Perspectives from Africa,
engagement from Finland

Understanding Africa

Representing Africans


Fireworks at Kansalaistori Square, Helsinki, to celebrate a century of Finnish independence (Photo: Finland 100)

Fireworks in Helsinki, to celebrate a century of Finnish independence (Photo: Finland 100)

Prejudice is not just my privilege

Kampala is full of life and traffic

I spent a week in Kampala recently - and, after that, another one in Kigali. Those who have visited both cities say they are like night and day. Kampala is chaotically full of life and traffic, whereas Kigali is calm, colourful and exceptionally clean. By saying this, more than to compare Uganda and Rwanda, I am trying to make my point clear. If these two neighbouring countries differ so heavily from each other, how come we still put all the countries in our everyday speech all under the same umbrella called Africa?
Too many still do. I personally haven´t done it for a long time, honestly.

Travelling and working in these countries is always a pleasure and adventure for me. Forgetting the colour of the skin and the languages I don´t understand a word, it all comes back to the basic human nature. Foreign places, people and phenomena are simply interesting – a cause to live for, a reason to open the eyes and wonder. Seeing the acacia trees, smelling the night and hearing the distant chant from the church makes me as a visitor from a remote and cold northern country feel welcome. I start smiling and thinking: we are not so much different after all, are we?

Watch out, there it comes...

Africans, meet Europeans; Europeans, meet Africans

"Mzungu", I hear somewhere in the street, accompanied with a stinging gaze. To open up my heart here, it is quite impossible for me to tell you what I feel. Yes, I am a white stranger, I know, but I am not a clown wearing a red nose, whom some fear and at whom some laugh. I am just me, an everyday, regular, normal guy living in our shared world village, am I not?

I´ve been trying to find out, what the hell this mzungu genuinely means. People say, it´s nothing, just a neutral term to be used of a white fella lost in Africa. Well, I´ve heard politicians and diplomats talking their ways out with their euphemism-filled jargon so many times, so why should it be any different among the common guys on the sunny continent? Explaining the (false) meaning of our words in the best possible way is very human. Just a joke, eh!

But come on!

Travelling and working in Africa is always a pleasure and an adventure

I am not buying this. In my country Finland, an independent country in Europe, some older (though not always necessarily wiser) fellow citizens still think it is okay to call some people by the N-word. That was what was thought for them as a regular norm in the school – yes, that is true, but, fortunately, it was some 50 years ago. The times, they have been a changing for a long time, and normally a person looking for even the thinnest slice of social acceptance know this very well.

Its 2015 now. If one wants to point the finger, one must find a mirror.

I don´t really care what "mzungu" really means; it is enough to hear it. I can easily take it from excited children in a remote village and answer with a genuine smile. But from a literate adult in a big city, hell no! I don´t go wandering around my home town, pointing my finger at every stranger yelling "African", "stranger" or "foreigner". It is the act itself that matters; it would be a most patronising approach, if it didn't. If the people truly are to be equal, why should different kind of behaviour be expected from the ones than the others? The world needs to be changed, but the change must start from the grassroots-level, as the topmost of our societies, the most powerful people on Earth, just don´t always change it for the better.

The need for being treated as an individual is a very profound part of being human

When I hear my African brothers and sisters complaining why we Europeans think of Africa as just one entity, it makes me want to ask just the same. It is sadly true that some European countries have exploited Africa and gotten quite a nice starting pack for their own rise, and that is simply wrong. But coming from Finland, a small northern country that was once first taken under control by the Swedes (1323) and then by the Russians (1809) before the independence (1917), I can sense a slice of unjustness in my soul. What makes it right for an African fellow to talk about the Europeans, if he or she feels utterly disappointed when I speak of Africa without understanding the nuances between the different countries of tribes?

No need for that, but the need for being treated as an individual is a very profound part of being human. No matter if you are black or white, woman or a man (or something between), rich or poor, and there´s nothing wrong with that. The next time I hear "mzungu", I know I can just smile and enjoy the beautiful African sun, because I have learnt an important lesson. Prejudice is not just my privilege, and therefore, we are all equal, we are all the same.


Juho Paavola

The writer is a journalist and photographer based in Finland. All images by Juho.