Uganda hoisted a mirror in front of my face, reflecting my whiteness back to me. In the six months I was there, from July to December of 2000, I began seeing and knowing myself–and all the hidden baggage my race represented.
I rode three different taxis home from work in the congested city of Kampala, Uganda, to our village on the outskirts of the city. At first, my host mother accompanied me, but I eventually mustered the courage to do it alone. Clambering out of the taxi van, I walked the final fourth of a mile home down the dusty orange road guarded by banana trees with huge waxy leaves. The children were already waiting for me.
“Muzungu, muzungu! Give me money!” They stroked my arms, remarking on my “feathers,” and each one grabbed a finger to escort me the final way home.
Our home was the nicest in the village. Though it didn’t have running water, we had electricity, four solid brick walls around the yard and a large metal gate to protect us from “robbers.” My host mom indicated that they were putting themselves in greater danger because thieves would assume they were housing a rich foreigner.
Though Kampala had many expats, I wasn’t interested in meeting them. I was one of 21 interns dispersed around the globe in a variety of developing countries with the Human Needs and Global Resources (HNGR) program at Wheaton College. The purpose wasn’t to be helpful, travel or even make a huge impact (though we hoped that would happen, too), but simply to observe, listen and learn about the culture. Because of this, we were discouraged from spending too much time with other expats.
Sitting cross-legged on the bed in my tiny room before dinner, I flipped through the guide book I had brought along and reviewed the history. Besides the undercurrent of fear (Uganda had come out of a bloody civil war just a few years before), I was curious about the assumptions others made about me because I was white. Though I was a student, they assumed I was rich. How else could I afford to fly here? But in working at the all-Ugandan organization, I also sensed a hesitation to allow me to do useful work.
I paused after rereading that Uganda had been a protectorate of the British government from 1894 to 1962. My only context for colonization was reading and watching the film Out of Africa, a book published in 1937, but taking place in the early 1900’s about a woman from Denmark moving to east Africa to start a coffee plantation. The film glamorized life as a white woman living in colonial Africa.
But as a white woman in Uganda, I sensed that I was not trusted. It had only been 38 years since the country had been liberated from the rule of whites. Though I was not British and had nothing to do with the history of imperialism in Africa, I was still snagged in the web.
Along with a feeling of distrust, I also noticed a hardly veiled acceptance of white supremacy. Attending a graduation ceremony, I was asked to stand as I was the “honored guest.” At a Christian meeting at the university that was attended by several hundred students, I was asked to give an impromptu speech. At church services, I was ushered to the front for VIP seating. At a ceremony celebrating the development of a local non-profit that I attended in a village several hours away, the news camera stayed fixed on me even though I had nothing to do with any of it.
To be white was to be noticed, honored and lauded.
An article written 14 years after I lived in Uganda, “Shell and Bolton’s Discriminatory Advert in Uganda Highlights the Problems of Race in Africa” talks about an overtly racist advertisement asking specifically for white applicants. In it, the author suggests that “privileging of people based on their skin color has permeated all aspects of African societies.”
And in a Lonely Planet forum, a traveler asked the question: “What is the attitude of the locals towards whites, especially in rural areas? Is there any kind of resentment or xenophobia?” One answer was as follows: “If you are Asian (especially Indian, but they throw all Asians in the same bag), it is pretty racist, but you’ll be fine. If you are Caucasian, they’ll love ya.” Also on this forum was a discussion about certain clubs and restaurants that were only for white expats, not for Ugandans.
Although I often resented the stereotypes my African friends had about muzungus, being in Uganda was the first time I noticed my own whiteness and the effect it had on the people around me. Unlike most Americans, my African family ate at different times of day, exchanged elaborate greetings in passing, viewed time and relationships differently and completed ordinary tasks in ways that often seemed bizarre to me.
A white shape snipped from the page of white culture and pasted onto a canvas splashed with exotic colors and textures, I finally saw my own race.
To be white was to be suspected. To be white was to be feared. And yet to be white was to be envied.
I wasn’t sure I liked what I saw in the mirror.
Tomorrow I’ll be writing about being white in China, so be sure to come back and join in the story-telling.
Have you ever lived abroad? What did you learn about your home culture through that experience?
If colonialism is still an undercurrent in Uganda and other African countries, how much is segregation, Jim Crow and slavery still leaking into our thinking in the United States today?
New to the Series? Start HERE (though you can jump in at any point!).
During the month of March, 2017, I will be sharing a series called 31 Days of #Woke. I’ll be doing some personal excavating of views of race I’ve developed through being in schools that were under court order to be integrated, teaching in an all black school as well as in diverse classrooms in Chicago and my experiences of whiteness living in Uganda and China. I’ll also have some people of color share their views and experiences of race in the United States (I still have some open spots, so contact me if you are a person of color who wants to share). So check back and join in the conversation. You are welcome in this space.