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Uganda: What Lies Beneath the Cloak of Exclusivity?

When some expats in Uganda decided to form a Facebook group called ‘Mzungus in Uganda’, they probably did not know that they were about to stir up controversy and a heated online debate. Mzungu is a term commonly used in southern, central and eastern Africa to mean a white person.

This is the group's description:

This is a group for all the Mzungus living in Kampala…to share your likes, dislikes, advice or interesting (or boring) stuff….

On January 16, 2012 Facebook user Lindsey Kukunda shared a discussion thread from the group under with a question, “What lies beneath the cloaks of exclusivity?”:

So this is a post from the facebook page ‘Mzungus in Uganda’. The moderator starts off the post. Read and enjoy.

The group moderator, Adam Williams, started the discussion with a question about membership:

Downtown Kampala, Uganda. Photo courtesy of Andrew Regan released under Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)


I'm getting at least 50 requests every day for Ugandans to join Muzungus in Uganda group. What should I do?

This forum is supposed to be a place for expats, living in Uganda (hence the name of the page) to share their views along with hints and tips etc etc. If I had accepted every request from a non-muzungu in Uganda this page would have 15,000 members of which 1,000 would actually be muzungus in Uganda. Any thoughts?

Chelsea Jaccard said Ugandans cannot join the group:

it might sound terrible, but I say no…

Jamie Strickland agreed:

we need to keep it just expats for its purpose to be served

Sophie Bremner said:

Difficult – maybe you could request wannabe members to write a short message to you explaining why they are interested? There could be some transnational Ugandans / expats with Ugandan heritage & therefore Ugandan names who have the same interests as others in joining this group. Also, there could be some professional Ugandans who are interested in the odd job opportunity that comes up. I recommended my ex-research assistant join this page, for example, in case any requests came through for researchers looking for staff… Tough one…

Adam Williams wrote again:

The most common thing I get is “Please can you help me find a muzungu girlfriend / boyfriend?”

Marie Wiesenmaid suggested a lottery system to allow 3 non-expats per week:

U'r right, that is a tough one… sometimes the expats here are looking for things or information that only Ugandas can give.. or can give BETTER.
Don't know.. maybe some kind of lottery? Say 3 non-expats (I hate the word mzungu!) per week? Or 5 in a month? Something like that?

Richard Kennair said the group is simply for expats:

My thought is that it is a Muzungu page. How is anyone supposed to ‘vet’ people if there are so many requests? I know it sounds like profiling – but its a site for expats.

Christian Douti left a comment in French:

Ohhh la … c'est quoi la question deja ? le truc je crois c'est quoi un expat selon votre entendement… c'est etre blanc de peau ou quoi… personnellement j'ai eu un mal fou a me faire accepter sur cette page…Alors je suis noir de peau mais expatrier ici…car je suis pas ougandais mais je bosse ici pour des compagnies, ong et institutions. Si expate c'est etre blanc alors cette page friserait le racisme…sinon bon vent ….

So.. what is the question again ? The issue is what is an expat according to you..is it about being white ? Personally, I am having a hard time being accepted on this page
I am black but I am also an expat since I am not from Uganda but I am here to work for companies, NGOs and institutions. If expat is about being white then this page is borderline racist…if that is not the case, then never mind.

Chelsea Jaccard Allan wrote:

I think you've significantly overreacted here. The name of the page is muzungus in Uganda, the goal is for foreigners here to share tips, information, etc. It doesn't say Uganda information group, in which case of course it would be welcome to all. If 5,000 Ugandans joined this page and started sharing messages back and forth, the INTENT of the page would be lost completely. This is not a page to just share what's on your mind, as the one you suggest, and I hope it doesn't become one. I come here to find out where gas is, about a new restaurant that's come in, to buy something when someone's moving etc. Sorry if this has offended you, I'm sure that was no one's intent.

But who is a ‘mzungu”?, Sophie Bremner wondered:

Aha… but look at how Ugandans differentiate… my (African) husband was called ‘Muzungu’ in our area of KLA because people thought he was African-American, and I (pasty Anglo-Saxon type) was called ‘muhindi'…!

Jennifer Eringaard disagreed with the idea of excluding Ugandans:

In my opinion it is rather small-minded to limit this group to ‘muzungus only’. Of course those with the white bf/gf motivations should be left out but already in many occasions have Ugandans provided good tips on this page. The name of this group ‘Muzungus in Uganda’ to me indicates a target group, not a colonial-type ‘ownership’ ruling out all others. One would hope we'd grown past all that….In my opinion, the page is great as it is right now, i.e. mixed.

Kari Mathisen asked:

My husband is an Ugandan citizen, would your suggestion mean I can be here but he can't?? Difficult to segregate I think.

She added:

Or maybe I don't qualify to be here either as I do not class myself as an expat nor a muzungu, having lived in Uganda for the last 30 years!

Eric Walford thought that membership should be open but certain types of content should not be allowed:

we should not restrict who should join but list the type of post that will be accepted,i.e. no personal ads etc. After all when you want a plumber or mechanic etc are you not looking for anyone including Ugandans etc to fulfil you wish. We are all one community living together irrelevant of tribe or colour with a common goal!!

Richard Davies disagreed saying that the group should remain ‘Mzungus in Uganda':

but what i like about here is if you want a plumber or a mechanic, people here recomend you one which you know is reliable and is not going to take advantage, steal ur petrol, over charge you for parts etc! I think it should stay Muzungus in Uganda… like the group name suggests.

Desta Abraham argued that excluding Uganda would be discriminatory:

The group should be open to anyone irrespective of nationality. The point of the group is to help people connect/obtain advice/assistance of a service and yes sometime inform people of activities that are of a social variety. If anybody(expat or not) abuses the purpose of the group then kick them out. But to be exclusionary because someone's name sounds “local” (which by the way I am an American citizen of Eritrean origin with an Eritrean name) is discriminatory and small minded. Anybody from anywhere can tell you where to buy LPG when there is a shortage or that a new sushi restaurant opened up or that something is going on at the National Theatre. A group that excludes on such a basis would be unacceptable in The US or Europe so why behave in such a way in Uganda?

The moderator of the group, Adam Williams, decided to clarify further:

There are millions of pages and groups on facebook and they are for specific target markets. I certainly wouldn't join a group set up for lesbians in Pakistan just because I live in Pakistan and wanted to see what they were saying. I'm not a lesbian. This group was set up for expatriates living in Uganda and, personally, if you're not an expatriate living in Uganda then why join the group? There are other groups, of which I am also members, such as trade links uganda with 35,000 other members all selling things in Uganada. This group isn't for that. I started this group for a purpose and that purpose needs to continue and I'm sorry if you and others may be offended by that but you are very welcome to start your own group and if I feel I am not someone who fits the bill of that group then I certainly wouldn't ask to join it – why would I? The best suggestion, if you're offended by this comment is to leave the group as maybe it's not for you.

He added:

Two men on bodaboda (popular motorbike-taxis) in Uganda. Photo courtesy of Daryona released under Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

And just to add… I don't think that by having a forum we are attempting to segregate ourselves!! It's simply a group for like minded individuals to come together to share ideas and views. As I have said before… there are many groups, such as a group of Arsenal supporters, all from London, now living in New York. They want to discuss football together as only they know how. They certainly don't want a bunch of New York Giants fans joining their group telling them that they are being racist as they are keeping themselves to themselves. NO. This is only one aspect of their lives that they want to remain that way. I'm sure these Arsenal fans live in New York for a reason, work with Americans, have American friends, eat apple pie, go to baseball games and love their lives in America. But they still want to connect with other Arsenal supporters now and again as only they know how to connect. I would never join that group. It's for them and I certainly wouldn't be offended that they set it up.

Jessica Snow supported Adam's arguments:

Adam/All, we are faced daily with the Ugandans/African mentality (not saying this is BAD at all, it is our way of life) but it is nice to know that we have a group facing the same challenges and issues as all of the other expats (or Muzungus). This group is a support system or crutch. I would appreciate if we could keep the group as it is, much like Claire states, so I don't get friend requests or proposals because I am a member. I joined save the Mabira Forest to try and help……I was scolded by locals for my suggestions and had at least 30 friend requests from making my opinions. I would much prefer not to have to endure that again. This group has saved my a$$ several times, but to extend it beyond is only going to cause confusion on what we share or need. I am not biased, I choose to live in Africa, but I will have to remove myself if this goes further.

She added:

And if you are offended by this group, that is so helpful and informative, then delete it from your facebook.

Jillian Larsen Okello observed that life is too complex to try to fit people into neat categories:

I wholeheartedly agree with Eric Walford & Desta Abraham. This inclusion/exclusion is impossible – how could you possibly determine if someone ‘belongs’ or they don't? Life is simply much too rich and complex to try to fit anyone into neat categories. Anyone of any nationality should be able to join the group, and I would welcome and encourage Ugandan participants. As Eric suggested, a simple list of posting rules that apply to everyone equally would resolve any concerns there might be.

Adam Williams wrote:

But there are other groups! This is not the only group on facebook. How about a group for Hindus in Paris. Should Christians in Beijing be welcome to join it?

Ray Clague Ray Clague argued that the word ‘mzungus” is too narrow:

Adam – Like i said before just change the name to expats in Uganda!! so any expat “Mzungu” or not can feel welcome.. if like you say its a forum for expats then say so clearly.. MZungu means white does it not? arent asians welcome , are turks Mzungus? african american, black english? change the name .. feels a bit right wing at the moment.. i personally know many expats ( whites ones) that wont join because of the name…ps arent there already a few ugandan as members? im sure ive seen a few post comments from ugandans.. or are they ok cos “we know them” “there one of us” .. later mate.. got to admit debates on this site ( cant even bring my self to say the name) are never dull…………..EXPATS in Uganda….people what do you think?

Jillian Larsen Okello wanted to know who is an expat:

I don't think it is necessarily so simple or easy to identify what you are referring to as ‘expats’. Does that mean you also exclude backpackers or tourists who ask to join and are just travelling through? How about visiting students or researchers? Journalists on short assignment? The Ugandan spouse of an expat? How about Ugandans who have lived or studied or grown up in the US? How about Kenyans from just across the border?

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