Don’t acknowledge the Wazungu.

Four questions in, I was starting to feel comfortable with the interview. I had anticipated all of the questions so far, prepared concise answers, and was sending the message I wanted to send to my potential employers. That couldn’t last forever, of course.

“How do you feel about going to a place where you will, at almost all times, be the only white person in the crowd?” [Paraphrase]

I had to think about this one for a second. While it may sound ridiculous (considering I was applying for an internship in Uganda), I hadn’t thought specifically about the notion of whiteness as a defining characteristic, specifically the idea that my skin color should give me pause for any reason. This was troubling to me, as someone who puts a significant amount of effort into understanding and acknowledging their privilege. Alas, there are some things that cannot be thought through. They have to be experienced.

There were plenty of jokes made when I told my friends and family where I was going. From the benign (you’ll love it so much you’ll never come back!), to the risk-averse (make sure you bring a bed-net), to the misinformed (you’ll be a minority there!). The last one is tricky, and requires significant unpacking. What does it really mean to be a minority, and can someone who comes from a non-minority group ever really understand the experience? Well, no. Not really.

There is an interesting phenomenon in Kampala (and, I am sure, other places, though I cannot speak from experience) among foreigners. Pass one on the street as a fellow foreigner and…nothing will happen. Ever. Every so often, a local will say hello, a boda (motorcycle taxi) driver will beep, or a merchant will tip their head to get someone’s attention. Pass another Muzungu (foreigner/white-person), and they will put valiant effort into not acknowledging your presence. Is this rude, or is it something else?

Walking around Kampala, I am in the minority. I can feel the gaze of eyes unaccustomed to me, the silent (and not so silent) judgement of my worth. But this gaze is not uncomfortable because it assumes anything bad about me, but rather because my privilege (real or imagined) is laid bare for all to see. I almost certainly am from away. I can likely afford any price. I probably live in a complex with security. I am almost certainly educated, and will return to a well-paid job. Whether true or not, these assumptions are hard to stomach for anyone cares about justice, who wishes for some semblance of equity in the world.

And so perhaps people choose not to identify with that group. Whether out of guilt and shame, or the fact that their own reality does not fit neatly into the “foreigner” box, people do not want to acknowledge any part of a system that enables such privilege. So they do not identify with it, nor with the people who so clearly bear the marks of that group. They do not say hello, they do not tip their head, nor extend a hand. Nothing that would indicate that there is something that makes you and them similar. Thus, as I walk past a group of foreigners, nothing happens. When I make eye contact with another on a boda, they look away. They are not me. They want so desperately for what I represent not to exist.

Is this behaviour harmless? Maybe. Perhaps it is just something people do, and doesn’t represent any underlying principle to be discovered and analyzed. Or perhaps by indulging in this blissful ignorance I would fool myself into thinking that I do not benefit from any (or all) of the privileges assumed of me. By not acknowledging the Wazungu (plural of Muzungu), I would pretend what they represent does not exist, whether within myself or without, and fail to acknowledge my own place of privilege in the world.

So, awkward as it is, I say hi.

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Aaron Wolf is working with Dalhousie IDS and South and Eastern African Trade Information and Negotiations Institute as an intern in Rural Livelihoods.