Saturday, August 25, 2012

Muzungu Revelations

A couple weeks ago, I went to a celebration an hour away from my village. A chapel in memorial of the victims of the genocide was being dedicated on the shores of Lake Kivu. When we arrived around 10 am, there were already hundreds of people all singing and dancing.

Since I was with the nuns, we got VIP seats in the shade in the chapel, which was a stroke of luck for me and my albino-esque skin. It was a marathon of a ceremony: there was an hour and a half of singing and dancing, then a two hour mass, then a rosary, then a procession with a statue of Mary, then more singing and dancing, then some speeches. Apparently a German family had donated the land and money to build the chapel, and they came down to join in the celebration. They sat in front of me, and all of them had HUGE cameras and video recorders. Only one of them spoke a little English, and none of them spoke Kinyarwanda.

The ceremony finished around 4:30 pm (no lunch, no bathroom breaks).  One of my co-workers who was there asked what the Germans’ names were. Um, I’d never seen them before in my life and couldn’t understand a word of what they were saying. Then one of the sisters asked me why I didn’t go talk to more of them. Um, because only one of them spoke English, and I feel awkward just going up to someone and starting a conversation just because of our common white-ness. I started to get a little indignant after four or five Rwandans asked me questions implying that all muzungus are the same and somehow all know each other and speak the same language. How dare these people associate me with these other white people wearing Birkenstocks and socks?? Don’t they know we’ve come from two different continents?! Where’s my individuality?!

But then I remembered the very unfortunate way that Americans (myself included) often badly stereotype and generalize about Africa. Part of this might be the way that Africa is represented in media in the U.S., (everyone should check out this great article “How Not to Write About Africa” detailing Africa’s completely inadequate representation in Western media), and part of it is just plain ignorance. Africa is so incredibly diverse: its people, its languages, its religions, and its geography. There are rich people and poor people and there are people with every shade of skin. It doesn’t all look like the Serengeti with giraffes and lions and elephants. I cringe when I hear sentences that begin with things like, “Every 10 seconds in Africa….”

So I guess from now on every time I get a little huffy when twenty kids coming running at me shouting “umuzungu!!!” after I already told them what my name is, I will try to be more patient and more careful with the assumptions and generalizations I make about other people. 

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