sa07 296 small(Photo: Eshowe, South Africa, 2007)

I walk down the streets of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Heads turn. Children run up to me shouting “Firege! Firenge!” The occassional older person will also shout “Firege!” or, better yet, “Rasta!” at me. The local shop owner smiles as he tells me a price four times as much as your local Ethiopian pays. I turn down a small side street to avoid the stares. People exit their homes to come gauk at me regardless. I can’t escape it. I am white in Africa, and I attract attention wherever I go.

After a while, this can be draining. I tried to disappear one day when I was working in Ziway, Ethiopia. I hopped on my bike and went as far as I could in the direction away from town. Somehow, people still found me. I couldn’t disappear.

I often question how I am to survive in a society in which I can never fully be integrated. No matter what I wear, how I act, or how well I speak the local language, the color of my skin will always make me an outsider. Can I survive like this? For how long? How will it affect my work?

In terms of work, I am learning to use my outside perspective to my advantage. I know that no matter how much formal knowledge I have, there is no way it can amount to the knowledge of a local citizen. I know that no project I do can ever be sustainable without local input and acceptance. I know that I must be wary of how I propose project ideas so that I don’t sound condescending or like I’m preaching. I know that I will always have more to learn about the culture. But I also know that I bring a new, fresh perspective, and connections that you often can’t find at the local level. I have as much to learn as I have to give.

My personal survival and happiness depend on how locals view my white skin. I would like to be fully integrated into the culture in which I am living, but – let’s face the truth – there’s no chance of that happening. Instead, I must find a balance. A balance between being called at on the street and fading into the background. Between being ripped off and being treated equally. Between being seen as a bank account and being seen as a real person. Out of the six countries I’ve visited in Africa so far, Nairobi’s the closest thing I’ve found to striking this balance.

But even in Nairobi, there is a barrier between me and most of the local citizens. I never felt drained like I did living in Addis Ababa, but that doesn’t hide my skin. I recently walked the streets of London, observing all of the diversity around me, and I remembered how nice it is to fade into the crowd. Diversity also adds a whole new element of acceptance into societal norms. It mixes a variety of life perspectives, and encourages one to work towards accepting this mix. It teaches you not to judge based on appearance, and to value the knowledge acquired from different backgrounds. Sure, there is still plenty of racism in the world, but at least more diverse cities must openly put these issues on the table instead of hiding them under a rug.

It will be long before we will find this kind of diversity in Africa, and this will greatly affect where I build my future. It would be tough for me to live my life in society that treats all foreigners badly – where I can never escape my white skin – but I could easily live in one where the hope for diversity is peeking over the horizon.

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