It seems that every time I speak to a native Ugandan, I ask a billion questions. I must sound like a broken record! “What is this? Why do you do that? What does this mean? How are you supposed to eat this??”
Yesterday, though, my new Ugandan friends gave me a taste of my own medicine and asked questions about the United States.
“I heard a rumour,” said one in a whisper, “that you could draw a rude picture of President Obama, making fun of his new law, and no one would arrest you for it! Can this possibly be true?”
“Yes,” I answered. “In fact, we publish those pictures in our newspapers and people enjoy them very much!”
He took a long sip of tea. “That would never happen here,” he said with a shrug.
They ask about our educational system. Many are surprised that we stay in school for so long – primary school and secondary school, and then university! How interesting. They asked about poverty and unemployment. They asked about the friendliness. The best way to compare is how Americans and Ugandans answer their doors. A Ugandan warmly welcomes you and invites you into their home for tea even if they’ve never see you before in their life. An American stands blocking the entrance and asks what you want. All of the sudden, the American way seems barbaric and isolated.
Walking with my new friends down the street, we passed another munzungu (white person). One asked me if I knew the other munzungu. I answered no, I didn’t. He was surprised. “I thought all munzungus in Africa knew each other,” he said, “since there are so few of you.”
He thought about it for a bit, and then suggested that I go talk to that other munzungu. I inquired why, since we were on a journalistic mission about local politics – something this other munzungu likely wouldn’t have enough knowledge of to be helpful. (Like me, I admit.) My friend said that if he was in America, he would approach every other African because he would be so happy to see someone from home.
“How would you know if they were African?” I asked.
“Well, he would be black!” said my friend.
“You do realize we have black Americans, right?” I said. “Not everyone in America is white, not by a long shot. You could spend all day approaching black people in America and never meet another African.”
This stunned him. “But, you only have white people in your movies!” he said. “If you really had black people, don’t you think they would be in movies?”
I didn’t have a good answer to American racism in pop culture.
I sat with another new friend for tea. During the workshop, we take tea twice a day. She had a million questions about the States. She, too, thought America was an all-white country. She wanted to know if I had ever seen a black person before. She was surprised that I wasn’t scared of Ugandans, since she assumed I looked at them like they are a different species with different clothes and different customs. She didn’t know how I could tell Ugandans apart, since she thought that a munzungu wouldn’t be able to.
I asked if she was scared of me. She said she was, at first, because she had never talked to a munzungu before. She didn’t think I’d be friendly or happy. I asked if we all look the same. She said yes, all munzungus look the same.