You learn many things while traveling, but perhaps the most valuable lesson of all is about what it’s like to live from another’s perspective. “Put yourself in someone else’s shoes” is a mantra we all learn from our earliest years. The more kind-hearted of us can do just that from an early age, but for many people, it takes actually living the experience to fully comprehend what that means.
After spending over two months traveling in Africa, I’ve gained some pretty interesting insight into human behavior that I most certainly didn’t have before.
Let me just say, straight off, that I am in no way comparing my experiences while in Africa to the injustices suffered by African Americans during the 1960s and before. Those were undoubtedly more harrowing, illegal, and debasing experiences than anyone should ever have to undergo. What I am trying to do, however, is shed some light on what it is like to live as a minority, and to be treated as such, in as accurate a way as I can, considering I’ve moved through many different countries, cultures, and regions on my trip.
I want to start with the pan-African word “mzungu”, and its plural, “wazungu”, Swahili words co-opted into every African language to mean “whitey.” It’s not uncommon, and in fact, it’s an everyday
occurrence, to be walking down a street in a city, or a dirt path in a village, and hear people mutter “blah blah blah mzungu blah blah” as you pass. Or to walk into a bar or a shop to buy something, and have the other patrons say “mzungu” to each other as you’re standing there. Or to have children shout at you, running down their lawns and waving, shouting, “Wazungu! Wazungu! Good morning, wazungu!”
This last example you might say is cute; little kids running to greet you. But when you consider that children, from an early age, know to shout “mzungu” at a white person, you know that they’re learning to identify you as someone different, and to label you as such. Imagine if white American children shouted the n-word, or even, “Blackie!” at any passing African American.
Another thing that irks me to no end is that the children often follow up their shouts of “mzungu!” with “give me money.” What could be seen as a child’s innocence (what American child doesn’t relish a single dollar bill given by an uncle or a grandparent?) takes on a whole different feeling when legions of children ignore dozens of adults that pass them by, but then key in on a white person and demand money. White people are not made of money, but unfortunately, that’s how we are seen and treated. As a giant, fat wallet just waiting to be opened. It’s the reason you can’t walk down the street without taxis and motorcycles honking at you, touts for hotels or businesses surrounding you, or complete strangers continually approaching you with, “My friend! How are you?”
Mind you, there are plenty of Africans (and I use the term loosely, as these people span multiple countries, cultures, and languages) who have been warm and kind, more than I would expect from even an American friend of mine. And the majority of people will walk past you on the street without even a word, or perhaps with just a greeting. But the constant stream of harassment from people who want your money makes it difficult to befriend people. More times than I can count, people have walked up to me, chatted amiably about any subject, accompanied me along the route I was already going, without trying to lead me anywhere in particular, and then getting angry and demanding when I wouldn’t give them money for being a “guide.” This is often followed up with “help me.” I’m sorry – why let dozens of people walk past you and then focus on the white people, only seeing them as a source of money?
Another Rosa Parks-like injustice is when stepping onto buses or minibus taxis. These things are often over-packed with people, several standing. In the rare cases in which I’ve gotten an actual seat, the money-collector (always separate from the driver, who never interacts with passengers) will usually point at me and aggressively gesture to the back of the bus, demanding that I move to the back to clear space. I’ve been adamant in saying “No, I prefer to sit here. People can walk past me if they want.” Sometimes, though, the driver won’t drive, and you’ll be shuffled along to the back of the bus, bumpy and
uncomfortable, as other passengers fill the front seats.
Again, I realize that having white skin and dressing the way we do will generally mean you come from a wealthier, western country. People don’t know I’m from the USA at a glance, but I’d guess that it’s a pretty safe bet that it’s either the USA, Australia, England, or somewhere in Europe. I also realize that even poor people in those countries tend to have more money on an absolute scale than many people in the countries I’ve been visiting, and that the western world is seen as a ticket to opportunity. But when you are called “mzungu” without being asked your name, hassled with claims of “give me money” multiple times per day, and stared at unashamedly while being shunted to the back of the bus, you begin to feel like an object. A white object that is the same as all the other white objects, and not a person with a personality, feelings, hopes, dreams, desires, a history, a family, a life. You become a ghost that floats through this world you’re walking in, and people see right through you to what they want to see, without noticing the details.
This must definitely only scratch the surface of the racism that some people experience. I haven’t been beaten, harmed, subjugated, or jailed. I HAVE, however, been charged exorbitant fees, not just by market vendors, which is expected, but by official transportation company offices and grocers, been forced to show my ID papers and empty my backpack on the street to ensure I didn’t carry contraband, and treated with a smile one minute and a scowl the next, after it was made clear I was not handing over whatever money was desired.
These thoughts have been building for a while, and it’s by no means an exhaustive account of what I’ve been feeling, nor is it an edited treatise (although I plan to make it so). It’s a top-of-the-head, stream-of-consciousness recounting of how I feel about this issue, without going back to check anything. It’s interesting, to say the least, to live as a minority here, and all I can say is that it’s mentally and emotionally exhausting. You’re constantly aware of your outsider status, and at the moments at which you might forget it and relax, someone will shout “mzungu” at you and bring it right back into focus.
I don’t know if anyone who reads this has had a similar experience living as a minority anywhere, be it Africa, Asia, the USA, or even in a smaller community, but this is an issue I’ve always thought that I understood. I’ve lived my life well, treated people equally, respected differences, and lived as though everyone wanted the same things out of life – to be happy, loved, and peaceful. But never have I fully UNDERSTOOD the trials of living this way. I’m curious to know if anything I’ve been experiencing is on par with how other people have felt under similar circumstances. If so, I’m terribly sorry. It’s a brand new experience to me, and one that I feel that everyone should undergo. As well as I feel I’ve been taught about equal treatment and unfair objectifying of “others,” it’s been a true shock to my system to actually have been here and have lived through what is undoubtedly a minor version, although a no less powerful one, of racism.