I have always prided myself on my ability to fit in when I want. I have gotten quite good at blending in and going with the flow in different environments, but that’s going to be a harder task here.
When I studied abroad in Fiji, they were used to seeing travelers and foreigners. It wasn’t an exciting experience, but part of everyday life. Did I stick out in Fiji? Of course I did, but I was able to quickly navigate the culture and at least sort of integrate myself enough to be able to walk down the street without bringing a lot of attention to myself.
In Zambia, the people are amazing. Zambians are incredibly friendly, and it seems like they genuinely care about how you are doing and enjoy spending time to get to know you. However, I don’t know that I will be able to physically blend in here.
“Mzungu! Mzungu!” It’s like a soundtrack on repeat.
For those who do not know, mzungu means foreigner, or white person. From what I have gathered, there aren’t any negative connotations attached to the title, but it has quickly become an indicator for who I am as a person.
People see me as an outsider, and right now, I am. Many people in Zambia have never seen a mzungu before. I have had children be terrified to be in my presence. I have had people run up to me with excitement, just to touch and pull at my hair. I have had people just want to shake my hand to see if I was as human as they were, and then wipe off their hands like somehow my skin color had changed their own.
In the United States, we see people from all cultures and all backgrounds frequently, especially in large cities. We have been exposed to people of different races. Yet, there is still a lack of diversity in media and literature in many settings in the US.
Zambia has a similar problem. A country that has a very small population of white people has a large representation of white people in their media and literature. Children have seen white people in the books they have been given at school. They see white people on the television. They see white people on billboards and posters, but maybe they have never actually seen a white person in real life. The United States has plenty of diversity, but the minority lacks representation in many areas. Zambia seems to be lacking in diversity, but still uses a minority group in a large portion of their media.
At first I was really confused that people wanted to see if I was human, I mean, of course I am human. Just because I have a different skin color doesn’t dehumanize me, right? What a silly idea for me to have in my head. How were the people who have never seen a mzungu before supposed to know that I wasn’t any different from them, even though I do look very different?
During a tour of the unfinished CCAP Synod building, we were approached by two mothers and two young children from the neighborhood. The mothers approached and said, “Our daughters would like to shake your hand, if that’s okay with you?” I shook the smaller child’s hand, and her mother explained, “They noticed that you had different skin and hair, and wanted to know if you were the same as us. We wanted them to find out for themselves.”
It was clear to see that the young girls were a little apprehensive to meet the five white people that stood in front of them. However, as that young girl shook my hand, she smiled. She didn’t say anything, but she smiled and that was pretty cool. I thought it was great that those mothers wanted to show their children that differences weren’t something to be afraid of.
So yeah, I am a mzungu, but that only shows that I have so much to learn from Zambians. I know I am going to stick out in Zambia, and that’s okay. I just hope that by the time this year comes to a close, I have been accepted into the community that I will be joining, on Wednesday, as a partner and not a stranger. Well, and that maybe I don’t make quite so many babies cry.