Friday, February 10, 2012

How Would You Feel?

I was a senior in high school, and driving down the roads of Rwanda for the first time. I had heard of the infamous Kinyarwandan word "muzungu" meaning "white person." I was excited to hear it called out as our buss full of muzungu's traveled down the road. Everyone in our group had heard it called out already, and I still hadn't heard the exciting phrase. I finally heard the word called out, and it was a very young little boy who went running down the sidewalk as if he wanted to catch up with the speeding bus. "HEY, A MUZUNGU!" I threw my head out the window and waved, wearing a huge smile on my face. I thought it was so cute to hear this word called out by this little boy, and every time I heard the word, I smiled. I never thought of what the word really meant. I remember feeling sort of like a celebrity because everywhere we went we would hear this word called out with a sense of excitement and happiness. 

As three years pass,  I have had a lot of time to think about my experiences from 2009. One of the things that would always get to me was a feeling of arrogance. I remember always having my head out the window during almost every bus ride. I would be waving to everyone, and some, but not all, would wave back. I began to feel unhappy with my actions in 2009. I wish I acted like any normal person from the country would act while driving along in a bus. Yes, waving is friendly, but why did I have to wave to everyone everywhere I went? Why did I coax out the word "muzungu" by everyone possible?

During one of my long chats with Willy a few days ago, we talked about what it means to be called "muzungu." He asked me if I liked it or not, and I replied "no." I added "how would you like it if you came to Vermont, and everyone just called you 'black person?'" He said he would hate it. He told me that a few years ago, he realized the segregation and negative notions the word muzungu has. He understood how it would make him feel if he was white. Since his realization, he never called a white person "muzungu" again. He tells me that whenever he hears a child call a white person "muzungu," he gives them the "how would you feel?" talk if he had the time. He hates that phrase just as much as I do.

Race is something our country has battled in it's recent history. As a student in the education department, I have learned the importance of multicultural education and equality. I have learned to treat every person equally. It doesn't matter if you are a man, woman, black, caucasian, asian, indian, gay, straight, tall, short, fat, skinny, shy, or outgoing. In Vermont I feel like I fit in with the culture and with the people around me, but it's not because they are white. I feel that it is because I was raised to treat everyone equally. Everyone looks the same underneath their skin.

Upon returning from my recent trip to Uganda, I found myself questioning the phrase again. How is it that "muzungu" is one of the only words that a Rwandan two year old knows? Children always know the phrase "muzungu, give me money" whether they know english or not. This phrase is used by the young, the old, the rich, and the poor. It feels like it comes out of their mouths because it is a habit. Even if they really don't need money. What does it mean to be a "muzungu" aside from the color of your skin anyway?

In Rwanda, and in many other African countries, white people are looked at very differently than the rest of the population. They are often travelers, so they are the ones who have money. They come to aid and educate. They feed the poor. They caused the extreme divisions between poverty and wealth. They have the power to cause animosity and hate among people within a country. White people who have come into this country of Rwanda in the past have come in for reasons of power. Division between white and black is so obvious in this country. There is absolutely no way for me to blend in with the rest of the people here. Even if I had all the same beliefs as them. Even if I lived here in a small house with no running water or electricity my whole life, I would never blend in. I will always be a muzungu. A muzungu with all the stereotypes attached.

There are definitely times I wish I was black here. Simply for the ease of moving around in the market, or going for a run down the street, or catching a bus to or from town. Even though bus fares are a set cost and they can't charge anyone more, the bus drivers still go out of their way to call you over just because you are white. Sometimes I am embarrassed because I am white, only because I know of all the stereotypes that come along with the color of my skin. We are all the same to them. We are all tourists out to spend money in every way possible. We have the spare change to take a bike taxi for a mile instead of walking. We can afford to be charged double for a moto ride. We can afford to walk into a market and mildly bargain down to a price nearly double the actual cost. But really, I'm not rich by any means, and I can't afford any of these extra expenses. I can't be taken advantage of in these ways. I am here to expand my views, education, and understanding of world issues. I am here to make a positive impact on children's lives. I am here to learn from them just as they are learning from us. I am not a piggy bank for anyone to break into.

Now, when I hear the word "muzungu," I feel disappointed and frustrated. Why do I have to be called white person, even by adults? What is it that white people do over and over again that keeps the phrase "muzungu, give me money" alive? What can be done to eliminate this phrase? Why can't I just be another person walking down the street? How would you feel?


  1. Powerful words. I'll share your thoughts with my second grade class. I'll share your pictures with them as well. We live in a world apart yet a world shared. ~Cousin Kathy Elia

  2. Ally, when are you coming back? i want to see you. <3 Cairn