Muzungu wouldn’t lie

I’ve had a couple days to adjust to Mbale. This morning I woke up fully adjusted to the time zone. Of course, I woke up at 6:30am when the rooster that lives in the yard started crowing. The little boys living next door hadn’t yet started their daily routine of running around the yard yelling. When I opened the door to get a breath of fresh air, I got a strong whiff from the cow tethered on the other side of the fence. Ah, Mbale.

I’ve also adjusted to my new name: muzungu. It means “white person” in various African languages, especially in East Africa. According to wikipedia, it literally translates to “someone who wanders around aimlessley.” The word is often yelled by friendly children. For example, yesterday I was walking back to the house where I’m staying and realized that a kid was saying, “Muzungu, muzungu, muzungu, muzungu!” When I finally looked over at him, he cheerfully waved. I waved back. I’ve also heard the word muttered under the breath by men I’ve walked by, perhaps less cheerfully.

Several interesting experiences as muzungu happened today. I had a chance to follow Eddie, one of MAPLE‘s Ugandan trainers, to his home village of Kumas. He goes there several times a week to teach financial literacy classes. Most of his students are farmers who sell in the local markets, so he teaches on the market days: even though the farmers are busy selling, it’s the only time they’re in town together.

To get there, we first went into Mbale town on a boda-boda. Bodas are motorcycle taxis, or sometimes regular bikes. One or two passengers ride behind the driver as he navigates rutted dirt roads, city streets, pedestrians and dozens of other bodas. Once in “downtown” Mbale we caught a matatu, which is a small bus slightly bigger than an American minivan. While American buses leave on a schedule, Ugandan buses leave when they are full. There’s a pleasing logic to that. Stenciling on the side announces a max capacity of 14, but they only stick to that in Kampala. Around Mbale, I’ve never seen one depart with fewer than 18 (including the driver and doorman/fare collector).

We rode the matatu north for half an hour, then hired another boda-boda once our route left the matatu’s. As we hopped on the boda, Eddie pointed to a mountain ridge far off to our right: “That’s where we’re going.” The ride took another half an hour. That’s 30 minutes of three guys on a rickety old motorcycle going up a rutted mountain road. We passed several large trucks headed the opposite direction. Entrepreneurial shippers drive up to the market, select and buy goods, and then drive them to Mbale or other towns for sale. Some of the trucks were also carrying a dozen or so passengers on top of the produce or hanging off the side. It made the boda look comfortable.

Once there, it became clear that Kumas had even fewer muzungus than Mbale. In fact, Eddie’s pretty sure I was the only one there today. None lived there, and few visited. I got a lot stares. Children would yell, “Muzungu! Hi, how are you?” I would respond, “I’m fine. How are you?” And they would respond, “I’m fine. How are you?” And this would keep going until I stopped. They never seemed to get bored with it. After a while I started greeting them with the Lugisu that Eddie had taught me: “Mulembe. Oriena? Bu lyi!” (Hi. How are you? I’m good!)

We walked through the crowded market where hundreds of farmers had come to sell corn, coffee, chickens, casava — I can only assume that today’s market was sponsored by the letter “C”, but I didn’t see any cookies. Some plantains and bananas had snuck in.

Eddie waits for his students in the classroom

Eddie taught his class in a small brick building with wooden benches on the dirt floor and no door. No blackboard either, but the wall was covered with chalk math: algebra, the quadratic equation, some trigonometry. “Children playing,” Eddie explained. “Smart children,” I replied. I sat through his class without understanding much (it was in Lugisu). The students were active learners and asked lots of questions. About 10 men and 2 women, ranging in age from maybe mid-20s to early-50s. After class, I asked Eddie about two words I’d heard him say frequently: “nenga” (maybe) and “chinae” (why). He was discussing possible products to sell together and engaged the class with questions (e.g. “Maybe you could sell this and this…” and “Why would that be a good combination?” — at least, that’s what I imagine he was saying). We paid a short visit to Eddie’s mom after class, then we headed back to Mbale via the same route.

A packed matatu
This picture doesn't do justice to how packed that matatu was.

On the way back, our matatu was stopped by traffic cops. They could easily see that it had more than 14 passengers. We had actually started with 23, but 3 or 4 had already gotten off. One of the cops spotted me in the back seat, and through the open window I heard him yell to another, “Something something muzungu something.” Eddie explained that the cop was planning to ask me how many people had been in the matatu, because a muzungu wouldn’t lie. Really? Had this cop never met a muzungu? Nevertheless, he came over to the window and asked how many had been in the van earlier. Ugandan traffic cops wear all white uniforms with black berets. It’s probably the least intimidating fashion choice ever. I told him that I hadn’t been paying attention and didn’t know how many people had been in the matatu. The cops spoke to the driver for a bit. There might have been a fine or a bribe, we weren’t sure, but they let us carry on with everyone on board.


The last couple days I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be an outsider. I don’t want to re-hash the history of anthropological theory and the meaning of culture and all that mumbo-jumbo. But I do want to figure out how to be a good outsider. How do you balance the deference people give you (e.g. the muzungu wouldn’t lie) with the fact that you get ripped off (I would have been charged double if I weren’t with Eddie)? Being a good outsider goes beyond respect, humility and understanding. Those are all very nice, but how do you operationalize them? How can an organization bring resources from the “outside” while working with those who have local knowledge, and avoid crowding out that local knowledge? Am I asking too many questions? Am I asking the right ones? It’s time for bed in Mbale. I’ve got a 6:30am wake up call…