Other White People

"Am I Just Muzungu, or…?"

Kigali was not the most welcoming place when I first arrived, fifteen months ago, on a warm day in late January. It was a Thursday, and my first day of work was the very next day, and as I walked from my then-residence at Prima 2000 to my office across from the Meridien Petrol Station, I watched as lines of workers chopped away at plants with their machetes.

This was my second impression of Kigali. My first was Hotel Rwanda.

At first I didn’t find white people much more accommodating. The couple that I was living with—my former boss and his wife—introduced me to a strict doctrine of self-identity; there was a decent bakery and gym at the Novotel, and a fine Chinese restaurant next door. There was a "dark cloud" hanging over Rwandans here—according to the wife—and French people as a whole were elitist and caste-like.

My boss at the time, an American Vietnam veteran who played football for the University of Missouri, claimed to be a mix of English and Syrian, and made it a point to remind everyone of his days in Dubai sipping tea and smoking sheesha with his ‘friends,’ by the Mosque.

Now I can see them for what they were, imposters who used my first impressions to hijack an innocent mind curious about exchanging his life experience with others, ’experts’ who had recreated their identity in a small bubble based on their skin color

I was soon gone from their employment, but found it difficult to break free of the world I had been dropped into.

I found myself amidst rotating tables at expensive restaurants, rotating chairs, effigies of friends, a constant conversation of politics or macro-economics, acronyms and love affairs. Individually, people could break free of these chains and find commonalities independent of circumstance, but as a whole, as a machine of sociology, the white-world barrier was not an easy one to break.

What was most challenging about finding myself here were the undertones of competition amongst and within the ex-patriot community, which saddled under a veneer of a one-and-all fraternity. Walking down the street in Kigali, you could be conscious for metres that you were about to pass another muzungu, and once you did, eye contact would very rarely be made. If so, it was a stern jerk of a nod.

At dinner conversations, I became increasingly—so sadly—ashamed of where I fit into the grander caste system of foreigners in Rwanda. I was an intern for a virtual ‘research organisation’ and after that, a writer for the local newspaper. The amount of name-dropping, countries visited, and statistics referenced made me insecure and maybe defensive. When looking at girls, and trying to find romance, I saw that I was of little interest to many. I was either too new, and them already too established, or I didn’t ‘match up.’

Due to the state-of-affairs foreigners live in here, a place they never truly call home and a place often easy to leave behind, I found myself as an ‘elder’ in this community within seven months.

Now I have re-affirmed myself as someone comfortable with his place in this bubble of a bubble of a bubble, but still uncomfortable with the bubble itself.

I found ways to conquer the outside world. The friendships I made at the local newspaper—The New Times—would be the first I called any value, and the musicians I would later work with in Lower Kiyovu are the ones I will miss the most when and if I leave.

Yet in these communities too I will always be an outsider, and outsider because my skin is white, my pockets deeper, origins from the Emerald City and, of course, the ability to go back if I wanted to.

And no matter how many times I walked down the same roads in the same neighborhoods, I received the same stares from the same people.

Now, when I walk down the street and the Rwandese stare me down, I no longer look down in self-consciousness, I stare back and say, "Umwirabura," or when a local ‘friend’ starts hitting me up for money, it’s easier to refuse.

But to my own community I am still hesitant. I venture into Bourbon coffee timidly, careful of my privacy. I move swiftly when walking through the Milles Colline for a meeting, and look the other way when muzungu venture into my Nyamirambo. Recently, on my way to a restaurant in Kimihurura, I fought the growing feeling—certainty—that as soon as I walked through its doors I was to see a face I knew and a name I forgot and awkwardness and voyeurism would ensue. So it did, exactly like I thought.

Recently, I was feeling particularly lonely and tried to find someone to attend the (very-exclusive) international food fair at the American residence. When my friend left me waiting, I gathered the strength (or submitted to the weakness) and went alone, knowing full well and comforted by the fact that I would see people I knew there anyways.

I didn’t care much for the moral question of the food fair—Frw6000 to pretend you are in Pleasantville, USA—but just marveled at the reality of this little island I was on. It literally was a wormhole, and emissary outpost to the max, a matrix of forced conversation. It would have been fun with another person, but I found myself standing under the beer tent sipping and eyeing.

There are a lot of muzungu children I had never seen before. I went to the German tent and helped myself. I felt myself relax a little after my second draft. Soon, as sure as the blood in my veins, someone came up and said hello. My heart felt lighter. I had mozzarella cheese after, and a long talk with a mutual friend about a mutual friend. Sometime after my cheeseburger from the American stand, I came to a sort of peace with myself.

Would have been more at peace if drinks were included.


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