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July 18, 2013

Catch-up Post: My Expensive Mzungu Milkshake



There’s a nice cafe called Endiro Coffee, just a 10 minute walk from my office. I call it “one of those muzungu cafes,” in a slightly derogatory way, even though I contribute to the name. It’s canopied by a large awning and the outdoor seating area is surrounded by nice tropical foliage – banana leaves, even some bamboo, etc. You can’t tell that it’s in the midst of a dusty construction site and a parking lot, where street vendors weave around the cars selling bags of vegetables and the occasional beggar sits by. Endiro Coffee is a whole other world, a sort of enclosed haven where people – mostly foreigners – basically move in with their computers (aka me), hold meetings, order burgers and salads, and be even as bold to leave their laptops as they excuse themselves to the restroom.


And here I am, sitting on my mzungu* ass drinking a banana vanilla espresso milkshake, thinking of how expensive this beverage just became to me after today. It’s 10,000 Ugandan Shillings (UGX), which is less than $4. It’s cheap by New York standards, but here, all I can think about is how it’s about double the price of what a local Ugandan lunch would cost.

While budgeting for my field research, my research partner helped me estimate some costs. For lunch, for example, we put aside 5000 UGX per person. That’s about $2. I was surprised, since I had been spending on average about 20,000 UGX per meal, which is under $8. Compared to New York, it was cheap, but having spent that much on a meal while discovering that my research partner would usually spend 5000UGX on a meal, I felt like an asshole.

I had an interesting conversation with a former Silicon Valley guy who visited the office. He now works in South Africa with a company called Mxit, which is apparently bigger than Facebook over there (I checked online to verify it). He told me about how awesome South Africa was, and how much he wants to buy a house there. According to him, a 3-4 bedroom house with a balcony and backyard is only about $400,000. The nightlife is “off the hook,” the food is amazing, the scenery is amazing, and everything is just cheaper. He encouraged me to take a trip to South Africa before leaving Uganda, and began listing all these places to go, ensuring me that I would have such a great time for little money.

It sounded great, but I also felt a little strange about it. Sure, living comfortably half the price is awesome, but I felt like that was cheating – like I would be taking advantage of another nation’s lesser economic power and international standing to satisfy my expensive palate. Sipping on that delicious milkshake at Endiro Coffee made me feel that way too. Perhaps I am being too dramatic, and perhaps I am undermining the very point of tourism and global commerce. But that’s what has been running through my mind these days.

Cheers, as I order a burger.


*mzungu /moo-zoon-gu/ a term in Swahili meaning “white person,” though it is often applied to foreigners in general

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