Muzungu: A White Girl in Africa

I slept the remnants of jet lag off of my body on my second night in Kampala.  When I awoke, I found a woman had arrived to braid my hair.  I grabbed a book and headed out the door.

I was deterred.

“First, take tea.”

I glanced out the window at the woman waiting and I culture shocked.  Do I make her wait while I take my tea?

Yes, in Uganda that is precisely what you do.  First, you take tea.

So I did.  I sat buttering my bread in pained faux peacefulness and prepared my hot tea.  I sat there long enough to finish my bread and then announced that I was taking this tea show on the road.  I grabbed my mug and headed out the door.

This woman was waiting for me.

She was nicknamed, “One who has twins” and when I asked what her name was, that is what she responded with.

I don’t dare try and pretend I can remember or spell that word for you now.

She had five children and laughed at the idea of my three.  I was way too young to have that many children.  I thought the same thing about her.

She thought I was white and refused to braid my hair very tightly.  No matter how much I assured her that I wanted it tighter or that my hair had been braided before, she refused.  To her, my skin was too fair and my hair too soft to endure a proper braiding.  She didn’t want to hurt me or pull all of my hair out.

I can respect that.

I was a “Muzungu” or a white person.  This came as a surprise to me but not to my hosts.

“Well, look at you.”

Okay, you may have a point.

We sat as she braided and I read in the warmth of the day.

The view

I asked around before I left what the children might think of my skin tone.  The not nearly black but not quite white conundrum of my life.  The stop in their tracks, holler in excitement reactions gave me my answer.


My skin caused quite a stir during my trip.  It inspired a man on a boda boda to tap his chest and open his hand to me for a little charity.  It caused higher charges for me at local tourist attractions.  It even caused some controversy for my hosts when we visited a natural hot springs.  My friend Christine tried to come to my defense.

“She is a muzungu.”

“No, she is not.”

“Eh! Look at her skin. Are you crazy? Her hair may be braided like ours but she is still muzungu”

“She is not a muzungu.”

“Did you produce her? If not, than you cannot say for sure.”

This always made me laugh.  I joked with our Country Manager Jennifer that in the United States we produce cars and give birth to children.  I also told her I would now start calling my children, “my produce”.  We all had a laugh at that.

I was even told that my beauty must have come from my African Roots.

How lovely, that change of perspective was for a little girl who grew up in a culture where blacker beauty was found wanting.

Should I feel relief though?

I was torn, happy that my darkness was more appreciated but saddened that the lighter was now of lesser value.

It made me think of statements like, “lighter than a paper bag” or “the blacker the berry the sweeter the juice”.

How silly we are.  The world over, we are hunting and pecking.  We are holding things up to the sky and shouting discovery of beauty.  We are telling each other the color of beauty, the style, the smell and the location.  Even in our knowledge that beauty is an interior finding we search on.  Our eyes are liars.

This trip caused me to examine myself.  It made me think about the way I love and my ability to be grateful in the moment.  It made me reflect on how our beliefs are structured by the communities we live in.  It made me hungry to sit around more tables in different communities.  I want to see the world through different eyes.

I was able to live as a white person.  That is not something every girl with one drop of black blood in her veins can say.

It’s not all it’s cracked up to be.

Loving the skin I’m in,


PS – Listen in to Professional Presence hosted by Shelley Davis Mielock and hear me talk about the Nyaka AIDS Orphans Project on the (MBN) Michigan Business Network today at 11am, 4pm and 9pm. Tomorrow it airs again at 7am. :)

5 thoughts on “Muzungu: A White Girl in Africa

  1. Did you ever read the comic “For Better or For Worse”? One day it really caught my attention. April, a teen, is in the school restroom. She sees a girl she knows who is quite thin. She doesn’t say anything but her thought bubbles describe how she wishes she looked like this other girl. She wishes she were tall and slender and “beautiful”. She politely says ‘hello’ to this girl as she exits the restroom. After she leaves, the other girl’s thought bubble says, “I wish I had April’s curves.”

    There are times when I feel like my Catholic faith is my only claim to a heritage. My mother is French and German. My father is Irish and English. (Not *directly*, of course. Who knows how long ago whoever came to this country on a boat!) When our city celebrates Cinco de Mayo or Black History month, I feel like I’m “just white”. I feel lumped in w/ those people who killed Native Americans, abducted and enslaved Africans, falsely imprisoned Asian Americans following WWII and are part of the “old boys club” whether we signed up for it or not. I’m still learning to be happy in the skin and gender and vocation I’m in. Sometimes, I love it and other times — not so much. I know I’m not the only one.

    …and forgive me for feeling some pride that my kids are color blind enough to have people of African American and Vietnamese heritage as their best friends — and that they themselves don’t even notice! Yay for melting pots!

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