Monday, December 14, 2009

Black and white

Since I arrived in Sierra Leone, I have been thinking about the experience of being a white person here, and this post has been in various stages of draft, both in my head and on the computer, for some time. It’s hard to describe the experience without it coming out sounding wrong somehow . . . but I also think it’s an important thing to try and explain, so here it goes.

As a white person in Canada, I have never been personally touched by issues of race. Here in Sierra Leone, my whiteness is pretty much always obvious to me (as well as to everyone around me). In general, being white here means that you can never blend in, get lost in a crowd, or go unnoticed. This is especially true in the villages, but even in Freetown (the capital) you get stares and attention (although much less so than in Makeni, the country’s third largest city, where stares, greetings and the constant cry of “opotho, opotho!” from children and sometimes adults is common – “opotho” means “white person” in Temne, the local language most common in the north). Aside from “opotho”, other terms that have been used to address me range from “hey white” to “white girl" (or worse, "white man") to “hey you” to “Ma” or “Auntie” (these last 2 at least show some respect). I know that these greetings are generally not intended in an offensive way, but they can definitely come off sounding rude. I have known people to call back “Owinibie” (no idea if that is spelled even close to correctly), which means “black person” in Temne.

I guess all the attention is to be expected, especially in places where people are not very used to seeing white faces. I personally find it rather exhausting. I’m someone who appreciates the ability to be anonymous sometimes. Even though people are generally friendly and just curious (sometimes they are asking for money or your phone number, but usually they’re just interested in you and what you’re doing in their country), it still feels tiring to me to constantly be getting attention. There have been more than a couple of times where I have felt like an animal in a zoo – being stared at as a curiosity to see what I’ll do next. I know people that have visited here for a shorter time have found all the attention kind of amusing (some of the small kids shriek “opotho” as you drive by in such an enthusiastic way that you can’t help but smile), and I did too at first. You do end up feeling a bit like a minor celebrity. But after a while it begins to wear on you, and I think that most of the longer-term volunteers I know here feel the same way. Sometimes you just really wish you would be ignored.

Luckily for me, in Mapaki people seem to be used to seeing white people around, and it’s really different here than other places I have been. I do get the occasional “opotho” call, but mostly from small kids I don’t know. Generally, because people here know my name (my Salone name of course, which is Isata in case you forgot), when they call out greetings they are actually greeting me, not just trying to get the attention of an amusing white person. I’m sure Carolyn’s being here before me had a lot to do with that. Also, in Mapaki, I never mind the attention that I get because I like talking to people and getting to know the community and I still have my own space I can retreat to if the attention gets to be too much.

Although it can be tiring and annoying, there can be positive and interesting things about being noticed too. I hate to say this, but you often get treated better as a white person. Kind of sad, but true. For example, a friend of mine here was seen at the hospital before a whole line of other patients because she was white and the doctor thought she wouldn’t want to wait. On the interesting side of things, I have certainly had conversations with people that I never would have talked to if they hadn’t approached me because I was white. So it’s a good way to meet people and learn more about the country too.

There are certainly some specific perceptions about white people here (and of course I am, of necessity, making some mass generalizations here based on my own personal experiences). Although the perceptions are generally positive (for example, white people are often seen as both rich and experts/smart), it does give you a sense of what racist behaviour must feel like. It's unnerving to have assumptions made about you just because of the colour of your skin, even if they are more positive assumptions.

Young children often seem to be amazed or fascinated by white people. I’ve had a few very small kids (a year or two old) be quite scared of me and start to cry upon seeing me – they’d obviously never seen anyone white before. Adults/older siblings often think this is hilarious and will continue to bring the kid near me to watch it be scared, laughing all the while. Kids are also really interested in my skin or my hair, and will just stare or try to touch it.

As I said, white people are generally perceived as rich. I think that this bothers some expats, because they don’t see themselves as rich, and certainly wouldn’t be considered rich in their home country. However, compared to the majority of the population here, I am most definitely rich, both in terms of dollars in income and in what I am able to do because of that income. I have no problem feeding, housing and clothing myself and my family, and I have money for things like health and education, and even for luxuries like fun and travel. Some of the women I’ve talked to here are living on petty trading, earning maybe 20,000 or 30,000 Le per month (less than $10). Yes, per month. When I compare myself to them, I am most definitely rich.

Despite this income disparity, I haven’t had too many people ask me for money or other things here (aside from street beggars of course, which you get a lot of in any bigger city). I think this is primarily because of the work Carolyn did here in Mapaki and in the other communities where I am working in emphasizing that she was a volunteer here and didn’t have an income either. I am thankful for that, as it can be very hard to turn down requests, but it's impossible to help everyone who needs it. And the danger is that if you help one person and word gets around, others will come to you for help also. I end up feeling a little bit selfish for wanting to hang on to my money when people here have so little, but the reality is that it is impossible to help everyone that needs it. Even if you meet one request, another might come that you can’t help with. Pretty much every expat I know here has helped people in personal ways – for example, paying medical costs or school fees – and of course, we are all here volunteering, but for me, I end up feeling like there is no way I could ever really do enough.

In Canada, we are generally isolated from poverty. Yes, we see images on TV or sometimes people asking for change on the street. But being here, seeing how little many people have on a daily basis, and comparing it to what we are so lucky to have in Canada, it really makes you think about inequality in the world. And in the end, it's not about race. And it's certainly not because I’m fundamentally better or smarter in some fundamental way that I am better off in this world. It’s because of where I happened to be born. Not only the country I was born in, but the kind of family I am lucky enough to have. For me, this kind of inequality makes me feel that I have a responsibility to help those who weren’t born into such fortunate circumstances. Even if what I can do will never be “enough”, even if it only makes a small difference in someone else’s life, at least I can do something, help somehow. I guess that’s one of the things that being here has really made me think about. And for that I’m grateful.