In the famously diverse city where I go to school, I will feel at any given time just like another person on the street. I can be “one of them” (on campus) or just “somebody” (in a museum, a store) or just “me” (in a city full of others). But here in Gulu, when among strangers, I’m invariably “muzungu,” or “munu”—white person. All of us are, despite the fact that our GROW team is mostly non-white, and probably compounded by the fact that we usually walk in a spectacular five-person group of blindingly pale individuals (the palest being Sarah, who is whiter than paper and probably reflects sunlight like a walking moon).
When we got here, exploring Gulu Town meant attracting an unrelenting barrage of prolonged stares. It could be exhausting, alienating, and uncomfortable, and at times made me want to sit forever in the cocoon-like safety of Pam’s house. It’s gotten less annoying, though, maybe because we’ve learned to take it with humor. Kids’ reactions to us have always been funny, but at this point even the slack-jawed stares of shopkeepers and passersby and unsolicited greetings from boda drivers have their own humorous angle. Anyway, half of the awe is probably due to the pure uncommonness of seeing white people in town; even I stare at other white people when I see them, and I have to refrain from extending special greetings to them purely on the basis of being caucasian. According to Pam, there are more white people in Gulu than in the capital city of Kampala—5,700 of them this past March—but still, we don’t ever see more than one other white person or group at once, and at most times, we are the only ones. And if we’re being stared at for being unusual, there’s no reason to get fidgety; after all, we are foreigners in this country, and our whiteness more or less represents our rudimentary understanding of its ways of life. It’s still not fine for young soccer spectators/hooligans to take cell phone pictures of us as we walk by, but what can you do.
In that sense, our whiteness feels unimportant. In another sense, it colors everything that we see and do. After no amount of time spent here do you stop being white, no matter how genuinely you can try or even succeed to understand its history, people, customs, and values. You can know more about Gulu Town’s goings-on than a local, and you can go deeper into the village and do more good than any townsperson; but you’ll still be a muzungu, and every interaction you have with a Ugandan will mirror that.
This matters because the other half of the ‘Awe of Whiteness’ is reflective of something more substantial. Our whiteness comes with a web of associated expectations: wealth, charity and handouts, NGOs, aid, and being told what to do. These perceptions have been formed by life in IDP camps, where foreigners working for NGOs would hand out food and other necessities to the (willfully or unwillfully) helpless. People were, because of displacement, necessarily dependent on handouts, but they soon became psychologically dependent on them as well. And when the war ended, they were left without the resources, skills, or mindset to stand on their own; they had been conditioned by two decades of internal displacement to expect to be given what they needed to survive. Moreover, they expected—and still expect—to get it from white people.
In our experience, this means that people staring at us in town are not only gawking at the uncommon paleness of our skin but also at what they perceive as an aura of wealth and, in some cases, wisdom; the expectation of charity is tinged in most cases with respect for the work that we do, and the knowledge that if we’re here in Gulu, we mean to help. No one here is genuinely hostile to us, and the worst we’ve been subjected to is juvenile ridicule. Even criminals, according to Pam, often refrain from committing violence or robbery on white people because they are aware that white people are pretty much always here to make life easier for locals (although there seem to be conflicting opinions about that).
In the field, people are respectful to the point that we are sometimes taken aback and confused by it. For example, we’ve been welcomed by a few different groups with song and dance, and high-pitched jubilating (African women yelling), that we don’t know what we’ve done to deserve; at our first community sensitization, we lacked a translator and had no idea what was going on, but the male community members demanded that we close the meeting with a speech. Not a few mothers have expressed willingness to listen to whatever we have to say, while our mindset is the exact reverse. As Pam said, our beneficiaries, to a greater degree than people in town, see us as in solidarity with them and their struggles, and are as a result more respectful, welcoming, and warm. But much of our experience demonstrates not only respectfulness for our presence in their communities and their homes, but a distinct expectation for us to deploy some kind of insight distinct from those that GWED-G staff offer. This, I feel, is just because we’re “white”: our whiteness seems to supersede the fact we are students, and have come largely to learn. We are, of course, glad that our beneficiaries and other community members do not see us as intruders. But neither do we want our whiteness to be some kind of emblem, conveying things that we don’t mean to convey. Emi, a GlobeMed at University of Wisconsin-Madison alum who’s been working at GWED-G on operations and communications for a year, says that her best method for coping with these perceptions, as with many other things, is 1.) just to be as direct and straightforward as possible; and 2.) to have a sense of humor. It sounds intuitive, and it probably becomes more so with time. But we let a lot of things go unrectified out of simple confusion.
Beyond our discomfort, persisting attitudes toward white people are an indicator of greater cultural obstacles: many rural people are still not well on the way toward independent ways of living. This blog post has turned out to be, then, a continuation of my first one: many rural Northern Ugandans just don’t know where to start. There are mothers who are HIV-positive, and whose husbands have died, left them, or chased them from their homes; who have nine children to care for, but not the strength to farm; who are victims of ongoing gender-based violence; who are ostracized by their communities, and even their immediate families, because of their HIV status. We met dozens of mothers in a day who faced not one or two of these obstacles, but all of them. And we met scores of war-affected and vulnerable youth traumatized by the violence of war and the loss of their loved ones, unable to afford schooling, and unable to support themselves. Without GWED-G, these people would be trapped in a cycle of poverty and bad health, with no means to break it.
And in providing livelihood support for these individuals, GWED-G’s first requirement is sustainability. Pam, Franny, and Juliet are conscientious about not delivering things that encourage dependence on GWED-G. At first, it was hard for me to see this in the field: we traveled to two youth groups to give them a pair of oxen each; we gave vegetable seeds to youth, mothers, and VHTs. It felt like we were giving handouts because we were, after all, handing things out. But the difference lay in what we gave out. It wasn’t food or money, which would run out and leave individuals back at square one, but items which would enable recipients to better support themselves. Maybe it’s obvious, but it only started to make sense to me when we came back to one of the groups to whom we’d given a pair of oxen. I wondered, what happens when these oxen die in a few years, what then? But when we returned to give them vegetable seeds, one of the members of the youth group thanked us again for the oxen and promised that when we returned next year, we’d find four oxen—they intended to use money earned from their yield of crop, which would be high thanks to the oxen, to buy another pair. DUH, self! Giving people livelihood support enables them to generate enough wealth to make more investments, and generate more wealth and grow closer to healthy, independent, sustainable living. The same can be said for other forms of livelihood support that GWED-G provides (vegetable seeds, bean seeds, materials and markets for bead-making). It’s like teaching someone how to ride a bike: keep your hand on the seat until you’re sure they can ride without falling. Or, (proverbs!) teaching a man how to fish, but also buying him his first fishing pole and some bait to get him off the ground.
In other news, we are leaving Gulu in an hour and a half. …!??!?!??!!!! The passage of time has been really confusing to us for this entire trip, but five weeks is really not long enough–we finally started feeling truly settled, getting used to things and finding our way around, and now we’re being spirited back home. But we aren’t quite the same people as when we left New York. I would elaborate if I weren’t exhausted, delirious, and lost for words… when I find the right ones, I’ll let you know!
You people–we’re so happy to have had this blog as a platform for sharing our experiences with you, even if the World Cup killed our posting schedule, and can only hope that it’s been valuable for you all. Please reach out to us with any questions/comments/anything at email@example.com, and look out for more finished products of our media collection (videos, interviews, stories of change) here, on facebook, and at cuglobemed.com. We can’t believe GROW is ending, but we’re going to do such great things with what we’ve gained here!
Can it be??? GROW TEAM OUT.