes it's a boda driver charging extra because he thinks since you are white, you have extra money. Sometimes it's hearing people laugh as you pass them, which is my personal least favorite. Sometimes it's just people watching as you walk by. Sometimes it's a grown man passing you on the street, saying "How are you?" in a falsetto voice.

But the most common form of the lack of anonymity is children singing out "Bye, muzungu!!" as you walk by.

[Note: muzungu is a Swahili word used around East Africa that basically means white person, European, wanderer, or traveller.]

To be honest, I still haven't decided how I feel about this greeting. Some days, it's cute. I smile and wave and greet them. Some days, though, I want to walk home in peace. Without people calling out to me. I know the kids aren't being rude [most of the time] but sometimes it gets tiring and I don't know how to respond. I know that for many of them they're simply excited to actually see a muzungu up close.

And I've been thinking about this a lot lately. About what it means to be 'different'. And how we respond to people who are different than us.

Or more specifically, how do I respond to people who are different than me?

I like to think that I am a pretty open minded person. A big advocate of saying that people are simply people. We're not that different...we live, laugh, love, etc. But I sometimes wonder if my response is because I've spent the majority of my life as part of a majority population. Yes, people are people but how do I really respond to people who are different than me?

Living as a minority is a huge eye-opener. I hope this doesn't make me come across as being prejudiced before I came here. I don't think I was. But let's face it, I wasn't really any kind of minority or living in a particularly diverse place in the US.

But living as an obvious minority, only understanding some of the language, and being called out to regularly because of my skin color is completely life-changing and humbling in ways that are hard to explain. It can be uncomfortable and lonely. Awkward. It has made me incredibly thankful for people who look past my skin color, accept me as me, and treat me as a person, not a curiousity.

This experience has also opened my eyes to a world that I knew existed in the US [and, yes, even argued against] but that I didn't necessarily understand. I hope that my experience here will change the way I interact with people when I return to the US. I hope it makes me more welcoming to people who are 'different' than me. It's too easy to pull away, to separate ourselves from people who are different than us. It's more comfortable to be with people who are 'like' us. But that doesn't build community. Building community is about getting outside our comfort zones, loving others, and building relationships. Alike or not.

So, I still don't know how to respond to a child calling 'Bye, muzungu!' but I do know that I want to be a welcoming and loving person, accepting people for who they are. I want to build relationships and be like my Ugandan friends who take the time to get to know ME and don't make assumptions about who I am based on the color of my skin or my nationality.

May I strive to be like them.


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