If you’re white and enjoy being the center of attention, Uganda is the place for you. The word “mzungu,” a word meaning “white person,” isn’t specific to Uganda; it pops up just about anywhere in East Africa where people speak Swahili and enjoy yelling at tourists. But where I was in the Buganda kingdom, the borderline insult had really taken hold. Vendors sold t-shirts that read “My name is not mzungu!” or for those willing to embrace the term, soccer jerseys from the Ugandan national team with “Mzungu” printed where someone’s last name ought to be. These novelties came into being as a result of a total fascination that Ugandans possess for white people. Touching my hair was a super popular activity amongst strangers and it seemed like every personal ad on television requested responses only from Americans (and “real” Americans, not like those sixth generation Americans who were really from Asia/South America/Africa). Uganda is one place that as a sunburn-able white-bread American it’s impossible not to be ogled at.
Initially it’s kind of a fun novelty, that instant infamy. Children will run to the perimeters of their schoolyards yelling, “Mzunnguuu! How are you, mzuunnnguuu?!” People of all ages and dignities will literally stop and stare, first their eyes following you, then they’ll swivel their neck, and finally accomplish the whole body pivot. I once saw a three-year old fall in a ditch in his haste to turn and stare at me.
This weird obsession highlights two things that are incredibly common in Uganda and pretty much taboo in the United States: staring and using race as an identifier. Ugandans get their fair share of stares when they do the slightest thing out of the ordinary (it takes one man to saw a piece of wood and fifteen children to watch). But combine this proclivity with the fact that I am white, and anything I did was like the circus coming to town.
I don’t think that in the United States people are any less curious about people who are different than them, but we’ve been ingrained with this “don’t stare” mentality that teaches if you ogle at someone who is different, you reveal a curiosity that must be grounded in ignorance. This is especially true when it comes to race. The United States obviously enjoys a vast amount of racial diversity, so it’s not necessarily a novelty to see someone who doesn’t share your racial background. Trying to wave at them all would just be exhausting.
Still, even acknowledging that someone is a certain race seems to be a departure from the American norm. When I find myself trying to describe someone, some sort of reflex makes me feel rude for using race as a primary descriptor. I know a lot of people who would rather say, “Do you know John? Glasses, buzz cut, really likes Indian food, oh and he’s black?” than provide a physical description that might suggest race is the first thing that comes to mind when they describe people. Rhetoric here is constantly under review for political correctness and rudeness, and there seems to be a consensus that over-acknowledging race can begin to violate both of those social codes.
Coming to Uganda, then, where people stared when they found something to be interesting and where people considered a person being white to be fascinating was a weird combination. It wasn’t hostile, and in fact most of the staring was very cheerfully done, but it was unnerving nonetheless. For me, it became a constant reminder that no matter how long I was there, I wouldn’t really be truly a part of the country. Being accepted by my host family and the people I worked with was never ambiguous; they were some of the most welcoming people I’ve ever met. Step outside, though, and it’s a barrage of reminders that I’m very different and carry all the expectations of that difference. Despite its good-naturedness, Ugandan staring is no less judgmental than its more furtive American counterpart, and it still confers all the stereotypes of wealth, stupidity and promiscuousness upon the subject. Personally, I hated the stares and the yells. Never mind that there are a lot of aspects of the country that I absolutely loved: the fresh fruit, my host siblings, the motorcycle rides. It’s not worth it to become a spectacle.
Thus my appreciation for the United States has been cemented. The anonymity I’m afforded here is an incredible welcome home present after twelve weeks of attention. It’s also kind of nice to know that even if I have food on my face I’ll still be able to avoid a crowd of well-wishers trying to determine if it’s jam or blood. It’s certainly a weird choice to make, between constantly being told (or yelled at rather) that people are watching and judging you, and never knowing if you are perceived as unique or fascinating or utterly strange. But I can now say decisively that I would pick the place that doesn’t consider me to be a point of interest in the least. Every time.
Lydia Thurman is a Trinity junior. Her biweekly column will run every other Tuesday. Send Lydia a message on Twitter @ThurmanLydia.