By Samira Sawlani

We walked into the police station in Uganda. My white British friend who wanted to file a complaint had asked me to accompany her. The three officers behind the desk stood up immediately, one giving her his chair, the other rushing to take notes and the third, with a great deal of concern on his face asked her what had happened.

Sat in the waiting area were a pregnant woman and an elderly gentleman, both were black Ugandans. The lady had been waiting over two hours for the police to attend to her while the gentleman had spoken to them regarding his issue and been told to wait. He’d been waiting for almost three hours. My friend on the other hand was dealt with immediately and within thirty minutes all procedures had been carried out and her complaint both logged and addressed.

Two years prior to this I was stood in a queue at a bank in Uganda, ahead of me was a white gentleman and in front of him was an elderly Ugandan lady. The Bank Manager came out and bypassed the lady at the front and made a beeline to the white man. I stood, absolutely baffled by both her actions and the collective silence of everyone in the bank as if this was a normal occurrence. As I called out to the manager and pointed out that the Ugandan lady was first, she ignored me and continued on with her tasks.

This was to be the first of many situations I witnessed of what I believe can be defined as ‘white privilege’ in East Africa, a right earned through the continued domination of white supremacy.

Two weeks ago the media reported that the Kenyan Government have offered a free holiday to the family of a 15 year old American tourist who was ‘harassed by a police officer’ because he mistook her for terror suspect Samantha Lewthwaite. If it was a Somali family holidaying in Kenya and their son had been mistaken for Abu Ubaidah the new leader of Al-Shabaab would the same courtesy have been offered? I highly doubt it.

Why is this? Because the American tourist was white and thus she along with numerous others enjoy a certain privilege earned by the colour of her skin.

The concept of white privilege is associated with predominantly white societies such as the United States of America and Great Britain. In these parts of the world it manifests in a variety of ways, from being as simple as wanting to buy a pair of ‘nude shoes’ and finding that ‘nude‘ in the fashion industry equates to that which matches white skin, to forming the foundation of a society where young black men like Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown can be killed based upon appearance and justice to their loved ones denied.
IMG_3184These examples may not always apply to countries like Kenya and Uganda where the population is predominantly black. However borne in this part of the world are types of phenomena which fall into this category, particularly as they often create some form of disadvantage for the local population.

Like the example of the bank mentioned above, it is in shops, restaurants, bars and other social spaces where white privilege often instigated by people of colour can be seen. Almost every person in Kenya that I interviewed cited the example of how security guards at shopping centres will often not frisk or search through the belongings of white mall goers yet non white visitors are always subject to a thorough check. Is this in itself not reinforcing the view that white people cannot be involved in criminal activity or terror and are therefore exempt from the process? This difference in attitude and perception adds to the dehumanising narrative which has for centuries formed the basis of how black people have been viewed. This stance which assumes the black individual is inherently prone to partake in crime is then juxtaposed with the inherent civility and innocence associated with the white population.

In Uganda 29 year old lawyer Lisa Mbabazi complains about staff at food courts, restaurants and bars choosing to serve white customers first, leaving people like her feeling like a second class citizen. In her opinion this practice upholds a system inherited from colonialism which “characterises black people as being inferior and thus not worthy of the same level of services and rights enjoyed by their white counterparts.”

A waitress in Kampala argued against this accusation telling me “It is just us being hospitable to our foreign guests”. I challenged her on this asking if the same treatment was given to black tourists from other parts of Africa or visitors from Asia and her response was a baffled silence. Nationality may bring some form of privileges however it comes second to race. A friend who is a Black British passport holder and her two children were stood in the immigration queue at Julius Nyerere International Airport, Tanzania. As she stepped forward to the counter she was stopped as the immigration officer pointed to the white couple behind her to come forward first, this illustrated that ultimately ‘passport privilege’ is beaten by that which is earned through skin colour.


A bar owner in Nairobi states that his reasoning for prioritising white guests is because they tip better and spend more than their black counterparts. He argued that white people in East Africa enjoy a certain level of privilege because they as foreigners or descendants of foreigners are considered to have money which provides them with multiple benefits as a result of race and wealth. Thus leading me to conclude that the benefits gained by the white population be they expats, tourists or residents is a result of the way they are perceived, a concept inherited from our colonial past.

The continued dominance of white superiority in this part of the world or indeed other former colonies such as India and Pakistan is not only evident in the treatment of the white population but also in the covert and overt ways in which we aspire to replicate and meet standards of the white western world. We want our buildings and cities to look like New York and London, a branch of Kentucky Fried Chicken opens in Kampala and it becomes cause for celebration despite the fact that local chicken and chips shops have been around for decades.

Similarly eurocentric ideals of beauty, foreign products and all that is approved by those Western Countries where a white population is dominant, continue to be held in high esteem. As said by a Ugandan branding expert “We love Japanese electronics, however this is also due to the fact that these brands have obtained Western approval.”

In her novel ‘Looking for Transwonderland’ Noo Saro Wiwa speaks to a young Nigerian student who tells her “People don’t want to read books by Nigerians living in Nigeria. If Kaine Agary had published ‘yellow-yellow’ in the US, Nigerians would have taken an interest in it.” This is largely because of the power of Western validation which has also resulted in not enough value being given by society to local products, services and talent. In an interview Nigerian musician Femi Kuti said; “An African will prefer to be called John-Philip. If you said your name was Chukwu Emeka Afongkudong they will say you are from the village. You are backward. How can you have such a name? We really look down on our culture and heritage instead of being proud of it.”

The elite in East Africa often choose to travel to Europe or America for healthcare services. For example in 2003 President Museveni of Uganda spent thousands of pounds to fly his daughter to Germany where she gave birth. 2013 World Bank figures show the infant mortality rate (no. of infants dying before the age of 1) per 1000 live births stood at 3 in Germany while in the same year the figure was 44 in Uganda. Though President Museveni cited ‘security reasons’ for his decision we see once again that for the rich and the famous only healthcare facilities in the white western world will do.

The greatest irony in this matter is the fact that in recent times leaders in both Kenya and Uganda have partaken in Anti-Western rhetoric and gained much support from the populace for this. In Kenya, where both the President and Deputy President are facing trial at the International Criminal Court many have called for the case to be terminated and accused the ICC of being racist and a puppet of the West. While in Uganda strong support for the Anti-Homosexuality law was seen as making a statement to Europe and America.

So why over 50 years after decolonisation does white supremacy and white privilege continue to manifest in East Africa? Why are phrases such as ‘African timing’ or ‘African standards’ used in a derogatory fashion?

Some would choose to take a historical perspective on this, and quote the likes of theorists such as Frantz Fanon and Albert Memmi for who ‘a salient effect of colonization is the internalization of the inferior perception that is imposed on him/her by the colonizer.’ In Black Skin, White Mask Fanon writes “If there is an inferiority complex, it is the outcome of a double process; -primarily, economic; -subsequently, the internalization – or, better, the epidermalization – of this inferiority.”

These incidents, that way of thinking, that perception many possess fall under the heading of ‘colonial mentality’ which Kwame Gyekye describes; ‘Colonial rule infects the subjected people with a certain mental outlook, a certain pattern of thinking. This pattern of thinking has come to be dubbed “colonial mentality” and to be regarded as a negative intellectual attribute…. resulting in the tendency to regard foreign cultural products as of much greater worth than those of the indigenous culture.’ (Gyekye 1997:234)

IIMG_3185f we are to go with this school of thought then the argument is that part of the hangover from colonialism is the belief both enforced and internalised that white people and culture continue to hold some form of superiority. In her paper ‘Skin Bleaching, Self Hatred and Colonial Mentality’ Dr Yaba Blay attributes part of the responsibility for this to the media and society as a whole “to have light skin means that you may have White (or other) ancestry. And if in this context, Whiteness has been historically projected as inherently better than Blackness, to have White blood automatically renders one better than average. While at the surface level, this type of thinking can absolutely be plugged into the “colonial mentality” definition, we cannot treat skin bleachers as if they exist within an ahistoric, apolitical vacuum. They are members of a larger society that has, and continues to privilege Whiteness.”

And so we frequently witness and experience in parts of East Africa, as in many other parts of the world this internalised colonial mentality which crossed from an appreciation of all that is white and western to becoming an aspiration, a standard on and by which judgements are made.

The colonialists were known to oppress their subjects and in exercising this mentality we ourselves give birth to an internalised oppression, one which many do not even realise they are partaking in.


All work published on Media Diversified is the intellectual property of its writers. Please do not reproduce, republish or repost any content from this site without express written permission from Media Diversified. For further information, please see our reposting guidelines.


Samira Sawlani is a writer and journalist specialising in politics, economy and development of East and Horn of Africa, in particular Kenya, Uganda and Somalia. She also writes fiction and human interest stories. A holder of an MA in International Studies and Diplomacy from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London she has previously worked with the Commonwealth Secretariat and as an International Election Observer for the Kenyan elections in 2013. Aside from journalism she has also worked in the emergency humanitarian relief and refugee care sector. Twitter: @samirasawlani


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31 thoughts on “Tourism, White Privilege and Colonial Mentality in East Africa

  1. The reason why President Museveni flies abroad for treatment is not to show his constituencies that western hospitals are superior, it is because it is cheaper for him to do that, than for him to fix his own health system.
    40% of his health budget has been foreign aid for many years, and still oxygen and electricity in government hospitals may stop on any night.

    In a police station in East Africa, a muzungu will be served well and swiftly, because it matters to the police/gov. that she does not go home with a feeling of not being helped after a robbery – where she by the way could have been targeted because of her pale skin – which could make other tourists not want to visit their country.

    In South Sudan a group of well-dressed local men will get served before any other African or pale skinned person, because the waiters know that these upper-class local men are going to spend huge money. It is not just colour. Money talks.


  2. Interesting and thought provoking article. For some reason I was surprised that this goes on in Sub-Saharan African Nations – However India has to go be the worst.

    It’s actually a common feature all over India for hotel owners in Goa, Gokarna, Rajasthan to make a rule where they don’t serve Indians and only cater to Whites. White expatriates predominantly from Russia and Israel have monopolised areas in Goa and even pockets of Himachal Pradesh where they have created environments where Indians are made to feel unwelcome – White people being imperialist in nature have taken advantage of this extreme subservience that Indians show towards them and as such there has even been accounts of Russian owned shacks using Goan waiters as a forefront to bar Indians entry from establishments.

    The worst part if that most Indians not only turn a blind eye to what is going on but will actively defend these people. I as well as any other Indian who tries creating awareness about the situation is met with hostility from other Indians. When I reflect on my own personal experiences, I realise that I also carried a subservient mentality myself without realising it: When I worked in my family owned convenience store I would go out of my way to do small talk with white women and even at times open doors for them. I think personally it lied in the not wanting to acknowledge rejection and thinking that by altering my behaviour somehow this would change their perception of me.


  3. It used to be the same in Zimbabwe years back but it has drastically changed over the years. People tend to respect the rich or visibly comfortable, and so there are many people you wouldn’t mess with just to find favour with a random white face. White men still get called ‘baas’ by those street vendors who exclusively target them with oily talk to clinch sales. Indians largely know their place to not make a self-important nuisance out of themselves, and so act to cement good relations for the benefit of their businesses. Whatever they feel in their personal hearts is rightly a non-issue. There’s a very friendly anti-supremacist attitude in the whole society. Even the few previously notorious white farmers know how to act. White previlege is almost dead. Those who tend to kiss up to the whites are virtually beggars with no school, and there are few of those around here, with most other people viewing themselves as proud people no matter their financial position. Black expats have always been treated well save for those who import their bad personalities. Money talks in Zim, not race.


  4. Only education and knowledge of how whites live in the West would change attitudes. Apart from their super rich, there is nothing special about them.


  5. Great piece, I have both witnessed this myself in Africa and the Caribbean & benefited from it. It has to stop. I wonder why the writer chooses to use the term ex-pat instead of immigrant because this is yet another distinguisher, ex-pat is what white British/American people are called, everyone else is an immigrant.


  6. Great article apart from the part where you call yourself a person of color. There is no such thing as peple of color. Color is relative. Good article though..


    1. Mike, color is not relative….it is a very real concept that affects every aspect of society..politically, economically, socially, culturally…this is the point of the article. To be “colorblind” denotes living in a fantasy world of your own creation. To deny that white skin brings privilege without merit, throughout the world and especially on the Continent implies a lack of of sophistication and interaction with peoples and systems of the world. When you look in the mirror and when others “see” you, they see color. To deny your own image is to deny your legacy and your heritage. Wake up


  7. This is very prevalent across the continent. Last week in Sandton I witnessed a white man go and pick leftover beer, wine and whiskey from tables that had been vacated and partake it in plain view of the waiters at Hard Rock Cafe.

    If it was a black man, he’d have been thrown out for being a vagrant.

    My favorite hangout in Nairobi is the Brew Bistro on Ngong Road. The reason I like it beyond their micro brewery beer is that I noticed them throw out white patrons who wanted to take advantage of white privilege and walk in without IDs (age limit). Being African and having grown up noticing white privilege, I gained newfound respect for the establishment.

    In Uganda, there’s been a couple of public humiliation of black people at different bars. The biggest culprits being the defunct Mish Mash on Acacia Avenue, Bubble’s Oleary which admits white people freely but has restrictions on black people and lastly just this weekend at Iguana Bar where a black lady was thrown out into the rain because they wanted to close yet white people were still being admitted. The 2 gentlemen who witnessed the incident and complained were physically dealt with by the white manager/owner.

    Lastly, in Nairobi this week, there’s controversy about a Chinese restaurant that won’t admit black people after 5PM while white people can walk in any time. Because there was a theft and the owners suspect black patrons.

    And last year, yours truly was denied service at a bar in the 5 star Ramada Plaza in Tunis for more than 30 minutes as white privileged people got their beers immediately. I didn’t let that slide and made complaints in my broken French. The managers realized that this black man wasn’t going to let it slide easily and relieved the bar man to save face.

    And for the Africans who think white people don’t steal, I was robbed by 3 white guys in Geneva just last month.


  8. Society has conditioned Africans to relegate themselves and their kin to the back of the line. Remember they are Christians – The Angels are white and the Devil is Black! You should see the treatment Kenyan citicizen get at the Airports when returning to “their” country and compare it to “vistors” – Its almost like “If am a government officer, I am nothing, what about you?’ Its pathetic, I need not say more.


  9. This article would have been much more interesting had the author focused on how South East Asian communities in East Africa use their own light skin advantage against black Africans living in East Africa.

    It’s all great and all to discuss about White privilige but lets not pretend that South East Asian communities don’t do the same thing to Africans.


  10. So let me recap: black people treat other black people like s***, and I as an expat working here shall feel bad about it and it somehow ‘my fault’?

    Great reasoning, and great favor to the local population – once again shielding them off the burden of responsibility. It not the policement not doing his job, no, it’s the bad white man.

    Feel guilty all you want. How empowering.


    1. At no point in the article does she write that its “your fault.” (Feel free to cite examples to the contrary.) It seems you’re reading into it something that isn’t there – perhaps you have a guilty conscience.


    2. Africans aren’t empowered, if the history of colonialist white supremacy, that created the phenomena which Samira describes in her article, is ignored.
      People don’t privilege whiteness en masse, because they can’t do their jobs; they do so, because they’ve been taught that’s their job.
      The point of Samira’s piece, I think, is that we should understand and combat this legacy of colonialist white supremacy.


    3. Not quite “moritz”, This is a case of black people calling out a mentality that people such as yourself seem to take advantage of. Its called freedom of speech, something that you should be familiar with. You should applaud this especially if you are a genuine expat, working in Africa to better the local community. The question is how genuine are you? Its a little nauseating when “expats” such as yourself attempt to stifle talented writers that are doing good for the local community which ideally you should be a part of. And another thing, “mr moritz expat”, you need to learn how to spell, the word is policeman not “policement”, Its a bit weird isn’t it?, me somehow contributing to your education and teaching you how to spell. I am sure you will agree with me that no one is really perfect, don’t you think?


    4. It’s not about feeling guilty – it’s about being aware.

      Or perhaps if someone gives you preferential treatment insist “Oh, but Person A is in front of me in the queue!” it’s a good way to give pause to those who propagate these kind of actions. Refuse to accept preferential treatment – or at the very least be aware.

      My favorite thing to do in TZ is respectfully greet elders etc. with “shikamoo” and refer to people I see on the street as “tajiri” to set their conceptions on their head. By my greeting with the respect first they are forced to regard me in a light different from the traditional colonial aspect.


    5. All this is good. Writing about white supremacy and black inferiority etc. It is also enjoyable to blame white colonialism in Africa and Asia all the while. But let’s stop and think for one moment. When the leaders of Africa and Asia come into power do they think of improving the status of the common man in their country.?They become so corrupt and criminal.they want to become more and more rich and look upon the country like their personal property. treating their own population with disdain and contempt.Some buy villas and mansions in Europe while their poor live without proper housing and in deplorable economic conditions. White man may have colonized and taken advantage of the countries of Asia and Africa. But they do all this to give their own citizens a good life. A life of security and a life of pride. To them their citizens are most important. They care for them providing them social security and free medical care.We have to be shamefully aware of this. We are basically an inherently corrupt people. We talk of racism as if we are not racists. The moment we come into power we treat our own citizens the same way the white man treated us. We are bad against our own people. The white man is good with his own people. This is the big difference.


  11. The evolution of races has always been disparate. That Europeans are perceived by many blacks to be superior is partly due to their assimilation of ‘white’ value systems and an admiration of the technological achievements attributed to them. Fact is that much of what black folks aspire to have and to use is the product of whites; the jets they fly in, the cars they drive, the cloths they wear, the medical technologies they use etc. – almost every technology and many of the academic principals blacks use in their everyday lives is the product of white people. Don’t use it and then lament its origin, if you feel that way then divest yourselves of it and embrace your blackness, its cultures and technologies exclusively.


    1. ‘The concept of “Acting White” relies on the ideology that all modern western culture we enjoy was created by, built by and influenced by white people and that all other brown, red and yellow peoples are merely (new) participants in a dominant white culture. 

      Of course that is a concept with deep roots in historical white washing, purposefulmisguided cultural ignorance, and the  pervasive and destructive and relentless ego born of being a long standing member of a dominant and oppressive racial system.

      But really, guys. What it boils down to is this: A fairy tale delusion that everything in Western culture is “white” and everything “ethnic” is somehow other. 

      Ironically, even the barest glimpse at even the most whitewashed of history books paints a picture of the development of modern Western culture as something that has been continually contributed to and influenced by people of color from all over the world. Everything from music, to the English language, to technology, to basic creature comforts like refrigerators and our traffic system were literally shared efforts between POC and white people throughout history.’ Western Neutral: Separating Common Culture From “Whiteness”


    2. Quite interesting to read this stuff along with the comments. Some colonized countries have got over this derisive mentality of showing over respect to white tourists or just any one who looks white but like it is said in the article most poorer countries still live with this same mentality. Guess economic conditions and lack of true knowledge of history have got a lot to do with this. In countries of South Asia like |Pakistan people have completely got over this mentality. In fact its the other way around. They make the whites feel terrified and guilty. India is half and half. It is also annoying how African ticket checking inspectors discriminate Indian looking or any Asian looking people when it comes to checking tickets compared to how they deal with the whites.Guess it will take a long time for this unfortunate mentality to completely disappear.


  12. It is deeply saddening to hear how widespread this still is throughout Africa. A few years ago I was with some colleagues working on a case in Nigeria, as we strolled into a store a group of people selling things rushed to my white colleague calling him ‘master, master’. As a British-Nigerian I felt not only embarrassed but also sad at how internalised how dislike of our own people is and how when it is called out people fail to realise that there is any kind of problem.


  13. This is a great summary of the white privilege I experience as a white British male almost every day in Nairobi. It is always shocking and surprising to me, but it happens so frequently that I am privileged over Kenyans by Kenyans that it is clear this goes very deep. Beyond just perceived ability of financial muscle, and somewhere much more deep in the psyche.


  14. I agree with the points in Samira’s article. However the problem is far more wide spread than East Africa in relation to black people showing favouritism to white people. I’m from Caribbean decent and I remember several years ago when I was a young girl on a family holiday with both parents in Barbados (where my mum is from). We went to a busy restaurant in St Lawrence’s Gap and on arrival we waited ages to be seated and were eventually bypassed by a white American Family. Locals said it happened because the white family would tip better and are revered more. Plus locals do not like serving other black people who look like them. They prefer to ‘pander to the white people’ apparently. I never forgot it. More recently I took my Mum to Cuba for a holiday and whilst on a day excursion to Havana with other tourists (that just happened to be white) we were accosted by a black Cuban policeman. When the tour guide translated the problem to us, it became apparent the policeman thought we were black Cuban prostitutes walking around with and harassing the white tourists. He could not grasp/fathom that we were black British tourists on holiday too. So these issues surrounding race are so imbedded within the consciences of black people around the world that it will probably take another 300 years or so to remove it. The right education is key!!


  15. I have read this article with joy as I once wrote an article “Must I thank you” narrating a personal dining experience at a well known Brazilian restaurant frequented by expatriates in Nairobi, Kenya. My sister and friends were infuriated by the article – but I understood that they could not have been objective as they are either married or are dating white folks! I agree this menace has to stop!


  16. Everything you write here is true. I experience not infrequently the craven favouritism accorded by black Ugandans and Kenyans to white people (and it tends to be a privilege enjoyed exclusively by white people not, for example, Indians of whom there is there is suspicion if not resentment – the legacy of the colonial authorities having pitted blacks against Indians).

    An interesting observation you make is the reaction of young, professional, upwardly mobile black Africans to such simpering displays of self-abasement before whites by other black Africans. These people openly resent having their personhood undermined in a way that, for example, people of their parents’ generation dared not betray. Their exposure to the West, whether by way of travel to its countries, through learning in its educational institutions, by the consumption of its media or by working in environments governed by its professional ethos, has bred a generation of young black Africans who are entirely unawed by white people.

    Exposure to the West has stripped Western man of his mystique in the eyes of these Africans. Knowledge of how whites live in the West – for the most part, unglamorous, pinched, time-poor existences – has vastly undermined what claims whites previously had to enjoying an inherently superior style of life. The knowledge is common that expat whites are not rich at home and that they live a life in Africa on the company’s dime to which they could never aspire in Europe or North America. Which, of course, is why so many opt not to return preferring instead to stay on after their contracts run out.

    The technocratic advantage that whites once had over blacks has in recent times been seriously eroded. It is not uncommon for white expats in NGOs to be less educated than the black Africans whom they manage (though that fact is usually no barrier to their earning a premium over their better qualified black counterparts). So for many middle to upscale black Africans familiar with the West, the propensity to defer to whites is not automatic, if not entirely absent. After all, if they are neither rich nor particularly knowledgable, what claim do they have to veneration?


  17. Its really funny that Blacks/Brown people promote racism against their own, Bubbles, Backpackers and other like businesses would otherwise display a sign “Whites only”. Reminds me of a situation over twenty years ago when it took a white girl claiming to have been caned to eradicate the vice of caning in our school… all the teachers were “shaking”. The sight of the cute little white face turning red …. All in all it will take the collective effort of the elite in East Africa to stop this monster in our society considering that the majority Ugandans “worship” whites.


  18. A very concise account of what I now realise is an African problem. Zanzibar is no different and I have often felt it appropriate to intervene. The examples described in the article, although in Uganda, could have been Zanzibar. A similar experience in Dar es salaam. It’s deeply saddening, deeply!


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