Amani Itakuya #10: Time to Bridge the Gap

Time to Bridge the Gap

Carol Jean Gallo


I’m on a different mission than the team I traveled with. So today, while they venture to some village an hour or two outside the New-York-like buzz of Uvira’s main drag, I’m staying behind in the city centre to write. It’s about 1 or 2 in the afternoon, and I’m out of airtime. And reasonable cash to pay my bill for lunch. So, I ask the young lady at the hotel, Aimée (no real names in this story), if she knows where I can get change for a 100 dollar bill.

Aimée accompanies me, and we leave the confines of the hotel parameters, through a large metal gate. Instantly everyone is throwing glances at me, the muzungu (white person). Not just any muzungu, but one who is wearing a kanga (a cloth from east Africa frequently worn by women). This usually earns me a smile and a wave, but not always. Used to these kinds of reactions, I simply smile and greet people, “Hello!” And I chat quietly with Aimée as we cross the street. Literally two seconds, across the street from the hotel, to a table where a man is selling various bits and bobs. She tells him I need change. I hand him a hundred dollar bill and as he hands me four twenties and some Congolese francs, I say, “Asante sana” (thank you very much). This somehow leads to a conversation about where I’m from and how I know Swahili, and, seeing that Aimée is looking a bit anxious, I tell her she doesn’t have to wait for me. I’ll be able to manage the entire fifteen feet back to the hotel all by myself.

So I ask the man, Albert, if he sells ‘unités’ – phone credit. He says yes, and I buy some. Then he says, “so, you learned Swahili in America? They teach it there?” And I say, “yes, but we learned the standardised Swahili – the kind they speak in Tanzania. It’s different here. I’ve learned a lot of Swahili since I came here!” As we were talking, a motorcycle taxi driver pulled up. It was Deo, who happened to be the same guy that drove me to my first appointment the previous day. We greet each other warmly.

Albert asks me, “So, how long have you been in Uvira?” – “Since Monday,” I reply, “I live in Bukavu.” –  “Who do you work for?” – “A small NGO.” – “Are you working with them in Uvira now?” – “Yes, I’m here to do some interviews.”

A woman selling grilled chickens, seated low to the ground on a small wooden bench, at an adjacent kiosk, regards me with curiosity and listens in. Albert and Deo start chatting and I strain to follow the conversation. They’re talking a little fast. I listen and smile, and then I laugh. “I’m having trouble following your Swahili! It’s different from the Swahili of Tanzania.” Deo and Albert both nod knowingly.

This launches a discussion about how the Swahili of Congo is a little different than the Tanzanian variety, and soon we’re joined by a young woman, maybe 15 or 16, curious about the muzungu standing around. I tell them a story about how I entered a shop once and asked the mama there, “unauza des tomates?” and how this kind of thing was getting me funny looks until I learned kuuza in Congo was to buy, not to sell, like it means in Tanzania. The Mama selling chicken next to us interjects, confused. Albert explains, “No, in the Swahili of Tanzania, she wants to nunua something from me, and I want to uza something to her.”

This linguistic discussion goes on for quite some time. A handsomely dressed young man interrupts to buy some ‘unités’. Then, he doesn’t leave, but stays to chat, and introduces himself as Charles. And the conversation turns to me again. The Mama selling chicken asks me if I speak French. “Only a little, but I’m learning to mix.”

Albert and Deo explain to Mama that I speak English. “Ohhhhhh,” Mama says, “She’s English.” Albert and Deo explain that I’m not English. Mama raises an eyebrow. “So what tribe is she?” Albert says, “She’s American.”

“But, don’t they speak French in America?” – “No, they speak English. They speak English in America like they speak English in England.” – “I see,” Mama says.

“Hey, do you know Portuguese?” Deo asks me, “they speak Portuguese in America.” I think for a moment and then say, “Well, no, most people speak English. A lot of people speak Spanish…” It takes me a moment to remember the other way people around the world talk about ‘America’.

Deo shakes his head. “No, many many people speak Portuguese there.” – “Oh, yes, like in Brazil.”

“Yes, in Brazil!” Deo replies. In my mind I roll my eyes at myself for not remembering the Brazilian flag sticker on Deo’s motorcycle helmet the previous day, and, of course, forgetting how much people here, even in some of the most remote areas, are into international football.

We chat for a few minutes about Portuguese speaking countries in Africa, and African languages, and, and, and. Then Albert changes the tone.

“You know, it’s interesting…” – “What?” I ask.

“You’ve got your change and bought your ‘unités’. But you’re still here, sticking around to make small talk.”

“Oh?” This is par for the course in a place like New York, if the pace of the afternoon is slow, I think to myself.

“Yeah. Most wazungu buy what they need and then run away. If you try to start a conversation with them, they say ‘I have to go, I have to go! I’m in a hurry!’ They don’t stay behind to talk a little.”

“Well…” I begin… “I’m not in a hurry…”

Albert says, “It’s the same with the Japanese, the Chinese, the Europeans… they’re always rushing.” Deo confirms this with a few personal accounts of his own and Charles nods. “It’s a good thing that you stay.” Deo says, “Every time, they’re in a hurry. And they never stop to talk or say hello. They stick very closely to each other and try not to mix with the weusi [black people], they don’t like to.”

I think about this for a moment. I have my own theories about this, but I want to know what Albert and Deo think. “Why do you think that is? Do you think maybe they’re afraid?”

Mama watches and listens. So does the young woman, and Charles. Deo, Albert, and Charles all shake their heads emphatically. Deo tells me, “No, I don’t think so… They just like to stick to their own kind.”

“But… they’re here to help people,” I begin, “don’t they want to know the people they’re here for in the first place?”

Charles chimes in, “It’s just ubaguzi wa rangi [discrimination of color, or racism], simple as that.

I nod and say “ehhhh,” the way people here do to indicate something along the lines of “yes,” or “I see.” Though I’m not so sure I do.

Albert, Deo, and Charles each proceed to comment on how they think it’s nice I’m staying to talk. Albert says, “Wazungu wengine hawabaki na kusimama kama wewe.” [Literally: Other white people/strangers don’t remain and stand like you.] I say, “oh…” This is, in fact, news to me.

Albert tries to explain why he’s making this point: “It’s better this way. Now we know each other. We’re friends. You’re right there in the hotel across the street, and we’re right here. And we’re together [tuko pamoja]. Now you know if you need something, you know we’re here. And we’ll look out for each other. I can see you’re a person that knows that just because you’re muzungu and I’m mweusi” – and now he stretches his arm out and pinches the skin on his forearm – “sisi zote wawili tuko na damu.” We both have blood. In other words, we are both humans. There are murmurs of agreement from Deo and Charles. I nod.

The conversation starts turning back to language peculiarities. I’m not sure if it’s been 45 minutes or maybe an hour I’ve been chatting there. It’s not really that important right now. It’s Saturday, and my only task is writing. Who knows, maybe if I was working here, even on a Saturday, I wouldn’t have this kind of time.

I thank Albert, Deo, Mama, Charles, and the young woman for their company. I walk across the street back to the hotel to start writing. Instead, I sit. And I think. And I’m thinking about what Charles said about ‘ubaguzi wa rangi’. And about Albert’s feeling that I was somehow exceptional in sticking around to talk. I don’t particularly agree with this assessment of why expatriates ‘prefer to stick to their own kind’ and not mingle with people – I know many NGO employees, for example, are constrained by institutional regulations – but I’m unsettled by the fact that they perceive it this way.

So, a tip that I didn’t really think needed to be pointed out, until now, for those aid workers and peacekeepers and diplomats who don’t already know or do this: Get to know people in the neighbourhood where you work, whose country you’re in and who you are there to help, protect, save, or whatever. It makes little sense to be ‘in the field’ to help people in such a technical way that even a place like Uvira is treated like a city under 24 hour curfew rather than a normal place. And it doesn’t help your mission if people perceive this as nothing less than racism. There has to be a way that staff security is taken into account while at the same time allowing them to get out and mingle a bit, as regular people, when they’re off work. If you do, you might learn something about the way people perceive their community’s problems and potential solutions to them. You might even make some friends.


Carol Jean Gallo is a PhD student at Cambridge University currently based in Bukavu. She’s interested in the links between international policy and local knowledge and is writing her PhD on this dynamic as it applies to the reintegration of ex-combatants into civilian life in South Kivu.

3 Responses to “Amani Itakuya #10: Time to Bridge the Gap”
  1. HI Carol,
    I am so happy to read your story in Uvira, not only white behave like that even black people. They start some NGO with abjectives of helping people in the Congo and when they get help I mean money they forget completely about the people. They will go to a village take somes pictures as proof to back up the so called initiatives. At the end they will benefit all the money they have received in the sake of helping people.

  2. Anand Upadhyaya says:

    So many interesting discussion points arise from this piece. Thank you for writing, Carol. The perception of local Congolese of international NGOs is very interesting. I’ve been told by a few Congolese, who run local organizations in Goma, that they feel the bigger NGOs lack follow through with the people they serve. Also, there is some feeling that some groups set up shop temporarily at places like Panzi Hospital, but don’t integrate themselves into the structure or organization of the hospital itself. I think sustainability of programs and building on or empowering existing Congolese organizations is huge. Although a lot of great work is done, perhaps there is some truth to the gentleman’s statement about race being a factor. Not in the sense of outright prejudice, but in the sense that it takes time to erase perceived barriers. I think we often may feel that we are interacting with and serving our larger human family, but actually graduating from THINKING of others as our brothers and sisters, to FEELING them as our brothers and sisters is a process that takes more deprogramming than we might imagine. Keep talking to people, Carol! What a simple yet profound observation. There’s a lot of simple and beautiful human connection in the interaction you’ve shared here. Thanks again.

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