Sometimes I felt like a rock star. Other times, like a zoo exhibit. It all depended on the looks on their faces. Surprise was always first. Then curiosity. And often, delight.

The children usually smiled and waved. Some of the adults did, too. Or they glanced up and nodded, before looking away. Some stared. A few winked.

“Muzungu!” I heard often when I was in Uganda. Mostly from the children, especially if we were driving very slowly due to traffic or potholes. Which is to say, most of the time.

“Muzungu” is the Bantu word for a white person. It’s not a derogatory term, merely a description. And we spent a lot of time in areas where a Muzungu like me was a rare sight.

We drove past village after village on our way from Kampala to the Nakivale Refugee Settlement, which is a whole world unto itself. The roads are nothing but potholes and ditches, making the drive itself an adventure not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach. The sights are as diverse as the people who live there – refugees from countries like Congo, Ethiopia, Malawi, Somalia, and Sudan, to name just a few.

As we traveled through miles and miles of settlement land, we passed lush, green, rolling hills that seemed to go on forever. We passed dusty, busy, crowded villages where people went about their daily business. We passed many people walking along the side of the road, some in beautiful, colorful garb, others in torn, dirty t-shirts. Some were working in the fields or tending their livestock. Women were cooking over open fires along the road, with children playing nearby.

Once they saw me, many of them – meaning the children – started running alongside our van, laughing, pointing, and shouting. “Muzungu, how are you?” This was sometimes followed by a hopeful “Muzungu, give me money.” I found myself wishing I had a bucketful of coins to toss out the window to them, the way people on floats in small-town parades toss out handfuls of candy to the children lining the streets.

“Anytime we drive through here, no one even notices us,” one of my Ugandan friends pointed out. “But when Betty’s with us…”

“Rock star,” I confirmed.

We could – and obviously did – joke about this, but there’s an underlying issue that is much more serious, and that has to do with the color of a person’s skin. More specifically, judging people by the color of their skin, or other aspects of their physical appearance. This is nothing new, of course. I think it’s safe to say it’s been going on since humans have existed on this planet, and it will likely continue for as long as we inhabit the earth.

Still, I wish the reaction people had when encountering someone who was different from themselves – in skin color or anything else – would be more like the reactions I’ve experienced. Surprise. Curiosity. Smiles of delight. The kind of interest that doesn’t mean fear or judgment, but simply conveys, “I’d like to know more about you.”

And makes us feel like rock stars.

June 8, 2018
©Betty Liedtke, 2018

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