I, Muzungu

How about that ride in? I guess that’s why they call it the Land of a Thousand Hills…

Oh god…the handshake thing.

It happens almost every day and every time it does, I can see it coming but I’m completely powerless to stop it. It’s like seeing the trajectory of a social trainwreck, but instead of being a hero and saving all those innocent bystanders, I freeze and get run over by the steel rail choo-chooing of cultural differences.

Rwandans, and East Africans in general I’m learning, have this thing with complex, convoluted handshakes with a loose choreography that was universally agreed on at some secret council meeting I wasn’t uninvited to.

It has a couple of steps…I think:

There’s the presentation, the wind up, the slap, the grip and the release. That I’ve got down, at least slightly.

But from there, the routine breaks off into a thousand variants that always leave me standing around looking like someone just asked me to recite the quadratic equation. The snap, the fist bump,  the grab, the pull, the switch, the linger, or one I like to call “The Awkward Pause” where you just kind of hold hands for an undesignated period of time.

Half the time I feel like Steve Urkell backstage at a Wu-Tang concert.

It’s weird, but there are some things here that you just start getting used to, things that back home would seem just wholly strange and inconceivable.

–          Some mornings, *ahem,* every morning, there is no running water in our neighborhood

–          Bathroom facets and shower heads have one direction: on. If you want hot water, boil it, or leave a bucket in the sun

–          I have over 10 roommates but only 3 actually pay the rent. Be warned, geckos are sneaky, treacherous and freeloading reptiles

–          Men casually walk down the street platonically holding hands

–          If you don’t properly set up your mosquito net before bed, you’ll wake up bumpier than Tommy Lee’s genitals

–          If you don’t properly tuck in said mosquito net, spiders will creep into your bed and bite you while you sleep. No superpowers yet. Fingers still crossed.

–          There are armed military guards on every street corner packing enough heat to kill everyone on the road in a moment

–          The price of absolutely everything is inflated because you don’t even have the option to play it cool and pretend you’re a local, although I’ve tried, with varying degrees of consistent failure

I’ve never really had the experience of feeling out of place before. I mean, I had the usual teenage angst ridden years of hormonally-induced self-deprecation like the rest of you, but I mean truly feeling like I was different, an outsider.

When I walk down the street I can almost feel them, eyes following me as I try to blend in with the crowd, the kind of consistent gazes that would give Sauron a run for his money in a staring competition. That gnawing, nail biting sense of self-awareness where all I want to do is sink into the woodwork like a flea but can’t, and just when I think that maybe I’ve finally got it, a kid will usually give me away.

“Muzungu! Muzungu!”

Yes, yes, here I am. They stick their arms towards me out and I fumble their tiny hands into what I play off as an acceptable handshake.

I’d always been given the choice to stand out or blend in, something that made my job much easier and also kind of made me feel like a ninja at times. But here, I always feel like a stranger, regardless of the fact that Rwandans have been indescribably welcoming. I’ve never felt unsafe, but I just can’t seem to get used to those gazes and the feeling of constantly being under a spotlight, lit up nice and bright for the world to see and stare.

I’m reminded of my first ride on a motorcycle taxi, desperately clinging to that little handle, terrified and exhilarated, holding on for dear life to the point where my hands felt as if they’d break off. Now I’m learning that I’d had it all wrong; the trick is not to use the Vulcan death grip, but to loosen your fingers just a little and sway with the motions of the moto; just to go with the flow.

It was all starting to make sense.

There’s this subtle art that I’m starting to learn, like wearing a giant middle finger on my forehead that only I can see, a big inside joke that only I’m in on. This effervescent kind of transcendental universally respected strut that exudes a kind of effortless self-assurance, regardless of what’s going on in my head.

I don’t meet eyes with anyone for longer than a second on the street, just a flashing smile, a wink then a stone faced demeanour that might as well be a brick wall.

I, Muzungu? No, no, you’ve got me all wrong, sir. Me? Just another freak, in the freak community. A man on the move, just sick enough to be totally confident.

Thompson, I think you may have had it right all along.

Stereotypical expat picture with an African child

3 thoughts on “I, Muzungu

  1. Paul Gremmen says:

    I really liked how you threw in LOTR reference. Beautifully done I might add.
    I was intrigued by the Handshake first line and was planning to stop reading once I knew what it meant, but somehow got trapped into reading all of it.
    Very intriguing stuff bro.

  2. Julia says:

    Great writing. Glad you’re doing well. See you in a few weeks.

  3. sounds like you were really experiencing a culture shock here. The handshaking sounds fun though.

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