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Are muzungus all rich?

Nov 17 • 22698 views • 17 Comments on Are muzungus all rich? Africa, African food, Society and culture, Travel, Uganda

Being a Muzungu (having a white skin) defines me as rich, or so the Rollex man tells me: “For us we know you are rich.”

Let’s talk English semantics here: when he says he knows I’m rich, he could also mean he believes I am rich.

Are school fees due? I don’t think so. Nonetheless, three incidents in 24 hours this week annoyed me – they’re nothing really, but when they come at you – one after the other – they can get you down.

Part One – the Muzungu and the Casino chips

Last Monday night Julia and I went to a local restaurant. It looked like a bit of a dive but we were starving. There were no other customers so we thought we might be lucky and get served quickly.

We went through the normal routine: “We are in a hurry, how long will it be?”

“It will be quick Madam” came the reply, “we have machines.”

Three quarters of an hour later, a bowl of vegetable dall and chips finally emerged (quite what those machines were, we will never know…)

casino chips

Did she think the Muzungu had ordered Casino chips?

When it came to paying the bill, a sultry girl (invisible until this point), hung around the table demanding attention. She presented us with a handwritten bill for two mango juices, chips and dall.

“8500 shillings for chips!” screamed Julia. “Let me see the menu.”

“You had chicken and chips” the girl said. “No we didn’t.” The remains of dall – and not chicken – were clearly there on the table in front of her.

There was some reluctant shuffling and the greasy, fingerprint-stained remains of a menu were handed to us.

“We’re not paying this bill – the menu says chips are only 3000 shillings.”

The girl picked the bill up from the table in her left hand – and with her right hand replaced it with another handwritten bill, identical except for the total.

“Why did you write two bills?” I confronted the girl. Her attempts to fleece us were so transparent, it’s laughable.

Part Two – the Muzungu and the gold-plated Rollex

The next morning in Entebbe, I pulled over at the side of the road for a quick breakfast before my meeting.

“How much is your Rollex please?”

“Only 2000 shillings.”

“I don’t pay that even in Kampala!” I retorted. (I pay maximum 1500). I was half asleep but the second blatant attempt to rip me off in less than 24 hours really got my goat.

Riled, I asked him “so you think all muzungus are rich?” He laughed “for us we know you are rich.”

Gold plated Rollex

Gold plated Rollex - this is what I thought I was being charged for - not an omelette wrapped in a chapati

How can I explain to him that the car he sees me drive was bought with a loan from my dad? Will he appreciate the fact I spent the first 2 1/2 years of my life in Uganda working as a volunteer? Will he respect the fact that I’ve been helping a Ugandan friend through university? What will he think of the fact I employ two people that I can’t really afford to employ simply because I like them and want to support them? These thoughts go through my head time and again – but there’s no point in saying anything, he wants his bit of me just like everyone else does. And really, what’s 500 shillings to me anyway?

[500 shillings is approx 12 British pence or 20 US cents].

Part Three – the Muzungu gets tanked up

I pulled over at the petrol station to buy fuel for the 84 km drive back to Kampala. The attendant greets me with a fabulous grin “Good morning Madam, how are you?”

Such a lovely greeting is the norm and I reply in kind.

I know the question is coming but I’ll have to disappoint him… “Fill her up Madam?” He beams.

“Just give me 30,000” the muzungu snaps back at him.

Tank Girl Charlie

Don't get on the wrong side of Tank Girl Charlie!

Some days Uganda, I am just not in the mood!

I chatted all this over with Simpson and he’s right – Ugandans get treated exactly the same way. People need money.

Just don’t expect me to tip you if you get caught trying to rip me off – and at least the man at the petrol station greeted me with a smile.

So how has your week been? Did you come out on top?

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17 Responses to Are muzungus all rich?

  1. gorillasafariz says:

    I love to visit a castle… And I love Italy too for the only grandeur Eiffel tower. Such an excellent post and many thanks for sharing.

    • the muzungu says:

      Hello Gorilla Safariz tx for the comment 🙂 – the Eiffel Tower is in France, not Italy, but I guess that’s pretty close – when you’re thinking of the distance from Uganda!

  2. Ana says:

    Haha! Reminds of when I was there this summer instead of boda, I fell off of a horse. Everyone ran out of their fields and huts and were yelling and pointing Muzungu fall! Muzungu fall!

  3. Jo says:

    I disagree – the fact that most muzungus have been able to pay for a flight to Uganda makes them as million times richer than your average Ugandan. Admittedly a VSO volunteer is an exception with a charity-paid flight, but I think no matter how un-“rich” we feel, it’s all relative. Still enormously annoying when everyone constantly tries to rip you off, though, but in a way I can’t blame them.

    • the muzungu says:

      I agree Jo, it’s all relative. The fact that we can afford to fly to Uganda in the first place sets us apart financially from the average Ugandan, that’s inescapable. I can’t blame people trying to get a bit of something, but bring on the receiving end of the requests / assumptions etc does wear you down at times.

  4. lizziema says:

    Perhaps you should have a notice pinned to you. “Have just sold most of the free furniture I was given so that I can eat”

    • the muzungu says:

      The ups and downs of life hey?
      No worries, easy come easy go. quite liberating to get rid of loads of stuff. And I’m looking forward to downsizing. The upside of losing all my volunteer friends who have gone back to the UK is that I’ve inherited lots of bits and pieces, clothes pots and pans etc. The downside is that I’ve er…. lost lots of friends!
      P.S. I had BOUGHT most of the furniture I have now sold – so more of a loss than a profit!

  5. Mark Penhallow says:

    For too many people in Uganda (and elsewhere too), their poverty is in their attitude: their physical and financial poverty merely reflects this. Bad, inappropriate, sloppy, lazy, short-term and selfish attitudes will never make anyone rich (in any definition of that term) and until an individual recognises this, they will remain poor.

    This is not to deny that we Muzungu are not fortunate to have been born where we were, or that life is not tough and wretched for many non-Westerners. But take heart, for our attitudes are entirely within our own control: it is up to each of us to form successful attitudes, and ultimately, we must each take responsibility for doing this. In constantly blaming anyone else for our life’s lot, or trying to get rich quick from dishonest dealings with others we are merely cheating ourselves and adopting a loser’s attitude to life. This sort of approach will never be successful.

    I am not accusing people in Uganda of this any more than elsewhere: other places in which I have worked are often worse. I can think of at least two other countries where such endemic dishonesty and bad attitudes sustain abject failure of the entire community. Until they recognise that this is entirely within their own control and take responsibility to change this, they will most certainly remain very poor.

    • the muzungu says:

      I like to think I’m rich – in stories, anecdotes and willingness to learn, at least! (Must try this line on my bank manager!)
      Attitude certainly has a lot to do with certain types of poverty.
      Last night a teenage Ugandan friend told me how he had 1 million Uganda shillings ($400?) – a year’s very hard earned savings – stolen. I felt a bit sorry for him, but he’ll earn it again. He’ll never really be poor, he’s not angry, he’s let the matter drop – he has the right attitude, like you say. It’s actually the thieves I feel really sorry for.

  6. ymoi says:

    Re ; “For us we know Muzungus are all rich”

    I’m Ugandan living in Nz so I do understand where you coming from. Believe it or not I get asked for money on the street and my rent incrased coz I’m a foreigner living here. Kiwis are not as blatant and straight forward as Ugandans and they do respect “space” for lack of a right word so I dont get ambushed or yelled at “african african ” as you do in Africa , However I experience pretty much the same thing when I get home,to Uganda , because I live overseas and dont speak Luganda.

    Unfortunately they are right when they say all Muzungus are rich. It costs at least 3000 dollars to fly to Uganda from here thats more than 3 million.
    How much does mr rolex earn a year or his while life for that matter? Would any bank loan him money to buy a 4wd? not in his life time !! although he works full time, he probably lives in a slum and as for volunteering? Hmmm how can you afford to eat and sponsor someone through school let alone employ 2 people etc etc…. By Ugandan standards you are rich. Mr rolex and all those market people trying to ‘take advantage of you’ most likely has 4 kids of his own and 4 others orphaned kids from his sister who died of AIDs or got killed by rebels or just cut her foot and died of an infection coz she cld not afford proper wound care or whatever. If you think of it
    one capuccino in the west is a whole families income in Africa.

    An unemployed person living in Newzealand recieves more in one week than what the full time office employee earns in 3 months in uganda.

    I’m always thankful of my situation and although I feel like some of these people behave like its their birth right to demand and rip people off I’d muh rather have my bag cut up and all its contents stolen from me in a Ugandan market than lose my iphone in a bus in Newzealand coz the thief in Africa is in my mind a modern day Oliver twist while the one pinching my phone in Newzealand is not hungry but evil . loools Just my opinion,

    I still always have a dollar to spare for all these homeless in Newzealand or the hungry kids that follow me around asking for a dollar to get a Mcdonalds……coz I really dont know their situation and its not my place to Judge. ..

    • the muzungu says:

      Hi Ymoi, it’s funny to imagine someone having “African African” shouted at them as they walk down the street. I have a few Ugandan friends who’ve grown-up overseas and who can definitely relate to getting the Muzungu treatment.

      Travelling to Africa is a luxury, drinking cappuccino is a luxury, even being a volunteer is a luxury! That’s for sure.

      Yes, in relative terms all Muzungus are rich, if only because we can borrow money / have access to resources. I like to choose how I spend my money, who I support, which charities I support, whatever. I don’t like people trying to decide that for me – I guess that’s my complaint. I absolutely can’t blame people for trying to get a little bit of what they think of as easy money but, as you read, it gets on my nerves when several people in a row do it. I have my own worries, and do they want to hear them? Probably not.

      I think you might be romanticising slightly to say that you would rather have your stuff stolen in Uganda or Africa. Yes there are desperately poor who are really struggling to survive and who feel they have no alternative to crime, but there’s a section of society (in any country) that are just criminals, who just want an easy life and who can’t be bothered to work. As for giving money to homeless people, I’ve seen how handing out money (whether a few coins or whopping great donor cheques) can just create a whole culture of dependency. I occasionally give food but money? Never. There are lots of street children begging in central Kampala. It is well known that these kids are managed by adults who are pocketing the cash. It shows the rich pickings have made begging into a business.

      Whether you give money or not is not about whether you are judging people but about whether you really are helping them. Are you filling their stomach or are you filling someone else’s pocket? Here begging thus condones kids hanging out in the traffic all day when they should be at school making some kind of future for themselves.

      You say you’re Ugandan, were you born here? Do you visit often?

      All the best and thanks for dropping by my blog. You might like the Diary of a Muzungu Facebook page

  7. AsianMojo says:

    Are Asians, (Mongolian faced) also called Muzungu?

    • the muzungu says:

      Yes, you will most definitely be a Muzungu! Like it or loathe it, you will stand out like a sore thumb in Uganda. My advice is to embrace it!
      Check out my page ‘What is a Muzungu?’
      It’s not just about skin colour or race though, plenty of black people are Bazungu (plural).
      The way Ugandans who live in the United States or black people who visit from the UK dress, talk and think makes them stand out in just the same Muzungu way. (And that means they get charged just the same Muzungu prices sometimes!) Check out my blog ‘Are muzungus all rich?’

  8. The whole time I read this piece, I could help but laugh at how “Ugandan”, your experience was. I too have been in such situations but not as unforgiving as those met by “rich bazungu”.

    • the muzungu says:

      It’s funny how the same situation can be really funny one day, and very annoying indeed the next!

      I try and be philosophical: generally we bazungu are accepted very easily in Uganda. In fact, in many cases we are given preferential treatment. It’s humbling, it’s also a responsibility. Therefore, sometimes you have to accept the perception that you have so much cash you don’t know what to do with it (!) That perception really can drive you nuts though when you are struggling to survive yourself.

  9. Matt says:

    Great blog and great posts! I agree this kind lf thing happens but there are also many good honest people there, as I’m sure you have found. Lucky for me I usually travel with my Ugandan wife and am well known around Entebbe. I find it helpful to remember the good shop owners you meet and keep coming back to them.

    ….i read some other posts. Good stuff. I hope my blog can be this good one day. I have much respect for your work.

    • the muzungu says:

      Thanks for reading my Diary – and good luck with your blog 🙂 Mine started as a record of my early days here too – nine years ago now.
      Being married to a Ugandan is definitely a good way to help avoid people who want to overcharge the muzungu – tho she probably is assumed to be rich now she is married to you! lol. You can’t win!

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