Tag Archives: race

Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child

Back in September, we had a week of orientation for the new students.  In one of the final activities, students contributed to “awards” for each other, writing bits of praise or positive qualities on pieces of paper with each student’s name on it.  I and another teacher circulated during the activity, trying to make sure that each student had at least three three things written on their piece of paper.  It was all a bit chaotic, and the task was made more difficult by the fact that while we’d had a week of orientation, due to the way the groups were divided, we’d only interacted with most of the students for about two subjective days.

At the end of the activity, when people were coming back to their seats, one student walked up to me with a woebegone expression on his face — the future Mr. Articulate.  We were a bit pressed for space, and he’d been sitting in a corner.  His paper must have been obscured somehow, because it had only one word on it, and not a particularly good word, at that, but the sort of thing you say about someone when you don’t know them very well and don’t have anything better to say.  “Nice,” or something along similar lines.  Not the sort of word you want to be the best thing a room full of people can think of to say about you.

“Here,” I took the paper from him and looked at him for a while, trying to come up with something I knew about him that could compensate for and overpower the milquetoast “nice.”  I knew him to be quiet.  Respectful.  Reasonably well-spoken.  Slight.  Polite.  He seemed like a good kid, but none of the well-substantiated things I knew about him had much, if any, more weight than “nice.”  And then, as I peered into his face, inspiration struck me in a white-hot flash, and I bent my head and wrote:


and gave him back the paper.

As he read the word, a smile broke across his face like sunlight sinking into deep water, and he uttered a soft, “Awww,” like someone who has just been handed a warm and snuggly kitten.  When he looked up again, his face was filled with . . . hope.  . . . pride.  . . . determination.  As if it was the nicest thing anyone had ever said to him.  As if I’d looked into his soul and seen a person he knew was there, but no one else had ever noticed.

It’s not a big word.  But we all want other people to see and appreciate our talents.  And a lot of urban young people see talent — at sports, in music — as one of the few things that will lift them out of the narrow little worlds they find themselves in.

Later, Articulate seemed particularly comfortable opening up to me or asking me for help.  Maybe he’s just a good kid.  Maybe our personalities meshed well.  Or maybe something happened in that moment when I looked in his face and called him talented.

I firmly believe that young people will meet the level of expectation set for them (note that this is in reference to groups, not necessarily individuals in specific situations.  Case by case, the mileage can vary widely).  If their community holds them to high expectations, they will meet those expectations, or at least come close.  If they are held to low expectations, well, they’ll meet those, too.

There is a lot of discussion about the failure of urban youth, about the incarceration epidemic, about unemployment and hoodlums and teen mothers.  We’re happy to blame the teachers, or the parents, or the churches, or the “bad crowd,” or the drug dealers on the corners.  Even if they do succeed, many of our young people have very few options and nowhere to go, which is certainly a contributing factor.  But sometimes, I think that if we want someone to blame, we should look at ourselves, because as a society, we have bought into the lie that if we are successful, we are successful purely on the basis of our own merit, and so accept the corollary that anyone who isn’t successful doesn’t deserve to be so.  We are so ready to interpret the effects of centuries of racial, economic, and social oppression as the fault of their individual inheritors.

We look at our young people and we are afraid of what they may become, and they become what we fear.

It’s complicated, of course.  It’s always complicated.  We believe the things that we have been told because sometimes, in some cases, they are true.  But I want to know how we, as a society, can begin to change our narrative.  How do we look at our young people, particularly our young African-American men, and see, not dropouts and failures and criminals, but talent and potential and possibility?  How can we make that our self-fulfilling prophecy?


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On being white in Zambia

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.


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White Girl Speaking Tonga

(Musimbi mukuwa ulawamba ci Tonga.)

We’re told that we should expect to be laughed at when we try to speak in Tonga, and that this laughter isn’t laughter per se, but rather pleasure that we’re trying to speak the language.

This time, I’m not sure about.
On Thursday, our recent heat wave finally broke slightly, so I walked to the market to get milk and bananas. There were no bananas, but I was successful in the acquisition of milk, which is what I’d really wanted, so I was pleased as I walked slowly home through the bright sunlight. Because the innovative school sends children home for lunch later than my work does, I was in time to encounter children walking home for lunch as I returned.

A short distance from my house, there was a group of about ten or fifteen children horsing around. One boy stood apart from the rest, a sort of sentry, as it were, because as I came within earshot I heard the cry trailing along through the group: “Muguwa, muguwa!” (white person), although there was no obvious reaction to my approach beyond a gradual shift from playing to walking along the path towards me in a sort of drifted clump.

As is my custom, I greeted them in Tonga as as I passed:
Mwalibiyze.” (Afternoon, and pronounced ‘mwa-lee-bee-hey.’)
Ee, mwalibiyze.” (Yes, afternoon.)

Ee, mwalibiyze boti?” (Yes, how is your afternoon?)
Kabotu. Mwalibiyze boti?” (Good. . . .)

There was some laughter, and the next child along the road greeted me:
Komuli.” (You are there.)
Kotuli.” (We are here.)

I had a certain sense that I was being put through my paces, and it was only confirmed as the next child produced yet another greeting:
Muli bayumu?” (You are fine?) Although I didn’t recall the meaning at the time, I knew that the response was an emphatic:

There was only one child left in front of me, a small child trailing along behind the others, on a path at a different angle to mine. As he approached, he called out, “Kamwamba!” (Talk/tell how you are!)
Kabotu!” (Good!)

The laughter rang out behind me as I walked the last 1/5 k to my house, but that was all right; I knew that I had passed with flying colors.


Other noteworthy features of this walk included two new uses of a chitenge: #9, backpack; and #10, makeshift bicycle basket. (Use #8 is to screen one’s head and arms from the sun while walking home from church (because of course you wore a chitenge to church like a decent woman, only it was really hot over the other skirt, so next time you’ll probably be indecent and not wear another skirt under it, even if it means that you go without pockets), in the style that I think of as Madonna Iconography).

Use #9 of a Chitenge.  This is one of the President Rupiah Banda MMD chitenges, that they gave out free in the lead-up to the election.  Alison says that they were all burned in Lusaka and that even wearing an MMD shirt can get you beaten up in the wrong part of town, but I still see the chitenges around here.  You can just see part of MMD over her shoulder, and the only distinct word in the big circle is an inside-out 'PROMISE,' around a picture of RB.  The little circle on the bottom is clock with the words 'THE TIME HAS COME -- MMD' around the outside, not that you can see that.  Note the skirt: Use #1 of a chitenge.

Use #9 of a Chitenge. This is one of the President Rupiah Banda MMD chitenges, that they gave out free in the lead-up to the election. Alison says that they were all burned in Lusaka and that even wearing an MMD shirt can get you beaten up in the wrong part of town, but I still see the chitenges around here. You can just see part of MMD over her shoulder, and the only distinct word in the big circle is an inside-out 'PROMISE,' around a picture of RB. The little circle on the bottom is clock with the words 'THE TIME HAS COME -- MMD' around the outside, not that you can see that. Note the skirt: Use #1 of a chitenge.


This isn’t about Zambia, but I’m here and I made it and I’m very proud of it, so I’m going to show it off.

Laminaria shawl

Laminaria shawl

You can also see my new teeth. For the curious, here’s the damage when I broke them a month ago. (There is some blood and broken teeth. It’s not too bad, but if I look less than entirely happy, it’s because I’d just broken my teeth.) This is actually the first look I got, seeing the picture on Kathy’s camera, because if anyone had a mirror with them, they didn’t offer it to me.

(Update on the teeth situation: I ate banana bread with my teeth Thursday night. They were somewhat tender, and after a piece or two, I decided that it was easier to keep breaking the banana bread and putting small pieces into my mouth.)


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