Abroad in Oz: How the Minerva Fellows know they’re Nott at Union anymore


By Elliot Harmon

Elliot Harmon ‘10 is the Union College Minerva Fellow in Uganda. Working based out of the health clinic Engeye in the rural village of Ddegeya, he has done everything from creating a laboratory and installing solar panels to repairing roads and teaching primary school. This only begins to describe the multitude of things Harman has found himself involved in since he arrived in Uganda six months ago.

Seldom a day goes by without someone calling out to me “BYE MZUNGU,” which translates to something like “See ya whitie!”

Sometimes it’s difficult to adjust to a culture where racial profiling is often seen as an entirely natural part of personal interactions. It’s beneficial for social, fiscal, and educational interactions. Few, if any, foreigners tend to know the local languages, and usually come here as teachers or doctors. Also, as my friends are apt to point out to me that “when people see Mzungus, they see dollars.” This comes from a long history of Caucasians coming to Uganda as tourists while operating on what can be considered an “American budget,” thinking of things in terms of their equivalent cost in America instead of their cost relative to what a typical Ugandan can afford.

As Americans we are engulfed in diversity. Part of our upbringing involves education regarding what it takes to recognize and respectdiversity, understanding that people can be vastly different while still making them as comfortable as possible. Union is often criticized for its lack of diversity, a simple example of our appreciation for diversity.

At times it can begin to wear on you when people don’t call you by name, but instead by your skin color. It’s usually a little tougher when you know that they know your name, but they still insist on calling you Mzungu, both to your face and behind your back.

I don’t hold it against anyone for being a tad racist here. Sarah and I are the only white people in over 30 kilometers in any direction, and the little kids are truly afraid of us sometimes. They’ve never seen white people outside of a movie, and their curiosity is understandable. I used to find it strange when people would try tosubtly pet my skin when riding next to me in a taxi, but now I’ve come to the point where I happily notice what’s going on, smile, and extend my arm for them to really see what white skin is like.

I encourage them to pinch and scratch if they’re really interested. This fellowship is an experience designed to increase cultural understanding, both for myself as well as for those whom I interact with. So if I can teach somebody that white skin isn’t so delicate as to be cut by grass, bring it on, Uganda. I know I look different, but we’re all people and as far as that goes, I’m no different than anybody else in this village.

So although you might be able to get most Union students to admitting that they’d be resistant to go wander around Hamilton Hill, I’ve found myself most uncomfortable when I go to Kampala, the capital city, and hang out in a room with more than 5 white people in it. I can only imagine what it will be the first time I go inside Reamer.


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