KAMPALA – Let me back-track and first write about race in Uganda. Nigerian-born Americanah character Ifemulu said she became black the moment she went to the U.S. Not that she wasn’t black before, but the construct of black as a minority can only exist if you as a black person, are indeed a minority.
Here in Uganda, I am a minority. Mzungu, they call me. White person. Or, I have been told, “traveler with money” in Swahili. Here in Uganda, people are not black, but I am white, to use Ifemelu’s terminology. The status quo is completely different here, hence, so is the construction of race. This does not mean that in Uganda, there is no racism. There is. It may be institutionalised differently, but it is there nonetheless. I am treated differently because I am a mzungu. Because I am white. I get looks on the street, and people often ask me “sir, how are you?”. I am not a sir, I feel as though I am a bit too young for that.
Being a mzungu in Uganda is reminiscent of colonialism: there is a small minority of white expats living in Kampala who are richer and better educated than the vast majority of Ugandans. I have not actually met anyone with an actual colonial mindset, but sometimes, – especially when one is talking to an expat who has been living in Africa for more than 10 years or so, you can notice it. They’re cynics, mostly, sometimes with racist undertones.
For the first time in my life, I was made aware of my skin colour. Back home, I would never describe myself as a white male, just as a male. It reminds me of an anecdote I picked up somewhere:
A white woman and a black woman are discussing bigotry and feminism. The black woman argues that for her, the disadvantages of being a woman are different than for her conversation partner. She asks her: ‘what do you see when you look in the mirorr in the morning?’ The white woman replies: ‘I see a woman’.
‘Exactly’, the black woman replies. ‘I see a black woman’.
Becoming aware of your skin colour is a strange experience, I must say. For me, it has been mostly awkward in those situations when people clearly treat you differently, for I have never been confronted so blantantly with my white privilige. In other situations, it’s just annoying. Mzungu’s have money, and you pay more for pretty much everything. It’s almost a fact of life here, really. The outrageous prices I have been given for a boda boda (motorcycle) ride are definitely not suggested to a Ugandan (although there is always some negotiation about the price).
It is a thin line sometimes. Because it feels a bit racist to have a “Uganda voice”; the way you talk English to Ugandans sometimes, especially on the street. You talk a bit louder, and a bit slower. You do not use big words and sometimes even refer to the Uglish (Ugandan English) slang in order to express yourself. It’s either that, or not being able to communicate (although that does depend on the accent you have in English). However, it quickly makes you feel like you are talking down to people. People who are all black.
For some, being hyper-aware of the privilige and trying to smoothe it out any chance they get to dissolve awkward interaction takes up quite some mental energy. Sometimes, you just don’t know. Ugandan are extremely friendly and polite, and in an attempt to integrate in the culture, most expats (including myself) try to mimic said politeness. It’s sometimes not clear whether people are just being polite, or treating you differently because you are a mzungu. When people come over to talk to you on parties, or at bars or clubs, or even on the street, you’re sometimes just not sure. Some hate it when they are called “mzungu”, and what do you do when small kids start waving at you and saying “hello, mzungu, mzungu! How are you?”
You wave back, and then sometimes they ask you for money (although in Uganda they tend to do that less than in other East-African countries I have been in). In my experience, it’s difficult to deal with it, and to make sense out of it. And I have seen all sorts of ways expats go about dealing with it.
Race is ever-present in Uganda, albeit in a different way. What makes it frustrating sometimes is that whatever behaviour you might show, however friendly or understanding or “Ugandan” you try to be, people treat you differently, and there’s little you can do about it. They will look at you, come talk to you, treat you with more respect than they do with Ugandans …
The cynic expats realised at some point they felt there was little they could do. After all, it was not up to them, – they get treated differently regardless of how they behave or what they say. The power relation that emerges from interactions such as these is dangerous, and to be honest, I do not find it surprising some of them (mostly male, old, and living in Africa for 10+ years) casually make comments that elsewhere would be considered distasteful or even racist.
Being white has made me aware of my whiteness. That may sound strange, but I was never white in my own eyes. Surely I was in someone else’s, but I was never aware of that. Here, I am first and foremost white. It is what sets me apart from the vast majority of the people living in this country. And it has been an eye-opening experience for me.