low distribution of melanin = open purse

23 03 2012

This was how the phone call/s went yesterday:

Me: Hello, It’s Karen

A: Hello, My name is Albert

M: Hello, Albert.  How are you?

A: Fine thank you.  Eeee.  You are selling a Prado?

M: Sorry, the car has been sold.

A: Oh.

Me: Yes.  Sorry.

A:  So you have no any car to sell?

M:  No, it has been taken.  Sorry.  Bye!

A: Good bye.


Within 2 minutes:

Same number appears on screen as phone rings.

Me:  Hello.  The car really has been sold.

A: No, I wanted to ask you to talk to you.

M: Oh?

A: Yes, I want to discuss my business plan with you.

M:  I am not…

A: But I want us to be business partners, I want to show you the plan that I am having, so that…

At which point Deon pulled the phone from my fingers and ended the phone conversation rather swiftly.


This is just another example of a similar thread we see probably a few times a week.  I know that if I WERE to join up in the business venture with this person I have never seen nor know anything about there is only one aspect that he would seek from my partnership:  money.



I have bought a Tshirt like the majority seen here:  “My name is not Mzungu.”

The realisation hit a few weeks back and it is rather scary.  I grew up in Apartheid South Africa, as a “privileged” whitie, and there are several stories to be told from this perspective.  It was at  our little missions school one break, when a teacher from the nursery school next door lifted up the little kids to look over the wall at the  spectacle of the MZUNGUS, like animals in a cage at the zoo, that the thought hit me.  It is so easy here for my entire identity to be formulated simply by the colour of my skin.  The call of “Mzungu” if most often a mix between a greeting and an accusation.  Children are taught to call out the term from a very young age. 

There are times that the title really irritates me: as I walk through the market, when we walk down to the hotel for a swim and I hear it dozens of times:  It is not spoken with respect.  It feels to me a lot like the extremely pejorative kaffir in South Africa, or nigger in America.  Some-one has made a judgment and summed me up within seconds just because I have lighter pigmentation than the local population.


To be labeled as Mzungu is not the worst thing: there are times I imagine that a bit of tenderness may be felt by the speakers:  when they take it a bit further and ask how I am, or perhaps ask where I am from I see it as more than a label, perhaps.

We realised it very early on and yesterday’s phone call showed again the part that REALLY gets to me about being labeled an Mzungu. 

We are seen as an open wallet, looking for the next chance to hurl our coins, no, our many green notes, at any and all darker-skinned people.  I don’t know how this perception has been created, but there must have been people in the past who simply dished out money, and sweets indiscriminately because the pattern has been established.

Particularly in Kampala the street-corner sellers come rushing to open car windows: you WILL buy garrish wall clocks, sets of cushions, loads of airtime simply because you have money: you are white.

We quickly realised that a trip up the ridge behind our home or a trip to Sipi waterfalls had all the fun sucked out of it as we were stopped many times – “Give me money”, “give me sweets”.  

I have been stopped, twice, in the supermarket, by  kids:  “You, Mzungu, buy for me this sweet.”.

We do not think of ourselves as spiteful people.  Much of my work here has been me giving loads of things to people.  But I have come to understand that giving wildly, without any expectation of wise stewardship, has got dreadful consequences for Africa.  There is no sense of responsibility or Biblical Stewardship that follows from wild distribution.

Also, I am kicking and screaming against generalisations.  I am NOT a business-minded person at all.  Yesterday’s phone call was not the first time I have been approached about going into business with a complete stranger.  There is so much MORE to me than the vague possibility that I may (or may not) have a little bit of money.  And I am certainly not keen to invest in an unknown Ugandan business person. 

A similar trait was seen as people began to know that we are leaving Uganda and may be selling some items.  Immediately people began descending, seeking our things at the cheapest possible price, ore, even better, that we simply want to give everything away… again, I feel far more like an open purse than a person.


Perhaps, as I write this, I am as guilty of generalisations as I am accusing the people here of.  It is never my wish to lump a group together.  Each person IS unique, amazingly created, and valuable.  But it has been far too common that a person here is first judged on skin colour, and no other aspect of HUMANITY is considered. 

(The feeling is very different to my experiences in India, so I am by no means saying all non-western places are the same.  I remember being invited into complete strangers’ homes for a meal, and the simple presence of a ‘foreigner’ there brought honour to a family.  In Zambia the people are definitely not as Mzungu-obsessed. Deon, too, has extremely positive Zambian experiences.   Uganda, and other East- African countries seem to have the monopoly on Mzunguism.)

There are several prayers that have poured from my heart for Uganda.  It seems, though, that one big issue must be addressed. Good management skills, where one is looking after things that belong to another is essential.  But then the issue of greed has deep roots here and it cannot go on indefinitely. 

Please look for the PERSON behind the skin.  And my name is not Mzungu.




2 responses

24 03 2012

This has definitely opened my eyes. Thank you. As you shared from a different perspective, I realize I too often generalize. I don’t consider myself prejudice. Yet, if I am treating others the way you describe, shame on me. 😦

18 03 2013
an incomprehensible request | wet and weeds and wildness

[…] Last week Deon received a very odd request.  We are rather used to saying no to all the appeals that are made to us: lighter skin generally means you are seen as a ‘purse” in these parts. pigment purses […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: