Stranger, in degrees

Let me start by stating my conviction that as human beings we are all the same in as much as we share the same basics needs. I even believe that a conscious recognition of this fact could help solve our most urgent issues, political, economic and otherwise, on an inter-personal level. African ways of putting this: umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu, Zulu for ‘a person is a person through other persons’, which is at the heart of the idea of ubuntu, in slightly different terms also present in Martin Buber’s I and Thou. A version more reflexive of the previous colonial situation is the Shona saying murungu munhuwo – ‘a white person (usually mzungu in East Africa) is a human too’. And yet as part of our existence, which is deeply shaped and coloured by our very personal experiences, we may easily forget about this and start setting our individual experience as “norm”, and thus create a default world view that construes everything beyond our own experience as “strange” or “other”. Western European cultural history developed in a direction which helped to confuse our basic needs with less existential wants, and ways of expressing needs are mostly obscured by considerations of politeness and face wants. But back to my earlier point: The history of European travel writing provides ample evidence of construing Euro-centric views as default. Travelling would become synonymous with exploring the “unknown”, “strange”, “exotic” world out there, a sentiment still exploited by many travel agencies. Thus the world beyond the traveller’s familiar one is construed as “Other”, there to be conquered mentally, experientially and more often than not physically by force, nowadays in very subtle ways through economic treatises. In the wake of European colonialism, travel agencies perpetuate this by selling trips to countries which offer, let’s say, “breath-taking landscape, exotic wildlife, and friendly local people” – I suspect more often than not in that order. The diligent tourist will be offered a variety of cultural programmes, local dishes and other activities, many of which obscure the realities of the place they’re meant to illustrate. Which travel agency would offer a tourist (outside of Europe and North America) the opportunity to experience a true staple diet of the local people, which often means the same stuff morning, mid-day and evening, if three meals a day is an option at all? Western culture is all about choice and variety, and dietary habits are a good indicator. Introducing the local customs as “foreign” and yet accomodating them to Western expectations of variety and quality, the European travel agent helps to perpetuate European, “western” culture as the norm against which to read the rest of the world. I wonder in how far the upcoming culture of travelling amongst people from former European colonies actually breaks with this bias. My fear is that Rome, for instance, is less sold as something “exotic” than a historic place to look up to. As far as I am aware, educational programmes around the world are very Euro-centric (which, in my usage, includes parts of US American history), with Columbus, Livingstone, Speke and others having “discovered” parts of the world in such absolute terms, one may think they actually “made” the Americas, the Victoria Falls or the source of the Nile, respectively. Euro-centric world views seem to be effective globally, which helps European/western travellers to experience a world full of exotic animals and friendly natives at their feet, or alternatively exotic natives and friendly animals, the moment they step of a plane or cruise ship, asking for the nearest Starbucks. But I’m getting off on a tangent …
My personal experiences of “strangeness” or “otherness” in travelling are of a mixed nature, and especially in recent years I have tried to reflect upon my “default setting” vis-à-vis otherness more consciously. I personally find that even the postcolonial setting makes it difficult for me to experience myself as a strangr  in a foreign culture, which naturally has to be the default, “normal”, setting wherever I have travelled to. For one, people accommodate me by speaking English or French or even German. I was surprised recently by some traveller returning from Thailand mentioning it being a challenge to his sojourn in one place that the local supermarket assistant spoke only little English. Really? I find it remarkable how it easy it is for us, white, European, travellers, to take on this perspective rather than saying, “unfortunately my knowledge of Thai was so poor”.

Especially in African countries, I have often found myself the centre of everybody’s attention. Service people and waiters doing their utmost (even when this can be very little) for me to feel comfortable. A Ugandan mechanic busying himself to show the mzungu that even a Ugandan is able to fix a car by the roadside. Waiters going out of their way to find change for my high-denomination banknotes (e.g. 50,000 UG shillings, the equivalent of ca 13 Euros). Menus in local restaurants showing all the influences of Western culture – I mean, who in rural Uganda would eat “Spaghetti cabonora” (i.e. carbonara). When people trust me, expect me to be reliable in ways they may never do with their fellow citizens, when they are immediately ready to buy into what I tell them as “truth”, they confirm my “normativity”, and so on. I have stopped counting the number of times women approached me saying they want a mzungu baby, a brown (mixed, as opposed to black) baby, and would they qualify for my taste of skin colour? Would it be too light, or too dark? My skin colour, my bank account but also my (at least supposed) different behaviour towards women make my company so desirable. And while I’m not saying I’m not desirable for very good reasons, the women I am talking about here didn’t know me other than from brief superficial encounters, and could thus at best speculate about those reasons.

It was only on few occasions, so far, where my status as a stranger was confirmed in different ways or degrees, or at least became more noticeable for me personally. My being a stranger found its most honest expression when two little kids, on different occasions, saw me and immediately started crying. They must have been around one year of age, and apparently, they were not yet familiar with a pale face like mine. While the first of them, in a really small Ugandan village, could not get over me without crying, the second one became almost familiar. Bless them, as the English say.

An experience of a mixed nature was going to a club – in the company of three ladies. Yup. Don’t get jealous … While this is very much in line with what I said earlier about my mzungu attractiveness, being the only white guy in a small-town club is quite a challenge. On various moments I felt like an intruder, which in a way I was, and one who is no match when it comes to familiarity with the music, let alone dance moves. And yet, unlike many of the local guys, I was in female company. It did earn me some rather unfriendly looks as well as offers of money for the permission to dance with one of “my” girls (but sorry, 2,000 UG Shillings is almost an offense!). Indeed, my perceived and true wealth is what puts me in an awkward position in such a club. A stranger, and yet one who seemingly obtains everything that is considered desirable in that club situation easily.

That exactly makes the next situation even more significant. Upon my arrival in Kigali, I find myself in a hostel whose guests are all African, despite the rather high price of $45 per night for a very simple room. It’s the capital, and one of the more expensive places in East Africa after all. So here I am, among well-to-do young Africans from, I suppose, various parts of the region. Some celebrate one guy’s birthday in very moderate ways – relatively expensive drinks only, but no BBQ, no truck-loads of food, no big sound system. In other words, almost “un-African”. One talking about hiking in Arizona as opposed to here. The fun she had with a local porter who carried her for some minutes. Lots of laughter. And so on. Not one of them cared about my presence as the only mzungu there. That’s what made it different: it was perfectly “normal”, even judging by my European default setting, and the fact that I wasn’t the centre of attention unlike elsewhere before made me aware of my being a stranger. In my perception, these young Africans were at home, travelling visa-free between Nairobi, Kampala, Kigali, at home also linguistically at least in part (some could easily move in and out of what I suppose was variously Kiswahili or Kinyarwanda), and at home globally with their almost accent-free and otherwise impeccable Englishes, their times spent in Europe or the US or Australia, and so on. Presumably, I was free to approach them (which I didn’t), but unlike elsewhere, I think, no-one would have been particularly excited to have a mzungu as part of the company.

This here place was not there for me. It did not lie at my feet, for me to make use of it as I pleased. It was its perfect naturalness on its own terms that posed the biggest challenge for my status as the “white” centre of attention with all its implications. I am sure this is a side-effect of being in a hostel with a typical clientele of young well-to-do people from all over the place. In the capital of a country which has seen massive effects of modernization, economical and otherwise, after a major human crisis some 23 years ago. A place where well-educated, affluent  young urbanites meet. People, whose self-confidence is a nice balance to the submissive behaviour of a lot of local people in small towns and in the countryside, where my mzungu ways are often looked at and laughed at with a degree of admiration or at least accepting disbelief. I notice that I need to discuss this with those of my African and other friends who travel if and when they can.

I am very sure I will have to elaborate on this, my experience of being a stranger in degrees.

Addendum: after having spent some time in what admittedly is one of the most modern capitals on the continent, Kigali, I notice that the urban vs. province aspect to this is very important. I hazard a guess: more facework in urban, westernized settings versus easier connection to people whose everyday struggles emphasize human existence on the basis of need-fulfillment. Not sure, though. Let’s see. At any rate, it does not change my overall perception in any significant way. It may in the future, though. Let’s see.

Here some on-topic articles:

A Rwandan-Candian woman in The Gambia: Don’t call me toubab