My Experience as an African-American in Uganda

Photo by Philip Hudson

Visiting the continent of Africa has always been one of my lifetime travel goals. I’ve always had the desire and longing to visit the place from where my ancestors originated. When I was made aware of Georgia State’s study abroad program in Uganda, I knew this would be a great time to take advantage of this amazing opportunity. When else would I get the chance to travel to Africa along with someone who is familiar with the culture, customs, and everyday life of the country I am visiting? I knew that this was a way in which I could experience African culture somewhat like a local, rather than a typical American tourist.

As an African-American visiting Africa for the first time, I was unable to predict what my feelings would be upon being immersed in this environment.  I did not experience an overwhelming feeling of being “home” as some others might have felt. I was, however, acutely aware of the fact that for once, I am no longer the minority. When I walk down the street, visit a restaurant, go to a store, or speak to an employee, I am more than likely seeing and talking to someone who’s skin is as brown as mine. As someone from a town in which, at times, I could go into a store and never see a face that looks like mine, this is a really comforting feeling. In fact, there have been multiple occasions when locals have thought that I was Ugandan! One evening we decided to attend an open mike night at a local restaurant in Kampala. During the event, I can’t even count the number of times that a person would come up to me and begin speaking in Luganda, the local language! As soon as I would open my mouth (usually to say “I can’t understand what you’re saying!”), the person would hear my accent and sound shocked that I was not a local. It makes me wonder how common it is for black foreigners to make the visit to Kampala.

When traveling through the countryside of Uganda, it is quite common for us to hear children waving at our van yelling “Hi Muzungu!” or “Bye Muzungu!”. The expressions on their faces are usually full of curiosity and excitement. Muzungu is an African term used to refer to a foreigner or white person. It is common for the people here to use this word as an adjective to describe anything foreign or touristy, including food or clothing. What strikes me most about the use of this word is that it is not being used in a derogatory way. It is used more so as a casual description. When observing the way in which Ugandans treat those who do not look like them in their country, I cannot help but think about the history of the treatment of people in America. Ugandans treat foreigners whose skin is a different shade with a warm, welcoming spirit. America is stained with a history of referring to and treating others not as Muzungus, but with words and actions that are filled with hate, belittlement, and oppression. The positivity, friendliness, and openness of the Ugandans is a trait of this culture that would be beneficial for Western society to appropriate.

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