Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Being White in Africa, Part I

So despite the title of this blog, I haven't touched much on, well, being a white person in Africa.

It's kind of a bizarre dynamic. I feel much less exotic here than I did in my village in Kenya, and I'm sure this is mostly due to the fact that there are just a lot more white people around (and non-black people in general – a significant number of Indian, Chinese, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, and Filipino soldiers, among others, are all stationed in the region). But that doesn't mean that I and my fellow white folk aren't the objects of constant scrutiny – we are, even if the attention is somewhat diluted. At least 10 times a day, someone I don't know calls me “white woman.” Usually it's a kid, but occasionally (and to my much greater irritation), it will be an adult. And frequently this salutation is followed by the statement “Give me __________!!” (money, your umbrella, your bag, five dollars, your hair – that one is odd – bread, bananas, or just the all-encompassing “something”).

As someone who generally prefers to blend into the background, even in the US, this can get very tiresome very quickly, especially because some people are quick to take offense if the response is not friendly enough. I've several times had people I've never met before – or people I've met once or twice but don't know particularly well – come up to me very angrily and tell me off for not approaching them or saying hello or something of the sort. And even if I feel that it's unfair, to a certain extent, I can understand where they are coming from. The colonial era in Africa was really not all that long ago, and the effects can still be felt strongly both here and in Kenya (though especially in Kenya, the epitome of a British African colony). The attitudes of some of the foreigners stationed here are appalling – it's all too common to encounter extremely overt racism.

So I do feel like I have to make a special effort to be friendly – it's understandably very easy for my aloofness to be interpreted as an attitude of superiority. This is especially true because people in general are much more open and outgoing here than in the US – it's a very social place. Just look at the differences in public transportation (side note: I'm stealing this specific example from Ishmael Beah's book A Long Way Home, about his experiences as a child soldier in Sierra Leone, which is an interesting read). I don't travel much here, but I did quite a bit in Kenya, and it was rare to have a quiet ride, no matter how far I was traveling. Compare this to your average bus or subway ride in the US, which is generally characterized by an oppressive and even hostile silence; strangers simply don't talk to each other as much at home. So what would be normal behavior in the US will be seen as strange and stand-offish here.

Making an effort to be friendly is not easy for me. I am not an outgoing person. In the US, I prefer self-checkout lines and automated tellers in order to avoid superficial stranger interaction as much as possible. I'm uncomfortable here when people I don't know greet me for no reason. Even as I sit and type this, I had to pause for a minute because a man came up to me and sat down beside me. “I'm Gregory,” he said. “I wanted to come and get to know you. Here we like talking to people. How is everything?” My instinct was to say, “Can't you see that I am working? Leave me alone!!” (Don't worry, I suppressed that instinct).

But aside from my own asocial tendencies, it is frustrating on another level to be constantly approached by strangers, and that is because they are treating me specially because I am white. To a certain extent, this is because people are generally genuinely welcoming, and my skin color makes it very obvious that I am a visitor in this community. The other side of it is what I mentioned before -- “Hello, white woman!” is often an opening for “So what can you give me?” Other frequent questions immediately following “Hi, I'm _____!” are “Are you married?” (the idea being, “Marry me so I can get a green card”) and “Can you get me a visa to the US?” So I've come to be suspicious of anyone who approaches me; I can't help but believe that many people are only talking to me because they want something and perceive me as rich and powerful (which is laughable as an absolute, but in relative terms, not altogether untrue – at least for the majority of people who are approaching me in this manner).

Anyway, the whole reason that I wanted to write this entry now was because of an experience I had recently at the bank. But I've already passed the one-page mark, so that will have to wait. Let's call this Part I of Being White in Africa; stay tuned for Part II . . .

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