The Fish Bowl Effect

There are many things I miss from the states. I miss my family, friends, food, washing machines, driving, air conditioning, window screens, a reliable water source, but the thing that I miss the most isn’t an object or a person. I miss the ability to step outside my house and be anonymous. I miss being able to walk down the street and not be yelled at or talked about. I miss being able to have my curtains open and knowing that small children won’t come and stare at me through the open window. Here are a few examples of why anonymity is so hard for me in Swaziland.

There is a word in siSwati for “white person” or sometimes it means “foreigner”. This word is “umlungu”. I have heard this word more times than I can count since arriving in Swaziland. It is shouted at me as I walk through the bus rank, it is said by people sitting near me on a khumbi or bus, men trying to get my attention, children stare and point and then say “umlungu” as well. There is also a sign for the word in siSwati sign language. To make the sign you hook your pointer finger and tap your nose with your finger, thumb side of the hand in. I don’t think either of these terms is meant to be offensive, at least not all the time but I am definitely not a fan of the word or sign, especially when people know my name or even names (Swazi and American). Swaziland is 97% Swazi so when I walk down the street there is no way to go unnoticed. I’m sure I’ve been the first White person that some of the kids here have seen. One day while riding the bus to town the little girl next to me started petting my forearm. When I looked at her she stopped but when I looked away she continued. I think she was just curious if my skin feels different than her own. I don’t blame children for being curious about someone different, someone that looks like no one they have ever seen but at the end a day in town it is draining to have not been able to have even a moment without being noticed.

The fish bowl effect also carries in when I can’t go anywhere without hearing “Uyaphi?” which means “Where are you going?” I get asked this question by the students, the teachers, the security guard, the cooks, basically anyone that sees me walking. I also get asked this question on public transport, when I am walking through town, when I am waiting for a bus, or even when I am just standing in town waiting for someone. I don’t even know all the people that are asking me “Uyaphi?”  It’s gotten to the point where I just want to yell back “It’s none of your business!!” Swazis don’t ask each other “Uyaphi?” but I can’t make it ten steps from my door without hearing the question. I’m not sure why they don’t ask each other but feel the need to ask me every time they see me. I’m not sure I will ever get used to having people constantly needing to know where I’m going and what I’m doing. I do miss the privacy I had in the states greatly when I get asked “Uyaphi?” several times in one day.

The last part of the fish bowl effect that is magnified here is about what I choose to wear. If I have a new shirt, skirt, bracelet, necklace, socks, or even button I guarantee someone will notice, tell me it’s beautiful and then ask for it. People comment on my clothing everyday. They tell me my skirt is beautiful or they like my necklace. You would think this would be nice, it’s a compliment even, but it’s usually followed by the statement, “give me your ________.” It’s not a question. It’s a statement. I have started answering with “No, give me your _______.” Peace Corps warned us that we would be asked for things but I always figured once I got established at my school and made it clear I wasn’t going to give things out that it would stop. There is one student in particular that will ask me for some item of my wardrobe everyday. It’s usually a different item she asks for each day but it happens like clockwork. She is one in particular that I have started asking for things of her’s. If she wants my shirt I tell her to give me her shirt. If she wants my socks I tell her to give me her socks. She still tries every day but I tell her it’s mine and she can’t have it. Maybe one day she will realize I won’t change my mind and she will stop asking. 

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2 thoughts on “The Fish Bowl Effect

  1. You do a wonderful job of making us understand what it is like for you. We may not be able to empathize with you, but we can at least sympathize. You know, since you are such an oddity there, possibly the girl that asks you for a piece of your wardrobe every day may just be saying that because it is a way to interact with you. Her friends may think she is really “cool” because you and she talk every day. Who knows! It sounds like you are a bit of a movie star there. The constant display would be tiring, I would imagine. I am a very private person, and I don’t think I would like to be in your situation. On the up side, if you fall down and break your ankle, at least someone will notice. Anyway, I truly enjoy reading about your adventures. Think of you often….take care of yourself…Missy

    • It’s actually funny you mention the falling and hurting myself. Just this past Sunday I was running, I’m training for a half marathon. I tripped and fell. I scraped up my one elbow and one palm but I’m otherwise fine. The funny thing is 15-20 people saw it happen and then all proceed to talk to me at different times about how I need to be more careful when I run. I’ve realized I can’t turn my head to talk to anyone when I run, that’s what distracted me. There are definitely people surrounding me though if I ever need help.

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