Muzungu


Last week, I had the opportunity to spend three days in Kiboga District in central Uganda, where the Ugandan research team I am working with conducted day-long meetings with each of the three farmer groups in Kiboga (two experimental groups and one control group). Though the region is only about 120km from Kampala, the villages are very remote. Two of the villages are located in the hills, accessible only on a dirt path, while the other village is a bit closer to the main road.

In each of the villages, we held the farmers meeting by the school because it was the most convenient location for all the women in the groups. Due to the remoteness and poverty in the region, many of the children had never seen a white person before, so my presence was quite the spectacle. While we were not using the school or even working inside it, naturally all the children in the school could see me through the window, and were endlessly curious about the muzungu (white person) outside.

At the first school, in Ssinde Village, the headmistress spotted me and asked me to come to each of the classrooms so the students could meet a muzungu. Though this was not the purpose of my visit, I figured it would be quick, and obliged. The headmistress announced to each class that President Obama had sent me to their school to give them gifts and take them with me to America, and she asked me to introduce myself and tell them what I brought them (all this was done in Luganda, so she translated). I tried to explain to her that, in fact, I had not come to visit them but rather to observe the farmer meetings and therefore had no gifts. This was not well received– she insisted that next week I would come back and bring them gifts and be ready to take the children who were interested in going to America.

After my illustrious introduction, the headmistress asked me to stand in the middle of the students, and then invited them all to come touch my arms so they could see what my flesh felt like. Once she discovered that I had a camera, she wanted to take pictures of the children touching me, so they could prove they had touched a muzungu. The children also asked me, through her, what I ate that made me so white. I was in such shock and on the verge of tears that I didn’t know how to respond to her and agreed to the spectacle. The children gathered around me, wide-eyed, and began to grab at my arms.

All eyes on me

All eyes on me

And I hated every single second of it. I wasn’t often treated this way in Nepal, and I didn’t think of myself as being in any way similar to the tourists I imagined sought out these kinds of experiences. I was there to work with members of the community and learn a little about them and their struggles to feed their young children as part of my training to become a development practitioner. While I never thought I was an “insider”, I also didn’t think of myself as being the same kind of “outsider” who comes to countries in Africa seeking exotic experiences like this. Yet here I was, the dead center of attention as dozens of children gathered around me in silence, staring.

Day 2, and the children are a bit more friendl

Day 2, and the children are a bit more friendly

The next two days, I tried to engage with the kids, but they didn’t seem to want to play with me, just to stare at me. I was so foreign to them that even the sound of me laughing caused them to back away. I eventually did get them to warm up a bit by taking pictures of them and then showing them, which they enjoyed. Yet at no point did they ever start to get used to my presence or ignore me. I was not a muzungu; I might as well have been an alien.

My status as a muzungu cannot have been just about race, but place. Yes, my skin looked different, but more importantly, I was completely out of place in their villages. In these villages in Kiboga, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was experiencing another world. How could my world be big enough that I was able to show up in these villages, yet the world for these children was so small that they had trouble comprehending that I was a human like them? My appearance in these remote villages seemed to throw these two completely opposing worldviews in to an uncomfortable shared space.

Where do I go from here? Maybe this week when I go back to Kiboga I will be greeted with slightly less shock, but I still will definitely be an outsider, and though my world will continue to overlap with theirs, there is no chance that their world will ever really encounter mine. And while I can provide these very small glimpses of this other world to the world I come from, I can’t really communicate what this place is like to you, reader, nor can I communicate my world to the people in the village. So where is my place, exactly? And, more importantly for the next few months, how can I best use my place at the uncomfortable intersection of these two worlds to make a difference?

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One Response to Muzungu

  1. Deena — when my sister was a college junior she had a fellowship to spend the summer in China and ventured to places where they had never seen a white person, especially one with curly hair. At first it totally unnerved her when people wanted to touch her hair but over time she got used to it and thought about it in terms of a cultural exhange. In the thirty years since she was there most of the Chinese now have interacted with the West and wouldn’t view curly hair as so foreign. Perhaps the Ugandans will view white skin as less foreign at some point in the future?

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