One’s self-consciousness is a complex mixture of emotion, perception, and assumption. In a situation where you stand out in the crowd, it feels like a spot light is over your head and the more you fret, the brighter the light feels.
In Zambia, I stand out. In a sudden shift I am a minority, and by a large margin at that, in a place where over 99% of the population is of African descent1. Coming from the comparatively colourful ethnic landscape of Canada, where I am still certainly in the majority, the contrast strikes a little more sharply. It is hard to miss the attention that is drawn towards me and I can feel I am something of a novelty in an average Zambian’s day.
“Mzungu, taxi? … My friend, where are you going? … Mzungu, look what I have here for you…”
Mzungu. White man. Foreigner. One who wanders aimlessly.
But none of this is malicious; it’s just my best identification. “Hey blondie” or “you with the glasses” would serve the same purpose, but those haven’t the easy colloquial term. In some cases, it is them poking fun at my difference and in others, celebrating my presence. In a sort of comical irony, it can be an exclamation of welcome despite centering you out as different. All of this has brought many thoughts about the perception of that “mzungu” identity, both inward and outward.
Starting off in the morning, I put on a light coloured v-neck, some shorts, and my running shoes. No different than the average day off to class. It’s a hot day and my not yet acclimatized body can use all the ventilation and heat repellence available. However, as soon as I step out into the red Zambian dirt I feel like I’m glowing. My shoes, relatively new and tragically white, beam in the sunshine. Looking around I don’t seen a bare calf for miles – maybe pants would have been a better choice. Does anyone around here wear v-necks? Boy do I look like I just fell out of a plane…
In this moment the self-consciousness strikes. I make a half successful attempt to kick some red dirt on my shoes and shake my head at my shorts that, while keeping me cool, seem better suited with a baggy floral shirt and a pina colada. The spotlight above my head is humming with energy, shining at full beam power. The harmless glances by those passing me poke my self-image even further from its confidence. Later in the day, I make a couple ignorant goofs in the seating shuffle on the mini bus and I have been asked if I need a taxi on about thirty separate occasions.
My current self-perception: Maximum Mzungu
Over time, the spotlight has dimmed. Maybe from shining bright too long, or from having a revelation that I just needed to turn down the switch on my own. That revelation has come with some confidence and feeling more settled in my surroundings. I know how the bus seating system functions; I can just politely shake my head no like everyone else instead of a full verbal thanks to the taxi offers; I grin when someone calls out “mzungu”; and I begin to live out that phrase I put in my first Zambia post:
“Please, feel free.”
Of course there are also the external forces at play that I have made peace with. Why do taxi drivers and street vendors target me? Because whether I like it or not, I am likely to be a customer with money to spend. As a smart business operation, how could you not add some extra effort for me? When two small kids point and giggle at me, with little whispers of “mzungu” reaching my ears, it is just because I am a sight in their day that stands out. Look at that funny white skin.
All of this can be managed internally by having a resolve that as long as I am not contributing to a negative reinforcement of these perceptions – like not contesting a price that is too high or choosing to skip the transit system that most of the public uses because I can afford more – then I am living in a balance that is pushing towards the perception I would prefer.
There is also the moment in which you realize that living in a city, you will remain a fresh sight to most. Take any day in an urban center and there may only be a couple people you know or recognize. This has reduced the frustration that my “mzungu” identification has remained static. I will continue to look the same to most whether I have been in Zambia for two weeks or two months. Further on this point, you begin to understand the different cultural context of ethnicity differences. Perhaps in Canada, where minority groups can still constitute a significant part of the population, racial identification seems to carry the undertones of historical and modern power struggles, pushing back on a majority reduction. However here in Zambia, such differences are held in a different light and calling race into identity can just be a celebration that you are choosing to integrate or an easy mode to get your attention. Putting all these things into the balance can at least reduce the challenges that complex self-consciousness brings to you.
My current self-perception: Happy Mzungu
Have you ever had such an experience? What other factors do you think play into this self-perception? What do you think is the healthy balance between recognizing your identity and making the effort to blend in? I’d love to hear your thoughts as I continue to navigate my Zambian identity!
1 CIA Factbook, Zambia – https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/za.html