Mzungu!

I am used to being a spectacle. You can’t have a six inch, half-black half-white Mohawk and not expect stares. (Indeed, in retrospect, I am willing to admit that you can’t have a six-inch, half black half-white Mohawk and not want stares, at least to a degree.) Kids tend to be the most unfiltered in their response to anything strange.

Despite just a few months ago having strolled into an Princeton alumni reception wearing a full suit and full Mohawk, though, I can confidently say that I have never felt like as much of a spectacle as I feel in rural Uganda. It’s one thing when, in Kampala, people shout “Hey, Mzungu” (basically, “Hey white guy”) at you. It’s another thing entirely when you’re in a tiny, isolated village, and a kid walking home from school, spots you, and sprints to find his schoolmates, who return in a mass of about twenty, which hide behind a row of bushes and watch you for an entire hour. Or when you walk beside a school in session and absolute pandemonium breaks out as children pour outside the doors, unfazed by now hapless teachers. If the previous scenarios sound implausible, I have pictures to prove that both happened today, but I won’t post them thanks to the nagging voice of an anthropology professor cautioning me about “reinforcing discourses of European Paternalism.”

There are a million and one things I could write about my experience with race thus far in Uganda. But given that it’s 1:24 a.m. and I have to wake up in 5 hours for another 12 hour day, I’ll stick with just a few observations about the kids. As my experiences with having a Mohawk have taught me, children tend to be relatively unfiltered in their responses to the world around them. Their reactions are, in a sense, pure, unencumbered by cultural niceties and societal expectations.

It’s interesting to me, then, that they are so obsessed by race. The modern, enlightened conception is that race – aside from meaningless biological variations like skin color – is a social construction that only has significance because history has given it significance. And yet, these kids – few of whom have ever left their parish or seen more than a handful of white people – still latch onto skin color as a something meaningful. They don’t know about the respective histories of whites and blacks, European colonizers and African subjects, and I doubt an eight year old has much ability to contemplate the senseless lottery of birth that left me rich and him poor. All they notice is that I’m different. It’s a lot to contemplate, and to a degree, it’s a hard thing to stomach.

There is one other thing about the kids that intrigues me. They always say, “Mzungu bye.” Never “Mzungu hi.” Some sounds are easier for Ugandans to make than others (as opposed to a Mzungu trying to make Lugandan sounds, all of which are impossible), so perhaps that explains it. But I wonder if “Mzungu bye” reflects the limited experiences the children have had with white people. Maybe they say “bye” because all the whites that come by – myself included – rocket in, deliver some survey or some development project and rocket away, never to return.

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