Saturday, November 27, 2010

Life as a Mzungu

It seems impossible to fly under the radar as a Westerner in Uganda.
For one, the children are always excited to see you. They will wave from a distance and yell “bye Mzungu, bye!” and anyone trying to beg, sell something, or otherwise get your attention will call you by M’zungu, as well. Everyone says it’s really a favorable nickname, which I believe in most cases. Sometimes when I’m in people’s way (this happens a lot in the city ) people say ‘move, Mzungu’ or something similar, in which case I am sure they are at least a little less fond of me.
Secondly, the media has left most Ugandans with a very specific idea of what us Westerners are like. First, they think we all have A LOT of money. To be honest, most of them are probably right to assume that we have more money than they do. However I think our wealth as individuals might be a little exaggerated in their minds. Especially when it comes to students and people like me who had to get help and make sacrifices to get here.
They also think that white girls are ‘loose,’ as my culture guide puts it. Dressing appropriately means even covering up your legs. It’s strange, because to me, it’s just a leg! At OSU there’s practically a ‘no peeks of the cheeks’ rule and that’s it, haha so I thought I came with very modest clothing. But most of what I brought would make people uncomfortable for reasons of either too much exposure (even my V-neck t-shirts I’m a little uncomfortable in) or that I am way, WAY underdressed.
People here loooove to dress up. It’s amazing to me the type of clothes people wear to trudge through mud and dirt and ride and sewage or ride on motorbike taxis (boda bodas) in. Women who work all day in a garden or farm do so in skirts and dresses, and most women even wear some shorter heels.
I think my biggest mistake in preparation so far has been packing my clothes. I thought that dressing nice would make everyone else feel uncomfortable since they would be so underdressed in comparison, but it’s really quite the opposite.
Hence the blue and yellow number I picked up at a crafts market last week, featured in the cooking lesson photos.
Then, there’s personal space. Your personal space here is basically only the space you actually occupy. They shove 16-18 people into taxis, along with their luggage, crops for/from the market, building materials, you name it, into mini taxi buses that clearly state on the side that they are licensed to carry a maximum of 14. Yesterday I was taking a bus home and stood in the doorway, bumping back and forth between strangers who shared that space. It’s taken some getting used to, but I’ve gotten used to it and just laugh it off now.
It’s ironic how dress is so conservative, but friends (even two men) hold hands and walk with their arms around each other, strangers are forced to practically grind on each other on the bus, and the traditional dance is way more scandalous and booty-shakin than anything you could probably find in a Beyonce video.

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