Mind the Gap!

Culturally, Lubutu is superficially easy to figure out. Look a little deeper, though; and the challenge begins.

Culturally, Lubutu is superficially easy to figure out. Look a little deeper, though; and the challenge begins.

As I've written before, the Congolaise people are extremely polite. When passing on the street, strangers frequently greet each other with "Jambo" or "Bonjour." With me, the white guy, it is even more noticeable. Anywhere I go I am treated like a celebrity. The vast majority of people greet me verbally, smile, wave, or do all three. Kids run out of their houses to stare and their parents hold them up to wave. When I go running, all this happens at high speed. I get groups of kids running with me for short intervals, then falling behind with a laugh. Men stand on the roadside , wave, smile, and yell "courage!" But then the word "mzungu" appears. It's the Swahili way to express "white skinned" and I don't like it.

For the most part, the word is confined to small children. But when the little ones run and point and scream "mzungu!", their parents laugh and encourage them. No, I don't think that children here in Congo are innately racist, but I do think their parent's attitude makes them see race before any other character in a person.

For me this is difficult to understand. My country has a long history or racism. When children cry "mzungu!", my mind flashes to the treatment of African-Americans in the US in the 1960s, with racial epiteths being used as succinct descriptors. For example, in those times a physician who was married with children and a prominent community member, but who was also African-American would likely be succinctly referred to as "that black doctor" or something even less politically correct. Today, most Americans would describe this same person perhaps by profession, marital status, where they live, etc. If race is mentioned at all (and in my world, it usually isn't), it's at the end of the story, as an afterthought. Like most Americans of my age or older, I've worked to overcome the tendency to classify people primarily by race.

So why do people here find it funny and cute when their kids point at me and scream "whitey!"?

I asked the national (Congolese) MSF staff. They couldn't answer because I don't think they understood the question. To them, calling someone "mzungu" is not impolite. It is just a descriptor of a person; of course children will say it.

I asked the ex-pat MSF staff their opinions. Like me, most of them were very unsettled by the word after they arrived. After awhile, though, "you'll get used to it." One person told me a story of a lighter skinned West African who came to Congo to work and was called "mzungu" like the rest of the caucasians.

I know these children mean no insult, but I cannot help but make the mental leap to racist America of the 1960s. I'm trying to overcome this cultural gap, but am having some difficulty with this one. Hopefully time will heal.