Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Being a Mazungu

When our plane landed in Entebbe, it wasn’t immediately obvious that we were different than the local population. The mix of ethnicities on the plane didn’t seem that much different than Toronto. However once we left the airport we quickly realized that we had become visible minorities. Since then we have both struggled with being Bazungu (plural for Mazungu), which roughly translates to being ‘white Europeans’.

When you are one of maybe four Bazungu in Bushenyi, you get at lot more attention than any of the local Ugandans. Simply having different coloured skin is enough to set us apart from the local population. We are easily identified as newcomers and people are curious about who we are and where we are from. It seems like every day we have to explain where what country we are from and what has brought us to Uganda.

Being a Mazungu is more than just skin colour though, as a Mazungu you are immediately considered part of the upper class. This brings with it all the benefits and determents that come with it. In many cases there is a certain level of respect for Bazungu that is above that of the general population. This sometimes has the benefit of getting slightly nicer seating in taxi or slightly better service at a restaurant. School children sometimes will come and kneel or bow in front of us (they do the same for clergy, people in authority and people who are elders in the community). All this might sound like a good deal to some and some Bazungu we’ve seen seem to like it just fine, but for me its feels very strange to have this much attention. Like many Canadians, to be treated better just because people notice that I am white, grates against my sense of fairness and equality. At the same time it makes me wonder how much I get treated differently in Canada because am white and male. I have read several papers that talk about “white privilege” being an issue North America and nearly as often I have written them off as dated issues from many years ago. Now I am not as sure. It will certainly be something to think about when I get back to Canada.

There are also a negative side to being a Mazungu. As a newcomer people know that there is a pretty good chance that you don’t know the rules of the culture. The vast majority of the people we met have been really friendly and forgiving of any cultural faux pas we have made. There are however rare cases where people will take advantage of our ignorance. Usually this takes the form of being charged just little extra for goods or services that we are looking to purchase. The complicating factor is that everyone wants to be the one to make the sale to the Mazungu. For the first couple weeks we would get swarmed by boda boda and taxi drivers looking to give us a ride and we had no idea who to go with or how much was a fair price. Similar things happen in the market as well.

One final challenge that we often face is requests for money. There is a precedent that has been set by previous visitors, that Mazungu will give either money or gifts. It is a precedent that we struggle with all the time and we often wonder if it is a precedent we should reinforce. Sometimes the requests come from people who are fairly well off and we wonder at what point should help stop so they can support themselves. At other times people have the basic necessities, but lack school fees for primary and secondary education, which would give them a better life. With the warm climate and excellent agricultural base, it is very rare to meet someone who does not have enough food to eat or a place to stay. The challenge is we want to help, but we don’t want to give something short term that will breed dependence later. We also don’t have enough money to meet every need.

The perception that a Mazungu has a lot of money is not entirely unjustified. $0.60 can buy lunch and a few hundred dollars makes the difference between being in school for a term and having no education. It is hard realizing that what is often pocket change for us can mean a meal for someone here. For the most part, our gifts have been with people and institutions we have a relationship with. It seems to be the only way that we can know that our gifts are being used responsibly. Only the local people really know if our gifts will cause more harm than good.

This experience of being a Mazungu is going to be a challenge when we get back to Canada as well. As I am now experiencing life as a visible minority, I expect that I will be far more sensitive to the challenges visible minorities face back home. I don’t expect to be able to fully understand the issues that visible minorities face back home as being a Mazungu here rarely cares the negative issues that many face back home. However, the feeling of being stared at simply because I am different will stick with me and I hope it will make more sensitive to people who are centred out back home.

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