Fulfilling a stereotype?

One of the most shocking things I heard this morning came when leading members of Ogongora church were introducing themselves to us. More than once they shared that the children had been scared of us when we’d arrived the day before because we were white, but that today they realised that we were friendly so they were keen to say hello. [Which explained the very enthusiastic crowd of children who greeted me as soon as I stepped down from the truck.]

I arrived in Uganda very conscious that I was a ‘muzungu’ (the generic term for ‘white person’) and that as such, I carried a lot of extra baggage – colonial history, assumptions about aid and charity, not to mention simply being one of a very obvious minority. With blonde hair and blue eyes, I don’t look anything but European and there’s no point trying to hide it.

I’ve been in the same situation elsewhere in the world – in Palestine (where I scored extra points while haggling for being British, not American) and in Tonga (where I was regarded as a papalangi until I produced my trump card of having been born in its capital – at which point all Tongans congratulate me on being Tongan) – but nowhere has it had the connotations it has here.

My adult life has largely been spent understanding why ‘the west’ and ‘Europe’ and ‘whites’ have this reputation. Firstly, studying a MA in Imperial & Commonwealth History, specifically the relationship mission had with the empire. Then, working for two different Christian mission organisations, where I tried to persuade British Christians not to look for the stereotypes from overseas mission – I despaired when, time and again, requests were made for photos of ‘black babies’.

So I came on this trip determined not to be a stereotype. To remember the lessons I’d learned about cross-cultural engagement. To learn from the communities we visited, rather than believing that I had anything to teach them. To write and take photos that would help people back in Britain understand that the work Tearfund is doing is the antithesis of traditional, old skool conceptions of what ‘mission’ looks like.

Discovering that the children had been afraid of us was a major blow to this ambition. Even outside the village, we were regarded as near celebrities – muzungu are a rare sight in rural areas and time and again we were greeted by waving children stood at the side of the road as our van passed. In our eyes, many of the people we’re meeting in Ogongora are the celebrities – after all, we’ve watched videos of many of them over the last few months!

This afternoon, I felt that I’d become even more stereotypical. This photo explains why:

Liz & baby

That’s Pastor Peter’s 6 month old son. He reached out to me when I went over to say hello, so I gave him a cuddle. But, as I looked over and noticed Bex and Dave taking photos (that’s Dave’s image above), I felt like I was a throwback to the 19th century – a well meaning white female missionary cuddling an African baby.

Then, I added to the stereotype by becoming a bountiful visitor when we got back to the church building. The older children had returned from school and I handed out bottles of bubbles and balloons for them to play with. Chaos ensued. I knew it was an ok thing to do (Holly from Tearfund had mentioned the bubbles she’d brought on here visit here and I thought they’d be an easy thing to pack.) but that didn’t stop me from feeling like it was a token gesture.

Balloons through the window

All the same, it made for some great fun with the kids and an amazing array of photos just before we returned to the guest house for the evening. Those, and a selection of others from the trip so far are now up on Flickr (my aim is to add a certain number each day as a flavour of what we’re up to and then complete the set once I’m at home and with wifi).

Bubbles!

Fun with digital cameras & children...

POST EDIT:

Overnight, I kept thinking about this post. I was worried I may have sounded too negative – but was relieved to get online this morning and discover that others have had similar experiences. It had also struck me that being ‘scared’ of those that are different from us is not uncommon in the UK either – I suspect the Daily Mail features articles that encourage such feelings on pretty much a daily basis. It’s natural, but it’s overcoming that fear that’s important. Similarly, it’s ok when we happen to unintentionally fulfil stereotypes, as long as we recognise the stereotypes and are able to reflect on what we really want to be doing.

This live-blogging a trip business is tricky at times – in an ideal world I’d love more time to reflect, but it’s the raw reactions that are also important. Thanks for your patience!

Comments

  1. Lovely images Liz, really fantastic. And yes, I get the stereotyping thing, you don’t want it but it just sort of happens and can’t really be avoided – especially among a people who really know how to do ‘joy’, ‘thankfulness’ and ‘greatful’ in a way I think we’ve lost in ‘the West’. What amazed me in Lowero (and Eastern Cape, SA) in 2006 (with Mothers’ Union) was the number of people who treated me as a celebrity because I’d made an effort to visit them – it’s just it only cost me money and a bumpy car journey, but they would give up a days work on their own incoming generating projects to walk ten miles to see me. Utterly humbling.

    Look forward to the rest of the posts.

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