“Kale, Jebaleko Ssebo,” I respond to the jolly man standing to my left behind the emblematic blue-against-lemon-yellow MTN stand where we are both waiting to buy airtime, something I seem chronically depleted of these days, an affliction with my lazy 1000-shillings airtime purchases the likely culprit. A surprised smile conquers his face, eyes shining with perfectly aligned teeth.
“Thank you for learning our language,” he responds in impeccable English, his accent a sonorous blend of British and Ugandan. His inquisitive expression makes it clear that he was testing me to ascertain whether I had bothered to learn the response to one of the most common greetings in central Uganda: Jebaleko, meaning “well done.” I beam with this welcome yet undeserved encouragement, relieved that my efforts to adjust to the life and culture here, and to connect with people, have not been completely for naught.
“Olunaku Olulungi,” I tell him. Have a good day.
I do not blame him for testing me. Not everyone makes the effort to learn about the place they are venturing to, let alone the language. The amicably pale dark-haired girl sitting to my left on the journey from Amsterdam to Entebbe with squinty eyes and a vague idea of her purpose as a missionary in Uganda stared at me blankly when I told her I was staying in Kampala.
“What’s that?” She asked, eyes blinking vacuously. My jaw dropped and must have remained ajar while I flummoxed over how someone could travel to a country without even knowing its capital. She explained that she had been praying fervently to God for an opportunity to go to Africa, and when he gave it to her, she immediately jumped on board with the group of twenty-something that, with a quick scan around the plane, I realized overwhelmed the flight. I could have spent the several-hour flight sharing with her the vastness of the African continent and its myriad of cultures and peoples, but I figured the existence of a city named Kampala was enough of a lesson for the day.
While this young woman seemed somewhat cognizant of her own naivety, the middle-aged woman sitting to her left was set in her mission.
“I want to know what values Ugandans are raising their children with, and to show them the proper teaching,” she chimed in cheerfully. I wanted to tell her that she should start imposing her “good values” on her own country before judging and influencing the values of people she knows nothing about, but I remained silent, hoping her time in Uganda would change her perspective, maybe even cause her to reconsider her own values.
I hope that my two flight friends are learning some Luganda. I continue on my day’s journey, Birkenstock sandals cushioning my feet against the rough unevenness of the auburn road. The sun sits in the sky weightless, too early to emit any serious heat. As I scratch off the airtime code and enter it into my phone, I feel the smooth cloth of my burnt orange skirt, purchased in a village two hours North, tickle my properly covered knees as it dances with the breeze. The contrast of my navy blue tank-top stark against the happy-hued flow that begins at my waist makes me feel like a contradiction, one I have become increasingly aware of.
I recall a recent conversation with a shopkeeper.
“Do you wear these?” she asked, holding up a pair of bright short-shorts, her young eyes flaring impishly.
“Not here,” I told her laughing, discarding the blouses I was considering, complete with frills and golden buttons I would never wear at home but would attempt to disguise myself in here.
“Oh, so you respect our customs?”
“Of course!” I replied. “I am in your country.”
“Are you sure!” she exclaimed, a common Ugandan response that translates more accurately to a surprised, “really?” “Here in Uganda, we respect our traditions. We cover our bodies.” She continued, “In the USA, women walk around practically naked,” her face contorted as she looked me up and down, trying to gauge if I was one of those people.
“Oh? Where in the USA have you been?” I asked, trying to be polite.
“I haven’t been there, but my sister lives in Miami and says the women never wear clothing.”
While wondering why she would sell a garment she has such strong feelings against, I tried to explain that not everybody in the USA walks around bare and that Miami is a specific kind of place, about cultural differences and perspective taking, about being comfortable with the human body… and then stopped abruptly, wished her a good day and walked away frazzled, wondering if I should have just smiled and agreed.
It struck me that despite my careful efforts to dress according to tradition, the shopkeeper, or anyone else, might judge me for what she imagines I wear on my own terrain. My attempts to look inconspicuous are futile, as not even the darkest tan would camouflage the whiteness of my skin, an attribute I have never been so aware of.
The Lugandan words flowing from my lips will be plastered with the accent of an American, as my covered knees will not compensate for the many eyes that have glanced upon my thighs and my skin that will always gleam privilege.
Nachimuli, meaning “pretty flower,” is my Ugandan name, a sign of caring and acceptance from local friends. As sweet as it is, I cannot escape the knowledge that I am a pretty Mzungu flower wrapped in a Luganda word. My skin color effortlessly negates what I clothe myself in, what words I utter, what smile I wear, what name I answer to.
I have been told by my host sister that the word originates from zigunguzi, meaning a flying object, because the Whites always arrived from the air. “What do you need to fly? Money,” she had said. These white people who come in zigunguzi became Mzungu, which has also come to signify “wealthy.”
The first week of my first trip to Uganda, a handsome twenty-something man asked me, “What are you doing here?” A common opening question to spark conversation. I thought I would make a friend.
“I’m here exploring, learning about the country, and doing some medical research.”
“Research, eh?” His expression darkened. “What kind of “good work” are you doing here, Mzungu? You came all the way across the ocean to save us Africans from our poverty, mm? We are lucky you’re here to rescue us… how would we get along without you?” he hissed.
His eyes burned contempt, his face possessed with disdain for everything impure, unjust, and malicious about the world: me and all the other Mzungus. I wanted to run, to cry, to fight with him that not all of us are bad, that I am not personally responsible for a continuing history of oppression, colonization, and injustice, that I do not think I am here saving anyone but myself, as indignation rose in my chest on the threshold of eruption– but as I looked into him and into the hatred he felt toward my race, what could I say? He was right. “Mighty Whitey” has intruded on his people’s lives for centuries. I simply stared back, head tipped down and mouth sealed shut, learning my place in a country I am not from, a culture I will never be accepted into, and a history I can never completely understand.
And yet, despite these struggles, the impulse to connect remains. On a bad day, I can recall this smiling man with perfect teeth standing beside the MTN stand with whom, with a simple greeting foreign to my awkward tongue, dressed in an uncomfortably long skirt and Birkenstocks under which popped out my white skin that is so vulnerable to the equatorial sun, I connected, even if only for a passing moment.