Reflections on The Whiteness Of It All
” But why strange? Because the one is white and the other black?”
Sometimes I forget I’m white. It just doesn’t occur to me. But then there are the little reminders. We had to walk the five kilometers to Omuthiya to get a ride into Ondangwa on Saturday, and along the way, one of my learners who was working in a field called out to me. The field was really far away and I could barely see her, so I wondered how on earth she knew it was me. Oh yeah. I looked down at my arm and sure enough, it was white. We passed a homestead that was on the other side of the road, and some little kids there kept calling out, “iilumbu! iilumbu!” (White people!). So it goes. Whenever I see other white people (besides Zac and myself), I think they look funny and out of place; I wonder what they’re doing here—they don’t belong. But I guess that’s how Zac and I look to everyone else here too.
Here at Ekulo, we have been preceded by several other white volunteer teachers, so everyone treats us pretty normally. At Omege, the village where we trained, we were constantly being stared at like animals in a zoo. Here, I occasionally catch a few of the 8th graders loitering outside my classroom windows, spying on me—but other than that I don’t receive too much extra attention on the school grounds. The only problem is the road that is 3 meters from our back door—little kids that are herding cattle or goats up the road will often stop and hang on our fence shouting, “Hello! Give me bread! Give me water! Give me sweet!” I think it is some sort of game they play. At first, I felt guilty and would occasionally give them some water—after all, what kind of human would deny another human the basic necessity of water? But now I am that kind of human that would deny another annoying human, who apparently has nothing to do all day besides hang on our fence and demand sweets, the basic necessity of water. It took me a while to figure it out, but there are two other teacher houses facing the road and they never stop there asking for bread or water—it’s only because we’re white and “rich.” I know there is a famous cliché about “if you help just one person…” but I don’t believe it. By helping these kids, we would not actually be helping them, it would just encourage a dependence on handouts and promote begging rather than independence and initiative. Plus, they’re not actually starving—they have their oshithema just like everyone else. Furthermore, if we create that dependence, we will only be making it harder for the next volunteer who lives here, because they will be pestered everyday, just like us. I’m hoping that if we give them nothing for two years, they will eventually quit begging. But then again, they don’t have much else to do. Apparently.
One of the things I miss most is privacy and anonymity. It’s not so bad being around people all the time if none of them are paying any attention to you—but if everyone seems to be watching you, well, one is bound to become a little paranoid. Add to this that our house is sandwiched between the school and teacher houses on one side, and the cattle road on the other, and with learners dropping by our house all the time, we’re quite used to (although not entirely happy about) our complete lack of privacy. So this is the infamous fishbowl effect.
I wondered before I came here what it would be like to be in the minority. It’s definitely an interesting experience. And while I can’t actually compare our situation here to those of minorities elsewhere, it does give me a new insight into what it must be like. I can’t even begin to imagine how frustrating it must be to be a racial minority and discriminated against because of it. If anything, we enjoy a few benefits—like taxi divers recognizing us, and not getting patted-down by the security guards before leaving the grocery store.