Every time I leave the house in Tanzania, I’m reminded that white people, or mzungus (I believe the correct plural form of that word is wazungu, but I don’t hear people use it often) do not exactly fit in here. Most Tanzanians have firm preconceived notions of what all Westerners are like –intelligent and rich. So when a mzungu walks down the street in Arusha, every native eye follows.
Especially if that mzungu is female.
“Hey! Hello, sister! Mzungu! Mambo [hey]! Hi, baby! *kissing sounds* Will you marry me? Do you have a boyfriend? I love you. *whistle* Mzungu sister! Where are you going? Hey – hey! I love you! *car horn honk* Where do you live? Karibu [welcome], baby. Will you marry me?”
Every time a mzungu woman goes outside she hears most of these catcalls. She hears them in English, since many Tanzanians are bilingual and they assume all white people speak English.
Fortunately, most of the men and the things they yell are playful and completely harmless; during the day it’s relatively safe for us to travel alone downtown. I like my independence so I do sometimes, keeping a close eye on my surroundings. Per recommendation and common sense, my fellow Western volunteers and I dress conservatively when we go out, avoiding form-fitting clothes and anything that shows our knees or shoulders. We don’t wear much make-up or carry purses; we put our money in our bras or in belts around our waists. I have super long hair that I usually tie up. Basically we do everything we can to attract as little attention as possible. Unfortunately – and predictably – these efforts are always in vain.
I’ve noticed it’s beneficial, when you’re traveling abroad, to blend in and try not to look like the tourist that you are. When I studied in Italy two summers ago, for example, I pretended I was Italian. But no matter how hard I tried, I could not convince a single local that this blond girl with blue eyes and freckles and the palest skin in the country was a born-and-raised Venetian, or whatever. I think the only country where I could pull that off would be Ireland, where my genes are. And that’s only if I didn’t speak.
If I had trouble conforming in Europe, imagine the impossibility of this task in Africa. When I go anywhere with another mzungu, we feel more or less like a parade float. Kids scream after us excitedly, falling over themselves when we wave back. Middle-aged women look us critically up and down. And the men sweet- talk endlessly.
Here’s the thing. I know guys catcall in America, too, but I’ve never been somebody who’s garnered much of that kind of attention. I’m built like an athlete, not Jennifer Aniston. My “awkward phase” has lasted thirteen years and counting. I don’t have hips or a chest or a butt. Until recently I had approximately zero taste in fashion. I bit my fingernails, wore sweatpants out to dinner, and kept dyeing my hair awful colors and getting it cut at Wal-Mart. Most of all I tried everything to make my pale skin a little darker, to no avail – streaky spray tans, foregoing sunblock (DON’T DO IT), gourd-orange Jergens cream. But in Tanzania, the color of this skin is enough to catch the eye of almost every single guy I pass.
I’m not sure exactly why, although I have my suspicions. Is it an element of foreignness – because white women are a rarity in Africa, they’re automatically more desirable? I hate the word exotic, especially when it’s applied to women, but is that what they think I am? Do they shout after me because they think I’m wealthy just because I’m white? (News flash, boys: I am SO not. Wealthy, that is.)
When they talk to my friends and me, we have a pretty standard set of responses. Usually I ignore them – but as rude as my culture might consider their catcalls, their culture says I’m just as rude for not responding. So we tell them we have boyfriends at home, whether or not we actually do. If they ask us to marry them, we smile and say hapana asante (no, thank you). We respond to their greetings with “hi” or “how are you?” in polite Swahili. And we do not, obviously, ever tell anyone where we’re going or where we live.
But it bothers me that this is all still a race thing. I don’t get attention because I’m Heidi Klum, or because I’m a political figure or a celebrity, or because I’m extra friendly to people. I get attention solely because I’m white. And I’m not exactly sure if I could explain to anyone what makes my skin so great.