By: Ashvin Sharma
Clouds of dust spring up as we slide to a stop on the side of a major road in a rich neighbourhood on the east side of Kampala, the capital of Uganda — known as the Pearl of Africa. I start sneezing, and it is especially bad on this dry evening of 31°C. Carefully, I step off the vibrating motorcycle taxi.
“Sorry,” the driver peeks up at me, figuring I’m not from here and not used to the dust. His apologetic tone catches me by surprise — he says it as if he is comforting an old friend who has lost something dear.
“It’s okay,” I smile at him, “I need to wake up anyways… but wow, thank you.” Even after four months of living in Kampala working an internship — I’m still not used to that kind of empathy.
The sky is a brownish-red sunset on my right, kissing a promising night’s blackness on my left. The road is lined with single-storey money exchange shops, with their glass windows exposing their wealth. In Kampala, only nice shops have glass windows. I catch a glimpse of myself in the glass and notice that my skin tone matches the colour of the dirt here. These shops had been built to serve “Mzungus” — meaning “foreigners” in Swahili, an East-African dialect, or better yet, “moneybags,” as my Ugandan co-worker used to jokingly translate the word. The sneezes have pumped air into my head, and I feel like a balloon — lightheaded, floating. I absently drift down the dirt road until I reach the end.
“My friend!” A man calls out to me gently, curiously — bringing my levitating head back to earth. He’s sitting to my right on a wooden stool that’s so short that his knees reach his chest. I step towards him. He’s wearing a deep blue suit resembling an old English police officer’s uniform, with a cap shadowing his forehead — the outfit of a shop security guard. His skin catches my eye. Smooth, deep, flawless. Not uncommon in this place, but his is particularly immaculate. “Are you searching for something?” he asks, noticing my aimless wandering.
“I’m looking for the best money exchange shop on this street?” I gesture to the shops I’d passed.
“Ahh, just in time then! Lucky for you, my good sir, my pocket happens to have the greatest exchange rate in the whole city today!” he says with enough confidence to make me chuckle.
“Hmm, okay, well, what’s the rate?” I respond with a grin.
“Only 5 U.S. dollars —” he pauses, “— for all my knowledge of this place, Mzungu.” He looks me up and down. “You could use it.” He smiles and then laughs in the kind of way that shakes his shoulders, and I can’t help but join him. He slaps the seat beside him for me to sit, in a charming way that carries me like a snake to a snake charmer.
Before I know it, I’m sitting on the stool next to his as he leaps off his chair and begins speaking theatrically to his attentive audience of one.
With a slow spin and a lick of his lips, he embodies the delicious mango trees he would climb as a young boy to reach the freshest mangos — a duck and a quick jump to his right for the hide and seek games played with all the neighbourhood children, weaving through the lively food markets you’ll find in every neighbourhood — a slow rub of his belly for the lively feasts enjoyed with the whole neighbourhood every evening — and as he takes a breath and slides back into his seat — an arm around my shoulder for the human compassion he’s always felt deep in his community for the person beneath his skin. He touches my arm.
“What I wouldn’t give to have your skin — brown, light, beautiful,” he whispers, softly gazing at me.
The contrast of his darker hand on my arm strikes me suddenly, and I’m transported through 22 years of brown skin contrasting white clothes, white friends — a white thought: “I wonder what life would be like, if only” — growing up with backwards caps and snapbacks to mask facts of what-I-wouldn’t-gives. I look into his eyes and, as his stare falls on my skin like a fixed spotlight, I recognize the familiar gaze of “I wonder what life would be like, if only.” My mind still loose from the sneezes disconnects completely, and I’m yanked through my four months here: endless stores with whitening skin products on their front display, the constant respect from strangers — the special treatment I’ve subconsciously come to expect. My heartbeat thickens with realization. I look down, ashamed of the privilege I have. I flood with anger at this man for his self-deceit — for everyone’s deceit: the toxic fumes of coloured perceptions I thought only hovered in Western spaces have blown across the world. No wonder I sneeze so much. His stories pulse with the communal warmth and affection of his upbringing; the love and compassion that is so desperately lacking in mine is the foundation of his — I’m jealous. My brown skin has never made me feel beautiful where I come from, and yet he envies me. What a nonsensical game we’re all playing — as if it mattered — yet as if we could possibly pretend that it didn’t. He squeezes my arm.
“Here,” he brings his hand out to me — holding a brown handkerchief.
My nose is running.
“Sneeze” was written as part of the Write and Tell Your Story workshop series during International Education Week (IEW). This story also won first place in the IEW Writing Contest.
Stories for a global community
Throughout IEW, students shared how recent experiences enhanced their global perspective and contributed to their intercultural skills. Experiences included:
- Remote or virtual experiences
- Experiences abroad (studying, working, volunteering, researching, etc.)
- International student experiences
- Out-of-province experiences
- Participation through clubs and organizations with an international or global perspective