Muzungu, Muzungu, Muzungu…. Muzungu bye!!
Almost everywhere we go it feels like we’re the centre of attention. Most often we’re the only white people around amongst a sea of locals. The attention isn’t bad – it can’t be classed as harassment like we receive in India, Morocco and certain other countries – but we’re aware that all eyes are on us. We’re just different – we look different, we move differently, we wear different clothes, we sound different, we’re doing different, possibly interesting things.
For the small kids, as we walk through their small communities, nestled onto the lower slopes of the small hills that rise from the city’s flats, they are ecstatic just to see a white person. If we walk passed a hundred kids in a community I’d be surprised if more than a couple of them managed to resist the temptation to shout “Muzungu”. Many of the kids will come up to us wanting to hold our hands or touch the skin of our arms. As the first few more daring kids are reach us and hang off our limbs it creates a signal to the rest of the kids in the community that we’re open to being used as climbing apparatus. Within a few seconds there might be twenty or thirty small kids, most of them no higher than our waists, holding our hands, grabbing our legs, clinging onto our arms, all squealing with excitement about the fact that they are in contact with a white person. The kids that are more reserved remain in the close proximity of their mothers. They’ll still shout “Muzungu” and most normally wave, again getting very excited when we wave back. “Muzungu, bye”, is their usual reply.
The older kids that have started school take the conversation to the next level. “Muzungu, how are you?”, they will shout as we approach. They can see us coming for miles. It’s as though we’re shining white lights, glowing bright as we approach their neighbourhoods. You can hear the excitement building amongst the kids as we draw nearer. One kid may spot us coming a long time before we’ve seen him. He’ll light the metaphoric beacon where he stands with a quick excited outburst of “Muzungu”. For the other kids within earshot, who may have been playing with the same half of a plastic bottle or stick on a rope or, if they’re very lucky, an old rubber bicycle tyre for the past few hours, the quiet whispering of the word Muzungu pricks their ears, they see if they can spot the white person approaching and the “beacons” are very quickly lit throughout the entire community.
“Muzungu, muzungu, muzungu”. “Muzungu. Bye”. “Muzungu, how are you?” When we reply to their question it’s more than often greeted with a very quick “I’m fine”, followed by an even quicker retreat to the safety of their front doors. On the occasions where Genevieve is surrounded by hoards of overexcited children I may pull the camera out of my bag to snap a quick photo. The appearance of the camera only leads to more kids coming out from the confines of their home turf to get close to Genevieve for the photo. Yesterday evening, for the first time, I showed the photo that I had just taken of the kids to them all on the camera’s screen. The reaction was immediate. All the kids ran off in the same direction, waving their arms in the air screaming ecstatically, jumping into the air. These are the happiest children I have ever come across. They have next to nothing. Their family homes are one room, built from mud bricks, wooden poles and corrugated iron roofing. They have no kitchen or bathroom.
The mothers do all the cooking on the street out the front of their homes. Most have a speciality dish that they have become known for. One mother will make chapattis, another fried bananas, another matoka. Some will fry pigs trotters, others boil eggs or fry chipped potatoes in huge pans of boiling oil. The community clan is one huge family. The food is exchanged between the mothers so each family has a variety of food for their meals.
The kids’ bathroom consists of a plastic washing up tub half filled with water which has been warmed on the fire and placed next to the front door. The adults must wash in the privacy of their homes.
The homes have no running water. All the water that they use is carried to their homes from the local pump in ten litre plastic yellow petrol containers. Light in the home is provided by the sun and at night, by fire from candles. The community does have electricity, but only for a few communal rooms. The bar is lit at night and pumps out music as the locals play pool amongst the goats. There is a separate big screen which shows movies or, more often than not, English Premiership football. The Ugandans are crazy about football. They’ve never had a strong national team but they all have strong support for teams from England. Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal are followed by 99% of the locals. I did see one poor delusional man wearing a blue and yellow striped Leeds United top from 1993. Maybe he doesn’t know? Maybe the die-hard loyalty that Leeds fans have doesn’t stop at the English based supporters? Maybe he really does know – that, one day, Leeds will be back, bigger than ever and he can say that he stuck with them through thick and thin, the highs and lows, the ups and downs He is proud not to be one of the masses that jumped on the Manyoo bandwagon in 1999 or joined the Russian Revolution at Chelsea or the French croissant eating aristocracy at Arsenal in even more recent times.
Anyway, back to the hillside community and its smiling happy shiny people. The young adult men that approach us usually have a story to tell. They tell us the recent history of their family, their sons and daughters who have died, their nephews and nieces in their care due to the early death of their parents, their struggle to earn enough money to provide all their children with a school education. They don’t want our money. They want us to give them a job.
Rich muzungus in Africa can come across as lazy abusers of the cheap labour that the locals can provide. While some may view the fact that a white man has a driver, a personal shopper, a daily cleaner, someone to cook for them, a nanny for their kids, two security guards, a house keeper and someone to give extra tuition to their children as unnecessary, the reality of the situation is that he is giving his staff a good income, directly supporting all of their families and distributing the money he has around the local community. While we are all capable of washing our own dishes and changing and cleaning the sheets on our beds, a muzungu can do much more for the community to pay someone to do these tasks for them.
It’s even better if a muzungu has a business here in which he can employ locals. It’s just a shame that we’re volunteering here and when young bright eyed men approach us asking for work we have to put out their fires by telling them we don’t have a business or anything we can offer them. Still, they’re too proud to plead and beg and they quickly turn the conversation towards pleasantries about the day.
But it’s the children that have had the biggest effect on me so far. It’s just incredible how happy they all are in their villages. If a small child has one toy it will keep him entertained for hours on end. There might be a small gave of football between some of the slightly bigger kids – I’m yet to see a football being used that has any air in it! Still, they seem to be able to control a fully deflated ball as well as most of us can use a pumped up ball. It’s not uncommon to see two or three babies of no more than 18 months old, sitting down together, communicating with each other while pointing to a few bottle tops that they are amusing themselves with. The kids are left alone for long periods of time, the parents perfectly happy that they are safe to wander round anywhere within the community.
They all seem so content with their lives. They have next to nothing.