I was on a crowded beach in Maputo, Mozambique when it happened…
My expat French friends started laughing out loud and looking at each other a little uncomfortably as a Mozambican man stripped down to his underwear right next to us and ran towards the ocean, not without giving us a very long, direct look and leaving a pile of clothes behind him.
“What just happened?” I had to ask.
“He thinks that we won’t steal his things because we are white!”
We babysat the belongings of several other strangers who had the same idea during that afternoon. It was a holiday and Maputo’s Prahia del Sol was filled to the brim with people. The shoreline of the Indian Ocean just looked like a crowd of standing people.
It’s true that my expatriate, Maputo-dwelling friends and I happened to be the only white people on the beach at that given moment.
How ironic. Didn’t white people take…or STEAL so much from these people until just recently?
From resources to culture to their right to speak their local languages. The creepy taxidermy of the Natural History Museum (in all of its Portuguese colonial architectural grandeur) weren’t killed by Mozambicans…
But how did this get reduced to a white tourist girl half this guy’s age and her friends becoming a symbol of people who at least won’t swipe this his shoes on a beach. Was it just that or did it mean something more?
Then one Mozambican man sat down right next to me and started to chat me up:
“I love white people, they teach us how to live.”
Sure, he was trying flirt with me and I guess the most blatant thing about me at that moment was the color of my skin. Sure every country and culture has a different racial history and therefore different connotations and notions of what is polite and what isn’t…
But this guy left me completely dumbfounded and embarrassed.
Could you imagine if a person of color in the USA or in France used a pickup line like that? Hell, it would be strange for any person of any race saying something like that to any person of another race in the USA.
I asked him to elaborate.
“You all eat at nice restaurants and are so polite!”
It was starting to become clear that the guy loved rich people. In Mozambique’s socioeconomic system, not all rich people are white, but certainly almost all the white people are rich compared to the rest of the population.
Click here to read more of my posts about travel in Mozambique
But of course I can’t make grandiose assumptions. Apparently 2% of Mozambique’s citizens identify as white, and that’s almost 100,000 people. I, of course, did not have the opportunity to talk to all of them about their socioeconomic situations.
But I knew the income differences would be obvious before setting foot on the continent. The white (in addition to the people of color) expats I met in Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Botswana were all, well, rich compared to the general population.
Would they still be rich if they suddenly moved to Europe or North America? For a lot of them, probably not, but apparently if you teach in an international high school in Zambia you suddenly live like a king there. And in some circumstances you suddenly turn into an asshole as well.
And we rich people on the beach surely wouldn’t be interested in swiping some guy’s shoes, right? Maybe that’s what he was thinking…
Oh hi Colonialism
These interactions inspired me to ask a lot of people I met during my trip about their impressions of these countries’ colonial histories. Let’s just say I spoke with a ton of local truck drivers while hitchhiking across Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana, and Namibia etc in addition to lots of new friends, couchsurfing hosts, people on trains, people in restaurants and on and on and on.
I liked the truck drivers, though. They felt comfortable talking about taboo topics (like, well, Mugabe…) in the privacy of their trucks.
It surprised me that a lot of the black African men and women I spoke to had relatively neutral or even positive impressions about colonial histories. BUT I took a lot of their responses with a grain of salt…perhaps some people responded that way because I am white and they think I may feel some sort of connection to these colonists (which I don’t). Or they were trying to be polite. Or, perhaps they teach and learn about colonialism differently in these places than how I was taught and learned about it.
Perhaps they are brainwashed. Perhaps I am brainwashed.
I have no idea.
Plus, sometimes I couldn’t address the topic as I would have liked. It would have been weird to jump into one’s views on colonialism immediately after introducing myself to said person…
If I were to ask anyone in my circle of American and European friends about their views on colonialism in Africa I can pretty much predict that everyone will say that it was a terrible thing in some sort of way. I thought that the responses I would hear in Africa would be even more vehement since, well, it’s ground zero over there. It wasn’t quite what I expected.
But then again the white locals had a wider range of views- with some, but definitely not all, of the older ones being extremely negative and presumptuous (lol, is that a polite way of saying they were racists? They were racists.) about the black population and the younger ones being, well, not racist. Of course I didn’t talk to everybody ever and I can’t make generalizations, but there were certainly patterns among the people I ran into while on the road…
But that also leads me to wonder about how much of my own, American understanding of race affected how I understood and interpreted what these people, of any race, who have never set foot in America were telling me.
One recent thing I recently listened to that sort of addressed this stuff is this episode of the podcast Rough Translation about race identity in Brazil and how the American journalist kept imposing American views on things.
Bear with me! I am trying to be self aware!
But things aren’t just black and white, excuse the pun. Time and again black Mozambicans expressed a dislike of Chinese people to me. Apparently to colloquially call someone “Chinese” is synonymous with calling someone a thief among certain groups.
When I was in Maputo’s Natural History Museum, the glass display case for historical pieces of silver jewelry was broken and apparently someone had tried to steal something earlier that month. When I asked who did it my Mozambican friend and the museum worker both looked at each other and laughed and said “It was the Chinese!”
Was it really a Chinese person? Who knows. I think they were insinuating a broader idea related to China’s presence in Africa. Some called it a new colonialism, citing disastrous business deals and loss of natural resources. Though some people also saw it as a positive thing.
I like the topic of China in Africa and if you’re interested you can learn all about it with the China in Africa Podcast.
Being a minority somewhere, sometime and how things can get weird when it happens and you impose your own cultural and societal understandings on the experience.
Lol did that heading put you to sleep? Sorry if you just wanted a “10 cool things I learned in Africa” sort of post!
If you haven’t noticed yet, I am most definitely a white lady from the USA who happens to live in France. AKA I have the luxury of living in places where I resemble the majority of people who live there. If I don’t speak to anyone on the street in France, many would assume I’m just a Caucasian French girl. That would dissolve once they hear my word-vomit horrific American accented French, but still.
Of course I have situations in my daily life in the USA or in France where I am not part of the racial majority of the group of people I am with, but these situations are temporary. My housemates in France are white. My parents and siblings at home in the USA are white. I go home and poof I look like the rest of the group, or in France I just never leave my home.
It is comfortable.
But traveling in Africa and Asia cast me as a minority during every minute of every day (ok, maybe not in a Bangkok hostel full of drunk Australians, but you get what I mean).
It is a humbling experience. It is an important experience. But then you pass a white stranger on the streets of Maputo who smiles and says hi to you just because you both are white…then it becomes a weird experience.
Then it happens again. The white version of The Nod.
That article states “The Nod” in part as an “intimate statement of ethnic solidarity”. In my American brain, when the words “ethnic solidarity” and “white” come together it is ALWAYS a bad combination that will make me cringe at the very least. Does that apply to places where the ku klux klan never existed? Yes. Because colonialism existed. Would a white Mozambican citizen think that ethnic solidarity among other whites is an ok idea? I have no idea. I wonder what they think about colonialism.
I just wanted to say that it all made me feel very weird. Those white peoples’ nods were met by my very nonplussed look.
Also, just to add to the subject of how some things are racist and rude to some nationalities and cultures and others are not, Sub Saharan Africa is often translated to Afrique Noire (Literally, “black Africa”) in French. I’m sure that would make more than a few people from the USA cringe!
Sticking my foot in my mouth
We all make mistakes, and thankfully one kind South African woman corrected something pretty horrible that I was unknowingly doing while in South Africa. In South Africa there are large groups of people who identify as being Coloured. Using that word to describe someone in the USA is a big NO NO. I felt so awkward saying coloured in South Africa that I thought “mixed race” would be a polite way to refer to this community…well, turns out that calling a coloured person mixed race in South Africa is like calling a mixed race person coloured in America.
At least most people could just dismiss me as a dumb tourist…I learned my lesson!
But back to being a minority
But I will never be able to claim that I have experienced being the only minority enough to know what it is like to be a person of color in the USA or anywhere. I don’t want to try to usurp that experience and those voices.
Plus, being a white person in some of these African countries usually resulted in me being put on a pedestal. That felt even weirder and is definitely not something I usually hear about when my friends who are people of color share some of their daily experiences related to race with me.
That takes us back to the man on the beach: to him, white is rich. Anywhere in the world you will find people being nice and polite to rich people.
Boys also wanted to be seen with me, even when I was practically wearing a potato sack and covered with dust. In Zambia and in Mozambique I had several instances when young men would approach me and want to just walk around town next to me. When I finally lost my patience and asked them why they were doing that they would respond with “Everyone will think that I have a white girlfriend!” Geez.
People let me cut lines, people gave me the best seats in public transport, people willingly invited me to stay in their homes. People trusted me without knowing anything about me. That’s white privilege. But this obviously doesn’t only exist on the African continent…
I can’t write about colonialism in Southern Africa without also mentioning apartheid. I still have so many questions that only will be answered with time, but I ran across something I wrote in my journal that stuck with me. I was in a car with an older, white South African man. We had been at the same lodge in Lesotho and had spent some nice afternoons chatting since we were both traveling alone. He offered to give me and some other travelers a ride back to South Africa and while we were in the car he just stated out of nowhere, as if he were addressing some sort of elephant in, well the car (ok sorry I JUST HAD TO THROW IN AN AFRICAN WILDLIFE PUN I promise I will never do it again):
“You know, I lived through Apartheid. If you can believe it, people actually thought it would be a good idea, but put into practice it was so horrific. I just feel so much shame.”
Do most white South Africans actively feel shame? Should the youth feel shame? Do Americans feel shame for our own attempts of “separate but equal” BS? Or slavery or just all the violence against the long list of minorities who have been dehumanized over the centuries including right now?
I was happy he shared that. I was also thankful that several black South Africans shared their own stories and experiences with me, but I still have so much to learn!
If you made it this far down…
I’m not so eloquent with these subjects, and like a lot of white people I sometimes get uncomfortable when I try to talk about race. I am thankful for being able to learn about the experiences and ideas of so many people during my travels, and I hope that I will continue to grow as a person with every trip I take.
I may not know the intricacies and details about colonial history or race relations in certain parts of the world, but I do have my own experiences and felt like it would be worth trying to organize them to share in case anyone out there is interested. Plus, writing a blog gets boring when all your posts are about how to get from point A to point B!
Selfishly, this whole blog is an exercise in “putting myself out there” and that, apparently, includes sharing ideas in addition to manicured instagram photos.
Thanks for reading.