Sunday, April 6, 2008

On This Day Last Year...

Clouds catch like a claw onto the peak of Mt. Kenya as the constant mini-buses (mutatus) buzz by on a street in Arusha, Tanzania.

My travels gave me the most rudimentary sense of what it is like to be a minority. Rudimentary but instructive. In homogeneous Japan, I was no longer short at 5'1" but I was whiter than I have ever felt. In Russia my pale skin and blond hair helped me blend in but ideas of appropriate dress constantly caused Russians to ask me why I wore boy's clothing and no lipstick. In Europe, where I was happy to take a break with friends and family, I was constantly two beats behind conversation because of my very basic German. In Egypt, I was white and (therefor) Christian, twice the other.

But Africa, real Africa, made me a flashing neon white girl. Alone no less. The world over, color and class are inseparable; I was white and seen as a target for beggars and the needy. I was white, to be called after on the street, to be ridiculed and laughed at, to be hounded to no end, to be touched and followed, my clothes and hair and shoes examined. I was commented on by passers-by as if I were deaf, in both English and Swahili. A walking cause for verbal observation.

Everywhere I went I was crash-coursed on nuance. On one mutatu I was asked for a large amount of money for fare and only noticed the extortion when I caught the expressions on the faces of those around me. I protested and when the fare-taker argued back, several passengers stood up for me. I am certain I still paid too much but I felt like I had somehow held my own. But against what? Stereotype? Ignorance? Opportunity?

It is a joke in Africa to take tourists for all you can. We often get caught in our own white guilt or ignorance when negotiating rates (and in many places are openly required to pay more for lodging or services). The entrenched aid industry doesn't make it any easier for tourists: if you're white you must be there to hand out money. Certainly, how to pay in Africa is confusing. What are a tourist's moral obligations? What $10 means to me is extraordinarily different from what it means to a bus driver in Tanzania. How could I haggle over the $2 overcharge for a meal when I was somehow able to afford the expense of traveling on another continent?

Later in Ethiopia, a woman who had married a German and moved to Hamburg but was back in her home country to celebrate the Millennium, told me that she never knew white people could be poor until she arrived in Europe.

In Africa, and elsewhere, I had to let go of my personal self. I was white (American) tourist to any observer; I was not a unique individual. I was a type with all the accurate and inaccurate assumptions that come with being a type.

My entire time on the continent I was torn between my responsibilities as a relatively wealthy westerner and a frugal tourist trying to stretch her bucks as far as possible. What is fair? I won't ever have an answer.



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