I love T shirts. I especially love T shirts that say clever things. I have even secretly followed someone around a supermarket trying the read the full message on the front and/or back of their T shirtnd had to stifle my laughter when I finished reading it, hoping they haven called security. But I don wear them- mainly because of people like me and, well, the discomfort of having total strangers reading various parts of my torso. But if there was a T shirt that I have debated over whether to wear, it is one that I saw in a shop just a few days before heading off on my travels. The perfect fit, the perfect dark chocolate brown with the perfect scruffy handwriting font it simply read:
I didn buy it. I liked the sentiment, but somehow I felt uncomfortable with wearing it up front. And not buying it, sent me into a few days of internal storming about why I do or do not agree with its message enough to wear it proudly for all the world to see. It begged many questions for me- what do I believe about skin colour, my skin colour, the lables, symbols and attitudes naturally attributed to each category of skin colour? I come from an Apartheid history where seperateness was so successful that the light peachy-pink pencil crayon (even now I struggle not to call it fleshy) in the box at school was called skin-colour (as in lease pass me skin-colour?. 2 decades later, in about the year 2000, I heard a child who has a blended racial heritage describe her skin colour asappuccino?
Would I deny any child the ability to describe the colour of their skin as opposed to any other physical attribute they carry? No. Would I ask a child to say she is human-coloured? Of course not. What kind of point DO I want to make about it, especially as a white person, knowing full well that for me, that simple pigmental classification has brought to me economic and social privilege and power rather the economic and social oppression and degradation it has brought to many other race-groups. Dare I say this- but would I encourage a child to be roud?of the colour of their skin if they were white? Would I do anything other than encourage a child to be proud of the colour of their skin of they were black or brown? It just loaded, and I while I carry that load on my shoulders most of the time, I didn feel ready to wear it on my chest.
In my home country, South Africa, I occasionally get called lungu?- this is usually but not exclusively when I am spending time in a part of the city where very few white people spend time, and it is usually exclaimed by a child, bringing slight visible embarrassment to the adults in the company. In other parts of Southern and East Africa the word used is zungu? While I was traveling in East Africa, it was an almost hourly reminder of the colour of my skin. Clear that I was not rom there?it would use be used as a greeting, a name, a way of getting my attention, someone alerting the shop-keeper that a white person had just entered the shop and he may want to pay me attention. Sometimes on buses I would hear the word peppered through people conversations and was left wondering if they were talking about me, often leaving me checking myself for any signs of abnormality (besides my skin colour). On one occasion a teenage boy took a rather refreshing approach as he sat down next me on a bus and said allo white?
Do a google search on the word and you will find a selection of reflections on the experience of being called Mzungu (of which mine I guess will now join the ranks) ranging from pride, to indignation, to pain, and every emotion in between. I found a published book simply called zungu?which was a young American mans?reflections on his gap year in Uganda. Regardless of what you feel about it, being called it all the time certainly entrenches the term as one of identification, whether you like it or not. And what you are being identified as is: 渘ot from here? and the enormous, complex, mostly painful, never neutral, history of what those 渘ot from here?have done to those who re from here? That what you carry with you every moment of your time in places where you are not from. Places where the ancestors from whom you inherited your skin colour, behaved in despicable, ignorant and dehumanising ways. For this reason, I felt that I could not feel either indignation or pride in the termain at the reality of why I was being called it, yes at times, but certainly neither indignation nor pride.
I will not lie, it did wear me down. Always being reminded. But I tried to bear it quietly within, always longing for and seeking out moments when I could be re-humanized out of this monochromatic perception of my identity. And of course, those moments camend out-weighed both in number and impact, the times where I would be on the receiving end of this label. I stayed with a family where the four children under the age of ten called me Mzungu for the first 2 days of my stay- they really struggled to pronounce my name and found it so much easier to say this. I persisted in trying to teach them my name, and by the time I left, I would see a cheeky little face peek around the corner exclaiming 淐aloreen? a word that has never sounded more like my name.
Those were the moments I came to cherish and expect, within relationships, receiving the hospitality of people who had the chance to get to know me beyond that label, but then there were also other moments, surprise, unexpected encounters with strangers that were the most precious of all. Moments that made me human again.
It was the rainy season when I was in Uganda. Every afternoon at about one o?clock the sky emptied it contents so dramatically that you were sure it would never again rain in history. Until the next afternoon when the awe-inspiring show would start again. Several times a week in the afternoon, a group of about 50 women meet, under a few big trees in a community on the foothills of Mount Elgon. They meet to discuss the needs of their community and to make plans for the upliftment of their families. They do crafts, keep their books, laugh, chat, support one another and generally make the world keep turning.
We wait out the rains and then start to hike up to where the women meet. My hostess thinks that I would enjoy the opportunity to meet so many other women, and she knows how much they love a visitor. It a subconscious, passing thought at most, but I brace myself for another occasion of being the only Mzungu in a crowd, expecting to be labelled and named as such.
It is late afternoon when we arrive, our shoes caked with thick mud, and the women are just starting to gather and find a dry space to meet. The oldest woman is about 85, the youngest are a group of young mothers, probably in their late teens. The women inbetween are confident, chatty, the organisers, sometimes bossy and get most of the air-time, much like my own church family. The youngest and oldest seem to stay on the edges of the meeting, either finding a spot to sit and rest their legs or being occupied with the babes in arms that command much of their attention. Three old ladies eventually pluck up the courage to ask if I will take their portraits, and there is extreme hilarity in the whole group as they pose, trying to find the best way to smile while concealing their toothless gums. I manage to get a few priceless shots of two of them mid-guffaw, which brings another wave of laughter from the group as my camera gets passed through 50 hands between shots. I am given the opportunity to share a few words of encouragement and greetings from South Africa -a ritual I am by now used to as this is what one does – it is part of being a friend and not a stranger.
Another request for a photo shoot – this time from the young moms – is unsuccessful when one of the babies becomes inconsolable and will not cooperate. The mother is disappointed and wanders off. It is now that exquisite time of day when all colours turn luminous just as the sun disappears, giving a small margin of opportunity for everything else to shine, before darkness sets in and drains all colour from the world. It is time to start our walk down the slope towards home and a few people follow us as we set off. As we walk past homes and groups of children getting their last play-time in for the day, I am met with the familiar echoes of 渉allo Mzungu!?as the children shout towards me in their shrill excited voices.
The group I am walking with stops. A young woman and her baby have come to talk to my hostess and I soon recognise her as the one whose baby was too upset to partake in the photo shoot. They chat for a few moments and then someone translates what has been said. The baby is petrified of me. She has never met a white person before, and her mother wants her to be able to touch me so that she can see I am just a human and not something scary. I am thrilled to oblige as I love babies, but realise that I can just take her in my arms as would be my natural instinct. I try to imagine what is going on in her one year old mind, what I look like to her.
Her mother gently brings her towards me and I hold out my hand, palm up. The mother is whispering to the baby and she very tentatively reaches forwards and puts her chubbly little hand on top of my palm. She spends a few moments feeling my fingers and then reaches forwards to touch my face. I smile and her worried forehead relaxes as she starts to take in our similarities. Hands, fingers, chins, noses, eyes, smiles. All more or less the same shape. The same perfect design. Made by the same perfect designer. But not the same. Black. Brown. White. Cappuccino. Different. Beautifully different.
The child is at peace. It turns out I am not a ghost, and she is no longer afraid of me. They say goodbye and head off in a different direction and it is then that I realise that throughout the interaction no-one has spoken the word Mzungu. They were unconcerned with a label. They just wanted me to become human to her. I smile to myself. Grateful for the little gifts that come in moments like these.
I have become human.
Been there. Done that.