To suggest that I have a problem hiding amongst the crowd in Africa would be an understatement.
In India, with a little dirt under my nails and hand washed, sun dried clothes, I can at least pass as a hippie tourist. People assume I have been there a while and that in place of a bulging money belt I probably only have a crumpled 500 rupees in my pocket.
Rwanda and Tanzania have provided me no such luxury. The extended conversations that eventually turned into a selling opportunity in Senegal have given way to a more blunt, “Hello. Faranga!” (or “Hello. Money!”); of which I was never sure if the structure was one sentence or two.
As I left for this trip I made myself a promise to remain open and never cynical. Trying to balance being both a curiosity and a commodity has made this promise ever more important.
I have lost count of the number of children to come running after me, yelling “mzungu!” (‘foreigner!”) as I walk by their home. Some just want to wave from afar. Some shake your hand and ask for money. Some have held me in an embrace so tight I didn’t think I would be able to peel them off. And some have simply walked up, grabbed my hand, and proceeded to walk blocks with me, even though we only shared a half dozen words in common.
These interactions seem to happen daily and are completely unavoidable as long as my skin remains the color it is. So long as “western” equals money it also equals opportunity. Every time a person walks up to me and asks flat out for money, I remember each person that has sat and talked with me, and then walked away, having wanted nothing but a little of my time.