Being a white person between Africans

This post is also available in: German

The title may sound a little racist to people who are used to living in multicultural environments, and I apologise should anybody feel offended by this topic. Besides, this subject may be seen as ‘politically incorrect’, therefore I like to explain that personally I grew up in a place where hardly any non-white Europeans were seen (this state exists in my home town even now), and naturally my close friends and relatives were enquiring how I felt to find myself suddenly in the minority, living as a white person between Africans. Just last month, we had some auditors visit from the Netherlands, and they insisted to be put in the most secure hotel in Kampala fearing for their safety. Only a few days later they admitted how wrong they were because the most dangerous thing in Kampala is the traffic, and not the people. This showed me again that it is not only my particular place of upbringing where people think in prejudices and stereotypes.

This article is based on an email which I sent to my friends on 17.4.2009, after I had lived for one month in Uganda, and I was still a ‘newcomer’. I was asked various questions which I’m going to answer here publicly:

Q. How does it feel to be a white person in a black country?

Kampala

A. Very normal! Surprisingly normal. No particular interest is shown by the locals’ towards foreigners, not like tourists experience in Morocco or other North African countries. It is possible to move freely everywhere at anytime (day and night) and there is never the feeling that you are going to be robbed, or that you’re out of the ordinary and attract special attention (although special care should be taken at night). You queue in shops behind locals and you are served in order (but people do tend to push in, but respect you when you complain about their behaviour). No unusual attention is paid to white people although you will hear the word Mzungu constantly.

However, Europeans are considered to be rich, well educated and polite. Therefore it causes a lot of confusion and embarrassment if Europeans misbehave or wear poor clothes.

It would be a lie not to admit that it is little strange at the beginning to see only African faces. However, you get used to this very quickly and stop noticing that you’re the only one with a different skin colour.

Sadly, Uganda is a very poor country and there are obviously a large number of extremely poor people in Uganda. This fact is quite hard to cope with as one cannot help everybody. Some people become a pain to everybody if they beg or try to sell you useless things, knock on your gate enquiring for support, or whatever. But these people do not target white people only, they ask everybody, and luckily they are only found on a few cross roads and certain places because Ugandans themselves do not like begging, and do not allow these people to penetrate the living areas.

Except for this tiny minority of people who have chosen begging as their occupation all the other Ugandans, poor or rich, are completely decent people like any neighbour in your European village or town. Indeed, Ugandans are possibly the warmest and friendliest people in the world.

In the whole time I have now been living in Uganda I have not a single time observed a mother shouting at her child in public. Patience is definitely a virtue which is found plenty in this country.

In more remote areas (up-country) however it is quite usual that a horde of children will run after you calling „Mzungu, Mzungu “ (“white people, white people”). I have also read that Mzungu means “holy” which may have developed from the missionaries who came first to East Africa.

But again, even if this seems a little strange to us, and it may be even sometimes a little trying as you cannot continue a conversation because you have to wave, to laugh, to greet so many people, some of them even trying to practise their English on you – but it is meant to be friendly. Having travelled extensively through Uganda I now understand how the Queen of England must feel sitting in her car and waving for hours at people standing along the roads. Everybody who dreams of becoming famous should visit Uganda to test how they cope with all the attention directed at themselves for many days and weeks in a row. But as said, this is mainly up-country, in fairly remote areas.

Q. How did we bring our cat, and has she died of a snake bite yet?

Living house of expatriat

A. No, our cat is still alive and feeling very happy in this gorgeous climate and large garden. Instead of having to battle with snakes she has discovered new food like tasty grasshoppers. Anyway, in these eighteen months we have seen only once a snake in our garden, and this was an 80cm long green mamba which was resting in the corner after a meal.

Shipping the cat to Uganda was absolutely painless. We gave her a sleeping pill and she slept the whole twelve hours flight and here in Entebbe on the airport we simply took her through the customs without any controls or problems… The biggest hassle was to get all the necessary papers in Europe for the cat and have her vaccinated, without them we would not have been allowed to get into the airplane. The other hassle was to identify an airline which allowed taking a cat into the cabin. Brussels airlines duly obliged at a cost of 60 Euros (but no in flight meals!).

Q. How do we live here?

Preparing dinner

A. We have a nice house with a large bedroom and 2 small bedrooms. Then there is a large living room and two bathrooms. In addition, there is a second (smaller) house for staff.

The house came with a caretaker and day guard, a 25 year old Northern Ugandan who had so many private challenges that he found it very difficult to carry out any work for us and to find the time to work in the garden and house. However, he turned out to be a respectable cook and he also introduced us to the market, and Ugandan traditions.

He came together with his nephew, who was thirteen years old, but looked like nine. He too came from up-country and started schooling very late; so he attended the 3rd class in primary school at the age of thirteen. He found joy in washing our car thoroughly and worked more in the yard than his uncle who was actually employed for this job.

We also employed a seventeen years old Tanzanian girl. We took her on the condition that she returned to school to finish her education. She is still with us and we pay her school fees in return for helping with cooking and cleaning. Further we have an armed security guard (from a security company) each night starting from 6:30pm for twelve hours.

It is expected to have staff, and if you do not have at least a maid or a guard, then it is considered strange or stingy. This is one way to support employment.

However, 80% of the costs of the day guard and the full costs of the night guard were borne by my company, since their policy is never to leave the house unguarded. The school fees for the house girl are approximately 30 Euros a month which is reasonable. We also buy her school clothes and books, provide full board and pay for the things of daily use.

So, we have three domestics staff and a night watchman. It was very odd the first few months, but we have now got used to it, and it is actually quite enjoyable not to do any household work any more!

Original text – email to friends on 17.4.2009