I met with a colleague of mine this week who used to work out in one of the organisations field programmes, but who now works in the UK office and travels with her job. I asked her if she missed living out ‘in the field’. No, she responded, she was much happier settled in her community back home, and enjoyed the times when she could just be lost in the crowd.
There is no such thing as anonymity for a white European out here. Leaving the compound at lunchtime to buy a coke from the nearby shop I lost count of the silent stares, as well as the friendly ‘Bonjour’ or ‘Salaam Aleikum’. Sometimes I like the fact that I am noticed, other times it can be a disadvantage.
I grew up in a village where everyone knew who I was. It was very hard to miss the little white girl with bright blonde curls in a tiny African village. The stares grew less as time went on, but my face would still stick out in a crowd. I feel oddly at home in places where I am still technically a stranger.
A friend of mine once described it as the ‘celebrity complex’. You become so used to being noticed, the only white person for miles around, that when you leave the country and return ‘home’ to a European city, it feels odd not to be noticed. Anonymous.
It is a privilege and a responsibility to be seen this way. You are treated differently, given a chair instead of a mat on the floor. You are also charged ‘white price’ for everything you buy, which is less of a benefit. You are noticed wherever you go. In some places you have to be careful where you shop and go out, for the community will notice. In some senses you are an ambassador for whoever you represent. They will remember how you treat them.