When you reach a place where you find out that you have white skin…this is a discovery, a sensation, a shock. I had lived for twenty-five years without knowing about that skin. A hundred children play in the courtyard of the townhouse I live in back home, and not one of them has ever given his skin a thought. They only know that if it’s dirty, that’s bad. But if it’s clean and white, that’s good! Well, they’ve got it wrong. It’s bad. Very bad. Because white skin is the wolf ticket. … Right away you find out what’s assigned to you, what line you’re supposed to stand in. Right away that skin starts itching; it either affronts or it elevates. You can’t jump out of it and it cramps your style. You can’t exist normally. You will always be above, below or off to the side. But never in your own place.
-Ryszard Kapuscinski, The Soccer War
My natural skin colour would blend me in perfectly if I had to infiltrate an Irish family reunion, but in Africa, things are very different. I’d been called “muzungu” many times before, but the reality of what it means to be muzungu hit me last Thursday while I was sifting through fifty-pound sacks of beans.
“Hold this and stand there,” the colleague I was reporting with had said, for the fifth time that day, handing me his notebook.
Although I knew he had to have a reason to say that, I was getting close to the end of my rope. I stared hard at him.
“I came here to do serious work, not to hold this and stand there. I don’t mean to whine, but it’s just frustrating.”
“We’ll talk about it. Cover for me. We’re buying beans in bulk for an orphanage. Let me know what the cheapest ones are.”
I expressed a not-entirely-feigned interest in the rainbow-coloured range of beans while Pascal followed the informant to…what we were supposed to be investigating. He returned about 15 minutes later, mission accomplished.
“The reality is, you’re white,” Pascal said as we walked to meet the station bus.
“When white people come to this country, they don’t come to hang around and go to the beach. Why do white people come here?”
“Exactly. NGO people, missionaries, children’s charities, human rights programs…when people see a white person here, they automatically think it’s some kind of NGO person or inspector. If you had gone in there with me, people would have immediately gotten suspicious. They would have automatically thought you had come to interfere.”
“And no one would have told us anything.”
“That’s right. That’s why I had you stay off to the side.”
“Your writing is good, very good. I would even say I was pleasantly surprised. But I would never put you on anything political, anything military. No one would tell you anything. When people see a muzungu, they think of meddling and money. Look, they even gave you two times the normal price for the beans!”
I realized, with a sinking feeling, that he was absolutely right and I should have known that earlier. Then the embarrassment was replaced with fear. After all the work I had done, the classes and the training sessions and the books and the applications, was something completely out of my control (skin colour) going to stop me from doing any real work in Africa? How have white foreign correspondents managed? Ryszard Kapuscinski, Colette Braeckman, Sophie Langlois, even my professors and colleagues who have worked in Africa and other parts of the world where your skin colour makes you stand out– how have they managed?
This time I would really, really like comments…