Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

Blending In


Today I saw two white people at the supermarket in Hillbrow!  This is the first time I’ve seen other white people in the area, besides the five who work for Madulammoho.  Out of those five, however, only two go out regularly to visit the projects.

My skin makes it difficult to blend in to this neighbourhood – and by “difficult” I mean impossible.  Even though I’m used to looking different – not white enough to be Canadian, not yellow enough for my Asian heritage – I feel particularly conspicuous here.

How do I establish myself in this neighbourhood?  I’m beginning to recognize people, so I’m sure they already recognize me.

Do I follow the same strategy as the new MHA Maintenance Manager?  He’s new in Hillbrow too; he started working a week before me.  

I’ve noticed he makes a point of greeting everyone.  As we walk around, he’s continually waving at the men loitering on the sidewalks and saying “Howzit” (the typical South African greeting).  He wants people to recognize him as a friendly guy who’s working to improve the neighbourhood.

I’m not sure that approach is going to work for me.

Unfortunately, the situation is more complicated because I’m a woman.  (As usual.)  Men constantly talk to me as I walk through the streets. 

Sometimes it’s a simple “Hello” as I go by.  That’s ok. 

Other times they mutter “Whitey” or “Asian.”  Fine, I can handle that insult. 

But I don’t like it when men yell, “Hey baby” from across the street.

And I really, really don’t like it when a stranger touches my arm and says, “Be my wife.”  That’s just too weird.

My coworker laughs about it.  She’s gorgeous: she’s used to the attention.  We often walk around together – either to the store at lunch or the taxi hub after work.  Yesterday a man gestured at her to stop and she said, not even pausing, “Who does he think he is?  He’s holding hands with his girlfriend!”

But she doesn’t have to visit the projects.  She just works in the office.

Am I rude if I ignore all the men?  Am I encouraging their behavior if I acknowledge them?  Can I be friendly without being flirty?  I think I’ve finally figured out how to do that in Canada, but the culture here is so different than I’m used to.

Plus there are so many diverse cultures.  You even have to be careful with eye contact!  Some groups find it respectful, but others find it rude to hold eye contact too long.  Will a smile be taken as an invitation?

As my main strategy, I try to be seen with my coworkers as much as possible.  We walk around the area every day.  I also walk around by myself as an attempt to assert my independence.  Furthermore, I frequently buy fruit from the women’s sidewalk stalls and chat with them.  Maybe I can create a presence among the women of the neighbourhood.  That should count for something, right?

I’ve never let sexism stop me from doing something.  That’s why I’m still in this male-dominated profession where I learned years ago that it’s not worth wearing fitted clothing or skirts above the knee to work, no matter how cute those pencil skirt outfits look.

But these experiences are still frustrating.  I just want to do my job without having to worry about all this bullshit.


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