Someone recently asked me if there is racism in Uganda. With race and equality on many people’s hearts and minds, I am going to do my best to add to the discussion in a way that is helpful and constructive as it pertains to our organization and Uganda.
My experience and what I am about to share is in no way an exhaustive representation of all the racial dynamics in Uganda. However, I am going to focus primarily on my experience as a white woman who has had the honor of working with Ugandans, and how this has impacted the way I approach the conversation of race in America.
I will never forget my first time visiting rural villages in Uganda. As we drove down the red dirt roads toward Namagera Village, children ran to the roadside. Waving and shouting, they yelled, “Mzungu, jambo!” (Literally translated, “White person, hello!”). When this continued for the entire 30 minute car ride to the village, the driver laughed and explained, “The kids are excited to see you. They don’t see white people very often.”
The first time I stayed in a Ugandan village, I was an even greater spectacle. As I sat in my doorway, 60+ kids stood in the front yard staring at me…all day. Hour after hour, they stood in their school uniforms and just looked at me. This went on for several days, and each day the number of kids slowly decreased until finally, most of the students returned back to school. While it may be true that people were fascinated by a white person living in their village, this was evidence of something much deeper.
Racial Dynamics in BOH
As I started working with our women in Uganda in 2011, I quickly learned more about the racial dynamics at play. In meetings, the women would discuss different topics or ideas, but only until I shared. As soon as I shared an idea, the conversation would shift, and all of a sudden my idea was the one the women wanted to pursue. While I would like to think I have a good idea every once in awhile, the women weren’t agreeing with me because my ideas were good. They were agreeing with me because I was a white American, and they perceived me to be wealthy and well-educated. Time and time again, the women would try to pursue ideas I suggested, and no amount of backtracking or encouraging their ideas, seemed to help.
In the book When Helping Hurts, the authors Corbett and Fikkert talk about how it is common for people living in material poverty to perceive white westerners as wealthy, well-educated, and powerful, and therefore allow white people to take on a superior role while they take on an inferior role. And this is exactly what was happening in Uganda. Because of how the women perceived me and how I perceived them, it effected our discussions, our roles, and our relationships.
A Turning Point
We had been dedicated to empowerment from the start, but if we were going to see any real progress, these dynamics needed to change. During the first few years of BOH, I had to learn new ways of communicating, and I had to be more mindful of the role I played. In meetings, I learned to take a listening posture and be slow to speak. I asked more questions and shared fewer ideas. I tried to hear the women’s insights and desires, and allowed these to shape the direction of our organization. And over the years, we have gotten better at this as an organization. We rely greatly on the leadership of women from each village, and we regularly ask for the concerns and insights of each group. This has become a key part of our program development, and as a result, our new programs are our most sustainable and impactful projects.
Our Pig Project for instance, was started through the successful example of one woman raising pigs, which inspired other women to do likewise. This project has now led to lucrative small businesses for many of our women.
Today, our women have no problem telling me when my ideas are impractical, or just plain awful. Through repetition, empowerment, and affirmation, our women have learned that their ideas are valuable, and we have built a relationship of respect. As an organization, we have had to tear down some of the norms of racial dynamics in Uganda, and choose to operate differently. However, this has come after years of building relationship and trust. There is still more work to do, but I am so thankful for our women and the vital role they have played in the success of our organization.
Racism doesn’t always take the form of animosity between blacks and whites. Sometimes it is more subtle in the roles that are simply assumed. As I learned early on in Uganda, there were racial dynamics that needed to change in order for BOH to truly have an impact and not hurt our women. As our country faces a time of division in addressing the topics of race and equality, I have felt old questions resurface: Am I willing to take on a listening posture? Am I willing to hear the ideas of others? I have felt challenged to ask the questions: Have I been given a position of power and authority? And how can I use it to empower others?
While I don’t have kids calling to me, “Mzungu, jambo!,” I am still relearning some of those old lessons from Uganda. These times are not easy to navigate, but I want to do it well. I have been forever changed by my relationships with our Ugandan women, and I have benefitted greatly from hearing their ideas and stories. I pray that I can be quick to do likewise in this season, and positively contribute to the empowerment of others in the U.S. I pray I would be compassionate, humble, patient, and loving as I dialogue about race and equality. And I pray the same for you. May we contribute to the discussion in a way that builds humanity rather than tears it down. And may we strive for unity rather than create division. This is my hope. This is my prayer. In Jesus’ name.
By Natalie Ruiz, Executive Director
Corbett, Steve and Fikkert, Brian. When Helping Hurts: How To Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting The Poor...And Yourself. Moody Publishers, 2009.