I looked around me at the dense cloud that was settling around me, stretching from an unknown point in the sky all the way to the ground, and pulled the zipper on my coat up as high as it would go. It was late on a cold, misty, and soggy Sunday morning, and I had just been walking a friend of mine to the bus stop near my house. I followed the narrow dirt path along the fence near my house, my legs pushing away overgrown plants and stepping over various pieces of disintegrating and dusty pieces of trash that lay strewn across the narrow line of grass that has been beaten into a path of sorts. I looked down just in time to avoid treading onto a dead frog that was lying on its back with its appendages splayed out in all directions. It was as flat as paper and at first glance, looked like something a child had cut out of a piece of cardboard and discarded. I reached the end of the fence, turned left onto the dirt road, and passed the church that is just a few doors down from my own house. Waves of singing voices floated out of the windows, beautiful even if lacking perfect harmony. They rang out from the church only to be swallowed up by the mist that was hovering over the world that morning. I was just losing myself in thought, wondering if I could claim that I attend church by proxy every Sunday by simple virtue of living close enough to hear most of the service each week. At that moment, a small voice interrupted these ponderings. “Hey, umlungu!”
I turned to look at where the voice had come from and saw a row of young boys peeking at me from behind the fence surrounding the church, covering their mouths and laughing when I caught their eyes. “Hi, umlungu,” one of them shouted again, waving a stick at me and grinning. The others looked at me with big smiles on their faces, which conveyed their expectation that I wouldn’t understand them or be able to respond. “Sanibonani,” I said to them (the plural version of “hello”), which caused them to look at each other delightedly and erupt into even more giggles.
“Umlungu” is the Siswati word for “white person,” and it’s a word that has been forced into my vocabulary more times than I can count. As I walk from the bus rank to the Save the Children offices every morning, I pass a parking lot where young men wash cars on sunny days, and at least one of them will usually shout out to me – “Sawubona, umlungu!” During my first weeks in Swaziland, I went into the field for the Day of the African Child and sat in the backseat of the Save the Children truck. We maneuvered our way through crowds of children and community members thronging towards the event, and as we passed, I could hear fading voices shouting after the truck, greeting the umlungu in the backseat.
And this morning, as I was walking from the kombi to one of the shops in the plaza, I took a path around the perimeter of the bus rank that brought me by the vegetable stands arranged haphazardly on the sidewalk, with women sitting wearing strategically tucked strips of bright cloth as skirts, with matching colors wrapped on their heads in the shape of cones. I looked over at one just in time to see a young mother pointing me out to her child, who could not have been more than 3 years old. The girl looked at me, and I smiled and waved at her; she broke into a crumpled grin and shrieked “UMLUNGU!!” as she waved furiously at me.
So I am no stranger to the word.
That morning in front of the church, the group of boys gaped at me when I greeted them in Siswati, and I stopped to talk to them more, crossing my arms in an attempt to keep warm. These boys were tiny, and the oldest looked like he could not have been more than 7, while the youngest may have been 4 – although there was a strange adultness to his mannerisms that I always find amusing in children so young. In greeting them, I had apparently opened the door for what quickly turned into an interrogation.
“Who was that man you were walking with?” one of them asked, looking me in the eye.
“Yes, who was he?” another demanded. “Was that your husband?”
“No,” I said, simultaneously amused and cautious. “That was a friend of mine who came to visit this morning.”
The youngest boy surveyed me with slightly narrowed eyes.; “Where is your baby? Don’t you have some baby?” he said, his eyes sweeping up and down my body to find the baby that was surely hidden somewhere on my person. His voice was laced with suspicion.
“I don’t have a baby,” I said, holding my arms out to illustrate my lack of child.
This was met with even more suspicious looks. “But…don’t you have a husband?” they asked.
“No, I don’t have a husband either,” I replied.
More awed stares. Looks were exchanged. “Why don’t you have a husband? Don’t you ever want to get married?” asked one of them.
I decided at this point that I did not owe these children any further justifications for my life choices and changed the subject. “What are you boys doing out here?” I asked them.
“We’re just playing,” one of them said. “Are you rich, umlungu? Do you have DVDs that you watch?”
I showed them my empty pockets and explained that I am not rich, but that I do have a few DVDs that I can watch in my house.
“You must please borrow us your DVDs,” one of them piped in. “Please, umlungu. Just one DVD!” he said, holding up his index finger for emphasis.
“We’ll bring them back to you next week,” added another boy.
“Umlungu, this man is lying to you!” exclaimed the 4-year old, pointing an accusing finger at the 5-year old “man” standing next to him. “He won’t bring back your DVD to you!”
“Umlungu, THIS man is lying to you! I will bring back your DVD!” cried the 5-year old in response.
The conversation continued like this, with me watching with increasing amusement, until I finally broke away and walked the short distance back to my house. Cries of “Goodbye, umlungu!” followed me down the dirt road until I turned into my gate, looking back one last time to see their faces pressed up against the fence, hands grasping the bars on either side of their heads.
The ironic thing is that, despite being an umlungu in the eyes of most people, my good friends here have reached the consensus that I am not actually white at all. When I was living at the guest house, I wandered into the kitchen one afternoon to find John standing over a huge pot of soup, which he informed me was for the braii (BBQ) being held next door. “But you can’t go, sisi,” he said. “It’s only for white people – and you’re not white anymore. You are black like me, sisi.” Another friend of mine told me recently that I am one of the few “black-white” ladies that he knows. I asked jokingly if that wouldn’t just make me an unappealing shade of gray, and he laughed and said that no – I’m just black-white, period. He said that some people are merely painted white over a soul of another color – or of no color. “But actually, sisi, I can’t find anything that is really white about you.”
Talking about race this way reminds me of the way people speak about gender as a social construct, which sometimes flies in the face of what we assume are biological truths. Declarations like the ones my friends made give me a sense of having been accepted, but it also stirs up a deeper, more troubled feeling about what it means to be white, and what it means if I have white skin but am not truly white, as they say. What does it imply in this part of the world to have white skin? I don’t really think of myself as white, or any other color, to be honest. Most of the time here – I’d say about 90% of the time – I am the only white person in whatever space I am in, whether it be in a work meeting, with friends, or sitting in a kombi. And except when someone shouts “Umlungu” at me, or when another white person is present, I think about it only rarely.
On the other hand – although I don’t spend much time with the American/expat crowd here – when I do, I find that the issue of race constantly permeates my thoughts. When I am surrounded by Swazis, being white seems like a faraway reality, but when I’m in a crowd of whites, my awareness of my color is suddenly acute and heightened, and I sometimes feel out of place. It is a very strange experience. I am interested to see how these feelings evolve as I am here longer, and how they would change if I made more of an effort to spend time with other Americans. I think that I have yet to truly let go of the idea of having a Peace Corps-like experience, and that translates into my wanting to integrate as much as possible with the local people and to be a part of them. Since I am here on my own, without an organization to push me in any certain direction, it’s up to me to make my time here exactly what I want it to be.
I feel more accepted and comfortable in many respects when I am with my Swazi friends, and it ends up feeling almost like a betrayal if I spend too much time with non-Swazis. I’m not sure who I feel that I am betraying (is it myself, my friends, or an idea?), but the feeling is present, and all I can do is analyze where it is coming from and where I can go with it. I had expected to stick out among Swazis when I first arrived here, but what I didn’t anticipate was that I would feel so out of place among people of my same color. So, I find these thoughts occupying more and more space in my head, and these days, the idea of belonging seems to be a slippery concept at best.
Cries of “Umlungu!” pick me out of the crowd as I walk through town. Yet I prefer the idea of being colorless, and of possessing a core that is defined not by the skin you were born with, but how you have transcended it.