Life in a northern town:
Yes, people greet each other frequently on the streets. No, you cannot walk around comfortably post-8:00 pm, as street lights do not exist and the roads are often muddy and slick, realities of the rainy season. Yes, I am afraid of the stray-ish looking dogs that stare (or bark) at me as I walk to and from work. No, I am not worried about the lack of chocolate bars – Cadbury has a strong foothold in Arua.
There are colonies of bats. You think it’s a flock of birds in a tree as you run around the golf course (which is not actually used for playing golf.) But no, it’s a colony of bats. (The proper collective noun for bats is colony or cloud. I looked it up.)
Ugandan aerobics is the bomb.com. Imagine a combination of dancercise, boxfit, thaibo, and calisthenics for footballers. Tony, the instructor, is kind of mean in a good way and knows his stuff. The smell of gasoline emitted by the generator and the dim lighting are wholly overshadowed by the pump up the jam pump it up musical accompaniment and the synchronized aerobic movements of the mostly male class.
I like the local food, but definitely miss having access to an unlimited variety of cuisines for lunch.
The power goes out with quasi regularity. And sometimes, your phone and laptop are dead. Good thing you have 600 page novels to read 🙂
And, suffice it to say that I stand out here – a lot.
As I walk to work or stroll into town, I regularly encounter the now familiar chorus, “Munduhowareyou?” emanating from the children in my neighbourhood. (Mundu is the name for white person in Lugbara, the local language in Arua.) Unfortunately, my lack of knowledge of Lugbara and the limited amount of English my young friends possess constrains our conversations to a routinely simple exchange:
Children: Munduhowareyou? (Usually sing-songed at me as one word).
Me: I’m good, thanks! How are YOU?
Children: I’m fiiiiine. (Evidently, the only appropriate response to this question.)
I’ve become accustomed to my presence attracting stares, gawks, whispering, and other times just straight up laughter, from children and adults alike. Apparently, people often find the way I walk, dress, talk, etc. pretty hilarious. Mostly, this doesn’t bother me – I don’t perceive any malicious intent, and my personal space is rarely infringed upon. My personal rule of thumb for local folk of the adult variety – if you are greeting me and you are within a two to three metre radius extending from my person, I will exchange pleasantries and smile. As mentioned above, this is a small town and people often greet each other in the street. I’m happy to participate. That being said, I am not keen to respond when hollered at from across a yard or from the other side of the street by adult men – I don’t feel the need to be particularly pleasant or polite when these men are essentially yelling “Hey White Lady. White Lady!” at me.
It’s so bizarre – having lived the last four years in Toronto, one of the most ethnically and racially diverse cities in the world, it’s difficult to imagine a scene in which a person walking down the street would be hollered at simply because of the colour of their skin. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t think Toronto is a panacea of triumphant anti-racism by any stretch of the imagination. My comment is more a reflection on the fact that it is (A) so common for people of all races and ethnicities to reside in Toronto that as one walks to work in the morning, registering the skin colour of a passerby may not be top of mind; and (B) it is not socially acceptable to publicly identify people based solely on the colour of their skin.
Over the years, I have found myself in situations in Toronto where I was the only white person – birthday parties, bus rides, etc. But these events were few and far between. Yesterday alone, I attended an engagement party and a televised talent contest/concert, and later went to a club; at each of these three venues, many people were in attendance, and I was a hardcore minority of one.
Again, this mostly doesn’t bother me. I was at each of these events with friends, and I am treated with the same respect and courtesy as everyone else 99.9 % of the time.
But sometimes I wish my presence wasn’t so absolutely obvious. I am so conspicuous. Blending in is not an option for me. I try not to let this get to me – I’m white, I stand out, and once people have registered that I am sharing their space, they ignore me as they do everyone else. I don’t mean to sound completely narcissistic and assume that people are concerned with whether I am in attendance or not – I’m sure most people could care less. But I don’t think I can deny the fact that when I walk into a venue, one of these things is not like the other.
And sometimes my conspicuousness does necessitate having my guard up; of course, context matters. At the engagement party (pics below), I felt very fortunate to be a guest and was mostly concerned with not making a fool out of myself as we ate dinner – still getting the hang of eating rice with my hands 🙂 At the talent contest/concert, I was clocked, but then mostly casually ignored.
The club is the venue which necessitated the highest level of guardedness – of course, this is true for women of every race and ethnicity in every country in the world, as this space is notorious for men egregiously disrespecting women’s bodies – yes, I’m wearing tight clothes and I’m dancing in what could be perceived to be a sexual way – no, this does not mean you can put your hands on me or grind your pelvis into my ass or leg. Women who want to dance should have the freedom to do so alone, with their female friends, or with a member of the opposite sex, if they so choose. Is verbal consent perhaps more difficult to communicate in a loud, dark club? Yes. Is it still possible to speak closely enough to someone’s ear and ask if they want to dance? Yes. Is excessive, extremely direct eye contact followed by offering a hand potentially an alternative option? Depends on the person.
But I digress. Getting back to my personal experience with being on guard – last night, as we waited in line to pay cover, I was acutely aware of a man, way too close for comfort, looking at me in a strange way. His intoxication was apparent, and the way he was looking at me made me very uncomfortable. Unfortunately, before I had time to move away from him in the kerfuffle at the club entrance, his hand made contact with my chest – my response was immediate. I resolutely swatted away his hand and said to him very directly, DON’T TOUCH ME. End Scene.
Maybe this incident would have occurred regardless of the colour of my skin. Maybe not. I was rattled, and would have left immediately if anything similar happened again. It did not – everyone inside was generally respectful of each other’s space.
Upon reflection, in that moment before hand made contact with breast, I realize that the main thought in my mind was, “What are you going to do?” Fight trumped flight. Which I suppose is an important thing to know about myself.
But let it be known that I do not wish to find myself in confrontations with drunken men in Arua (or any town) ummmmm, ever. Thus, it is important for me to avoid situations where such confrontations are likely to arise. This means Caitlin doesn’t get drunk if she goes out dancing – she maybe has one or two drinks over the course of the night. And sticks close to friends she trusts. And goes home before last call. (I’m not professing “rules” or “guidelines” for white women in rural Africa (we already had that extremely involved debate on Facebook – love my fellow fellows). I’m just articulating what I have observed to be good rules of thumb in my particular context.)
Because yes, being white in Arua means I have conveniences and luxuries that most people here do not possess; indoor flush toilets, sinks, and electric stoves are not ubiquitous by any means. I acknowledge this and think a lot about the implications.
But being white in Arua also means I got hollered at from across the street on the regular and draw unwanted attention to myself when out at night. These are situations of which I am keenly aware. Because as much as I want to blend in sometimes, the fact remains that I don’t.