Several years ago when I flew through Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) a couple of times, my husband and I were among the rare white faces on the flights. In fact, another couple adopting from Ethiopia were the only other ones on our first 300+ passenger flight out of Frankfurt, Germany. 3 1/2 years ago there were a small handful of pale faces.
During my most recent trip on Christmas Eve, I couldn’t help but stare as I waited and then boarded each leg of my travel. Later I said to Bintu, “What’s with all the white people?” We had a laugh, and jokes about the white woman (i.e. me) became a thing. “Blanche personne” I sometimes heard in French. The white woman effect has both pro’s and con’s. Speaking of my experience, if the white woman says anything in the local (i.e. tribal) language, it is as hilarious as it is welcome. That was particularly enjoyable.
In visa and immigration lines while dealing with Congo officials, the white woman went to a shorter line and received a lot of help. This made me uncomfortable as if I were cutting in line until I was told it was because my paperwork was different. For instance, in the Antwerp DRC Consulate, I was the only person applying for a travel visa when others were more often applying for passports.
People all over east DRC tended to stare without concern for appropriateness. Bintu told me I was probably the first white woman they’d ever seen who wasn’t riding in a UN van. One of the students at our mission declared, “She is the prettiest white woman I’ve ever met.” When Bintu told me I asked if I was the only one the student had met. “No,” she said. Of course, this compliment came only after almost 2 weeks of seeing the white woman play with the children, greet everyone with smiles, try to speak in 3 languages obviously foreign to her, etc. I pray it is the light of Jesus inside me she sees shining.
The downside for the white woman is being an automatic panhandler magnet. This is understandable in an area that has seen so much suffering.
My Congolese friend discovered a final upside to the effect at church my last Sunday when we became separated. Her sister arrived and Bintu called, “I’ve lost my white woman! Have you seen her?” The whole choir erupted in laughter.
Indeed, when out for my last day in the car I spotted TWO white women on the sidewalk. Absolutely unprecedented. I exclaimed, “Look! White women! I should take a picture.” Alas, I was too slow with the camera.
Kristin King is a white woman with a heart for Africa. She is co-founder and president of the nonprofit, Future Hope Africa. Kristin blogs about travel, books and writing while living as an US expat in the Netherlands with her husband, four sons and golden lab.