Hey, Muzungu Jangu

Hey white person, you come! This is how, every non-Ugandan (regardless of skin colour) is greeted as they embark on a journey in Uganda, whether it be a 5 km or a 100 km ride matters not. As you approach a taxi/matatu (15-passenger van) park/stage or a boda-boda stage (where the motorcycle taxis hang out) all conversation stops and you must prepare yourself for the battle that is about to take place.  As soon as the conductors of the matatu or the drivers see you coming they will begin to fight for your attention, in the hope that you will pick their vehicle to take you to our destination.  This is when you will hear the famous phrase "Hey, Muzungu jangu!", which is often followed by the more aggressive drivers/conductors physically taking your arm or parking their boda-boda in your path and trying to lead you into his vehicle while he says "Muzungu, you sit, 1k". This means “I will take you where you are going for 1,000 UGX”. Now, normally this would be great. He is concise, and efficient in providing you with transport and at a clearly defined price. The problem? Well, you see, every trip costs a different price, usually ranging from 500 UGX-3000 UGX, depending on the distance. You will have not even specified your destination before a price will be demanded from you. This means that because of your skin colour, which inevitably means that you have money, the minimum fee would be 1000 UGX.  However, because you know the accurate prices, you are capable of conversing with the conductor in such a way that ensures you will pay what everyone else pays, while ensuring that you are not underpaying.  

Now, when choosing a vehicle there are a few things to always consider: 

1) If the price being offered is far too high right off the bat, you can be certain that you will be overcharged regardless of your negotiation skills, so just move on to the next taxi/boda-boda.

2) If you are travelling with a partner and the conductor of the taxi attempts to separate you, meaning that one of you is in the front seat and the other is in the back, don't get in! This is guaranteed to be a set-up for robbery.  The tactic used is always the same. You, in the front seat, will be told that your passenger door does not close properly and that you must hold on to the top of it with both hands to secure it, while the passenger (member of the “gang”) sitting next to you will quickly and efficiently go through your pockets/bag unnoticed. At the same time your friend in the backseat will be distracted by another passenger (part of the "gang") by dropping coins at their feet. Your friend will be asked to assist in picking up the coins and as they bend down their pockets/bag will also be emptied.  I wish I could say that this information was attained through secondhand experience but unfortunately my husband and I have been in this exact situation on two separate occasions, allowing us to avoid the third attempt.

3) If the conductor grabs your arm or in anyway is aggressive, just walk away...on principle alone.

4) If you hear chickens squawking from inside the taxi, save yourself the smell and the headache and find another taxi J.

Now, once an appropriate transport vehicle has been located settle in for the ride. Uganda is home to some of the most gorgeous scenery and lush greenery. However, if you let your eyes drift from the skyline and the trees overhead, you will be stricken by the reality of Uganda.  The best way to describe a drive through the villages is to imagine that every home has been turned inside out.  The women will be cooking on their coal stoves outside, the children will be bathing in the open, there will be adults and children resting on their mats, the laundry/dishes are washed by hand outside and left to dry in the sun, and you will see men and young boys urinating against the side of buildings or into the open fields.  You will likely become very aware of a pronounced feeling of intrusion as you stare out the window, as though you are spying on people’s most personal moments in their days.  Shortly thereafter you will realize that the very nature by which Ugandans live their lives embodies community living. They do not think of you as an intruder but rather of a visitor passing by their home. You will be greeted by the woman cooking, or the child bathing, or the man urinating, as if you had simply met in passing on the street.  The simplicity of life is so striking! Children will laugh as they chase their deflated soccer ball across the street, and women will boast the most genuine smiles as they visit with their friends while they all participate in the daily chores of their individual homes. 

A thought will often strike you as you continue your journey, as a non-Ugandan in Uganda you will never truly experience the joy in simplicity that is associated with the life of a villager because you will always be the person that is being called “Muzungu”. The one that the children will run out to call greetings to for the sole purpose of having you return a greeting. The one that parents will call to their children to “come look at the Muzungu”, the one that is viewed as a source of money to everyone, regardless of how little you actually have in your possession, and the one that always has the ability to leave this country and return to the one from which you came.  This does not take away from the beauty you will be immersed in or the joy you will feel as children will rush to hold your hand as you walk down the street.  However, regardless of the time spent in this country, you will always feel the presence of a barrier that seems to follow you wherever you go, the one that prevents you from truly seeing village life in its organic form, and that barrier is your own skin.

As your journey ends and you disembark the taxi, the conductor will attempt one last time to have you pay more than the normal fare, and will then laugh a jolly laugh as he realizes that you are not going to take the bait. As you walk away from the taxi you will inevitably hear the next driver/conductor calling, “Hey, Muzungu, jangu!” and the children calling out “Hey, Muzungu. How are you?! You will smile and greet them in return while you curse the label of “Muzungu” that will be forever securely fastened to you.   

~Lindsay Aboud