Saturday, December 27, 2014

They Must Be ISIS or Boko Haram

In Uganda, we are fond of generalizing. When we see men (usually) having a beer at 9:00am, we are quick to label them drunks. Anybody who is super skinny with pink lips, we say they are riddled with HIV/AIDS, while anybody with dreadlocks is into drugs.

Over the years, I find I have slowly been sucked into generalizing, a move that a few years ago slid me into hot water. Near Pride Theatre in Old Kampala, I lashed out at two Somali’s whilst in a fit of road rage and called them Al Queada. For my troubles, Somali and in a pre-emptive strike, goofed me through the open window of my ride.

With terrorism on the rise, there is a need to be cautious, the need to report to the security authorities everything that we see and deem to be out of place or suspicious. However, seeing we don’t know what Terrorist looks like or what is suspicious, we end up generalizing.

On a recent flight and as we waited to board, American Lady sitting next to me, leans over whispering something along the lines of: “I hope they are not on our flight.” While it was a busy Entebbe airport, I didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to know who she was referring to.

They were ten women, all clad from head to toe in burqa’s with a net like curtain at the front – presumably so they can see where they are going. The chatter American Lady spewed out was about the atrocities in Kenya and Syria and how women in burqa’s are strapped with explosives, are evil and are not to be trusted.

On the flight, my seat was at tail of the plane while Burqa Women sat just behind the first class compartment. It bought some comfort in that if they were as American Woman put it – ISIS and Al Shabab Women intent on blowing the plane out of the skies, sitting at the tail of the plane would have bought me a few more seconds of life over the rest.

American Woman sat two rows ahead of me - her head bobbing in and out of the aisle as she kept watch on her quarry, a move that made everybody nervous and earned her a whispered reprimand from Chief Purser who told her that not all women who wear burqa’s are ISIS or Al Shabab.

In transit in a coffee shop at Bole airport in Addis a few hours later, American Woman had a new terrorist to pick on. Addis is a major transit hub for flights to West Africa and seeing the airport was full of West Africans, American Woman labelled anybody with a West African accent as contaminated with Ebola or has something to do with Boko Haram.

But what does a Boko Haram terrorist look like? And despite Ebola being in the news for months on end, how did she come to the conclusion that anybody from West Africa is riddled with the disease?

While most people ignored or pretended to ignore her concerns, the few West African’s who took stock of her nonsensical chatter, stared at her in disbelief.

After listening to American Woman, I began seeing things that were really not there - that maybe American Woman is right about every West African wearing a boubou being a Boko Haram affiliate and Ebola infected and every woman in a burqa is ISIS or Al Shabab yet, I shouldn’t be thinking that way. I shouldn’t be generalizing because my West African friends who wear boubou’s don’t have Ebola and the one Somali woman who I know well and who sometimes wears a burqa, is not Al Shabab or ISIS. 

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