The Only Mzungus At Market Day

Hawkers selling garlic, fresh ginger root, vividly colored fabrics, flip flops manufactured from recycled tires, and second-hand clothing lined the muddy thoroughfares as Rebecca and I soaked up another sensory-laden scene in Tanzania. The steady Indian Ocean breeze didn’t reach the inland market; the sun beat down on my uncovered head (thank you 50 SPF).

When you’re the only mzungus in a place, you’re going to attract attention, regardless of where you are in Africa. (As a side note, mzungu means “those who wander without purpose” in Swahili and is a term applied to just about all white people in East Africa–this is confirmed by both Urban Dictionary and our host Roy). But we were also with Agnes, our host’s wonderful Malawian housekeeper, who had generously agreed to accompany us; luckily, she likes outings and it’s clear she enjoys showing Western visitors the lay of the land. This made the experience a little less intimidating for us.

Visiting local markets is something we enjoy doing in every country we visit, but this one was the only one we’ve been to as the ONLY visitors/tourists/travelers (at least that I saw), and we did attract attention, some of which didn’t feel positive.

It was certainly a strong reminder of what it can be like to be an outsider, a position that privileged white folks like us rarely find ourselves in by choice or chance. And we have chosen to be in this position. There’s little equivalency between our own feelings of discomfort compared to those who have no choice whether or not to be persecuted/critiqued/harassed/questioned based on their skin color.

Imagine being the lone person of color in a classroom, working in a small office, or married into a racially homogeneous (lily white) family. There’s no doubt that skin color is noticed first, versus the other facets that make you human. Over thirteen years in the classroom, I saw assumptions about skin color play out class after class, day after day, semester after semester, both among students and towards teachers–including myself. Educator Rafranz Davis, who was often the only person of color in her classes growing up, sums up the phenomenon quite well:

Anyone that says that they “don’t see color” is lying. If you say that…stop saying it. You do. Try placing one color of skittles in a bowl. Now place one skittle of a different color in the same bowl. Shake them up and I dare you NOT to see the difference first. That doesn’t make you racist. It makes you aware and that is okay. On the other hand, put yourself in the position of “the different skittle”. You are also fully aware that when people see you, they see that you are different first before really “seeing you”.

That is what it is like as the only person of color in the room.

There’s no doubt that the locals at the market saw our whiteness first. It’d be impossible not to. And with that whiteness undoubtedly comes assumptions about wealth, money, etc. In East Africa, mzungus, almost by default due to pervasive poverty, are extremely privileged.

Taking pictures in this market also felt inappropriate, if not tacky. People trying to scrape by and make a living aren’t at the market for foreigners like us to gawk and document. But being in a place like this is also completely exotic for me, and I enjoy sharing our impressions of places and people. I tried to be discreet in taking some of these images and after our excursion, I came across this blog post by Amanda Machado explaining six questions you should ask yourself before taking pictures in developing countries:

  • Are my intentions for this photograph only about myself?
  • Does this photo represent a stereotype of people from this country?
  • If a tourist in my home country took a photo of me in this same situation, would it make me uncomfortable?
  • Do the photos represent people with dignity?
  • Have I tried building a relationship with the person I’m photographing?
  • (Most importantly) Have you asked permission?

During the market trip, I honestly didn’t ask for permission, but I tried to capture “scenes” representative of the feel of the place, and I can say with a little confidence that if I were a random person going about my business in a market at home and ended up in a tourist’s photo, it wouldn’t bother me. Overall, I feel OK about the images I took. And the above list is a good one–these questions are among those that swirled in my head during the market excursion.

The bottom line is this: For Rebecca and myself, being in a non-touristy place in Africa provides endless opportunity to reflect upon our privilege, issues pertaining to race, and what it means to be in a minority group, among other things. There’s no better educational curriculum than traveling on the edge of your comfort zone.

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