I am in Livingstone, walking alone on the back way to the hostel where I am staying. This neighborhood is grittier than most of the other parts of Livingstone I’ve seen, and feels to me more like the rest of Zambia I have come to know.
I pass a man, and greet him, “Hello.”
“Hello. You are beautiful. Marry me.”
“No.” (Woe betide any American man who might ever wish to marry me. I have become incredibly blasé about turning down proposals.)
“You do not want?”
“Okay. Next time!”
I will admit that I could not hide a smile at that last — AFTER I’d walked past him and he could no longer see my face. And this is definitely the Best Marriage Proposal I Have Received, although competition is stiff from things like “I have always wanted to marry a white woman like yourself; is this possible?”
These interactions are common. And I’ve gotten off lightly; Alison stopped counting after she reached 100 marriage proposals sometime in February.
What does this have to do with race? This doesn’t happen to Zambian women. In fact, Zambian women may not believe me when I talk about marriage proposals. This is not the way things are done here.
I would say that about 80% of the proposals I’ve received have occurred within the first five minutes of meeting the man in question (all within the first half-hour). I’m sure this percentage is even higher for Alison. (Piece of advice for hypothetical suitors: even if you do fall madly in love with me after one glance across a crowded room, it might be a good idea to wait until you actually know me to pop the question.)
“Would you marry a Zambian?” is a question I get even more frequently, from both women and men. I think that the least flippant answer I ever gave was, “I wouldn’t want to live here for the rest of my life, and I would not feel comfortable demanding that someone else undertake a relocation of the same scale for me.” (Not to say that all the cultural difficulties — which compose the rest of my answer — aren’t serious, but they invariably become a joke. “Oh, but I would not polish his shoes or wash his pants! I would want him to cook and clean. He would be very unhappy, and my in-laws would hate me.”)
That’s not just because I would miss the biting cold of winter, the sharp smell and vibrant color of new-fallen leaves, the modest, homey flowers of early spring, cheese and tree nuts and ice cream, friends and family and places, and a decent internet connection, because I would. I’d miss them terribly. But more than that, it’s just too hard to be white in Zambia.
It’s true that I have gotten used; it’s not as hard now as it was when I came, and perhaps, if I stayed here another year, another two years, another ten, it would continue to get easier.
But the first thing anyone sees about me is the color of my skin. I could speak Tonga perfectly, I could learn to balance 20 liters on my head, I could make nshima and relish the equal of any woman in Zambia — but I would STILL be white, and that would still be my most identifying feature. I am not my gender. I am not my age. I am not my religion. I am not my job or my education or my friends or my accomplishments. I am a white person. Anything else I might do or be is added as an afterthought to this most basic state of my being.
If you are white in the United States, it is possible to never think about race. There are places where awareness of your race will be pushed into stark relief, but most white people can chose not to go there. Most white people do choose not to go there. Race is not our problem, because we aren’t aware of it. We have to learn to see it and its influences, and whenever we’re tired of dealing with it, we can go back inside our safe, comfortable, homogeneously white bubble, and it’s not on our radar anymore.
On the whole, this is not the experience of people of color in the United States. There are areas where this acts in reverse, but there are many fewer of them, and they are much smaller, and the chances are much higher that the people who inhabit them will have to leave these spaces and become aware of race. How do you describe a friend or colleague or acquaintance who is a person of color? Black/African American man. Asian woman. Race first, anything else after.
That is what it is like to be white in Zambia. I am a mukuwa (Tonga), or perhaps a muzungu (Nyanja and many other Bantu languages); musimbi is an afterthought, if at all. If someone needs to describe me beyond that, it’s always “The mukuwa who . . .” I can’t forget about race here. Even if I could, someone walking past me on the path would remind me. I see racial lines much more clearly than I ever did in the United States, even when I was one of only two white children in my class. “Why don’t you move in with Gemmeke” because you are white and she is white and white people huddle together? The little rectangle of Canada, like embassy immunity, enclosed by the pilot’s fence. The areas of Lusaka or Livingstone filled with white people. Namibia, full of white people, all moving in neatly prescribed circles, seeming to interact with black Namibians only in carefully defined points of contact: at the craft market, or when talking to the househelp.
I get marriage proposals at a rate worthy of a celebrity. Children run out of their houses to shout “How are you?” and are not content until I have responded to each individually. People on the street call me “mukuwa” as if it were my name. People — colleagues, strangers — reach out to touch or finger-comb my hair. Street vendors materialize at my elbow: “Buy narchis, very nice, very sweet, you don’t want? They are good, very sweet, only ten pin, you can try one, buy narchis!” “Face cloth, talk time, Rub-On Vics, ma sweeties, I give you good price, madam! You don’t want to buy? Give me something, Madam. What will you give me? Give me five pin.” Drunk men sit down next to me to start long, rambling conversations. Children walk past a hundred Zambians to beg from me — adults do it, too, only the quantities are bigger. People may try to charge me more, especially in Lusaka, because of the color of my skin. Toddlers cry when I approach. Alison was subjected to a screaming diatribe after nearly being run over by a truck (while standing on the sidewalk).
It’s not all bad. I would even say that it’s mostly positive (aside from the endless, endless begging). I am courted for my custom on the minibus (the conductor will greet me as I step off the inter-town bus, and insist on carrying my bags to his vehicle), though I pay the same fare as any Zambian. People break into delighted laughter at an attempt to speak Tonga, or engage in any other culturally appropriate behavior. Complete strangers ask to have a picture taken with me. Before I came here, I had never in my life — never expected that I would — caused a room of a thousand women to scream with delight by climbing up on a stage to dance. Positive or not, it can be exhausting. Sometimes I just want to be a person, not a white person. I don’t know how to respond when people want to give me special treatment because of my race. Can I eat in the main food line instead of the VIP room, or is that refusing hospitality? And I like sitting in the front seat of the minibus (reserved for the most important people on the minibus); there’s more leg room, and you’re not as squished.
It’s as if cultural rules don’t apply to me. Zambians ask friends for money, rather than begging from strangers. Zambians men don’t propose marriage to women they’ve never met before. One of the Grade Twos I tutor played with my toes yesterday as I read them a story, because they’re white toes. It’s horribly rude not to greet someone when you enter a gathering, but when I was at a funeral, one woman came in and greeted every person in the room except for me — not to be rude, just because I was white. I can play pool, or wear trousers, or walk around with dusty, unpolished shoes, because I’m white. Sometimes I feel that being white means I’m not really a person.
I know that this experience has been good for me. It is valuable for me to be forced to live with knowledge of my race; for the rest of my life, I will have a much better understanding of the experience of visible minorities.
But no, I don’t want to live here.