There is this very strange phenomenon I have noticed among white people while working in Rwanda and Kenya (more Rwanda than Kenya). At first, I thought it was just me. I’m not a super “engager” type of person. I do not give off warm, fuzzy vibes. I’m more a focused, intense person. But then a volunteer last year came in the office after walking to the compound and said, “What is up with white people in Africa?” This volunteer is a warm, fuzzy person, non-threatening, non-intimidating mature woman. It happened to her. It has happened to other friends of mine working in Rwanda, white friends. And, it has happened to Mr. AM, the nicest, most engaging person I know.
I am going to use White and Black because that is simply a statement of fact. I am called Mzungu in Rwanda. Although the word has a more interesting history, today it means “white skin”.
I am white. I grew up in Kansas, the white bread capital of the US, or so it seemed amongst my 651 strong graduating class, 648 white/3 black. Diverse wasn’t a word used to describe my Kansas City suburb in 1984.
Today in Rwanda those tables are turned.
When you are walking down the street and you see another white person, being white yourself, the natural tendency is to make eye contact and say, “Hello”. Sometimes I think to myself, are they American? Are they from Europe? Again, it’s not a race thing, it just is. We gravitate to our natural comfort and cultural zones. We are human.
But there it is, the glance away, the avoidance of eye contact. Not saying hello. You say hello and they mumble or completely ignore you. What is this? I get more love from saying “Muraho” (hello) to the random Rwandan walking down the street on their way to market or town.
Some of us long term expats have a few theories. It has been written about on expat websites.
One of my theories is a hierarchy of assistance, an importance scale if you will on whom or which organization saves Rwanda (insert any other African country) the best.
First, let me set the record straight. Rwanda doesn’t need “saving”. It surely does not need a white person thinking they know best about “saving” Rwanda or Rwandan children, villages, widows or orphans. Rwandans actually do know what is best for them based on their culture. This is a country that rebuilt after a genocide, yes, with some much needed assistance to get back on its feet, but now it is one of the most progressive, safe and advancing countries on the continent. Does it have problems? Yes, like every other country in the world. Could the people use assistance on some things? Yes, just like poverty stricken Americans need help; education, housing, access to good medical care.
You, Mzungu, working at an orphanage is no more or less important than our coaches and staff working with the national cycling team. In fact, if you are not here for the long term (and long term to us is measured in years), your effect is minimal despite what you believe.
Learn to be polite and say hello. Perhaps you could learn something from our years of experience in country. Perhaps I could have a fresh perspective on an old frustration.
The other theory I have, and the one that most disturbs me and makes me want to smack you upside the head white person, is the theory….It’s all about YOUR experience masked in doing good for Rwanda (insert any other African country).
Don’t believe me?…read on…EAW with the village children photos.
I do not do selfies. I personally hate to have my photo taken. Most photos of me exist because someone captured me doing what I love most, working for this team.
My favorite photo is one from the National Championships in 2013. I remember that moment like it was yesterday. I remember what I was saying to Janvier. I am grateful this moment was captured.
Here is what I think….if you spend 2 weeks in Rwanda and a significant portion of time is spent taking photos of you with child, village, group, working, etc., then blasting over to the Muhubura Hotel for internet to upload, then it’s about you and not about the work you do. Period.
One volunteer insisted on taking photos of herself in a bikini with the team, the team holding her, her holding our guard’s night stick etc. Guess where she is? Not here.
A few days ago I was riding my mountain bike up a dirt road just having left a small village. I was approaching the tarmac. Coming down the dirt road there they were; the Mzungu entourage. Five of them, sadly, classically American (overweight and shockingly inappropriately dressed), cameras around their neck and a swarm of village children gathering around them. Mr. AM was in front of me. I see him nod and say hello. I smile and say hello….there it is, the glance away, the self important unacknowledgement of another white person. Do you fear by acknowleding me your experience in Rwanda might be less African? Or are you simply rude? Did you fear I might call you out on your hootchie mama shorts grossly out of place in this conservative culture? Would it lessen your experience to acknowledge that you are NOT the only white person in Rwanda? What gives Mzungu?
Perhaps it is just the years under my belt living abroad. It could be I was the same way in the beginning. Something changes after year 1, 2 and beyond. I realize every day how little I know about the Rwandan culture and how much I need to learn, adapt and give up to continue working with this team.
I do not save these riders, their families, their communities or this country. I simply open a few doors into the world of professional cycling, training Rwandans to do everything in the process to do it on their own. That’s it. That’s my job. My greatest moment during the past 5+ years was Bona winning the stage at the Tour of Amissa Bongo (Gabon) last January. And I wasn’t even there. He won with a Rwandan Director Sportif, a Rwandan mechanic and a Rwandan soigneur. Not a mzungu in the bunch.