I love having a beard.
It’s probably the best thing I have ever done with my face. Not that I’ve done too many things with my face other than express emotions with it, smell with it, look at things with it, put food in it, get food all over it…okay so I guess I’ve done a lot with my face, but of all the things I’ve produced with my face (sweat, acne, a beard), the beard is definitely the best.
Though I do have to say that living as a mzungu with a beard in my line of work is quite an interesting life.
Here in semi-rural Uganda, at least once a day, I get called yesu, the Lusoga/Luganda word for Jesus. I always find this perplexing since in my mind, Jesus was likely slightly darker in complexion (according to the film Dogma he was black, a theory I often retort with here to much amusement), but centuries of missionaries pumping images of a pale white Jesus Christ into the Ugandan psyche has convinced them, like much of the world, that Jesus was a blonde haired, blue/green eyed savior with long shaggy hair.
I feel equally strange receiving this name because of the connotations that it conjures in my mind. I have commented extensively on the so-called “white savior industrial complex” (see Teju Cole’s poignant article on it here), the neo-colonialist and neo-imperialist propensity for Westerners to revive the colonial-era “white man’s burden” to provide assistance for the needy across Africa. Being called Jesus by Ugandans, to me, is perhaps the most embarrassing irony I can think of. I try to make this case with some Ugandans, but usually resort to a simple tininze (I am not the one).
When the beard gets a little bit longer, yesu tends to give way to something far worse, particularly in this regional context: Al-Shabaab. Since the vast majority of black African men do not (or can not) grow beards, the look is often associated with Muslim extremists, the most notorious of whom is the Somalia-based terrorist group al-Shabaab, responsible for recent attacks in Kenya that killed at least 147 students at Garissa University and 67 civilians in the bombings at Westgate Shopping Mall in September 2013, not to mention numerous terrorist warnings issued across Uganda. While this is never said in anything but jest, it still isn’t the best comparison to be made about someone.
Here in the village, more often than the latter two examples, I am called mulogo, a name bestowed upon my good friend Ryan who served as both a volunteer and a Project Manager for S.O.U.L. He’s a great guy and a good looking one at that so the comparison does not bother me either, except for the fact that mulogo is the name for the local boogy-man, an impish spirit that dances naked around people’s homes and feasts upon the dead. So, when parents who did not know Ryan hear their children calling me mulogo, I imagine it might be met with a bit of confusion at best.
I’m used to these labels. They don’t bother me (much). Personally, I think I look like Shaggy from Scooby Doo, which I prefer to the above, because that connotes an obsession with sandwiches and loyalty to my best friend, and a bit of harmless cowardice. Perhaps my future in Uganda will be driving around in a matatu tricked out to look like the Mystery Machine until someone gets the reference. My work here will then be complete.
When working with mothers in the field of maternal health, however, particularly when conducting research or outreach in more rural villages, I find my presence as a male to be somewhat intrusive when women are discussing and divulging very personal and private information that, in this and most contexts, is regarded as only appropriate for women to discuss amongst themselves. Add the color of my skin into the equation and then not only am I a man, but an outsider as well. Put a beard on my face and I cannot help but feel that my involvement is outright comical to many of these mothers. I like to think my soft demeanor makes up for it.
All these names and connotations are well worth the pleasures of having a beard. I haven’t shaved in 5 years nor do I plan to any time soon, but it’s truly an interesting context in which to sport the look. Ugandans ask me why I do not shave it, and I do not have an answer for them. I am comforted by the idea that even marking myself as even more of an outsider, I am able to fully embrace who I am and how I want to look in this life.
I am fully comfortable being my true self here, which I think most outsiders are often unable to say.
In the year that I have lived here, I was never given a Lusoga/Luganda name. I’m not sure why (I like to think I’m name-worthy), but I soon got over waiting for it and I gave myself one: Mandevu, which translates simply to “man with a beard.”
I wear it with pride – both the beard and the name. When I hear boda boda drivers calling me mandevu, I turn around in pure acceptance, and embrace being called something other than mzungu, yesu, al-Shabaab or mulogo. If nothing else, the labels, the looks, and the associations provide me with incessant comic relief while living as a stranger in a rather strange land.
(Ridiculous photo credit to S.M.C.)