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Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Day 4: Perceptions of the "Muzungu" People in Uganda

Today was our fourth day in Uganda, and it started out like the days preceding it. We met at MUBS and as we drove onto campus, we noticed there was much more security than usual. Although nothing was mentioned at the time we drove in, during our breakfast there was quite a bit of commotion as there was a helicopter landing on the futbol field at MUBS. There was speculation that Museveni, the President of Uganda, was landing on the field as he sometimes does, but this time around it was his brother. We also had the pleasure of meeting Godfrey, a wonderful man selling even more wonderful art. Many of us had the pleasure of buying beautiful souvenirs from him at a very reasonable price.

After breakfast, we headed off to the Equator, a first for many of us! We had the distinct pleasure of experiencing what road construction looks like in Uganda, and needless to say, it took us a bit longer to reach the equator than originally thought. There were a few times when Maggie and Damali (two truly amazing MUBS students) instructed me to pray, because we were on a notoriously dangerous road. After a bit of a treacherous drive, we arrived at the Equator! There were many pictures taken with one leg on the Northern Hemisphere, and the other on the Southern Hemisphere, as well as looking at an experiment involving the way water drains on the different sides of the Equator. We were also able to explore some shops with local art, clothing, and other souvenirs, which is where the main theme for this post begins.

There have been many times where members of our group have been referred to as a "Muzungu", which is the word commonly used for white people. The direct translation, however, is actually "one with privilege." I was a little put off when I first heard this translation, because, as members of our group have expressed, we do not wish to be seen as special, and certainly don't consider ourselves as being better than anyone else. We are extremely privileged to be in Uganda, and to have the wonderful classmates, professors, and colleagues that we do, but we don't want to be treated any differently than the average Ugandan.

We have seen two different sides of being considered a privileged person, one being yesterday at City Secondary School, and the other today in the shops at the Equator. At city secondary, we were welcomed with a brass marching band, heightened security provided by the school to keep us safe, were given t-shirts to be used in a beautiful art project, were served the special meal that students only receive on Sundays, and were even given a cow as a gift. This made many of the students, including myself, feel slightly uncomfortable because if anything like this would happen in the U.S., President Obama, Beyonce, or an entire professional sports team would have to be present. It is still unclear if this had something to do with the color of our skin or our country of origin, but Professor Senteza did enlighten us on the fact that Ugandans have a sense of hospitality heightened so far above that of Americans that it would be expected us to be a little shocked. Despite a bit of uncomfortableness, it was still an exceptional day.

Today, we saw the more negative side of being considered a privileged person. At the market, we were expected to pay higher prices, and had very little luck bartering prices down, despite our prior understanding that bartering is a very common practice in Ugandan markets. As a group we came to understand that this is because Americans are all seen as having an excess of money, and should be able to pay higher prices, instead of the fair prices offered to Ugandans. So I have two questions related to this: Is it ethical for shopkeepers to charge higher prices to some than others, or should they be able to charge what they want? Why or why not? Also, would the bartering structure used in Ugandan markets function in the U.S., apart from small scale seasonal farmer's markets? Why or why not?



  1. I definitely agree with your commentary on being called Mzungu. I felt extraordinarily uncomfortable about the term. I attribute much of this to the history of racial tensions in the United States between races; we are conditioned to view labeling others by their skin color as fundamentally wrong. In Ugandan culture, however, white people generally visit the country to offer help and aid. I can understand why they do not see the term Mzungu as offensive. Thanks for your thoughts, Emily!

  2. Emily, I think you did a great job describing the dynamics of the shops! I do think that it us ethical for the shop owners to price there goods higher then other shops at the equator. It is the shops owners choice to price there goods higher then other shop owners, if they can make a larger profit then the other shops then good for them. I also think that the higher prices allow for better bartering for the toutists. I don't think the ugandan style bartering style would work in the US. In the US, there are more sales on items that's lower the price rather then bartering. Thanks for your great post Emily!

  3. Looking back on our own history, the US used a similar barter system before using all currency. when the shopkeepers charge muzungu a higher price then senteza or the locals it is practically the same as when buying a car in the US. they charge what they think you can afford, considering the slightly uncomfortable fact that we are very much muzungu, I do not have a huge problem with it. if notheing else it gives us a chance to practice aour bartering skills, which is a fun way to transact that no longer exists in the US
    As for being called muzungu, it is an accurate statement, we are all extremely privileged. what I find most interesting is that the little kids who probably don't speak all that much yet know muzungu and will stand and shout hi/by muzungu as we go by.

  4. Overall, tourism is a major component of the Ugandan economy and considering the rampant poverty in the country I think that it is reasonable for tourist to be charged hIgher prices. Additionally it highlights the importance of learning the culture about a country when traveling there. In this case, you get ripped off if you are not aware of the culture.

    I think the bartering system would not work in the US due to our culture norms. However bartering is seen in the USA in couch shops. I don't think I has seen in at farmer's markets though.

  5. Emily, great post!
    The first day I was repeatedly called Muzungu I definitely felt uncomfortable. From what I understood, it had a negative connotation; since then I've realized that is not necessarily the case. I've learned to accept the name as part of the Ugandan culture and since I'm trying to embrace the culture I can learn to embrace being called a Muzungu without being offended.
    As far as the shops go, I do think it's ethical for the owners to charge US customers a higher price. Tourism is their area of opportunity; they are running a business and inflating their prices for US customers is a business strategy. It seems to be working out quite well for them- I was fairly unsuccessful at negotiating. As far as bartering in the United States goes, I don't see it being successfully implemented due mostly to our culture and its structure.

  6. I was also unsuccessful at bartering! I'm glad I'm not the only one. I thought it was interesting that among all the shops where bartering was the common practice, there was one shop which clearly did NOT change prices based on who you are or the color of your skin. (I had a feeling that would be the case when I saw the price stickers on the items, but I tried to barter anyway...). I thought that was a very interesting choice for that shop to make when all the other shops around it were choosing not to set prices. I think that shopkeepers should probably pick one or the other, but either way I think it is ethical!

  7. Personally, I think that it is ethical to charge higher prices if you can still get people to pay for the item. There are many top name brands in the US that overcharge for products that could be found cheaper some place else. Uganda also is a bartering country so by setting your prices higher, it may allow you to barter down to the actual retail price. As far as bartering in the US goes, I think it isn’t applicable right now because of the culture we live in. Everyone in the US is condition to pay the price, no questions asked. However, I think it would be good for the country as a whole to allow bartering in certain situations.