Maybe I'm a bit naive, but I never really paid much attention to skin colour in general in Europe. I was certainly never particularly aware of being white. It's not like I looked in the mirror and thought, right, I'm a white girl with blue eyes and brown hair. I never had to; I live in a world where being white is prevalent, dominant; you don't have to categorise yourself, because you are a part of the vast majority. Just pay attention the next time someone is described to you; you'll often hear thing like, "yeah, you know Nazneen? She's the pretty Indian girl who sits next to Fred....yeah, Fred, the black guy with glasses?"
But have you ever heard someone say "you know Maaret, the white girl next to Fred?", because it simply doesn't matter that I'm white; I live in a society where being white is the norm, and therefore I've never been aware of my skin colour. I can't help but wonder if I'd grown up as a bangladeshi girl, even in such a multicultural world as London, would I be more aware of what I look like?
In Africa, I certainly am. Not a day goes by when someone doesn't remind me of my colouring. Comically, most people feel the need to point this out to me, as if I might forget otherwise- no shit, I really am white? I am? - but the conversation often ends there. That's it- they have nothing to say to me as a person, it's just that I stand out. Like I said, I've spent my formative years in a multicultural society, so never once have I sat in a coffee shop in Lusaka thinking, shit, everyone here is black- how exotic! I've never been particularly swayed one way or the other by the fact that I'm in a predominantly black country, but that I'm white- that's a big deal for locals here. And quite understandably so.
It's late afternoon, and the bus station is heaving. There must be three to four hundred buses in various stages of loading and unloading passengers. They are all identical and blue, with no numbers or destination plates to distinguish them from one another, just lazy drivers asleep on the front seat and frantic conductors fighting over passengers. It's hot. My skirt sticks to my legs and I'm working my way through the labyrinth of exhaustion fumes and fruit vendors. I'm also trying to shake off a persistent man, who cannot believe his luck- he's found a white girl in Kulima Tower bus station! This is not a white person place; nowhere in central Lusaka is. He doesn't really have anything to say, or to sell, but he simply follows me, shouting, "hey, white man!". Absurdly enough, this offends me. Not the shouting, but that he is calling me a man, and there is certainly nothing mannish about me. But I'm used to the bus station and I cross over it quickly, a hot frying pan of metal and sweat. A conductor approaches me. Kabulonga? No. Chelston? No. He is at loss. These are the white people places; he has no other destinations to offer. I help him. Chawama. Chawama? Yes, Chawama. He checks to see if I'm sure, and shrugs, and points me towards a bus, quickly filling up. I choose a seat next to a woman with a baby- I always sit next to women. A man sits on my other side. His clothes are worn, but clean and meticulously ironed, and he has a kind face. We leave, I collect the notes from my neighbours and hand in the cash on behalf of the entire row. Why are you going to Chawama, asks the man with the kind face. Are you working on a project there? No, I answer, I live there. In Chawama, he says. In Chawama, I confirm.
He takes a moment to consider this, and we ran into heavy traffic heading out of the city. The driver is having none of it; at the intersection, he cuts diagonally across, driving through a petrol station, over a small hedge and the sidewalk, and joins the main road. No one bats an eyelid.
In Chawama, a group of drunken men leer at me, and one of them tries his luck. Again. I flick him my middle finger and an evil stare. He knows not to touch me- that's cultural understanding for you. The woman who keeps a roadside stall selling veggies sees me, and starts to bag tomatoes even before I reach her. She stops at two and I tell her to add more. Oh yes, you have visitors with you now, she says. They know everything about their token white girl. I stop at a small store to get eggs, and a small boy (no lie) sees me and bursts into tears. His mother and I start laughing, and as I take a step closer, he starts to positively wail. We are in tears of laughter, and I forget what I needed, and buy a coke instead.
Once I reach home, the breathless shopkeeper runs after me with two eggs. He smiles. You forgot these, he says, silly white lady.
Some scenes from Chawama. The bottom one is my local pub, which we almost share a wall with.