Iganga Town, Uganda

August 31, 2010

There are some americanism, my inner mzungo so to speak, that I would presume are rigid and inflexible. I’d be wrong but I sometimes argue with myself that it is true. Personal space is one of those things. From my history I know that I can work through the concept of space; the idea that it is personal– seemingly a mzungo/lakugwa concept.

In south Africa I acclimated myself to women patting my breast when greeting me or gesturing in my general direction. It would rest there absently as we went through our greeting, “how did you wake up?” “I woke up” (a very literal sotho greeting) and onto the part of the conversation about how my parents were and their children. In anticipation of my mzungo/lakugwa family’s visit I took my mother and sister aside to explain and demonstrate. My sister cleared her throat after it had been a few minutes, I’d moved on to another topic, and my hand still rested lightly on her left breast.

And when I stood in lines at the post office or a bank, I quickly learned that line means a throng of people vying for the next teller to process their money or to sell them stamps. And so I squished my breasts against backs or wedged my foot unceremoniously into an almost nonexistent gap, lest there be confusion about my place in line.

I know how to forego the personal in my space.

Still I had wedged that part of myself somewhere deep and forgotten. Until…until I realized that South Africa was just practice. Here people don’t even pretend to get in line. It isn’t a subtle inching forward or even a competition culminating in a mad dash to the front. Instead, people casually walk past an otherwise orderly line and place their receipt for stamping, groceries for buying, or money for paying on the counter in front of a person who has been waiting in line for ages.

Recovering my south African instincts, the other day I ignored woman who circumvented the long cue I’d just stood in and placed her withdrawal slip under the teller’s window. I casually removed her form and replaced it with mine smiling all the while at the teller and simultaneously giving the woman the side-eye (a difficult feat in unison).

I’m not all the way there, today I forgot to physically press myself against the back of the woman at the immigration line which allowed a man to slip in-between us and put his papers down. The line was short and I was tired. I let it pass. The conversion isn’t complete. When I approach the bank manager’s desk and see that someone is sitting there I instinctively hang back, my mzungo in full gear. He generally gestures toward the inevitably empty chair opposite the person already at his desk, and shakes his head.

“why do you stand over there when there is a chair right here?” he makes a point to tease me repeatedly because he doesn’t understand that in America you just don’t crowd a person when they are talking money.

I’m sure in a month I won’t even realize I’ve adapted again. Won’t realize that I no longer allow air or light between me and the body in front of me in any given line or allow for the privacy of the monetary transactions of strangers. Hell…I’m halfway there already. Right now I still hear my inner mzungo urging me to reacquaint space with personal. But that voice is getting fainter. Hell, I might forget I’m a mzungo at all if the kids would stop screaming it at my every time I pass by.

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2 Comments on there is no personal in space

  1. Mary P says:

    So, umm…how is the body odor in this realm of personal spacelessness?

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