A complicated matter: Issues of Race

Race. Ouch. Well, at least it’s out there. I’ve been putting this post off for a long time – about 9 months. It’s time to step into a dark, painful, and very frustrating corner – all typed on the touch screen of an IPhone.

Here goes. In Zambia I’m generally greeted in public with one of four words.

Buona – meaning rich, successful, or higher tier, not always reserved for whites.

Mzungu – a racial slur against foreigners in Swahili meaning wanderer and outsider – adapted to Zambia as white, outsider and rich/high status. Recently rebranded in a positive light but still often used as a racial slur – the Mzungu blah blah blah. When a Zambian-English high level translator was asked, “what is an equivalent for Mzungu in Bemba or Nyanja – the response was – “oh that would be highly insulting – but Zambians don’t mean it that way to you” … Yes. Yes, some do. The meaning translates across, and unlike some others that wear it as a badge of privilege or sign of desired deference it aggravates me.

Buga – yup, you guessed it… as in Buga Buga – ghost or spirit – a decidedly racist slur originating, so I’m told, from South African townships to discuss unwelcome whites.

The fourth is a hateful term that I’ve chosen not to re-write. But it essentially means outsider – or thief of what is most precious. I liken it with calling someone the devil.

As you know, the program I’m with is all about friendship, peace building, and cooperation. It should also be mentioned that many of these terms are used in ignorance of their meaning, integrated into daily life as a learned response. I’ve been guilty of the same. When I was 30 miles above the arctic circle in Selawik, I ignorantly thought of the inupiak as eskimos – a derogatory term meaning meat eater – until I was educated to how offensive it was.

Please, also note that many times these terms are shouted in places of busy commerce to gain our (whites) attention – these terms help cement a stereotype that we have lots of money and will be better customers. Im talking about areas like open markets, bus terminals, crowded avenues. But, they are also sometimes used in common areas – churches, clinics and villages. I’m lucky – Asian or Indian descendants get the moniker Ba china, and Ba India, as well as a host of other racial slurs developed for their large investment in economy and mining.

We, as volunteers, are a select minority among another minority. In Africa. We live and work here, are on very limited allowances, speak local language and are hyper sensitive. Being that I am the only Caucasian in 50 km in any direction. We are not rich tourists, we don’t have things to give or unsustainable drives to feel good about ourselves through sacrifice – ok well maybe we have that one…

That said, there’s still a distinct class of racism at a basic level present throughout Zambia. You can find it in any sector. It’s partially, in my mind, a remnant from colonial rule, and partially to do with the serious lack of sufficient highly skilled labour – meaning that some of the best and highest paid jobs are for foreigners. And so foreigners attract more capital and more resources.

As an aside to my Zambian friends who tell me that these words and actions are not indicative of racism. Racism is defined as, “prejudice, discrimination or antagonism directed against someone of a different race.” So yes, treating someone differently because of their skin colour, be it positively or negatively, constitutes racism.

Numerous examples abound, from preferential treatment at government offices, to free rides or transport simply stopping to pick me up but refusing their fellow Zambians. Being able to skip security checks, or in some cases being pointedly harassed while others are ignored. Our skin is a special status, and many here are conditioned to accept it and promote its continuation. Most assuredly the belief that all whites are wealthy, and that we know better and are more capable than others is constantly promoted and reinforced. This is an special issue in rural communities.

I’ve heard it go both ways, positive and negative relating to whites, and as excuses relating to work. “We Africans, we blacks, we’re just lazy.” That gem was recently said to me by one of my community group’s chairmen. “We Africans don’t keep time, we blacks just can’t manage.” Is another common expression when community members are late for meetings. The amount of “wrong” in those words is nearly unbearable. It’s compounded by – ” but it will only succeed if you lead it.”

I find myself often very aggravated by continued reinforcement of the dependency syndrome, especially when it’s willingly and without question tied into questions of race. “We can’t manage, can’t you manage for us?” Followed by a, “why can’t you manage?” and answered with, “no your skin, if you do it, then it will work.” It’s sometimes honest, and most times a game, to see if they’ll luck out and I’ll suddenly be willing to lead and captain their projects for them – fortunately for us both, an in the interests of empowerment and sustainability – that won’t happen.

That type of thinking and the inevitable boiling down of conversation to race usually prompts a – 15-20 minute discussion on race and community empowerment. Which is fine and dandy for a day or two, until the same line is uttered again, and again, and again… Sometimes by the same community members you’ve already discussed the sensitivity with. trying to further the understanding through explanation of the implied disrespect is also complicated.

So, where does that leave us? In a Dangerous place. The benefits of this racism keeps us safe oftentimes in terms of hitch hiking and finding safer transport, personal space and respect, and protection via removal from such practices as JuJu – although the two Indian merchants burned alive in the riots in Mansa last year puts that one on edge. It also gives us a sense of importance, and allows us to be quite a bit more successful when promoting projects to district and NGO officials.

What’s most heart breaking is when a 5 year old holds their arm up to yours and says, “I’m so black, why can’t I be good and white.” At first you think you must have translated it wrong. But then, you tell the child to repeat it, break it down and something inside you just cracks a little.

In almost every tuck shop, they sell a bleaching soap, to lighten skin. How do you respond to that?

If you teach about volunteerism and explain allowances and that we receive very little in terms of monetary support for our service at times you can be ostracised. I’ve been called a liar, cruel, cheap, and many other bad things – notably crazy, a spy, and a white demon. Those are exceptions, but not all too uncommon in this first year of my service. Then community members ask you why you won’t be honest and share your money. Why you’re so cheap with them. Why you enjoy seeing blacks suffer – that one was a poignant reminder that some community members are simply manipulative, but the words were uttered in a fish farming group meeting of 28 villagers. Aside from a lecture about the sacrifices made for the benefit of others and the reward of working to create independence, of combatting dependency and working on strengthening community rights and capacity coupled with a discussion on the downfalls of racism, what can you do?

At the end of the day, there’s aggression, fuelled by hurt and sadness. Disappointment and disillusionment flood in, followed by sympathy, pity and anger. The last is a resignation to continue on, support education, grow a thicker skin, and strive harder to fight dependency syndrome and to be accepted as a human being, not a rich, self motivated white.

It’s an interesting experience to be the minority. It gives a whole new perspective and understanding. One that’s both necessary and profoundly uncomfortable.






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