Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Those funny rich Muzungus

A conversation with our (Rwandan) housekeeper:
- How much do soup plates cost here?
- 1000FRW per plate
- 1000FRW?? surely there must be some cheaper ones.
- No. 1000FRW for some plates which look nice and are also presentable for guests.
- But we really just need something simple and cheap.
- Well, ok, there are some that are cheaper, but they are not so nice. And not... (she giggles shyly) ... not good enough for white people.

I didn't know what to say after that.

This story is representative of the relationship between normal Rwandans and Muzungus in Rwanda. (Although I suppose having a housekeeper also contributes to this attitude.) We're rich, we eat better food, we wear new clothes (instead of second hand clothes), we drive everywhere (never walk), we shop in La Galette (the expensive German supermaket inRwanda) and even if we walk into a "normal" Rwandan shop we still pay Muzungu prices (10-20% more).

Going against the expected norms of behaviour generally creates confusion, alienation ("What are these funny Muzungus doing now?") and sometimes embarassement ("Why is this rich Muzungu in our dirty little bar?"). Luckily, attitudes are softening a little in Kigali (people don't even turn their heads anymore when I walk into my local cafe) although in parts of the countryside, one could get the impression that little has changed since the first white explorers wandered through. You can get out of your car in an apparently abandoned part of the countryside, and within 3 minutes you have a group of 5-10 Rwandan children asking you for empty water bottles (useful for transporting water in the countryside) and money.


Dweep said...

Funny indeed, to look for a cheap plate that serves your purpose, when you are white and can have an expensive one that does the same thing :-)

You are right, however, in that you are always reminded of your (racial) identity in Africa. It bothered me in Kenya, but I finally just came to terms with how far I could 'fit in'. My friend, a Canadian that had live in Vanuatu put it well:
Some people rebel and just go back to the expat community while others push away the expat crowd and try to give up their local culture. In other words they go “native.”...Personally, I think somewhere in between is ideal in that you need to know who you are and where you come from. Same time while you need to put yourself out there and learn sometimes it is ok to recognize your own comfort level and take a back seat when it comes to integrating.

Good luck Maurice. I hope you can laugh at yourself :-)

David said...

La Galette - Interesting name for a German supermarket. Is it a chain? Does galette mean wafer?

Maurice said...

I think Dweep's comment summarises the situation well. The solution is to find the middle ground, and learn how to bridge the 2 cultures. A difficult position to be in, but it is also the challenge that interested me in this career in the first place. Also, bridging cultural and national divisions is of course also one of the key reasons why European governments are ready to fund work like mine. I am in some ways a tool of Dutch and German foreign policy.

On an entirely different subject,
I thing a "galette" is a type of savcory crêpe. I don't know why they chose that name. Presumably, they thought that french is chique ;-)