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Heading to Rwanda Part 3: Life as a "Muzungu"

07/16/2012 12:14 EDT | Updated 09/15/2012 05:12 EDT
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Some people stop blogging when they feel they have nothing to say. Apparently, I stop blogging when I have too much to say.

In the past three weeks, I have had enough new experiences to last me for at least three years, if not more. I just didn't know how to put them into words. (I know what you're thinking -- isn't she supposed to be a journalist!?)

For the sake of your fleeting online attention spans here's a short recap.

In the past three weeks, I have:

-- Been to more press conferences than I ever thought was possible (they really do a lot of these here!).

-- Stood about 30 metres from a tower of giraffes (YES! AMAZING! The Internet tells me that is the word for a group of giraffes!)

-- Seen baboons doing the nasty.

-- Killed my first cockroach.

-- Learned the phrases for hello, how are you, I'm fine, good morning, good afternoon, and bless you (for sneezing) in the local language, Kinyarwanda. Naturally, I also learned how to order a beer.

-- Learned the art of not falling off a moto which is speeding down the wrong side of a two-way street with a steep down-hill trajectory.

-- Hugged an impossible amount of strangers, including a UNFPA spokesperson.

-- Read the news live on air to an actual listening public.

I've been an incredibly busy bee. In some ways, I feel more at home in Kigali than I do in Toronto.

Having been raised in the prairies, there's something about being able to see really far in front of me that puts me at ease. Kigali has relatively few tall buildings, and tons of hills that provide fantastic views. It is home to around three million people (depending on who you ask), but has a small-city feel to it, which is just what I like.

We are spoiled here in Kigali. I fully realized this when I took a trip out to the Eastern Province a few weekends ago. Driving through village after village on my way to Akagera National Park, I caught only a brief glimpse of what life in rural Rwanda is like.

It's a very different picture than what you see in downtown Kigali.

On Life as a "Muzungu"

There's one thing I still haven't quite gotten used to here. Even though I live in Toronto these days, where I'm used to walking amongst crowds of people with different backgrounds, homelands and skin tones, I've never really experienced life as a minority.

I can't tell you how weird it feels to walk into a press conference and be the only white person in the room, or be walking to work and feel the heat of an entire neighbourhood's gaze as I pass. It doesn't necessarily feel weird in a bad way, but any white westerner who says they don't notice it is probably lying.

In Canada, we don't draw attention to people's race or skin colour too often, but here I can hardly go a week without being called "muzungu" at least a few times. "Muzungu" (sometimes also spelled "mzungu") has several meanings in Kinyarwanda, but most commonly, it means "white person." Depending on the context, it can be a simple descriptor, a term of endearment, or an insult.

There are actually lots of us muzungus* living in and around Kigali, but I'm often still the only one in a crowd.

The thing is -- there's nothing you can do about being a muzungu.

No matter how much you've travelled, no matter how much you know about Rwandan culture, no matter how long you've been here -- a muzungu is a muzungu is a muzungu.

I know some people here who shudder at the term. These are often white North Americans who wish so much to be a part of the amazing culture here -- to be seen as a local -- that they pretend like the term muzungu doesn't apply to them. I know I'm new to Africa, and have little travel experience, but I can't help but chuckle to myself at these folks.

Why be ashamed of something you can't change? Why be offended when someone calls you what you are?

I try to take being a muzungu with a sense of humour. My friends and I call eachother muzungu, we know all the "muzungu hangouts" and when moto drivers quote me outrageous fares, I just laugh and say, "Don't give me that muzungu pricing!"

Sure, I've felt the word sting a few times when someone says it out of spite, but I've also had little kids shout it at me with big, kind, toothy smiles.

As I get used to being a visible minority (strictly in the literal sense of the term), I am starting to realize what an incredibly valuable experience this is. I really have come to believe that every young person, if given the chance, should go and live as a minority for some period of time.

Seek out a culture completely unlike your own, where the locals speak differently, think differently, and look different from you.

No matter how much of an "outsider" you thought you were in high school, no matter how "different" you feel back home, being a visible "other" in a foreign country is a completely unique experience.

If you take it the right way, it can be fascinating and humbling.

I know it has been for me.

*The wise old Internet tells me that the plural of "muzungu" is actually "abazungu", but I haven't been able to confirm that with any Rwandans yet, and frankly, I've never heard it used.