A father says this to me, smiling, when I ask him why his children are so shy. He’s not being unfriendly. I think I agree with him.
Mzungu means ‘white man’. I’m the white man in question. I’m in the National Museum of Uganda in Kampala. As I look at the displays, I’m delighted to see three young children (two sisters and a brother) wearing spotless and iconic dresses, shirts and trousers. After running around shouting and playing in-between listening to their father’s explanations of the exhibits, they notice me. They appear to regard me with a mixture of fear and interest, smiling and giggling. The younger sister hides behind her older sister and they look directly at me.
As with all African museums, the displays look (from the style of writing, presentation, and their treatment of the topics) like they were created by the British, or at least shortly after independence. This doesn’t make them less interesting. They cover the history of Uganda from the pre-colonial period to independence, with separate exhibits grouped neatly into disciplines such as geography (plate tectonics in the Rift Valley) and music (an array of instruments in a display case). ‘Kodachrome slides by W Cowen, Keswick, England’, is written under the many images of African mammals.
There is a more recent display sponsored by a multinational petrochemical company about oil in Uganda, and another about Ugandans at the Olympics over the years. I fuzzily remember making this same point last time I travelled (to Togo, Benin and Ghana in March 2016), but I don’t think there’s ever been an Olympic Games in Africa, nor a World Cup (with the exception of South Africa a few years ago).
Perhaps this helps me to fashion a provisional understanding of the father’s comment. It is sad that we still live in a world where many Africans who are successful still achieve their successes overseas: many of the Olympic posters show Ugandans in North American and European cities.
Closer to my home, I train and work alongside talented African nurses, some of whom trained in their home countries but many who train and work in the NHS. They face racism on a daily basis, doing jobs that British people would not pick up if they went back home, helping British people to get well and avoid illness while their own countries’ health systems struggle.
If a mixture of ‘fear and interest’, to quote me, or ‘too much respect’ to quote their father, is evident, then perhaps this makes a kind of sense: to some children, our people and places are probably lands seen on television, or lands that high-achieving Ugandans visit. Perhaps that offers us a certain status. One which we definitely don’t deserve.
I don’t discuss my highly provisional, very rough, and most likely heavily potholed theories with their father. Instead I address myself to the children: ‘You needn’t respect me too much – I’m a bit silly really, and I’m not as scary as I look’.
I enjoy the rest of museum. It’s peaceful and spacious, and light shines through the spaces in the building’s walls built to offer natural light and ventilation. I’ve always loved the openness of African architecture: Unlike in Northern Europe, where we shut out the cold, rain and wind with stone, brick and glass, African architecture is permeable. Nature is warm and bright, a benign entity welcome inside buildings, rather than a malignant one to be excluded from them.
The experience reminds me of the first time I ever saw women wearing the fuller type of Muslim dress with their faces covered apart from gaps in their headdress for their mouths and eyes.
It was the first time I ever went to London. I was five or six, and my sister was two or three. We stayed in the Thistle hotel near Holborn and Oxford Street. It was Mum and Dad’s anniversary.
I remember arriving at Euston and being able only to see the floor because of all the tall business people rushing to and from places. I mistook the pebble-dashed concrete tile for marble. I pointed it out to my mum excitedly: I really thought the streets were made of gold. I remember asking my dad how deep the lift to the tube at Covent Garden went, marvelling at the time it took to bring us up to the surface. I remember being amazed that there were so many people everywhere, including in the massive theatre where we saw Oliver.
I also remember my curiosity for the niqab. There was a huge group of women in the hotel at breakfast, all wearing them. I remember standing half-behind my mum, holding her hand, asking her why they cover their faces.
I was fascinated and scared at the same time. It was 1993 or 1994. Could this experience still happen today? Or would most children meet someone wearing a niqab sooner in life, even those from suburban villages like myself? Is it comparable to the children I met today – I do not know whether they’ve spent their whole lives in Kampala and seen white people often, or whether this was a rarer occurrence for them?
In any case, my point is that simultaneous fear of the unknown and interest in it is natural for children, and it needn’t be offensive. I hope I reacted in a way that made me approachable and helped them to explore their curiosity.
I know its all-too-easy for me to do, because I don’t face the day-to-day racism that I’m told some of my non-white friends have to put up with in post-Brexit London (I also still fail to understand what the EU has to do with race relations, but that’s another essay). I think that kind of treatment would make me rather bitter, even if it was only children staring at or hiding from me curiously.
Nonetheless, it’s truly lovely that, so far from the UK, seeing these children and their father reminded me of a childhood memory I’d almost forgotten.
I go for a drink in one of the bars recommended in the guide. My bag is searched with an electronic security baton on entry. I enjoy sitting in the cool breeze and drinking an iced coffee and banana drink.
I’ve walked around town a fair amount in the heat of the day, and I’m ready to go back now. I know that if I leave the building plenty of ‘boda boda’ [motorbike taxi] drivers will offer to take me home. To be fair, I’ve joked with most of them that ‘I’m strong, and I can walk’, and they’ve laughed, shaken my hand, and left me to go on my way. I don’t feel threatened or hassled at all.
In any case, I feel like a car journey, and I saw an uber poster, of all things, this morning (yes, I was so surprised I had to look twice). With some scepticism, I load up the app on my phone. The car arrives within three minutes, and the fare works out better than the one I’d negotiated with a standard cab driver the day before. The uber driver moved here from Rwanda during the genocide. His dream, he tells me when finding out where I am from, is to visit Old Trafford one day. As I get out of the car I tell him I hope he gets there sometime.
On my last trip to Africa I was cynical of the technological revolution sweeping through the continent at an unbelievable pace. Ten years ago, when I first visited Senegal, accommodation normally had to be found in a guide book or via a local contact and booked online at a cyber cafe or by calling up. Now, everyone I see has access to 4G and the guide book is almost obsolete. It’s not as possible to disappear into rural African and have no idea what’s going on at home as it used to be. But my Romantic dreams of escape are clearly not the continent’s most important concerns.
Uber may be a benefit for locals and visitors alike: prices are more fixed, travel for lone females is tracked, and money isn’t kept in the cab. Yes, a cut of the fare goes to some supremely rich American entrepreneur. But is that really much different from a Kampalan taxi mogul?
Like I said, these thoughts are provisional and honest. I hope I’ve not offended anyone. Tomorrow morning I’m back on a boda boda for the first time since in West Africa last year. I’ll be touring the sites on the outskirts of Kampala.
In the mean time, and especially for those of you who quite reasonably can’t be bothered reading such a long post, here’s some photos.