Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Being White

Close of Service Medical Screening is a 3-day circus of invasive exams, uncomfortable samples and thorough disease testing. On top of these medical-festivities are seemingly endless administrative duties of report writing, financial closings and a paper-work-check-list with a whopping 46 items.

Today I managed to get 28 of those little boxes checked and most of my medical awkwardness sorted. By late afternoon I was finally exiting the dentist office and searching for a combi to begin the 2 hour trek home.

Damn. All that paperwork and dashing between appointments— now I’m confused about how to get back…

Do you need help?

I’m always embarrassed when I look lost in a place I consider “home”. Suddenly I’m a tourist and I feel the need to speak in Setswana or use a cultural hand symbol to prove I belong.

Uh… yeah—I can’t remember which way it is to the combis from here.

The man points me in the right direction. He’s smiling so I do what I always do when I’m far and someone’s being kind: I ask for a ride.

The smiling man can’t, but the guy behind him is going that way and, yes, he can take me—let’s go.

Hitching is Oh So Easy in Botswana. It’s a great way to meet friendly people, save some cash and shave hours off your trip.

So my 30 minute commute to the rank is sliced to 10 and two minutes later I’m launched into the get-to-know-you-banter with my driver. Here are the typical interview questions:

Where are you from?
What are you doing here?
How long have you been here?
When are you going home?
What do you make of our country?
When can you take me to America?
(and, smiling) Why don’t you marry a Motswana guy and stay?

My driver and I make our way through this set and still have 5 minutes to the rank. We slide into post-small-talk silence. Batswana are good at silence and I’ve come to enjoy it here. I begin to rest after a very long day.

We go through two more traffic lights and I can see the rank approaching. At the third light we stop and my driver turns to stare at me. I stare back and wait. He finally says:

What is it like to be a white person in Botswana?

I am so surprised by this question that I laugh. He laughs too. We’re uncomfortable together for a minute.

At the time I think I said something like:

Er... it’s nice… but sometimes hard because everyone notices you. Sometimes I wish I was black.

And he said something like:

Ah—but if you were black I wouldn’t have given you a ride.


And we laughed together because it was terrible and true and we were out of time.



But what a question. ‘What’s it like to be a white person in Botswana?” It’s something I stopped thinking about a while ago and something I think about every day. It’s hard to explain but, since being asked this, I’ve felt a need to articulate it.

Being white in Botswana is luxurious and horrific—almost simultaneously.
Being white in Botswana goes something like this:

- Everyone wants to talk to you and take your phone number
- Everyone wants you to give them money and food and take them to America
- People give you the good seat on the bus
- People rob you on the bus
- Kids want to shake your hand and mimic your voice
- Kids scream at you if they’ve never seen a white face before
- Women younger than you admire your clothes, hair, skin, body, accessories, makeup, music, books, etc.
- Women older than you scrutinize and criticize your clothes, hair, skin, body, accessories, makeup, music, books, etc.
- Hitching drivers rarely charge you for the ride
- Hitching crowds push you to the front so you can hail a ride for the group
- Students feel more comfortable talking with you about sex and problems and emotions
- Students feel more comfortable disrespecting you because they know you wont use corporal punishment
- If you’re thin you “look just like typical white woman” (is this good?)
- You are fat you “look just like a traditional black woman” (is this good?)
- Colleagues come to you for professional help and training and support
- Colleagues assume you’ll do all the work for them once you’re involved
- Strangers like to touch your hair
- Strangers like to touch you – a lot
- Shop and restaurant owners give you special treatment and lots of attention
- Shop and restaurant owners charge you more than other customers
- Taxi drivers are constantly shouting to you and offering a lift
- Taxi drivers are constantly shouting at you for refusing to pay more than the locals
- Men all want to date you, marry you, sleep with you
- Men all want to be seen with the white and not, necessarily, with the woman
- Other white people want to meet you and hear your story and become friends
- Other white people want to bitch about the culture and compare survival-stories and inspire your empathy
- You are never alone
- You are often lonely
- You are constantly learning about cultural differences and traditional norms and Tswana history and relational expectations
- You are constantly learning how little you know

These, of course, are generalizations and not always the case. Still, they are what comes to mind when I think about this question. So much privilege and opportunity mingled with so much frustration and awkwardness. Peace Corps has this cheesy little slogan that says “It’s the hardest job you’ll ever love” … but like so many clich├ęs, most days it’s spot on.

2 comments:

Nimadi said...

So true. So so soooooooooo true.

Anonymous said...

I lived in Molepolole between 1987 to '89 and everything you write here could have been written then.......